Starvation Without Reparations: The Nazi Occupation of Greece

Graham Land

3 mins

07 Aug 2018

During the course of the Second World War, the Axis Powers occupied Greece for just over 4 years, beginning with the Italian and German invasion of April 1942 and commencing with the surrender of German troops on Crete in June 1945.

The triple occupation of Greece

nazi occupation of greece

Germany, Italy and Bulgaria initially oversaw different territories in Greece.

A combination of Nazi, Fascist Italian and Bulgarian forces carried the occupation. After June 1941 the occupiers were more or less fully installed. King George II then fled the country and the Nazis, who were in charge of Greece’s major territories, including Athens and Thessaloniki, set up a puppet regime in the capital.

Although Greece’s ruling ‘4th of August’ regime was a right wing dictatorship, its leader, Ioannis Metaxas, was loyal to Great Britain. Metaxas died less than three months before the Axis invasion and the Nazis installed General Georgios Tsolakoglou as the first prime minister of the collaborationalist government.

Deaths by execution

Greek resistance fighters — a combination of right and left wing partisan groups — mounted a sustained guerrilla war throughout the occupation. The Axis punished acts of rebellion harshly. Bulgarian, German and Italian forces executed some 70,000 Greeks (40,000, 21,000 and 9,000, respectively) and destroyed hundreds of villages.

Furthermore, around 60,000 Greek Jews perished under the occupation, many shipped to death camps like Auschwitz. The large Sephardic population of Thessaloniki was diminished by 91% and Athens lost over half its Jewish inhabitants.

Collaboration with the occupation was uncommon and many Orthodox Greeks did their best to hide and safeguard their Jewish neighbours.

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Germany gives Greece a harsh economic makeover

Soon after the invasion, the occupation began to completely economically rearrange the country, eliminating jobs and freezing industry, while surviving companies only continued to exist by serving the interests of the Axis Powers. The first move was to transfer 51% of all shares of both private and public Greek companies to German ownership.

In 1943 the Germans boosted the Athens stock exchange with gold sovereigns, jewellery and other valuables stolen from the Jews of Thessaloniki.

Famine and mass starvation

The largest number of deaths that occurred during the Axis Powers’ occupation of Greece was due to starvation, mostly among the working classes. Estimates put the number of dead from starvation at over 300,000, with 40,000 in Athens alone.

Greece being a largely agricultural economy, the occupiers not only destroyed nearly 900 villages, but they also plundered produce to feed the German Wehrmacht.

Seeing well-fed Axis soldiers steal food from the mouths of starving Greek children was enough to turn even enthusiastic Germanophiles against the occupation.

Responses included actions by left wing partisans, such as a ‘war of the crops’, which took place in the region of Thessaly. Plots were seeded in secret and harvested in the middle of the night. In collaboration with farmers, EAM (National Liberation Font) and ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army) made it clear that no crops were to be given to the occupiers.

nazi occupation of greece

Female and male Greek partisan fighters carried out a sustained resistance.

The British embargo

The strict shipping embargo imposed by the British only made matters worse. The British had to choose whether to strategically maintain the embargo, effectively starving Greeks, or lift it in order to win the Greek people’s favour. They chose the former.

Food prices soared and profiteers emerged to exploit the situation. Large retailers hoarded food in basements and sold it secretly at inflated prices. The citizenry held ‘traitor-profiteers’ in the absolute lowest regard.

Heroic shipments of food by Greeks who had escaped and aid from nominally neutral countries like Turkey and Sweden were greatly appreciated, but made little difference. Nor did the efforts of the collaborationist government to secure food for the citizenry.

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The lingering shadow of reparations and debt

After the war the new Greek and West German regimes allied against communism and Greece was soon busy with its civil war. There was little effort or time to lobby for reparations and so Greece received little payment for lost property or war crimes committed during the Axis occupation.

In 1960 the Greek government accepted 115 million Deutschmarks as compensation for Nazi atrocities and crimes. Successive Greek governments have considered this relatively tiny amount to be only a downpayment.

Furthermore, a forced wartime loan of 476 million Reichsmarks from the Greek Central Bank to Nazi Germany at 0% interest was never repaid.

Germany’s reunification in 1990 officially put an end to all matters concerning the Second World War and reparations to any country. However, the issue is still contentious among the Greek people, including many politicians, especially in light of European (largely German) loans to prevent Greek bankruptcy beginning in 2010.