The Greek Civil War of 1942 – 49 is considered as the first proxy conflict of the Cold War, reflecting a divided nation and international community leaving 45,000 dead. The Nazi Occupation from 1941-1944 had severe repercussions for Greece, contributing and exacerbating ideological divisions which lead to Civil War, yet foreign intervention after World War Two also played a role. The examination of the socio-economic consequences of the Nazi Occupation demonstrates how an ideological divide in Greece became exploited by foreign powers culminating in Civil War.
The Nazi German occupation of Greece impacted the country’s social and economic development, sharpening ideological tensions which contributed to the Civil War. Nazi Germany invaded Greece in April 1941 after a failed Italian offensive. Tactically and technologically superior to the Greek Army, the Nazis overcame the Greeks leading to the partition of Greece under Axis Occupation. The exile of significant political leaders left Greece with no experienced political establishment capable of negotiating with Nazi forces. Instead, a puppet government was formed, proving ineffective in persuading the rest of Greece to collaborate with the Axis forces.
Economically, the Nazi occupation compounded an already difficult situation with the emergence of hyperinflation which impacted particularly on the poor, thereby generating further support for the left-wing parties. The costs imposed by the Axis Powers increased Greek government deficit to 14 billion drachmas “against revenues of 16 billion”, the deficit expanded as occupation costs grew between 17 to 30 billion drachmas. State expenditure grew but this failed to raise revenue because of inefficient Greek tax collection, which became more useless throughout the occupation. The impact of Greek hyperinflation can be seen with two examples from June 1941- 42; as, the price of bread grew from 70 to 2,350 drachmas, and soap from 65 to 3,100. These figures, failing harvests, and occupation costs, severely affected food supplies leading to the Greek Famine of 1941-44.
In a 1981 economic study, economist Amartya Sen argues how natural disasters are never the only reason for famine; social factors and individual decisions play key roles. The Greek Famine supports this argument, as the Italian invasion interrupted the Greek harvest in 1941, which had been 25 percent lower than 1940. Greece’s food security was in a parlous state and this grew worse with maldistribution of food supplies and ineffective rationing. Growing discontent with the collaborationist government, led to armed farmers in the grain-producing region of Macedonia refusing to provide food from their harvests leaving the “government to collect barely one quarter of its grain target”. In addition, the Allied blockade of Greece prevented imports, 45 per cent of which was wheat, which increased the decline of the calorie count in rations from 324 calories to 204 between 1941- 42, significantly below modern regulations of calorie intake at 2000 – 2500.
Occupation costs on the Greek government played a key role in triggering hyperinflation and the British blockade prevented Greece from obtaining the necessary food supply it needed to combat the risk of a famine. Historian Mark Mazower believes the state failed to appropriately ration or distribute food to the public, which, together with unsuccessful land reforms from the Venizelos Government between 1910-1914, created an inefficient harvesting system. He suggests these contributed to the outbreak of the famine, which the German occupation evidently accelerated.
The harsh conditions Greeks lived through during occupation were decisive factors in the rise of Greek resistance movements, these movements culminated in the Greek Civil War. The two main groupings included a far-left resistance, led by the K.K.E or Greek Communist Party, known as the National Liberation (E.A.M), which became the National Popular Liberation Army (E.LA.S). Members of the Greek Communist Party (K.K.E) which, before the occupation, had not been a dominant force in Greek politics now saw an opportunity to expand political influence in Greece. E.L.A.S were strong in the north of Greece attracting a total of 1.5 million members by 1945, many being young men from rural areas. The main right wing resistance was E.D.E.S led by former officer Napoleon Zervas, and was more superior than E.L.A.S on the battlefield due to former military leaders in the group. By the 9th of October 1943, clashes broke out between both groups over territorial and influential ambition in Greece. These ended on 29 February 1944 after the Plaka agreement which prevented further bloodshed. However, the large communist presence clashed with the ideology of E.D.ES, which supported the exiled Monarchy, and were later supported by an international coalition escalating tensions into Civil War.
The Soviet Union’s success against Germany lead to the liberation from the Nazi occupation, further dividing resistance groups. The size of E.A.M/E.L.A.S was a threat to the Greek establishment returning from exile. E.A.M sought to take over Greece with a counter-offensive to capture Athens and impose a communist take-over. This never occurred, as E.A.M were uncertain of non-leftist support and feared foreign intervention. Historian David Brewer claims the K.K.E were opportunistic, beginning with democratic methods, eventually turning to violent ones when the latter failed. An example of this was E.A.M’s attempts at a peaceful demonstration in Athens in December 1944 which ended with authorities firing on the crowd killing protestors. This event reinforced E.A.M/E.L.A.S’s assessment that military action was needed. Understanding it needed immediate action before its members were integrated into the National Army, 2,000 E.L.A.S troops marched on Athens in December 1944, but were repelled by a newly arrived Allied force. By February 1945 ELAS forces surrendered under the terms of the Varkiza Agreement, supposedly ending the Civil War.
External factors, however, revived the conflict after Soviet and American relations deteriorated. The emergence of communist regimes in the Balkans after 1945, such as Tito’s regime in Yugoslavia, encouraged the remobilisation of the Greek communists. The Soviet Union wanted access to the Mediterranean through Greece, while the Allies aimed to contain communism. Historian Dr. Giorgos Antoniou observes how orthodox historians saw Western intervention in Greece as a fight for “western values”. Conversely, revisionists believed Western intervention “undermined Greek sovereignty” reflecting US imperialism. Under the Truman Doctrine, the United States sent $1 Billion, 74,000 tons of military material to aid the Greek Government in its war against the K.K.E. Greek Communists were further placed under pressure as the Percentages Agreement between Stalin and Churchill in 1944 excluded Greece from the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence leading to significant losses for the K.K.E. The Greek Government’s victory largely reflected the impact foreign intervention had during the Greek Civil War.
Foreign intervention sustained the Civil War, reflecting the political agendas of the West and Soviet Union. While the German Occupation allowed ideologically-based Greek resistance to exploit the Occupation for political opportunity, foreign intervention encouraged both sides to continue the Civil War. This widened the Greek ideological divide that emerged under Occupation, and hastened an end to the conflict. These Greek divisions persisted nearly two decades after with the Colonels’ coup and eventual military dictatorship in 1967. While the German Occupation acted as a contributing factor to the Greek Civil War, it was foreign intervention that prolonged the conflict making Greece the first ideological proxy conflict of the ‘Cold War.’
My thanks to the following sources:
Brewer, David. Greece, the Decade of War. London, United Kingdom: I.B Tauris, 2016.
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Gardika-Katsiadaki, Eleni. “Period 1910-1914.” National Foundation Research. Last modified May 18, 2007. Accessed December 8, 2016. https://web.archive.org/web/20070518233429/http://www.venizelos-foundation.gr/endocs/bio10-14.jsp.
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Mazower, Mark. Inside Hitler’s Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993.
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