Opinion: Greek resistance during WWII remains a model for confronting evil

Editor’s note: Christopher Cosmos is a Black List screenwriter and best-selling author from Grand Rapids, Michigan, whose debut novel “Once We Were Here” is a multi-generational love story set in Greece during WWII about the Greek resistance and events that Oxi Day commemorates. Follow him on Instagram and Facebook. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.

There is a famous quote often attributed to former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, although some debate whether he said it:

“From henceforth, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”

It describes the heroic actions of Greece and the Greek people in resisting the Axis invasion of their country that began in the Fall of 1940 during World War II. To fully understand the quote, though, it’s necessary to start further back, in the hours before the invasion and fighting began.

Christopher Cosmos - Christopher Cosmos
Christopher Cosmos - Christopher Cosmos

On October 28, 1940, Greece’s Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, was awakened at his residence at 3 a.m. and given an ultimatum by the Italian ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi: either let the Italians occupy Greece without a fight, or it would be war.

The important words that come next have been debated throughout the years since.

Grazzi himself, in his memoirs wrote that Metaxas said to him, staring straight into his eyes, “Alors, c’est la guerre!,” that translates from French - a common language of diplomacy at the time - as, “Then it is war!” When Grazzi responded by saying war could be avoided entirely if the Greeks simply surrendered, Metaxas interrupted and allegedly answered with a single Greek word: “Oxi.” No.

Whether Metaxas actually said “oxi” (pronounced: Oh-hee) or not is still debated, but regardless of what he actually said, this is the word of refusal that would embed itself in the collective consciousness of the Greek people, and it would need to, because mere hours later, true to his word, then-Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s troops invaded from where they were stationed in Italian-occupied Albania, on Greece’s northern border. Greece’s military participation in WWII thus began.

Adolf Hitler himself, as Chancellor of Germany and leader of the Axis Powers, had no intention of invading Greece. In fact, he’d told Mussolini, who had designs on expansion and conquest throughout the Mediterranean, not to start a war or create another front at all.

The restless and ambitious Mussolini, however, hungry for glory of his own, decided to ignore Hitler’s orders. Before delivering his ultimatum, he told Count Galeazzo Ciano, his foreign minister (as well as his son-in-law), “Hitler always faces me with a fait accompli. This time I am going to pay him back in his own coin. He will find out in the papers that I have occupied Greece.”

This, however, proved to be a miscalculation of the highest magnitude as Greece’s response to his ultimatum and the single word that was spoken in defiance by an entire nation during the early hours of October 28, 1940, would become a rallying cry not just for Greece, but also the rest of the Allies and the world, eventually changing the course of the entire war — and history — forever.

The Italian offensive is rebuffed

The Greek resistance to the Italian invasion was immediate, and after Italian troops spilled over the northern Greek border from Italian-controlled Albania that very same morning, at 5:30am, just hours after the rejection of the Italian ultimatum and declaration of war, fighting began between Greece and Italy in the northern mountains of Greece.

The fighting didn’t last long on Greek soil, though, and despite Greece’s significantly smaller population (just 7.3 million people) against the much larger Italy, which in 1940 had a population of 43.8 million, the better-equipped Italians were pushed back into occupied Albania again and out of Greek territory altogether.

These initial Greek victories over the Italians were actually the very first land victories for the Allies in all of WWII, and the effect of this Greek pride, defiance and success was undeniable and even reached as far as America. On the cover of the December 16, 1940 issue of Life magazine there was a picture of a member of the Greek Evzone army unit standing at attention in front of the Temple of Olympian Zeus in Athens with a bugle at his lips. The cover of Time magazine on the exact same day also paid tribute to the Greek victories and featured an image of the Greek army’s Commander-in-Chief and architect of their military defense, Alexandros Papagos, pencil-sketched in uniform with the Acropolis proudly behind him.

For the Allies and America, this victory was both a representation of the low morale, convictions and capability of the invading Italian troops, combined with the fierce and inspirational spirit of the under-equipped and out-manned Greeks, who were fighting to defend their homes and everything they had. Historian Mark Mazower would later describe the event as the “first Axis setback of the entire war,” with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

This changed things for Germany, as Hitler saw these Greek victories over the Italians as a direct threat to his own southern border and interests, so a fateful decision was made, and in early April 1941, German forces came south.

The German invasion

Even though Greece had defied the odds and beaten the Italians when no one thought they could, they wouldn’t be able to defeat the combined Italian and German forces. It was very important that they continue to fight, though, because even though ultimate victory over Germany wasn’t achievable either in or by Greece, the ensuing battle would end up being very likely one of the deciding factors in the outcome of the entire war. How long the Greeks fought and resisted is ultimately what prolonged the German invasion of Russia into the harsh winter, when they could be defeated, just the same as Napoleon had been, a little over a hundred years earlier.

There is a famous story about the Spartan Basileus Leonidas, his 300 warriors, and their doomed stand in 480 BCE against the Persians at Thermopylae where they fought as another small but determined group against a much larger invading opponent, facing certain defeat.

In 1940 and 1941, the Greeks would bear a similarly fatal cost as they continued their resistance, against all odds, even after the Germans overran their northern border and reached Athens. The capital fell on  April 27, 1941 and the Greek government fled to Crete, where resistance would still continue until Crete finally fell, too, in June of 1941.

All told, beginning on October 28, 1940 and continuing until early June 1941, Greece ultimately resisted the combined Axis forces for 219 days, which was significantly longer and more than triple the time of any other country that would come to be occupied during the war.

During the course of their resistance and the ensuing German and Italian occupation, Greece would lose in both military and civilian casualties, by varying counts, an estimated 10 to 13 percent of its entire population. Even the low end of that estimate is a staggering amount of people, and while it’s not something found in many history books, the importance of the Greek defeat of the Italians and delay of the Germans to the Allied war effort and eventual victory was essential, and something that would come to be a matter of great national pride.

After the war and during his trial at Nuremberg, Wilhelm Keitel, one of Hitler’s field marshals, would succinctly summarize and qualify the importance of what the Greeks did during this time with the following quote:

“The unbelievably strong resistance of the Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia. If we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different.”

The legacy of Oxi Day

As noted, it’s been debated throughout the years whether Prime Minister Metaxas ever said “oxi” to the Italian ambassador in the middle of the night, or if his words were simply, “Alors, c’est la guerre,” and then nothing else.

What hasn’t been debated in the years since, though, is that very same morning, on October 28, 1940, after Metaxas addressed the Greek people via radio and told them of the Italian ultimatum and his response to it, the people of Greece spontaneously took to the streets of their cities and villages chanting and shouting together as one, “Oxi!” For them to put aside politics and differing ideologies in a very politically fractured country was quite significant in and of itself, as Greece was a nation that had just suspended certain parts of its constitution and was under authoritarian rule and would later descend into civil war nearly as soon as WWII and the Axis occupation was over.

But, for a brief moment, Greece stood united as one when it mattered most, and they stood stronger and more resilient than anyone ever thought possible.

In acknowledgement of this Greek spirit and the country’s contribution, President Franklin Roosevelt is believed by some to have said, When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared question the invincibility of the German monster, raising against it in the proud spirit of freedom.”

In 1943, Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, also acknowledged during the German invasion of his country Greece’s contribution and role in the war, and is quoted as saying on a radio broadcast, “I am sorry, because I am getting old, and I shall not live long enough to thank the Greek people, whose resistance decided WWII.”

When many think of the legacy of Oxi today, what they think of is perhaps the quotes above, or the more famous one from Winston Churchill, about how the Greeks fought when they were called upon to do so. But before the fighting began, there was a choice – to either surrender, or come together, as one, and resist and stand-up to evil – and every year on October 28, with parades and ceremonies in both Greece and around the world, that’s what’s celebrated most of all.

Oxi Day celebrates the path of bravery, unity, and freedom over the path of fascism, tyranny, and lies.

It’s a day that celebrates righteousness and good being stronger than evil, and reminds us that passing despots are mere representations of themselves and their time, and not of their people.

And most of all, Oxi Day is a day that celebrates sacrifice of the highest order by the Greek people during WWII, and all those who fought in Greece alongside them. It serves as an eternal reminder of the enduring obligation to stand up to evil and injustice wherever and whenever it’s next seen — and how a small but brave country that had been all but forgotten was able to once again change the course of history and help save the world.

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