Today Greece celebrated a national holiday, marking the date Greece entered WWII. The day is called "No-Day", after Metaxas, the Greek fascist dictator
at the time, stated a firm "No" to an Italian ultimatum
from Mussolini demanding free passage for his troops to occupy unspecified "strategic points" inside Greece.
Greeks subsequently kicked Italian ass in Albania until the Germans invaded Greece from Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. After fierce resistance in the north, the Greek army was defeated and Germany occupied Greece. Rumour has it that on the day the Nazis entered Athens, one of my favourite writers from my childhood, whose books are classics and every Greek child knows them, committed suicide; Penelope Delta
could not stand the thought of Germans occupying Athens.
It was the beginning of three years of hell for Greece, and the effects of this war and the civil war that followed it, have affected Greeks to this day. During the first year of the German occupation, over a 100,000 Greeks died of famine and over a million Greeks joined the resistance, started by the National Liberation Front (EAM), which was controlled by the Greek communist party.
When the Germans enter Athens on April 27th they order one of the evzones, the elite soldiers of the Greek army who are the guardians of the flag which flies over the Acropolis, to remove it. The soldier obeys, then wraps himself in the blue and white flag and leaps from the walls of the ancient fortress to his death. It is the first public act of resistance in the city. A few days later on the night of May 30th, Manolis Glezos and Apostolis Santas, both 18 years old, tear down the Nazi flag flying from the Acropolis. It is an act of courage and resistance to Nazi oppression that becomes an inspiration to all subjected people. It is also foreshadowing that the occupiers will not have an easy time in Greece. (Glezos, who becomes a member of the Greek resistance, is condemned to death for treason in 1948 and imprisoned for being a communist. He is later elected a member of the Pan Hellenic Socialist Party.)
Meanwhile in the mountains of Greece the resistance has sprung up, made up of mostly communists. In September 1941 the National Liberation Front (EAM) is formed. The most important offshoot of this group is the National People's Liberation Army or Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos (ELAS), which is founded in December 1941 as the military arm of EAM. In the summer of 1942 the first ELAS guerrilla band takes to the mountains. They are led by a capable but ruthless Ares Veloukhiotis (the pseudonym of Athanasios Klaras). Though EAM is controlled by the Greek Communist Party its primary cause for now is the liberation of Greece from the Germans and many of their fighters and supporters are neither left nor right. They simply want to resist the Germans. The membership of EAM has been estimated to be anywhere between half a million to two million members, with the ELAS forces somewhere between forty and seventy thousand members. On the other side of the political spectrum, the National Republican Greek League or Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos" (EDES, ) is non-communist and commanded by General Napoleon Zervas. Women play an important role in the resistance as fighters as well as support. The Greek resistance attack bridges and supply convoys forcing the Germans to keep a large number of troops in the country. In November of 1942 Greek fighters and British soldiers who have been parachuted in to direct the resistance, destroy the Gorgopotamos Viaduct railroad bridge on the Thessaloniki-Athens railway line. It is the first organised attack in occupied Greece on Axis forces and the most spectacular act of sabotage in occupied Europe up to that time. It is also the first and the only time that the Andarte forces of EDES and ELAS fight together. During the rest of the occupation their differences grew into hatred as fighting the Germans seem to take second place to being in a position to control the country after the liberation. In September of 1943 Civil War breaks out within the resistance.
There's much more detail in Greece in the Second World War
and other sites, but here's where I'm going in this whole roundabout way:
On this holiday, there are parades all over Greece, attended by government representatives, the Prime Minister, church officials and so on. There's a march by the military forces and a march by high school students, with the students who have the highest grades holding the Greek flag. I hated the obligatory participation when I was a student, I hated marching and I hated parading in front of people and I consoled myself by trying to find comfort in patriotism. I thought of these parades as a reminder to Greece that here's our best and our brightest; that we're strong as a nation; that our parents and granparents fought for Greece and we are prepared to fight as well.
Fight for what exactly, though? A few years ago, Odysseas Tsenai, who had the highest grades in his school and was therefore entitled to carry the Greek flag on the October 28 parade, happened to be an Albanian immigrant to Greece and all nationalism broke loose. Students, parents and the Teacher's Association staged sit-ins
protesting that a "non-Greek" (and an Albanian one at that) would carry the Greek flag at the parade. Students hung a banner outside the school where Odysseas attends, stating "Greeks, your flag belongs to you."
Today Greece is part of Europe, and Germany and Italy, her old enemies, are now her friends and partners. In a few years, Turkey, an even older enemy, will be part of the same Union as Greece and at some point the old Communist bloc will join the EU as well, so the Albanians will be officially Europeans like the Greeks are. What will happen to our nationalism then and what will these parades be reminding us?
If the reason for forcing kids to march in parades is to celebrate and remember their ancestors' victories in some long-lost world, then maybe we should be consistent and hold parades for all our past victories. We hold a parade in March, to mark the day of the Greek revolution against the Turks but we have no holiday to mark the Persian Wars; we don't even celebrate the Battle of Marathon for example, even though it's been described as "the single most important battle in Greek history"
. Yet in October we hold a parade to celebrate the response of a Greek fascist dictator to an Italian fascist dictator when said response made no difference at the end since a German fascist dictator overruled both the Greek and the Italian fascist dictators.
Darius' Persia doesn't exist any more and neither do Nazi Germany, Ottoman Turkey, and Mussolini's Italy. The reality is, the new generations of Greeks will have victories and struggles of their own to think about. Whether we like it or not, Greek kids will be growing up in a multicultural Europe, where yesterday's enemies are today's friends and economic partners and where nationalism, along with borders, will eventually die out. Let's get used to it and let's not get caught in the trap of our past glories.