By Bruno Waterfield, The Telegraph – April 5, 2012
Until Wednesday morning, Dimitris Christoulas, a respectable middle-class pensioner, was familiar only to the residents of the quiet Ampelokipous district of Athens where he had lived and worked hard for nearly 40 years.
All that changed at 8.45am, rush hour, when the 77-year-old former pharmacist and pillar of his shopkeeping community put a hand gun to his head and shot himself under a giant Cyprus tree on the central Syntagma Square.
He fell to the ground in front of the national parliament that many Greeks have come to blame for the corruption and mismanagement that has plunged their country into crisis, and lay there dead as shocked commuters looked on.
Yesterday, 24 hours after his suicide, the name Dimitris Christoulas is known to most in this troubled country.
“A martyr for Greece” declared the Eleftheros Typos newspaper. “Scream of desperation” said the headline in Avyi next to a picture of Edvard Munch’s celebrated painting. Many press commentaries compared his death to the protest suicides that unleashed the Arab spring in Tunisia and across the Middle East last year.
To many – including neighbours in his close community, he has become a hero.
“He did not rebel from his couch. He was a beautiful man, he will live on in history,” said Pannayotta, a housewife in her late 50s, living on the same street as the pensioner.
The incendiary suicide note Mr Chritoulas left behind urging young Greeks to rise up has also struck a chord with millions of people who see their highly indebted nation’s social fabric being torn apart by economic recession and externally imposed austerity measures.
“I cannot find any other form of struggle except a dignified end,” he wrote. “I believe that young people with no future will one day take up and hang this country’s traitors in arms in Syntagma Square just as the Italians hanged Mussolini in 1945.”
Violent clashes with riot police followed the suicide and protests continued last night as hundreds of demonstrators gathered around the tree where he died brandishing placards proclaiming “may his last act be a new beginning”.
The rallying around Mr Christoulas has been fuelled by senior Greek establishment politicians who initially sneered at his motives and even implied that there might suspicious motives of circumstances behind his suicide.
The offices of Panos Beglitis, a former Socialist defence minister were attacked after he took to the Greek airwaves to deny that the death of Mr Christoulas was linked to political class’s handling of the economic crisis.
“We cannot however connect his suicide with the country’s current financial plight. Besides we do not even know if he amassed debts or whether his children had a hand in it,” he said.
With elections looming next month, Lucas Papademos, the technocrat Greek Prime Minister appointed under EU pressure late last year, moved to try and damp a furious reaction. “In these difficult times for our country we must all – the state and its citizens – support those next to us who are in despair,” he pleaded.
Emmy Christoulas, the pensioner’s daughter, has refused to discuss whether her father was severely ill or worried about how to pay his medical bills and insisted that political motives were the driving force behind his decision to kill himself.
“His act was a political act,” she said.
Ms Christoulas said that her father had given “no indication” of his plans, either to her or his estranged wife, and that political anger was the overriding reason for his suicide.
“In a handwritten letter my father left, he tells me everything. A letter left for me in the house and another, which he kept with him,” she said. “The dimension my father wanted to give to this incident was contained in his (suicide note).”
Neighbours near his neat first floor apartment on Vasili Logothetidi street described Mr Christoulas as a “wonderful man, a true Hellene” who had become politicised last summer by spreading protests across Greece.
Adonis Rizos, a friend of over 30 years standing, who sat with the pensioner on the evening before he killed himself in spring sunshine on Bellou square opposite the pharmacy store sold by Mr Christoulas in 1994.
“He did not give any sign he was going to do this. We were shocked and surprised. He chose to commit suicide as a political act. We give him credit for that. The politicians who created this terrible situation should shut up about him, they are not worthy to say his name,” he said.
One other neighbour, who did want to be named said that Mr Christoulas had talked of going to hospital on the day he killed himself amid rumours that he was in the “late stages of cancer” and feared not being able to pay medical bills on a pension reduced by government cuts.
“He had a serious health problem but did not talk about it. Maybe he did have cancer but he wanted his death to be a political protest that is clear,” said the man.
As protesters gathered around a growing shrine where the pensioner shot himself on Wednesday, Father Stavros Papachristos, theologian and a Greek Orthodox Church priest, called on European officials to give Greece some respite.
“The EU must take off the pressure. We cannot handle it anymore. Europe must understand that millions of Greeks are dying slowly,” the priest said.
Father Papachristos refused to condemn the pensioner for the sin of taking his own life. “The church cannot accept suicide. But in this particular situation it is different; they forced him,”
This is the full transcript of the note Dimitris Christoulas left behind:
“The Tsolakoglou government has annihilated all traces for my survival, which was based on a very dignified pension that I alone paid for 35 years with no help from the state.
“And since my advanced age does not allow me a way of dynamically reacting (although if a fellow Greek were to grab a Kalashnikov, I would be right behind him), I see no other solution than this dignified end to my life, so I don’t find myself fishing through garbage cans for my sustenance.
“I believe that young people with no future, will one day take up arms and hang the traitors of this country at Syntagma square, just like the Italians did to Mussolini in 1945.”
For those who may not know, Georgios Tsolakoglou was the first collaborationist prime minister during Germany’s occupation of Greece during the Second World War. The reference has been widely interpreted as a comparison between the wartime collaborationist government and the current government of Lucas Papademos.