“Noxious and superfluous” is the locution used by Wolfgang Sofsky to characterize the Nazi progression of exclusionary ascriptions from “socially dangerous” to suspicious and, in the end, to superfluous. Hannah Arendt has shown how humans are construed as “superfluous” as they enter the process of tight capitalist production. Totalitarianism, she argues, received this notion of “superfluity” and applied it to different classes of people. (In early Nazi Germany those were, in order of appearance, the mentally ill and challenged, Communists, union leaders, Gypsies, homosexuals, beggars, vagrants, ruffians, the work-shy, asocials [Asoziale], prostitutes, those suffering from venereal diseases, psychopaths, “traffic offenders,” “fault finders,” and, in the end, Jews; see Sofsky 1997: 33). I find Arendt's flattening of “totalitarianism” in the contexts of Nazism and Stalinism highly problematic and restrictive, though I recognize the political significance of her critique of Soviet abuses of democracy. See Arendt 1968.
The islands existed in a space where, as Begoña Aretxaga has noted, “the State was both the law and its transgression” (2000: 60). They were set up to receive the Left as the wake, the refuse, the dregs of humanity, as undesirable and “superfluous.” This refuse of humanity, the undesirables and the superfluous, was managed and manhandled by those who had repented. On Makrónisos, the Military Police, the infamous AM, was almost entirely composed of repentant Leftists who had already signed declarations of repentance. The original group of AM, who escorted the first group of soldiers there on May 28, 1947, must have been old members of the TA, or AM from other military prisons. It is not entirely clear, and every attempt I have made to elicit this information through interviews has been ineffectual. On the camp in Yáros, which was not a camp for the military but was nevertheless under the jurisdiction of the army, the torturers and wardens were primarily convicts under the common criminal law, not under the Idiônymon. As one of my interlocutors said, “They were all kinds of social sediment: rapists, pederasts, embezzlers, murderers.” (This also appears in the memorandum sent to the minister of justice in 1950 by the detainees.) Over the years, the operation of the Makrónisos camp constantly produced new AMs, for an ability and willingness to engage in the torture and terrorism of fellow detainees was required as proof of their own redemption into nationally minded soldiers.
The detainees at Makrónisos and Yáros (and to a lesser extent at Trikeri) lived in tents for the duration of their confinement, roughly from 1947 to 1963. These were tents sometimes placed on the hard ground, sometimes affixed to low stone walls, which the detainees not only had to build themselves but for which they also had to procure the needed stones, an endeavor that became part of the torture. In the technologies of punishment and rehabilitation, there seems to have been a preoccupation with the handling of stone (already well known in the chain gangs of nineteenth-century prisons). On Makrónisos and Yáros, on the Andaman Islands, on Goli Otok , and in Dachau, the mindless, useless, and repetitive handling of stone became the syntagmatic modality of punishment and of resistance at once. The constant repetition of the Sisyphean act, of needlessly and mindlessly carrying stone, seeks to obliterate the political consciousness of the prisoner, emptying his conscience, as if time did not exist, as if time were endless, as if the carrying of stone were the syntax of the prisoner's life. The order was always very clear: take those rocks from up there and bring them down here. When the transport was done, the order was reversed: take the stones from down here and move them up there. This would take place all day long, in the heat of summer or the cold of winter, always under a relentless wind, without water, without rest, without shoes, in tattered clothes on tattered bodies . At some point the torture acquired a target: make embankments for the tents. The tents were large enough for ten people but were occupied by thirty, forty, or sometimes fifty. Some had cots, most had nothing, as if the lack of objects would teach the Leftists the value of property, would infuse in them the merits of our “Western, democratic values” (to echo President George W. Bush, himself eerily echoing the torturers of Makrónisos and Yáros a lifetime earlier). Despite all proclamations to the contrary, Makrónisos and Yáros amounted to pure punishment in contradistinction to Metaxas's and Maniadákis's concept of discipline.
The distrust of political prisoners toward those indicted for criminal offenses is not restricted to prisoners on Yáros. Foucault says that Jean Genet once mentioned to him that when he was in prison for theft he had to be transferred to the Palais de Justice for sentencing and was to be handcuffed to another prisoner for transfer there. When the warden moved to handcuff them, the prisoner asked the warden what Genet had been brought in for. When the warden said that Genet was a thief, the political prisoner refused to be handcuffed to him. From that moment on, Genet said, he had “a certain contempt for all forms of political movements” (Foucault 1974: 159). Nenedakis mentions that the wardens and torturers on Yioúra were dosilogoi, collaborators with the Germans and some members of the Security Battalions who had been tried and convicted of collaboration. Thus on Yioúra the wardens and the torturers were themselves convicts. They were even given official ranks taken from the ancient army (hekatontarchos, hiliarchos, etc.; Nenedakis 1964: 116).
Banac reports that the first boats carrying Cominformists embarked for Goli Otok and Sveti Grgur in July 1949 and that “by February 1951 eight groups of a total of 8,250 inmates had been shipped there” (Banac 1989: 248). Matthew Mestrovic notes that Aleksander Rankovic, member of the Yugoslav Politburo starting in 1940 and minister of the interior and head of military intelligence under Tito, at a speech in 1952 claimed that 13,700 persons had been sentenced as Cominformists, of whom 7,531 had already been released (in Markovski 1984: xi). Goli Otok, now a tourist attraction, remained open until 1989, ten years after Sveti Grgur had been closed down. Goli Otok was used for men, Sveti Grgur for women. Initially Goli Otok was used during the First World War by the Austro-Hungarian Empire for Russian prisoners of war. With the Tito-Stalin schism, during the Informiro that lasted from 1948 to 1956 Stalinists or anyone who was suspected of being a Stalinist, of sympathizing with the Soviet Union, or even of reading Soviet or Russian literature was sent to the islands. After the normalization of relations between Tito and the Soviet Union, Goli Otok was used as a prison for anti-Communist nationalists, and yet later it was used as a prison for juvenile delinquents.
Mestrovic reports that Goli Otok was chosen in 1948 by “someone, it is not known who… as the place of detention for 'Cominformists'” (in Markovski 1984: ix). Milovan Djilas, Vice President of Yugoslavia in Tito's government, stated, however, that the Politburo, or the Secretariat, never made any decision about the camp. The decision was made by Tito himself and implemented by the state security under Rankovic (Djilas 1985). Djilas states, moreover, that not only did no one know about the establishment of the camps but there was no legal act on which it was based. He further notes that only later was a law passed to provide the necessary framework for this “obligatory socially useful labor” (ibid.: 235). One could be tempted to think of this gesture by Djilas as an attempt to exonerate himself, especially since his fall out of favor with Tito in 1954. Djilas's son Aleksa is equally certain that neither his father nor anyone other than Tito and Rankovic knew anything about the decision, and he thinks that the idea may have come from Rankovic (Aleksa Djilas, personal communication, April 2007).
There is no question, I think, that Djilas felt remorse about the camp, though he recognized the reasoning that made it possible. He writes, “we had to cripple the Stalinists and the Cominformists—initially, perhaps, by setting up a camp, in order to avoid the appearance of confusion and forestall outside intervention that could link up with domestic inner-party opposition” (Djilas 1985: 236). For Djilas, the existence of the camp and the program of re-education and rehabilitation was a point not only of shame but of “unimaginable humiliation” (ibid.: 245) and “defeat and disgrace” (ibid.: 237). His critique of the islands has two levels: first, the perceived need for the camps indexed the (ultimate) defeat of the Yugoslavian Communist experiment as a form of ethical living; second, and intimately related to the first, it marked the defeat of the new humanism that Yugoslavian communists wanted to produce. The sovereign decision on the islands dehumanized not only the interned but the entire Yugoslav population. As Djilas writes, “the way we dealt with those arrested and their families—that was something else again. There was no need to behave as we did. That conduct sprang from our ideological dogmatism, from our Leninist and Stalinist methods, and, of course, in part from our Balkan traditions of reprisal” (ibid.: 236). He concludes, “Goli Otok was the darkest and most shameful fact in the history of Yugoslav Communism” (ibid.: 245). See also Banac 1989; for the most comprehensive examination of Goli Otok in the Anglophone literature, see Lukic 2007.
Venko Markovsi, who was imprisoned in Goli Otok as an unrepentant Stalinist, managed to smuggle a number of letters out of the place. These were later collected and published. His Letter Eight describes the island as he first encountered it. He writes: “Until 1948 no one even knew that such a place existed. …The island is nothing but rocks, rocks that are enveloped in a spectral silence during our blood-red sunsets. …On Goli Otok human beings are reduced to things, to numbers. …From dawn to dusk a sorrowful train of people moves back and forth across the desert that is Goli Otok. Their eyes are sunken; their hands have been broken in inhuman toiling. …Each of these shadows is a loose page torn from a shattered life. …On Goli Otok it was largely the prisoners themselves—those apostates who had submitted utterly to the will of the authorities—who were used to break the others, to destroy the honor and decency that they were trying to preserve” (Markovski 1984: 30–32). Dejan Lukic, reading the account of Goli Otok by Milinko B. Stojanovic—who has called “the whole camp of Goli Otok… one big tragic theater” (quoted in Lukic 2007: 103)—has noted how “the islands are indeed spaces where utopias both begin and end” (ibid.: 105). By deploying the notion of utopia in reference to the islands, Lukic manages to capture the bipolarity inherent in any project of national re-education and rehabilitation by bringing together the promise of utopia (if the re-education project were to succeed—a success that was impossible precisely because of the conceptualization of rehabilitation as part of a project of utopia) and the destruction of any utopian possibility by the very conceptualization of the need for rehabilitation. In other words, utopia cannot exist or be achieved by employing antiutopian means.
Although Tito (or Rankovic) may have come up with the idea of these camps on his own, the parallels with Greek re-education camps for Stalinists are interesting, indeed chilling. Is it possible that Tito had heard about Makrónisos and Yáros from the fighters of the retreating Democratic Army, in 1948 and 1949? Of course, he might also have used other models, say from the Stalinist USSR or Czarist Russia.