How British imperialism crushed democracy in Greece
Who let the dogs out: a Greek tragedy
If anyone had cause to celebrate the Allied victory in World War II, it should have been the people of Greece. Having been occupied from 1941 to 1944 by German-led Axis forces Greek workers and farmers suffered as much if not more than any other occupied country. Indeed, following the German retreat the people of Athens poured into the streets in a joyful demonstration of victory. Amongst the slogans raised were “Viva Rosevelt!”, “Viva Churchill!” and “Viva Stalin The Italian and German fascist armies had been defeated and in the process of fighting the occupation forces Greek society initiated a profound social revolution.
However, what should have been a glorious celebration of Greek resistance and liberation from tyranny was transformed almost instantly with the arrival of British troops one month later in October 1944. In a matter of weeks, the planes and tanks and armoured cars that had been fighting Hitler and Mussolini, would now use their fire power to crush the Greek resistance movement.
This in turn marked the opening of a bloody counter-revolution and the installation of an indigenous fascist regime which would unleash a new wave of terror against the Greek people. The main architect of this fascist reaction was none other than Winston Churchill, ably abetted by Rosevelt and Stalin.
How was this possible or even conceivable? After all these former allies of the Greek resistance were the very same forces who were supposedly defending democracy against fascism. A brief look at the British empire and its interests in the region can begin to answer this woeful paradox
The Mediterranean gateway
For German,, Italian and British imperialism, the Mediterranean basin had always occupied considerable strategic and economic importance. Control the Mediterranean and you control access not only to southern Europe but more imporantly to north Africa, the Middle East and the Suez Canal gateway to the Indian and Pacific Ocean. For much of the war the Axis forces held the greatest territorial advantage through their presence in Italy and much of the Balkans. Cyprus and Malta were the British ocean colonies but it was Greece – and the threat of social revolution there - which would reveal the true nature of British war interests not just in the Mediterranean but on a global scale.
As with other less developed capitalist countries in southern Europe, the impact of the 1930s depression in Greece was far more devastating for the urban and rural masses. By 1932 the monarchy headed by Prince Phillip’s cousin George II had been overthrown. But the newly founded democratic republic had barely taken it’s first breath before it was engulfed in social protests demanding measures that would alleviate the widespread debt and impoverishment. Greek capitalism was tottering on the brink and as the republican government dithered, the old order plotted its return to power. This time the monarchy would be re-established as the head of an iron dictatorship under the rule of General Ioannis Metaxas, trained in Germany and a fervent admirer of both Hitler and Mussolini.
The first royal marriage between democracy and fascism
Matters were brought to a head by the 1936 elections in which the Communist Partyof Greece (KKE) won 15 seats.As in France and Spain during the same period, Stalin and the Communist Parties, through the medium of Popular Front alliances, sought to assure European capitalism that social revolution was the last thing on their mind. However, as with the the fascist uprising in Spain in the same year, the capitalist rulers in Greece were not convinced that the Communist Pary could quell the mass insurgency.
Britain, which was home to the exiled Greek King George II, agreed and sanctioned the coup d’etat. Metaxas proceeded to restore the monarchy and construct a dictatorship modelled on both the German and Italian fascist regimes albeit lacking a mass popular base. Like Franco in Spain, Metaxas was a popular figure within the corridors of power in Westminster. As things stood in 1936, Britain’s parliamentary democracy lived in perfect harmony with European fascism provided it did not challenge British imperial interests. Indeed, it was the Metaxas dictatorship which defended these interests.
It was Mussolini who first upset this particular applecart. Italian capitalism had long eyed Greece as part of its own imperial ambitions in the Baltic and Mediterranean regions. In its first attempt at invasion of Greece in October 1940, the Italian army was routed before the combined forces of Bulgaria, Italy and Germany began a new offensive. It was then that Westminster began its military campaign in Greece. However, neither the Greek army nor the 62,000 strong British expeditionary force were a match for the Axis forces. As the vast majority of British forces were evacuated from the south of Greece, Britain suffered its second Dunkirk. The Greek army capitulated completely.
Within the space of a couple of weeks, the Axis occupation of Greece was complete and a quisling government headed by General Georgios Tsolakoglou installed to maximise collaboration with the occupation.
Life and death under the Nazi occupation
The ferocity and brutality of the German-led occupation cannot be understated. During the3 years of the quisling regime, around 70,000 people were executed as a reprisal for the partisans resistance. This was in addition to the virtual annihilation of the Jewish population whose number of deaths numbered around a further 60,000. Both industry and agriculture were geared almost exclusively to service the German war effort both in Greece and the Balkans. The widespread famine that ensued meant that masses of working people teetered constantly on the brink of starvation. With regard to the civilian population, Churchill did not give a damn and maintained a strict naval blockade against food and other supplies. The combination of both these factors meant that the Greek masses lived in famine conditions with some 600,000 people dying outright from hunger and hundreds of thousands more feeding off scraps just to stay alive.
Greece’s capitalist social structure and the state apparatus of the Metaxas regime remained largely untouched and it fell to the existing Greek police and civil service to service the needs of the occupation forces. The capitalist policitians of all hues, be they Republican or Monarchist, either fled the country, worked with the quisling regime or stood by on the sidelines waitng for the British. The underlying social discontent that was fueled by the 1930s depression rapidly fused with the even more atrocious conditions of the occupation.
National resistance and social revolution
Oncer esistance to the occupation started it soon acquired a class character . With the focus on laokratia (people’s power) the Greek partisan movement evolved into a social revolution that not only promised to free Greece from occupation but to liberate it also from exploitation and oppression. The conservatism of the Greek bourgeoisie and its reliance on Westminster and the monarch, created a vacuum which was filled by the EAM (Greek Liberation Front) and ELAS ( Greek People’s Liberation Army) under the leadership of the Greek Communist Party (KKE). Below is a succinct summary of this:
“Mainstream politicians steered clear, preferring to wait for the outcome of the war, and to kow-tow to the Churchill-backed national government (headed by King George) now in Egypt. The EAM became a whirlwind of activity, establishing sections for civil servants, workers, women, students, school kids, as well as town and village committees. All this was hesitantly working toward April 1942 and the founding of the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS) and physical force resistance.
“The puppet government's control in the capital began to deteriorate at the beginning of 1943. For weeks, strikes and pickets would litter the city…………. On the 5th March 7,000 marched through Central Athens, with banners calling for the death of collaborators and denouncing civil mobilisation. As the parade reached Panepistimiou Street the Gendarmerie opened fire, killing 5 people. Resisters responded with a general strike and civil mobilisation was then withdrawn.
“On the 25th June the EAM called another general strike and mobilisation: 100,000 marched and were attacked by Italian soldiers, but such were their numbers they continued to the government building, shouting 'down with the Fascists', 'down with the traitors', and 'down with the Nazis'."
As the resistance grew and began to establish liberated zones, new forms of popular participation and organisatin became widespread. Autonomous communities were formed and run by elected village committees whose work was overseen by regular mass meeting of all the villagers. Not only did they take responsibility for essential services such as the distribution of food but they also began to deal with complex questions of land reform and communal rights. They also set wage rates, managed public services like poverty relief, entertainment and education and coordinated with other councils in organising the war effort.
For the first time, women were granted equal voting rights and took their place on the committees and as fighters within the EAM. People’s courts were established to administer popular justice ranging from water rights to charges of collaboration with the enemy. This then was democracy in action, the people exercising and broadening their rights as the fought the fascist occupation forces. And it was this democracy which struck terror into the hearts of the Greek ruling class and its allies in Westminster. Churchill would do everything to crush it.
Dual power emerges
Such was the strength of EAM and the people’s councils that it was possible to organise elections to a national council in the spring of 1944. Despite the fascist terror and the war conditions, more than 1.5 million people voted – more than those who participated in the 1936 election. The popular character of this movement was described by Mark Mazower, Professor of History at Columbia University:
“The traditional stranglehold of lawyers and doctors had been broken: speakers in the extraordinary and undeniably moving Council sessions included women, farmers in their working breeches, workmen, artisans, priests and journalists.” This showed the enthusiasm sparked by the revolutionary democracy that was being born out of the resistance movement. Like the soviets of the Russian Revolution, the Greek people’s councils were the seeds of a new workers’ and peasants’ state – as a Greek peasant told an American agent inquiring about what post-war Greece would look like, “it will be a type of government where the common people run the country.”
In short, the old state was an incumbrance and a new one was being forged in the heat of war. As events themselves demonstrated from the earliest days of the occupation, this was the last thing that Churchill wanted. Long before the Italian surrender and the German retreat, Westminster manoeuvered continuously to either weaken the partisan movement or bring it under its control at the same time as working tirelessly to re-establish the old regime with the exiled King at its head.
Paralysed by democracy’s headlamps
Whilst the KKE deservedly won the leadership of this new power, they were caught in the glare of imperialist democracy’s headlamps. Credit for this must go to the Soviet bureaucracy which preached moderation as part of its alliance with Westminster and Washington. The “theory”, if we can call it that, was that these two giants of capitalist democracy were in some way allies of the working class and as such their interests should not be tampered with.
Hence, instead of using the retreat of the fascist occupation forces as an opportunity to establish a new government and state based on the mass resistance movement, the KKE chose to collaborate with Churchill and the Greek ruling class in an attempt to establish a “national government” which would preserve the old system and guarrantee that respect for British interests which had been agreed between Stalin and Churchill a few months previously.
This was a fatal weakness and one which Churchill had already begun to exploit.
The growing convergence between democracy and fascism.
Before such a national government could be established it was imperative that the retreat of the occupation forces be handled in such a manner that would not strengthen the EAM. Under the impact of the insurgent partisan movement, the German forces had begun to withdraw in September 1944. However,even before then and as early as June they put out feelers to the British about a possible surrender. The Foreign Office made Churchill’s wishes crystal clear with this message to Lord Moyne, who enjoyed the imperial title of Minister Resident for the Middle East and who was therefore instrumental in securing British interests in the region:
“What would suit us best would be that, once British troops are ready to go into Greece, arrangements for surrender of Germans should be made providing for handing over of all German arms and supplies so that they should not fall into the hands of EAM and so there should be no hiatus of which EAM would take full advantage.”
Although there is no documentary evidence to confirm collusion between Westminster and the occupation forces, there is a substantial amount of circumstantial evidence pointing to a tangible agreement whereby German forces were able to withdraw without serious hindrance. Albert Speers, who served as the Minister of Armaments and War Production in Nazi Germany during most of World War II, observed in his 1969 memoirs that "in some cases, the German vessels passed within visual range of British naval units”
Although Britain and Germany were still at war and had rival interests on an economic and territorial level, their mutual hostility towards social revolution and communism drove an increasing political convergence affecting the conduct of the war. One of the clearest expressions of this was in the formation and deployment of the notorious Security Batallions as an indigenous Greek force of shock troops to combat the EAM and ELAS.
The Security Batallions: German and British war dogs
The Security Batallions recruited their command structure from former officers of the Greek Army and the more conservative layers of the Greek ruling class who had remained in Greece and by stood idly by during the Axis occupation. The batallions were created in an attempt to fill the vacuum created by the collapse of the Italian army. The were attached to the quisling government but armed and supplied by the Nazis to counter the growing insurgency using indigenous Greek forces appealing to extreme right wing Hellenic nationalism.
The Batallions invaded towns and villages, raided farms, roamed the streets looting stores, arrested suspected communists or collaborators, beat them mercilessly and carried out summary public executions. They were the hunting dogs of German fascism who worked closely with the SS . In a matter of months they gained increasing favour from Westminster.
Churchill’s policy began with official hostility, after all they were attached to the enemy forces. This soon turned into a tank of ambivalent criticism which could be turned off or on according to circumstances.
Such was the extent of this ambiguity that at one stage a British military liaison officer by the name of Don Stott actually met with the head of the German Secret Field Police in Athens to discuss the possibility of joint action with the Batallions against the EAM. As the war progressed the tap was turned off completely when in the Foreign Office instructed the BBC to cease broadcasting criticism of the Batallions.
Although their officers were arrested following German withdrawal, they were held in the most benign prison camps before being released to occupy prime postion as part of a new national guard, one that would conduct even more widespread terror against the Greek working class and peasantry.
From a purely military point of view, and certainly from the perspective of fighting fascism, there was absolutely no need for a British invasion force. However, Churchill sensed that the Greek government in exile was hopelessly divided and virtually powerless without British military backing. On 21 August 1944, he implemented operation “Manna,” which provided for the dispatch of a British military force of 10,000 men under Lieutenant General Ronald Scobie to Greece with the mission of securing and holding Athens and Salonica immediately after the withdrawal of German troops. This was a two-pronged strategy which also involved wooing the EAM to be part of the capitalist government on the condition that they subordinated their forces to Papandreu and British high command in Athens.
All power to Scobie
The EAM played ball and on 26 September they signed the Caserta accord in which they agreed to the British invasion force, recognised the Papandreou government and placed all the resistance units under the control of the British Lieutenanct General Scobie. It was a disaster from the outset. Not only did it give the green light to British military control of Athens and Salonica but it handed a blank cheque to both Papandreou and Churchill in their efforts to establish a counter-revolutionary force against the ELAS and the KKE.
The degree of Churchill’s class antagonism to the ordinary people of Greece is certainly no secret now. Following the arrival of the British occupation forces in Athens in October, Churchill set about establishing a government that would rely heavily not just on the old order but also on some of the forces which had collaborated with Nazis in repressing the resistance movement. As this created inevitable tensions and popular resentment Churchill gave the following instruction to the commanding General Scobie:
“You are responsible for maintaining order in Athens and for neutralizing or destroying all EAM-ELAS bands approaching the city. You may make any regulations you like for the strict control of the streets or for the rounding up of any number of truculent persons…………….. We have to hold and dominate Athens. It would be a great thing for you to succeed in this without bloodshed if possible, but also with bloodshed if necessary.”
When Athens was first liberated on October 12th, there was a huge outpouring of popular joy including a welcome for the incoming British forces who were showered with kisses and flowers. The EAM did its utmost to be part of a “government of national unity”. In line with the Percentages Agreement between Stalin and Churchill which allocated the Balkan region to the Soviet bureaucracy and Greece to British imperialism, the role of the KKE was reduced at the very best to being one of junior partner in a post-war government of capitalist reconstruction.
The British duly arrived on 18 October, installed a provisional government under Georgios Papandreou and prepared to restore the king. “From the moment they came,” recalled one KKE member, “the people and the resistance greeted them as allies. There was nothing but respect and friendship towards the British. We had no idea that we were already giving up our country and our rights.”
Fascism and democracy: the two faces of British imperialism
The entire course of Churchill’s policy in Greece was consistent with the class interests he had served from his earliest days as a servant of the British empire. Essentially, the choice in Greece, which was already evident during the occupation but became more apparent following the German withdrawal, was between revolution and socialist reconstruction on the one hand, and capitalist counter-revolutionary terror on the other. The KKE , at the behest of Stalin, tried its upmost to straddle those alternatives and seek an impossible middle road. Churchill was much more clear sighted and chose the path of counter-revolution and white terror against the very people who had defeated the Axis occupation.
Finally, on December 2, EAM could take no more and six of its ministers most of whom were KKE members, resigned from their positions in the "National Unity" government. EAM then called for a general strike and a demonstration in front of the Greek parliament for the next day, December 3.
Of the 200,000 who participated in the demo,more than 28 were slaughtered and 148 were injured by British snipers and Greek gendarmerie. This signalled the beginning of the Dekemvriana (the December events), a 37-day period of full-scale fighting in Athens between EAM fighters and smaller parts of ELAS, and the forces of the British army and the government.
By December 12 the EAM-ELAS was in control of most of Athens. The fledgling Greek government and British forces were confined to the centre of Athens, in an area that was called ironically by the guerillas as Scobia - Scobie's country. The British, alarmed by the initial successes of EAM/ELAS and outnumbered, flew in the 4th Indian Infantry Division from Italy as emergency reinforcements. They also transferred John Hawkesworth from Italy to Athens, as assistant to Scobie, who soon took the general command.
The unravelling of the KKE’s suicide mission
Throughout this entire episode the KKE continued to pursue its policy of collaboration with the British as part a supposedly anti-fascist alliance. The basic thrust of all their actions was to create a “democratic” government of national unity which would exclude King George and any of the forces which collaborated with the Axis occupation.
Such was the KKE’s willingness to compromise that , even during the December events when the British were doing everything within their power to crush the EAM-ELAS in Athens, they were reluctant to engage with British armed forces. In some instances this included actually facilitating British operations. The historian Mark Mazower describes the most significant of these:
“There was an even stranger episode when the 23rd Armoured Brigage, the main British unit in the capital, found that most of its rations were found in a warehouse in an ELAS area. Not only were the lorries that they sent out not attacked en route, but ELAS sympathisers actually helped British soldiers load up their supplies when they reached their destination.”
As bizarre as this episode may sound, it flowed logically from the Soviet bureaucracy’s alliance with US and British imperialism. As part of this alliance, during the height of resistance to the occupation, ELAS had previously agreed to place all its combat units under the overarching command of British special forces. So it was not such a great shock to encounter reluctance by ELAS to engage Scobie’s forces. Churchill and Scobie, however, demonstrated no such qualms. For them, despite the KKE’s relatively moderate demands for participation in a post-war government, the Greek insurgency had to be crushed at all costs. It was with that in mind that the British high command embarked on a classic counter-insurgency strategy that had served them so well in other areas where their empire was being challenged by liberation forces.
Spitfires and counter-insurgency
Besides pure military force using tanks, planes, armoured cars and infanty to attack EAM strongholds and terrorise the civilian population, Scobie and Hawksworth instructed their forces (including the former Security Batallions) to round up and arrest thousands of suspected EAM sympathisers and imprison them in concentration camps where they could be interrogated and subject to further punishment. In total no less than 15,000 non-combatants were interned, 8,000 of whom were deported to camps in the Middle East.
By the time Churchill arrived in Athens to cement the establisment of his client government, British forces had gained the upper hand. He now sought to use this to gain EAM-ELAS acquiescence and eventual disarmament. The first task was the easiest. All he had to do was to put the issue of King George’s restoration on the back burner, opting instead for the reactionary Archbishop Damaskinos as Regent as nominal head of state
God bless fascism........ and the British
The Greek Orthodox Church, it should be noted, had unashamedly embraced the Metaxas dictatorship immediately after its seizure of power, In the midst of its brutal repression the church characterized the regime as a “blessing for Greece” and in recognition of this it introduced, organised, and performed an annual religious service in the presence of the Archbishop to honour the regime. So the Archbishop was hardly a neutral figure in the unfolding battle. Even though a peace accord proved impossible, the EAM representatives at the December conference attended by Churchill still agreed to Damaskinos´ appointment as Regent.
Just a few days after the conference was concluded, Hawkesworth launched a major offensive to retake Athens on January 3, 1945. The British Spitfires – the historic symbol of British imperialism’s war with Nazi Germany – were now being employed to directly crush the very forces who had successfully resisted the Axis powers in Greece. As they strafed working class neighbourhoods in central Athens, British snipers were placed in the Acropolis to fire down on the partisans, a defilement of an ancient site of civilisation which was unacceptable even to the Nazis.
In this new war combining British troops and former Nazi collaborators,Churchill was encouraged by Stalin’s complete silence. By turning his head the other way, Stalin not only upheld his end of the Percentages Agreement but in so doing he gave a green light to the British offensive to crush the partisans.
The dance with death for the Greek revoluion
For their part, having established real organs of people’s power, and been on the cusp of taking state power and overthrowing the old order, EAM-ELAS had been completely disarmed politically by Stalin’s so-called anti-fascist alliance with British imperialism. The inevitable corollary of this political disarmanent was a military surrender. And so it was that on February 12, 1945, ELAS signed the Varkiza accord agreeing unilaterally to give up its weapons. It was a death warrant for the Greek revolution and signalled a new era beset by civil war and fascist reaction.
If nothing else, looking back on this tragedy provides a salutary insight into the true character of the Second World War and the real objectives of British imperialism which freely dispensed with even the trappings of democracy in order to defend its class interests.