This year not only marks the anniversary of 2,500 years since the battles of Thermopylae and Salamis, but also 80 years since the epic resistance of the Greeks against the Axis invasion in 1940.
Thermopylae and WW II together?
Unbelievable though it seems, there is a song that manages to combine these two historic events. It may not be Greek, and heavy metal may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of either event, but those of you who know me will not be surprised; I have already written a few posts about how Greek history is presented in pop culture.
A Swedish band
Today I will introduce you to a Swedish band called Sabaton. What makes this heavy metal band different is that their songs are inspired from military history and their lyrics narrate (or pay homage to) historic events or personalities.
(I will continue with a brief analysis of the song, using imagery from the song’s official videoclip on Youtube. If you would rather not see the video’s scenes of graphic violence, you may listen to the song from the band’s web page, or watch an alternative video, bearing just the lyrics, which you may also find here.)
The lyrics begin describing the delivery of the ultimatum from the Italian ambassador to the Greek Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, who immediately responded negatively. His answer went into history as the Greek “NO” and October 28th is known to Greeks as “No day” meaning “the day we said No”.
Next, the invasion of the Italian troops is described, the successful response of the Greeks (despite their being severely outnumbered and outgunned) the mobilization of the entire Greek society and their struggle for their freedom. The unsuccessful Italian air raids are also mentioned as well as the Greek counterattack which forced the Italians to retreat deep into (occupied) Albania.
Throughout the song (and the videoclip) there are continuous oral and visual references to Greek antiquity, king Leonidas and the Spartans. There is even mention in the motto of the Greek War of Independence in the 1820s, “Freedom or Death”.
Names and symbols
I liked that the Sabaton refer to Greece by its proper name, Hellas, but I was impressed that they did not merely show the striped Greek flag, which everyone knows, but also the older flag, bearing the image of St. George, protector of the infantry. Such flags were used by all the regiments during the Greco-Italian war. Many are kept at the Greek Infantry Academy.
Connection to the past
The video accompanying the song visually demonstrates what the lyrics allude to. They both connect the modern military struggle of the Greeks against the Axis with those of their ancestors against the Persians. Naturally, the mention of Sparta and Leonidas are not coincidental, nor is the appearance of ancient Greek warriors in various parts of the videoclip.
Although the scenes of 1940 fighting seem to have been inspired by historic artwork (such as this painting by A. Alexandrakis) the scenes of ancient Greek fighters seem drawn from another pop culture product, namely the film «300».
The connection of the Greek stand against the Italians to the ancient Greek stand against the Persians, was not the band’s exclusive idea. The connection had been made already in the 1940s by the allied press, as evident by various articles and cartoons of the time.
The song may be loud and dark, the video may have got some of the details wrong, but I still believe this song to be a fitting tribute to an epic struggle, which inspired, even though it was doomed from the start. Soon the Germans would intervene and the Greeks would suffer under a brutal Occupation.
However, this is not the day to talk of defeat. Tomorrow marks the anniversary of a bold decision and a glorious (even if overlooked) episode of WW II. It marks the day when our grandfathers refused to capitulate and chose to fight for their freedom, winning against enormous odds.
This post is dedicated to their memory.
War time cartoons: War Museum, Athens, Greece
Painting of charging soldiers: Alexandros Alexandrakis, “Aera!” History of the Greek nation, vol. XIII.
Greek regiment flag: from the collection of the Greek Infantry Academy
All other images are screen captures from the song’s official video clip on Youtube and are used here purely for informational purposes. All the rights to the images belong to their proprietors.