Greece’s wartime history: a reflection

Hitler’s German army invaded Greece in Operation Marita on April 6, 1941.

Using overwhelming ground and air forces, including 10 armoured, mechanised and mountain divisions and the SS Adolf Hitler Bodyguard, the campaign was to avenge the humiliating defeat inflicted on Mussolini’s army.  The German army blitzed its way to victory in three weeks with Athens falling on April 27.  Other cities quickly followed forcing the disorderly evacuation of 50,000 troops from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Cyprus and Palestine who had been sent to aid the Greeks.

Defeating the Greek army was one thing, defeating the Greek people was another matter. The Nazis won the war in double quick time, but now they had to occupy it in the face of a hostile and fighting people.

According to popular legend the Germans ordered the Greek flag to be lowered at the Acropolis. A Greek soldier on guard duty, Konstantinos Koukidis, took down the Greek flag but refused to hand it over. Instead he wrapped himself in the blue and white national emblem and jumped off the Acropolis to his death.

More reliable is the story of two Greek students, Manolis  Glezos and Apostolos Sandas,  who climbed the Acropolos on the night of May 30/31, 1941, and removed the Nazi Swastika. It raised morale all over the country and provided inspiration for the emerging Greek National Resistance whose leading component was ELAS, the communist party’s partisan wing.

The resistance was an armed underground organisation whose ranks comprised working class trade unionists, middle class professionals, farmers, royalists, liberals and students. It employed guerrilla tactics including lightning raids, bombings, sabotage, flash demonstrations and strikes.

Its most celebrated actions included sinking two Bulgarian ships in Piraeus Harbour on May 11, a mass anti-Nazi demonstration at the University of Athens followed by student strikes and blowing up government buildings used by the Nazi high command.

The Germans inflicted terrible retribution, usually in the form of collective punishment. For every Nazi soldier killed, the SS would line up and shoot 20 or 50 civilians. After one guerrilla attack, all males between 15 and 60 years old in the villages of Ano and Kato Kerdylia were executed. In Mesovounou 165 villagers were shot by firing squad and their village was set on fire.  

Greece’s 77,000-strong Jewish population was singled out for Nazi barbarism. Tens of thousands were sent to death camps in Poland where very few survived.

For almost three and a half years the National Resistance nailed down German, Italian and Bulgarian forces in Greece when they could have been diverted to other war zones (Rommel’s North African campaign, for example).

Athens held the title of capital of European Resistance.


Britain’s wartime leader Winston Churchill said of Greece’s fighting spirit:

“Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”


The French Resistance leader Jean Cassou (1897-1986), the writer who was awarded the Croix de la Liberation by Charles de Gaulle, wrote:

“We shall never forget how moved we were when in our darkest hour we saw a small nation stand superbly erect before the monster ravaging the world. This small nation was none other than the people of Greece, of that Greece with which, as with our admiration, the nations of liberty and light have been associated for century upon century.

“Greece our mother, Greece the inspiration of democratic states and of civilisations, the luminous country in which every individual throughout the succession of generations has nourished his spirit, his conscience, his heart…

Greece in that terrible hour took up the challenge. We Frenchmen, defeated, humbled, observed her fighting like a knight defending our honour and she gave us back our hope. To the passionate love we have for Greece has been added yet one more debt. This great, infinitely powerful small nation deserves to be free for ever, the master of its fate, and ever contented.”


What German Nazism and Italian Fascism failed to do 70 years ago, the Euro-bankers are trying to achieve today: turn Greece into a nation of debt slaves.

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