Italian Duce Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Greece on October 28, 1940 from Albania. Mussolini had earlier invaded an occupied Albania in 1939. In contrast to the close coordination that developed among the Allied countries, Mussolini not only did not coordinate his attack with the Germans, but did not even inform them of his plans until the attack was underway. Mussolini assumed that the Greeks would easily fall to his conquering army. Greek's small army of 150,000 men not only stopped the Italian thrust toward Salonika using rugged mountainous terrain to their advantage, but with British assistance including RAF units, drove the Italians back into Albania. The Italian attack had been unwanted by Hitler who was preoccupied with the Battle of Brittan and forming a grand coalition of NAZI satellites, occupied countries, Fascist Spain, and Vichy France for an upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini's invasion had turned the sympathetic Metaxis Fascist Government in Greece into a British ally. This was of immense strategic significance because from bases in Greece, the British could threaten the Romanian oil fields--NAZI Germany's primary source of oil. The Greeks by November 1940 had seized Korçë, the principal Italian base in Albania. The lack of martial ardor of Italian soldiers during the War is surprising given the pretensions of military greatness by Mussolini and the Fascists which had governed Italy since the 1920s. This was in sharp contrast to Hitler's success in ideologically preparing the German soldier. The threat to the Balkans and Germany's southern flank forced Hitler to divert his attention south away from Britain. Hitler forced the Balkan states to join the Axis: Hungary (November 20, 1940), Romania (November 23, 1940), Bulgaria (March 1, 1941), and Yugoslavia (March 25). Had Mussolini not invaded Greece, Hitler may have forced Metaxis into the Axis as well or at least he would have remained neutral and there would have been no British forces threatening the Balkans. The Wehrmacht in April 1941 invaded Greece, quickly defeating the Greek and British armies. While the Germans rapidly achieved their goals, the effort was a disaster for the German war effort. The invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece forced the Wehrmacht to delay operation Barbarossa--the invasion of the Soviet Union. This lead to 4 years of hideous barbarism. The Greeks did not submit meekly to Axis (German, Italian, and Bulgarian) occupation and Resistance groups soon formed. The German reaction was brutal beyond description. The war and the experience of the occupation threw traditional family roles into question as women became breadwinners and children took up arms. NAZI reprisals were severe. The Greek children were especially affected by the German occupation. In addition, the NAZI program of plundering the occupied countries resulting in large quantities of food being shipped from Greece to Germany. This caused a mass famine in Greece. Thousands of children starved.
King George II acceded to the Greek crown by 1935 through a rigged plebiscite. He named General Ionannis Metaxas as prime minister. Metaxis became the primary figure in Greek politics and proceeded to create an increasingly authoritarian regime, in particularly suppressing the Communists. Metaxis slowly built the trappings of Fascist state. Metaxas evolved a grandiose vision of a new great Greek state, what he called the Third Greek Civilization, hearkening back to the Byzantine Empire. Minority groups were persecuted. The use of the Macedonian language was, for example, forbidden. Newspapers were muzzled. Political opponents were arrested and many exiled or imprisoned. Trade unions were banned. Fascist gangs were allowed to form and operate. The Boy Scouts were banned and a Fascist Youth organization Ethniki Organosi Neolaias promoted. Despite his Fascist leanings, Metaxas tried keep Greece neutral when wore broke out in Europe. Metaxis did, however, refused to allow Mussolini to pursue military operations against the British from Greece, even when Italian troops in Albania massed on the Greek border. Metaxis died in 1940 at age 70.
Mussolini and his Black Shirts created the first Fascist state. Central to Fascism was the military and power. Mussolini talked about 8 million bayonets. And the goal of that military power was Mare Nostrum--Our Sea meaning the Mediterranean. The first step was Libya where Mussolini finally completed the subjugation of the colony with modern weapons, including poison gas (1920s). Next was Ethiopia which was important in dominating the approaches to the Mediterranean and Suez Canal (1935). And just before the out break of World War II. Italy seized Albania (1939). Mussolini's Mediterranean goals faced two important powers--Britain and France . The Germans removed France as a major obstacle (1940). This left Britain which had only a very small force in Egypt. The Italian;s played no real role in German's Blitzkrieg victory over France. Hitler with the Battle of Britain going poorly--pushed Mussolini to attack the small British force in Egypt. The Italians invaded Egypt with a huge army, but only went a few miles into Egypt and stopped -- the exact opposite as a German Blitzkrieg (September 1940). And then his army camped out in western Egypt, Mussolini decided on a second front-- he ordered the invasion of Greece from his new Albanian colony (October 1940). He did so without even consulting Hitler. This essentially would be a winter offensive into mountains. An action that even the rawest cadet would understand was against all military principles. Italy did not have the military and economic capability to wage a two front war. Let alone a winter mountain campaign. Both would be humiliating failures. And Hitler would have come to Mussolini's rescue.
in May 1939 in May 1939 while the world's attention was focused on the growing confrontation between Germany and Poland Il Duce by 1939 was concerned that Italy was becoming a junior partner in the evolving xis alliance with Hitler. Germany had remiliarized the Rhineland (1935), oversaw the Anschluss, annexed the Sudetenland (1938), and the rest of Czechoslovakia (1939). the Italian dictator set his eyes on Albania across the Adriatic from Italy. King Victor Emmanuel III criticized the plan as risky. Mussolini, however, demanded on March 25, that King Zog accept Italian control over his country, even offering money. As a result, Italy invaded April 7, 1939. There was some resistance, especially at Durrës , but the Italian Army quickly gained control over the country. King Zog, Queen Geraldine Apponyi, and their small son Skander fled to Greece and then to London. Left with little choice, the Albanian parliament accepted union with Italy (April 12). King Victor Emmanuel III took the Albanian crown. Mussolini established a Fascist Government under Shefqet Verlaci. Ironically, after the the Germans invaded and partitioned Yugoslavia in 1941, the Albanians for the first time founded themselves united with the Albanians in the Yugoslav province of Kosovo.
Italian Duce Benito Mussolini launched an invasion of Greece on October 28, 1940 from Albania. Mussolini had earlier invaded an occupied Albania in 1939. In contrast to the close coordination that developed among the Allied countries, Mussolini not only did not coordinate his attack with the Germans, but did not even inform them of his plans until the attack was underway. The Greeks delivered a resounding OXI! (NO!) October 28, 1940 to Mussolini's ultimatum. The Italian troops were beaten back and the Greek troops overtook over one third of Albania. [Stassinopoulos] Mussolini assumed that the Greeks would easily fall to his conquering army. Greek's small army of 150,000 men not only stopped the Italian thrust toward Salonika using rugged mountainous terrain to their advantage, but with British assistance including RAF units, drove the Italians back into Albania. The British sent about 50,000 troops to help Greece, which they had to deplete from Egypt. The Greeks by November 1940 had seized Korçë, the principal Italian base in Albania. The lack of martial ardor of Italian soldiers during the War is surprising given the pretentious of military greatness by Mussolini and the Fascists which had governed Italy since the 1920s. This was in sharp contrast to Hitler's success in ideologically preparing the German soldier.
Mussolini announced his invasion of Greece when Hitler arrived on a visit. "Führer, we are on the march." The Italian attack had been unwanted by Hitler who was preoccupied with the Battle of Brittan and forming a grand coalition of NAZI satellites, occupied countries, Fascist Spain, and Vichy France for an upcoming invasion of the Soviet Union. Mussolini's invasion had turned the sympathetic Metaxis Fascist Government in Greece into a British ally. This was of immense strategic significance because from bases in Greece, the British could threaten the Romanian oil fields--NAZI Germany's primary source of oil. Germany had been relying on Soviet oil deliveries to supplement its synthetic oil production. The Soviet deliveries would end of course when Germany
invaded leaving the Germans dependent on Romanian oil until the Soviet Caucuses could be seized. Greek successes against the Italians had created an Allied belligerent that could provide air fields to attack the Romanian oil fields. Hitler thus saw a German intervention to seize Greece and secure Germany's southern flank would be necessary.
The threat to the Balkans and Germany's southern flank forced Hitler to divert his attention south away from Britain after the Italian October 1940 invasion. Hitler forced the Balkan states to join the Axis: Hungary (November 20, 1940), Romania (November 23, 1940), and Bulgaria (March 1, 1941). German forces in Romania were reinforced and efforts were made to bring Yugoslavia into the NAZI orbit so that the Panzers could move through that country to attack Greece. Had Mussolini not invaded Greece, Hitler may have forced Metaxis into the Axis as well or at least he would have remained neutral and there would have been no British forces threatening the Balkans. Yugoslavia was finally forced into the Axis orbit (March 25). Hitler had forced Yugoslavia to join the other AXIS Balkan partners, but the Government was overthrown. The regent Prince Paul was forced to resign and replaced by his nephew King Peter II who was still a boy. The new government withdrew from the Axis and proclaimed its neutrality.
Hitler had to come to the rescue of Mussolini's beleaguered forces. Hitler was also outraged at the uprising in Yugoslavia and the withdrawal from the Axis. The Wehrmacht in April 1941 invaded Greece, quickly defeating the Greek and British armies. The Germans invaded Greece and Yugoslavia simultaneously on April 6, 1941. Belgrade was subjected to Luftwaffe terror bombing for rejecting an alliance with the NAZIs. The Germans swept through Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav Army offered no effective resistance. The defection of the Croats to the NAZIs was an important factor in the quick German victory. The Greeks did resist, but most of their army was in Albania. British (Australian and New Zealand forces) attempted to stop the German drive into Thrace, but were no match for the German Panzer units strongly supported by the Luftwaffe. The Allied defense plan was based on some level of resistance from the Yugoslavs and the Greek-Yugoslavian border was largely unprotected. Unlike World War I, Yugoslav (Serbian) forces collapsed within days. It was through Yugoslavia that the Wehrmacht poured into Greece. Even at Thermopylae, the British only held for a week. The Greeks were forced to ask for an armistice (April 23). The British were left to extricate as much of their force as possible. The Germans took Crete with a daring, but costly parachute assault (May 20-23). (Hitler never again allowed a parachute assault.) The Greek Government and King George II left Greece with the British to form a government in exile. The consequences of the German victory for the Greek people were 3 years of hideous barbarism.
While the Germans rapidly achieved their goals the stunning successes of the Wehrmacht proved to have been a strategic disaster. The Balkans diversion delayed Operation Barbarossa by at least 6 weeks. If Hitler had started his invasion to of the Soviet Union May it seems highly likely that they would have seized Moscow if not have defeated the Red Army. [Stassinopoulos] The invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece forced the Wehrmacht to delay operation Barbarossa--the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Battle of Britain in many ways changed the course of the War. An invasion of Britain was impossible without air superiority. Hitler, fearing a cross-Channel invasion, decided that the only way to force the British to seek terms was to destroy the Soviet Union. He began shifting the Wehrmacht eastward to face the enemy that he had longed to fight from the onset--Soviet Russia. The nature of the War changed decisively in the second half of 1941. The Germans invaded Russia in June 1941, launching the most sweeping military campaign in history. It is estimated that on the eve of battle, 6.25 million men faced each other in the East. The Soviets were surprised and devastated. Stalin had ignored warnings from the British who as a result of Ultra had details on the German preparations. Stalin was convinced that they were trying to draw him into the War and until the actual attack could not believe that Hitler would attack him. The attack was an enormous tactical success. The Soviets were surprised and devastated. The Soviet Air Force was destroyed, largely on the ground. The Germans captured 3.8 million Soviet soldiers in the first few months of the campaign. Had the Wehrmacht not been delayed by the invasion of Yugoslavia and Greece, they may have well succeed in taking Moscow. No not knowing the true size of the Red Army, they thought they had essentially won the War. German columns seized the major cities of western Russia and drove toward Leningrad and Moscow. But here the Soviets held. The Japanese decision to strike America, allowed the Soviets to shift Siberian reserves and in December 1941 launch a winter offensive stopping the Wehrmacht at the gates of Moscow--inflicting irreplaceable losses. The army that invaded the Soviet Union had by January 1942 lost a quarter of its strength.
The Germans after defeating the Greeks and British, divided Greece into three occupation zones. The Germans zone included western Macedonia, Thessaloniki, a strip of land in eastern Thrace, the major Aegean Islands and Crete. The Bulgarians zone included eastern Macedonia and Thrace. The Italian zone included the Dodecanese Islands, the Ionian Islands, and a large section of mainland Greece including Athens. The Greek children were especially affected by the German occupation. In addition, the NAZI program of plundering the occupied countries resulting in large quantities of food being shipped from Greece to Germany. This caused a mass famine in Greece. The famine in Greece even reached Athens in the winter of 1941. The famine was a man-made event resulting from the German ability to control distribution of food. The Germans viewed Greece and other occupied countries as a source of food and resources that could be used to support the War effort. It should be stressed that not all Germans involved in the occupation behaved crudely. German Occupation officials reported to Berlin that more food was needed for the Greek people. These requests were ignored by NAZI officials in Berlin. NAZI officials in some occupied countries were interested in remaking those societies on the basis of the National Socialist principles implemented in Germany. This seems not to have been a major factor in Greece. Certainly the racial characteristics of the Greeks was a factor here. The German priorities in Greece were clearly food, raw material, and laborers to support the German War economy. [Mazower] The Occupation was a very difficult period for the Greek people. Actual starvation claimed the most lives. There were many executions, including resistance fighters and even more civilian hostages. Large numbers of Greeks were deported to Germany to work as slave labors. Thousands of children starved. Asylos were set up for the thousands of displaced children. Because of German policies, however, resources were unavailable to deal with the crisis.
As in all of the occupied countries, except perhaps Poland, there were right-wing collaborators in Greece. They supported the formation of Security Battalions after the Rallis Government passed a law ( April 7, 1943). Ioannis Rallis was the German-supported candidate for prime minister. The leader of the thuggish Security Battalions was General Georg Poulos. [Mazower]
The Greeks did not submit meekly to Axis (German, Italian, and Bulgarian) occupation and Resistance groups soon formed. From the earliest period of the occupation, resistance groups began to organize. The Greeks were, however, divided into feuding political factions, including monarchists, Communists, democrats, and others. Greece's contentious political parties were unable to work together against the Germans. The Communists played an especially important role in the Greek resistance. One group of political leaders, trade unionists, communists and others approved the National Liberation Front (EAM) and a military branch (ELAS). Other parties set up their own resistance organizations. The two most important were the EKKA and EDES (National and Social Liberation and National Greek Democratic League). Leaders of ELAS, EKKA and EDES were former officers in the Greek army. They thus organized armed resistance to the Germans. Attacks on the Germans and Italians were conduced in the countryside and cities. The Resistance was especially active in the countryside. The Germans and Italians found that it difficult to track down the guerillas. The German reaction was brutal beyond description. Normally large numbers of Greek civilians were executed for every German killed. The ratio varied. To expedite these reprisals, the Germans often arrested civilians in advance who could then be conveniently executed. There were also reprisals on villages in the country, but these involved major operations. The Germans carried out brutal reprisals in both the country side and cities, usually executing men and women unconnected to the attacks. Strikes and sabotage of all nature were organized. There was some cooperation between the different Resistance groups. The most prominent joint action was the ELAS and EDES attack on the Gorgopotamos bridge in November 1942. This seriously complicated military supply lines and destroyed substantial quantities of military supplies. The Wehrmacht was forced to divert 50 battalions to Greece despite the desperate need on the Eastern front in the Soviet Union. The Hellenic Patriotic Society in Rigopoulos transmit radio reports leading to the sinking 55 Axis vessels. The war and the experience of the occupation threw traditional family roles into question as women became breadwinners and children took up arms. NAZI reprisals were severe.
The Germans occupied Greece for about 3 years (April 1942-October 1944)
This was a shorter period than many occupied countries. Even so, they had plenty of time to commit a wide range of war crimes and atrocities that are still at issue today. The single most deadly war crime was sizing the Greek food supply. Greece was not self sufficient in food production. Before the War, the Greeks imported food. After the occupation, this was no longer possible. Food could be used to control the population. The NAZI program of plundering the occupied countries, made the situation in Greece even more difficult for the Greek people. Large quantities of food were shipped from Greece to Germany. The result was a mass famine in Greece. Most of the 0.3 million Greeks that perished during the War died as a result of the ensuing famine. Unlike some countries, killing Greeks was not part of the NAZI war goals, but the NAZI Hunger Plan entailed obtaining food for the German people regardless of the impact on occupied peoples. We have no information on the Lebensborn program in Greece. As Greek children tend to be dark complexioned, the SS may not have perused the program in Greece, but we have no information at this time. Himmler wanted blond, blue eyed children. Camps in Greece were part of the vast NAZI system of concentration camps. At that time, the Germans occupied Greece, there were about 76,000 Jews in the country. Most or about 55,000 were in Salonika in the German occupation zone. There were 6,000 Jews in western Thrace under Bulgaria and 13,000 Jews in the Italian zone. The process of the Holocaust was thus affected by which occupation zone the Jews lived. Unlike many European countries, there was not a strong tradition of anti-semitism. Nor was anti-semitism a major concern with the Italians. It was the German occupation administration, the SS, and the German army that brought deadly ant-semitism to Greece. [Manzower]. The NAZIs completed the extermination of Jews in the German and Bulgarian occupation zones by the summer of 1943. The greatest single atrocity committed by the Germans in Greece was the seizure of food. Greece was not self sufficient in food. Thus seizing substantial quantities of food led to hunger and starvation. Most of the 0.3 million Greeks who died during the War starved to death, most of them children. The other major cause of death was the Holocaust--the murder of Greek Jews. In addition to these terrible actions was a long list of killing actions. The Kalavryta massacre is usually seen as the worst single NAZI action. The Germans massacred some 700 Greek males in the Peloponnesian village of Kalavryta. It was retaliation for the resistance forces executed nearly 80 Nazi soldiers. Of course the resistance fighters did this because the Germans were executing their men. There were some 30 other major such atrocities.
The Germans in September 1944 evacuated the Greek mainland so that they would not be cut off in the Balkans by the Red Army which was pushing into Hungary. The Germans in May 1945 surrendered the last of the Greek islands under their control. Liberation in Greece, however, did not bring peace. Conflict developed between the Communist Resistance forces EAM/ELAS and the British-backed conservative Papandreou government. Athens was liberated on October 12, 1944. The struggle for control of liberated Greece resulted in conflict between EAM/ELAS and the British-backed conservative government. There was considerable concern about a possible Communist seizure of power. The British as a result toughened their position against ELAS and their soldiers--the andartes - αντάρτες (guerillas). In some cases the British even made common cause with rightest elements that had collaborated with the NAZIs. [Manzower]
The Greek Civil War was one of the opening phases of the Cold War which descended on Europe after the defeat of the NAZIs. The German Wehrmacht was in 1944 being relentlessly pushed west by the Soviet Red Army. Rather than being cut off in the Balkans and Greece, the Wehrmacht beam to withdraw in 1944. British troops in 1944 entered Greece as the Wehrmacht withdrew north. The Resistance groups attacked the fleeing Germans. Elections return to Greece after the the Germans withdrew in 1944, but were hotly contested. The Communists boycotted the elections and a bloody guerilla campaign that amounted to a Civil War which tore the country apart. The Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS) organized by the Greek Communist Party was the strongest force in the Resistance and tried to seize control of Greece. Only 2 months after the departure of the Germans from Athens, the ELAS and British fought street battles. An armistice was signed with the British in 1945, but a civil war developed among the Greek political parties. The British were weakened by nearly 6 years of War and were unable to fully support the non-communists. Britain which had shouldered enormous costs during the War was essentially a bankrupt nation. Very substantial costs followed the War such as the occupation of Germany and continuing responsibilities in Cyprus, Greece, Palestine, and other countries. This is one reason why rationing had to be continued in Britain after the War. This proved extremely unpopular with serious domestic political consequences. The British also turned to rightest elements in Greece, including some who had collaborated with the Germans. Soon some members of the anti-NAZI Resistance movement were being arrested. The British asked for American assistance. The United States beginning in 1947 began supplying arms to the Greek Government. The Americans helped construct damaged infrastructure like air fields, bridges, docks, railways and communication networks. Fighting in the Civil War continued for 4 years. The Communists finally in 1949 declared a cease fire.
Hionidou, Violetta. Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).
Laiou-Thomadakis, Angeliki. "The Politics of Hunger: Economic Aid to Greece, 1943-1945." Journal of the Hellenic Diaspora (Vol. 7) (2008).
Mario Cervi, The Hollow Legion. Mussolini's Blunder in Greece, 1940-41 (London 1971).
Paraschos, Kostas. I katoche: photografika tekmiria (Athens: Hermes, 1973).
Paraschos, Kostas. I apeleftherosi (Athens: Hermes, 1983).
Stassinopoulosy, Costas. Modern Greeks (American Hellenic Institute Foundation: Washington).
Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944 (Yale University Press, 1993), 437p.
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