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Juan Carmona Zabala sheds light on tobacco trade in modern Greece and Germany

Joanie Blackwell

Associate Member Juan Carmona Zabala’s project, “Politics, Work, Leisure: Oriental Tobacco in Greece and Germany (1880–1945)” has led him through archives at the Gennadius Library and Athenian banks; to once-prosperous tobacco farming villages in northern Greece; to the port of Trieste; and to German centers of the interwar cigarette industry Dresden, Hamburg, and Berlin. The emerging story of how the political and economic culture of the day affected the peasants who grew and sold the tobacco has yet to be told. Carmona Zabala shares his insights and findings in this Q&A.

One of your goals is to help students and scholars “understand how economic and cultural globalization is experienced by workers, consumers, and businessmen.” Why is tobacco the best prism for this?

In interwar Greece, the economy was dependent on agriculture, and tobacco made up more than half of total exports. Tobacco could be grown profitably on small plots in northern Greece, where space was a major issue due to resettlement after the population exchange. In a more general sense, tobacco is useful because it is consumed everywhere and grows in many different places. It is highly taxed, highly bureaucratized, and its consumption is very culturally coded; there are many symbols (sexuality, modernity, luxury, the exotic) attached to smoking. That’s why I think it’s interesting, even for somebody who might not directly be interested in Greece. Germany was the largest purchaser of Greek tobacco in the period I’m looking at. Diplomatic relations between the two countries were heavily influenced by the Greeks’ need to export tobacco to Germany. So there are many dimensions to it.

A spread from the book Agriculture in Greece

What types of sources have you been looking at in the Gennadius Library and what have you learned from them?

The historical Archives of the Gennadius Library have been extremely helpful. Most important for me are the papers of Konstantinos Karavidas, an expert in agricultural policy who worked for the Agricultural Bank and dealt with studies on tobacco-producing villages. I found circular letters discussing the supply of credit for tobacco cultivation, a method used by the Greek government to implement agricultural policy. The government would increase and restrict available credit according to how much tobacco they wanted to be produced.

Then there are the papers of Vovolinis, who was in charge of creating a biographical dictionary of people relevant to the Greek economy and politics. I have learned much more about the tobacco businessmen than I knew before: they would often begin as leaf merchants and then move into cigarette production. This is interesting, because they are the ones pushing the product in the European and even American markets. Normally, when we think of international trade, especially of agricultural products in the late 19th century, we think of Europeans who travel to farms to buy commodities, or even invest directly by purchasing land there to grow product themselves. Here we have the opposite: people from the country of origin are pushing the product to the sales market and developing industry in core countries. So you have Greeks who open cigarette factories in the States, Germany, and Britain.

The Gennadius Library’s collection has some extremely interesting books, too, some written by politicians involved in the politics of tobacco. In the early 1930s, Greece appointed a parliamentary commission to study tobacco culture crisis. The crisis was that unsold tobacco in the hands of the farmers or intermediate merchants would cause debts to remain unpaid, and would lead tobacco workers (who classified and packaged the tobacco for export, many of whom were members of the Communist Party) to go on strike. The system would become disrupted and political instability would increase The Commission traveled to European countries to see how those cigarette industries were developing and to figure out what could be done to increase its exports to Europe, and to improve the quality of tobacco in Greece. There are also documents containing proposals for the creation of a tobacco monopoly in Greece.

Another interesting resource has been manuals (written by city people) for tobacco farmers on how to improve production. But how many farmers, especially if they were non-Greek speakers from the population exchange, could read the manuals? This is part of the story that I am trying to tell. Policies were decided by the urban classes who often portrayed the farmers as ignorant, irrational people, and their own agenda as enlightened. In Greece, unlike in other Balkan countries, there were no powerful peasant movements, so everything came from above.

Have you conducted research elsewhere?

In Athens, I have been using the archives of the National Bank of Greece and the Greek Cultural Bank (now the Bank of Piraeus). I also took a trip to Trieste (Italy) because that was the port the Greek tobacco was shipped to before going to Central Europe by railway. Before this year, I’ve been to Greek archives in Kavala, Drama, Salonica, and Athens; and German archives in Dresden, Hamburg, Leipzig Frankfurt, and Berlin.

What have these other archives shown you?

The National Bank of Greece, which had a lot of say in Greek economic policy, revealed information about tobacco firms and economic studies on tobacco. The Agricultural Bank of Greece, which started operating in 1929, took over as the most important bank in Greece for the purpose of agricultural credit. Circular letters reveal rules and regulations that provide insight into daily interactions between the bank and the peasants. Since most peasants didn’t write anything that we have access to, this is an opportunity to see, through their dealings with the bank, what their situation was.
For instance, when the Greek Cultural Bank’s reduction of available tobacco credit in 1935 didn’t limit overproduction, the bank solicited other institutions—such as agricultural coops, local governments, and even priests—to explain to the peasants that they shouldn’t grow as much tobacco and that they should keep their money in the bank to “spread the saving spirit.” It was all a part the cultural politics going on in the Greek countryside at the time.

What has surprised you most so far?

I was surprised that the tobacco workers in the towns have been much more studied than the peasants. I understand why: their striking and association with the Communist Party were covered in the press, so there is a record. There were many more tobacco farmers than workers, though, and there is still a lot of work to be done on investigating their lives and situations.

I was also surprised by the level to which tobacco could be such a complex commodity. There are so many different varieties and ways of processing it, and so many different regulations and taxes and so on. It takes a while until you really understand what’s going on there.

Has being surrounded by scholars of ancient Greek history made you think about your work differently?

Yes! They really look at the physical space. I’m indoors all day looking at pieces of paper. And these guys look at Google Earth and then visit the actual place. They ask me questions about soil depletion, water, and roads, and it pushes me to see what I can find in that regard. So that has been quite interesting, I have to say.

What reactions to your project have you encountered?

I think people, at least in the discipline, are quite interested, in part because of the current economic and diplomatic situation in Europe. In Drama (in the Thrace region of northeastern Greece), it’s very difficult to find someone who doesn’t have connections to tobacco. So people want to tell me their personal stories, which would make a great oral history project. There is a nostalgic attitude toward their families’ cultivation of tobacco, especially given the current economic decay of that area.

You’ve had the opportunity to take a close look at Greece the last time it experienced an economic crisis while living there during a current one. How are they related?

Tobacco is not very important to the Greek economy anymore. But Germany’s economic weight has been an important factor in European politics for a long time. In the case of the interwar period, Germany was really able to strengthen political ties with Bulgaria, Greece, Turkey, and other nations, on the basis of economic exchange.

In the case of Greece, my topic is timely. When people talk about the economic situation here (as in my home country of Spain), they talk about agriculture and its dependence on subsidies, an issue that starts to take shape during the interwar period: state institutions start penetrating rural life in Greece to an unprecedented extent in the form of regulations, taxation, and land distribution.

How do the crises compare?

After WWII, Greece was very interested in selling tobacco to Germany again. The Americans, however, who were in Europe implementing the Marshall Plan, were bringing their cigarettes into Germany. This shifted the preference of German smokers from cigarettes made of eastern Mediterranean tobacco to American-style cigarettes. The U.S., Greece, and Germany ended up reaching an agreement on how much tobacco the U.S. and Greece could each export to Germany. Greece was allowed to export its share because of the U.S.’s political interest in preventing Greece from becoming a communist country.

Now if you compare that to how Greece is being “helped” today, with the measures being dictated, it is very different. In 1932, Greece defaulted on its foreign payments, which meant it could not borrow money for some time, but they could at least use money for public works to improve the economy. I’m not advocating any particular political option, but I think it is very interesting to look at this contrast, because political and economic crises keep coming and going.