Occupation, Resistance and the Memory of World War Two
by Irini Lagani (Panteion University, Athens)
Greece emerged in tatters from the Second World War. The scale of the disaster is not well-known, nor is the contribution of the country to the Allied cause. The heroic but exhausting defensive war against the Axis powers was followed by an impoverishing occupation that involved the untrammeled exploitation of the nation’s resources by the occupiers. The conditions of the occupation were worsened by the Allied naval blockade and led to the death by starvation of ten of thousands of children and non-combatant adults along with the virtual annihilation of the Greek Jewish community.
Greece’s contribution to the Allied war effort must be attributed largely to the refusal of the country’s forces and population to passively accept the dominance of German arms. This act of defiance came during the critical stage in which considerably more powerful European states bowed down or capitulated so as to avoid catastrophe. The Greek contestation of the all-powerful nature of the Axis came in several waves: firstly with the defense against the Italian invasion forces, then with the general popular uprising in the Battle of Crete, and finally with the creation of a mass resistance movement. These events must be considered as an inseparable part of resistance to Nazism in Europe, and above all in the Balkans. It is not by chance that two months after the Battle of Crete the popular revolt spread, first to Montenegro and then to other Balkan countries.
It has been claimed that the severity of the damage suffered by Greece was due in a large degree to the activities of the resistance movement. Specifically, authors cite the guerilla war waged by ELAS (the largest resistance organization) against the German forces, who responded with the cruel measure of mass reprisals. By this peculiar logic, if there had been no resistance, disaster in the occupied countries, and in Greece in particular, would largely have been avoided. This view may be contested if we take into account the multiple problems for the occupiers that were brought about by the resistance movement. Not only did the resistance movement sabotage the transport of Balkan raw materials that were much needed by the Axis war effort (copper, chromium, bauxite), but the multiple resistance actions also had a negative psychological impact on the morale of the Nazi military and its leadership. Surely this also includes the morale of the Bulgarian and Italian occupation troops. It is noteworthy, that according to some sources the Battle of Crete and the Balkan campaign had further impact on the German war effort; German losses were significant due to strong resistance from local forces.
Although one might expect the resistance from 1940 to 1944, and its contribution to the defeat of Nazism, to constitute elements indivisible from the history of modern Greece, official recognition of these facts was long delayed. The reasons for this are to be found in the way that Greece had been transformed into an ideological battlefield, even before the onset of the Cold War. Institutional problems that remained from the inter-war period and the Metaxas dictatorship, foreign involvement ostensibly to solve them, as well as the radicalization of a part of the Greek population during the occupation, produced an explosive mixture that led to the Civil War (1946-1949) and later to a military dictatorship (1967).
During this period, having joined NATO (1952) and formed ties with the EEC (1961), Greece expected and received help from the West (the USA, Germany, etc.) to aid in the country’s economic reconstruction. This expectation left no room for any re-examination of Greece’s recent history. When, in 1982, the resistance of 1940-44 was at last recognized as “national”, the prevailing view was one of “national unity”. As a result, the dominant attitude toward the period was that the participation of the Greek people in the resistance was general. Nothing was said regarding the cooperation of a part of the population with the occupying powers, the extent of collaboration that took place, nor of the enlistment of Greek citizens in the Security Battalions (the Greek paramilitary forces under Axis orders). Oblivion prevailed over historical fact.
The fear of communist dominance during the liberation of a country mostly under the control of the leftist EAM/ELAS was one of the chief reasons why the Greek government in exile joined forces with the British. In doing so, the Greek government gave them a free hand to intervene in Greek affairs while simultaneously dictating to the quisling government the establishment of the Security Battalions.
In the early Cold War period the so-called “communist threat” – used either as a real cause or as an excuse – allowed for cooperation between all those forces who had organized themselves together to prevent EAM/ELAS from seizing power during the liberation. These forces, as victors in war and then in civil war, would determine the fate of the country. In doing so they would record history according to their own political expediencies.