In 1940, 73 years ago, Europe was already living through its second year of war. The Axis seemed unstoppable – the German forces, under Hitler’s command, had waltzed through half of Europe and most of the continent was reeling under Nazi oppression.
Eager not to be outdone, the Italian fascist leader, Benito Mussolini, decided that the Southeastern part of the continent was his to take and, after occupying Albania, set his eyes on nearby Greece.
It proved impossible to provoke Greece into an armed responsse, as the small nation (whose economy had still not recovered from the Great Depression, WW I and its aftermath) was keen to avoid conflict. An Italian ultimatum forced things – essentialy the Greeks were asked to capitulate and accept the Italians as their masters. There was no way such a proposal could ever be accepted – ill prepared though it was, the Greek army rushed to meet the Italian forces that were pouring through its border with Albania.
What followed was so unexpected that the entire world turned and watched with bated breath: the scant Greek forces stopped and then began to push back the Italian battalions who were soon retreating deep into Albanian territory. The Greeks captured one city after the other in a string of victories that made Europe giddy with hard-to-conceal enthusiasm. Here at last was someone who not only stood up against the Axis forces but was giving them a lesson that every European had dreamt of delivering. Headlines and front pages sung paeans to Greece, drawing parallels with its glorious past.
At the same time, the Italian leader was being mercilessly ridiculed.
Finally, Hitler decided enough was enough. No love was lost between the German leader and his Italian counterpart, but the sound beating of one of his allies by an enemy so small was bad PR and huge loss of face for the entire Axis. He decided to postpone his invention of Russia for a few weeks to put an end to his ally’s embarrassment. The armored divisions that had torn though the French border soon advanced against Greece, subjugating Yugoslavia on the way. The operation was swift and successful: with most of its troops on the Albanian front, the Greek army found itself outflanked by a far superior enemy. As the Greek king and government fled, a handful of Greek generals signed the country’s capitulation to the Axis.
Keeping the choiciest areas for themselves, the Germans divided the rest of Greece between their two allies, Italy and Bulgaria (which had just joined the fray).
A brutal Occupation followed, during which the country was bled dry, as the Axis systematically plundered all its food and resources to serve the increasing needs of its advancing armies. Famine, atrocities and war crimes decimated the population.
Were the sacrifices of the Greek soldiers in vain? Should they have succumbed to the inevitable and endured a milder Occupation? The soldiers of 1940 were adamant in their refusal and their descendants tend to agree with them. But what does history have to say?
Although they made headlines at the time, today the events of the Albanian front tend to be overlooked by historians. The Greeks feel this is a gross injustice; they believe their grandfathers’ struggle was not an insignificant local conflict, nor merely an attempt to delay the inevitable.
The way they see it, their fight not only boosted morale all over Occupied Europe and set an example, but it may have even helped to determine the outcome of the War. They claim that their victories over the Italians forced Hitler’s hand and made him delay Operation Barbarossa in order to subjugate Greece. The result was that the invasion of the Soviet Union took place a crucial few weeks later than initially planned, which made the effects of the Russian winter more debilitating for the Germans. Also, the battle of Crete led to the virtual annihilation of the elite German corps of paratroopers, which Hitler was unable to use effectively again.
Whichever the case, the day they entered WW II is for Greeks a day of rememberance. Other countries prefer to celebrate their liberation; for the Greeks, it is the day they chose to fight rather than meekly accept subjugation that is more important. The battle was lost, but this matters little to the Greeks: it is the act of defiance and its significance that still reverbrate in the Greek psyche. Like the 300 hundred Spartans (and their allies), the Greeks of 1940 chose to make a stand against superior forces. For them, as well as for their descendants, the stand matters more than the outcome.
In the days of the “Greek crisis” and the IMF-imposed “austerity”, the annual celebrations take on a poignant significance. Today the Greeks feel unfree, under occupation all over again. The feeling is hard to dismiss as unfounded – after all, it is foreign powers that dictate harsh measures, which are then passed, almost unanimously, by a submissive parliament. The Greeks feel betrayed by a collaborationist elite that they believe sided with the enemy instead of taking a stand and fighting tooth and nail for their country’s future. As daily reality grows steadily worse, with citizens squeezed between rising taxes and shrinking salaries, these feelings grow stronger. Anniversaries like this only serve to remind people of uneasy similarities with the past. Gradually curtailing democratic liberties cannot defuse the hidden frustration that seethes below the surface, while the end is far from near.
But I digress; today I am merely going to bow my head in respect to our grandfathers, who fought valiantly against all odds, overturning every prediction and teaching the world (and us, their descendents) that victories need to be won and that freedom is worth fighting for.