Athens 1944: Britains dirty secret
When 28 civilians were killed in Athens, it wasnt the Nazis who were to blame, it was the British. Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith reveal how Churchills shameful decision to turn on the partisans who had fought on our side in the war sowed the seeds for the rise of the far right in Greece today
- This article is the subject of a column by the readers editor.
I can still see it very clearly, I have not forgotten, says Ttos Patrkios. The Athens police firing on the crowd from the roof of the parliament in Syntagma Square. The young men and women lying in pools of blood, everyone rushing down the stairs in total shock, total panic.
And then came the defining moment: the recklessness of youth, the passion of belief in a justice burning bright: I jumped up on the fountain in the middle of the square, the one that is still there, and I began to shout: Comrades, dont disperse! Victory will be ours! Dont leave. The time has come. We will win!
I was, he says now, profoundly sure, that we would win. But there was no winning that day; just as there was no pretending that what had happened would not change the history of a country that, liberated from Adolf Hitlers Reich barely six weeks earlier, was now surging headlong towards bloody civil war.
Even now, at 86, when Patrkios laughs at and with myself that I have reached such an age, the poet can remember, scene-for-scene, shot for shot, what happened in the central square of Greek political life on the morning of 3 December 1944.
This was the day, those 70 years ago this week, when the British army, still at war with Germany, opened fire upon and gave locals who had collaborated with the Nazis the guns to fire upon a civilian crowd demonstrating in support of the partisans with whom Britain had been allied for three years.
The crowd carried Greek, American, British and Soviet flags, and chanted: Viva Churchill, Viva Roosevelt, Viva Stalin in endorsement of the wartime alliance.
Twenty-eight civilians, mostly young boys and girls, were killed and hundreds injured. We had all thought it would be a demonstration like any other, Patrkios recalls. Business as usual. Nobody expected a bloodbath.
Britains logic was brutal and perfidious: Prime minister Winston Churchill considered the influence of the Communist Party within the resistance movement he had backed throughout the war the National Liberation Front, EAM to have grown stronger than he had calculated, sufficient to jeopardise his plan to return the Greek king to power and keep Communism at bay. So he switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies.
There were others in the square that day who, like the 16-year-old Patrkios, would go on to become prominent members of the left. Mkis Theodorakis, renowned composer and iconic figure in modern Greek history, daubed a Greek flag in the blood of those who fell. Like Patrkios, he was a member of the resistance youth movement. And, like Patrkios, he knew his country had changed. Within days, RAF Spitfires and Beaufighters were strafing leftist strongholds as the Battle of Athens known in Greece as the Dekemvriana began, fought not between the British and the Nazis, but the British alongside supporters of the Nazis against the partisans. I can still smell the destruction, Patrkios laments. The mortars were raining down and planes were targeting everything. Even now, after all these years, I flinch at the sound of planes in war movies.
And thereafter Greeces descent into catastrophic civil war: a cruel and bloody episode in British as well as Greek history which every Greek knows to their core differently, depending on which side they were on but which remains curiously untold in Britain, perhaps out of shame, maybe the arrogance of a lack of interest. It is a narrative of which the millions of Britons who go to savour the glories of Greek antiquity or disco-dance around the islands Mamma Mia-style, are unaware.
The legacy of this betrayal has haunted Greece ever since, its shadow hanging over the turbulence and violence that erupted in 2008 after the killing of a schoolboy by police also called the Dekemvriana and created an abyss between the left and right thereafter.
The 1944 December uprising and 1946-49 civil war period infuses the present, says the leading historian of these events, Andr Gerolymatos, because there has never been a reconciliation. In France or Italy, if you fought the Nazis, you were respected in society after the war, regardless of ideology. In Greece, you found yourself fighting or imprisoned and tortured by the people who had collaborated with the Nazis, on British orders. There has never been a reckoning with that crime, and much of what is happening in Greece now is the result of not coming to terms with the past.
Before the war, Greece was ruled by a royalist dictatorship whose emblem of a fascist axe and crown well expressed its dichotomy once war began: the dictator, General Ioannis Metaxas, had been trained as an army officer in Imperial Germany, while Greek King George II an uncle of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh was attached to Britain. The Greek left, meanwhile, had been reinforced by a huge influx of politicised refugees and liberal intellectuals from Asia Minor, who crammed into the slums of Pireaus and working-class Athens.
Both dictator and king were fervently anti-communist, and Metaxas banned the Communist Party, KKE, interning and torturing its members, supporters and anyone who did not accept the national ideology in camps and prisons, or sending them into internal exile. Once war started, Metaxas refused to accept Mussolinis ultimatum to surrender and pledged his loyalty to the Anglo-Greek alliance. The Greeks fought valiantly and defeated the Italians, but could not resist the Wehrmacht. By the end of April 1941, the Axis forces imposed a harsh occupation of the country. The Greeks at first spontaneously, later in organised groups resisted.
But, noted the British Special Operations Executive (SOE): The right wing and monarchists were slower than their opponents in deciding to resist the occupation, and were therefore of little use.
Britains natural allies were therefore EAM an alliance of left wing and agrarian parties of which the KKE was dominant, but by no means the entirety and its partisan military arm, ELAS.
There is no overstating the horror of occupation. Professor Mark Mazowers book Inside Hitlers Greece describes hideous bloccos or round-ups whereby crowds would be corralled into the streets so that masked informers could point out ELAS supporters to the Gestapo and Security Battalions which had been established by the collaborationist government to assist the Nazis for execution. Stripping and violation of women was a common means to secure confessions. Mass executions took place on the German model: in public, for purposes of intimidation; bodies would be left hanging from trees, guarded by Security Battalion collaborators to prevent their removal. In response, ELAS mounted daily counterattacks on the Germans and their quislings. The partisan movement was born in Athens but based in the villages, so that Greece was progressively liberated from the countryside. The SOE played its part, famous in military annals for the role of Brigadier Eddie Myers and Monty Woodhouse in blowing up the Gorgopotomas viaduct in 1942 and other operations with the partisans andartes in Greek.
By autumn 1944, Greece had been devastated by occupation and famine. Half a million people had died 7% of the population. ELAS had, however, liberated dozens of villages and become a proto-government, administering parts of the country while the official state withered away. But after German withdrawal, ELAS kept its 50,000 armed partisans outside the capital, and in May 1944 agreed to the arrival of British troops, and to place its men under the officer commanding, Lt Gen Ronald Scobie.
On 12 October the Germans evacuated Athens. Some ELAS fighters, however, had been in the capital all along, and welcomed the fresh air of freedom during a six-day window between liberation and the arrival of the British. One partisan in particular is still alive, aged 92, and is a legend of modern Greece.