By Robert Zaller, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus, Department of History, Drexel University
Two dates stand out on the national Greek calendar: Independence Day, March 25, when Greece, a nation under conquest for 368 years, rebelled against the Ottoman Empire, still master of most of the Middle East, North Africa, and a considerable portion of Southeastern Europe. That the Greeks prevailed in that struggle changed the destiny of Europe.
The other date, whose eighty-first anniversary is this October, is Oxi Day, when Greece asserted its independence again, this time against Mussolini’s Italy and Hitler’s Germany, and gave Continental Europe its only torch of freedom at a moment when it appeared all but extinguished. It’s a day that Greeks in Greece and abroad celebrate for themselves, but which can only be compared to the day when a single city, Athens, stood alone against the mightiest empire of its time, Persia, and gave humanity itself its birth of freedom at Marathon.
These three events were glorious, and each profoundly consequential. But their stories were complex, and their outcomes far from certain. Ancient Athens stood alone among the cities of Greece because the rest of the Greek nation believed its cause hopeless and any resistance futile. When Greece rose against the Ottomans, it defied the reigning order of post-Napoleonic Europe, which decreed it the duty of all to suppress revolution wherever it raised its head and for whatever purpose. And in 1940, Greece was not a bastion of democracy but a nation itself under dictatorship whose ruler emulated much of fascist rhetoric and practice. Indeed, perhaps the last man in Europe who might have been expected to lead a fight for freedom was General Ioannis Metaxas. How the man and the moment met is in many ways the story of Greece in the first four decades of the twentieth century.
Greece in the early twentieth century was, nominally, a constitutional monarchy with a multi-party political system partly organized around personalities. The most charismatic of these was Eleftherios Venizelos, who had led the struggle that incorporated his native Crete into the Greek commonwealth, and fought for the nation’s further expansion against what was by then a tottering Ottoman regime. Metaxas, seven years Venizelos’ junior, also fought in the Cretan conflict, but although the two men occasionally collaborated later, Metaxas would eventually emerge as Venizelos’ most dedicated opponent and, temporarily, his successor.
In the early twentieth century, the question of where sovereign authority lay in Greece was still contested between the Crown and popularly elected ministers who nonetheless required the confidence and support of the monarch. Venizelos inaugurated a new, liberal era by insisting on the structural independence of the civilian government. He further committed Greece to economic and social modernization, and, in foreign affairs, to the pursuit of the Megali Idea—the aspiration to reconstitute the historic borders of Greece and to incorporate ethnically Greek populations into the motherland. The latter goal included, besides Crete, Macedonia, Thessaly, and Thrace, all the islands of the Aegean, and Greek-speaking Asia Minor. This led Venizelos into the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, alliance in World War I with Britain and France, and finally into war in Anatolia, a former frontier of the Ottoman Empire.
Metaxas, in contrast, was a convinced, not to say devout monarchist, and an admirer both of Prussian militarism and the German constitutional model in which civilian ministers served at the pleasure of the emperor. In a revealing diary entry in 1900, he stated that “I consider the king the representative of the past, present and future of the nation. All opposition to him from whatever quarter I reject and find repulsive.” That included what he characterized as the “intemperate parliamentarism” of Greece, a fact of life he would have to deal with himself when he founded his own political party but which he would never regard as part of the legitimate order. Metaxas was pragmatic enough to conduct his career within the existing dispensation, and even at times to collaborate as a military expert and diplomat with Venizelos. His connection to the monarchy, however, grew even closer with the accession of King Constantine I, with whom he had long been intimate, to the throne in 1915.
Constantine, too, was an admirer of German autocracy, and he, like Metaxas, was convinced that Germany would win World War I. The King did not however dare to defy the British fleet, which controlled the Mediterranean, and so pursued a policy of neutrality. With Venizelos determined to join the Entente powers, the country slipped into a division—the Great Schism—in which Venizelos as Prime Minister prevailed, driving Constantine into exile. The King would return three years later, with Venizelos falling from power and the war he had begun with Turkey—a war in part provoked by Turkish genocides—turning to eventual and catastrophic defeat. Since both Constantine and Metaxas had opposed the war, this gave further reason for Metaxas to loathe civilian meddling in the monarchical order.
Greek politics in the 1920s and 1930s, still torn by the aftermath of the Great Schism, were dominated by three great crises: the forced repatriation of a million Anatolian Greeks at the end of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-23; the Great Depression of the 1930s; and the rise of fascist or fascist-leaning dictatorships that virtually eliminated democratic governance in Central, Southern, and Eastern Europe. By 1939, general war had come again.
Greece itself had by this time succumbed to dictatorship. In the convoluted politics of the period, Venizelos himself had supported another restoration of the monarchy under George II in 1935. The King insisted on Metaxas as his prime minister, thus fulfilling the latter’s own dream of a civilian head of state responsible only to the Crown. Parliamentary government soon collapsed entirely. The Vouli put itself into a five-month recess with only a committee to approve executive legislation, a committee which in fact never met. With a complaisant Crown behind him, Metaxas had the working authority of a Mussolini in Italy. On August 4, 1936, citing industrial unrest and an alleged Communist menace, he staged a coup supported by the Crown that gave him, in his own words, “all the power I need” to save the country. The Vouli was suspended indefinitely, and political parties outlawed. Metaxas did not even bother to form a ruling party of his own, but simply declared himself the “National Father” in emulation of Hitler in Germany. As Hitler, too, had dubbed his new regime the “Third Reich,” so Metaxas declared his own to be a Third Hellenic Civilization in succession to those of ancient Greece and Byzantium. Political opponents were tortured and imprisoned, books deemed offensive were publicly burned—another Hitlerian touch—and even Plato’s Republic was banned. In all but name, Metaxas had become a fascist dictator, and if he did not categorize himself as such, it was partly to avoid acknowledging any ideological constraint on his authority. The Revolution of 1821 had culminated in him.
There were, however, practical reasons as well for Metaxas to avoid formally joining the fascist camp. Hitler and Mussolini, although nominal allies, jousted for supremacy with each other, and Metaxas, while courting the friendship of both, saw danger in offending either. This was particularly true in the case of Mussolini, whose ambitions for control of the Mediterranean were openly proclaimed and thus a threat to Greek sovereignty. Rhetoric aside, Metaxas recognized the practical limitations of Greek power abroad, and, with strong authoritarian rivals on all sides including Ataturk’s Turkey and Stalin’s Russia as well as Germany and Italy, prudence was dictated. Without antagonizing Mussolini directly, Metaxas sought to cultivate his relationship with Germany, with which it had strong economic ties. At the same time, he also courted Britain, whose still-unchallenged naval supremacy in the Mediterranean was critical as the gateway to its empire. There were overtures to Yugoslavia too, as the cockpit of the Balkans. Metaxas could not afford to overlook any possible ally in the darkening situation of the late 1930s.
His hope of restraining Mussolini was in vain. For Hitler, with his sights set on invading Russia, the Mediterranean was a secondary front. Negotiations for a security agreement with Britain proved futile. When Mussolini invaded Albania in April 1939, an attack on Greece, or at least its reduction to a protectorate, was simply a matter of time. By mid-1940, Hitler had conquered France, and reduced most of Continental Europe to subjection. Mussolini, himself anxious at the speed of Hitler’s triumphs, felt action imperative to carve his own sphere of influence out of what remained.
When Mussolini sank the Greek light carrier Elli on August 15, 1940, the day that of the Festival of the Virgin, national opinion was united in outrage. Metaxas, still hoping to avoid conflict, attempted to tamp the reaction down, but this only brought scorn upon his own head. He might no longer face an angry Parliament or the opposition of legal parties, but he learned in that hour that the spontaneous wrath of an entire people was the most powerful political force on earth. Greek military positions on the frontiers with Albania and Bulgaria, the latter now an Italian ally, were strengthened. Although Mussolini continued to play a cat and mouse game with Metaxas, alternately provoking and reassuring him, there could no longer be any doubt that war would shortly be at hand.
It came on the night of October 28, when Italy’s ambassador to Greece presented Metaxas with an ultimatum at 3:00 a.m., demanding that he surrender unspecified “strategic locations” to an Italian army already on the march. It meant, simply, the surrender of the country. Metaxas, by accounts, gave the simplest reply he could, neither in Greek nor Italian but in the clearest tongue of international diplomacy: “Alors, c’est la guerre”—Well then, it’s war.
With reports of engagements coming from the front, the government announced the war on the radio at 5:30. At six, sirens sounded. Everyone knew what they meant. In Athens and across Greece, crowds poured into the streets. They gave the single universal shout, simpler and more direct than any Metaxas could have made: “Oxi!”1
Metaxas knew he had to fight; he did not believe he could win, or even effectively resist for long. On land, sea, and air, Greek forces were outnumbered. Basic supplies were lacking, beginning with artillery, guns, and ammunition, and going down to helmets, blankets, and shoes. Winter was approaching, and the weather that was coming on the northern fronts would be severe. The two major battle lines, separated by the Pindos Mountains, were unable to reinforce each other.
In addressing the country, Metaxas could not give a politician’s call to arms, but only a soldier’s. As he spoke, he was served by what had been throughout his life his primary profession:
Greece is not fighting for victory. It is fighting for glory. And honor. . . . A nation must
be able to fight if it wants to remain great, even with no hope of victory. Just because
it has to.
Deeply unpopular, bitterly resented, Metaxas had ruled by force alone. At this moment, stripped of all but his duty as a patriot, he at last won the country, not as its master but its servant. It was widely remarked that his fatalism was not shared. The country, from its children to its elderly, was ready to fight, and it did, civilians assisting and joining soldiers even at times on the battlefield. As in the ancient wars against Persia and Rome, the last stand against the Ottomans in Constantinople, and the War of Independence that—unlike the braggadocio of Metaxas himself about a third Hellenic Civilization—had created modern Greece, the nation was as one, fighting for the possession on which its freedom ultimately stood, its soil. And at that moment Metaxas became what he could never otherwise have been, a leader, although one who led only by expressing a will far greater than his own.
The Bulgarian front did not materialize, although Metaxas had committed most of his forces to it. Italian troops in the Epirus sector were able to take Igoumenitsa in their first assault, but the Greek line held, and by November 13 it counterattacked, swiftly driving the Italians back across the border and occupying southern Albania. By the new year, its objectives achieved (and its ammunition virtually exhausted despite British resupply), the Greeks paused to consolidate their positions and to celebrate their victory over the Makaronades, “the Macaroni Boys” as they contemptuously called their foes. It had been a relatively small campaign in a remote corner of Occupied Europe, but it was the only resistance to fascism on the European continent in the grim autumn and winter after the fall of France, and, with the Battle of Britain still raging, the first defeat of fascism anywhere. On December 16, with the Greek offensive still underway, Life Magazine celebrated the Greek victory with a cover photograph of an Evzones in traditional dress, blowing a decorated trumpet with the Parthenon in the background. The barbarians were this time within Europe, but the Greeks had struck the first blow for freedom as they had at Marathon, and the effect across the Continent and North America was electrifying. America itself was still a year away from war, but few events if any had a greater impact on public opinion, and Winston Churchill, himself leading a beleaguered Britain, saluted Greece as only he could: “Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes; from now on, we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Even Adolf Hitler, with no doubt a dig at his Italian ally, complimented the Greek army for its “extremely brave resistance.” But with the approach of spring, it was clear that the war would resume. On January 29, 1941, Ioannis Metaxas had died, with George II assuming effective control of the government and Britain increasing coordination of its strategy. With the war against Russia waiting in the wings, Hitler at last intervened on April 6 with an overwhelming assault. Athens fell; King George fled to Egypt. British forces held out for a month on Crete, but surrender was inevitable. Churchill would be criticized for committing his own forces to a lost cause, but history might have forgiven him for seeing a larger point: one did not abandon heroes. Many years later, my wife Lili and I would come upon a monument at a remote crossroads in Crete, erected at his own expense by an Australian soldier who had returned after fifty years to salute the islanders whose courage had saved his life. Lili’s own father, George Bitas, had fought as a senior officer in the War of 1940-41. Years later, too, visiting for the first time the remote village in the Pindos where he had been born, the villagers sat us down to a feast upon learning whose daughter she was.
The memory of honor does not fade.
Hitler would later say that his campaign in Greece had cost him precious weeks of time and preparation for his invasion of Russia, and that this had contributed materially to his subsequent defeat. Military historians have disputed this as self-serving and likely they are right, but there is a larger point at issue too. Greece had stood for freedom in its darkest hour against what seemed insuperable odds, and would never cease fighting for it over four long years. That put no planes in the air, or ships at sea, or divisions on the ground. But it contributed mightily to the spirit without which men and armaments do not ultimately prevail. For that, all the nations must celebrate Oxi Day with their own Yes.
Legend has it that Metaxas made the famous reply of “No” to the Italian ambassador, Emanuele Grazzi, and his widow would claim that this had been the case. Likelier, however, it was born on the streets, and certainly it was echoed a thousandfold there.