Ciano, Galeazzo. 1947. The Ciano Diaries 1939–1943: The Complete, Unabridged Diaries of Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian Minister for Foreign Affairs, 1939–1943., ed. Hugh Gibson, and Sumner Welles Garden City, N.Y.: Garden City Publishing Co., Inc.
Chapter 2. 1936–1944: The Metaxas Dictatorship, the Italian Attack, the German Invasion, German Occupation, Resistance
Greece entered the Second World War after an attack by the Italian navy on August 15, 1940, when an unidentified submarine torpedoed the Greek Navy Frigate Hellē in the harbor of the Cycladean island of Tēnos during the festival of the Assumption of the Virgin, which is celebrated officially there every year . On October 28, 1940, after having asked and been denied free access for the Axis powers through Greece, Italy declared war on Greece. Metaxas became a hero overnight. His reported one-word response to the Italian Ambassador—Ohi (also transliterated Ochi), “No”—became the motto of the Resistance and to this day is celebrated yearly (as Ohi Day, on October 28). An entire mythology has been created around the moment of resistance, a heroic and patriotic stance by Metaxas that seems incongruous with his political position vis-à-vis both Axis powers. The fact that he was awakened at 3:00 a.m. by the Italian minister, that he opened his door wearing his pajamas, housecoat, and slippers, that the moment he heard the Italian demands he immediately pronounced the denial—all this has made it into the official historical imagination.
Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian minister for foreign affairs and Mussolini's son-in-law, mentions in his diary what has not been taken up into historical memory—namely, that when the Italian minister to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi, returned from Athens on November 8, 1940, as the war in the northern mountains raged between the Italian and the Greek armies, he reported a very different encounter between himself and Metaxas. According to Grazzi, Ciano claims, “Metaxas, receiving our ultimatum in his nightshirt and dressing gown, was ready to yield. He became unyielding only after having talked with the king and after the intervention of the English minister” Ciano 1947: 308). Greek forces fought the Italian army in the mountains of Epirus from October 1940 to April 1941, at which point the German army attacked, entering Greece through Bulgaria. On April 19, 1941, the Bulgarian army entered Yugoslavia and Greece, and on April 27 German tanks entered Athens. By Hitler's decree, no Greek fighter who had participated in the battles against the invasion was taken as prisoner of war, an act that Mussolini resented deeply.
King George II (a cousin of the British royal family) and the Metaxas government (Metaxas himself had died on January 29) escaped to Egypt, where they proclaimed a government-in-exile with a seat in London and Emanuel Tsouderos as prime minister. This government was initially recognized by the Allies and considered legitimate by the majority of the Greek population. Through the insistence of Great Britain that the king appoint moderate ministers, George II appointed Centrist ministers, but he also included two members of the Metaxas dictatorship. The fact that the government in exile included members of the Metaxas government delegitimated the king's gesture in the eyes of the Greek population, most of whom then refused to recognize it. This government-in-exile did not officially dissolve the Metaxas regime until February 7, 1942. Meanwhile, on April 30, 1941, three days after they entered Athens, the Germans set up a collaborationist government under the premiership of George Tsolacoglou, one of the three chiefs of staff, who appointed officers of the Metaxas dictatorship to serve in various posts.
Egypt did not agree to be the seat of an exile government until the Allies won the battles fought in North Africa.
The submarine has remained unidentified to this day, but the strong suspicion has been that it was Italian. Count Galeazzo Ciano, Italian minister for foreign affairs and Mussolini's son-in-law, made the following diary entry on the day: “A Greek vessel has been sunk by a submarine of unidentified nationality. The incident threatens to become serious. As for me, I consider the intemperance of De Vecchi [one of the fascist leaders] at the bottom of it. I confer with the Duce [Mussolini], who desires to settle this incident peacefully. It was not necessary. I suggest sending a note to Greece. This will place the question on a diplomatic plane” (1947: 284). We certainly cannot take Ciano's diary to be innocent, not only because the innocence of diaries is (and ought to be) always suspect, but also because Ciano himself mentions at various points in his diary that Il Duce wanted him to be keeping a diary for posterity. On August 17, 1940, Ciano mentions that Dino Alfieri, minister of propaganda, ambassador to the Holy See, and ambassador to Germany, had “an interesting conference with von Ribbentrop [Nazi minister for foreign affairs],” where it was mentioned “that an eventual [Italian] action against Greece is not at all welcome at Berlin” (ibid.: 285). Despite Mussolini's desire to “teach the Greeks a lesson,” it is obvious to Ciano that a war with Greece will not be an easy one and also “that even in German opinion the war is going to be hard. The Duce himself has dictated our counterproposal. Naturally, we accept the Berlin point of view, even as regards Greece. In fact we put back in the drawer the note [of declaration of war against Greece] that we had already prepared” (ibid.: 285). On August 22, Ciano mentions that Mussolini has decided to postpone indefinitely any action against Greece and Yugoslavia. Apparently the Metaxas government believed that an appeal to the Germans would stave off the Italians. Ciano mentions that, according to von Ribbentrop, the Greek minister of foreign affairs “had tried to knock on the doors of Berlin but was harshly treated. Von Ribbentrop did not receive him and told him it would be more useful to speak with Italy, since Germany is in perfect accord with us about everything” (ibid.: 287). See Dubish 1995 on the importance of the celebration on Tenos in the official narrative produced by the Greek state about its destiny as a metaphysical entity.
Pencil drawing by an eleven-year-old boy (one of my interlocutors) a few weeks after the Italian invasion of Greece in 1941. The original was initially published in one of the Athenian newspapers. Collection of the author.
Apparently the Italian plan, also attempted in Croatia, was to “win the hearts and minds” of the local populations. Ciano says about the Croats, “Our humane treatment of them, as compared with inhuman treatment by the Germans, should attract to us the sympathy of the Croats. The Duce is also resentful of the German attitude in Greece. The Germans have practically assumed the air of protectors of the Greeks” (1947: 343, my emphasis). This protection of the Greeks by the Germans lasted merely a few days, until General Tsolacoglou (“or some such name,” Ciano notes) decided to establish a Greek government in Athens “to save the national and ethnic unity of Greece” (ibid.: 344). Hitler, according to Ciano, considered this “a heaven-sent favor,” while Mussolini hoped that the Italians would at least be allowed the civil government (ibid.: 344).
The front page of magazine, four months after the naval attack on Helle and two months after the Italian ultimatum to Greece. The soldier, called belongs to the Royal Guard. The costume was later used to dress the paramilitaries and the collaborationist forces, which came to be known as Collection of the author.