The German Invasion In Greece
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The decade of the 1940s was the most devastating and deadly in Greek history. In that period, the horrors of foreign military occupation were followed by the ravages of the Civil War. The events of this decade left wounds that remain unhealed more than fifty years later.


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The Invasion

Initially the war against Germany and Italy went very well for Greece. The nation rallied behind Metaxas, and men of all political persuasions joined the military. Under the leadership of General Georgios Tsolakoglou, the Greek army in Epirus drove the Italians out of Greece and through most of Albania by early December. For many Greeks, this campaign was an opportunity to liberate their countrymen across the Albanian border in "Northern Epirus." The campaign stalled in cold weather, then it lost its leader, Metaxas, who died in January 1941. The British, who at this time had no other active ally in the region, provided air and ground support. But poor coordination between the allied forces made Greece vulnerable to a massive German attack in the spring of 1941, which was intended to secure the Nazi southern flank in preparation for the invasion of Russia. Under the German blitzkrieg, the Greek and British forces quickly fell. Most of the British force escaped, but Tsolakoglou, trapped between the Italian and the German armies, was forced to capitulate. Athens fell shortly afterward as the second element of the German invasion force rushed southward. King George II, his government, and the remnants of the Greek army fled to Crete. Crete fell the next month, however, and George established a government-in-exile in Egypt.

By June 1941, Greece had been divided among Bulgaria, Germany, and Italy. The Germans controlled all the most critical points: Athens, Thessaloniki, Crete, the Thracian border zone with Turkey, and a number of the Aegean Islands. The Bulgarians were given Thrace and most of Macedonia, which they proceeded to rule with an iron hand. The Italians occupied the rest of Greece. From the outset, however, the Germans effectively controlled the country, ruling harshly through the collaborationist governments of Tsolakoglou and later Ioannis Rallis. The German plundering of the nation's resources for the war effort combined with a British naval blockade to cause food shortages, massive inflation, and finally a devastating famine that killed as many as 100,000 people in the winter of 1941-42.

Resistance, Exiles, and Collaborators

The brutality of foreign occupation did not strangle the will to resist. Intermittent, spontaneous acts of resistance during the summer of 1941 led eventually to the formation of a more united effort. In September, the National Liberation Front (Ethnikon Apeleftherotikon Metopon--EAM) was formed to coordinate resistance activities. A secondary aim of the organization was to ensure free choice of the form of government that would follow liberation.

In the five-part coalition of EAM, the old constitutional disputes between monarchists and republicans resurfaced, providing the KKE an opportunity to dominate the organization from its inception. The KKE also took a dominant position in subordinate organizations, such as the combat arm of EAM, the National People's Liberation Army (Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos--ELAS). The KKE's position was possible for a number of reasons. First, in the 1930s the Metaxas regime had driven the communists into precisely the type of underground resistance activity needed to fight the Nazis. Unlike traditional Greek parties (including its allies in the EAM), the KKE was a close-knit, well-organized group with a definite ideology. Also, the communists projected a vision of a better future at a time of great suffering, appealing especially to people who had lacked privileges in Greece's traditional oligarchical society. Finally, the firm stand of the Greek communists on native soil compared well with the actions of the old politicians and the king who had fled to the safety of London and Cairo.

Thus, although the vast majority of EAM and ELAS members were not communists, most were ready to follow the communist leadership. Other resistance groups, such as the National Republican Greek League (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Stratos--EDES), existed, but EAM and ELAS played the largest role in resistance activities. Monarchist elements of society generally withheld support from resistance groups.

Little coordination occurred between the government-in-exile and resistance forces in occupied Greece. Some exile groups even counseled against resistance movements because of the brutal reprisals threatened by the occupiers against the civilian population. In fact, in 1942 the escalation of sabotage, strikes, and mutinies by resistance groups did increase the severity of reprisals. The Germans decreed that fifty Greeks be killed for every German soldier lost, and entire villages were destroyed. The puppet occupation government formed security battalions manned by collaborators, many of whom were die-hard monarchists and thus opposed to the resistance movements because of old constitutional issues. Removed from such terrors at home, the government-in-exile rapidly lost legitimacy.

One of the war's many tragedies was the destruction of the Greek Jewish population. Before the war, Athens, Ioannina, and Thessaloniki had vibrant and sizeable Jewish communities. From Thessaloniki alone, 47,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, and by the end of the war Greece had lost 87 percent of its Jewish population.

Under the leadership of Athanasios Klaras, who took the nom de guerre Ares Veloukhiotis, ELAS carried out a number of successful sabotage missions beginning in mid-1942. The British special operations forces provided arms and experts, who together with fighters from ELAS and EDES struck a major blow against Germany by destroying the railroad line between Thessaloniki and Athens where it spanned the Gorgopotamos Gorge in central Greece. This action severed a vital supply line from Germany to Nazi forces in North Africa. But Britain failed to achieve long-term coordination of Greek resistance activities with conventional operations and other resistance groups in the eastern Mediterranean because of Prime Minister Winston Churchill's steadfast support for the Greek monarchy. By the end of 1942, Greek resistance activity was distracted by internal conflict over the eventual postwar direction of national government. ELAS began a second campaign, this one aimed at ensuring communist domination of resistance activity.
Germans At Acropolis

Resistance and Allied Strategy

In the summer of 1943, the British adopted a new strategy in the eastern Mediterranean. To distract Hitler from the main theater of European invasion planned to cross the English Channel in 1944, the British enlisted the cooperation of ELAS in simulating preparations for a major invasion in the Mediterranean. The strategy had credibility because of Britain's attempted invasion of the Ottoman Empire at Gallipoli in World War I. Although all resistance movements were to participate in the plan, ELAS was especially crucial because it controlled the largest army and occupied the most territory. Accordingly, in July 1943 Britain agreed to give ELAS additional support if ELAS would end its campaign against rival resistance groups.

However, in August a disastrous series of meetings in Cairo among guerrilla leaders, the king, and the government-in-exile removed all prospects of cooperation. The resistance leaders demanded guarantees that a plebiscite on the monarchy be held before the king returned to Greece, and that the postwar government include ELAS members heading the ministries of the interior, justice, and war. Britain, whose main goal was ensuring continued stability and British influence in the postwar eastern Mediterranean, continued its pattern of intervention in Greek politics by supporting George's refusal of both demands. From that point to the end of the war, the government-in-exile and the EAM resistance were opponents rather than allies.

The immediate result of the Cairo meetings was the onset of civil war between ELAS and EDES in October. Forced to choose, the British stepped up arm shipments to EDES while cutting off the supply to ELAS. This maneuver proved ineffective because the surrender of the Italian forces in September had provided ELAS with enough arms and munitions to be independent of outside supply. Having stabilized its position militarily, EAM declared the formation of a Political Committee of National Liberation (Politiki Epitropi Ethnikis Apeleftheroseos--PEEA) with its capital in the heart of liberated Greece.

The British, alarmed at the prospect of a communist takeover after the war, took steps to resist validation of the PEEA. In October 1944, Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph V. Stalin agreed (without the knowledge of any Greek faction) that postwar Greece would be in the British sphere of influence and that the Soviet Union would not interfere. In return, Churchill conceded Soviet control of postwar Romania.
Greek Soldiers

EAM and Greek Society

Many Greeks rallied to PEEA as a new alternative to the government-in-exile. For many people in the mountainous liberated areas of Greece, EAM/ELAS rule had established order, justice, and a tranquil communal life that prewar governments had failed to provide. The resistance movement offered women, in particular, new personal empowerment in their participation as warriors and workers. Peasants and working-class men also found unacceptable the prospect of going back to the old ways.

Another group also rallied to the call of the PEEA. The Greek military units that had escaped the Germans were assembled in the Middle East under the name Middle East Armed Forces (MEAF). Most soldiers and sailors, unlike their officers, were EAM sympathizers, and mutinies and strikes occurred in the MEAF between 1942 and 1944 as news of the communist resistance was received. In the spring of 1944, the formation of the PEEA stimulated a "grand revolt" by republican and communist enlisted personnel seeking recognition of a PEEA-sponsored government of national unity.
Greek Flag at El Alamain

Liberation and Its Consequences

The grand revolt led to a change in the leadership of the Greek government-in-exile. Georgios Papandreou, who had strong republican and anticommunist credentials, was appointed prime minister of a government of national unity organized in Lebanon. The purpose of the appointment was to attract noncommunist antimonarchists away from EAM to a staunchly anticommunist, pro-British government. In August 1944, after initially rejecting the minor posts allotted to it in the Papandreou government, EAM bowed to Soviet pressure and accepted the terms of the Lebanon agreement. The Germans began to withdraw from Greece in October. Although ELAS's control of the Greek countryside would have made a grab for power easy, in this period resistance forces confined their activities to harassing the German withdrawal.

Papandreou and the national government entered Athens on October 18. The euphoria of liberation swept all before it, and for days the streets were filled with rejoicing citizens. Beyond their joy, however, fear and mistrust abounded, and many key issues remained unresolved. As before the war, the constitutional schism still divided Greeks.

The Lebanon agreement called for the 60,000 armed men and women of ELAS, with the exception of one elite unit, to lay down their arms in December, with the aim of creating a new national force based on the MEAF. In late November, however, Papandreou demanded total demobilization of ELAS, a step the resistance leadership would not take. The leftist factions were already quite suspicious of the failure of Papandreou and the British to actively pursue and punish Greek collaborators, many of whom the Nazis had recruited by citing the threat of a communist takeover. By December, amid rising tension and suspicion on both sides, EAM called a mass rally and a general strike to protest the government's high-handedness. When police forces opened fire on demonstrators in Athens, a thirtythree -day street battle erupted between police and British troops on one side and ELAS fighters on the other. Although EAM was not prepared to seize power and fighting did not spread outside Athens, the potential for wider hostilities was clear. The Battle of Athens ruined some parts of the city and left as many as 11,000 dead.

When Churchill visited Greece to assess the situation, he became convinced that the constitutional issue had to be resolved as expeditiously as possible. Under strong British pressure to improve his image with the Greek people, King George agreed to the appointment of the widely respected Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens as his regent in Greece. In a concession to the opposition, Papandreou was replaced as prime minister by the old Liberal General Plastiras.

In February 1945, a semblance of peace was restored with the Varkiza Agreement, under which most ELAS troops turned over their weapons in exchange for broad political amnesty, a guarantee of free speech, the lifting of martial law, amnesty for all "political crimes," and the calling of plebiscite on the constitutional question. The Varkiza Agreement initiated what became known on the political left as the White Terror. Rather than prosecuting collaborators, the Ministry of Justice and the security apparatus, together with vigilante bands of anticommunists, ignored the political amnesty for the next two years, continuing the struggle of the collaborationist security service against resistance figures with known leftist connections. But now the latter had little public support, as most of Greek society went on an anticommunist crusade against which the KKE, forsaken by Stalin, could do little. Wartime heroes were executed for killing collaborators, and judges and tax collectors of the PEEA went to jail for unauthorized representation of the Greek government. Right-wing death squads and paramilitary groups embarked on a campaign of terror and assassination against leftists. Both communist and noncommunist EAM/ELAS members went underground for their own safety. A series of weak governments proved incapable of stemming the escalating sectarian violence.

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