Gitlin, Todd. 1967. “Counter-Insurgency: Myth and Reality in Greece.” In Containment and Revolution: Western Policy Towards Social Revolution, 1917 to Vietnam, ed. David Horowitz, 140-82. preface by Bertrand Russell. London: Anthony Blond.
- Chapter 3. 1944–1945: The Battle of Athens
- » Amputated Bodies… Broken Statues, etc. etc.
Chapter 3. 1944–1945: The Battle of Athens
On Sunday, December 3, during a peaceful and unarmed but nevertheless banned EAM demonstration of approximately 250,000 people in central Athens, members of “X,” policemen, and the newly instituted Mountain Brigade (LOK) started shooting at demonstrators in Constitution Square (Syntagma, the square located in front of Parliament). This resulted in twenty-eight deaths and heavy fighting between ELAS and the government in the following days. According to Nikos Pharmakes (later an MP in the Right-wing government, but a member of “X” at the time), the leader of “X,” Georgios Grivas, had already, as early as October 1944, “put out a plan of the center of Athens for the protection of the city, starting at the garrison at Theseion, passing through the regiment of the gendarmerie at Makryianni, then to Solonos Street, the first garrison at Solonos and Harilaou Trikoupi, the second garrison at the end of Solonos, where I was, the Special Security, the general security, the gendarmerie. On the other side were the red apartment buildings at Vassilis Sophias Avenue… That was the circle… And we shouldn't place great importance on the demonstration of December 3, I mean political importance. Of course deaths occurred, but in wartime you don't take such things into consideration. Even if there had been no dead, something else would have happened, given the decision by the KKE to take over Athens. What I mean to say is that the attack [by “X,” the gendarmes, the British, and the gangs] in Athens did not happen because of the demonstration. I was here and saw how the situation developed…” (my emphasis).
On the day of the demonstration, Pharmakes arrived around 10:00 a.m. and was stationed at the Old Palace (the Parliament Building), which on one side faced the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Constitution Square, and the Hotels Grand Bretagne and King George, and on the other side faced Vassilis Sophias Avenue and police headquarters. The chief of police, Angelos Evert, was on one of the balconies facing the headquarters with no view of the square. At about 10:30 the demonstration was approaching the Tomb, waving banners asking that collaborators be punished and a government of national unity be established, praising the British and Winston Churchill in particular, and demanding the official deposition of the king. Pharmakes saw Police Chief Evert take a white handkerchief out of his pocket and wave to the police across the street. From a restaurant next to police headquarters, he saw fifty to sixty police officers come out. Some of them placed machine guns on the sidewalk, while others attacked the main body of the unarmed demonstrators.
“The demonstrators stopped moving. In the midst of all this chaos there was silence. Some of them fell to the ground, and I didn't know whether they were dead or not… But two minutes later I remember that a young girl across from me, who was holding a red flag, bent over, dipped the flag in the blood of one of those who had fallen, and raised it. And as she raised it, the blood that had soaked it made a red line through the air. I was stunned, watching all this. Then they started chanting again, and they pressed on. And then a second blast, and a third blast, and what happened then was unprecedented. These 250,000 people turned, threw the flags on the ground, threw the placards away, and started running toward Hermes Street, toward Stadium Street, toward Philhellenes Street… I was really impressed… I was fifteen years old and was very impressed by this massive retreat. I mean, in under fifteen minutes the whole square was empty. That's all I saw, for whatever it's worth.”
The British supplied “X” with artillery and aircraft to supplement the armament of the government forces, which had only a few policemen and a brigade without heavy weapons. The Battle of Athens had started. The ELAS was fighting with its own forces, and the Greek police were aided by the British. Heavy fighting continued throughout the day, with many dead and many more wounded. The next day the fighting intensified. That day, December 4, 1944, Papandreou wanted to resign and approached Themistocles Sofoulis (a moderate politician who had signed a pact with the KKE in 1936) to ask him to form a government with the agreement of EAM. But on December 5 Leeper informed Sofoulis that Churchill opposed a change of government, and Sofoulis turned the government over to Papandreou Gitlin 1967: 156, extensively quoting McNeill 1947). The thirty-six hours at Constitution Square resulted in twenty-eight dead and over a hundred wounded on December 3; one hundred dead on December 4; and a broken body politic that has never recovered.
The fighting went on—between the British forces, the Greek nationalist forces, and the paramilitaries, on the one hand, and ELAS, on the other—throughout December. The British and government forces, having at their disposal heavy armament, tanks, aircraft, and a disciplined army, were able to make forays into the city, burning and bombing houses and streets and carving out segments of the city under their control.
“Nothing,” Fotopoulos replied, “quite the opposite, we even had a picture of Winston Churchill hanging on the best wall of our house.”
The Fotopoulos house was on Hippocratous Street, almost on the line that separated “X,” the Bourandádhes, and the British from the ELAS, which was in control of the rest of the city. Fotopoulos witnessed how British tanks had stood at the crossroads across from his house and were shelling it. He and his family huddled in the laundry room, waiting for the shelling to stop. When it was over, they got one blanket and, “through innumerable check points of soldiers, policemen, militias, and hafiedes ('snitches')” they were able to get to Kolonaki, an affluent neighborhood a few blocks up from Hippocratous Street, where a distant relative of his mother, who was a concierge in one of the apartment buildings there, let them stay for a few days in one of the rooms of his basement apartment.
Fotopoulos's grandmother got into the discussion, asking why, exactly, had the British come all the way from England to burn their houses. “Don't they have houses closer to them to burn?”
“They are idiosyncratic, and they prefer burning down houses that do not belong to them and that are very far away,” Fotopoulos replied.
The general strike was answered with martial law, imposed by General Scobie on December 5. There was a strict curfew, and movement from neighborhood to neighborhood was almost impossible. “The hunger was unimaginable,” Yiorgos, a man who was an adolescent then, said. “Because there was no way for any of us to have kept any provisions, because what provisions could one have when food was procured day by day, and we couldn't even go up to the mountains to gather dandelions or mushrooms, or anything. No bread, no milk, I couldn't remember the last time that we had had meat to eat, no cheese, nothing.” The Athenian landscape was once more a war zone, only now with the incongruity of occupation by a friendly force. The German tanks had been replaced by British ones, the SS and Gestapo officers by British soldiers, Nepali Ghurkhas (“with their white turbans,” Yiorgos Angelakopoulos writes), and various other armed groups not readily identifiable. Open markets would spring up at various places, but no one could know exactly where, or how long they would stay. Navigating the streets proved dangerous because of government and British snipers, who would fire at will. “You would be walking in the street and suddenly someone would fall next to you, all bloodied, and you didn't know if he was dead or just wounded. All you could do was run for cover,” Angelakopoulos said to me. At night you would hear weapons crackling and neighborhoods being bombed.
On December 6, under Scobie's orders, British aircraft bombed Metz, a poor neighborhood by the palace, resulting in numerous civilian casualties. Even after that, McNeill mentions that the Communist leader, Siantos, was “relatively conciliatory.” By December 12, ELAS had gained control of most of Athens and Piraeus. The British, outnumbered, flew in the Fourth Infantry Division from Italy as reinforcements. During the battle with ELAS, “X” fought alongside the British, triggering an open confrontation throughout the greater Athens area. The conflict did not spill over to the rest of the country. It remained an Athenian affair, and it continued through December (hence the term Dekemvrianá), with the British gaining the upper hand at the end.
The outbreak of fighting between the British army and the Resistance groups, while the war was still being fought outside of Greece, created a serious political problem for Churchill and his coalition government, causing much protest in the British and American press and in the House of Commons. To prove himself the peace-maker he wanted to be thought to be, Churchill arrived in Athens on December 25 and presided over a conference to arrive at a settlement, with the participation of Soviet representatives. EAM asked for an appointment with him, but he refused to meet with them. EAM then demanded full participation as a political force in the government, a demand that was considered excessive by the British and was summarily rejected.
McNeill, William. 1947. The Greek Dilemma: War and Aftermath. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott.
Fotopoulos 1984; originally published in English in 1964 by Alvin Redman (Hellas) under the title El Daba`a: A Chronicle. All excerpts from Fotopoulos are taken from the third edition, which is out of print, even after its third printing. I had been looking for this memoir for at least four years and was unable to find it anywhere. I thank Apostolos Papageorgiou, who tracked it down, photocopied it, and mailed it to me in time for me to be able to use it, and Yiannis Patilis, who tracked down the first edition.
For a full, exhaustive, but nonetheless brief account of political contingencies at this time, the detrimental role played by the British Foreign Office and Winston Churchill, personally, and the circumstances that led to the involvement of the United States Department of State and the Truman Doctrine, see Gitlin 1967. Gitlin's more recent and very problematic positions toward not only the role of armed struggle in the context of parliamentary democracy but also the war in Iraq do not (should not) obscure the clarity with which he approached the issue of foreign involvement in Greece between 1941 and 1949, or his positions on the war in Vietnam.
These phrases come from Seferis's diary entry for Saturday, December 30, 1944 (1986: 382–83). He writes:
Killings, refugees, cold, and that barking of the machine gun. In the morning telegram from London. The King appoints [archbishop] Damaskenos as viceroy. The political intelligencia [word transliterated in the original] has gone bankrupt everywhere in Greece.
I met Damaskenos briefly, since I came back. He has the secure wisdom [phronemada in the original] of the peasant, which is, at least, a point of strength. He is democratic, not fanatical; this is an advantage, too. We went to see him.
We asked him how the regency suits him; he responded with the following parable:
When I was young, my school was in another village, an hour and a half away from mine. At some point they bought me new shoes [tsarouchia] for Easter. I put them in my knapsack and started for school wearing my old ones, so that I wouldn't damage them. Every now and then I would take them out, caress them, and be proud of them. That day it took me three hours to get to school. The regency is like my new shoes.
He was lying in bed, and he seemed disproportionately large for that room. His eyes sparkled as he told the story; he was in good spirits [eihe kefi]. He does not know any foreign language, save that when he was exiled in Salamis he learned by heart a French dictionary, I suppose to kill time.
The archaeologist who continues to think that the amputated bodies are nothing more than broken statues etc., etc.
For an incisive description of the Dekemvrianá, see Elephantis 2008 and Gerolymatos 2004.
Gitlin mentions that the correspondent of the Chicago Sun heard them shouting “Long Live Churchill! Long Live Roosevelt! Down with Papandreou! No King!” (1967: 152). The eyewitness accounts of the events at Constitution Square on Sunday and Monday all concur about the initial enthusiasm of the demonstrators for the British, the fact that the police opened fire unprovoked, that the British joined in the firing after an initial attempt to stop it, and the number of casualties: 28 dead and 150 wounded, the majority of them women and children. An invaluable account is that of Life photographer Dmitri Kessell, whose photographs and account were first published in 1994, initially in the Sunday magazine Seven Days of the daily Kathimerini, and subsequently in an album published in Athens by Olkos.
Pharmakes also says, though rather obscurely, that, as Evert motioned with his handkerchief to headquarters, Pharmakes saw a dismembered body come flying by. He surmised that the body must have belonged to a policeman because the legs and feet were clad in gaiters of the type that the police used. He says, “I understood that it was a policeman whom they had dismembered,” but there is no indication of who those “they” might have been, since he does not mention any presence on his side of the street other than the police (Pharmakes 2006). This is the only account that we have of this incident, as it appears in no other accounts of the Dekemvrianá, either published or in the interviews that I conducted.
In 2006, intense opposition from the university community in Greece to the educational reform proposed by the Right-wing government of Nea Democratia (New Democracy) revived the intensity of the student movement. Throughout its tenure, this government has attempted to overhaul the tertiary educational system, calling for it to be more competitive, to conform and respond to the needs of the market, and to be subjected to evaluation by outside entities. In addition, the government has been trying to pass an amendment to the Constitution that would change Article 16 (which safeguards tertiary education as a public institution, to the exclusion of private universities) and allow private colleges, universities, and the equivalent of community colleges to operate legally and grant degrees equivalent to those granted by the state-owned universities. In February 2007 a student demonstration at Constitution Square ended in brutal intervention by SWAT and antiriot police, leaving students wounded and leading to many arrests. One blogger took the mini-video that the student organization Youth of the New Democracy has put together and interspersed it with footage of police attacks on students. The last shot of the blogger's video is that of an armed English soldier peeking from behind the wall of the parliament building on December 4, 1944.
The common term for the British in Greece, even today, is “the English,” reflecting the dominance of England in Britain itself.
This was the first time that Athens had been bombed. Athens was never bombed by the Germans, presumably out of concern for its antiquities, or so the legend goes, although Piraeus was bombed repeatedly and catastrophically.