Today marks the anniversary of the beginning of one of many forgotten little wars that ended up becoming swept up in the Second World War which raged on at the same time. As with the First World War, the 1939-1945 war was one of those terrible confrontations which swept up so many nations in its wake no matter how unrelated they were to the initial conflict. In the case of the event that is remembered on October 28th, it was the beginning of the Greco-Italian War in 1940. A relatively contained conflict that quickly became part of the wider European conflict that was then ongoing.
Greece at that time was a constitutional monarchy, but decades of political strife between competing conservative and republican Venizelist factions had led to one to many incidences of instability for George II to tolerate. As such in August of 1936, he named the former military man and staunch royalist, Ioannis Metaxas the new head of government and in no time Metaxas did away with parliamentary politics. Metaxas set about solving the economic crisis then facing Greece. In 1936, Greece was running a budget deficit of 844 million drachmas and dependent on ever-growing foreign loans. The rate of unemployment was high (135,000 of a country of 5 million were unemployed), moreover, loan sharks were having a field day with ruralites and added to this were the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Greek refugees from Asia Minor who were living in hovels. Moreover, laissez-faire policies had only exacerbated the problem further.
Metaxas also reorganized the army, had fortifications built along the border with Bulgaria (the Metaxas Line), began extensive reforms to benefit the lot of the workers and farmers which included, among other initiatives: an 8-hour work day, paid vacations and banning of child labour. His ultimate goal was an end to class struggle, a rejuvenation of the upper strata of society into a group which was truly devoted to the nation as a whole and the realization of his dream of the ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’ – the preceding two having been pre-Roman Greece and the Byzantine Empire – which would incorporate the best qualities of the former two. Metaxas hailed from noble stock, being the descendant of an aristocratic family from the island of Kefalonia; a lineage that traced back to the period of Venetian rule over that island and back further still, to the Byzantine Empire.
There is much debate as to whether Metaxas’ regime can be called fascist or not, although most historians seem to agree he was not actually one. It is difficult to exactly pin down what is and isn’t fascism especially in our day when that word is thrown around so much it essentially has no meaning. One reason for this debate is because of how heterogeneous fascism is. To quote Francisco Franco, another figure who is often labeled fascist, but like Metaxas was not,
Fascism, since that is the word that is used, fascism presents, wherever it manifests itself, characteristics which are varied to the extent that countries and national temperaments vary. It is essentially a defensive reaction of the organism, a manifestation of the desire to live, of the desire not to die, which at certain times seizes a whole people. So, each people reacts in its own way, according to its conception of life.
Metaxas never went as far as Sir Oswald Mosely in Britain or Eoin O’Duffy in Ireland and call his politics fascist, and nor was he was primarily influenced by fascism as the Spanish Falangists and German National Socialists were. Metaxian Greece was much like Salazar’s Portugal, Horthy’s Hungary, Antonescu’s Romania or Franco’s Spain: more reactionary conservatism with the trappings of fascism, so as to tap into popular foreign trends on the one hand and to better mobilize and secure the loyalties of the people on the other. Indeed, it should be noted that Salazar’s Estado Novo was a particular influence upon Metaxism.[i] The idea of corporatism was embraced (at least publicly) as it was by say the Falangists in Spain and fascists of Italy, Britain and Ireland; a militarized national youth organization was created and the fasces were adopted as a symbol – although they had also been adopted by liberals in the 18th century, most notably the American founding fathers. However, there was no leader-principle as was the case with the Falangists and the National Socialists and nor was there any strict ideological conformity that was imposed.
Metaxas generally put the nation above religion although he also saw religion as a central tenet to his Third Hellenic Civilization project, especially because of the centrality of the Church to the Byzantine Empire – aka the Second Hellenic Civilization.[ii] Christianity was seen as having been an important actor in the Greek struggle for independence in the 1820s and the nucleus of Metaxism was to be nation, fatherland and religion.[iii] It should also be noted that Metaxas was himself a pious man and did not harbour any anti-Christian views, as Hitler and many fascist leaders did. However, in the end Metaxas’ writ ran large as he was able to influence the outcome of the 1938 Holy Synod election.[iv] In conjunction with his religiosity was Metaxas’ royalism. Unlike Mussolini who put up with a monarch because he had to, Metaxas was a staunch defender of monarchy and did his level best to unite the monarchy with his ‘4th of August’ regime and the Orthodox Church.
Kallis argues that an actual fascist or fascist derivative movement could not have succeeded in Greece because the country had experienced an ‘incomplete modernization and uneven liberalisation’ and also because the traumas it had experienced in the interwar period were blamed by the Greeks on their own nation.[v] Moreover, Metaxas’ regime was not a populist one despite certain populist reforms that were undertaken. But that does not mean he faced widespread resistance. In the end the vast majority of Greeks assented to Metaxism even if they weren’t overt promoters of it, largely because of the way he brought back stability and improved the economy.[vi] Metaxas’ regime was also largely focused on traditional values and upholding Greece’s glorious past.
Clearly, aspects of fascism, or at least the original Italian variant, had an influence and yet it was to be with fascist Italy that Metaxian Greece would end up warring with in October 1940. Throughout the 1920s Greece and Italy had had a cool relationship at best. After the First World War, the two countries had come to loggerheads over the fate of Anatolia as the Italians had hoped to include much of that region into their sphere of influence while the Greeks had hoped to fulfill the Megali idea of reuniting all majority Greek inhabited lands. This frosty relationship continued even after the Turks pushed both out of Anatolia and Mussolini took power in 1922. In 1923 Italy even went so far as to bombard the island of Corfu after a progressively worsening relationship brought about initially by Italian arbitration of a border dispute between Greece and Albania.
That said, the relationship did begin to warm in the late 1920s as successive governments strove to obtain peaceful relations with all of Greece’s neighbours in order to break free of diplomatic isolation. In the case of rapprochement with Italy this was largely driven by their mutual distrust of Yugoslavia and Greece’s distrust of Bulgaria. However, Greece remained closely tied to Britain and France and so had to be careful about how closely it moved towards Italy. In 1934, Greece also signed the Balkan Pact which was meant to be a bulwark against Bulgarian irredentism and as such came to include Yugoslavia. It was rejected by the Italians. In the end, though, it was the rise of Hitlerian Germany to prominence in Central and Eastern Europe which truly began the return of Italian hostility towards Greece. The Italians feared German intrusions into the Balkans which they hoped could be turned into their sphere of influence, indeed, in the case of Greece, Germany did begin having a greater role in trade after 1933. Shortly after Anschluss – which Mussolini had initially been against, only changing his mind after his former allies decided to diplomatically isolate Italy for its conquest of Ethiopia – the Italians began an absorption process of their own: they conquered Albania. This country had only come into being in 1913 and since then had been racked by rebellions, internal political strife, foreign intrigue and general instability. It was essentially a failed state until Ahmed Muhtar Zogli came to power. But even then, the country remained in dire financial straits and was indebted to Italy. Zogli’s attempts to break free from Italian influence backfired dramatically.
Having Italy now share a land border with Greece raised concerns of the future of Greco-Italian relations especially as the Italians began to foster Albanian nationalism and irredentism. Although this was primarily aimed at Yugoslavia given it had a far larger number of Albanians than Greece, it still had the potential to cause problems in Greece given the existence of its small Albanian minority. There was also the added issue of the Greek populace of Northern Epirus which was (and still is) part of Albania. Another issue seems to have been Mussoini’s mixed messages: he would tell the Greeks one thing but then tell his own ministers another regarding Italy’s intentions with Greece.
After Italy joined in the Second World War a further complication arose in that Greece remained heavily pro-British and of course Italy and Britain were now at war. The Italians were wary of Greece because British vessels were cruising through Greek waters, however, this was not done with the permission of Greece. The Italians began countering this by deciding to also completely ignore Greek neutrality and send ships into its waters. The most blatant act against Greece was when the Royal Hellenic Navy cruiser Elli was sunk by the Italians in August of 1940. The Greek government chose to ignore the sinking in order to keep neutral. Ultimately, as much as he feared war would come, Metaxas did not want a war. Furthermore, there was the continued problem of German economic penetration of the Balkans. After the Second World War began this only picked up speed and now included a military component. On the 7th of October 1940, the Romanians allowed the German military to station troops in its borders and take up patrol duties for its oil fields. Hitler did not tell his ally of this before hand; he waited until the 11th to let Mussolini know. It seemed to Mussolini that Hitler was trying to out manoeuvre him in the Balkans and halt any potential Italian hegemony of the region. Although the British remained the greatest influence on Greece the Germans also played a leading role. Again, further evidence for Mussolini that the Germans were trying to halt any expansion of Italian influence in the Eastern Mediterranean.[vii]
In the summer of 1940 Italian forces invaded British possessions in East Africa, completely overrunning British Somaliland and driving the British back in Sudan and Kenya. That September, Italy invaded British controlled Egypt. Overjoyed with success and feeling the time now was ripe for further gains elsewhere, on the 28th of October the Italian Ambassador Emanuele Grazzi presented Metaxas with an ultimatum, demanding free passage for Italian troops to occupy unspecified strategic sites within Greek territory. Accepting such an ultimatum seemed tantamount to treason especially as it seemed increasingly clear to Metaxas that the Italians intended to stay. As such he rejected the ultimatum. There is a widely held belief that Metaxas replied to Italy’s ultimatum simply with όχι (no) and it is from this legend that the day gets its name. However, in reality it is believed he actually made a slightly longer reply and in French – a still common language for the educated classes at that time – saying ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’ (then it is war). Both could be considered Spartan replies – that is to say short and to the point – but the former has the added benefit of being more direct, terse and of course is in Greek. Shortly after Metaxas took to the radio to tell his people,
Greeks, the time has come for Greece to fight for her independence. Greeks, we now must prove worthy of our ancestors and the freedom they gave us. Fight for the Fatherland, for your wives, for your children and for the sacred traditions. Now, above all, Fight!
The Greeks were able not only to halt the Italian invasion which came shortly afterwards, but turn them back! In fact, the Greek counter-offensive managed to drive deep in Albania, taking over the traditionally Greek region of Northern Epirus. Churchill famously said of the Greek war effort that, “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.” Adolf Hitler also lauded the fighting skills of the Greeks stating to the Reichstag in May of 1941, “For the sake of historical truth I must verify that only the Greeks, of all the adversaries who confronted us, fought with bold courage and highest disregard of death.” Although there are some who erroneously try to make it seem as if the war was an Italian victory, these individuals have I think rightly, noted the long-term favoured the Italians because the Greeks did not have the men or material to push any further. There were very real fears also that Greece would not even be able to hold the gains it had made. Ultimately, however, I think it is fair to say it was the Germans who won the war, but was their involvement a foregone conclusion?
Metaxas let the British know that Greece would need greater aid if it were to conclusively defeat Italy, but the British offer of a few paltry reinforcements was not to Metaxas’ liking. Their offer was problematic because the forces offered were not enough to have been of any real assistance but would certainly get the attention of Germany and could very well lead to a German intervention. As such Metaxas refused the offer of troops from Britain. The British did supply the Greeks throughout the conflict, however. In November the British occupied the islands of Lemnos and Crete as a pre-emptive move to keep them out of the hands of the Italian navy. In no time Greece, which had been trying its best to present its war with Italy as having nothing to do with Germany, came into Hitler’s sights. Hitler had no intentions of becoming involved in the Balkans, but sadly this happened anyways, largely because of Mussolini’s ill-thought out invasion, but one cannot help but shake one’s head over the role of London also. The British its true were giving aid to the Greeks but they had previously violated its waters[viii] and their offers of troops[ix] were only enough to enrage Germany; not to defend Greece.
Looking back its clear that όχι day is one of those days in history which should never have happened. Mussolini really should have just concentrated on seeing through the campaigns he had begun in Africa. Its obvious that Mussolini under-estimated the Greeks just as he had earlier under-estimated the French in June of 1940. Or better yet Italy could have stayed out of the war in the first place. Mussolini did not join Germany when war broke out in 1939 and really, he should have stayed out as his military just was not prepared for war. There is a common myth that Italian troops were poor soldiers and cowards, but that is not true; the military in general was simply not ready for a war at that time. Britain and France shouldn’t have got involved in what was originally a German-Polish conflict, but neither should have Italy. Mussolini refused to take part in the war in 1939 and there was no reason for him to embroil his country in the conflict in 1940. Or perhaps Hitler could have stayed out of Poland.
Metaxas is a figure of mixed reception by Greeks today. On the one hand they celebrate his decision to stand up for his country in 1940 but on the other hand the cult of liberalism and egalitarianism that so dominates today’s globalized world means he is often portrayed as some horrid little despot. There is at least one group which upholds Metaxas as the figure of worth which he really is, Golden Dawn – of course Golden Dawn’s reverence for Metaxas is used as somehow being evidence of him having been a fascist. There are many problems with Golden Dawn, primarily the way they have sadly attracted neo-nazi skinhead elements, but it must be said that they are actually a Greek party as opposed to most of their political rivals who are your average globalist shills. For example, Golden Dawn has run foodbank services to impoverished Greeks and also has offered security for Greeks living in areas that have been colonized by foreigners. Compare this to the ruling SYRIZA party, for example, whose leader (Prime Minister Alexis Tspiras)[x] is an anti-Christian, eager to promote the newest fashionable views on trans, homosexuality, feminism, et al. The current government is also promoting anti-patriotic education policies such as ending traditional flag raising and the singing of national anthem at primary schools. Plans are also underway for ending morning prayers and religious education which as with other unnecessary SYRIZA social policies is unpopular. Golden Dawn doesn’t seem to be overly concerned with Christianity and from what I gather they have neo-pagan elements as well; I would like to see them and other rightists actually make greater overtures to the faith.[xi]
With any luck there is a silver lining to the problems which beset contemporary Greece, that they can have a revival of Orthodoxy, that the left can be relegated to the dustbin of history and populist organizations can give way to a revived traditional right-wing in Greece that can bring about a renaissance, as Metaxas did his best to achieve. Until then let us honour men such as Metaxas, who, unlike our leaders today, actually cared for their countries and put them first.
[i]Aristotle A. Kallis, “Fascism and Religion: The Metaxas Regime in Greece and the ‘Third Hellenic Civilisation’. Some Theoretical Observations on ‘Fascism’, ‘Political Religion’ and ‘Clerical Fascism.” Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 8, No. 2, (June 2007), pp. 229-246.236
[vi]Interestingly enough the largest industry in Greece became the arms industry! Something one generally does not associate Greek exports with. Anyways, it appears that Greece became an important supplier of arms to Chiang Kai-Shek in China and to both sides during the Spanish Civil War.
[vii]France had also played quite an important role in the Greek political and economic spheres from the time of its independence. However, this influence was shattered in the post-1918 period as the French refused to fully back Greece in its struggles with the Turks and the Italians. Whatever influence France had left was finally snuffed out after the German conquest in the summer of 1940.
[viii]British violations of Norwegian waters had led to a German invasion in 1940 while a British backed coup against the pro-neutrality Prince-Regent of Yugoslavia ultimately led to the Axis conquest and division of that kingdom. As with Norway, British actions in Greece were not, I don’t think, about undermining the state. British machinations in Yugoslavia, on the other hand, do come across as a malicious action.
[ix]In the end, over 62,000 British, New Zealand and Australian troops were sent to Greece to help fight the Germans but ultimately this did not prove enough to turn the tables.
[x]It would seem that many members of Golden Dawn were or still are sympathetic to Hitlerism and of course this is continually brought up whenever they are in the news. However, SYRIZA is filled with all sorts of communists and former communists including Tsiparis. This is never a problem, however. On a side note, it should be mentioned that many of SYRIZA’s members were radicalized whilst attending British universities. Interesting, how so many hard-left types develop their ideologies in Western European and American centres of ‘higher education.’ It may also explain why SYRIZA is more cosmopolitan than the more outright communist KKE which still holds certain politically ‘incorrect’ views regarding gender and sexuality.