What the history of Greece can tell us about the fight against Isis

Modern Greece and its crises were shaped by the legacy of a violent conflict in the post-war years – an atrocity long forgotten as the fight to stabilise the Middle East distracts our leaders

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The Independent Online

Mass beheadings, public throat-cutting, eye-gouging, the chopping up of corpses, torture and mass executions into open graves. Professional butchers employed to decapitate victims. Remind you of anything?  No, not the cruelty of Isis, the cult which the US Joint Chiefs of Staff labelled “apocalyptic” only a couple of years ago – and with whom Donald Trump now thinks he is at war.  

No, think instead of those nice, relaxed, laid-back, ouzo-drinking, euro-spending Greeks. The years between 1944 and 1949 were enough to curdle anyone’s blood in the land where European civilisation supposedly began, and a new study of that frightful extermination in Greece reads like a template of Syria, Iraq and all the other landscapes stained with the blood of Isis’s victims.

Hostage-taking by the thousand, charnel houses in mountain villages, the slow and sadistic killing of “spies”, “collaborators” and political opponents, the revenge execution of women and children, rape;  those who believe that Islam is a violent religion should read the story of those who fought for the post-war land of Socrates and Plato.

Andre Gerolymatos is a Canadian historian of modern Greece, a Vancouver academic who writes with sadness, horror and compassion of how his country of origin provided such a dark, but now largely forgotten tragedy at the end of the Second World War.  

Churchill, Stalin and Truman all played a role in this grisly story – and all were guilty, but none more so than the Greeks themselves, the left and right, communists and royalists, emerging out of the Nazi occupation to engage in a civil war whose catalyst was a famine that wiped out between half a million and 750,000 souls.

Take a look – a brief one, if you value your sanity – into the world of ELAS (the Greek People’s Liberation Army) socialist and communist killings. “The standard means of execution was the axe or meat cleaver,” Gerolymatos writes. “In addition to the terror that such means of execution inspired, it was also quieter, aside from the screams of the victims. Each victim had to undress and kneel with the head resting on a large stone.  The executioner could decapitate the condemned man or woman (occasionally also children), slice their throat or hack away with the axe or meat cleaver, reducing the individual to a heap of flesh and bone...”

When the young mistress of a wartime collaborationist prime minister, a popular actress already doomed by the tweet-like viciousness of opposition newspapers, was taken to the execution grounds at Galati, a sadistic killer called Captain Orestes only discovered her identity by chance. He wanted her fur coat, but at the open pit to which she was taken he demanded all her clothes. Only now realising she was to die, she broke down and screamed. Her alleged murderer later said he felt sorry for the woman and shot her. But when her remains were uncovered in a mass grave, she had apparently been both raped and cut to pieces. 

The Greek government’s “Security Battalions” also slaughtered villagers by the dozen, cutting up their corpses in front of their neighbours. US intelligence officers, like their British Special Operations Executive (SOE) predecessors, were well aware of this savagery. But Washington’s military help to the conservatives would set the “successful” Cold War precedent of US military involvement in Vietnam and the Middle East.  America supported “freedom” and “democracy” in Greece and provided a right-wing junta of army officers with the weapons and training to destroy the communists who had largely won the resistance war against the Gestapo.  

Years of military dictatorship were to follow – a history which the EU forgot when it added this damaged nation to its membership in 1981. But how could those harmless Mediterranean chaps with their antiquity, bouzoukis and boring, flat-capped priests commit such atrocities in Christendom?

Of course, two world wars, the Holocaust and fascist occupation provided Europe with enough Golgothas to last for generations. The early 20th century genocide of Christian Asia Minor – Greeks as well as Armenians – in neighbouring Turkey, the mass of returning refugees from Asia Minor, and the flight of the peasantry into the cities during the civil war (which is why Athens today contains half the population of Greece) all played their part in “normalising” atrocity.

Greece anti-austerity protesters call for government to resign

Gerolymatos is an old friend of mine, a great journalistic contact for modern Greek politics, a touch verbose but with a grim humour to match his gory subject matter. You only have to chat to the author of the new book, An International Civil War: Greece 1943-1949, which remains tantalisingly unpublished in the UK, to understand what happened as the Germans withdrew from Greece.  

The communist ELAS, the leftist “Democratic Army of Greece”, the right-wing “White Terror” and the collaborationist “Sacred Squadron” – who were later collaborating with British troops — were contaminated by violence.       

“Like Isis, ELAS and later the Democratic Army attracted criminals and cutthroats during the occupation and afterwards,” Gerolymatos says. “There were also a lot of Germans, Ukrainians, Armenians, Albanian Muslims and Chechens left over from the occupation who were still in Greece and were very vicious. There were smugglers and torturers and there were hardcore communists who thought “the more cruelty, the better”. Villagers would come home to find the head of someone on the table of a taverna, people they knew. There were right-wing groups and the “X Organisation” who went beyond the call of duty to maim and torture communists.”

SOE’s Monty Woodhouse and Edmund Myers, who led the first British anti-Nazi sabotage operation in Greece, were “locked on to the idea that only the left could fight”, Gerolymatos says. Woodhouse, whom I knew in his old age as he shook his head in horror when remembering a young Greek collaborator whom he was forced to hang during the German occupation, was probably right.

SOE was forced to tell Churchill that in Yugoslavia, too, the communists were the men who knew how to kill Germans. Having armed the left, we then betrayed them for the sake of Greek government order, and their collapse led America to believe it could win the war of dominoes in the Far and Middle East.

De Gaulle also understood that the left made up most of the anti-German resistance – and injected them into the French national army to stop them taking over France. Greek attempts to do the same were a catastrophe. Churchill, according to Gerolymatos, believed in re-establishing the pre-war order in Greece (monarchist, conservative, liberal) but “wanted to bring on a clash with the left”.

 He got his way.

In the 1944 December Uprising, British soldiers, veterans of the Western Desert and Italy, stood powerless in the streets of Athens as Greek policemen had their eyes taken out with knives, and then watched as the cops had their throats cut open. There was even a journalist, George Polk, the CBS Middle East correspondent in Greece, who paid with his life, shot in the head in Thessalonika, rather than knifed like his colleagues in Syria today – probably because he had accused government officials of corruption. His colleagues demanded an investigation into his death. It changed nothing.  

A BBC reporter, who was later kidnapped and released, witnessed the “trial” of a female doctor suspected of supporting communist claims to Thessalonika as a Bulgarian city. Kenneth Matthews, the BBC’s man, watched a man identified as the Bishop of Volos, cry out: “Kill her, my general! In the name of the religion, kill her where she stands!” 

Other bishops tried to save the lives of prisoners of the Nazis. But as Gerolymatos concludes, the ghosts of this civil war have resurfaced in modern Greece, protestors using mass grave taunts against their political opponents during the 2015 political crisis – a phenomenon largely unnoticed by the thousands of reporters who were in Athens at the time.  

The “extreme ideologies ... bloated and unresponsive civil service, and chronic political corruption” in modern Greece are the legacy of that terrible conflict of the late 1940s, the author writes. As Macbeth predicts after Banquo has been stabbed 20 times: “They say, blood will have blood.” 

Quite so.  And how long, one must ask, will Isis’s crimes continue to haunt the Middle East, long after we have forgotten our own sins in Afghanistan and Iraq and the disturbed mind of Donald Trump?