British and U.S. intervention in Greek Politics Triggers the Greek civil war (1945-1949)

Between 1942 and 1944, Left-wing partisans in Greece waged war against Fascist German troops occupying their country. But they targeted also a number of those Greeks (often supporters of the deceased dictator Metaxas) who chose to collaborate with the German administration in Nazi-occupied Greece. Because the collaborators were often members of the Greek police force at the service of the Germans occupiers, these collaborators were able to fight back. In addition, the Left-wing partisans were often attacked by the monarchist right-wing EDES which claimed to fight the Germans but preferred to fight the Greek Left. Thus, the struggle waged by the left-wing ELAS people's army was at the same time a liberation struggle against Hitler-Germany's armed forces and a civil war between the Left and the extreme right in Greece.

When the German troops departed and the British army landed in Athens, this was also the moment when the Greek government-in-exile, led by the liberal centrist, Giorgos Papandreou, returned. The British demanded at the time that the ELAS should not enter Athens, and that they should lay down their arms. They offered the Left a role in the post-war government that would be formed. The leaders of the Left were convinced that it was a positive solution if it meant that the Greek Left  would be able to join a coalition government similar to the one formed in Italy.

The Left was indeed briefly represented in the Papandreou government. They were, however, reluctant to disarm, when this demand was formulated by Mr. Papandreou. The reason was obvious. The Right-wing units, foes of the left in 1942-44, were not disarming but attacking those Leftists who had been demobilized and who returned home. Assassinations occurred. The courts, staffed by conservative judges, were also trying ELAS members who had killed collaborators in the years past. Regularly, Leftists were sentenced to death, whereas Fascists who had murdered Leftists between 1942 and 1944, received milder sentences, and then were paroled, in many cases.

Under these circumstances, the Left leadership insisted again and again that the government must disarm all right-wing battallions; otherwise they would see no possibility to fully disarm. When right-wing assassination squads stepped up the attacks on known Leftists, and the Papandreou government failed to keep a promise made that it would disarm the right-wing units,  the Left leadership decided that under these circumstances, in a climate of anti-Left terror and assassinations, it could not continue with demobilization. In response, Papadreou forced the Left-wing ministers to resign.

Later on, it was revealed that Papandreou had been under pressure by Churchill not to disarm the right, and that he had received promises in advance that the British troops in Greece would defend his government if the civil war should start anew.

At the time, the Left also told the Papandreou government that they objected to hold elections in March, 1946. They said that they could not reasonably be expected to  participate in the coming elections under the existing conditions of anti-Left terror. It was simply too dangerous for candidates to canvas and for Left-wing activists to support their party. When Papandreou said that the elections must be held in March 1946, it was clear to the leaders of the Left that the door to peaceful participation in Greek political life had been closed. 

Still, they did not give up all hope. Demonstrations against the date foreseen for the elections were organized and took place, in a climate of fear.

Then, the well-known attack by local ELAS members on a police station in Piraeus occurred. This police station was manned by police officers who had taken part in brutal attacks on unarmed Leftists, mainly during street demonstrations. They may also have played a role in the assassination of individuals living in the neighborhood. After the officers of the attacked Piraeus police station surrendered, they were hanged by the local population. The right-wing press called it the outbeak of civil war.

If the hanging of the police officers in late 1945 had been an act of cruel "people's justice," an act of outright terror occurred in January, 1946.  Three thousand members of a clandestine right-wing organization commanded by General Grivas attacked the town of Kalamata, freeing imprisoned Nazi collaborators who were awaiting trial, burning court files, and attempting to take over a building where communist prisoners were being held. Failing to accomplish this, they killed 14 unarmed citizens and escaped with 150 hostages. After executing some of the hostages, they attacked towns in Laconia and killed the relatives of known Leftists.

It was a campaign that was meant to spread terror and to intimidate, and it was clearly driven by hatred against the Left and by thirst for revenge. 

Because the Papandreou government, that had already dismissed the Left-wing ministers, watched and stood by when this outrage occurred,  the Left leadership said, Enough is enough. They informed all party members and former partisans that the only way to protect their lives against right-wing terrorism was to take up arms again. It was a decision that was not welcomed by the Soviet Union at the time.

Still hoping for a peaceful solution, the Soviet ambassador to the United Nations sharply criticized the ruthless attacks on Greek Leftists by so-called security battallions, which obviously had the backing of the British army in Greece.
The ambassador voiced the sentiments of the Left-wing Greek leaders that, in view of the repeated attacks and assassinations to which Leftists were subjected, it was impossible to hold free and fair elections in March, 1946. The Left in Greece also  repeated its demanded that the elections should be postponed until order was restored and the right-wing units were dismantled. A bluebook was published and distributed in New York to delegates representing various countries at the UN. It was also given to the media. It  detailed murders of Left-wing activists and sympathizers, unfair trials, and death sentences meted out to decommissioned left-wing partisans, while also documenting the lenient treatment accorded by the courts to known Nazi collaborators.

When the British authorities remained adamant that the elections must by all means occur in March 1946, fourteen out of thirty-five ministers in the government (that had already dismissed all leftist ministers) were opposed, and of those opposing the decision, nine resigned in protest.  The new prime minister, Mr. Sophoulis, bowed to Churchill's demand not to postpone the elections, however, because this demand was backed by a message from President Truman, conveyed by the US ambassador, that despite the fact that the Left would boycott the elections under the present situation, a postponement of the elections must not occur. It was clear that both the British and the American government feared a strong showing and perhaps even a possible election victory of the Left, and wanted to make this impossible. 

The result was that in the March 1946 elections --  the first election since the departure of the Nazi German troops -- the Greek population which had suffered both under the Metaxas dictatorship and under Fascist occupation and which now was thirsty for a truly democratic political life, nonetheless did not turn out eagerly, as would have been normal. Following the Left-wing call to boycott the election, about 50 percent of the voters stayed at home, while other Leftists tried to vote for the "lesser evil," Papandreou's liberals. 

Still, the liberals, who would have depended on a coalition with the Left in order to form a government, were vanquished by the right, which now formed the government, very much to the satisfaction of Britain and the U.S.

The new right-wing givernment, headed by Constantinos Tsaldaris, supported immediately the return of the contested king. It also passed laws that lead to the dismissal of leftists and left-leaning liberals in the public and private sector.

When the Tsaldaris government relied on the right-wing security battalions to fight ELAS sympathizers taking to the streets in protest in Athens and Piraeus, thus making democratic demonstrations impossible, the Left announced the formation of a new people's army in place of the largely disbanded ELAS. This  new army was the Democratic Army of Greece  (Demokratikos Stratos Elladas). Its commander was former ELAS leader Markos Vafiades. 

The Democratic Army began to wage war on the right-wing government in late 1946. By the end of 1946, it still counted only 7,000 fighters. But by early 1947, the Democratic Army controlled already around one hundred villages, many in the impoverished coutryside of the Peloponnese where the Left had strong backing among the rural population, and in the mountain areas of Northern Greece where it had waged war against the Fascist German troops.

Thus, by late 1946, the post-WWII stage of the Greek civil war had truly begun. The Royal Air Force immediately joined in, carrying out bombing attacks on Greek villages in Northern Greece. The Americans supplied planes and napalm. The war against the Democratic Army in Northern Greece was offering them a chance to test this new weapon which was repeatedly used, both against partisans and against the civilian population that was suspected of supporting the Left.

The climate of repression in Greece was intensified now. The Communist Party of Greece (KKE) was outlawed in 1947. The founder of the monarchist right-wing resistance against Nazi occupation, Napoleon Zervas, who had preferred to fight the Left-wing ELAS rather than the German troops during the World War, was now named minister of public order. He immediately ordered the arrest of some three thousand known communists, who were living peacefully in town controlled by the Tsaldaris government. Many of them were already much too old to become combattants; quite a few were writers, poets, professors -- in short, intellectuals. Those who were not executed, were sent to concentration camps established on such islands as Makronissos. One of those incarcerated here under terribly rough conditions was the poet Jannis Ritsos who was later on imprisoned again, by a US- backed junta, in Leros and Yaros, two other island-based concentration camps.

While dispatching no troops to Greece, as the British had done, the Truman administration nonetheless intervened heavily in the civil war. The American government gave massive military aid, and as it would later on do, in Guatemala and Nicaragua, it sent "military advisers." When the US stepped up its covert military intervention in the course of 1947 and 1948, it became clear that the Greek Democratic Army was in for trouble. The situation became even worse when they were cut off from essential support after the split between Tito and Stalin. It was by then clear that they would lose the civil war in the end, and this despite considerable popular support, estimated in the range of a third of the population, not counting sympathizers who might have voted for them in 1946. 

A government offensive in the summer of 1949 attacked the remaining areas in northern Greece that were still held by the Leftist. Admitting that their cause was lost, the surving fighters crossed the frontiers to neighboring "people's republics."

The Greek civil war was the first US-conducted war that practiced a method that the German fascists had failed to adopt. It "emptied the sea to catch the fish." The authorities did so, not by creating strategic hamlets, as another regime that took orders from the Americans would do later on during the war in Vietnam, but by ordering villagers in areas dominated by the Leftist guerilla army to move to the cities. This is exactly what the American generals would ask Nixon's protogé, the dictator Lol Non, to accomplish in Cambodia, later on. As in Cambodia where the population of Pnom Penh tripled due to the American policy to depopulate the countryside in "rebel-infested" zones, the population of Athens, Piraeus and Thessaloniki swelled tremendously, creating an enormous problem for the Tsaldaris government to feed the large number of displaced persons from the countryside. Without American food aid, insufficient as it remained, starvation in the cities would have possibly led to another revolt, and thus a second front. When the civil war ended, many of these country folk forcibly displaced to big and mid-sized cities had adapted somehow to the new situation, and did not return to their native villages. It made continued American aid a political requirement. 

The end of the civil war saw a wave of executions of so-called traitors, and further imprisonment of Leftists on the island-based concentration camps.

Togther with all the victims of the war, the dream of a new, more democratic society was killed.

- Amy Burroughs and Josh Carter

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