Chapter 2. 1936–1944: The Metaxas Dictatorship, the Italian Attack, the German Invasion, German Occupation, Resistance
And Then Came the One with the Erased Face
“I remember the bloko [the round-up] very well,” my interlocutor said. “They gathered us all in the square across from your father's house. First, through an interpreter the Germans asked our names. I don't know how they sorted us, because it wasn't alphabetical, it wasn't by age, it wasn't by height—all of us were there, every boy and man of the district. I was fifteen at the time, but my father was there, too, your uncle Tassos, Spyros, Odysseas, Nikos (both of them, actually), everybody. And then the hooded-one came [aftos me tin koukoúla] and started pointing, without saying anything, not a word.”
“Did you know who he was?” I asked.
“Of course I did, everybody did…” he didn't finish the sentence.
“He was the apprentice of the baker, wasn't he?” I asked.
He looked at me in utter surprise. “How do you know this?” he said, “You are too young to know this.”
I said that I had heard it.
“Yes,” he said, “he was the apprentice of the baker, Klémes, down the street from your father's house.”
I knew this story very well, but it was not until the last summer of my research, a few weeks before this encounter took place, that I was told by my father, who was also there during the bloko, who the hooded person was. “He would come around,” my father said, “and he had the hood on, a black one, you could see only his eyes, but he would come around and he would stand in front of us and lean over, close to our faces, and we would whisper to him 'I know you [se xéro].'”
I asked if the baker knew.
“Of course he knew,” my father responded. “How wouldn't he know? Everybody knew.”
“Is that why you did not let us go to that bakery for bread?”
“What do you mean?” my father said.
“You didn't want us to buy bread from him because he knew about his apprentice.”
“Nothing of the sort whatsoever,” he said. “I didn't want you do go there because he didn't make good bread; but Klémes was the one who pointed at your uncle and they took him to the camp.”
That was my father's eldest brother, who was picked up by the Gestapo in the bloko at age sixteen and kept in a concentration camp in Athens for a few months. It took my grandmother a few thousand English gold pounds to get him released by the Germans, money that no one knows how she was able to procure. What is remarkable about this story, though, is how this collaborator managed to escape execution later by the OPLA, something that my original interlocutor's father did not.
The brutality of the German occupation cannot be overestimated. Torture and executions were part of daily life. Constant famine forced many Athenians to move to villages in the hope that local orchards would provide them with the rudimentary nutrients that they needed. A division of labor that reconfigured not only gender roles but also understandings of age appeared, as childhood disappeared. Young adolescents would be sent with a wheelbarrow to the area around Athens, to the Mesogeia, or to Eleusis, fifteen, seventeen, twenty kilometers away, to gather dandelions or olives, or to beg for an egg or two, and then return to Athens so that their families could eat. Somewhat older adolescents formed groups called saltadoroi. Five or six of them would accost a German lorry and occupy the driver's attention while others would pilfer as much of the lorry's contents as possible. Sometimes the lorry was carrying food, at other times petrol, at other times spare parts. Anything and everything would be used. Even if these small acts of resistance were not much more than the proverbial fly on the lion's nose, the Germans took them very seriously, and no distinctions were made between the children saltadoroi and the older adolescents who were involved in more systematic and organized resistance. If captured, they were all summarily executed. As one of my interlocutors—a man who grew up to become the headmaster of one of the public high schools in Athens, though not before he was exiled on Yáros at the age of sixteen—told me: “We grew up much too fast.”
When the Resistance started causing serious problems for the Germans, on June 18, 1943, the collaborationist prime minister, Ioannis Rallis, created the Tágmata Asphaleias (Security Battalions—TA, in short, their members being known as Tagmatasphalētés, or, in a play on words, Tagmatalētes, “battalion ruffians”), a paramilitary force armed and clothed by the Germans, comprising mostly local ideological fascists and Nazi sympathizers, royalists, and criminal convicts. The TA were formed to fight the Communist partisans and reduce the strain on the German army, so that “precious German blood would be spared” . At their peak in 1944, the TA had twenty thousand men. Not only were the Tágmata not part of the Resistance, but they collaborated with the Germans to exterminate partisans, albeit only ELAS partisans. They also engaged in general terrorist attacks on villages thought to be sympathetic to the Resistance. After the war was over, the members of the Tágmata were absorbed into the armed and security forces, as well as into the general public sector, and they were later used extensively as torturers at the camps on Yáros and Makrónisos.
The TA operated mainly in the periphery, whereas in Athens Rallis organized the Tágmata Evzônōn (Battalions of the Royal Guard), which operated in addition to and in collaboration with the main paramilitary organization “X” (Chi), an organization that was heavily subsidized by the British, that had no active participation in the Resistance (or systematic collaboration with the Germans, for that matter), and whose only objective was to ensure the return of the king after the war had ended. “X” was a notorious terrorist organization, involved in the relentless and brutal persecution of all nonmonarchists, especially the Left. It did not engage in any act of resistance against the Germans at all. It had strongholds in certain areas of Athens, primarily in neighborhoods of internal immigrants in the old historical center of the city (in the area around Colonnus, in Petralona, and in Theseion).
Members of “X” were so notorious, and their involvement in the White Terror so extensive, damaging, and lasting, that Athenians still think about “X” as a runaway, lawless, and fearfully criminal organization. My interlocutor, though, was quick to distinguish between “X” and the Tágmata. “You can't put them together,” he said sternly. “'X' was not a collaborationist force; they were just royalists [vassilophrones]. They did not engage in criminal activities.” The fact that the activities of “X” were not considered by this particular person to be criminal reveals that the Chites and, eventually, the Greek state, had a notion of criminality that did not extend to include acts of political terrorism. But this is a misleading statement on many levels. “X” was only one of the notorious paramilitary militias that sprang up in Athens in the spring of 1943, organized and directed by the collaborationist government of Rallis. These organizations—the armed-vehicle group belonging to the Security Police led by Nikos Bourandás (sporting helmets, not caps), the “X” of Grivas, and the Mandouvalos gang in Piraeus—all operated within a peculiar system of alliances that can be explained only by the communistophobia that oriented the British presence and intervention in Greece: these organizations collaborated simultaneously with the Germans and the British, so that when the Germans withdrew from Greece they were ready to be utilized by the provisional government set up by the British Foreign Office.
The systematic extermination of the Left and antiroyalist elements through brutal beatings and assassinations did not constitute criminal activity in the eyes of this man, as in the eyes of those holding executive power, because the Leftists and antiroyalists were, according to his logic, criminal elements who needed to be eliminated in order for the country to be governed by a legitimate government. He continued: “It's incomprehensible to me! Everywhere else in the world, history is written by the winners. In Greece it has been written by the losers, and we [the winners, the royalists, the Right] have found ourselves in the apologetic position.”
On an opposite end a friend mentioned to me the reaction of her father (a Centrist) when she mentioned to him the name of her lover's grandmother: “I had always known about this family because when my mother was studying at the university she lived in the same house as Elias's aunt, during the Dekemvrianá (“events of December”; see Chapter 3). She was there when the andártes (partisans of ELAS) came and took out the four sons of the family and killed them in the courtyard. So I had always known about this family, and especially about Mary, my mother's friend and Elias's aunt. Actually, one day when I was young, about twenty years old, it was around the late seventies, I was a university student myself—one day I was in the streetcar, standing in front of a middle-aged lady who was sitting down. She looked at me, and at some point she said, 'You are Demetra's daughter, aren't you?' When I said, yes, I was, she said, 'I am a friend of your mother's, you look so much like her. Give her my best regards, from Mary, tell her.' So, I went home and told my mother this, and she repeated the whole story about how they were such close friends as university students, especially after the andártes killed Mary's brothers who 'nevertheless, were Chites, let's not forget that,' my mother said. My father, who had been in the Resistance, though not in any organized way, had fought the Chites in the Dekemvrianá, when they tried to take over the neighborhood where he lived. When I went to him in 1990, saying that I had met Elias and, I said, you know, he is a nephew of Mary's [and added the last name], my father looked at me incredulously and said, 'Child, they [the family] are Chites.' He said they are; he didn't say they were.”
At yet another end, given that fratricidal stories have many ends that never close off anything, I remember a story that has stayed with me for many years. One evening in the summer of 1981, a friend of my parents' came to visit them, visibly upset. This woman was from Laconia, at the southern tip of the Peloponnese, an area that is historically royalist and Right wing. It has traditionally staffed the state mechanism, both on the level of surveillance and law enforcement and on the level of the civil service: the king's personal guard came from recruits from the area, and the gendarmerie was initially made up of Lacones. This, of course, does not mean that there are no republicans in the area or that the area is exclusively Right wing, but the general expectation is that if someone is from Laconia he is probably on the Right.
This woman (let's call her Eleni) was married to a man, Pavlos, who was also a Rightist but whose brother was a Leftist and had died of torture on Makrónisos in 1948. That evening Eleni was very upset because her son, who was about my age, whom I had known all my life, and who was a rather quiet and not politically involved or aware person, had fallen in love with a young girl. I walked into the room and saw Eleni crying. I asked what the matter was, and my mother said, “Don't ask, Pavlos [the young boy had, uncharacteristically, the same name as his father] has fallen in love.” She looked at me as if she wanted to tell me not to ask any more. But ask I did.
“She is a Communist!” Eleni screamed, collapsing in tears. I shrugged and said something to the effect that if they fell in love and they were happy together, what difference did it really make in 1981?
Eleni looked at me as if I had come from another planet. “But don't you understand?” she said as she composed herself and dried her eyes. “What does it mean that they are in love? She is a Communist! They killed my cousins, bam, bam, at Pegada.”
“They,” of course, were the Communists. I knew the case, where the partisans of Aris Velouchiotes in September 1944 executed a battalion of TA at Pegada, in Meligalas (in the Peloponnese), after the TA had collaborated with the Germans in reprisals against civilians when the andártes had attacked a German detail. I was stunned. Never before had I seen anyone react so passionately to something that to me was history, something that neither I, nor her son, nor her son's beloved had witnessed, since we were born nearly fifteen years after the incident in question. What was even more disturbing to me at the time—and it took me some years to appreciate its depth—was the fact that not only did this particular young woman have no involvement with the war and the andártes of Aris but that no one knew what her family's involvement was in the Communist (or just the Resistance) movement, since they came from a different part of the country and had no prior acquaintance with Eleni's family.
In 1943 EAM accused (the now royalist) EDES of collaboration with the Germans, a gesture that led to battles among ELAS, EDES, and the Germans that continued until February 1944, when British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka Agreement). On March 10, 1944, EAM, now in control of most of the country, established the Politikê Epitropê Ethnikês Apelefthérōsēs (Political Committee of National Liberation, or PEEA), a third Greek government to counter the collaborationist one of Athens and the absentee one in Cairo. Its aims were “to intensify the struggle against the conquerors… for full national liberation, for the consolidation of the independence and integrity of our country… and for the annihilation of domestic Fascism and formations of armed traitors.” PEEA's authority was significantly reinforced after the National Congress (Ethniko Symvoulio) recognized it as a legitimate government. PEEA's first president was Euripides Bakirtzis, the military leader of EKKA. On April 18, PEEA was reorganized when a new group of people joined it, including Alexandros Svolos, a professor of constitutional law at the law school of the University of Athens, who replaced Bakirtzis, and Petros Kokkalis . PEEA consisted not only of Communists but also of progressive bourgeois, who had little to do with Communist ideas.
The democratic aims of the PEEA (known as Kyvernisi Vounou, the Mountain Government) won wide support in Greece and even among Greeks in exile. A delegation of resistance leaders met in Cairo in 1943, asking that the question of the monarchy be addressed before the king returned to Greece after the projected defeat of the Axis, on the grounds that the king had collaborated with the Metaxas dictatorship before the war. Winston Churchill backed the king. In April 1944 the Greek armed forces in Egypt revolted against the Allies (primarily the British, who had the greatest authority over them), demanding that a government of national unity be established based on PEEA principles and that the issue of the republic be resolved. The revolt was suppressed by the British, who arrested approximately eight thousand Greek officers and soldiers and sent them to prison camps in Libya, Sudan, and Egypt. Later on, through political screening of the officers, the Cairo government created staunchly anti-Communist armed forces, such as the Third Mountain Brigade (also known as the Rimini Brigade, since it fought in the battle at Rimini, in Italy), and the Hierós Lóchos (Sacred Battalion), headed by Lakis Tsigantes. In May 1944, representatives from all political parties and resistance groups came together at a conference in Lebanon, seeking agreement about a coalition government of national unity. Despite the mutual mistrust between EAM and the rest of the resistance forces, the conference ended in agreement on a government of national unity, to consist of twenty-four ministers (six of whom were EAM members). But the issue of the disarmament of the armed Resistance forces after liberation was not resolved.
On October 12, 1944, the Germans left Athens. A few days later they crossed the borders and dispersed into the chaos of the collapsing Reich. Greece was left with 250,000 dead from famine, 15,700 dead from the Italian war, 8,000 dead from the week-long German invasion, 3,000 dead from the German bombings, 50,000 dead from Allied bombings, 40,000 dead from the Bulgarian forces, 30,000 dead from German and Italian retaliation to acts of resistance, 4,000 military deaths abroad, 1,000 dead in the merchant marine, 60,000 disappeared Jews. In a country of fewer than eight million, there were 415,300 dead between October 28, 1940, and October 12, 1944.