I am recommending a book by Mark Mazower on the axis occupation of Greece that should be required reading in Greek schools. It was a present by my American cousin Joe a few years ago, I revisited it recently looking for some sources and was fascinated by the narrative clarity and strong empathy of the author.
For those in modern Greece that keep making simplifying assumptions on what life was like during the war, the record is instructive. The tens of thousands of combat casualties are dwarfed by the hundreds of thousands that were deliberately starved in the urban centres between 1941-42, the hundreds of thousands displaced by the Italian, Bulgarian and German occupation, the tens of thousands interred in work camps, the decimation of the Greek-Jewish population in 1942-44 and the consistent plunder of the country.
It is interesting that Mazower finds the Italian and Greek resistance to Hitler’s ‘final solution’ to be premised in an incomprehension and a culture clash. A large section of the Jewish community in Greece comprised Romaniot and Sephardic groups. The former noted for their high level of integration in Greek society, tracing their roots to Roman times and the latter to a settlement in the 15th century. The stories of their loss and deprivation are harrowing.
A Greek novelist, Giorgos Ioannou is quoted to claim incompatibility of this type of racism with a Greek outlook of life: “The Germans suddenly introduced, into what today seems the almost idyllic atmosphere of our unsuspecting, dusty Balkan culture, all the abysmal medieval passions and idiocies of Gothic Europe”. I hope these thoughts still resonate with Greek culture today.
The impeccable scholarship offers confidence in the analysis and conclusions. The systematic plunder, violence, destruction and death of the occupation is incomprehensible from our vantage point. The few germanophile Greeks were doomed to disillusionment, while the few Hellenophile Germans frustrated in their impotence. Most others were active perpetrators, passive participants or victims. But it is difficult to pigeonhole actors and Mazower does a good job of demonstrating that good and bad are rarely binary states but exist in gradations. Not all Greeks were victims and not all Germans villains. What emerges from his narrative is that the axis occupation was a ‘new dawn’ only for murderers, plunderers and those lacking a moral compass. For the rest, it was a dark time of destruction and suffering that set the scene for an equally devastating civil war. The moments of empathy and all attempts to resist the tide of absolutism provide uplifting moments, reaffirming humanity in this sad period of modern history.