by Lucas Ostendorf (University of Regensburg)
If one explains to ordinary German citizens that the German Wehrmacht fought and defeated Greece during the Second World War, many would be astonished to hear such a fact. The reason for this is more or less geographical: Greece seems too far away from the other war crimes of the National Socialists. It is possible to turn on the TV in Germany and watch documentaries practically every day about the Third Reich’s occupation of Poland and France, the capitulation of Stalingrad, or the industrial killing of the Jews in concentration camps such as Auschwitz. However, the occupation of Greece is hardly present in the German media.
In contrast, the issue is still extremely present in Greece, where the memory of the German occupation causes emotional discussions and increasing calls for retribution. Only through debates in the context of the financial crisis in Greece did the German media begin reporting slightly more than before about the occupation in Greece.1 Those debates often become emotional in character, because the Greeks understandably point out the atrocities perpetrated by the German Wehrmacht against the Greek population. The massacres of Kalavryta and Distomo are still present in the memory of Greek society. This text gives a brief overview of German-Greek experiences during the Second World War and then describes the horrors that took place in Kalavryta and Distomo in order to illustrate that cruel crimes are the background of current debates.
The Second World War began for Greece on October 28, 1940. The Italian dictator Benito Mussolini saw the Eastern Mediterranean as part of his domain of influence.2 More than once he emphasized his dream of the resurrection of the ancient Roman Empire. Mussolini saw his chance in Greece and thus, he defied Adolf Hitler’s intentions to avoid a war against the Balkan states. Mussolini ordered the first combat operation, a push forward against the Greek province of Epirus, on October 28, 1940. Mussolini had underestimated the Greeks and had overestimated the preparedness of the Italian army for battle. Therefore, the lumbering and slow Italian troops had to stop their conquest very soon after the beginning of the war.
However, the failure of the Italian army was due to more than just one reason: The battle against the Italian soldiers produced a feeling of solidarity within the Greek people. As a result, the politically disputed dictator Ioannis Metaxas managed to unite the different political groups of Greece against the external enemy, Italian Fascism.3
Only as the defeat of the Italians became increasingly clear in December 1940, did Adolf Hitler decided to send German troops to Greece. He did so mainly because he wanted to avoid a strengthening of British influence in Greece. Hitler feared that after a Greek victory over Mussolini the British could endanger oil supplies for Germany. Furthermore, he was concerned they would become an additional obstacle concerning the impending campaign against the Soviet Union.4 Above all, a defeat of his closest ally would have been a massive damage to his prestige.
The German Armed Forces (Wehrmacht) were able to occupy Greece very swiftly. The German historian Heinz A. Richter, an expert on the subject, termed this attack of the German Armed Forces the last successful “Blitzkrieg”.5 After they had capitulated, Adolf Hitler sent Greek soldiers back to their families as a tribute to their performance.6 The atmosphere between the Germans and the Greeks at this particular time cannot be described as cruel animosity – at least no more than common for a war. Moreover, not every German soldier was a Nazi. Many of them tried to make the best of their deployment in Greece. As was the case in so many other countries, e. g. France, they got to know the local people. Through this, some of them managed to block out the horrors of war.7
Yet, the Nazi-leadership planned a war against the Soviet Union and removed soldiers from Greece. The occupation of Greece would largely be carried out by the allied Italians and Bulgarians. As such, in 1941, Germany, Italy and Bulgaria divided Greece into three occupation-zones. Bulgaria had also participated in the battle against Greece. That the Italians should be the biggest occupying power of Greece was one of the main reasons why the local resistance increased in strength.
The Greek partisan movement became more powerful soon after the beginning of the Italian occupation. In the beginning, their focus was directed more against Italian soldiers.8 The Italians reacted by murdering hostages and setting fire to buildings.9 When Italy capitulated in 1943, the partisans concentrated on fighting the German Armed Forces and ambushed German soldiers regularly. The headquarters of the German Armed Forces had passed the so-called “Sühnebefehl” (reprisal order) some years before, not only for Greece but also for Yugoslavia. This was a euphemism for extremely harsh and indiscriminate measures against civilians used as retribution for the killing or injuring of German soldiers. In accordance with this order, the answer to (Greek) attacks against German soldiers could be: shooting of locals, contribution payments, setting fire to villages and the extermination of the whole male, and sometimes female, population of chosen areas. “For each wounded German soldier 50 locals [should] be shot down, for each killed German soldier 100.”10
The destiny of Kalavryta and Distomo
The following will present the destiny of Kalavryta and Distomo as an example of the atrocities that were caused by those measures. In the history of German-Greek relations, the dates of the massacres of Kalavryta and Distomo mark two of the most traumatic moments. Due to the extreme cruelty the German Wehrmacht inflicted upon the Greek population, the dates December 13, 1943 and June 10, 1944, became infamous.
Kalavryta was once a spa resort. By the time the occupation began the partisans had established themselves in the area. The communist partisans of the ELAS, the People’s Liberation Army, arrested 80 German soldiers in October 1943 and killed them on December 7, 1943. German troops came to the area around Kalavryta in order to implement the “Sühnebefehl”. In the morning of December 13 they ordered every villager to the schoolyard: “More than 2,000 residents of Kalavryta took the walk into uncertainty on this winter morning.”11 As women and children were locked into the school, all men between the ages of 15 and 65 were rounded up outside Kalavryta. There they were shot by the German soldiers. The records of the German army states that 511 men were killed.12 In the meantime, the women and children broke out of the school, which had been set on fire by the Germans. To their horror, they realized that most of their husbands, fathers and sons were dead. In the following days they tried to bury their men. Due to the fire, Kalavryta was almost completely destroyed and it acquired the epithet “city of the black widows”.13 Some of the remaining residents tried to survive in the ruins during the winter but most left Kalavryta. However, German troops continued on their murderous rampage and set almost every village on their way on fire.
Similar to Kalavryta, the killing of German soldiers by Greek partisans was the reason for the massacre of Distomo on June 10, 1944. Three Germans had been shot in an ambush near Distomo. Since the partisans had come through Distomo before this incident, the surviving SS soldiers chose to take vengeance on the residents of this village.14 Similar to the atrocities in Kalavryta, the SS soldiers burned down the village. However, unlike in Kalavryta, they murdered regardless of age or gender. Hagen Fleischer described the soldiers’ mood as a bloodlust.15 All in all, 218 people were killed by SS soldiers. Subsequently, the SS company commander wrote an unapologetic report about the stiff resistance to the German soldiers by the village’s residents, which was a lie.
The massacre of Distomo has been used specifically to bring up discussions regarding compensation. More than once there have been calls for compensation. Some of these calls were verified by the Greek justice, e.g. by the provincial court of Livadeia in 1997.16 Despite this, the Federal High Court of Justice in Germany decided in the year 2003, that nobody has a claim to compensation. In addition to this, in 2012, the International Court of Justice in The Hague explained that the Federal Republic of Germany is not liable for payments to the relatives of the victims of war crimes.17 Thereby it negated the responsibility of private persons from abroad to sue a state. Many states took note of this judgment with great satisfaction. It prohibits numerous lawsuits against the conduct of states in history, since that would mean a “violation of the immunity law under international law”.18
The Stories of Kalavryta and Distomo are a memorial for future generations. German soldiers were responsible for a serious crime committed against innocent Greek residents. These horrors, more than seventy years later, sadly still cause discord between Germans and Greeks. Hopefully, the seed of friendship between both nations will grow, so that this chapter may one day be forgiven. Then, instead of less information about the occupation period, there will be positive news about German-Greek relations on German television – and of course on Greek television, too.
- http://www.spiegel.de/wirtschaft/soziales/zweiter-weltkrieg-regierung-weist-forderung-aus-griechenland-zurueck-a-1012596.html ↩
- Hermann Frank, Meyer, Von Wien nach Kalavryta. Die blutige Spur der 117. Jäger-Division durch Serbien und Griechenland (Reinhard Stupperich/ Heinz A. Richter, eds. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Griechenlands und Zyperns, Bd. 12). Mannheim 2002, p. 13. ↩
- Heinz Richter, Der zeithistorische Hintergrund für die Fotos: Griechenland im Zweiten Weltkrieg, in: Alfons, Kitzinger, eds., Ohne Schwert und Kugeln. Bilder aus Griechenland von Josef Schwind 1942 – 1944 (Stupperich, Reinhard/ Richter, Heinz A. (Hg.): PELEUS. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Griechenlands und Zyperns, Bd. 44) Wiesbaden 2009, p. 20. ↩
- Richter, Der zeithistorische Hintergrund für die Fotos, p. 20. ↩
- Richter, Der zeithistorische Hintergrund für die Fotos, p. 22. ↩
- Richter, Der zeithistorische Hintergrund für die Fotos, p. 22. ↩
- There is a photo collection of a German soldier named Josef Schwind, who documented his voyages through Greece: Kitzinger, Alfons (Hg.): Ohne Schwert und Kugeln. Bilder aus Griechenland von Josef Schwind 1942 – 1944 (Stupperich, Reinhard/ Richter, Heinz A. (Hg.): Peleus. Studien zur Archäologie und Geschichte Griechenlands und Zyperns, Bd. 44) Wiesbaden 2009. ↩
- Richter, Der zeithistorische Hintergrund für die Fotos, p. 25. ↩
- Meyer, Von Wien nach Kalavryta, p. 79. ↩
- Michael, Martens, Gauck in Griechenland. Im Takt des Protokolls, 04.03.2014, p. 1, URL: http://www.faz.net/aktuell/politik/ausland/europa/gauck-in-griechenland-im-takt-des-protokolls-12831461.html. ↩
- Meyer, Von Wien nach Kalavryta, p. 303. ↩
- Meyer, Von Wien nach Kalavryta, p. 309. ↩
- Meyer, Von Wien nach Kalavryta, p. 314. ↩
- Finn, Rütten, Die vergessenen NS-Massaker, 08.06.2015, p. 1, http://daserste.ndr.de/beckmann/sendungen/Die-vergessenen-NS-Massaker,griechenland716.html. ↩
- Georgios, Chatzoudis, Das Massaker von Distomo, 10.06.2014, p. 1, http://www.lisa.gerda-henkel-stiftung.de/das_massaker_von_distomo?nav_id=5019. ↩
- Nadja, Kriewald, Massaker von Distomo. “Deutschlands Verhalten ist eine Schande”, 23.03.2015, p. 1, URL: http://www.n-tv.de/politik/Deutschlands-Verhalten-ist-eine-Schande-article14756041.html. ↩
- Hans Jürgen, Schlamp, Urteil zu Kriegsverbrechen: Rechtsfrieden geht vor Menschenrecht, 03.02.2012, p. 1, URL: http://www.spiegel.de/politik/ausland/urteil-zu-kriegsverbrechen-rechtsfrieden-geht-vor-menschenrecht-a-813186.html ↩
- Schlamp, Urteil zu Kriegsverbrechen, p. 1 ↩