How Greece Tore Itself Apart in a Vicious Civil War at the End of World War Two

History Hit

7 mins

28 Nov 2017

On the 28 November 1944, the newly liberated country of Greece descended into a bloody civil war.

The British-backed Royalists would battle Communist forces for the next five years, and the ideological nature of the struggle combined with the extent of British intervention has lead many historians to view the conflict as the first chapter of the Cold War.

Crucially for the west, the war ended in a Royalist victory and Stalin’s sphere of influence did not extend into the Mediterranean, but at a terrible cost, with 158,000 killed and over a million Greeks forced out of their homes.

In the popular imagination the Cold War was a divide between western and eastern Europe, epitomised by Winston Churchill’s famous speech describing an “iron curtain” falling over the east.

However, in the early years, with Stalin’s power growing and war-stricken Europe in disarray, there was a palpable fear in Britain and America that western and southern Europe would also fall into Communist hands.

Greece during World War Two

Greece looked like it would be the first domino to fall. It had been invaded by Axis forces in 1941, and despite a heroic resistance, it was subjected to a brutal occupation for the next three years.

When it became clear that Athens would fall, the west-aligned King George II fled in terror to British-held Egypt, where he formed a government in exile.

King George of the Hellenes with senior Royal Air Force officers in the Western Desert during his visit to a Greek fighter station. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

Eager for the King to one day regain control of his country, Churchill and other western leaders urged George to appoint liberal ministers in a more forward-thinking government, but the divisions began here at this early stage when Stalin refused to acknowledge the King’s government.

Sensing an opportunity, the Georgian rightly believed that the Greek people would not care for an exiled government who did not share their suffering, and would turn to radical left-wing leaders for leadership.

In September 1941, four left-wing parties got together to form a resistance group – the EAM. They took inspiration from the Soviet stand against Hitler in the east, and at first they attracted many non-communists who simply wanted to fight for their beleaguered nation.

EAM-ELAS Rebels. Credit: Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Commons.

However, after a promising start fighting and sabotaging the German Army, the EAM’s actions became far more sinister.

As the tide of the war turned and it looked more likely that the Allies would win, the group turned their attentions to destroying the other resistance groups as they sought to control post-war Greece.

As the EAM, and its military wing ELAS, grew stronger, the Germans were pushed out of the mountainous countryside and the other resistance fighters were often butchered or forcibly absorbed into their ranks.

Allied intervention didn’t help matters. The British in particular saw ELAS as the strongest opposition to the Germans in the region, and supplied them with large amounts of weaponry and supplies.

To their dismay, however, the political group had begun to resemble a full-scale army by the end of 1943, and that army was intent on killing other Greeks.

The next year the growing tensions exploded into civil war. As 1944 went on, it became clear to the Greek garrison that they would be cut off if the Russians advanced much further, and as a result by the time the British liberated the country, only Athens offered any resistance as the German and Italian forces dribbled away.

Athenians celebrate the liberation of their city, October 1944. Credit: Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs / Commons.

As the enemy soldiers left ELAS took control of all the important military and strategic points in Greece outside the capital. There the British entered triumphantly in October, accompanied by the Royalist government.

Once the fighting in Greece was over, the disarmament and dissolution of ELAS was requested from Athens, to be in place by 10 December. In response, the communists in the government resigned and began to whip up anti-British sentiment amongst ELAS sympathisers.

On 3 December things came to a head as a great crowd of 200,000 violent and angry citizens gathered in Athens, ignoring the British tanks stationed around the city to bar their way. As the tension increased shots were fired, and 28 protesters were killed.

The scale of the violence then escalated dramatically, and suddenly full-scale war erupted in Greece’s ancient capital.

Sherman tanks and troops from 5th (Scots) Parachute Battalion, 2nd Parachute Brigade, during operations against members of ELAS in Athens, 18 December 1944. Credit: Imperial War Museum / Commons.

The British and government supporters were badly stretched, and emergency troops from India and Egypt had to be flown into Athens to avoid a catastrophic defeat while the war in western Europe was at its most intense.

Over December the streets of the city were disfigured by gunfire as the fighting raged on.

Fighting a full-scale war against an anti-German movement, whilst the Allies were invading Hitler’s Reich did not look good politically for Churchill, who flew into the dangerous city on Christmas day.

There he met with Soviet and ELAS representatives, but no deal could be struck with all their aims so different, and later it transpired that ELAS terrorists had planned to bomb the hotel where the conference took place.

The end for ELAS?

In the end, it seemed that no such diplomatic solution would be needed. The Royalists gradually took over the city from their enthusiastic but largely untrained foes, and in February ELAS were forcibly disbanded at the Treaty of Varkiza.

It appeared, for the time being, that Stalin’s aims had been thwarted and that Churchill had once again prevailed, as the King finally felt safe enough in his country to return from Egypt and take up the mantle of leadership once more.

Unfortunately, a year later the violence which had spread like a disease through Greece for so long reared its ugly head again, and a nationwide Civil War began in earnest.

After months of being targeted by the victors the ex-members of ELAS were angry, and in March 1946 a group of them attacked a local police station and killed its occupants.

Claiming that they had to defend themselves against right-wing aggression, the Greek Communist Party created a new army, the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE) and began to conduct guerrilla campaigns against government forces.

Between 1942 and 1945, the US Army Signals Corp produced a series of propaganda films to be shown to American troops before they departed for overseas. Watch them now on HistoryHit.TV. Watch Now

Soon, the DSE had a lot of support in the inaccessible countryside and their numbers and the scale of their ambitions increased dramatically through 1946.

The regular Greek Army, despite having large sums of British and now American money poured into it, was unable to combat this new threat as the enemy melted into the hills every time they heard word of a new counteroffensive.

The DSE meanwhile, were being generously supplied with men and resources by Stalin’s Yugoslav ally Marshal Tito. The war was escalating quickly.

By 1947, the DSE had grown to an extent where full-scale warfare could replace guerrilla tactics, and the Communists declared themselves to be a Provisional Democratic Government.

Knowing that they needed a capital to begin a journey towards legitimacy, they began heavy and costly assaults on Greek cities. This marked a major departure from the early years of fighting, which had been confined to remote areas.

1948 would be the high water mark for the DSE as they found themselves within twenty miles of Athens and controlling much of the Peloponnese.

Man hanged from a tree, with a sign around his neck on a square in a village; nearby, a Greek soldier. Credit: Bundesarchiv / Commons.

With the situation growing desperate, British and American advisers told the King to launch full-scale assaults into the central mountains. Eventually his forces won their first major victory as DSE defences crumbled.

Then, suddenly, the government met with good fortune in June, when Stalin and Tito had a calamitous falling out and suspended all relations. This put the DSE and its leader Vafiadis in a difficult position, for now they had to choose between Tito, their main backer, and Stalin who was in control of much of Communist world.

In the end Vafiadis opted to support Tito, but the other Communists protested and he was replaced. As a result, support from Yugoslavia ceased, and to compound matters Stalin, having lost interest in the region after his dispute with Tito, actively condemned the “Titoist” Greek rebellion.

From then on a Government victory seemed more and more of a formality. The hero of a valiant stand against Italy in 1940, Alexandros Papagos, was brought out of retirement and quickly crushed the DSE in a series of pitched battles in the Peloponnese.

Government army unit during the Greek Civil War (1945 – 1949). Credit: The State Archives of the Republic of Macedonia / Commons.

Demoralised by Tito’s new cold shoulder and Stalin’s disinterest, the Greek Communists began to lose heart and desert the cause, particularly after the success of Papagos’ war-winning Operation “Dove.”

In the end, the remnants of DSE forces retreated into Albania, and 1000 diehard Communists went into exile in the Soviet Union, hoping to be part of Stalin’s plans. The Soviet leader, however, had long since given up on Greece as a potential conquest, and the Greeks remained in an Uzbek prison camp for three years.

The battle for Greece had been won by the west, and it was a significant victory for the west, but it came at a terrible cost.

The Greek national consciousness remains deeply traumatised by both wartime atrocities committed by both Nazis and Greeks, as well as by the civil war itself.

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