John Mulgan and the Greek left: A regrettably intimate acquaintance (Book Review)

Hamish McDougall, Executive Director, New Zealand Institute of International Affairs




This article first appeared in New Zealand International Review, 48:6, 2023.

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John Mulgan and the Greek left: A regrettably intimate acquaintance by C-Dimitris Gounelas and Ruth Parkin-Gounelas. Published by: Te Herenga University Press, Wellington, 2023, 350 pp. Available for purchase here. 

The Homeric nature of John Mulgan’s short, brilliant life and enigmatic death, mean that few New Zealand authors and soldiers have had so much written about them.

By the time of his mysterious passing in a Cairo hotel room in April 1945, Mulgan had been a writer of landmark Pākehā fiction, Oxford scholar, foreign affairs journalist, diplomat, and heroic special forces solider with the resistance in Nazi-occupied Greece.

John Mulgan and the Greek Left adds to the sizable body of work on Mulgan in two important respects. Firstly, it looks at the Greek sources, including the perspectives of Mulgan’s comrades-in-arms, particularly in the EAM (National liberation Front) and its military arm, ELAS (People’s Liberation Army) as they undertook daring covert mission against German forces from remote mountain hideouts in 1943 and 1944. Secondly, unlike previous biographies focussed on Mulgan’s literary and military exploits, this book discusses Mulgan’s political views and places them in the broader settings of domestic Greek politics and international relations, including foreign policies of the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

What were Mulgan’s politics, exactly? There is little doubt his outlook was shunted leftwards by the Great Depression in New Zealand, where he witnessed worker riots and police brutality in central Auckland in April 1932, evocatively fictionalised in his famous novel Man Alone. His views were crystallised at ‘red’ Oxford in the 1930s: As the Spanish Civil War raged and the horrors of Fascist Europe became better known, Mulgan became increasingly critical of imperialism and firmly sympathetic towards the Popular Front, the broad left-wing alliance trying to stem the Fascist tide. Always suspicious of institutional authority, Mulgan was no Communist Party stooge. The book’s authors summarise him thus: ‘anti-fascist but not necessarily communist, communist but not necessarily anti-democratic, and democratic but not necessarily capitalist’.

These political views significantly affected the last months of Mulgan’s life. On the one hand, his sympathy for the Left endeared him to the partisans he fought alongside in Greece. Unlike his contemporary British officers in the ‘Special Operations Executive’ (SOE) who frequently complained of the partisans’ reluctance to engage the enemy, Mulgan mobilised and commanded many successful attacks on German infrastructure vital to supply lines. This kept many hundreds of German troops engaged and away from the front lines. Often, such sabotage would elicit brutal reprisals on the local population by the Nazi occupiers. Mulgan’s success in the resistance saw him awarded the Military Cross and earnt the trust and friendship of the EAM/ELAS political leaders and generals, a relationship he later described as ‘regrettably intimate’.

On the flipside, Mulgan’s political views increasingly put him at odds with his masters in the British Government. This came from the very top. For political, ideological, and personal reasons, Prime Minister Winston Churchill sought to incorporate Greece into Britain’s Balkan ‘sphere of influence’, prevent a left-wing Government from coming to power and to restore the Greek monarchy. This last aim was particularly bitter for the Greek people, an estimated 80% of whom were estimated to be against a Royal restoration because of the King’s close association with the corrupt, authoritarian pre-war regime. Like Mulgan, the authors are heavily critical of the British Government’s post-war foreign policy, which initially refused to countenance a referendum on the Greek Monarchy, deployed troops to brutally supress protests and proactively placed Nazi collaborators into positions of power. It suggests that British leaders were paranoic about the involvement of Stalin’s Soviet Government in Greece, making the country an early Cold War battleground. The book argues that this British mismanagement contributed substantially to the outbreak of the Greek Civil War, which lasted between 1946-49.

New Zealand’s foreign policy is also illuminated. The book shows that Prime Minister Peter Fraser was sceptical of New Zealand’s involvement in a post-war occupation of Greece, in part because of domestic criticism of the harsh treatment of the Greek population. New Zealanders were alongside British troops who killed unarmed protestors in Athens in December 1944 (witnessed by Mulgan), and Fraser was wary of a repeat. Fraser was unsure that he was getting the full story from Westminster and so asked J.V. Wilson in the embryonic external affairs ministry to seek direct intelligence. Wilson wrote to his friend Mulgan, who responded with a remarkable 4,000 word essay, the analysis of which takes up an entire chapter in John Mulgan and the Greek Left. This searing critique of British policy in Greece eventually made it to Wellington. But on the way it was likely intercepted by Mulgan’s employers in the British secret service.

Was Mulgan murdered by British secret agents in Cairo, who staged it as a suicide? The authors point to plenty of circumstantial evidence indicating this was plausible. In a new revelation, the book exposes the last person to see Mulgan alive in Cairo, and the recipient of one of his final letters, as Christine Granville. Also known as Krystyna Skarbek, Granville was a Polish Countess turned daring spy commemorated in numerous works of non-fiction and fiction. She was known to have practiced ‘silent killing’ during her war duties. Mulgan’s missive to Wellington, and the threat this posed to the New Zealand Government’s support of Britain’s Balkan policy or the longer-term preservation of SOE secrets, may have been a motive to kill the New Zealander. There is enough ambiguity and deliberate suppression of evidence to assist the conjecture.  However, without further research and release of classified documents, the book concludes that ‘we may never know’ whether Granville/Skarbek was surveilling Mulgan, and had a hand in his death.

From an international history point of view, I occasionally wished the authors had cast a slightly wider gaze. They could have considered, for example, what role the Greek intervention played in New Zealand’s broader relations with the UK and Greece, or Peter Fraser’s ambitions in the fledgling United Nations. And what made the Greek situation different from other locations where the New Zealand Government was happy to participate in post-war Allied occupations, such as Trieste or Japan? It would have been interesting to speculate what Mulgan would have made of such operations, particularly if he had survived and been granted his wish of a transfer to the New Zealand military. Nor did the book consider some of the emerging historical scholarship on the British intervention in Greece, such as that by Panagiotis Delis.

Such quibbles should not denigrate from this worthy, serious and important work, which has been beautifully produced to Te Herenga Waka Press’ usual high standards. It includes plenty of evocative wartime photographs of Mulgan and his partisan comrades. There is also a charming, pathos-laden foreword by Vincent O’Sullivan, a previous biographer of Mulgan.

 Authored by: C-Dimitris Gounelas and Ruth Parkin-Gounelas. Published by: Te Herenga University Press, Wellington, 2023, 350 pp. Available for purchase here. 


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