In the early dawn of the 1940s, Greece found itself caught in the storm of the global conflict that would become known as World War II. Greece would soon be overshadowed by the dark clouds of war. The Greek people, whose history was steeped in both democracy and warfare, faced the Axis onslaught with a resilience that echoed the heroic tales of their mythic ancestors. The invasion of Italian forces in October 1940, followed by the relentless advance of Nazi Germany in April 1941, set the stage for a period of occupation that would test the courage of every Greek man, woman, and child.
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Greece in World War 2
The Greek-Italian War
The Greek-Italian War (Greco-Italian War) was a major military conflict between Italy and Greece from October 28, 1940 to April 23, 1941. This war initiated the Balkan campaign of World War II involving the Axis and Allied powers, and subsequently led to the Battle of Greece with the participation of British and German forces.
Italy, under the regime of Benito Mussolini, extended its declaration of war to France and the United Kingdom on June 10, 1940. The following months saw Italian invasions of France, British Somaliland and Egypt, accompanied by a hostile Italian media campaign against Greece, branding it as a collaborator with Britain. Tensions escalated with the sinking of the Greek light cruiser Elli by Italian forces on August 15.
On October 28, 1940, the Italian ambassador in Athens, Emanuele Grazzi, delivered an ultimatum from Mussolini to Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, demanding free passage for Italian troops to occupy strategic points on Greek territory. Metaxas responded with “Alors, c’est la guerre” (French for “Then it is war”), leading to the commemoration of this event in Greece as “Ohi Day” (No Day).
Greek forces successfully repelled the Italian offensive, marking the first major setback for the Axis in World War II. The Greek resistance was unexpectedly strong and effective.
Casualties were heavy on both sides. The Italian army suffered 102,064 combat casualties, including 13,755 killed and 3,900 missing. The Greek forces suffered over 90,000 combat casualties, with 13,325 killed and 5,000 missing, in addition to an untold number of wounded.
The results of the Greek-Italian War had a profound impact on World War II. It delayed the German invasion of the Soviet Union, thus affecting Germany’s strategic position in the Mediterranean. The conflict also catalyzed a formidable resistance movement in the occupied territories.
Axis Occupation of Greece
In a significant turn of events during World War II, the resistance of Greek forces unexpectedly thwarted the Italian invasion, necessitating German intervention in support of their Italian allies. This intervention, called Operation Marita, began on April 6, 1941. Positioned primarily along the Greek-Albanian border to counter Italian aggression, the Greek army soon faced a new challenge when German forces launched an offensive from Bulgaria, effectively opening a second front.
The impending German attack led to modest reinforcements for Greece from British, Australian, and New Zealand military units. Despite these efforts, Greek forces were outnumbered and struggled to defend against the combined Italian and German forces. The Metaxas Line, a key defensive position, suffered from insufficient reinforcements and quickly fell to the advancing German forces. This breakthrough allowed the Germans to flank the Greek positions along the Albanian border, leading to the Greek surrender.
Faced with overwhelming odds, the allied forces of Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand began a strategic retreat with the ultimate goal of evacuation. The rapid advance of the German Army led to its arrival in Athens on April 27 and on the southern coast of Greece by April 30. This swift offensive resulted in the capture of approximately 7,000 British, Australian, and New Zealand troops and marked a decisive victory for Germany. The complete conquest of Greece was solidified with the subsequent capture of Crete the following month.
Greece was subsequently occupied by German, Italian, and Bulgarian forces. Notably, Adolf Hitler later attributed the delay of his invasion of the Soviet Union to complications arising from Mussolini’s unsuccessful campaign in Greece.
Battle of Crete
Operation Mercury, also known as the Battle of Crete, stands as a pivotal Axis military campaign of World War II, marked by airborne and amphibious efforts to seize control of Crete. Launched on May 20, 1941, the operation involved several German airborne assaults on the island.
Crete’s defense was supported by a coalition of Greek and Allied forces, including contingents from New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and Australia, as well as local Cretan civilians. The British had fortified Crete after the Italian offensive against Greece on October 28, 1940, a strategic move that allowed the deployment of the Fifth Cretan Division to the mainland. The strategic importance of the island was that it provided prime harbors for the Royal Navy in the eastern Mediterranean, posed a direct threat to the southeastern flank of the Axis, and placed the Romanian oil fields of Ploiești within reach of British bombers stationed on Crete.
While the German Army High Command was primarily focused on Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, and showed little enthusiasm for an attack on Crete, Hitler’s concerns about potential threats to other fronts, especially the Romanian fuel supply, persisted. This concern, coupled with the eagerness of Luftwaffe commanders for an innovative airborne conquest of Crete, led to the operation being given the go-ahead.
Despite forewarnings of the impending German attack and substantial naval support from the Royal Navy, Crete’s mountainous terrain posed significant defensive challenges. The island’s defending forces, collectively known as “Creforce” and led by New Zealand’s Major General Bernard Freyberg VC, were at a disadvantage with limited aircraft, a lack of tanks, and inadequate radio equipment.
The conflict on Crete raged for several days. However, with the arrival of additional German units, the situation for the British-led forces deteriorated. On 27 May, Freyberg called for an evacuation. This operation, conducted between May 28 and June 1, successfully evacuated some 18,000 Australian, New Zealand, and British troops. The battle culminated in a significant defeat for the British, with nearly 4,000 casualties and over 11,000 prisoners. The Germans also suffered significant losses, with over 3,000 troops killed.
The Battle of Crete holds historical significance in World War II as the first major operation conducted primarily by independent airborne forces. Despite the heavy losses, the battle served as an impetus for the Allies to develop their own airborne military capabilities.
Greek Armed Forces in the Middle East
The Greek forces in the Middle East were those elements of the Greek military that successfully evacuated to the British-ruled Middle East following the Axis occupation of Greece in April-May 1941. These units, operating under the auspices of the Greek government-in-exile, actively participated in the Allied war effort until the liberation of Greece in October 1944.
This contingent included branches of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The army, reconstituted in exile and operating under British supervision, was re-armed with British weapons. Its basic unit was the “Phalanx of Egyptian Greeks“, drawn from the Greek diaspora in Egypt. The formation of the 1st Greek Brigade began in late June 1941 and grew to a strength of 6,018 men by June 1942, followed by the inauguration of the 2nd Greek Brigade in Egypt in May 1942.
Their military engagements included the North African Campaign, the Italian Campaign, the Dodecanese Campaign, and various commando raids against German positions in Greece. It also played a key role in convoy operations in the Mediterranean, Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Most notably, the Greek Navy participated in Operation Overlord in Normandy.
The Hellenic Royal Navy suffered significant losses during the German invasion, with over 20 ships destroyed in April 1941, mostly by German air raids. Despite these losses, key assets, including the cruiser Averof, six destroyers, five submarines, and several auxiliary ships, were successfully transferred to Alexandria. These ships were then used for convoy escort missions in various theaters, including the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, the Atlantic, and the Arctic Ocean.
Internal conflict within these forces was not lacking. In April 1944, a mutiny within the 1st Brigade sympathetic to the left-wing EAM led to its disbandment by the British. The mutineers were either interned or reassigned to non-combat roles. A new formation, the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade, was formed with politically reliable personnel. This brigade distinguished itself in several battles, most notably the Battle of Rimini.
Following the suppression of the April 1944 mutiny, the armed forces underwent a reorganization that emphasized royalist and conservative leadership. With the withdrawal of German forces from mainland Greece in October 1944, these troops returned to Greece and became the core of the new Greek military. This reformed force played a crucial role in subsequent conflicts, including the Dekemvriana and the Greek Civil War against communist factions.
During World War II, the Greek Resistance emerged as a formidable force against the Axis occupation from 1941 to 1944. This movement encompassed a wide range of political ideologies and included both armed and unarmed factions, with the Communist-dominated EAM-ELAS being the most prominent. The Greek resistance is recognized as one of the most effective insurgencies in Nazi-occupied Europe, characterized by its partisan fighters, the andartes.
The genesis of these resistance movements was triggered by the Axis invasion and subsequent occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. After the occupation of Athens and the fall of Crete, King George II and his government fled to Egypt, where they formed a government-in-exile that was recognized by the Allies.
Participation in the resistance was fraught with danger for the Greek population. Retaliation by the German occupiers often included the indiscriminate killing of civilians, with entire villages razed and their inhabitants massacred. The occupiers also engaged in systematic hostage-taking.
The main resistance organizations included:
- the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS)
- the Greek National Republican League (EDES)
- the National Groups of Greek Guerrillas (EOEA)
- the National and Social Liberation (EKKA).
The beginning of the armed resistance in Crete was marked by the establishment of the Supreme Committee of the Cretan Struggle (AEAK) in June 1941, after the conclusion of the Battle of Crete.
In addition, the resistance included intelligence and sabotage units, which operated mainly in urban areas. Their focus was on gathering intelligence on Axis forces in Greece and carrying out sabotage operations. They also assisted in the escape of Allied military personnel to the Middle East or neutral Turkey.
The Greek Resistance was responsible for the elimination of 21,087 Axis soldiers and the capture of 6,463, while suffering 20,650 partisan casualties.
However, the movement was not free of internal strife. By the end of 1943, infighting among resistance factions had intensified. After the liberation of the mainland in October 1944, Greece became deeply politically polarized, setting the stage for the subsequent Greek Civil War.
Despite these internal conflicts and the high price paid, the Greek resistance during World War II stands as a poignant testament to national resilience and resistance to oppressive regimes.
The Holocaust in Greece
The Holocaust had a profound impact on the Jewish community in Greece during World War II. Before the conflict, Greece was home to an estimated 72,000 to 77,000 Jews, with a significant population in Salonika (Thessaloniki). These communities, some of the oldest in Europe, had a history spanning more than 2,000 years.
The survival of Greek Jews depended largely on the policies of the occupying powers. The Italian occupation authorities often disregarded German directives to carry out mass extermination and provided some protection to the Jewish population. Many Jews in the German-occupied zones sought refuge in areas under Italian control.
After Italy surrendered to the Allies on September 8, 1943, Germany assumed full control of Greece and began implementing the “Final Solution”. Salonika, home to the largest pre-war Greek Jewish community of approximately 43,000, witnessed the deportation of over 40,000 Jews to Auschwitz-Birkenau between March and August 1943, where most were systematically executed upon arrival.
In addition, the Bulgarian occupation forces deported over 4,000 Jews from the areas they controlled in Greece to the Treblinka extermination camp. Beginning in April 1944, Nazi forces expanded their deportation efforts to include Jews from Athens, other mainland communities, and various Greek islands.
By the end of the war, between 83 and 87 percent of the Greek Jewish population had been exterminated, one of the highest Holocaust death rates in Europe. Of the estimated 71,600 Jews living in Greece at the start of the Nazi invasion in 1941, at least 58,885 were victims of the Holocaust.
Approximately 10,000 Greek Jews survived, many with the help of fellow Greeks and the Greek Orthodox Church. Survival strategies included hiding, participating in the Greek resistance, or enduring deportation.
The impact of the Holocaust in Greece was often overshadowed by other contemporary events, such as the Greek famine, resistance movements, and the Greek Civil War. The narrative of the destruction of Greek Jewry has sometimes been overshadowed in Greek historical memory, with an overemphasis on the solidarity allegedly shown by the Greek Christian population.
After the war, Greek authorities prosecuted war criminals and Nazi collaborators, including three prime ministers appointed by the Nazis. In 2014, Holocaust denial became a criminal offense in Greece, with penalties including imprisonment and fines. As of 2017, descendants of Greek Holocaust survivors are eligible for Greek citizenship.
Liberation and Aftermath
The liberation of Greece from Axis occupation occurred in October 1944, when Germany and its ally Bulgaria withdrew under Allied pressure. However, the aftermath of this liberation was marked by political instability and violence, leading to the outbreak of the Greek Civil War.
When liberation came in October 1944, Greece was in a state of crisis. The country was devastated by war and occupation, and its economy and infrastructure lay in ruins. Greece suffered more than 400,000 casualties during the occupation, and the country’s Jewish community was almost completely exterminated in the Holocaust.
One notable change was the integration of the Dodecanese islands into Greece, previously under Italian control, as a result of the war.
Celebrating Greek Heroism in World War II
A collection of profound quotes from some of the most influential figures of the era, including Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, and even adversaries like Adolf Hitler, sheds light on the pivotal role Greece played in changing the course of World War II:
- Adolf Hitler: “The Greek soldier, above all, fought with the most courage.”
- Winston Churchill: “Until now we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say: The heroes fight like Greeks.”
- Field Marshall Wilhelm Keitel, Hitler’s Chief of Staff: “The Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia; if we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different.”
- Joseph Stalin: “I am sorry because I am getting old and I shall not live long to thank the Greek People, whose resistance decided WWII.”
- Franklin Roosevelt: “On October 28, 1940, Greece was given three hours to decide between war and peace. But even if three days, three weeks, or three years had been given, the answer would have been the same. The Greeks taught dignity through the centuries. When the whole world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German menace, raising against it the proud spirit of freedom.”
The Greek Civil War, 1944-1949
The Greek Civil War, which lasted from 1944 to 1949 in the immediate aftermath of World War II, was a major internal conflict in Greece. It primarily involved the Greek government and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), the military wing of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). The origins of the war can be traced back to wartime divisions between the communist-led resistance group, EAM-ELAS, and various anti-communist resistance factions.
The primary goal of the communist factions, led by the KKE and its armed branch, the DSE, was to seize control of Greece and establish a socialist government. Motivated by the Soviet Union’s actions in the Balkans and the evolving political landscapes in neighboring Yugoslavia and Albania, the KKE sought to realign Greece with the Soviet bloc. Despite limited initial support from the Soviet Union, the Greek Communists anticipated possible Soviet assistance at an opportune time.
The conflict began in December 1944, following the withdrawal of the German military from Greece. The ensuing power vacuum in Athens led to severe infighting, with British forces and Greek police struggling to maintain order. By the end of 1944, the EAM had gained control over most of Greece, with the exception of Crete.
The war unfolded in two distinct phases. The first, known as Dekemvriana, began in December 1944 with a confrontation between British troops and EAM demonstrators, culminating in the Varkiza Agreement, which demanded the disarmament of ELAS and the release of political prisoners.
The second phase of the civil war began in 1946 and was characterized by the Greek government’s struggle against communist guerrillas. International involvement was a key aspect of the war. Initially, the British government supported the Greek government, but financial constraints led to its withdrawal in 1947. The United States then intervened, enacting the Truman Doctrine and providing substantial military and economic aid to the Greek government.
The conflict ended in October 1949, when the U.S.-backed Greek army successfully drove Communist forces from the mountainous regions of Greece. This victory was followed by a broadcast from the Greek communist radio station declaring an end to hostilities, which led to the exodus of surviving communist fighters to Albania.
The Greek Civil War had a profound impact, resulting in over 50,000 combatant deaths and the displacement of over 500,000 civilians. The aftermath of the war left a deep-seated legacy of division and bitterness within Greek society.
Read more: https://www.britannica.com/topic/EAM-ELAS
Greece’s Political Landscape Post-Civil War
The period following the Greek Civil War was marked by political and financial instability. Greece witnessed various forms of governance, including monarchies, military rule, and brief periods of democracy, as different factions sought to shape the future of Greece. These political fluctuations created an environment of uncertainty and instability, impacting Greece’s economic development and social cohesion.
A notable development during this period was the seizure of power by the military junta in 1967. This military coup led to a period of repression and brutality characterized by the suppression of political opposition, media censorship, and the curtailment of civil liberties. The junta’s rule marked a dark chapter in Greek history, as the country’s democratic institutions were dismantled and a climate of fear and repression was established.
The Rise and Fall of the Greek Junta
The Greek military junta, also known as the Regime of the Colonels, came into power in 1967 through a coup d’état. The junta’s rise to power was facilitated by a group of army colonels who sought to establish a strong military rule in Greece. The period of the junta’s rule was characterized by the suppression of political opposition, media censorship, and the curtailment of civil liberties.
During the junta’s rule, Greece witnessed several social rebellions, including the Polytechnic Uprising in 1973, where students protested against the regime. The junta’s oppressive policies and human rights abuses fueled public discontent and resistance, leading to a growing opposition movement.
The junta’s fall in 1974 was precipitated by a series of events, including a failed assassination attempt on Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus and the subsequent Turkish invasion of Cyprus. These events exposed the junta’s inability to effectively govern and maintain control, leading to its downfall. The collapse of the junta created an opportunity for the restoration of democracy in Greece, marking the beginning of a new chapter in the country’s history.
The Transition to Democracy
The Greek junta fell in 1974 and Konstantinos Karamanlis returned from self-imposed exile in France to lead the country through this critical period. Karamanlis organized elections and a referendum, paving the way for the establishment of a parliamentary republic in 1975. His leadership and dedication to democratic principles were instrumental in guiding Greece through this period of transition and setting the foundation for the country’s democratic institutions.
Konstantinos Karamanlis served as Prime Minister from 1974 to 1980 and as President of the Republic from 1980 to 1985 and from 1990 to 1995. His tenure was marked by a strong commitment to Greece’s integration into the European Economic Community (EEC), now the European Union (EU).
Greece’s Entry into the European Union
Karamanlis’ vision for Greece’s European integration was evident as early as 1958, when he began advocating for Greek membership in the EEC. He saw this move not only as a personal ambition, but as the fulfillment of what he called “Greece’s European destiny. His commitment to this cause led him to personally engage with European leaders and participate in two years of intensive negotiations with officials in Brussels.
Following the Metapolitefsi, the period that marked Greece’s transition from military rule to democracy, Karamanlis renewed his efforts in 1975 to secure Greece’s full membership in the EEC. He argued that such a move was crucial for both political stability and economic progress in Greece, especially in the wake of its recent transition from dictatorship to democracy.
In 1979, Karamanlis’ efforts culminated in the signing of the accession treaty with the EEC. Under his leadership, Greece officially joined the European Economic Community as its tenth member in 1981. Karamanlis’s unwavering commitment to European integration is also credited with reducing Greece’s previously paternalistic relationship with the United States.
Greece’s membership in the European Union has brought both benefits and challenges. On one hand, it has allowed Greece to access EU funds for infrastructure projects, facilitated trade and investment, and provided a platform for increased political cooperation. On the other hand, Greece has also faced economic difficulties, particularly during the financial crisis that began in 2009. Despite these challenges, Greece’s membership in the European Union remains a fundamental aspect of its foreign policy and economic strategy.
Major Political and Governmental Milestones in Greece since 1975:
- Constantine II was the last monarch of Greece, reigning from 1964 until the abolition of the monarchy in 1973. After the fall of the military junta, a legal referendum was held on December 8, 1974, which confirmed the decision to abolish the monarchy. In this referendum, approximately 69% of the electorate voted in favor of the establishment of a republic, with a voter turnout of approximately 75%.
- 1975: Following the collapse of the military junta, Greece adopted a new constitution and became a parliamentary republic. This period was marked by Constantine Karamanlis assuming the role of Prime Minister.
- 1981: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Karamanlis, Greece became a member of the European Union, a significant step in its European integration.
- 1981: Andreas Papandreou’s socialist PASOK party came to power, ushering in a period dominated by socialist government.
- 1990s: Greece experienced alternating leadership between the socialist PASOK and the conservative New Democracy parties under the prime ministership of Constantine Mitsotakis and Costas Simitis, respectively. The focus during this period remained on further European integration.
- 2004: The New Democracy party, led by Costas Karamanlis, won the elections, ending more than ten years of socialist rule. This was also the year that Athens successfully hosted the Summer Olympics.
- 2009: George Papandreou becomes prime minister as PASOK returns to power amidst a global financial crisis that plunges Greece into a severe debt crisis.
- 2011-2019: A period of political instability, with Greece implementing austerity measures under successive coalition governments led by Lucas Papademos, Antonis Samaras and Alexis Tsipras.
- 2015: The Syriza party, known for its anti-austerity stance and led by Alexis Tsipras, won the elections. This period was marked by heightened tensions with the EU over bailout agreements.
- 2019: The New Democracy party, led by Kyriakos Mitsotakis, won the elections on a platform of cutting taxes and stimulating economic growth.
- 2020: Katerina Sakellaropoulou is elected Greece’s first female president, a historic milestone.
- 2022: New Democracy won its third consecutive election with Prime Minister Mitsotakis at the helm, emphasizing a focus on recovery in the post-pandemic era.
Throughout these years, the dominant themes in Greek politics have been the country’s ongoing European integration, the management of financial crises, alternating socialist and conservative governments, and an increased commitment to Greece’s European orientation.
The Olympic Games in 2004 in Athens
One notable event was the hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004. This major international event showcased Greece’s cultural heritage and brought international attention to the country.
In addition to these key events, Greece’s modern history has also been shaped by ongoing political developments. The country has seen a series of governments come and go, each with its own set of policies and initiatives. These political changes have had a significant impact on Greece’s economic and social landscape, shaping the country’s trajectory in the years since the fall of the junta.
Greece’s history from World War 2 until today has been marked by significant events and developments. The country’s involvement in World War 2, the Greek Civil War, and the rise and fall of the Greek Junta have shaped Greece’s political landscape and have had profound impacts on its society and economy.
The transition from a military dictatorship to a parliamentary republic, as well as Greece’s entry into the European Union, have marked significant milestones in Greece’s history. The modern history of Greece sheds light on the country’s journey from a war-torn nation to a member of the European Union, and it provides a context for understanding its ongoing efforts to build a prosperous and democratic future.
- History of Greece from Stone Age to Alexander the Great
- From Byzantium to Ottoman Rule, the Liberation, Balkan Wars and the Greco-Turkish War
- Modern History of Greece from World War 2 until today
- Greek Junta 1967-1974