Axis occupation of Greece
The occupation of Greece by the Axis Powers (Greek: Η Κατοχή, I Katochi, meaning "The Occupation") began in April 1941 after Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany invaded Greece, and lasted until Germany and its satellite Bulgaria withdrew from mainland Greece in October 1944. German garrisons remained in control of Crete and other Aegean islands until after the end of World War II, surrendering to the Allies in May and June 1945.
Italy had initially invaded Greece in October 1940 but the invasion was stopped, and the Hellenic Army was able initially to push the invaders back into neighbouring Albania, then a protectorate of Italy. This forced Germany to shift its military focus from the preparation of "Operation Barbarossa" to an intervention on its ally's behalf in southern Europe. While most of the Hellenic Army was dislocated on the Albanian front to fend off the Italian counter-attacks, a rapid German Blitzkrieg campaign commenced in April 1941, and by June Greece was occupied by the Nazis who proceeded to administer Athens and Thessaloniki. Other regions of the country were given to Nazi Germany's partners, Fascist Italy and Bulgaria. A collaborationist Greek government was established immediately after the country fell.
The occupation brought about terrible hardships for the Greek civilian population. Over 40,000 civilians died in Athens alone from starvation, tens of thousands more died because of reprisals by Nazis and collaborators, and the country's economy was ruined. At the same time the Greek Resistance, one of the most effective resistance movements in Occupied Europe, was formed. These resistance groups launched guerrilla attacks against the occupying powers, fought against the collaborationist Security Battalions, and set up large espionage networks. By late 1943 the resistance groups began to fight amongst themselves. When liberation of the mainland came in October 1944, Greece was in a state of extreme political polarization, which soon led to the outbreak of civil war. The subsequent civil war gave the opportunity to many prominent Nazi collaborators not only to escape punishment (because of their anti-communism), but to eventually become the ruling class of postwar Greece, after the communist defeat.
- 1 Fall of Greece
- 2 The Triple Occupation
- 3 Civil Administration
- 4 Collaboration
- 5 Resistance
- 6 Liberation and aftermath
- 7 The Holocaust in Greece
- 8 Influence in post-war culture
- 9 Notable personalities of the occupation
- 10 References
- 11 Sources
- 12 External links
Fall of Greece
In the early morning hours of 28 October 1940, Italian Ambassador Emmanuel Grazzi awoke Greek Premier Ioannis Metaxas and presented him an ultimatum. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and Italian forces invaded Greek territory from Italian-occupied Albania less than three hours later. (The anniversary of Greece's refusal is now a public holiday in Greece.) Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini launched the invasion partly to prove that Italians could match the military successes of the German Army and partly because Mussolini regarded southeastern Europe as lying within Italy's sphere of influence.
The Hellenic Army proved to be a formidable opponent, and successfully exploited the mountainous terrain of Epirus. The Hellenic forces counterattacked and forced the Italians to retreat. By mid-December, the Greeks had occupied nearly one-quarter of Albania, before Italian reinforcements and the harsh winter stemmed the Greek advance. In March 1941, a major Italian counterattack partially failed and the Italian troops only reoccupied small areas around Himare and Grabova. The initial Greek defeat of the Italian invasion is considered the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, even if in the event the campaign, thanks mainly to the German intervention, resulted in a victory for the Axis.
Fifteen of the twenty one Greek divisions were deployed against the Italians, so only six divisions were facing the attack from German troops in the Metaxas Line (near the border between Greece and Yugoslavia/Bulgaria) during the first days of April. Greece received help from British Commonwealth troops, moved from Libya on orders of Winston Churchill.
On April 20, after Greek resistance in the north had ceased, the Bulgarian Army entered Greek Thrace, without having fired a shot, with the goal of regaining its Aegean Sea outlet in Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia. The Bulgarians occupied territory between the Strymon River and a line of demarcation running through Alexandroupoli and Svilengrad west of the Evros River.
The Triple Occupation
The occupation of Greece was divided between Germany, Italy and Bulgaria. German forces occupied the most strategically important areas, namely Athens, Thessaloniki with Central Macedonia and several Aegean Islands, including most of Crete. East Macedonia and Thrace came under Bulgarian occupation and was annexed to Bulgaria, which had long claimed these territories. The remaining two thirds of Greece was occupied by Italy, with the Ionian Islands directly administered as Italian territories. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Italian zone was taken over by the Germans, who often attacked the Italian garrisons. There was a failed attempt by the British to take advantage of the Italian surrender to reenter the Aegean, resulting in the Dodecanese Campaign.
The German occupation zone
Economic exploitation and the Great Famine
Greece suffered greatly during the occupation. The country's economy had already been devastated from the 6-month long war, and to it was added the relentless economic exploitation by the Nazis. Raw materials and food were requisitioned, and the collaborationist government was forced to pay the cost of the occupation, giving rise to inflation. This was further exacerbated by a "war loan" which Greece was forced to grant to the German Reich. This "loan" was never paid back and severely devalued the drachma.
The occupying powers' requisitions and outright plunder, the drop in agricultural production from wartime disruption, the breakdown of the country's distribution networks due to a combination damage to infrastructure, the collapse of the central government and the fragmentation of the country at the hands of the Axis, coupled with hoarding by farmers, led to a severe shortage of food in the major urban centres in the winter of 1941–42. Given that even in peacetime, Greece was dependent on imports of wheat to cover about a third of its annual needs, the Allied blockade of German-dominated Europe further exacerbated the situation, creating the conditions for the "Great Famine" (Μεγάλος Λιμός): in the greater Athens–Piraeus area alone, some 40,000 people died of starvation, and by the end of the Occupation "it was estimated that the total population of Greece [...] was 300,000 less than it should have been because of famine or malnutrition" (P. Voglis). Aid came at first from neutral countries like Sweden and Turkey (see SS Kurtuluş), but the overwhelming majority of food ended up in the hands of the government officials and black market traders who used their connection to the Axis authorities to "buy" the aid from them and then sell it on to the desperate population at enormously inflated prices. The great suffering and the pressure of the exiled Greek government eventually forced the British to partially lift the blockade, and from the summer of 1942 Canadian wheat began to be distributed under the auspices of the International Red Cross. Of the country's 7.3 million inhabitants in 1941, it is estimated that fully 2.5 million were recipients of this aid, of whom half lived in Athens, i.e. practically the total number of the capital's population. Although this aid alleviated the threat of starvation in the cities, little of it reached the countryside, which experienced its own period of famine in 1943–44. The rise of the armed Resistance resulted in major anti-partisan campaigns across the countryside by the Axis, which led to the wholesale burning of villages, destruction of fields, or mass executions as reprisals for guerrilla attacks. As P. Voglis writes, the German sweeps "[turned] producing areas into burned fields and pillaged villages, and the wealthy provincial towns into refugee settlements".
Increasing attacks by partisans in the latter years of the occupation resulted in a number of executions and wholesale slaughter of civilians in reprisal. In total, the Germans executed some 21,000 Greeks, the Bulgarians 40,000 and the Italians 9,000. By June 1944, between them the Axis powers had "raided 1,339 towns, boroughs and villages, of which 879, or two-thirds, were completely wiped out, leaving more than a million people homeless" (P. Voglis) in the course of their anti-partisan sweeps, mostly in the areas of Central Greece, Western Macedonia and the Bulgarian occupation zone.
The most infamous examples in the German zone are those of the village of Kommeno on 16 August 1943, where 317 inhabitants were executed by the 1. Gebirgs-Division and the village torched, the "Holocaust of Viannos" on 14–16 September 1943, in which over 500 civilians from several villages in the region of Viannos and Ierapetra in Crete were executed by the 22. Luftlande Infanterie-Division, the "Massacre of Kalavryta" on 13 December 1943, in which Wehrmacht troops of the 117th Jäger Division carried out the extermination of the entire male population and the subsequent total destruction of the town, the "Distomo massacre" on 10 June 1944, where units of the Waffen-SS Polizei Division looted and burned the village of Distomo in Boeotia resulting in the deaths of 218 civilians and the "Holocaust of Kedros" on 22 August 1944 in Crete, where 164 civilians were executed and nine villages were dynamited after being looted. At the same time, in the course of the concerted anti-guerrilla campaign, hundreds of villages were systematically torched and almost 1,000,000 Greeks left homeless.
Two other notable acts of brutality were the massacres of Italian troops at the islands of Cephallonia and Kos in September 1943, during the German takeover of the Italian occupation areas. In Cephallonia, the 12,000-strong Italian Acqui Division was attacked on September 13 by elements of 1. Gebirgs-Division with support from Stukas, and forced to surrender on September 21, after suffering some 1,300 casualties. The next day, the Germans began executing their prisoners and did not stop until over 4,500 Italians had been shot. The 4,000 or so survivors were put aboard ships for the mainland, but some of them sank after hitting mines in the Ionian Sea, where another 3,000 were lost. The Cephallonia massacre serves as the background for the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin.
The Italian occupation zone
The Italians occupied the bulk of the Greek mainland and most of the islands. Although several proposals for territorial annexation had been put forward in Rome, none were actually carried out during the war. This was due to pressure from the King of Italy, Victor Emmanuel III, and from the Germans, who were concerned of further alienating the Greek population, which was already strongly opposing the Bulgarian annexations.
Nevertheless, in the Ionian Islands, long a target of Italian expansionism, and in the Cyclades, the Greek civil authorities were replaced by Italians in preparation for a post-war annexation. Epirus, the area near the Albanian border where a significant Albanian minority (the Cham Albanians) lived, was claimed by Albanian irredentists as Chameria. Before the war, a great part of Italian propaganda against Greece had revolved around the Chameria issue, as the Italians hoped to gain Albanian support by promoting irredentism in Chameria and Kosovo. Although the Italians wanted to annex Chameria to Albania, the Germans vetoed the proposal. An Albanian High Commissioner, Xhemil Dino, was appointed, but his authority was limited, and for the duration of the Occupation, the area remained under direct control from the military authorities in Athens.
Another case of Italian-sponsored puppet states on Greek territory were the proposed Aromanian Principality of the Pindus and the Grand Voivodeship of Macedonia, statelets that were to encompass the regions of West Macedonia, northern Thessaly and Epirus, and headed by Alchiviad Diamandi, Nicolau Matoussi and Count Gyula Cseszneky. The bulk of the Aromanian population however refused to collaborate and the "principality" never amounted to much beyond Diamandi's followers, the so-called "Roman Legion". With the growth of the Resistance in 1943 and the collapse of their Italian sponsors in September 1943, the plans for the Principality were conclusively shelved.
Compared to the other two zones, the Italian occupation regime was relatively mild, which can be seen from the relatively low number of executions and atrocities committed in the Italian zone of occupation when compared with the atrocities and executions committed in the German and Bulgarian zones. Furthermore, unlike the Germans, and aside from some local commanders, the Italian military protected the Jews in their zone. The Germans were particularly perturbed because the Italians not only protected Jews on their territory, but when they occupied parts of France, Greece, the Balkans, and elsewhere, they protected the local Jewish populations there also. On December 13, 1944 Josef Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister wrote in his diary, “The Italians are extremely lax in the treatment of the Jews. They protect the Italian Jews both in Tunis and in occupied France and will not permit their being drafted for work or compelled to wear the Star of David. This shows once again that Fascism does not really dare to get down to fundamentals but is very superficial regarding problems of vital importance.”
Significant mass reprisals did sometimes occur, such as the Domenikon massacre in which 150 Greek civilians were killed. As they controlled most of the countryside, the Italians were the first to face the rising resistance movement in 1942-43. By mid-1943, the Resistance had managed to expel a few Italian garrisons from some mountainous areas, including several towns, creating liberated zones ("Free Greece"). After the Italian armistice in September 1943, the Italian zone was taken over by the Germans. As a result, German anti-partisan and anti-Semitic policies were extended to it.
The Bulgarian occupation zone
The Bulgarian Army entered Greece on 20 April 1941 on the heels of the Wehrmacht without having fired a shot and eventually occupied the whole of northeastern Greece, Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace, except for the Evros prefecture, at the border with Turkey, which was occupied by the Germans. Unlike Germany and Italy, Bulgaria officially annexed the occupied territories, which had long been a target of Bulgarian irredentism, on 14 May 1941.
Throughout the Bulgarian zone, Bulgarian policy was that of extermination or expulsion, aiming to forcibly Bulgarize as many Greeks as possible and expel or kill the rest. A massive Bulgarisation campaign was launched, which saw all Greek officials (mayors, school-teachers, judges, lawyers, priests, gendarmes) deported. A ban was placed on the use of the Greek language, the names of towns and places changed to the forms traditional in Bulgarian. Even gravestones bearing Greek inscriptions were defaced. In addition, the Bulgarian government tried to alter the ethnic composition of the region, by expropriating land and houses from Greeks in favor of Bulgarian settlers, and by the introduction of forced labor and of economic restrictions for the Greeks in an effort to force them to migrate to the German and Italian-occupied parts of Greece. Thus Greeks deprived of the right to work by a license system that banned the practice of a trade or profession without permission. Forced labor was introduced, and the authorities confiscated the Greek business property and gave it to Bulgarian colonists. A spontaneous and badly organized uprising around Drama in late September 1941 was violently crushed by the Bulgarian Army. By late 1941, more than 100,000 Greeks had been expelled from the Bulgarian occupation zone. Bulgarian colonists were encouraged to settle in Macedonia by government credits and incentives, including houses and land confiscated from the natives.
Bulgarian propaganda tried to win the loyalty of the Slavic-speakers, while some of them did greet the Bulgarians as liberators. This campaign was less successful in German-held Western Macedonia. At that time most of them felt themselves to be Bulgarians. The German High Command approved the foundation of a Bulgarian military club in Thessaloniki. The Bulgarians organized supplying of food and provisions for the Slavic-speaking population in Greek Macedonia, aiming to gain the local population that was in the German- and Italian-occupied zones. The Bulgarian clubs soon started to gain support among parts of that population. In 1942, the Bulgarian club asked assistance from the High Command in organizing armed units among the Slavic-speaking population in northern Greece. For this purpose, the Bulgarian Army sent a handful of officers to the zones occupied by the Italian and German troops. These officers were given the objective to form armed Slavophone militias, Ohrana, whose initial detachments were formed in 1943 in the district of Kastoria, Edessa and Florina.
For the purposes of civil administration before the invasion, Greece was divided into 37 prefectures. Following the occupation, the prefectures of Drama, Kavalla, Rhodope and Serres were annexed by Bulgaria and were no longer under the control of the Greek government. The remaining 33 prefectures had a concurrent military administration by Italian or German troops. The Italian-occupied Cyclades and the Ionian Islands were mostly detached from the Greek mainland and placed under effective Italian administration, although some administrative links to the Athens government were retained. In 1943, Attica and Boeotia was split into separate prefectures.
Prefectures annexed by Bulgaria
General Georgios Tsolakoglou — who had signed the armistice treaty with the Wehrmacht — was appointed as chief of a new Nazi puppet regime in Athens. He was succeeded as Prime Minister by two other prominent Greek collaborators: Konstantinos Logothetopoulos first, and Ioannis Rallis second. The latter was responsible for the creation of the Greek collaborationist Security Battalions. As in other European countries, there were Greeks willing to collaborate with the occupying force. Some did so because they shared the National Socialist ideology, others because of extreme anti-Communism, and others because of opportunistic advancement. The Germans were also eager to find support from and helped Greek fascist organizations such as the National Union of Greece (Ethniki Enosis Ellados, EEE), the EKK (Ethnikon Kyriarchon Kratos), the Greek National Socialist Party (Elliniko Ethnikososialistiko Komma, EEK) led by George S. Mercouris and other minor pro-Nazi, fascist or anti-Semitic organizations such as the Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organization (ESPO) or the "Iron Peace" (Sidira Eirini).
Among the minority populations of Greece, many Cham Albanians actively collaborated with the Axis occupation forces in Thesprotia. Due to this activity, they fled from the country when the war ended. In Macedonia the Slavic minority formed various paramilitary units like the Ohrana and collaborated extensively with the Bulgarian occupation forces in their attempt to ethnically cleanse areas of Greeks.
Few Greeks cooperated with the Nazis: most chose either the path of passive acceptance or active resistance. Active Greek resistance started immediately as many Greeks fled to the hills, where a partisan movement was born. One of the most touching episodes of the early resistance is said to have taken place just after the Wehrmacht reached the Acropolis on 27 April. The Germans ordered the flag guard, Evzone Konstandinos Koukidis, to retire the Greek flag. The Greek soldier obeyed, but when he was done, he wrapped himself in the flag and threw himself off of the plateau where he died. Some days later, when the Reichskriegsflagge was waving on the Acropolis' uppermost spot, two patriotic Athenian youngsters, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, climbed by night on the Acropolis and tore down the flag. It was one of the first actions of Greek resistance and among the first in Europe, and therefore inspired not only Greeks but also other Europeans under German domination.
The first signs of armed resistance activity manifested themselves in northern Greece, where resentment at the Bulgarian annexations ran high, in early autumn 1941. The Germans responded swiftly, torching several villages and executing 488 civilians. The brutality of these reprisals led to a collapse of the early guerrilla movement. It was revived in 1942 at a much greater scale. One of the sources partisan activity were the Communist-backed guerrilla forces, the National Liberation Front (EAM), and its military wing, the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS), which carried out operations of sabotage and guerrilla attacks against both the Wehrmacht and other, non Communist resistance groups. Other resistance groups included a right-wing partisan organization, the National Republican Greek League (EDES), led by Colonel Napoleon Zervas, a former army officer and well-known Republican, and the National and Social Liberation (EKKA), led by Colonel Dimitrios Psarros. These groups were formed from remnants of the Hellenic Army and the conservative factions of Greek society. Starting in 1943, on a number of cases EDES and ELAS fought each other in a prelude to the civil war that broke out after the German departure from the mainland in 1944.This situation led to triangular battles among ELAS, EDES and the Germans. At the same time, ELAS attacked and destroyed Psarros' military formation, the "5/42 Evzones Regiment", killing him.
When Italy surrendered to the Allies in the autumn of 1943, German forces actively hunted down and, in some cases executed, the Italian soldiers, including at least 5000 in the Massacre of the Acqui Division. They simultaneously began serious attacks on EDES. Communists claimed that Zervas then struck a deal with the German Army and agreed not to attack each other. This truce supposedly left the Germans free of sabotage in some areas and allowed EDES to face ELAS. Any EDES-German truce had clearly ended by 1944, when the Germans began evacuating Greece and the British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka agreement). Accusations from EDES against ELAS referred to collaboration with Bulgarians in eastern Macedonia, the case of Northern Epirus Liberation Front (MAVI) and the cruelty and murders against non-communists.
The stage, however, was already set for the next period of Greek history: the Greek Civil War.
Liberation and aftermath
|This section requires expansion. (May 2008)|
German forces began withdrawing from the Greek mainland in late 1944 as Soviet forces advancing into South-Eastern Europe from the Ukraine threatened to cut them off. British forces then landed in October 1944, liberating Athens by 14 October 1944.
Greece annexed the Dodecanese Islands from Italy in 1947.
The Holocaust in Greece
Prior to World War II, there existed two main groups of Jews in Greece: the scattered Romaniote communities which had existed in Greece since antiquity; and the approximately 50,000-strong Sephardi Jewish community of Thessaloniki, originally formed from Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition and affected by the Expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492. The latter had played a prominent part in the city's life for five centuries, but as the city had only become a part of the modern Greek state during the First Balkan War, it was not as well-integrated.
When the occupation zones were drawn up, Thessaloniki passed under German control. Thrace passed under Bulgarian control. Despite initial assurances to the contrary, the Nazis and Bulgarians gradually imposed a series of anti-Jewish measures. Jewish newspapers were closed down, local anti-Semites were encouraged to post anti-Jewish notices around the cities, Jews in the German and Bulgarian zones were forced to wear the Star of David so they could be easily identified and further isolated from the rest of the Greeks. Jewish families were kicked out of their homes and arrested while the Nazi-controlled press turned public opinion against them. By December 1942, the Germans began to demolish the old Jewish cemetery in Thessaloniki so the ancient tombstones could be used as building material for sidewalks and walls. The site of the old cemetery is today occupied by the campus of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki.
Despite warnings of impending deportations, most Jews were reluctant to leave their homes, although several hundred were able to flee the city. The Germans and Bulgarians began mass deportations in March 1943, sending the Jews of Thessaloniki and Thrace in packed boxcars to the distant Auschwitz and Treblinka death camps. By the summer of 1943, the Jews of the German and Bulgarian zones were gone and only those in the Italian zone remained. Jewish property in Thessaloniki was distributed to Greek 'caretakers' who were chosen by special committee, the "Service for the Disposal of Jewish Property" (YDIP). Instead of giving apartments and businesses to the many refugees, however, they were most often given to friends and relatives of committee members or collaborators.
In September 1943, after the Italian collapse, the Germans turned their attention to the Jews of Athens and the rest of formerly Italian-occupied Greece. There their propaganda was not as effective, as the ancient Romaniote Jewish communities were well-integrated into the Orthodox Greek society and could not easily be singled out from the Christians, who in turn were more ready to resist the German authorities' demands. The Archbishop of Athens Damaskinos ordered his priests to ask their congregations to help the Jews and sent a strong-worded letter of protest to the collaborationist authorities and the Germans. Many Orthodox Christians risked their lives hiding Jews in their apartments and homes, despite threat of imprisonment. Even the Greek police ignored instructions to turn over Jews to the Germans. When Jewish community leaders appealed to Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis, he tried to alleviate their fears by saying that the Jews of Thessaloniki had been guilty of subversive activities and that this was the reason they were deported. At the same time, Elias Barzilai, the Grand Rabbi of Athens, was summoned to the Department of Jewish Affairs and told to submit a list of names and addresses of members of the Jewish community. Instead he destroyed the community records, thus saving the lives of thousands of Athenian Jews. He advised the Jews of Athens to flee or go into hiding. A few days later, the Rabbi himself was spirited out of the city by EAM-ELAS fighters and joined the resistance. EAM-ELAS helped hundreds of Jews escape and survive (especially officer Stefanos Sarafis), many of whom stayed with the resistance as fighters and/or interpreters.
In total, at least 81% (ca. 60,000) of Greece's total pre-war Jewish population perished, with the percentage ranging from Thessaloniki's 91% to 'just' 50% in Athens, or even less in other provincial areas such as Volos (36%). In the Bulgarian zone, death rates surpassed 90%. In the notable case of the Ionian island of Zakynthos, all 275 Jews survived, being hidden in the island's interior.
Influence in post-war culture
The Axis occupation of Greece, specifically the Greek islands, has a significant presence in English-language books and films. Real special forces raids, e.g., Ill Met by Moonlight or fictional special forces raids The Guns of Navarone, Escape to Athena and They Who Dare (1954), and the fictional occupation narrative Captain Corelli's Mandolin are examples. Notable Greek movies referring to the period, the war and the occupation are The Germans Strike Again, What did you do in the war, Thanasi? and Ipolochagos Natassa.
Notable personalities of the occupation
Greek Resistance leaders:
Other Greek personalities
Leaders of secessionist movements:
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