Misrepresenting the Past to Make Sense of the Present: Greek historians respond to an «Observer» article on the December 1944 events



Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his visit to Greece, 28 December 1944. Athens can be seen in the background. © IWM / Imperial War Museum -Photograph adjuste to ARB-site needs

Prime Minister Winston Churchill during his visit to Greece, 28 December 1944. Athens can be seen in the background. © IWM / Imperial War Museum -Photograph adjusted to ARB-site needs

On November 30, 2014 The Observer published a story titled Athens 1944: Britain’s Dirty Secret, written by Ed Vulliamy and Helena Smith. The story, which presented an account of the events that took place in Athens in December 1944, was also posted on the widely read website of The Guardian,where it elicited over a thousand comments.

This story is an example of what happens when one tries too hard to fit the past into the present. Indeed, it is so preposterous to claim that the December 1944 events ‘sowed the seeds for the rise of the far right in Greece today’ that it may not really worth engaging with Vulliamy’s and Smith’s tendentious blend of the Second World War, the Greek Civil War, the Cold War, the Irish War of Independence, British colonialism, and the ongoing Greek crisis.

Nevertheless, their story does supply a nice opportunity to shed light on how the facts used to undelay this type of exercise can diverge from the historical record. For it is one thing to remind readers of Britain’s intervention in Greece in the latter stages of World War II – which by the way was no secret at all, and another to rely on valid sources and cross-checked testimonies.

When contacted by the authors, the Observer refused to publish their remarks on account of an unnamed ‘independent’ historian’s verdict. The newspaper merely offered to append a “footnote” to its story on two minor points, which would not fail to trivialize our response and further mislead its readership.

So, here are the fourteen instances of how the celebrated Observer story departs from the record:

(1)  The British army did not “open fire upon … a civilian crowd demonstrating” at the Athens Syntagma Square on 3 December 1944. Greek police did and men of the British 23rd Armoured Brigade moved in and cleared the square after the event.

(2)  The British government did not back the leftist resistance movement (EAM/ELAS) “throughout the war.” It cut off support after ELAS attacked the non-communist EDES organization in October 1943 and during the ensuing civil conflict. Even after the Lebanon Conference and until EAM decided to join the Greek government-in-exile, in late August, the British kept up the pressure on EAM/ELAS and prepared to land at key points in Greece after the German withdrawal and before a feared EAM takeover.

(3)  To say that Winston Churchill “switched allegiances to back the supporters of Hitler against his own erstwhile allies” (i.e. the EAM/ELAS) and to present the December confrontation as one fought between “the British alongside supporters of the Nazis against the partisans” is a gross misrepresentation of the record. There were Resistance fighters on both sides of the conflict.

(4)  It is an unwarranted sweeping statement to state that in Greece, and supposedly in France or Italy, those who had “fought the Nazis … found (themselves) fighting – or imprisoned and tortured by – the people who had collaborated with the Nazis, on British orders.” Such a statement overlooks the fact that several former EAM members and ELAS fighters joined the government camp and army and fought against the communist Democratic Army in 1946-49. In fact, the December 1944 conflict became a watershed in that it alienated several moderate leftists and republicans and led them away from the EAM/KKE. It is also an exaggeration to claim that “there has never been a reconciliation” in post-civil war Greece. Both the socialist government of Andreas Papandreou in 1982 and the conservative-leftist coalition that succeeded him in 1989 officially recognised the wartime resistance in its entirety, awarding pensions and erecting several monuments to that effect. After 1974, Greek political refugees in communist countries were allowed to return with full pension rights.

(5)  ELAS did not “agree to the arrival of British troops” in May 1944. EAM/KKE did so at Caserta on 26 September 1944.

(6)  The British did not “prepare to restore the king” after their limited forces arrived to Greece, in October 1944. They barely sufficed to keep a semblance of Greek government authority in Athens and a few other cities. After August 1944,when Churchill came round to the view that King George II should not return upon liberation, the issue at point was to help the government of national unity under Papandreou survive until the matter could be settled by referendum.

(7)  The Security Battalions and Special Security Branch (of the Greek Police) were never integrated into the German SS. It is also unlikely that they “were seen walking freely in the streets” as they seriously risked being spotted by EAM’s People’s Guard or OPLA, still active in executing traitors of all sorts.

(8)  It is hard to believe that a scholar like Professor André Gerolymatos stated that “disarmament applied to ELAS only … not to those who had collaborated with the Nazis.” First, Papandreou and the British attempted to disarm all resistance units and integrate them into a National Guard in which former ELAS would constitute a minority. Secondly, the surviving units of collaborators had surrendered to the British forces, had been disarmed and confined to camps under guard. Deprived of sizeable pro-government forces, the British did arm rank and file tainted with collaboration after the fighting in Athens commenced, in December 1944. Thirdly, to argue that Churchill “legitimised” the collaborators in order “to bring back the Greek king,” as Professor Gerolymatos appears to do, inverts the sequence of events and the fact that Churchill himself persuaded George II to publicly undertake not to return until after a plebiscite.

(9)  It is an exaggeration to say that the British helped set up “a gulag of [concentration] camps” in civil war Greece. Rather, in the immediate aftermath of the civil war, the British pressed the Greek government to close down the civilian Makronissos camp as “contrary to the British and American concept of humanity and justice.”

(10)         The conflation of the British Police Mission to Greece with practices of British colonialism (a “combination of concentration camps, putting the murder gangs in uniform, and calling it the police”) might have been avoided had the authors cared to consult relevant research on this point, including Mark Mazower’s ‘Policing the Anti-Communist State in Greece, 1922-1974’ in The Policing of Politics in the 20th Century, which he edited in 1997.

(11)         The Truman Doctrine was not a blueprint for “military intervention” in Greece or elsewhere. It relied on a combination of aid and intervention short of dispatching US troops.

(12)         Manolis Glezos, EMP, whom the authors describe as “a man of humbling greatness,” supplies an account of his role in the December events which does not easily tally with detailed accounts of the same event, including an article published by the newspaper Avgi, on December 25, 2013. Manos Ioannidis, a resistance veteran and author of this piece, describes in detail the attempt to blow up the Grande Bretagne hotel where the Greek government and the British Headquarters were located in the centre of Athens. More specifically, (a) the author, an ELAS fighter himself, mentions several names but not Glezos. It is a curious omission, since Glezos is certainly the most prominent living member of the resistance; (b) Glezos mentions that the mining of the Grande Bretagne took place “on the evening of 25 December.” Ioannidis times it on 23 or 24 December and adds that it was completed in 12 to 15 hours; (c) Glezos states: ‘There were about 30 of us involved.” According to Ioannidis’ sources, however, “some 150 ELAS men descended into the sewerage system, each carrying a chest of explosives and other materiel, plus a number of cadres and engineers;” (d) Glezos states: “I carried the fuse wire myself, wire wound all around me, and I had to unravel it. … I went over to the boy with the detonator.” According to Ioannidis: “Hundreds of meters of wheeled electrical cable were used … and a lorry with a power generator for detonating was in wait outside the manhole.” Even accepting that Glezos, a man who, after recovering from tuberculosis, had been disarming police stations and taking out British tanks during the previous weeks, had now turned into a human spool, it would still be hard to explain how a simple detonator could serve in such a sophisticated operation.

(13)         Regarding the overall assessment of these events, Glezos’ own admission is quite revealing. A man who, according to the article, ‘still calls himself a communist’, today admits that “communism, as applied to Greece’s neighbours to the north, would have been a catastrophe.” One is entitled to wonder whether Greece’s predicament would have been any different under EAM/KKE rule.

(14)         Last, and quite tellingly, the ‘Timeline” following the article is riddled with several inaccuracies that could have been averted had the authors bothered to consult available scholarly sources.

Giorgos Antoniou, Hellenic International University

Basil Gounaris, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki

Evanthis Hatzivassiliou, National and Capodistrian University of Athens

John O. Iatrides, Southern Connecticut State University

Stathis Kalyvas, Yale University

Nikos Marantzidis, University of Macedonia

Ioannis Stefanidis, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki