The Greek Civil War: from liberation to catastrophe

A far greater tragedy than the ancient Greek playwrights Euripides, Aeschylus or Sophocles could ever have written befell the Greek people between 1941 and 1949.

From the German Nazi occupation of Greece in April 1941 and the consequent food shortages which killed 300,000 people, to the valiant struggle by the resistance which led to the liberation of Greece, there were many twists and turns in the struggle.

During those years, what could easily have turned into a democratic socialist revolution became the antithesis — concentration camps full of partisans and the murder and decapitation of anti-Nazi fighters (their severed heads were stuck on tall poles to terrorise others out of resisting the Nazis).

In September 1941, the National Liberation Front (EAM) and its army, ELAS, were formed. They were led by the Stalinist Communist Party of Greece (KKE), but their memberships were much broader than the party.

While Greece’s bourgeois politicians fled into exile or collaborated with the Nazis, the communists stayed and fought.       Valiant resistance

The Greek Civil War combines superb archival footage and interviews with partisans. It shows that the Greek people fought Nazi occupation in many ways — urban mobilisation, guerilla war in the mountains and destruction of infrastructure.

An example of this resistance occurred in February 1943, when the German army chief issued an order that all Greek males must go to work in German slave labour camps. Immediately, red graffiti plastered the streets of Athens: “No workers for Germany, down with the German jails”.

A demonstration was held two days after the order. The German and Italian security forces where ready with machine guns, set up on the roofs of public buildings.

At 9am, in a freezing rain, the first protesters arrived at Syntagma Square in the centre of Athens. The square filled with people, who began to sing the national anthem, a song which originated from the 1821 national liberation struggle against the Turks. Security forces fired into the air.

The demonstration continued. The unarmed protesters marched to the ministry of labour building, which was guarded by Italian forces, also armed with machine guns.

The troops opened fire. What happened next is described in the book The Kapetanios by Dominique Eudes: “The demonstrators were going berserk, gripped by a blind, irresistible determination, exalted by the mad ancient war-cry of Greece”.

The protesters took control of the building, then burned it to the ground, destroying all the files. The forced labour law could not be implemented. One hundred dead and wounded were carried away.

Courageous acts like these caused Hitler to say of the Greeks, “We must have done with these lice”.

By mid-1944, ELAS controlled nearly all the country except Athens and a few other cities. Day by day, villages and towns were falling to the resistance forces. The invading Germans were a defeated force — defeated not by the Allies led by Britain, but by the communist-led resistance.       Stalinist betrayal

Who would fill the political space the Germans were to leave?

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill attempted to steal the victory from ELAS through international diplomacy. At a meeting in Caserta, Italy, the British imposed one of their generals as head of the Greek armed forces and a new “government of national unity” with Georgios Papandreou, an exile, as prime minister and a couple of insignificant ministries for EAM.

The EAM agreed to this rotten deal on the basis of the KKE’s 1934 policies of “a peaceful road to socialism” and the formation of “popular front” governments (making a coalition with bourgeois parties against fascism).

On October 9, Churchill met with Stalin to carve up eastern Europe and the Balkans. The transcripts of the meeting are played out in the video. Churchill passed Stalin a note with countries and percentages: Russia could have Romania and Hungry, and Britain would get Greece.

This disgraceful pact by Stalin sacrificed the Greek revolutionaries to the Soviet leadership’s “socialism in one country” foreign policy.

Churchill made an agreement with the Nazis about how and when they were to leave Greece. The film shows the little-known truth of how Germany and Britain conspired to keep Greece under British control. The agreement was based on their common fear of communism.

In 1942, Churchill had called the members of the resistance “the valiant guerillas”. Now he called them “bandits disguised as saviours”.

As the Germans left Greece, the celebrations began. Thousands sang the “Internationale” in Athens and, even though most people were starving, the victory festival lasted for three days. The victory demonstrations were filled with red flags and the national flag.

By December 1945, there were thousands of British troops in Greece. ELAS fighters were disarmed, yet Nazi collaborators were allowed to go free. The film shows the guerillas (or andartes) weeping into their bushy beards as their weapons are taken from them.

Strikes were held in Athens to force the British to honour in full the Caserta agreement. The British demanded that ELAS hand over all its arms, or be attacked.

When the British began killing protesters, the civil war, which was to last until 1949, began. The British backed rightist forces against the communists, prompting the appearance of placards at demonstrations stating “The Germans are back”.       An alternative

A different outcome of this tragic war was possible. Had the KKE ordered ELAS to move into Athens in October, the communists could have taken state power. When one commander, Markos Vafiadis, decided to do this and take the northern Greek city of Thessaloniki, his battalion was welcomed by the residents.

Once ELAS, the army of the people, had state control, free elections could have been held. There were many indications that EAM had significant, if not majority, support among the people of Greece: EAM could mobilise 500,000 people at rallies, and when the British puppet Papandreou addressed a rally soon after returning to Greece, the crowd cut him off with chants of “la-o-kra-tia!”, meaning “people’s power”.

Instead, with ELAS disarmed, the “white terror” began, joined in by many Nazi collaborators. From February 1945 to March 1946, 1219 leftists were murdered, 31,632 were tortured and 84,931 were arrested. A concentration camp for leftists was set up on the island of Makronissos; the prisoners’ screams could be heard on the mainland.

To symbolise the defeat of the left, the severed head of Aris Veloukhiotis, one of the bravest guerillas in the resistance, was placed on a pole in public view.

In the middle of this terror campaign, a national election was held and declared “free and fair” by the imperialist powers. EAM abstained from the election, deceived by some of the liberal parties which had agreed to abstain but broke the agreement at the last minute.

The rest is history. The Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky once advised revolutionaries not to laugh, nor to weep, but to understand. From this episode of Greek history we can understand a little of the great sacrifice that millions of working people have made to better their lives; that it is necessary for the majority to take state power; and that this is possible, given the right leadership and conditions. We can also understand better how great the betrayals of Stalinism were.