For the history of the civil war and its historical and political context, two recent publications are invaluable: Margarites 2001 and Iliou 2005.
- Chapter 3. 1944–1945: The Battle of Athens
- » Athens, December 3, 1944
Chapter 3. 1944–1945: The Battle of Athens
Athens, December 3, 1944
Early one morning in the summer of 2005, at our summer house, where my entire family was spending a few days together, I went downstairs and outside to the garden to have coffee. My uncle-in-law Kostes and his wife were already there. Before I could get any coffee, Kostes, who was reading a hefty book, looked up from it and said, “I am reading about the involvement of Aris Velouchiōtēs in the civil war, and I am amazed…”
I interrupted him, still half asleep and without thinking too much, saying, “Aris had no involvement in the civil war; he died in 1945.”
I replied that the Dekemvrianá was a clash between the British army, the police, and the andártes, which started because the British and the police fired upon an unarmed crowd at a peaceful demonstration.
“I was there, I saw it,” he said. “And you can't tell me that that was not a civil war, when Greek kills Greek. I was there, I still can't eat garbanzo beans, they repulse me, because I was there, on the roof of our house, and my mother was making garbanzo soup when the andártes came looking for my father, and my mother said, 'He's gone, he is not here, we haven't seen him in a few days.' The garbanzos were there, and now even the smell of them makes me nauseous. My mother sent me to my uncle's house [their own house was in Metaxourgeio, one of the areas of Athens where there was heavy fighting], which was right on Constitution Square, and the andártes were shooting from everywhere. I had to slither from building to building until I got to Solonos Street. There I could go no further, because there was no protection from the 'X.' I was there, I saw it,” he repeated.
I said that I wasn't there but that both my parents were. My mother lived in the same neighborhood as he did. She actually lived in his cousin's house, although the two did not know each other then, but my father lived in “Red Athens,” a neighborhood that was heavily EAM, and he too had told me that the andártes would make forays to fight off the Bourandádhes (the vehicular branch of the collaborationist police force) and “X.” Both my parents had told me, however, that this was the doing of the British, over and above everything that I had read about the Dekemvrianá.
“Leave out of this anything that you've been told and you have read,” he yelled, “because I am telling you, because I was there and you were not.”
By now we were both yelling and screaming, to the point that his wife left the garden, my husband and my son were both awakened by the sound, and my brother-in-law came outside, saw us, and without saying a word walked straight out of the garden and the house. We were all a bit unhinged by this encounter. My uncle and I quickly regained our composure and made up. The incident did not become part of my research until much later, when I was able to sit down, pen and paper in hand, and record it. Once again, my reasons for conducting this research, which seemingly deals with a fifty-year-old history, came back to me: it does not deal with a fifty-year-old history; it deals with the story that is modern Greece.
By the summer of 1944, as the Soviet army was advancing toward Romania and Yugoslavia, it became obvious that the Germans would soon withdraw from Greece rather than risk being cut off and left behind enemy lines. The government-in-exile, now led by a prominent liberal, George Papandreou, moved to Cava dei' Tirreni, close to Naples, in preparation for the return to Greece. Very close to Cava dei' Tirreni is Caserta, where an agreement was signed in September 1944. It stipulated that all the Resistance armies in Greece were to be disarmed and placed under the command of a British officer, General Ronald MacKenzie Scobie.
British troops (including forces from the colonies—South Africans, New Zealanders, and Nepali Ghurkhas) landed in Greece in October. Resistance by the Germans was minimal, since they were rapidly retreating and most of Greece was under the control of ELAS or EDES. The only significant German presence, assisted by “X” and Bourandas forces, was in central Athens. ELAS numbered about fifty thousand men at that moment, and it was effectively restocking from supplies left behind by the Germans. On October 13, British troops entered Athens, and Papandreou and his ministers followed six days later. The king stayed in Cairo, in accord with the agreement, awaiting a referendum on the future of the monarchy.
At this point, there was little to prevent ELAS from taking full control of the country. They did not do so. When ELAS forces approached Athens, they waited at Eleusis until the Papandreou government had come back from Egypt. ELAS did so partly because a forcible takeover of Athens had never been part of the KKE project (for which KKE was criticized by the Trotskyists as having abandoned the principles of revolutionary ideology), and partly because the KKE leadership was reluctant to undertake action that would not have the support of the Soviet Union, as Stalin had expressly mentioned the need for the unity of the Allied front. Greece was not part of Stalin's postwar project. KKE's leadership tried to avoid a confrontation with the Papandreou government, and ELAS considered the Allies to be liberators, although not without some suspicion by KKE , particularly Andreas Tzimas and Aris Velouchiotis, who did not trust them.
The issue of disarmament was a cause of bitter disagreement between George Papandreou and the EAM members of his government. Prompted by the British ambassador Sir Reginald Leeper, Papandreou demanded that a National Guard under government control be constituted and all forces bearing arms be disarmed with the exception of the Hierós Lóchos and the Third Mountain Brigade, or Rimini Brigade, both units that had been formed by the British after they suppressed the revolt in Egypt. EAM, having faced the anti-Communist brutality of “X” and the Tágmata, and fearing that disarmament would leave the Left in a vulnerable position and its members in real danger of liquidation, counter-proposed the total and simultaneous disarmament of all armed groups. Papandreou, who by then was considering the Tágmata a possible ally in the event of a further strengthening of the Left, rejected the EAM plan. On December 1, Scobie issued a directive demanding the dissolution of ELAS, a gesture that he had neither the legal nor the political mandate to make. ELAS (and KKE) decided that such a demand was not only unwarranted but also beyond the scope of Scobie's authority and decided to resist the dissolution. The EAM ministers resigned from the government on December 2. Meanwhile, the leader of “X,” Georgios Grivas, had instructed his Chites to fortify themselves in central Athens against possible EAM and ELAS violence, until the British troops arrived, as Grivas had been promised. The Chites obeyed and joined forces with the Bourandádhes.
Ghurkha or Gurkha, the first being the British, the second the Nepali latinized spelling.
Sutton 2001 engages in a nuanced and in-depth analysis of the experience of food as an experience of history in Greece. Sutton shows why it is important to pay attention to stories, sentences, and phrases that start out “I was cleaning squid… when the mailman came” or “The whole family was together, we were eating lentils when… ,” since the invocation of the acts and gestures that surround narratives of food always index a deeper historical statement. Garbanzo beans are not the only food that many Greeks will refuse to eat even nowadays because it reminds them of the war; polenta and anything associated with corn is another. Indeed, bóbota, “cornbread,” has come to be a synechdoche for the occupation. After the war, parents would not allow their children to buy souvlaki, out of fear that it might have been made with cat meat, as (allegedly) it often was prior to liberation.
Garbanzo beans present an interesting case, since they appear frequently in both written testimonials (see Oikonomakos 2006) and in interviews as being ubiquitous in civil-war Greece. No study of alimentary conditions, the famine, or provisions in Greece mentions the proliferation of garbanzos immediately after the retreat of the Germans. Thymios Karagiannakidis, who spent time on Makrónisos in 1950 and had worked as an agricultural engineer before the war and briefly during the emphýlios, remembered during an interview that immediately following the retreat of the Germans Greece received a large shipment of garbanzos from Morocco, the first shipment of pulses to be clean of leaves, dirt, and vermin. This might explain the ubiquitousness of this particular pulse in postwar Greece.
Scobie became so hated in Greece for his involvement in Greek domestic policy and the role that he played in the Dekemvrianá that songs ridiculing him circulated in Greece until the 1970s. The last time that I heard one of them, He Psole tou Scobie, was during the last years of the junta, sung by a friend of my mother's at our house as she was having coffee. It was sung to a swing tune, and its first verse (perhaps the only verse that has survived) referred to Scobie's member:
Vervenioti 2000 also mentions the song, as one sung by the women prisoners on Trikeri, but does not give the lyrics.
He psōlé tou Scobie
Ki an te lysei tha fanei
He megálē tou politikê
is tied up in knots
and if he lets it lose
his grand politics
will be shown.
According to Nikos Pharmakes, an ex-deputy of the Right who was recruited by the “X” at the age of fourteen, the reason why ELAS did not attack Athens was of purely military nature. Pharmakes says that in October 1944, when ELAS was voluntarily stationed in Eleusis, the collaborationist Prime Minister Rallis had mobilized five to six thousand Tagmatasphalētés from various garrisons that had been defeated by ELAS as the Germans retreated. In addition, there were about five hundred Chites, who were heavily armed, since they had started buying the German arms stock as early as mid 1944. They did so through an intermediary, Christos Zalokostas, who, Pharmakes mentions, was able to procure the necessary funds. They continued buying arms until September 1944. ??In addition, the British sent “X” three shipments of automatic weapons, which arrived at the port of Porto Rafti in September 1944. Pharmakes mentions that he participated in one of those operations himself. Half of the Athens police force was also present (the other half, Pharmakes claims, had joined EAM), as well as the Mountain Brigade, with twenty-five thousand men. ELAS could not have expected to win against such a force. So, Pharmakes claims, ELAS made a tactical move, correctly assessing the situation and biding their time. Whether Pharmakes's analysis is correct or not no one can know, since it is intuitive and not factual. What is invaluable in his account, however, is the (unwitting) admission that the collaborationist government forces, along with the British, had planned for a battle (Pharmakes 2006). I am indebted to Stella Litou and Kostas Spiropoulos of ERT (Greek National Television) for making the transcript of this interview available to me.
A Greek journalist who interviewed Milovan Djilas late in his life mentioned to me that during the interview Djilas told her, off the record, that Greece should declare Stalin a national hero for not having included the country in the Warsaw Pact.
The Third Mountain Brigade had managed to expel ELAS partisans from Mt. Hymmetus, in Athens, by creating an ecological catastrophe: they cut and burned the thick pine forest that covered the mountain so as to expose the hiding places of the partisans. Only recently is the forest beginning to recover from the napalm that the brigade dropped. In the foothills of the mountain lies my parents' house, on Third Mountain Brigade Street (Hodos Trites Oreines Taxiarcheias), which was renamed thus from Plethonos Street, in honor of the brigade, some time in the mid 1950s.