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.
Tsolacoglou issued orders that decreed the conduct of the Greek population toward the occupying forces. A “Daily Address of the President of the Government to the Army,” issued in the first days of May 1941, announced: “Now that, on account of the magnanimous gesture of the Führer, Leader of the German Nation, freedom has been granted to all military officers and soldiers, I must address the following matters to all those who fought on my side and those who fought on the side of my collaborating generals. …The German army has not come here as an enemy, as an adversary. It has come as a friend. It occupied our land in order to expel the English from mainland Greece. They, an evil fortune, had been invited to our national land by our criminal government. We are obligated to exhibit our friendly feelings toward the Germans, to submit to the new order of things, and to take to heart the great dogmas and the great principles of national socialism, this new political religion, which has been created by the luminous mind and great psyche of the Führer. Returning now to your homes, maintain your gratitude to the Führer and apply yourselves to your peaceful endeavors… G. Tsolacoglou, Lieutenant General.” This was not the only directive at collaboration to be issued. Among others, the “People's Committee of the Prefecture of Chania” (headed by the Bishop of Kydonias and Apokoronou, the ecclesiastical administration of the area), issued a communiqué that was published on September 22, 1941. It exhorted the people of Crete to work hard and with “conscientious loyalty to the law,” so that, with the help of the German authorities, they could rebuild Crete. In order for such a fast return to civilian life to take place, the communiqué continued, it would be imperative that the people of Crete surrender their arms, as had been requested by the German authorities and the Greek government in Athens. In the eyes of the population, the government was immediately exposed for what it was, and then some. It was a government both unable and unwilling to protect the population from German atrocities; it handed all the political prisoners from the Metaxas dictatorship over to the Germans, who sent many of them to the German concentration camps (primarily Dachau and Buchenwald), while keeping the rest in prisons in Greece; its corruption and financial mismanagement created galloping inflation and food shortages that, on top of the blockade imposed by the British in order to cut German lines of support and the German appropriation of Greek products, led to a famine that lasted from the autumn of 1941 until the spring of 1942 and that both decimated the Greek population and produced a rampant black market. All these circumstances not only incited hostility toward the government among the Greek population but also rendered imperative the need for active resistance against both the occupation forces and the collaborationist government.
The lack of a national government willing to fight the Germans opened the political and symbolic space for several Resistance movements (Antistasē) to form shortly after the beginning of the occupation. The largest was the Ethnikó Apeleftherōtikó Métōpo, or EAM (National Liberation Front), founded on September 27, 1941, by representatives of four left-wing parties: Lefteris Apostolou for the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), Christos Chomenidis for the Socialist Party of Greece (SΚΕ), Elias Tsirimokos, for the Greek Popular Republic (ΕLD), and Apostolos Voyiatzis for the Agricultural Party of Greece (ΑΚΕ). The acting leader was Georgios Siantos, a member of the Central Committee of the KKE ever since the KKE's Secretary General, Nikolaos Zachariadis, had been handed over to the Germans by the Metaxas government and was interned in Dachau. EAM had approached the liberal parties for a broader collaboration, but they had all refused. Finally, EAM built a broad coalition that included and won the support of many non-Communists and came to be thought of as a democratic republican (as opposed to monarchist) movement. In February 1942 EAM founded its military wing, the Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos, widely known as ELAS (National Popular Liberation Army), and one year later, February 23, 1943, founded the youth organization EPON. The university students established their own branch of EAM called Lochos Lord Byron (Battalion Lord Byron, not to be confused with the battalion Hieros Lochos, later established in the Middle East by career officers under the command of Lakis Tsigantes).
Following EAM and ELAS, other political constituencies founded other Resistance armies and movements, most of them short lived and rather insignificant either in their impact on the general population or in the outcome of their actions. The most important such forces were the Ethnikos Demokratikos Hellenikos Syndesmos, or EDES (Greek National Republican League), led by a former army officer, Colonel Napoleon Zervas, and a minor Resistance force, Ethnike kai Koinonike Apeleftherosis (National and Social Liberation, or EKKA), led by Colonel Demetrios Psaros. EKKA was a liberal, antimonarchist movement, and its importance lies only in the fact that its leader, Psaros, was executed in 1943 by members of ELAS on suspicion of collaboration with the Germans, an act that provided the British with an excuse to declare ELAS a Communist organization interested in power, to cut off their funding, and to encourage antagonism between ELAS and EDES. EDES's initial democratic and republican ideology was soon eroded after 1943, when Zervas morphed into a royalist and collaborated closely both with the Germans (in a common attempt to eradicate the ELAS) and with the British Foreign Office in preparing the return of the king to Greece after the expected collapse of the Axis powers.
The geographical structure of Greece, a mountainous country with thousands of islands, and the lack of any infrastructure that would have permitted effective communications favored guerrilla operations. By 1943 the Axis forces and their collaborators controlled only the main towns and connecting roads, whereas the rest of the country was controlled by the Resistance. At that time, ELAS had an army of over thirty thousand men and controlled large areas of the Peloponnese, Crete, Thessaly, and Macedonia (a territory of thirty thousand square kilometers and 750,000 inhabitants). EDES had about five thousand men, nearly all of them in Epirus. EKKA only had about a thousand men. There is no question that the brunt of the Resistance was carried by ELAS, and this explains the large numbers of those interned in the camps later. But let me say no more about this now.
The Allies initially contributed to the Resistance by supplying all Resistance organizations with funds, equipment, knowledge, and agents for covert operations. When the British Foreign Office realized that ELAS was developing into a regular army and was no longer a small and insignificant force, however, fearing a further strengthening of the Communist Party, it started withdrawing support from ELAS, with all the consequences that such a gesture meant—no funds, no equipment, no agents, no collaboration whatsoever—while it turned exclusively to EDES. ELAS managed to take control of the armament of the Italian army after Mussolini's government collapsed in the summer of 1943 and Italy joined the Allies. In 1944, after the Germans retreated from Greece, ELAS took over most of the armament and equipment left by the Germans.
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.
The decree can be found in Methenites : 485. This work is the most complete study of the area of Markopoulo, in Eastern Attica. It includes the most exhaustive account of the period from the Metaxas dictatorship to 1950. Methenites has searched the municipal archives of Markopoulo and has reproduced original documents, some of them for the first time.
The communiqué was signed by the members of the committee, one of whom was Kyriakos K. Mitsotakis, the father of later Prime Minister Konstantinos Mitsotakis and grandfather of the minister of foreign affairs under the government of Kostas Karamanlis, from 2004 to the present (2008).
There were 1,983 interned Leftists of various hues (members of the Communist Party, Trotskyists, Archive Marxists, Socialists, and active members of labor unions) in the Greek prisons when the Germans entered Athens: 630 in the Akronauplia Prison; 500 in Tripolis; 170 in Aigina; 220 in Anafi; 230 in Ai-Stratis; 130 in Folegandros; 36 in Kimolos; 17 in Asvestochori; 50 in Ios, Amorgos, and Pylos (Lymberiou 2005: 352).
There is as yet no agreement on how many people died from the food crisis. The figure of one-tenth of the population seems high, and it has been disputed by people who have read this book prior to publication. Hionidou 2006 is the most comprehensive study on the question of the famine and food shortages in occupied Greece, but mainly for the islands of the Eastern Aegean; see also Hionidou 2004. Fleischer (n.d.) argues that the casualties from the famine did not exceed one hundred thousand. Konstantinos Doxiadis, the minister of reconstruction in 1946, preparing documents on the collective deaths during the war and occupation, maintains the figure of one-tenth. The numbers vary even more if one considers strictly the period of the famine in Athens and Piraeus in the winter of 1941, or instead employs a more nuanced periodization over the course of the occupation, as does Hionidou. By all accounts, in my interviews, in stories that have been circulating, and in the documents on the intervention by the International Red Cross on behalf of Greece, the famine was not only severe but was observed and acknowledged by the occupying Italian forces. Ciano mentions that Mussolini was incensed by the German position toward Greece, saying, “The Germans had taken from the Greeks even their shoelaces, and now they pretend to place the blame for the economic situation on our shoulders. We can take the responsibility, but only on condition that they clear out of Athens and the entire country” (1947: 387).
A document of food stamps, yet another palimpsest. The photograph was taken sometime in the summer of 1940 and submitted to the authorities in Thessaloniki on August 23, 1940. The seal in the upper left corner of the photograph was applied at a later date. The photograph initially certified that the persons appearing in it are members of the family of the man in the photograph, a tax inspector, and it is signed by the director of the tax service. Each person in the photograph is named (parents, three sons, and the maid of the family, who does not appear in the photograph). During the war, the photograph (by then an official document) was used as proof of family membership for receiving food aid.
On the back of the photograph, in the upper right corner, it is noted that the family received stamps for bread on October 31, 1941, a year after the war had started and six months after the Germans rolled into Athens. On the front of the photograph, in the upper left corner, a stamp states that the old stamps had been exchanged for new ones. Private collection.
A less fortunate child during the famine. Photograph by Voula Papaioannou, Athens 1941–44. Reproduced with the permission of the Benaki Museum.