Greece’s partisans had fought on Britain’s side against the Nazis, liberating much of their country. But for Winston Churchill they were too left-wing – and had to be destroyed.
By Joëlle Fontaine
Further reading: Victory Day: Remembering the Great Patriotic War
Published on Tribune, May 8, 2020
Fear of a Red Greece
You are responsible for maintaining order in Athens and for neutralising or destroying all EAM-ELAS [National Liberation Front – Greek People’s Liberation Army] 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…. It would be well of course if your command were reinforced by the authority of some Greek Government…. Do not, however, hesitate to act as if you were in a conquered city where a local rebellion is in progress…. 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.
The man who wrote these lines was none other than British prime minister Winston Churchill. This was in December 1944: Nazi troops were still resisting the Allies, which were making slow progress in Italy and being pushed back in the Ardennes faced with the Wehrmacht’s final counter-offensive. Yet the “bands” here targeted by Churchill were not groups of collaborators, but the partisans of the great National Liberation Front (EAM), which had for three years mounted mass resistance against the German occupiers.
Throughout the nineteenth century, the eastern Mediterranean had been the center of a rivalry between Britain and Russia. The Bolshevik Revolution of October 1917 having put an end to the latter country’s ambitions in the region, in the early 1940s, Greece was under unchallenged British influence. In this context, the country was of some strategic importance.
The development of a Resistance allying the Communists with small pro-socialist parties had very quickly caused alarm within the British Foreign Office, which feared “Russian” penetration in the Mediterranean. In disgrace among the population and associated with general Ioannis Metaxas’s 1936-41 fascist dictatorship, the Greek monarchy seemed to Churchill to be the only force capable of assuring the maintenance of British domination.
In this context, London’s allies allowed it to act as it pleased. Despite the Wilsonian tradition — which was officially hostile to spheres of influence, above all when they troubled the penetration of US capital and US goods — Franklin D. Roosevelt supported Churchill. As for Joseph Stalin, he aimed above all to put an end to the war, seeking to avoid compromising his fragile “grand alliance” with the United States and the British. Ever since May 1944, Churchill had sought an arrangement over the Balkans; Stalin could accept this all the more easily as his interlocutor left him a free hand in Romania and Bulgaria.
Throughout the war, Churchill was subject to the “Greek storm.” As early as March 1941, when the German threat to the Balkans became clear, he had ordered his Near-East HQ to detach fifty thousand men to be sent to Greece. This initiative interrupted the victorious British offensive in Libya, albeit without preventing the Wehrmacht’s advance over Greek territory the following month.
The King of Greece, George II, took up exile in London together with his government — which was largely the same as under Metaxas’s dictatorship. His armed forces were partly reconstituted in Egypt and fought by the side of the British, who kept a close watch over them; indeed, the soldiers challenged the fact that most of the officers leading them were royalists.
In Greece itself, a mass resistance movement rapidly developed. The National Liberation Front emerged in September 1941. It organised imposing demonstrations in the big cities, and in spring of 1942, it moved to the creation of maquis units under the leadership of its people’s army, ELAS. At the same time, the agents of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) — created by Churchill in 1940 to carry out sabotage actions behind enemy lines, in collaboration with the resistance movements in the occupied countries — developed their own activities in relative autonomy.
The British tried without great success to encourage — or create — organisations competing with the EAM. But the leaders of the other parties were little tempted by active resistance. The EAM-ELAS remained by far the main resistance organisation, indispensable from a military point of view. In exchange for its participation in the operations planned by the British, its representatives were received in Cairo in August 1943, in view of an accord with the exile government.
Here the British got a measure of the importance the EAM had taken on, as well as the extent of the desire for change among the population. At the same time, during the Quadrant Conference with Roosevelt in Quebec (August 17-24, 1943), Churchill saw his last hopes of an Allied landing in Greece vanish. Meanwhile, the Red Army’s advance beyond the USSR’s own frontiers was no longer in doubt. Churchill now took matters directly in hand, despite his advisers’ reticence, blocking off any possibility of negotiation and sending the EAM delegates home. At the same time, in a note to his high command, he drafted what would later become the MANNA plan: namely, to send an expeditionary corps to Greece after the German troops’ withdrawal.
Henceforth, the British agents’ mission was to damage ELAS by all means available. They tried to poach its partisans by bribing them with gold sovereigns — a convincing argument in these times of hyperinflation, when the British pound had reached 2 million drachma. They financed small competitor organisations, including those who called themselves “nationalist,” but were in fact accomplices of the Germans. They placed their own men within the collaborationist government as well as in the “security battalions” created by Athens.
These militias took part in the Nazi troops’ operations, with their procession of massacres and burned-down villages. In the towns, they took part in the bloko of whole neighbourhoods, encircling a district in the middle of the night, picking out the partisans with the aid of masked informers, and then shooting them. The double game of the British — allowing the militias’ leaders to claim to be serving both them and the King — sowed the seeds of the civil war as early as the winter of 1943-44.
The EAM-ELAS nonetheless succeeded in liberating a large part of the country. It established popular institutions which formed a counter-state. The worries among the British peaked in March 1944, when a “government of the mountains” was created that organised elections. Conversely, this approach awakened the enthusiasm of the Greek armed forces in Egypt, who immediately demanded that the Resistance be included in the exile government. Churchill replied with pitiless repression. He had “rebellious” elements deported to camps in Africa, and set up a praetorian guard prepared to return to Greece with the King and the British troops upon Liberation.
Unable to eliminate the EAM by force within Greece itself, the British resorted to political manoeuvres to which its leaders in the mountains — little experienced in this domain — struggled to respond. Caught between their unity strategy and their consciousness of the danger of a coup coming from the Right and the British, they fell into a trap at the carefully pre-arranged conference held in Lebanon in August 1944.
After a great deal of hesitation, they agreed to participate – represented only as a small minority — in a national unity government led by Churchill’s man George Papandreou (grandfather of the Socialist prime minister of the same name). The following month, the EAM leaders went as far as to recognise the authority of a British military governor, Ronald Scobie, who would arrive in Greece upon liberation.
Everything was set for the application of the MANNA plan, which had been prepared the previous year. The victorious Red Army offensive in Bulgaria in September 1944 forced the Wehrmacht to withdraw from Greece, under attack from ELAS partisans. It was after this retreat that the British expeditionary corps arrived, accompanied by Papandreou and Scobie. Establishing themselves in the capital on October 18, the two men demanded that ELAS lay down its weapons, even as they rejected the disarming of the praetorian guard that had been formed in Egypt and, conveniently enough, transferred to Athens in early November.
No trials were mounted against collaborators, and armed militiamen circulated in the capital with impunity, persecuting the resistance fighters. The members of the security battalions were locked away in their barracks, but there they enjoyed good living conditions and regular training. After trying to achieve guarantees throughout November, the EAM ministers ultimately resigned.
December 3, 1944, saw a monster demonstration in Syntagma Square to demand Papandreou’s resignation and the constitution of a new government. The massacre that followed — the police opened fire on unarmed civilians, leaving over twenty dead and more than a hundred wounded — triggered the insurrection of the people of Athens. This was the pretext that Churchill had sought in order to be able to break the Resistance.
He now ordered Scobie to crush the rebels. Arms, planes and ever more troops (up to 75,000 men) were diverted from the Italian front to Greece. The EAM’s proposals for negotiations were rejected. As Churchill put it, “The clear objective is the defeat of EAM. The ending of the fighting is subsidiary to this…. Firmness and sobriety are what are needed now, and not eager embraces, while the real quarrel is unsettled.” Braving the British and international press — but also the MPs in the Commons, who challenged him in stormy debates — Churchill held firm to his position.
Badly armed, badly fed, and for the most part very young, the partisans of the EAM in Athens and Piraeus held out for 33 days under this deluge of fire, faced with both the British troops and the security battalions let out of their barracks and rearmed for this very occasion. Churchill himself came to Athens in late December and resigned himself to forcing King George II — still in London — to accept a regency. But he remained inflexible on the other guarantees demanded by the EAM.
While the ELAS was still present across the rest of Greece’s territory, its leaders dreaded imposing new trials on an exhausted and famished population: 1,770 villages had been burned, more than a million people did not have a roof over their heads, and grain production had fallen by 40 percent. Meanwhile, the Allies’ aid only reached those who collaborated with them. With the Varkiza accord signed on February 12, 1945, the ELAS agreed unilaterally to give up its weapons. At the same time at Yalta, Churchill, together with Roosevelt and Stalin, solemnly proclaimed “the right of all peoples in liberated Europe to choose their own form of government.”
But the EAM was not yet destroyed. It tried to pursue its goal of major reforms by legal means, and was in a position to win a majority at the elections. Faced with this threat, the British Labour government that took over from Churchill in July 1945 maintained a sizeable occupation force, while also relying on the help of the very men who had collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the massacre of resistance fighters — not least a police force and an army reconstituted thanks to the attentions of the British military mission. The EAM partisans were arrested, convicted and subjected to unprecedented terror in the countryside.
In this context, honest elections were impossible. Despite that, British foreign secretary Ernest Bevin — concerned with giving the country a respectable façade to present to the United Nations — ordered that elections take place in March 1946. The EAM, and democratic forces in general, refused to participate. The undermine majority that inevitably resulted had nothing left to organise but the referendum guaranteeing the King’s return the following September.
This time the British had achieved their objective. But in the meantime, many former partisans had returned to the maquis to escape persecution, and the United Kingdom could no longer guarantee the survival — and still less the victory — of a Right that it had itself artificially maintained in power. Seeking to take over this task, on March 12, 1947, US president Harry Truman asked that Congress give him the funds necessary for “helping” Greece on the pretext of “stopping communism.”
In breaking the Greek Resistance, the British had precipitated a civil war that would last — in open or latent forms — for some thirty years, with a brief lull between 1963 and 1965. It would only end with the fall of the colonels’ dictatorship in 1974. This “coup in Athens” reminds us that through its history, modern Greece has only enjoyed a very limited sovereignty. This, indeed, is its painful experience once again today.