Echoes From The Past: An Analysis Of The Greek Civil War

“But the war has not ended yet, because no war has ever ended”. -Manolis Anagnostakis ( from his poetic collection Epohes/Seasons)

In every nation’s history, certain historical events serve as a reminder of a darker past, a past that might serve as a stigma to the history of a country. One such event might be a civil war. Greece is a nation that has had its fair share of historical events throughout its long history. However, the contemporary nation of Greece is still suffering from its past, and the Greek Civil War that took place in the mid 20th century is a dark chapter that has divided the Greek population and has created a political and social animosity that is still seen in the 21st century. 76 years ago, the Greek Civil War entered its third and final phase and set to change the history of the country up until this day. It is an event that no one wants to talk about, and it is not even mentioned most of the time in Greek public schools. However, as we have learned from our world history, distancing ourselves from an unpleasant historical event leads to nothing, and the only way to find some sort of unity inside a society is to recall and understand and not simply forget our history.

The Greek Civil War In The Shadow Of The Cold War

The Greek Civil War took place right after the end of WWII. It was fought between the army of the Greek government and the Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), which at that time was the military branch of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). The war was fought between 1946 to 1949, however, the struggle between the two conflicting ideologies started back in 1943 when the country was still occupied by the Axis forces. With the Greek government in exile, the Axis managed to establish a puppet regime in Greece, with Greek Nazi collaborators founding the so-called Security Battalions that were responsible for committing atrocities against the civil populations. At the same time, different resistance groups emerged, with the largest being the National Liberation Front (EAM-ELAS) which was controlled by the communist party, and the National Republican Greek League (EDES), which was controlled by the centrist former army officer, Napoleon Zervas. By 1944, when German troops started to withdraw from Greece, EDES, and ELAS, the military wing of EAM that was led by Aris Velouchiotis, did not see eye to eye. They both started accusing each other of treason, realizing that the Germans posed a minimal threat. At that time, for ELAS, the presence of the British was considered a major threat, while for EDES, the threat was the growing communist influence from the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. This led to a conflict between the two groups which resulted in the defeat of EDES and saw their escape to the island of Corfu.

In the fall of 1944, the exiled Greek government which was led by the liberal George Papandreou was located in Italy in preparations to return to Greece. On September 26, 1944, the government of George Papandreou signed the Casetta Agreement, alongside EAM/ELAS. The agreement provided that all resistance forces in Greece would be put under the command of a British officer, General Ronald Scobie. Although the communist party was not happy with the agreement, they were instructed by the Soviet Union not to cause an internal crisis in Greece, so as to not jeopardize the Allied unity. However, not everyone agreed with those instructions. Some KKE leaders like Aris Velouchiotis and Andreas Tzimas did not trust the Western allies. Later on, Andreas Tzimas established contact with the leader of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito, who became a powerful ally for the Greek communists. A few months after the Casetta agreement, George Papandreou announced an ultimatum for the disarmament of all guerrilla groups in Greece. In response, EAM condemned the decision and organized a demonstration of at least 200.000 people in Athens. The demonstrators were faced with British forces that tried to stop the demonstrations. According to C.M Woodhouse, a British colonel officer that was stationed in Greece, there were shootings during the protests, although as he claimed, it was difficult to identify where the shots were coming from. Twenty-eight people were killed, and hundreds were injured. This was the beginning of the so-called Dekemvriana (December events), where forces of EAM/ELAS fought against British and Greek government forces in Athens. After 37 days, the conflict stopped with the defeat of EAM/ELAS. Two months later, the Treaty of Varkiza was signed between the Greek government and KKE, where it was agreed that EAM/ELAS would be completely disarmed. The communist party adopted a more political form rather than a military one, and the existence of ELAS was officially terminated.

The Red Scare: Greek Edition

However, the internal conflict in Greece was far from over. Between 1945 and 1946 it was reported that at least 1.190 people were killed by anti-communist gangs. This reign of “White Terror” against communist party members, forced many ex-ELAS fighters to form resistance groups, and eventually, the Communist Party in Greece reversed its political position of pacifism towards more aggressive tactics against the government forces. Thus, the Democratic Army of Greece (DES) was founded. On the one hand, the Greek government forces were supported by the United Kingdom and the U.S., while the DES was supported by Bulgaria, Albania, Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. During the first two years of the war, it seemed that the communists had the upper hand, however, in the end, the government forces managed to turn the war around, primarily because of the increased military aid from the U.S and the internal conflicts inside the DES that were caused because of the Tito-Stalin split that happened in 1948. The war officially ended on October 16, 1949, with the victory of the Greek government and its allies. At least 160.000 people lost their lives in the war, with 40.000 of them being civilians, while at least 1.000.000 people were relocated during the war.

War Causation Analysis

There have been a handful of opinions concerning the causes of the Civil War in Greece. Professor Nicos Christodoulakis from the London School of Economics suggests that the prolongation of the Greek Civil War has been influenced by socio-economic factors that are linked with pre-war socio-political polarization and, political grievances that are associated with persecutions by state forces against local populations that were sympathetic to leftist ideologies. Also, he examines the causes of civil war in Italy and the potential conflicts in Belgium after WWII, that were avoided due to the empowerment of the institutions that reconstructed their countries. In contrast, politics of exclusion and population division were introduced in Greece, gradually becoming the norm, which led to the Greek Civil War. Political scientist Stathis N. Kalyvas adopts a similar theory of societal polarization. In his paper, “The Greek Civil War in Retrospect”, he points out that the period of occupation in Greece and the split of the various resistance groups, and the role of collaborators must be the primary focus of the study for the causes of the Greek Civil War. In his own words: “Recent work-study must focus more on the period of the occupation, taking into account social and economic factors. What will emerge, would be a very complex and nuanced set of shifting and segmented loyalties, heavily informed by local considerations and conflicts, in which terror was never the monopoly of a single camp”.

On the other hand, some studies generate a different opinion about the cause of the civil war in Greece, focusing on the international dimension. Professor John Sakkas, from the University of the Aegean, focuses in his paper, “Old Interpretations and New Approaches in the Historiography of the Greek Civil War*”, on the role of the Western Allies, and especially Great Britain who had a tremendous influence in Greece. In his opinion, Great Britain was always conscious of the geopolitical importance of Greece and its strategic position in the Mediterranean. As a result, they were very concerned regarding the situation in Greece and they made sure to restore their dominant presence in Greece and secure their interests in the region. Winston Churchill himself was obsessed with the preservation of monarchy in Greece and the maintenance of British influence in the country. To achieve his goals, he influenced the exiled government of Greece to return and eliminate any anti-monarchists and communists that were supported by KKE. This attitude added more “fuel to the fire” since the communists were already skeptical about the intentions of the Western allies, and they decided to side with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Winston Churchill indeed had a great influence on Greece, and as a result, the elements of the Cold War and the clash of ideologies might have been more influential at the start of the Greek Civil War, rather than just socio-political animosities amongst the Greek population. Furthermore, the presence of the United States and its strong alliance with Great Britain was instrumental to add more skepticism about the intentions of the communist party. As the internal conflicts in Greece started to escalate further, both countries feared that Greece, the last of the Balkan states to resist Soviet domination, would fall to the communists. The extended involvement of other countries in Greece eventually led to the Greek Civil War.

In a more constructive way of thinking, the most convincing causes of the Greek Civil War would be the analysis of both Christodoulakis and Kalyvas. Although the setting of the Cold War, and the involvement of the Western Allies, the Soviet Union, and Yugoslavia, played a critical role in accelerating the internal conflict and providing valuable help to both sides, the causes are more complex than just saying that this was a product of the Cold War. In reality, it was a struggle between two different ideological camps that showed early signs of confrontation, even before the arrival of the Allies. Unlike other countries that became unified after WWII, Greece continued its internal conflicts, prosecuting the communists, and in retaliation, the communists conducted guerilla warfare against the nationalists. As was mentioned before, although the setting of the Greek Civil War was the Cold War, there wasn’t a real ideological confrontation between the West and the Soviet Union. Stalin had acknowledged that Greece belonged to the Western sphere of influence in the Percentages Agreement (1944) and did not interfere. In addition, Tito’s Yugoslavia stopped any support to Greece’s communists after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948, and finally, the United States came to the very late end of the Civil War to provide their support. In conclusion, the cause of the Greek Civil War was the internal ideological conflicts that were built up before and during WWII, and although some may argue it was the first conflict in the Cold War era, it was not a product of it.

The Bitter Epilogue Of World War II

The Greek Civil War left Greece in ruins with great economic and social distress. Thousands died, many had been imprisoned for their political views, and others were sent to internal exile in the infamous islands of Makronissos and Gyaros. On an international level, its significance can be seen from a Cold War perspective, where Greece and its western allies managed to win the war, which eventually led to Greece’s membership in NATO in 1952. Also, Greece managed to establish very good relations with the United States, a country that practically founded the state of Greece through the Truman Doctrine. The lasting impact of the Greek Civil War can be seen through different historical events in Greece, and nowadays in its contemporary form. The political polarization and the animosity amongst Greeks eventually led to the military junta of 1967-1974, where anti-communist generals took control of the country and imposed a strong anti-communist security establishment. After the junta, Kostantinos Karamanlis led to the abolition of the monarchy and the legalization of KKE. Also, for the first time in Greek history, the internal conflict that occurred was recognized as a civil war and not as a conflict between government forces and gangs of communists. In contemporary Greece, the effects of the civil war have not faded, as the political identity of participants in the war was passed down to the next generation through family ties, and the collective memory of the ones that were involved helped shape the political identity of the leftist ideology, that until this day is deliberately barred from the socio-political landscape of Greece. Even today, there is animosity and division within Greece and there are efforts of the current government to alter the course of Greek history by demonizing the left-wing parties. Those parties respond by accusing the government of fascist tactics. In a way, history repeats itself, and it seems that Greece is stuck in its past and refuses to provide any solutions that can lead to national unity. The war might be over, but the scars have not faded away.

Nikita Triandafillidis
Nikita Triandafillidis
Bachelor's Degree in International Relations & Political Science. Columnist focusing on Global Affairs