The nation of Greece, with a population of some 7.3 million people in 1940, was drawn into World War II by Italy’s invasion from Albania. Greek dictator General Ioannis Metaxas had sought to maintain his nation’s neutrality, but that policy ended when an Italian invasion began a Balkan campaign that drew in Britain as well as Germany and other Axis powers. The result of these developments was Axis control of the Balkans until the last months of the war. Greece suffered horribly in the war and continued to suffer in the years immediately afterward in a costly civil war from 1946 to 1949.
In October 1940, without informing his ally Adolf Hitler in advance, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini launched an invasion from Albania. Having both superior numbers and greater military hardware, Mussolini confidently expected to complete the conquest before winter set in. The Greeks, however, resisted valiantly. They not only held the Italians but went on the offensive and drove them back, while the British bombed Albania and neutralized the Italian navy. Mussolini’s invasion of Greece turned into a disaster from which neither he nor his regime recovered. Determined to shore up his southern flank before he began an invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler stepped in. Metaxas died at the end of January 1941, and in April the Führer sent the German army against both Greece and Yugoslavia, quickly overwhelming both. Neither the courage and will of the Greeks nor British army reinforcements sufficed to withstand the Luftwaffe and the panzers.
The Axis occupation of Greece involved German, Italian, and Bulgarian troops and lasted three years. It was a dark period in the history of a nation that had undergone much suffering since Roman times. The Germans set up a puppet government and insisted that the Greeks pay the full cost of the occupation, which resulted in catastrophic inflation. The Germans also requisitioned resources and supplies, with no concern for the fate of a population that, even in the best of times, was obliged to import most of its food. Famine and disease decimated Greece and killed perhaps 100,000 people in the winter of 1941–1942 alone. The suffering was such that British Prime Minister Winston L. S. Churchill agreed— under pressure from the Greek government in exile and the United States—to partially lift the blockade so the International Red Cross might bring in food supplies. Greeks living in Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia also had to undergo forced Bulgarianization. The flourishing Jewish community in Salonika was devastated in the Holocaust; fewer than 10,000 of an estimated 70,000 Greek Jews survived the war. The Greek underground fought back with sabotage and ambush and tied down 120,000 Axis troops. In reprisal, the Germans and Italians burned whole villages and executed large numbers of Greek hostages for every Axis soldier slain.
Greek King George II and his ministers went into exile in Egypt with the retreating British forces in 1941. Almost immediately, Greek resistance groups formed. Of the various resistance movements that had appeared during the German occupation, the largest was the National Liberation Front (EAM), with the National People’s Liberation Army as its military wing. Relations were poor between it and the National Republican Greek League. Indeed, actual fighting broke out between the two groups in the winter of 1943–1944, although a truce was arranged in February 1944. As in Yugoslavia, the communist-dominated EAM apparently enjoyed wider support than the nationalist underground. When the Germans pulled out of Greece, EAM held the vast majority of the country. Greek society was fractured into three factions: the monarchists, republicans, and communists.
At approximately the same time, in October 1944 Churchill journeyed to Moscow to meet with Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Churchill struck a bargain with Stalin concerning predominance in various Balkan states, under the terms of which Britain was to have 90 percent predominance in Greece. The Greek communists, who had carried the brunt of resistance against the Axis and now controlled the majority of territory, understandably resented this imperial arrangement struck in Moscow and were unwilling to submit to it.
When the Nazis withdrew, George Papandreou, a left-of-center statesman, headed a government of national unity. Fearing the communist underground, however, he requested British troops, who began arriving early in October 1944. When the British called on the guerrilla forces to disarm and disband, EAM quit the cabinet, called a general strike, and held protest demonstrations. In this serious situation, Churchill took the impetuous decision to fly with foreign secretary Anthony Eden to Athens on Christmas Day 1944. Though the government and EAM reached accord early in 1945, it quickly broke down. EAM members took to the hills with their weapons.
In the first Greek elections, held in 1946, the Royalist People’s Party was victorious, and a royalist ministry took office. A September 1946 plebiscite resulted in a majority vote for the king’s return. King George II, who was unpopular in Greece, died the following April and was succeeded by his son Paul, who reigned until 1964.
By the end of 1946, communist rebels were ready to attempt a comeback, assisted by the communist governments of Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania. (Ironically, Tito’s support for the civil war in defiance of Stalin was one reason Yugoslavia was subsequently expelled from the international communist movement). The communists came close to winning in Greece, but Greece was saved as a Western bastion because the British were determined that the nation—with its strategic control of the eastern Mediterranean— not become communist. But in February 1947, deep in its own economic problems, Britain informed a shocked Washington that it could no longer bear the burden of supporting Greece. U.S. President Harry S Truman agreed to take over the responsibility, and in March 1947, he announced the Truman Doctrine of aid to free nations threatened by internal or external aggression. This policy received the enthusiastic support of the U.S. Congress and an appropriation of $400 million for both Greece and Turkey. Ultimately, the United States contributed about $750 million for the final three years of guerrilla warfare.
Gradually, General Alexander Papagos, Greek commander in chief, dismissed incompetent officers and created a military force sufficient to turn the military tide. Another important factor was that Marshal Tito (Josip Broz) needed to concentrate on resisting Soviet pressures, cutting off many of the supplies for the rebel cause. By the end of 1949, the communists had been defeated and Greece saved for the West. The cost of the civil war to Greece was as great as the cost from the tormented years of World War II and the Nazi occupation. As with so many civil wars, the struggle had been waged without quarter on either side. Thousands of hostages had been taken and simply disappeared. A million Greeks had been uprooted and displaced by the fighting. Casualties may have been as high as half a million people—all of them Greeks killed by Greeks. After the war, the purges and reprisals continued for some time. Unfortunately for Greece, further upheaval fanned by other nations and dictatorship lay ahead before true democracy could be achieved.
Clogg, Richard. A Short History of Modern Greece. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Hondros, John L. Occupation and Resistance: The Greek Agony. New York: Pella Publishing, 1983.
Mazower, M. Inside Hitler’s Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941–1944. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
Woodhouse, C. M. The Struggle for Greece, 1941–1949. London: Hart-Davis, MacGibbon, 1976.