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Greek Tragedy

By: Anthony Paletta
September 25, 2017

reece was lucky, in World War II’s aftermath, to avoid the yoke of Soviet despotism that fell upon all of its Eastern European neighbors. But it was not lucky in any other sense, given the four years of wrenching civil war required to achieve that. World War II’s widespread death and devastation was followed by more of the same, and this was made even more tragic since the new foes were neighbors, not foreign invaders. In An International Civil War: Greece 1943-1949, Andre Gerolymatos synthesizes the war’s historical narratives with recent, personal ones, many that had been available only in Greek.

The post-war Communist Greek insurgency was buoyed by the wartime years of Allied-sponsored training and material support. The insurgents confronted nominal Greek monarch George II’s unpopular and divided government in exile—a government that was soon compelled to make the Faustian bargain of relying on the support of former Nazi collaborators for survival.  

Post-war Greece lacked a clear leader—and more importantly, a clear civil society. Its population had increased by 25% in 1923 due to the mass expulsion of nearly 1.5 million Greek merchants and farmers from Turkey. These refugees, uprooted from centuries of life elsewhere to new urban slums, were only partially integrated into Greek society. They provided the principal recruiting ground for the KKE, the Greek Communist party.

Britain’s Foreign Office was firmly wedded to George II’s cause during World War II, but in its desperation to disrupt Axis supply lines to North Africa, its Special Operations Executive (SOE) wasn’t choosy about recruiting allies. Under the SOE’s direction, the KKE’s combat arm, ELAS, provided effective guerilla opposition to Axis occupation:

In this atmosphere of desperation and doubt, the SOE undertook in Greece, almost from scratch, the complex business of espionage, sabotage, and guerilla warfare. By doing so, the organizers of the SOE contributed to the radicalization of Greek society because circumstances ultimately left the British little choice but to work with individuals and groups opposed to the established order.

Strikingly successful, ELAS soon occupied most of the Greek countryside. In October 1944, it consented to a broad agreement with the Greek Government in Exile on the return of government forces and British units to Athens. While British and Greek government units tenuously held the city amidst a state otherwise dominated by ELAS, the uneasy situation broke in December 1944, when the Greek government determined to demobilize ELAS resistance units and replace them with the regular army. Police fired on a protest march to Athens’s Constitution Square, bringing about open street warfare between ELAS and police units.

The civil war’s first salvos were savage. Gerolymatos describes British units in Piraeus, who were instructed not to intervene even after observing ELAS forces gouge out Greek policemen’s eyes before they “[took] out butcher’s cleavers and began to hack off the forearms of the blind policemen and continued slashing until the bodies resembled heaps of human pulp.” Winston Churchill soon directed British units to resist: “Do not hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress.” Pitched street battles ensued in Athens, with British units soon besieged in city pockets. Two British divisions were airlifted from Italy for the surreal task of engaging units that had been fighting the Axis only months before. Armistice was finally achieved in February 1945.

A year’s uneasy peace ensued, with brutality the only shared enthusiasm in the profoundly divided society. ELAS maintained a strong countryside presence, conducting show trials that were “at best outright murder and guilt by association” while the Greek government army expanded, often by directly enlisting former collaborationists who took up bloody personal vendettas.

In the wake of new laws banning leftist parties and establishing the death penalty for separatism, war again erupted in March 1946. A textbook pattern of guerilla struggles prevailed: inept government forces couldn’t maneuver outside of larger towns and cities while ELAS forces couldn’t get into them. While the war was an interesting Cold War proxy struggle, the details of its stalemate made Greece unique.

Britain aided Greece until 1947; their support was replaced by America’s soon after. The Eastern bloc’s support to ELAS was not commensurate. Having consigned Greece to the Western sphere of influence, Stalin was too wary to intervene heavily. Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria were permitted to supply ELAS, but the USSR remained at arm’s length. Despite the ever-increasing American support to the government’s military, ELAS converted its forces into a regular field army in 1947 (clad usually in British uniforms) and attempted to seize major towns.

The guerillas’ offensives yielded little, however, and the overhaul of the Greek army, directed by the U.S., led to a substantial improvement in field operations. Village resettlement choked off ELAS’s supply sources, and resistance pockets were steadily reduced. Yugoslavia summarily closed its border and the principal ELAS base within its territory after the Tito-Stalin split, leaving final guerilla enclaves along the Albanian and Bulgarian borders, which were eliminated by 1949.

Peace was achieved, but at terrific cost. About a quarter of dwellings in the country had been destroyed. The cost of living rose more than 250% during the course of the war, which left 34% of the Greek population reliant on public support. Approximately 500,000 had been killed.

Nonetheless, the outcome was unquestionably preferable to the alternative. In Greece, historical amnesia ensued—school curriculum forbade any mention of the Resistance. But in the 1960’s, that changed: the Greek Junta used the memory of ELAS to justify the comprehensive suppression of dissent, while elements of the Greek Left continued to embrace blinkered martyrology. ELAS barbarism was repackaged as brave resistance to American imperialism. In 2011, Greek communists officially rehabilitated Nikos Zachariades, the civil war’s KKE leader. Golden Dawn, Greece’s fascist party, also invokes civil war successes. Ultimately, An International Civil War: Greece 1943-1949, doesn't simply explicate Greek history, but also explains contemporary Greece.