How Churchill broke the Greek Resistance
How Winston Churchill and the British government attacked the Greek Resistance and sowed the seeds of civil war.
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.
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.
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 organized 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
more on history in this IMS blog