The Germans Attack Greece

At around the same time as the Germans were invading Yugoslavia, they attacked mainland Greece from the north. The Greek army was quickly surrounded and the British troops supporting it were forced to retreat southward. By the end of April 1941, the British had been evacuated to Crete, the Greek King had been sent into exile, and a collaborationist government had been set up under General G. Tsolakoglou. The 40,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, and Greek Allies who had been evacuated to Crete then experienced the first airborne invasion in history. On 20 May 1941, German parachutists and assault gliders descended upon Crete. Within ten days, the under-equipped Allied troops were pushed off the island. Nevertheless, the Germans paid a high price for victory: 4,000 Germans were killed and another 2,000 were wounded. One-third of the German transport aircraft used in the attack were destroyed. The Allies comforted themselves with the thought that the campaign in the Balkans had delayed the invasion of the USSR, but they also recognized that Allied prestige had been severely dented: 10,000 British, 90,000 Yugoslavian, and 270,000 Greek troops found themselves prisoners of war.

In Greece, popular resistance to the German presence was exceptionally vigorous. Acts of resistance included symbolic ones such as ripping down the Nazi flag flying over the Acropolis and hoisting the Greek flag, establishing soup kitchens to feed the starving, or blowing up Bulgarian ships in the Piraeus harbour. Organized forms of resistance were strengthened by three factors. First, many Greek soldiers had brought their rifles back with them after their defeat in the spring of 1941. These weapons were invaluable in enabling guerrilla groups to ‘pick off ’ isolated German units. Secondly, the Communist resistance was helped by the failure of the King and the government-in-exile to mount an effective resistance movement. Indeed, the fact that the King enjoyed lavish residence in Claridges (a luxurious hotel in London) during the war was deeply offensive to many Greeks. Finally, the grave situation in which the Greeks found themselves meant that they had little to lose by resisting. In particular, resistance was greatly stimulated by the ‘winter starvation’ of 1941–2, during which at least 100,000 Greeks starved to death. This was what led young women like Anthoula into the resistance. She was 12 years old when war was declared, and quickly joined the youth resistance. She recalled:

As the occupation progressed, we grew more and more hungry because in the beginning they had taken all our food. They had taken all our supplies. The first winter was absolutely tragic. People were dying of hunger. We had neither wood to heat our houses nor food to eat. The Nazis had taken all the food from the villages and either used it themselves or sent it outside the country. In the capital [Athens], where we didn’t have fields or gardens, we suffered the most. And so we saw our first dead bodies, but they were people who had starved to death. The second year, however, things had changed. There were big demonstrations, organized by E.A.M.. And . . . We also started, from the first months, to write slogans on walls . . . As younger people, our job was to transport various things . . . Many times I would be carrying weapons in my schoolbag.

Eventually, Anthoula was arrested by the Germans in 1944, taken to Merlin Prison, where she was tortured for several weeks, and then sent to Ravensbruck concentration camp for the rest of the war.

As Anthoula’s explanation for joining the resistance suggests, the most important resistance movement was the left-wing Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo (EAM or the National Liberation Front), formed in September 1941, and its military wing (known as ELAS), which was responsible for attacking Wehrmacht units. By 1944, they had between 1.5 and 2 million members—that is, 30 per cent of the Greek population. Like Tito, EAM insisted that the national liberation struggle was tied into the broader war for national independence. It promised that, after the war, EAM would safeguard national independence against foreign intervention. Its slogan, ‘Greece for the Greeks’, with its promise of empowering the poorer classes, was immensely popular. EAM was building upon a long-term and deep desire within Greek society for democracy.

Although they were accused of terrorizing Greek villagers, of encouraging reprisals (the Germans killed fifty locals for every German killed by a ‘bandit’), and of indiscriminate executions of traitors and ‘reactionaries’, EAM/ELAS were remarkably effective. Indeed, they virtually governed much of Greece, especially in areas outside the main towns, by establishing forms of self-government in law, education, and business. They were unable to save the Jews, however, despite some efforts. Ninety-eight per cent of the Greek Jewish population (most of whom lived in Salonika) died during the war. The almost total destruction of Greek Jews was a deliberate Nazi policy. As Colonel Rudolf Höss, Commandant of Auschwitz, said in July 1944: ‘the Greek Jews were of such poor quality that they all had to be eliminated.’

Despite failing to save the Jews, EAM was one of the strongest resistance movements on the Allied side during the war. The Greek tragedy was that after the liberation EAM (which was led by Communists) ended up engaged in battle with a Greek right-wing group that had the support of the British. In December 1944, the British turned against EAM/ELAS and active fighting broke out between the resistance and Allied troops. Churchill was determined that Communism would be routed from Greece and promised to ensure the return of the king. Support for the monarchy would guarantee continued British influence in Greece, preserving the ‘imperial road’ to India and to oil. Ironically, former collaborators of the Axis occupation aided the British. In the civil war that resulted, both sides committed atrocities. War in Greece did not really end until August 1949, when the Communist guerrillas were defeated. According to one estimate, half a million people were killed between 1945 and 1949. By then, the British had been replaced by the Americans, who supported the restored monarchy and controlled the post-war state. Furthermore, the civil war and its oppressive aftermath eventually led to the brutal military dictatorship of 1967 to 1974.


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