By Manolis Arkolakis
The present blogpost strays away from literary representations of the hotel space and briefly looks at the interwar Grande Bretagne of Kalamata, Greece, as a site embedded in the local history of the city and at the way in which the hotel featured mainly in the leftwing press of the time. At the end of the nineteenth century Kalamata gradually assumed the characteristics of a modern city. The city was connected to the national railway network in 1896, its electrification began in 1899, while the construction of the port was completed in 1901, followed by the extension of the railway line to the beach and the construction of a second station in 1904. Urban transport was also enriched with the addition of the electric tram in 1910. Inland agricultural products (mainly currants and tobacco) were exported more easily, and Kalamata became a commercial and, to some extent, an industrial centre when the first flour mill was built in the 1920s. Economic growth was also indicated by the construction of new lavish private mansions, public buildings, banks, hotels, entertainment venues, a theatre, cinemas, and baths on the beach. The intellectual and cultural developments demonstrate the formation of a robust middle class but at the same time the emergence of a young working class engaged in the port, factories, and commercial sector. As a consequence of this process, during and after the last decade of the nineteenth century the first hotels gradually replaced traditional inns. These hotels were built on the new high street, around the railway station, and at the waterfront, adding a cosmopolitan note to the city. As the locals would say, with a fair amount of exaggeration, Kalamata had become “the Marseille of the Peloponnese.”
The Grande Bretagne was at the time a newly-built, lavish hotel that stood out in the cityscape of Kalamata. It was built in 1926 by Ioannis Livas, who had previously kept a real estate agency in New York. Livas was born in 1881, in Ariochorio, Messinia and had been a landlord prior to leaving for the U.S. Hotel history in Greece in the early twentieth century abounds with such cases of expatriates who returned to the homeland to establish hotels. The hotel stood at the corner of Railway Station Av. and Iatropoulou St., centrally located near the railway station, other hotels, coffee shops, and confectioneries, and the ground floor housed a restaurant and a wine bar.
The impact of the international inter-war economic crisis, which escalated in Greece in 1932, rapidly led to the deterioration of living standards for the working masses both in cities and throughout the countryside. Especially after the Popular Party, headed by Panagis Tsaldaris, came to power in March 1933, the entire country was shaken by workers’ strikes, peasant rallies, and demonstrations. On many occasions, the government resorted to military interventions by troops that did not hesitate to use firearms. This led to dozens of wounded and dead people, while the Bill “on security measures of the social regime and on the protection of citizens’ liberties,” or Idionymon, was employed to imprison and exile hundreds of leading figures of the movement.
The great strike at the port of Kalamata in early March 1934 was very characteristic of the era and resulted in 7 people dead and 15 wounded. The major imports of wheat intended to cover domestic needs required the employment of a substantial workforce that would directly transport the product to the nearby mills. In order to cut costs, the port infrastructure was modernised, thus in early 1934, the port acquired the first silo (an automated grain elevator)—aptly called the “sucker” by dockworkers. The introduction of the silo meant that the number of the people employed was reduced from 300 to 150, and as a result the dockworkers demanded a compensation through their insurance fund. Negotiations with the flour industrialists came to a dead end, and on May 7th, the workers’ committees went on strike at the flour mills demanding a rise of their wages. The following day, when a ship transporting wheat was due to arrive, workers and dockworkers decided on a new strike against the use of the silo. At the same time, the businesses located at the waterfront temporarily closed in solidarity with the workers’ struggle. According to the newspapers of the time, two infantry units armed with machine-guns as well as the mounted gendarmerie stood at the harbour. On May 9th, when the workers attempted to obstruct the unloading of the wheat, the army and the gendarmerie intervened, repeatedly shooting at the crowd and resulting in the death of 7 and the injury of dozens of protesters. Over the next few days, the city was declared in a state of military law, while the government and local authorities attempted to come to an agreement both with the official unions and the struggle committee of the strikers, which was controlled by communists.
The representations of the events in the press are intriguing in that they bring together the bloody events and the Grande Bretagne Hotel as a site that fosters state repression and violence. The relevant stories in Athenian newspapers include rich visual material; apart from other photographs, on May 13th, the communist paper Rizospastis [The Radical] published three photographs that are of interest here [Figure 1]. The first image shows the casket carrying a dead worker, while the third photo is the image of an injured woman at the hospital. The image of the open casket and the dead man surrounded by relatives follows in the footsteps of the postmortem photographic tradition that dates back to the Victorian mourning culture of the nineteenth century. Very often, in the portraits, the deceased is surrounded by relatives who want to keep a memento of their loved one’s visage. Yet in the context of the press report, the entire working class was involved in mourning their comrade. On the contrary, in the third portrait, the hospital room, the bed, and the injured body disappear only to give way to an intense close-up of the woman’s face that is reminiscent of contemporary popular photos of movie stars adding a sentimental and aestheticising tone. According to Roland Barthes, “photography is a kind of primitive theatre, a kind of Tableau Vivant, a figuration of the motionless and made-up face beneath which we see the dead” (Camera Lucida, 32).
The second (middle) photograph in Rizospastis shows a policeman and two members of Kalamata’s authorities at the entrance of a building. The caption reads: “Grande Bretagne, where the murderers of workers convene, the prefect, army colonel, gendarmerie commander, port master, district attorney, and the flour industrialists. District attorney Diamantopoulos and flour industrialist Travasaros are discernible at the door.” It is interesting that while the hotel entrance is on ground level, the shooting angle is upwards, elongating the subjects and emphasising their authority and status. The low angle shot frames the subject from below their eyeline and emphasizes power dynamics between characters. The photo must have been taken after the meeting held at the hotel on May 10th, in which all the above local actors, the authorities of Kalamata, and the representatives of official worker’s unions took part (Ημερήσιος Κήρυξ [Daily Herald], 11/5/1934). Yet Rizospastis of the same day mentions a secret meeting at the Grande Bretagne, naming other participants. In fact, the final meeting was held the following day in the building of the prefecture, when the striking demonstrators had ceased to siege state buildings (Ελληνικόν Μέλλον [Greek Future], 12/5/1934). It is quite possible that local authorities were afraid to reach administrative buildings; therefore they preferred to use the premises of the Grande Bretagne as their meeting place and headquarters. The caption of Rizospastis clearly designates the hotel as the site where local authorities, state representatives, and capitalists plotted the attack against the struggling workers.
The hotel function of the building continued in the first postwar decades and its owners always had good public relations. For example, in the Livas family archive, there is a photo of Queen Frederica visiting the hotel (State Archives of Messinia). In 1985, the heirs of the Livas family leased the building to the City of Kalamata in order to house DEPAK (the Municipal Enterprise for the Cultural Development of Kalamata), and the contract stipulated that it was to be fully renovated. Sadly, the former hotel was burnt to the ground during the devastating 1986 earthquakes.
Manolis Arkolakis has taught European History, Greek History, and History of Greek Theatre and Cinema at various Universities in Greece. He was Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Crete in the programme, “The modus operandi of the Parisian Police in the late 19th century, through Panagiotis Argyriades’s surveillance”. He currently works in the project, “Transnational Monetary and Economic Alternatives in the Interwar Politics: the 30s Greek Crisis in the European Context” (Academy of Athens / Hellenic Institute for Research and Innovation). His personal research work is concerned with the manifestations of Modernity in Greece and the Greek communities in the Balkans and the broader Mediterranean area during the 19th and 20th century, focusing mainly on cinema and photography.
Ελληνικόν Μέλλον [Greek Future]
Ημερήσιος Κήρυξ [Daily Herald]
Ριζοσπάστης [The Radical]
ΓΑΚ-Αρχειομνήμων – Αρχεία Ν. Μεσσηνίας, Αρχείο Οικογενειών Μουτεβέλη – Λίβα, Φάκελος Οικογένεια Λίβα (1910-1987). [General State Archives – Archives of Messinia, Moutevelis-Livas Families Archive, Livas Family File].
Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981.
Figure 1. Rizospastis, 13/5/1934