Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Greek Monarchy in World War II

The Second World War was the latest in a series of disasters which had befallen the Greek monarchy in the Twentieth Century. The man in charge, King George II, had already known his share of trials before the war began. During World War I he had followed his father, King Constantine I, into exile when the republican Venizelos had deposed him and placed Alexander on the throne to abandon neutrality and join the Allies. After the death of King Alexander an effort at republicanism was defeated when a plebiscite restored the monarchy in time for a war with Turkey, one of the many after-shocks of World War I. It was a disaster for Greece and forced King Constantine to abdicate in 1922 when his son succeeded him as King George II. However, the republicans were still scheming and only a year later George II was forced to leave the country after an attempted royalist coup failed. There was another republican effort and chaos in Greece as factions battled each other for power, the King looking on from a distance.

The communists were key players in this struggle and their revolutionary plots would bedevil Greece for many years to come. Coup followed coup, governments rose and fell at startling speed until finally order was restored in 1936 with the authoritarian regime of the staunchly royalist General Ioannis Metaxas. King George II backed Metaxas and approved his legislation banning political parties, abolishing the previous constitution and establishing a new regime which Metaxas called the “Third Hellenic Civilization”. Others referred to it as the “Fourth of August Regime” for the day that the de facto dictatorship was formally established. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, law, order and a new type of peaceful normalcy returned to the Greek kingdom. Today, the Metaxas regime continues to be a source of controversy as to how it is labeled. Outwardly, many then and since have viewed it as being of a kind with Fascist Italy, Nationalist Spain or Nazi Germany (though even among those there were considerable differences which the mainstream today tends to ignore).

However, despite the symbols, the uniforms, the nationalism and so on, the regime of Metaxas was most of all the product of necessity. Greece had stagnated from so many years of turmoil and in-fighting, the Greek position in Europe had plummeted and the country was in bad shape. Metaxas was authoritarian without question, suppressing dissidents, censoring the media and so on but it was all done to correct this downward spiral. If General Metaxas was a dictator, he was not a bad one. There was no cult of personality around Metaxas, loyalty was reserved for King George II. There was no effort to remake society really but rather an effort to revive Greek culture, Greek traditions and support the Greek Orthodox Church. Enemies were political and those singled out were those who had proven their treasonous tendencies in the past. There was no effort at setting up scapegoats, no racist legislation, no persecution of Jews. If Adolf Hitler admired Metaxas, it was of no great importance. Metaxas deferred to the King and there was no doubt that King George II viewed the Nazi regime with disgust and was, from start to finish, staunchly sympathetic with the Allied nations, particularly Britain.

Metaxas' party flag
When World War II erupted in Europe, Greece remained neutral but the King was prepared to step in and help the Allies if needed. The danger was the Kingdom of Italy. Despite early Italian support for Greek independence, tensions between the two countries had been deteriorating for years. Independent Greek forces had been driven out of Albania in World War I by the Italian army. In 1923 an Italian general and three aides were murdered in Greece with the government refusing any apology or compensation, prompting Italian retaliation. The Greeks demanded that Italy give them the Dodecanese Islands, after the Italian occupation of Albania, the Greco-Albanian border disputes were taken up by Rome. When Metaxas fortified the border with Bulgaria, which was tied by marriage to the Italian Royal Family, Italy took this as a hostile act. Enemies of the Fascist regime in Italy could also find safe haven in Greece which did not go unreported by the Fascist secret police. Things were tense but Metaxas was relatively confident that the good relations with Germany would prevent any direct action from Mussolini.

However, Metaxas was not taking anything for granted. He had already considerably modernized the Greek army and he began to build it up further to be prepared for any eventuality. That would prove extremely important very soon. Italians worried that the Greeks were planning an attack on Albania while their forces were concentrated in North Africa for the invasion of Egypt. After the fall of France, German forces also handed over to Italy captured messages from King George II of Greece offering Britain and France the use of Greek facilities such as air and naval bases should they need them. Finally, in October of 1940, an ultimatum from Mussolini arrived in Athens. The Duce demanded that the Greek government allow Italian armed forces free movement through Greek territory. It was a pretext and nothing more, no one in Rome expected Metaxas of all people to agree to it and he predictably refused. Within a matter of hours, four Italian columns began the invasion of Greece. However, despite the outward confidence of Mussolini, it was the Greeks who were much better prepared for this war.

Italian troops in Greece
Everything about the Italian invasion of Greece was wrong. It was the wrong time of year, cold and wet, in the wrong place, with the Greek army well placed in the rugged mountains and against the wrong enemy as Mussolini had underestimated the Greeks while overestimating his own strength. The result was an Italian invasion force that attacked a larger Greek army with the benefits of a superior position, superior knowledge of the ground and internal lines of support. After some initial success the Italian invasion quickly ground to a halt and the Greeks began to counter-attack, pushing the Italians out of Greece and advancing into southern Albania. When the British offered assistance, Metaxas confidently turned down the offer and promised that the Greek army would soon be marching down the streets of Rome. That was a mistake. As the Greeks advanced their advantages shifted to the Italians, their forces weakened and Italian reinforcements poured in to stabilize the situation. Their offensive ground to a halt as Italian troops repulsed their assaults and began to organize their forces for a more sober and serious offensive. Greek forces also took a severe pounding in the air war and King George II was obliged to ask the British to send all available assistance.

This turned out to be a major mistake for the Allied war effort. In North Africa, British forces were severely depleted in order to reinforce a hopeless battle in Greece. Most would not even arrive in time to participate in the battle. In the spring of 1941 the Italians launched another offensive that began to push the Greeks back, though losses were heavy and the gains were light. However, the coup in Yugoslavia that took that country out of the Axis and into the Allied camp prompted German intervention. Because the Greeks had concentrated all of their divisions on the Albanian border to stop the Italians, the Bulgarian border was almost totally undefended and it was from there that the Germans struck. The result was the swift defeat of the Greek forces and on April 23 King George II relocated to the island of Crete. When that position came under attack by German airborne troops, he was forced to relocate again to the safety of British headquarters in Egypt. By April 20 the Greeks had surrendered, the troops were given very honorable terms in recognition of how hard they had fought and most of Greece came under Italian occupation.

Germans occupy Greece
Mussolini had originally planned for a limited victory with Italy annexing only the northwest coastal region and some additional Aegean islands with Greece being compensated by being given the island of Cyprus from the British, whose defeat he also thought was impending. Only if things went much better than anticipated would the conquest of the whole country be considered and, of course, thing went much worse than the Duce had expected. In the end, Greece was occupied with Italy being responsible for most of it, Germany taking over some areas and islands in the east and Bulgaria obtaining a southern coastline. Ultimately, Italy never annexed any Greek territory. Churchill had blundered in undercutting his forces in Africa but he had nothing but praise for how hard the Greeks had fought, famously saying that, “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks”. However, for the Greeks, their suffering and struggle had only just begun. Those in the Italian zone of occupation were better off but those living under German occupation fared far worse and were the victims of numerous atrocities. Also in the Bulgarian zone there was a great deal of brutality resulting from the long history of bitter rivalry that characterized the Balkans.

Resistance movements, of course, emerged and they tended to be dominated by communists and other revolutionary republicans who saw this as their great chance to seize power with the King and Metaxas out of the country. King George II did not stay in Egypt long where he was made to feel unwelcome by the pro-Italian King Farouk and so he moved on to England. Regular Greek forces continued to serve alongside the other Allies in the Middle East theater of operations. At home, acts of resistance, first against the Bulgarians and then against the Germans, provoked harsh retaliation. Meanwhile, similar to what happened in regards to other countries in the region, the British government, seeing the preponderance of leftists among those fighting the Germans, pressured King George II to form a government-in-exile that was more to the left, casting off those who had been serving him when the crisis began. As a result, only two members of the Metaxas regime were left in the new government. However, Britain did stand up for Greece when dealing with the Soviet Union that expected to take control of the whole Balkan peninsula when the war was over. While the rest was consigned to the Soviet sphere of influence, Greece would not and the British stuck to their guns on that score.

King George II in Egypt
However, unlike areas in which Britain did not take such an interest, as German fortunes fell, the concern became less about combating the Nazis and more about which power would replace them as King George II and the Greek government-in-exile seemed to have so few supporters on the ground. Fortunately, those supporters were there and the Greek resistance increasingly grew into yet another Greek civil war. The violence was intensified in 1943 when the Kingdom of Italy sought an armistice. Some Italians were immediately taken prisoner by the Germans (and many were massacred) but a great many turned their weapons over to the Greek resistance fighters and some even joined their ranks. An anti-communist resistance did begin to arise as the war was clearly drawing to a close and Greeks, as well as the British supporting them, became more concerned that the end of hostilities might bring a soviet dictatorship being forced on Greece. Nonetheless, the Allies still tended to pressure the King to stay away from those who had previously held power in the Metaxas regime for no other reason than the cosmetic similarities it bore to their current enemies and the very liberal worldview the Allies were supporting.

It was an unenviable position for King George II to be in. While being publicly celebrated in London and Washington DC, he was obliged to name Archbishop Damaskinos of Athens to the post of regent in 1945 and he proceeded to appoint a mostly republican government. By this time the British had cleared the Germans out of Greece and the King had been rather forced to agree to yet another plebiscite on the future of the monarchy when the war was over. However, a rival communist government was also set up in Greece and so, as the Germans retreated, outright civil war erupted between the Greek royalists and the communists, backed of course by the Soviet Union. King George II was beginning to suffer poor health and the turmoil and suffering of his people took a heavy toll. Already his wife, Elizabeth of Romania, had divorced him, being unable to cope with the stressful life of the Greek monarchy and being increasingly sidelined he was forced to settle down in England and simply await the results of the struggle at home. Finally, in 1946, World War II having ended, the plebiscite was held and the communists boycotted it, allowing the royalists to sweep to an easy victory.

King George II addresses the U.S. Congress
In the autumn, King George II returned to Greece to a gutted and looted palace, a country in ruins and a public that was war-torn and bitterly divided. This was not the first time a Greek King had returned from exile nor was it the first time that a public referendum had resulted in maintaining the monarchy. However, that very repetition weighed on him. The enemies of the Crown were intractable and continuously resorted to treason and subversion at every opportunity. Indeed, the civil war continued in spite of the referendum, the communists adhering to their own soviet government and within six months, broken in health and spirit alike, King George II died on April 1, 1947. He was succeeded by his brother Paul. He too was sick with typhoid fever and his health as well as the situation in Greece prevented him from attending the marriage of his first cousin, Prince Philip, to Princess Elizabeth of Great Britain. Fortunately, things were set to improve, at least in the short term, though it is still a tragedy that King George II, who had endured so much in his life, was not around to see it.

By 1947 the British were no longer led by Churchill but by the leftist Clement Attlee who started decolonization and moving Britain in a socialist direction. Supporting Greece against communist insurgents was something Britain was no longer capable or, under the current government, very willing to do. The United States of America, from 1947, then became the major supporter of the Greek royalists with President Harry Truman pledging all necessary support for King Paul. Predictably, the communists in Greece began portraying the King and any loyal government of being puppets of the United States, playing on popular anti-American sentiments. Queen Frederika of Brunswick, a zealous anti-communist, was also singled out for particular attack by the treasonous press, some days attacking her for her German background, other times for her close ties with America. Eventually, however, under the steady leadership of King Paul, the civil war ended in a victory for the Greek royalists, peace returned and the economy began to recover. The republicans, as ever, did not go away and, once again, bided their time for another crisis to take advantage of in order to seize power. They would eventually get their chance and the world is free to view how Greece has fared under their rule.


  1. Metaxas was something that Greece and other countries in Europe need today. His Freethinkers monarchist party struggled harshly under the republic, and who knows, that maybe prevented Greece from a possibly planned coup in the 30's or later of Mussolini or the Communists. If there is any imagination between his regime of those of Spain or Italy, so it is the regime of de Rivera in the 20's that protected the royalist casue in Spain that if it wasn't happening, the Republic would rise already beacuse of the Rif war that ended in parliamentary disagreement, and immediately the Liberals and the Socialists blamed the king without any reason or sense

  2. We need a falange in every country.

    1. The Spanish Falange were avowedly republican and modernist, unlike General Metaxas' regime. I'd rather they stayed dead. A revival of Metaxism in Greece, however, would be quite welcome in the current political climate. Syriza and their radical left-wing ideology have failed Greece miserably, now is the time for Greeks to take a fresh look at monarchism.

    2. What ever it takes, though at this point people who wants to persevere Greek culture, religion and customs and not be an vassal state of the EU are turning to the Golden Dawn. I haven't seen any monarchist party that is outspoken as them, though I could be wrong.

    3. As has been mentioned here before, one of the sick things about modern Greece is that Golden Dawn is allowed to operate while monarchist parties are banned.

    4. Which is stupid because Golden Dawn is actually more of a threat to modern democratic Greece, than any monarchist party hope to be. So, if Golden Dawn wins it will be the end of post-referendum Greece and at this point anything would better than the liberal left.

    5. Monarchist parties are not banned per se, but electoral authorities in Greece are inconsistent as to who can and can't contest elections. National Hope did contest an election in 2012, but not ones before or after, but the situation can change.

      Right now politics in Greece makes strange bedfellows as the current coalition government between a fairly hard left-wing and fairly hard right-wing party shows. Given their common points on the EU and austerity it doesn't seem so strange, that ideological opposites will cooperate with anyone except the KKE (unreconstructed Stalinists) and Golden Dawn.


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