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How Greece Entered WWII

How Greece Entered WW II
A debate has always been smoldering among Greek historians as to the who precipitated the refusal to Italian demands that forced the Greek entry into World War II.

There is no doubt that Ioannis Metaxas actually denied Italian claims on that fateful night. In true fact, Metaxas never said "OXI", instead he answered the demands of Italian ambassador to Athens Emanuelle Grazzi, in French, saying "Alors, c' est la guerre (so, this is war)."

But although for the official view, it was the dictator Metaxas that led Greece to war, for left leaning historians, his hand was, so to speak, forced by popular sentiment.

The regime's detractors point to its fascist trappings, the dictatorial rule, the spread of secret surveillance, and rampant anti-communism topped off with the infiltration and destruction, for all practical purposes, of the outlawed communist party apparatus.

For most of the post-war historians, who espoused leftist rhetoric, borne out of the civil war and the subsequent persecutions against the left, the Metaxas regime was a fascist malignancy that was the natural ally of Italian fascism and German Naziism, espousing many of the ideals of its sister regimes.

So why did the "fascist" Metaxas, a man denounced as deeply against popular ideals and ideologically kin to European totalitarians, refuse to collaborate with the Axis?

Was the 4th August dictatorship fascist?
In many of its structural features and its external characteristics the state Metaxas imposed when he usurped the parliamentary mandate, with palace approval, were indeed reminiscent of fascism, and there is no doubt that it was an authoritarian dictatorship. But it fails to conform with fascist ideology in many respects.

The similarities with fascism include the imposition of vertical economic structures, in order to mitigate class struggle, the cooptation of vocational classes into state monitored associations, vehement anti-communism, and the promotion of a leader figure as the sole expression of national will.

Although the regime was fraught with nationalist symbology, unlike fascist regimes, there was targeting of minorities, foreign nationalities and religions, or other countries. Instead it was an introverted regime that being faced with the non-payment of Greek debt was saddled with the restructuring of the economy, which it managed in a fairly decent, albeit untransparent, manner.

Unlike self-described fascist regimes, Metaxas did not impose a single party apparatus that was the conduit for all political demands and decisions, despite establishing the aforementioned professional and youth organizations.

In terms of foreign policy, Metaxas was very weary of European totalitarians, knowing that Italy had expansionist visions for Greece, and Germany had allies in the Balkans it wanted to placate with territorial concessions at the expense of Greece. The courtship of Ankara by Berlin was also a source of concern.

Metaxas, despite his aversion for liberal democracy, which he saw a tool used by capitalists to dupe people into doing their bidding, had decided that the fate of Greece lay with the major maritime power of his era, Great Britain. This does not mean he didn't try to extricate the country from this embrace, and seek a modus vivendi with the Axis. He did, it just never even come close to any semblance of agreement.
It should be noted that under Metaxas, Greek armaments firms supplied Republican Spain (even though the industrialist Bodosakis was far from straight in his dealings).

Inevitably, as he himself noted to leading journalists and editors, on 30 October 1940, any concessions towards the Axis would mean a dismemberment of Greece, first by these dubious forces, and then in retaliation by the Allies, ie Great Britain.

Was Metaxas resolved to pursue the war to its fullest?
Even if Metaxas would have been willing to put up a token resistance, which his military past shows he was not, the enthusiasm with which the declaration of war was met, would have swept him along.

It's no secret that chief of staff , field marshal during the Civil War, and later premier, Alexandros Papagos, an amateur officer at best, wanted just this sort of solution, and during the first few days of the Italian invasion was in a panic, pressing for withdrawal and suing for peace.

Had Metaxas held similar opinions, the counter-offensive and the subsequent triumphs of the Hellenic armed forces would never had happened.

Many of the historians that have chronicled those times, conveniently pass over the preparations for war, which since 1936 had sought to revitalize the armed forces with new structures and equipment, fortress building, military maneuvers, and a competent reservist call-up system.
The efforts expanded by state agencies and military sources to find additional materiel and ammunition as soon as the war started were almost superhuman and detailed in at least two excellent works.

Yet, it's also obvious that Metaxas, may have been planning a brokered peace after Greek forces had become firmly entrenched in the positions they held within Albania. This is seen in the distance he attempted to keep from the war, between the Axis and the Allies, attempting to isolate the Greek-Italian front as a separate conflict. He attempted to tread a thin line between neutrality vis-a-vis the world war, and the Greek theater, by denying as much as was possible the use of Greek territorial waters by British warships and submarines, and curtailed the Hellenic navy from any forays into the Italian occupied Dodecanese.

Was Metaxas expressing the public will?
On 31 October 1940, jailed communist party secretary general Nikos Zachariadis sent a letter calling for the people to rise in defense of Greece against fascist Italy. This was recanted in two later letters dated 26 November, and 15 January 1941. In the last he calls Metaxas the No 1 Enemy of the people.

Looking at the decrepit state of the Greek political world, or what remained of it by 1940, it is very far from certain that the answer to the Italian ultimatum would have been the same. Royalist politicians had, by 1936, been reduced to yes men and lackeys, producing very little in terms of political ideas, while their opponents in the Venizelist camp had been discredited by their handling of the republic that emerged after the Asia Minor debacle and were given the coup de grace by the attempted coup of 1935. Their own internal squabbles made it unlikely that they would have been able to mobilize popular forces.

The paralysis of the political forces is borne out by their behavior during the occupation, when their efforts to form some semblance of resistance movement were exhsusted mostly on the level of consultations. What is worse during the occupation, many of the leading military cadres belonging to the Venizelist camp were driven to Axis collaboration, or to its fringes, in part due to a hatred for the palace, which the Allies supported.

The situation begs the question, if the Metaxas regime had not been in power on 28th October 1940, but rather, the forces that ruled over Greece during the period before (labeled "the stillborn republic" by professor Mavrogordatos in his award winning book of the same name), would they still have answered the Italian ultimatum in the same way?
History, of course, does not deal in "ifs" and hypothetical situations, but scholars of history rarely avoid these pitfalls. Even if there had been a resounding willingness to meet the challenge had on, cutting across parties and ideologies, could Greek traditional political forces have done so effectively?

It seems unlikely, as they had been unlikely to agree on anything before, and the fact that divisions ran so deep that in the past they had sapped popular morale to unbelievable lows in the recent past, points to the possibility of future repeats. Even if consensus had been found, it would have come too late, and responding to an ultimatum two hours before its expiration is not the forte of parliamentary democracy.

Looking back at past performance, one doubts that any sort of adequate mobilization would have been planned, and definitely not in the secrecy of the Metaxas regime, which saw units fully prepared and fleshed out, even before the conflict began on the dawn of 28 October 1940.

In conclusion
Ioannis Metaxas died under rather nebulous circumstances of a simple infection, before the advent of the German attack on Greece, putting paid to speculations as to what he was planning, and paving the way for active British intervention in Greece, which may, or may not, have precipitated active Nazi involvement in Greece.

The people did respond to the war effort admirably, with tremendous fervor, somewhat discrediting the position that the people were in their majority hostile to the regime. Perhaps, as most often happens, and since it was not a regime predisposed to violent repression, Metaxas was given tacit, if unwilling, approval by the vast majority that had been "chewed up" in the divisions of the old political system, of which they had, in essence, been clients and excluded from true active representation.

Nobel literature prize winner Giorgos Seferis, at that time a senior diplomat noted "when 28 October came, he [Metaxas] could not see that only then, and not during the fiestas at the stadium, the whole people were with him, with the answer he gave Grazzi at dawn. He could not understand that on that day the people did not approve of the 4th August [regime], but were abolishing it."
In a sense, Seferis was right, but it was not a return to the past the people were seeking, but a way forward, even if through fighting against a foreign invader.

Metaxas himself recognized in his 30 October discussion with journalists that his refusal expressed the popular will, in the same paragraph that he detailed how fascism and naziism are totally opposed to the national interests of Greece. This is a very useful lesson for today.

Now, whether Greek involvement in WWII was beneficial in the longrun, in light of the death and destruction it brought, and the civil war that followed occupation, is another story altogether.