German soldiers raising the Reich War Flag over the Acropolis. It would be taken down in acts of resistance throughout the occupation.

The Axis occupation of Greece during World War II (Greek: Η Κατοχή, I Katochi, meaning "The Occupation") began in April 1941 after the German invasion of Greece. It lasted until the German withdrawal from the mainland in October 1944. In some cases, such as in Crete and other islands, German garrisons remained in control until May or even June 1945.

Italy had initially invaded Greece in October 1940, and after their failure to conquer Greece, the German Führer Adolf Hitler turned his military focus to the southern Balkans. A rapid German Blitzkrieg campaign followed in April 1941, and by the middle of May, Greece was under joint occupation by three Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Bulgaria.

The occupation brought about terrible hardships for the Greek civilian population. Over 300,000 civilians died from starvation, thousands more through reprisals, and the country's economy was ruined. At the same time, one of the most effective resistance movements in occupied Europe was formed. These resistance groups launched guerilla attacks against the occupying powers and set up large espionage networks, but by late 1943 began to fight amongst themselves. When liberation came in October 1944, Greece was in a state of crisis, which soon led to the outbreak of civil war.

Fall of Greece

Main articles: Greco-Italian War and Battle of Greece

In the early morning hours of October 28, 1940, Italian Ambassador Emmanuel Grazzi awoke Greek Premier Ioannis Metaxas and presented him an ultimatum. Metaxas rejected the ultimatum and Italian forces invaded Greek territory from Italian-occupied Albania less than three hours later. Mussolini launched the invasion partly to prove that Italians could match the military successes of the German Army and partly because Mussolini regarded south-eastern Europe as lying within Italy's sphere of influence.

The Greek army proved to be a more able opponent than Mussolini or his generals thought. The Greek forces counterattacked and forced the Italians to retreat. By mid-December, the Greeks had occupied one-quarter of Albania, before Italian reinforcements and the harsh winter stemmed the Greek advance. In March 1941, a major Italian counterattack failed, humiliating Italian military pretensions. The Greek defeat of the Italians is considered the first Allied land victory of the Second World War.

On April 6, 1941, Nazi Germany reluctantly came to the aid of Italy and invaded Greece through Bulgaria. Greek and British Commonwealth troops fought back courageously, but were overwhelmed. The Greek capital Athens fell on April 27, and after the capture of Crete, all of Greece was under Axis occupation.

The Triple Occupation

The occupation of Greece was divided between Germany, Italy, and Bulgaria. German forces occupied the strategically more important areas, namely Athens, Thessaloniki with Central Macedonia, and several Aegean islands, including most of Crete. Northeastern Greece (Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace with the exception of the Evros prefecture) came under Bulgarian occupation and was annexed to Bularia, which had long claimed these territories. The remainder of Greece was occupied by Italy. After the Italian capitulation in September 1943, the Italian zone was taken over by the Germans, often accompanied by violence towards the Italian garrisons. There was a failed attempt by the British to take advantage of the Italian surrender to reenter the Aegean, resulting in the Battle of Leros. For Greece, the strength of the Axis occupation forces always owed more to the threat of invasion than to active resistance.

Economic exploitation and the Great Famine

Greece suffered greatly during the Occupation. The country's weak economy had already been devastated from the 6-month long war, and to it was added the relentless economic exploitation by the Germans. Raw materials and foodstufs were requisitioned, and the collaborationist government was forced to pay the cost of the occupation, giving rise to inflation, further exacerbated by a "war loan" Greece was forced to grant the German Reich. Requisitions, together with the Allied blockade of Greece and the ruined state of the country's infrastructure, resulted in the Great Famine during the winter of 1941-42 (Greek: Μεγάλος Λιμός), when an estimated 300,000 people perished, despite aid from neutral countries like Sweden and Turkey (see SS Kurtuluş). The great suffering and the pressure of the exiled Greek government eventually forced the British to partially lift the blockade, and from the summer of 1942, the International Red Cross was able to distribute supplies in sufficient quantities. [1]

The Bulgarian occupation zone

Nazi atrocities


German soldiers of the 117th Jäger Division in the burning town of Kalavryta.Increasing attacks by partisans in the latter years of the Occupation resulted in a number of executions and wholesale slaughter of civilians in reprisals. The most famous examples being those of the village of Kommeno (August 16, 1943) by 1.Gebirgs-Division, where 317 inhabitants were murdered and the village torched, the "Massacre of Kalavryta" (December 13, 1943), in which Wehrmacht troops of the 117th Jäger Division carried out the extermination of the entire male population and the subsequent total destruction of the town, and the "Massacre of Distomo" (June 10, 1944), where an SS Police unit looted and burned the village of Distomo in Boeotia, resulting in the deaths of 218 civilians.

After the Battle of Greece, destruction and starvation

Two other notable but almost unknown acts of brutality were the massacres of Italian troops at the islands of Cephallonia and Kos in September 1943, during the German takeover of the Italian occupation areas. In Cephallonia, the 12,000-strong Italian 'Acqui' Division was attacked on September 13 by elements of 1.Gebirgs-Division with support from Stukas, and forced to surrender on September 21, after suffering some 1,300 casualties. The next day, the Germans began executing their prisoners and did not stop until over 4,500 Italians had been shot. The ca. 4,000 survivors were put aboard ships for the mainland, but some of them sunk after hitting mines in the Ionian Sea, where another 3,000 were lost. The Cephallonia massacre serves as the background for the novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin.[2][3]


General Georgios Tsolakoglou, who had signed the armistice treaty with the Wehrmacht, was appointed as chief of a new Nazi puppet collaborationist regime in Athens. He was succeeded as Prime Minister of Greece by two other prominent Greek collaborators: Konstantinos Logothetopoulos first, and Ioannis Rallis second. The latter was responsible for the creation of the Greek collaborationist Security Battalions. As in other European countries, there were Greeks eager to collaborate with the occupying force. Some because they shared the National Socialist ideology (for instance members of ultra-nationalist political factions and parties), others because of extreme anti-Communism, and others because of opportunistic advancement. The Germans were also eager to find support from the ideologically-similar Greeks, and helped Greek fascist organizations such as the infamous EEE (Ethniki Enosis Ellas), the EKK (Ethnikon Kyriarchon Kratos), the Greek National Socialist Party (Elliniko Ethnikososialistiko Komma, EEK) led by George S. Mercouris and other minor pro-Nazi, fascist or anti-Semitic organizations such as the ESPO (Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organization) or the Sidira Eirini ("Iron Peace").

In Nazi ideology, the Greeks were regarded as a German-friendly nation and were above Slavs in their racial scale. Adolf Hitler personally admired the ancient Greek civilization, the Spartan model and Hellenic classicism, which inspired many building and artistics endeavours in Nazi Germany. Hitler had no plans to occupy Greece either, and also resisted to Italy's plans to invade Greece, which in the end was for this reason enacted without Benito Mussolini consulting Hitler. Also the fact that Greece in the 1930s had a fascist regime leaded by the germanophile Ioannis Metaxas placed Greece on Hitler's list of potentially friendly nations. Furthermore, the Italians' failure to conquer Greece after their October 28, 1940 ultimatum and attack gained the Greeks the respect of Germany. For this reason Hitler ordered the Wehrmacht not to take Greek prisoners and allowed them to carry weapons, something no other defeated army was allowed to.


Main article: Greek Resistance

However, most Greeks did not cooperate with the Nazis and chose either the path of passive acceptance or active resistance. Active Greek resistance started immediately as many Greeks fled to the hills, where a partisan movement was born. One of the most touching episodes of the early resistance took place just after the Wehrmacht reached the Acropolis on April 27. The Germans ordered one Greek soldier to retire the Greek flag. The Greek soldier obeyed, but when he was done, he wrapped himself in the flag and threw himself off of the plateau where he met death. Some days later, when the Swastika banner was waving on the Akropolis' uppermost spot, two patriotic Athenian youngsters, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas climbed by night on the Acropolis and tore down the Swastika. It was one of the first actions of Greek resistance and among the first in Europe, and therefore inspired not only Greeks but also other Europeans under German domination.

The greatest source of partisan activity was the Communist-backed guerilla forces, the National Liberation Front (Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo, or EAM), and it's military wing Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos (ELAS), which carried away operations of sabotage and guerrilla against the Wehrmacht with notable success. A right-wing partisan organization, the Greek National Republican League (Ethnikos Dimokratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos, or EDES), led by a former army officer, Colonel Napoleon Zervas a well-known Republican, and the National and Social Liberation (Ethniki Kai Koinoniki Apeleftherosis, or the EKKA), led by Colonel Dimitrios Psaros, a Royalist. These groups were formed with remnants of the Hellenic Army and the conservative factions of Greek society. In a number of cases, EDES fought directly against ELAS in a sort of prelude to the Greek Civil War that sprang up after the German departure in 1944. EAM alleged that EDES was aided by the German occupying forces and by the Nazi-supported puppet regimes of Tsolakoglou, Logothetopoulos and Rallis. This situation led to triangular battles among ELAS, EDES and the Germans.

When Italy surrendered to the Allies in the fall of 1943, German forces actively hunted down and, in some cases executed, the Italian soldiers and simultaneously began serious attacks on EDES. There is evidence that Zervas then struck a deal with the German army. The right-wing partisans and Germans agreed not to attack each other. This truce left the Germans free of sabotage in some areas and allowed EDES to suppress local Communist rivals. The EDES-German truce ended in 1944, when the Germans began evacuating Greece and the British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka agreement).[2]

The stage, however, was already set for the next period of Greek history: the Greek Civil War.

Liberation and aftermath

Greece was one of the few European countries to gain territory from the Second World War when the Dodecanese became formaly part of Greece in 1947.

The Holocaust in Greece

Prior to the Second World War, there existed two main groups of Jews in Greece: the scattered Romaniote communities which had existed in Greece since antiquity; and the approximately 50,000-strong Sephardi Jewish community of Thessaloniki, originally formed from Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition in the Middle Ages. The latter had played a prominent part in the city's life for five centuries, but as the city had only been included in the modern Greek state during the First Balkan War, it was not as well-integrated.

When the occupation zones were drawn up, Thessaloniki passed under German control. Although they gave initial assurances, the Nazis gradually imposed a series of anti-Jewish measures. Jewish newspapers were closed down, local anti-Semites were encouraged to post anti-Jewish notices around the city, Jews were forced to wear the Star of David so they could be easily identified and further isolated from the Greeks. Jewish families were kicked out of their homes and arrested while the Nazi-controlled press turned public opinion against them. By December 1942, the Germans began to demolish the old Jewish cemetery so the ancient tombstones could used as building material for sidewalks and walls. [3]

Despite warnings of impending deportations, most Jews were reluctant to leave their homes, although several hundreds were able to flee the city. The Germans began mass deportations in March 1943, sending the Jews of Thessaloniki to the Auschwitz death camp on a long journey, packed in box-cars like sardines. By the summer of 1943, the Jews of the German and Bulgarian zones were gone and only those in the Italian zone remained. Jewish property in Thessaloniki was distributed to Greek 'caretakers' who were chosen by special committee, the "Service for the Disposal of Jewish Property" (YDIP). Instead of giving apartments and businesses to the many refugees, however, they were most often given to friends and relatives of committee members or collaborators. [4]

In September 1943, after the Italian collapse, the Germans turned their attention to the Jews of Athens and the rest of until then Italian-occupied Greece. There their propaganda was not as effective, as the ancient Romaniote Jewish communities were well-integrated into the Orthodox Greek society. Thus they could not easily be singled out from the Christians, who in turn were more ready to resist the German auhorities' demands. The Archbishop of Athens Damaskinos ordered his priests to ask their congregations to help the Jews and sent a strong-worded leter of protest to the collaborationist authorities and the Germans. Many Orthodox Christians risked their lives hiding them in their apartments and homes, despite threat of imprisonment. Even the Greek police ignored instructions to turn over Jews to the Germans. When Jewish community leaders appealed to Prime Minister Ioannis Rallis he tried to alleviate their fears, by saying that the Jews of Thessaloniki had been guilty of subversive activities and that this was the reason they were deported. At the same time, Elias Barzilai, the Grand Rabbi of Athens, was summoned to the Department of Jewish Affairs and told to submit a list of names and addresses of members of the Jewish community. Instead he destroyed the community records, thus saving the lives of thousands of Athenian Jews. He advised the Jews of Athens to flee or go into hiding. A few days later, the Rabbi himself was spirited out of the city by EAM-ELAS fighters and joined the resistance. EAM-ELAS helped hundreds of Jews escape and survive, many of whom stayed with the resistance as fighters and/or interpreters.

In total, at least 81% (ca. 60,000) of Greece's total pre-war Jewish population perished, with the percentage ranging from Thessaloniki's 91% to 'just' 50% in Athens, or even less in other provincial areas such as Volos (36%). In the notable case of the Ionian island of Zakynthos, all 275 Jews survived, being hidden in the island's interior.[5]


The Axis occupation of Greece, specifically the Greek islands, figures much larger in English speaking books and films than the Axis occupation of almost all other countries. Real special forces raids e.g. Ill Met by Moonlight or fictional special forces raids The Guns of Navarone, Escape to Athena, They Who Dare 1954 [4] or a fictional occupation narrative Captain Corelli's Mandolin.


  1. ^ Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44, Yale University Press, 1995. ISBN 0-300-08932-6
  2. ^ Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History, by Steven W. Sowards. [1].
  3. ^ Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts, Harper Collins 2004, p. 424-28
  4. ^ Mark Mazower, Salonica, City of Ghosts, Harper Collins 2004, p. 443-48
  5. ^ The Holocaust in Greece, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
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