Greek Civil War

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ELAS fighter

An ELAS resistance fighter

The Greek Civil War was a war fought between 1942 and 1949 in Greece. On one side was the conservative part of the Greek society and the armed forces of the Greek government, supported at first by Britain and later by the United States. On the other side was the revolutionary part of the Greek society and the forces of the biggest wartime resistance organization (ELAS) against the German occupation, whose leadership was controlled by the Communist Party of Greece.

The war had three phases. In the first phase (1942-1944), the left-wing resistance movement, fought against the right-wing resistance organizations. In the second phase (1944) the left-wing resistance movement which had the control of most of Greece, was confronted by the returning Greek government in exile, which had been formed under the auspices of the British in Cairo. In the third phase (called by KKE the third round) (1946-49), a center-wing conservative government, elected under abnormal conditions, fought against armed forces controlled by the Communist Party of Greece. It is quite peculiar the fact that although the third phase started in March of 1946 the Greek Communist Party was legal until 1948 coordinating the attacks from its offices in Athens.

During the Greek civil war the neighbouring countries tried to press both sides in order to improve their territorial claims against Greece. The creation of SNOF (a Slavo-Macedonian liberation army) that fought as an ELAS ally during the third phase is just an example (see Macedonia). The civil war left Greece with severe economic problems and a legacy of political division which lasted until the 1970s and remains a hot controversial subject until today.


Background: 1941-44

The background to the civil war lay in the occupation of Greece by Nazi Germany (and its allies Italy and Bulgaria) from 1941 to 1944. King George II and his government escaped to Egypt, where they set up a government in exile which was recognised by the Allies. The British forced the King to use center wing politicians as ministers. Only two of his ministers were members of the previous dictatoric government. However, for most Greek citizens under occupation this government in exile was "too far". On one hand, followers of the left-wing resistance movement claimed it was illegitimate even before the war, since it descended from the dictatorship of General Ioannis Metaxas from 1936 to 1941. On the other hand, its inability to influence the events in Greece rendered it irrelevant in the minds of most Greek people.

The Germans set up a collaborationist government in Athens, but this government too lacked legitimacy and support, particularly once German economic exploitation of Greece created runaway inflation, acute shortages and eventually famine among the Greek civilian population. Some officers of the pre-War Greek regime served the Germans in various posts. During the war, this government created paramilitary forces armed by the Germans. These forces (whose maximum number was about 14.000 men in 1944) were never used against the allies but only against the pro-communist guerillas. In fact, most of them were ex-criminals.

This vacuum of power was filled by several resistance movements which began operations within months of the German occupation. The largest of these was the National Liberation Front (in Greek Ethniko Apeleftherotiko Metopo, or EAM), which was founded in September 1941. EAM and its military wing, the Greek National Liberation Army (Ethnikos Laikos Apeleftherotikos Stratos or ELAS), were established by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE), whose acting leader at the time was Giorgios Siantos (its leader, Nikolaos Zachariadis, was in a German prison). Following the Soviet line of a broad united front against fascism, however, EAM succeeded in winning the support of many non-Communists. It expanded into a large popular organisation which although completely controlled by KKE was trying to appear as only an anti royalist democratic movement. Another organization controlled by the Greek communist party was the OPLA(Organization for the protection of the people's fighters). This was acting as a death squad executing mostly political opponents. In the area of Florina there was also the Slavo-Macedonian organization NOF which during the third phase changed its name to SNOF.

EAM and ELAS opposed any other resistance movement. The most important of them were the Greek National Republican League (Ellinikos Dimokratikos Ethnikos Syndesmos or EDES), led by a former army officer, Colonel Napoleon Zervas, and the National and Social Liberation (Ethniki Kai Koinoniki Apeleftherosis, or EKKA), led by Colonel Dimitrios Psaros. EKKA was liberal and republican. EDES was mainly anti-Communist.

The first resistance action took place in Eastern Macedonia when the Germans allowed Bulgarian troops to occupy Greek territories and large demonstrations were organized in Greek Macedonian cities.

Greece is a country very favourable to guerilla operations, and by 1943 the axis forces and their collaborators controlled only the main towns and connecting roads, leaving the mountainous interior to the resistance. By 1943 ELAS had about 20,000 men under arms, and effectively controlled large areas of the mountainous Peloponnese, Crete, Thessaly and Macedonia. EDES had about 5,000 men, nearly all of them in Epirus. EKKA only had about 1,000 men. At the beginning the British were helping all resistance organizations with money and equipment, since they needed any help against the axis. Later they tried to promote the anticommunist resistance organizations. However, ELAS took control of the weapons of the Italian garrisons in Greece when Italy surrendered (and then switched side)in the summer of 1943. In 1944 ELAS was able to equipe its units with weapons looted by the enemy, while EDES enjoyed some British support.

There were also right-wing military organisations, such as X ("Khi")in Athens, PAO in Macedonia and others, which although part of the resistance, were accused by EAM that they were armed by the Germans. The fact is that all resistance organizations in Greece were accusing each other for secret agreements, and possible collaboration. The situation and the alliances were quite unstable. The enemy of my enemy maybe wasn't my friend but could be a source of equipment sometimes.

EAM was the strongest of all resistance organizations and fought against them as well as against the paramilitary forces of the collaborationist government. EAM accused EDES of collaboration with the Germans and was determined to establish a monopoly over the resistance, since it believed that the Allies would soon invade southern Europe through Greece, and wanted to be in a dominant position the day the Germans would leave Greece. This situation led to triangular battles between ELAS, EDES and the Germans. Given the support of the British and the Greek Cairo Government for EDES, these conflicts precipitated a civil war. In October 1943 ELAS attacked its rivals, particularly EDES, precipitating a civil war across many parts of Greece which continued until February 1944, when the British agents in Greece negotiated a ceasefire (the Plaka agreement).

In March 1944 the EAM, now in control of most of the country, established the Political Committee of National Liberation (Politiki Epitropi Ethnikis Apelevtheroseos, or PEEA), in effect a third Greek government to rival those in Athens and Cairo. Its aims were "to intensify the struggle against the conquerors... for full national liberation, for the consolidation of the independence and integrity of our country... and for the annihilation of domestic Fascism and armed traitor formations." PEEA's first president was Euripides Bakirtzis, the military leader of EKKA. Later on, Alexandros Svolos took his position and Bakirtzis became vice-president.

The deliberately moderate aims of the PEEA aroused support even among Greeks in exile. In April 1944 the Greek armed forces in Egypt mutinued against the royalist government in exile, demanding that the Government of National Unity should be established based on the PEEA principles. The mutiny was suppressed by British armed units. This episode discredited Greece among the allies. Later on, through political screening of the officers, the Cairo government created staunchly anti-Communist armed forces. In May 1944, representatives from all political groups came together at a conference in Lebanon, seeking an agreement about a government of national unity. Despite EAM's accusations of collaboration against other Greek forces, the conference succeded because of Soviet directives to the KKE to avoid harming Allied unity.

In Greece under Nazi occupation the struggle was bitter and there was no room for delicate differentiations. All sides burned villages and executed civilians and suspected collaborators. According to KKE "the collaborationist groups such as X, however, used terrorism as a deliberate strategy, while with ELAS fighters it was the result of over-zealous local commanders rather than official policy". The fact is that organization X couldn't burn villages or conduct terrorism since it's influence was only in a small part of the Athens center. The execution of the EKKA leader Dimitrios Psaros was one of the most repellent ELAS crimes, according to KKE some of his officers were later proven to be collaborators with the Germans, according to them they were forced to act so only after the ELAS attacks against all non communist resistance organizations.

Confrontation: 1944

By late 1944 it was obvious that the Germans would soon withdraw from Greece, because the armed forces of the Soviet Union were advancing into Romania and Yugoslavia and the Germans risked being cut off. The government in exile, now led by a prominent Liberal, George Papandreou, moved to Caserta in Italy in preparation for the liberation of Greece. Under the Caserta Agreement of September 1944, all the resistance forces in Greece were placed under the command of a British officer, General Ronald Scobie.

British troops landed in Greece in October. There was little fighting since the Germans were in full retreat. They were greatly outnumbered by ELAS, which by this time had 50,000 men under arms and was re-equipping itself from supplies left behind by the Germans. On October 13 the British entered Athens, and Papandreou and his ministers followed a few days later. The King stayed in Cairo, because Papandreou had promised that the future of the monarchy would be decided by referendum.

At this point there was little to prevent ELAS from taking full control of the country. They did not do so because the KKE leadership was under instructions from the Soviet Union not to precipitate a crisis that could jeopardise Allied unity and put at risk Stalin's larger post-war objectives --above all control of Germany. Stalin had in fact agreed with Winston Churchill that Greece would be in the British sphere of influence after the war. The KKE leadership knew this, but the ELAS fighters and rank-and-file Communists did not. This became a source of conflict within EAM and ELAS.

Under Stalin's instructions, the KKE leadership tried to avoid a confrontation with the Papandreou government. The majority of ELAS members saw the British as liberators although some KKE leaders like Andreas Tzimas or Aris Velouchiotis did not trust the British. Tzimas was in touch with the Yugoslav Communist leader Josip Broz Tito and he disagreed with ELAS's co-operation with the British forces.

The issue of disarming the resistance organisations was the cause of the friction between the Papandreou government and its EAM members. Advised by the British ambassador Sir Reginald Leeper, Papandreou demanded the disarmament of all armed forces and the constitution of a National Guard under government control. EAM, believing that this would leave ELAS defenceless against the right-wing militias, submitted an alternative plan which Papandreou rejected, and EAM then resigned from the government. On December 1, Scobie issued a proclamation requiring the dissolution of ELAS. Command of ELAS was the KKE's greatest source of strength, and the KKE leader Siantos decided that the demand for ELAS's dissolution must be resisted.

Tito's influence may have played some role in ELAS's resistance to disarmament. Tito was outwardly loyal to Stalin but had come to power through his own forces and believed that the Greeks should do the same. His influence, however, had not prevented the EAM leadership from putting its forces under Scobie's command a couple of months earlier.

On December 3, following an outbreak of shooting at an EAM demonstration in Syntagma square in central Athens, full-scale fighting between ELAS and troops of the Greek government and the British began, with artillery and aircraft being freely used. On December 4 Papandreou attempted to resign but the British Ambassador forced him to stay. By December 12 ELAS was in control of most of Athens and Piraeus. The British, outnumbered, flew in the 4th Division from Italy as reinforcements. During the battle, ex-Nazi collaborators fought side by side with the government forces and the British troops, triggering a massacre by ELAS fighters.

Fighting continued through December, with the British slowly getting the upper hand. Curiously, ELAS forces in the rest of Greece did not attack the government forces or the British. It was obvious that ELAS did not have a plan for a real coup, but was drawn into the fighting by the indignation of its fighters.

The outbreak of fighting between British troops and an anti-German resistance movement, while the war was still being fought, was a serious political problem for Churchill's coalition government, and caused much protest in the British and American press and the House of Commons. To prove his peace-making intention, Churchill himself arrived in Athens on December 24 and presided over a conference, in which Soviet representatives participated, to bring about a settlement. It failed because the EAM/ELAS demands were considered excessive and rejected.

By early January ELAS had been driven from Athens. As a result of Churchill's intervention Papandreou resigned and was replaced by a firm anti-Communist, General Nikolaos Plastiras. On January 15 1945 Scobie agreed to a ceasefire, in exchange for ELAS's withdrawal from its positions at Patras and Thessaloniki and its demobilisation in the Peloponnese. This was a severe defeat, but ELAS remained in existence and the KKE had an opportunity to reconsider its strategy.

The KKE's defeat in 1945 was mainly political. The exaltation of terrorism on both sides made a political settlement even more difficult. The hunting of "collaborators" was extended to unrelated people. The KKE made many enemies by summarily executing up to 8,000 people for various political "crimes" during their period of control of Athens, and they took another 20,000 hostages with them when they departed. After the Athens fighting its support declined sharply. As a result of this, most of the prominent non-Communists in EAM left the organisation. On the other hand, terrorism among the right-wing extremist gangs was strengthened.

Interlude: 1945-1946

In February 1945 the various Greek parties came to the Varkiza Agreement, with the support of all the Allies. This provided for the complete demobilisation of ELAS and all other paramilitary groups, an amnesty for all political offences, a referendum on the monarchy and a general election as soon as possible. The KKE remained legal, and its leader Nikolaos Zachariadis, who returned from Germany in April 1945, said that the KKE's objective was now a "people's democracy" to be achieved by peaceful means.

The Varkiza Agreement transformed the KKE's political defeat to a military one. ELAS's existence was terminated. At the same time the National Army and the right-wing extremists were free to continue their war against the ex-members of EAM. The amnesty was not comprehensive, because many actions during the German occupation were classed as criminal and so excepted from the amnesty. As a result, a number of veteran partisans hid their weapons in the mountains and 5,000 of them escaped to Yugoslavia, although the KKE leadership did not encourage this. The KKE renounced Velouchiotis when he called on the veteran guerrillas to start a second struggle: shortly afterwards, he was killed by the security forces.

The KKE soon reversed its political position as relations between the Soviet Union and the western Allies deteriorated with the onset of the Cold War and Communist parties everywhere moved to more militant positions. Although Stalin still did not support a resumed armed struggle in Greece, the KKE leadership In February 1946 decided, "after weighing the domestic factors, and the Balkan and international situation," to go ahead with the "organisation of a new armed struggle against the Monarcho-Fascist regime." The KKE boycotted the March 1946 elections, which were won by the monarchist United Patriotic Party (Inomeni Parataxis Ethnikofronon) the main member of which was the People's Party (LK) of Konstantinos Tsaldaris. In September a referendum narrowly decided to retain the monarchy, although the KKE disputed the results, and King George returned to Athens.

Civil War: 1946-1949

Fighting resumed in March 1946 as armed bands of ELAS veterans infiltrated into Greece through the mountainous regions near the Yugoslav and Albanian borders. They were now organised as the Democratic Army of Greece (Dimokratikos Stratos Elladas, DSE), under the command of the ELAS veteran Markos Vafiadis (known as "General Markos"), who operated from a base in Yugoslavia.

Both the Yugoslav and Albanian Communist regimes, which had come to power through their own efforts and were not Soviet puppets, supported the KKE fighters, but the Soviet Union remained ambivalent. It was not part of Stalin's strategy to conduct a war against a British-supported government in Greece, and the Soviets gave little direct support to the KKE campaign.

By late 1946 the DSE could deploy about 10,000 partisans in various areas of Greece, mainly in the northern mountains. Accordiong to the DSE its fighters "resisted to the reign of terror that the right wing gangs conducted all over Greece. During 1945-1946, 60 right wing gangs killed 1,192 Greek citizens, and made more than 13,000 terrorist attacks against pro-democratic citizens and villages". According to the right wing citizens these gangs were retaliating for what they had suffered during the reign of ELAS. In many cases the Government tried to stop the action of the right wing gangs, imprisoning their members.

This was little relief for the average citizen who was caught in crossfire. When the DSE partizans were entering a village asking for supplies the citizens could not resist. And when the national army was coming to the village the same citizens who had given supplies to the partizans (at gun point) were characterized as communist sympathizers suffering the consequenses.

The Greek Army now numbered about 90,000 men and was gradually being put on a more professional basis. The task of re-equipping and training the Army had been carried out by the British, but by early 1947 Britain, which had spent 85 million pounds in Greece since 1944, could no longer afford this burden. President Harry S. Truman announced that the United States would step in to support the governments of both Greece and Turkey against Communist pressure. This began a long and troubled relationship between Greece and the United States. For several decades the American Ambassador advised the King about important issues such as the appointment of the Prime Minister.

Through 1947 the scale of fighting increased. The DSE launched large-scale attacks on towns across northern Epirus, Thessaly and Macedonia, provoking the Army into massive counter-offensives, which then encountered no opposition as the DSE melted back into the mountains and into its safe havens over the northern borders. Army morale remained low and it would be some time before the support of the United States became apparent.

In September 1947, however, the KKE leadership decided to move from these guerilla tactics to full-scale conventional war, despite the opposition of Vafiadis. In December the KKE announced the formation of a Provisional Democratic Government, with Vafiadis as Prime Minister. This led the Athens government finally to ban the KKE and suppress its press. No foreign government recognised this government. The new strategy led the DSE into costly attempts to seize a major town to be the seat of its government. In December 1947 1,200 DSE men were killed at a set-piece battle around Konitsa. However, this strategy forced the government to increase the size of the Army. Controlling the main cities, the government cracked down on KKE members and sympathisers, many of whom were imprisoned on the island of Makronisos.

Despite setbacks such as the fighting at Konitsa, during 1948 the DSE reached the height of its power, extending its operations to the Peloponnese and even to Attica, within 20km of Athens. It had at least 20,000 fighters and a network of sympathisers and informants in every village and every suburb. The DSE tactic of attacking and burning villages created many enemies, but also created a refugee problem for the government and kept the Army spread thin defending mountain villages. On the other hand, the Army added to the refugee problem by organised expeditions to clear entire areas and deprive the DSE of support.

American funds, advisors and equipment were now flooding into the country, and under American guidance a series of major offensives were launched in the mountains of central Greece. Although these offensives did not achieve all their objectives, they inflicted some serious defeats on the DSE. Army morale rose, and the morale of the DSE fighters, many of whom had been "conscripted" at gunpoint, fell correspondingly.

The end of the war: 1949

The fatal blow to the KKE and the DSE, however, was political, not military. In June of that year, the Soviet Union and its satellites broke off relations with Prime Minister Tito of Yugoslavia, who had been the KKE's strongest supporter since 1944. The KKE thus had to choose between their loyalty to Stalin and their relations with their closest and most important ally. Inevitably, after some internal conflict, the great majority of them, led by Zachariadis, chose Stalin. In January 1949 Vafiadis was accused of "Titoism" and removed from his political and military positions, being replaced by Zachariadis.

After a year of increasing acrimony, Tito closed down the Yugoslavian border to the guerrillas of DSE in July of 1949 and disbanded their camps inside Yugoslavia. The DSE could still operate from Albania, but to the DSE that was a poor alternative. The split with Tito set also off a witch-hunt for "Titoites" inside the Greek Communist Party, leading to disorganisation and demoralisation within the ranks of DSE and decline of support of KKE in urban areas.

At the same time, the National Army found a talented commander in the face of General Alexander Papagos. In August of 1949, Papagos launched a major counter-offensive against the DSE forces in northern Greece, code-named "Operation Torch". The plan was a major victory for the National Army and resulted in heavy losses for the DSE. The DSE army, could no longer able to sustain resistance in a set-piece battle. By September of 1949, most of its fighters had surrendered or escaped over the border into Albania. By the end of the month, the Albanian government, presumably with Soviet approval, announced to KKE that it would no longer allow the DSE to perform military operations from within Albanian territory. On October 16, Zachariadis announced a "temporary cease-fire to prevent the complete annihilation of Greece." That treaty marked the end of the Greek Civil War.

The United States saw the end of the Greek Civil War, as a victory in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. The paradox was that the Soviets never actively supported the Communist Party's efforts to seize power in Greece, and at the crucial moment at the end of 1944, when ELAS controlled most of the country, intervened decisively to restrain KKE, in the interests of the Soviet Union's larger strategy. KKE's major supporter and supplier had always been Tito, and it was the rift between Tito and the KKE which marked the real demise of the party's efforts to assert power.

The Civil War left Greece in ruins and in even greater economic distress than it had been after the end of WWII and the end of the German occupation. The war divided the Greek people for the following four decades. Thousands of Greeks languished in prison for many years. Many thousands more went into exile in Communist countries, or emigrated to Australia Germany, USA and other countries. The polarisation and instability in the 1960s of Greek politics was a direct result from feelings and ideologies lingering from the Civil War. Right-wing extremist organisations played a part in the politics of the time by instigating conflict and tension, leading to the murder of the left-wing politician Gregoris Lambrakis in 1963. In April 21, 1967, a group of right-wing Army officers succeded in performing a coup d' ๊tat and seizing power from the government, using as an excuse the political instability and tension of the time. The leader of the coup, George Papadopoulos, was a member of the extra-military organization IDEA (Ieros Desmos Ellinon Axiomatikon -Ιερός Σύνδεσμος Ελλήνων Αξιωματικών - or Sacred Bond of Greek Officers). Before the Junta was in power, officers belonging to the ASPIDA group, a left-wing organization of anti-royalist officers, were accused of planning an attempt to take power through a coup. The attempt never took place and the officers were court martialed for "treason against the Greek state", and "following a known communist". They were alledgedly followers of Andreas Papandreou, son of George Papandreou, senior, former prime minister of Greece, who fled Greece, after the 1967 coup. After the fall of the military junta in 1974, a conservative centre-right wing government under Constantine Karamanlis legalised the KKE and established a constitution which guaranteed political freedoms, individual rights and free elections. In 1981 the center/left-wing government of PASOK, which was elected with a substantial majority, voted to give all ELAS warriors a pension for their action during occupation, even if they had later revolted against the state during the "third round". PASOK claimed that this law diminished the consequenses of the civil war in Greek society. Nonetheless, the same party has repeatedly come under fire for allegedly inflaming civil-war era passions with divisive rhetorics for its own political gain.

External link

Further reading

  • W. Byford-Jones, The Greek Trilogy: Resistance-Liberation-Revolution, London 1945
  • R. Capell, Simiomata: A Greek Note Book 1944-45, London 1946
  • W. S. Churchill, The Second World War
  • N.G.L. Hammond Venture into Greece: With the Guerillas, 1943-44, London, 1983. (Like Woodhouse, he was a member of the British Military Mission)
  • Cordell Hull, The Memoirs of Cordell Hull, New York 1948.
  • D. G. Kousoulas, Revolution and Defeat: The Story of the Greek Communist Party, London 1965
  • Reginald Leeper, When Greek Meets Greek: On the War in Greece, 1943-1945
  • E. C. W. Myers, Greek Entanglement, London 1955
  • C. M. Woodhouse, Apple of Discord: A Survey of Recent Greek Politics in their International Setting, London 1948 (Woodhouse was a member of the British Military Mission to Greece during the war)
  • "After the war was over" Princeton University press 2000 introduction by Mark Mazower.
  • "The Greek civil war 1943,1950" studies of polarization. 1993 Routledge.
  • "Les Kapetanios" by Dominique Eude (in French and Greek). Artheme Fayard 1970
  • the 16 vol. of "The history of the Greek Nation" by Ekdotiki Athinon

The following are only in Greek Language.

  • "H αθέατη πλευρά του εμφυλίου" written by an ex ELAS fighter. ISBN 960-426-187-8
  • "Φωτιά και τσεκούρι" written by ex New Democracy leader EV. AVEROF initially in French. ISBN 960-05-0208-0
  • "Σύγχρονη πολιτική ιστορία της Ελλάδος" by S.MARKEZINIS an initially left politician who ended as the last prime minister of Papadopoulo's junta. ATHENS 1994 PAPYROS PRESS
  • "Γιασασίν Μιλλέτ" by ΝΙΚΟΣ ΜΑΡΑΝΤΖΙΔΗΣ UNIVERSITY OF CRETE. ISBN 960-524-131-5
  • "Η τραγική αναμέτρηση" by ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ ΖΑΟΥΣΗΣ. ΕΚΔΟΣΕΙΣ ΩΚΕΑΝΙΔΑ 1992 ATHENS.

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