John O. Iatrides and Nicholas X. Rizopoulos
John O. Iatrides is professor of international politics at Southern Connecticut State University. Nicholas X. Rizopoulos is academic director of the Honors College at Adelphi University.
John O. Iatrides is professor of international politics at Southern Connecticut State University. Nicholas X. Rizopoulos is academic director of the Honors College at Adelphi University.
I am sure in Greece I found one of the best opportunities for wise action that this war has tossed to me from its dark waves." So wrote Winston Churchill to his wife on February 1, 1945, while on his way to meet with Roosevelt and Stalin at Yalta. 1
Churchill was of course referring to the decisive intervention by British forces in Athens, in December 1944, barely two months after Greece's liberation: an intervention that--at least for the moment--helped put down a Communist-led revolt during what is still commonly referred to as the Second Round of the (almost) decade-long Greek Civil War (1942-49). The British move had been ordered personally by Churchill in the face of furious opposition from within his own party and government , as well as from various Labour Party spokesmen and (to Churchill, more galling yet) from a number of U.S. officials, many based in faraway Washington, who were protesting what they saw as the indiscriminate squashing of democratic reformers by an unholy alliance of corrupt, old-time Greek politicians, reactionary monarchists, and even wartime collaborators--all anxious to regain their prewar power bases--now aided and abetted by British "imperialists" whose main concern was the safeguarding of London's traditional sphere of influence in the Mediterranean.
Churchill knew better; and even back then, in December 1944, so did most Athenians--and perhaps most Greeks. For the bloody, month-long "Battle of Athens" did not simply pit good "social democrats" against evil "monarcho-fascists." Notwithstanding the recondite arguments still raging among historians of Greek communism concerning the "real" intentions and long-term goals of the Communist Party's badly divided leadership in the fall of 1944, the fact remains that--though slow in coming, badly planned, and incompetently executed--there was a Communist coup-in-the-making in December 1944 that, had it proved successful, would have turned Greece into (at best) a Titoist "workers paradise."
The coup failed; Athens was, in effect, liberated for the second time in less than three months by British troops; and the Second Round of a civil war that had begun roughly two years earlier in the mountains of occupied Greece now came to an abrupt halt. To be sure, the main and by far the most destructive phase of this civil war (the so-called Third Round of 1946-49) was yet to come--a phase that was to be highlighted, this time around, by America's own active involvement, and, just as important, by the Soviets' noninterference.
Today, it is this international dimension of the Greek civil war that fascinates the most and thus merits a sober reappraisal. But the first question that must be addressed is: exactly what do we mean when we speak of "the Greek Civil War," and what specific time frame did it cover?
The historical evidence now available shows conclusively that the armed clashes between left-wing and republican but anti-communist resistance bands in the Greek mountains which began not later than early 1943, the serious fighting in Athens (and Epirus) in December 1944, and the 1946-49 full-scale civil war together constitute three distinct but closely linked phases of the same armed struggle that was fought to determine the political fate of Greece, and its international orientation, following the defeat of the Axis.
These three phases were distinct in the sense that each had its specific domestic and international realities, its own immediate causes and dynamic, and, to a large extent, its own cast of characters. Ironically, each phase could have proved to have been the last. But that is not what happened. Instead, each of the first two phases ended inconclusively--and then became the backdrop and stimulus for the next. The level of violence increased with each phase, while the opportunities for any sort of reasonable compromise settlement decreased. Only in the third phase, during which the opposing sides committed all of their material strength and human resources, was a decisive military victory won that, in effect, ended the civil war.
Even a cursory review of the period under consideration shows that the fate of post-war Europe and the Near East was initially (and largely) decided by a series of seminal military and political developments that occurred between late 1942 and late 1946. By 1943, the Allies had broken the back of Hitler's armies at Stalingrad and in North Africa. In October 1944, anticipating the emergence of a new balance of power in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean, Churchill and Stalin secretly agreed on a delimitation of their respective spheres of influence in the Balkans, assigning Greece to Britain's sphere. As a result, the Soviet forces that had invaded Bulgaria in September 1944 stopped at the Greek border, and the Bulgarians were forced to relinquish the Greek territories they had annexed in 1941 with Hitler's blessing. In April 1945, General Eisenhower decided that the American armies advancing across Western Europe would stop at the Elbe River, thus allowing the Russians to overrun all of East-Central Europe on their way to Berlin.
Two months earlier, at the Yalta Conference, Roosevelt and Churchill had for all practical purposes surrendered East-Central Europe to Stalin, while the Soviets in turn agreed to attack the Japanese forces in China soon after the Germans had been defeated. In addition, Stalin raised no objections to Britain's recent armed intervention in Athens, the so-called December Events (ta Dekemvriana), which had resulted in the collapse of the most serious Greek communist insurgency to date.
A year later (in February 1946), with the Cold War in full swing, George F. Kennan, then serving in Moscow, sent his superiors in Washington an 8,000-word telegram that attempted to explain the reasons for Soviet hostility toward the West and provided the basic rationale for the evolving American strategy of "containing" the Soviet Union. In the spring of 1946, Western pressure compelled the Soviets to abandon expansionist schemes aimed against Turkey and Iran. In April of the same year, the U.S. battleship Missouri, and its escorts, visited Istanbul and Piraeus.
In October 1946, in the midst of growing political and economic instability in Greece--with the Communists and their sympathizers boycotting the first (relatively free) parliamentary elections held in over ten years, while also objecting strenuously to the subsequent plebiscite that restored the monarchy and allowed King George II to return to Athens--the U.S. ambassador to Athens, Lincoln MacVeagh, told the king that "in the country's present dearth of statesmen, only the crown's leadership" could bring about "unity among all nationally minded Greeks....." 2 But unity would have been hard to come by, under the best of circumstances. Instead, the third phase of the Greek Civil War soon began in earnest.
The Second World War and the Axis occupation that followed gave the Greek Communist Party (KKE), outlawed and persecuted during the years of Gen. Ioannis Metaxas's dictatorship (1936-41), a decisive advantage over its domestic opponents. Greece was now cut off from the rest of the world. Neither the government-in-exile based in Cairo (led by King George II and a group of largely conservative politicians--some of whom had served under Metaxas--and subsidized by the British), nor the collaborationist authorities installed in Athens enjoyed the allegiance of the nation. Outside the few urban centers controlled by the foreign occupiers--Germans, Italians, and Bulgarians--there was indeed no effective legal authority. The country's political future remained in limbo--to be determined by a power struggle with no outcome necessarily excluded. Greece could have emerged at war's end as a republic, a British-style monarchy, a Soviet-style "peoples' democracy," or under some other constitutional arrangement. The political void left by military defeat and foreign occupation would in all probability be filled by those who had the will and power to gain control of the machinery of the state at liberation.
In this power struggle the Communist-controlled left had quickly gained the upper hand. During the occupation, EAM/ELAS (the political and military wings of the KKE-dominated Greek "Popular Front") was remarkably successful not merely in carrying out resistance operations and performing welfare work, but also as the instrument of both mass mobilization (under an ostensibly democratic banner) and the suppression of all political opposition groups--royalist and republican alike. As the withdrawal of the Germans became imminent by late summer 1944, the KKE was in a position--through EAM/ELAS--to seize control of the country. Yet it is not clear, even today, whether the wartime KKE leadership, under Yiorgis Siantos and Yiannis Ioannidis, actually intended to establish a purely Communist regime or whether it would have been content to share power, at least temporarily, with some of the prewar political elites. 3
At this juncture, in the early fall of 1944, the international situation also appeared to favor the Greek Communists. The Red Army was now advancing across Eastern Europe at ever increasing speed and on a widening front that would soon bring it into the Balkans. There was every reason for outsiders to assume that Soviet forces would soon arrive in Greece itself, a prospect that encouraged the KKE leadership to act: for a significant Soviet military presence on Greek soil would almost certainly have had a decisive influence on the country's political future.
It is therefore important to emphasize that Soviet officials did not encourage the Greek Communists to expect Moscow's support in the event that they decided to seize power in Athens. On the contrary, already during the first phase of the civil war, in the fall of 1943, the Kremlin had joined Washington in issuing a statement endorsing--however reluctantly-- British efforts to stop the internecine fighting in the Greek mountains and to create a united front of all resistance bands. Moreover, the Soviet embassy in Cairo and, later, a Soviet military mission that arrived at ELAS headquarters in late July 1944, left little doubt that Moscow expected the Greek Communists to cooperate with the Greek government-in-exile, and with its British protector, in finding a peaceful solution to the country's political problems. 4
However, unaware of the secret Anglo-Soviet agreements concerning the Balkans, the Greek Communist leaders continued to hope that, once victory was within their grasp, the "Great Stalin" would not turn his back on them. Furthermore, the situation emerging in Greece's neighboring states also appeared to favor a Communist takeover in Greece. The newly established communist regimes in Yugoslavia and Albania--and then also in Bulgaria, in October 1944--gave every indication that they would support an attempt to bring Greece into the communist camp.
The official position of the United States regarding the situation in Greece during the years 1943-44 was at best ambivalent and confusing. Traditionally, the American government had regarded the Balkans as lying outside its area of immediate concern and had wanted to avoid at all costs any entanglements in that region. Soon after Pearl Harbor, Roosevelt agreed with Churchill that Britain would remain responsible for military operations in Southeastern Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. Accordingly, and in the interest of interallied harmony, American officials felt compelled to remain largely silent on Greek issues. Nevertheless, the State Department missed no opportunity to make clear its own view that Greek problems were for Greeks alone to settle.
Specifically, the department objected to what it perceived as British attempts to have King George return to Greece right after liberation. In this, the department's attitude echoed the sentiments of most Greek Americans, who were strongly antiroyalist. But it also represented the considered opinion of well-informed American officials, including Lincoln MacVeagh, the American ambassador in Athens since 1933 and a highly respected observer of Greek political affairs.
After leaving occupied Athens in June 1941, MacVeagh had informed his superiors that Greeks of every political persuasion had told him that King George, tainted by his collusion with the Metaxas dictatorship, could not go back to Greece prior to a properly conducted plebiscite and had begged him to urge the Roosevelt administration not to allow the British to reinstall him in Athens, whatever Churchill's personal attachment to the king. Indeed, MacVeagh predicted that, after the war, the Greeks would freely choose a republican form of government modeled after the American. 5
In October 1944, while preparing to leave Cairo for recently liberated Athens, MacVeagh refused to accompany the newly formed "Government of National Unity" under Prime Minister George Papandreou because it was being escorted by British troops. The ambassador actually wrote Roosevelt to express his concern that the British were mishandling the Greek political situation. He quoted from a report of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) according to which EAM was leading a full-fledged social revolution that was too powerful to be suppressed. MacVeagh thought that the most that could be hoped for was a compromise settlement between EAM and its rivals.
In short, at the moment of liberation, American officials appeared willing to accept the fact that EAM was emerging as the dominant political force in Greece. Moreover, they saw no reason to be seriously alarmed by this development. Nonetheless, the Roosevelt administration would not take an official stand on this matter.
This ambivalence extended to the state of affairs prevailing in the Greek mountains. In their dealings with the Greek resistance, OSS officers loyally supported their British counterparts who, in any event, commanded the teams of the Allied Mission in occupied Greece. However, in their reports to their own superiors in Cairo, OSS officers often expressed strong criticism of British attempts to manipulate Greek developments. During the first phase of the civil war many OSS officers (as well as some among their British colleagues) had requested that they be withdrawn from Greece, arguing that the continuous fighting between resistance bands had made their work impossible.
Especially critical of the British were the reports of one intelligence-gathering OSS mission, code-named Pericles, that had sought to conceal from the British its presence in Greece and had recommended the creation of a network of direct American assistance to EAM/ELAS--in effect, bypassing the British--in exchange for EAM support of purely American intelligence operations. The idea was quietly dropped for fear that it would antagonize both the British and the Greek government-in-exile.
When, in May 1944, Churchill first proposed to Moscow a deal to divide responsibility in the Balkans--the Red Army was about to invade Romania--the Kremlin asked if the Americans had been consulted. This forced the British to raise the question in Washington. Secretary of State Cordell Hull rejected the proposal in the strongest terms and Roosevelt warned Churchill against creating "exclusive spheres." But as the Soviet advance into the Balkans continued, Churchill sent a personal appeal to Roosevelt arguing that an Anglo-Soviet understanding over the Balkans would prevent friction between the Allies in the critical period that lay ahead. He also pointedly reminded the president that Britain had raised no objections to American predominance in the Western Hemisphere. This time Roosevelt gave in. But at the insistence of Hull and of Harry Hopkins, the president's personal adviser, FDR limited American approval to the period of military operations and repeated American objections to the creation of "any postwar spheres of influence." 6
This qualification was, of course, purely cosmetic. When Churchill met Stalin in Moscow in October 1944, nothing was said about American reservations concerning the proposed Anglo-Soviet agreement under which Greece would be in Britain's zone of responsibility and Romania and Bulgaria in the Soviet zone, while influence over Yugoslavia and Hungary would be divided equally between London and Moscow. On the contrary, when Stalin indicated that he assumed that Churchill was speaking for the Americans as well, Churchill's evasive response appeared to satisfy the Soviet leader on that crucial point. In short, the United States remained a passive observer during most of the First Round of the civil war. Although American officials remained unhappy with the British handling of the Greek situation, wartime priorities dictated that there be no open opposition to what was happening in Cairo, or in the Greek mountains, under British initiatives.
Without doubt, the most important external factor during this entire period was Britain's far-reaching involvement. Yet it is worth remembering that the ability of the British authorities to influence the situation in the Greek mountains was itself severely limited by the absence of a significant military force under actual British control.
Moreover, the goals and priorities of the different British agencies involved with Greek issues were hardly harmonious. Military commands in Cairo ordered sabotage operations and demanded large-scale resistance activity in order to harass the Germans and also deceive them into believing that the Allies would invade Greece rather than Sicily. Otherwise, for the British commander in chief in Cairo, Gen. Henry Wilson, Greece was of no great importance to the overall war effort, and Greek political problems a nuisance to be sidestepped.
The British Special Operations Executive (SOE) carried out intelligence and sabotage operations requested by the military authorities and served as the communications link between Cairo and the Greek resistance organizations. However, from their first day in Greece, SOE teams discovered that the success of their missions depended on their ability to get the quarreling resistance groups to stop their in-fighting.
This proved to be a frustrating and, at times, a dangerous task. With the exception of Col. C. M. Woodhouse, who had spoken briefly with one or two Greek leaders in Cairo about the politics of the Greek resistance, SOE officers knew nothing about the resistance bands they were instructed to work with. 7 Very few of the SOE men even spoke modern Greek.
In retrospect, it is tempting to infer that there was a deliberate effort by the British Foreign Office to keep SOE from becoming actively involved in the resistance movement except in a strictly military sense. This was, of course, impossible; and SOE officers soon found themselves enmeshed in political and increasingly violent squabbles about whose causes they, again, knew virtually nothing. A few SOE men attached to ELAS were noticeably impressed by what they saw, and in their reports praised EAM/ELAS. Most, however, saw ELAS as an uncooperative, highly politicized group more interested in destroying its domestic rivals than in fighting the Germans. SOE agents found themselves spending much of their time working out truce agreements between rival bands and protecting the weaker (non-ELAS) groups. In practice, this meant endlessly struggling to control ELAS and preventing it from dominating the field by brute force. By the end of the occupation (and of the First Round), all rivals of ELAS in the mountains had been destroyed; only the resistance bands (EDES) of the republican-turned-royalist Napoleon Zervas survived.
Actually, the first eruption of serious fighting between rival bands had ended in a stalemate between ELAS and EDES, marked by the so-called Plaka Agreement of February 1944. This truce owed as much to SOE efforts as to EDES's ability to defend its bases in Epirus. 8 SOE's real strength derived from its standing as the official organ of the Allied military high command and from its control of the flow of weapons, supplies, and (above all) gold sovereigns destined for use by the Greek resistance.
In the meantime, the British Foreign Office struggled with other concerns. Whatever the military value of the Greek resistance, for British diplomats its utility was totally eclipsed by the threat EAM/ELAS posed to the Greek government-in-exile, to the king, and to the long-term interests of Britain in Greece. Unless it were neutralized before liberation, EAM/ELAS was expected to try to deliver the country to its Communist masters, who were in turn certain to prove subservient to Stalin and thus hostile to Britain's continued preeminence in Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. In its determination to prevent such an outcome, the Foreign Office could count on the enthusiastic support of Prime Minister Churchill.
Unable to control developments in the mountains, where the power of EAM/ELAS was on the rise, British diplomacy sought to deny the resistance organizations any political legitimacy and to prevent them from pressuring the government-in-exile into accepting them as partners. This policy first became apparent in August 1943, when Brig. E. C. W. Myers, the first head of SOE in Greece, brought to Cairo representatives of the principal resistance organizations--including, of course, the Communists--to discuss with the government-in-exile ways to defuse the political (and, increasingly, violent) crisis that had developed in the Greek mountains. The talks were abruptly ended when the Foreign Office essentially vetoed any restructuring of the Cairo-based government in which the resistance organizations would be formally represented, or any discussion of the monarchy's future.
The official position of the British authorities was that King George could not be pressured to declare that he would not return to Greece unless recalled by plebiscite. As for the king, after requesting and receiving sympathetic (if vague) support for his position from both Churchill and Roosevelt, he refused to discuss further the matter of his return. The representatives of the resistance organizations were thereupon unceremoniously flown back to Greece, and Myers was given a new assignment. Within weeks of the Cairo fiasco, ELAS resumed its campaign to destroy its rivals, and the first phase of civil war was in full swing. In retrospect, the failed talks of August 1943 were most probably the last real opportunity to bring about a political accommodation between the Communist-controlled left and its mostly centrist-republican rivals.
Churchill regarded most Greek resistance bands as consisting of little more than common outlaws. (It is interesting to note that, paradoxically, he appeared to admire Tito and his Communist Partisans, whose claims to legitimacy were certainly no stronger than those of ELAS). On the other hand, the British prime minister viewed the Greek king as a legitimate monarch, as well as the head of an internationally recognized government, a man who had moreover remained a loyal ally in Britain's darkest hour. But for Churchill it was not simply a question of honoring a moral obligation or even of keeping Greece firmly within Britain's sphere. By mid-1944, Churchill was already sensing the growing danger of a future confrontation with Stalin over a variety of strategic issues. Thus, the last thing Churchill wanted to see happen was some annoying contretemps with Moscow over Greece.
"It is a very dangerous thing," he wrote in May 1944, "that the relations of two mighty forces like the British Empire and the USSR should be disturbed by these little pinpricks interchanged by obscure persons playing the fool far below the surface." 9 To remove some of these "little pinpricks" Churchill was already setting in motion a process that would lead to the October "percentages agreement" with Stalin. Moreover, whatever the popularity of EAM/ELAS within Greece, the Greek Communists must not be allowed to undermine an Anglo-Soviet understanding that clearly defined Greece's place in the postwar order.
Thus, by October 1944, British diplomacy had, it appeared, successfully curtailed the ability of EAM/ELAS to pursue unopposed its anticipated political agenda once German forces had evacuated Greece. The so-called Lebanon Agreement of May 20, 1944--another conclave of major Greek political and resistance leaders (including representatives of the EAM-dominated "Free Government of the Mountains") closely orchestrated by the British Foreign Office--had already formally reduced EAM and the KKE to the role of minor partners in a government of "National Unity" under the old republican firebrand turned outspoken anticommunist, George Papandreou, who had become the favorite of the British. The subsequent Caserta Agreement of September 26, 1944, which the British authorities also imposed on the Greeks, placed all resistance bands under the command of a British officer, Gen. Ronald Scobie, and barred ELAS from Attica, the region surrounding Athens, so as to prevent it from seizing power in the capital.
British troops arrived in Athens in mid-October. An uneasy "truce" of sorts ensued, in an otherwise highly charged atmosphere, in part because the Greek king, without an announcement of any kind, did in fact postpone his return. But various paramilitary groups were now jockeying for position--including ELAS units in disguise--along with fanatically anticommunist police and gendarmerie forces, many of whom had also served under the Axis during the occupation.
In November, the "Rimini Brigade," which had been formed with British assistance following the suppression of leftist-inspired mutinies among the Greek troops in the Middle East, was hastily brought to Athens from Italy to strengthen Papandreou's hand. This uneasy situation lasted until the first days of December, when violence erupted again, this time in the center of the capital, in the wake of EAM-led (and KKE-instigated) demonstrations protesting both the proposed demobilizations of ELAS and the British-sponsored reconstitution of a "national" army whose officer corps would be controlled by the right.
Following liberation, the strategy of the Greek Communist Party had remained ambivalent and surprisingly cautious. Although its political opponents were convinced all along that the KKE would employ EAM/ELAS to impose its own "populist" regime on the country (plans for such a takeover were, in fact, drawn up), the Communist leadership appeared to hesitate, unsure of its support among nonleftists and fearing an open clash with the British.
In the intervening weeks before street fighting erupted in Athens, representatives of the KKE visited Belgrade and Sofia to solicit assistance, and their appeals were urgently passed on to Moscow. Specifically, these envoys argued that Soviet involvement in Greece would help avert violence there while also serving the interests of the Soviet Union. After the now famous shooting incident of December 3 in Constitution Square--occasioned by panicky policemen firing against seemingly menacing, but unarmed, EAM demonstrators--the KKE's Petros Roussos wired the Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov, then in Moscow: "Our struggle needs moral support, weapons and supplies.... Can we expect any assistance? If the USSR is reluctant to intervene, what do you advise us to do? Please respond promptly." Dimitrov's reply was anything but encouraging: "In the present situation," he wrote, the Greek Communists "cannot depend on active involvement and assistance from here." Perhaps the most evasive comment was offered by the Soviet foreign minister, V. M. Molotov: "Even though we remain silent, we support the EAM/ELAS struggle." 10
In the event, the "struggle," at least in Athens, came to naught. But not for lack of trying. The initial public sympathy for EAM produced by the fusillade on Constitution Square encouraged ELAS and the KKE leadership to attempt a military takeover of the capital after all. Again, to this day, it is not entirely clear whether this was now part of a larger master plan or simply an attempt to gain leverage pending further negotiations, from strength, with Papandreou and the British.
At first, things looked bleak for the Papandreou government, its supporters, and the small British garrison holding the center of the capital and the Hellenikon airport along the coast, but little else. For three weeks the battle raged through the streets of Athens. But gradually, with the arrival of additional British reinforcements from Italy--dispatched on Churchill's express orders--the tide turned. In the interim, certain ELAS units, operating in the periphery of the capital, committed a series of gratuitous, and widely publicized, atrocities against unarmed civilians and other hostages--incidents that horrified Greek public opinion. By Christmastime, when Churchill dramatically visited the still-smoldering capital in person, the game was up. In early January, ELAS laid down its arms.
Ironically, the Yalta conference (February 1945), coincided with the negotiations held in Varkiza (a seaside resort outside Athens) where, once again under British pressure, the demoralized Greek left was forced to accept armistice terms that in effect precluded real reconciliation or any long-term accommodation with the right. More significantly perhaps, at Yalta, Stalin casually asked Churchill about the recent events in Greece but added reassuringly: "I only wanted to know for information. We have no intention of intervening there in any way." 11 Tito in turn confined himself to words of sympathy and vague encouragement, with the admonition that ELAS should not surrender its weapons. 12 In the end, the Greek Communists were left to face their enemies alone.
Even more ironically, it was the Americans who now chose to condemn loudly the British involvement in the Dekemvriana. In a statement broadcast over the "Voice of America," Secretary of State Edward Stettinius declared that "the United States policy has always been to refrain from any interference in the internal affairs of other nations.... The United States will make no attempt to influence the composition of any government in any friendly country. The American people have naturally viewed with sympathy the aspirations of the resistance movements and the anti-Fascist elements in liberated countries." 13
The State Department informed President Roosevelt that "American opinion was shocked by the spectacle of armed conflict between the British and Greeks and strongly reacted against British action." 14 Writing to Roosevelt from Athens, where he had had a ring-side view of the recent fighting, Ambassador MacVeagh, hardly a fellow-traveler (and indeed later accused a harboring virulently anti-leftist sentiments), blamed the Dekemvriana on "the handling of this fanatically freedom-loving country (which has never yet taken dictation quietly) as if it were composed of natives under the British Raj...." 15
Official American reaction was not limited to words. The chief of U.S. Naval Operations ordered that no American ships be used to carry supplies to the British forces in Greece. This order, which violated the Allied chain of command in the Mediterranean, was only rescinded following an angry telephone call from Churchill to Roosevelt's personal assistant Harry Hopkins. 16 After Varkiza, Roosevelt proposed that a special mission of American, British, and Soviet officials be sent to Greece to supervise the country's reconstruction in a "concerted, nonpolitical action." When Churchill counterproposed a purely Anglo-American effort, Roosevelt dropped the idea altogether for fear that excluding the Russians would antagonize Stalin.
Despite American criticism, the British authorities had a free hand in bringing to an end the fighting in and around Athens. Over the next several months, that is, through the rest of 1945 and most of 1946, the British embassy became the directing force behind the frequently reconstituted Greek government.
In short, the course and final outcome of the Second Round of the Greek Civil War were largely determined by Britain's direct military intervention. (The one exception was the situation in Epirus, where the most the British were able to do was to rescue the remnants of Zervas's EDES band, which ELAS had almost obliterated by the end of 1944.)
Although the Varkiza Agreement is often described as a victory for British policy in Greece, it is worth recording the opinion of Col. Woodhouse, who later that year wrote: "The work to which we had devoted so much anxious care ended not only with a bang in 1944 [the Dekemvriana], but with a whimper in 1945 [Varkiza]. The whimper was really sadder than the bang. The resistance movement just petered out, in a way unparalleled in the other occupied countries of Europe. Ares [the legendary ELAS commander] died the death of a brigand. Zervas, contrary to all his undertakings, reverted ignominiously to politics.... The AMM [Allied Military Mission] was dissolved and scattered to different new tasks all over the world. The lamp is shattered; the light in the dust lies dead." 17
Churchill, on the other hand, never second-guessed himself. He was sure he had done the right thing; and he basked in the adulation showered on him by thousands of delirious Athenians when, on his return trip from Yalta in mid-February, he decided to pay another surprise visit to the Greek capital.
In the poignant words of his daughter Mary, "Seven weeks previously Churchill had been conveyed in an armored vehicle through a city rent by civil war; now he drove with the Regent [Archbishop Damaskinos] in an open car, with people rushing to greet their unannounced but instantly recognized visitor.... There were about 40,000 people in Constitution Square. Churchill made the cheering multitude an emotional, impromptu speech. That night the Acropolis was floodlit in his honour, for the first time since the German occupation." 18
In a cable sent to his wife a short while later, Churchill himself wrote: "Athens was a most marvelous experience. I have never seen anything like the size of the crowd or so much enthusiasm." 19
In the 13 months that elapsed between the signing of the Varkiza Agreement and the attack, on March 30, 1946, by a band of ex-ELAS guerrillas on the police station in the village of Litohoro (at the foothills of Mt. Olympus)--an incident that, in retrospect, many historians now view as the opening salvo of the Third Round of the civil war--the international situation had abruptly and dramatically been transformed.
The death of Roosevelt on April 12, 1945, soon signaled the end of America's wartime policy of accommodation with the Soviet Union. Ten days later, President Harry Truman angrily scolded Soviet foreign minister Molotov about the imposition of a Communist-dominated government in Poland and for other violations of the Yalta accords. Without warning, Truman stopped wartime lend-lease assistance to the Soviets, and discussions concerning a large postwar American loan to the Soviet Union were thereupon derailed. The Americans also delayed the opening of the Potsdam Conference--long enough for the critical atomic tests in New Mexico to be proven successful. Many believe that the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August were, at least in part, meant as a warning to the Soviets and were certainly perceived as such in Moscow.
Barely six months after the end of the war in the Pacific, in his much-discussed speech of February 9, 1946, Stalin declared that cooperation between socialist and capitalist states was impossible and announced an ambitious Soviet military buildup. Some Americans thought that Stalin's bellicose pronouncemens amounted to a declaration of World War III. In the meantime, Soviet control of East-Central Europe continued to tighten. Although Kennan's "long telegram" from Moscow (dated February 22, 1946) analyzing the root causes of Soviet expansionism remained classified, it was followed in short order by a very public speech by Secretary of State James Byrnes announcing a much tougher American policy toward the Soviet Union. On the same day, the United States established a naval force in the Mediterranean, and six days later it was reported that the battleship Missouri would soon be paying official visits to Turkey and Greece. Next came Churchill's "Iron Curtain" speech of March 5, 1946, which denounced the Communist enslavement of East-Central Europe and proposed an Anglo-American alliance to confront the Soviets with adequate counterforce.
There were, then, several specific points of friction--all extremely serious in the eyes of Washington (and London): the obstructionist Soviet role in Germany; the imposition of communist dictatorships in East-Central Europe; Soviet pressures on Turkey and Iran. The harsh ideological rhetoric now employed by both sides created the impression that the growing conflict had deeper roots and that the Anglo-Americans and the Soviets were on a dangerous collision course.
Against this darkening international horizon the highly unstable situation in Greece, where--despite Varkiza and the subsequent victories of the royalist right in the elections and plebiscite of March and September 1946--the left, and especially the KKE, was still not willing to acknowledge defeat or tolerate the incessant persecution of its followers, the next phase of the civil war now took on a new significance and a new life.
The Soviet-backed communist regimes recently established in the Balkans, already in trouble with London and Washington, openly encouraged the Greek Communist leadership to believe that the time had come for a final showdown with its domestic enemies. Easy access to these neighboring communist states, and the illicit flow of weapons and supplies from the north, made possible the creation of a new guerrilla army under strict KKE control and supervision. Led by party boss Nikos Zahariadis (who had spent the war years as a prisoner at Dachau), and having failed to gain acceptance as a major political force through the tactics of mass mobilization and the limited use of arms ("armed self-defense"), the KKE gradually took the offensive and launched a full-scale revolutionary insurrection.
Officially, the Communists' "Democratic Army" was established on October 28, 1946 (the anniversary of Mussolini's attack on Greece in 1940); yet for all practical purposes it had already been created in the early summer of 1945, at Boulkes, a small town northwest of Belgrade (whose ethnic German population had been driven away), which Tito's regime had turned over to ELAS holdouts immediately after Varkiza. At Boulkes, party cadres and ELAS veterans were assembled, screened, indoctrinated, and trained for the projected Third Round under the watchful eyes and harsh discipline of specially appointed political commissars. Those who did not conform were subjected to imprisonment, torture and, in some cases, execution. It is clear that without the support and encouragement of Greece's neighboring communist regimes, and especially Tito's, the final phase of the Greek civil war would not have developed beyond sporadic guerrilla attacks on isolated and poorly defended government posts.
Yet although the support of the Balkan states was important, the success of the Democratic Army ultimately depended on the attitude of the Soviet Union itself. Lacking Stalin's personal endorsement, the Greek Communists could not hope to receive from abroad the type of military, financial, and diplomatic assistance they needed in order to defeat the forces of the Athens government--or, at a minimum, to oblige the anticommunist parties to share power with the KKE. Thus, Stalin's behavior during the third phase of the civil war was of critical importance; but its study has only recently begun in earnest thanks to the release of important Soviet-bloc documents and the pioneering work of such scholars as Philippos Iliou, Ioanna Papathanasiou, and Jordan Baev.
The archival evidence available to date strongly suggests that several messages sent from Moscow to the KKE were discouraging or, at best, Delphic. 20 Without categorically opposing a Communist insurrection in Greece, Soviet officials expressed strong doubts that the time was right for such a move. Nevertheless, the KKE continued to hope that its desperate appeals for assistance would, in the end, bring about the desired results. In keeping this hope alive, Zahariadis's own ties to Moscow, and to Stalin in particular, must have seemed very important. Indeed, at times the KKE boss led his comrades to think that only he knew what Soviet officials had in mind concerning the Greek situation. Otherwise, it is difficult to understand the KKE's grandiose decisions of September 1947--which is to say, fully six months after the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine and just as American military assistance was beginning to arrive in Athens--to field a regular army of 60,000 (up from the then current size of the Democratic Army of about 28,000), with modern equipment and heavy weapons, and air and naval support strong enough to seize and hold the northern city of Thessaloniki and virtually all of Macedonia! It may or may not be a coincidence that the (still-preserved) original directive for this "Operation Limnes" is in Russian.
In the end, all of Zahariadis's hopes for adequate foreign assistance--and for diplomatic support from abroad--were frustrated. It appears that, as had been the case in late 1944, Stalin chose to be cautious, not wishing to provoke the United States over Greece at a time when he was bent on consolidating his control of East-Central Europe. Stalin's problems with Tito, which would lead to the Yugoslavs' expulsion from the Cominform in the summer of 1948, also complicated the Kremlin's handling of the Greek crisis. Stalin's terse remarks to Edvard Kardelj and Milovan Djilas in February 1948, when he ordered the Yugoslavs to stop their support of the Greek Communists, can of course be interpreted in several different ways and may have simply reflected the Soviet leader's impatience with the independent-minded and ambitious Tito rather than his lack of interest in the KKE's fortunes. 21
Assistance to the Democratic Army did, at any rate, continue to trickle down through Bulgaria, and the KKE leadership may have been encouraged to believe that if it could only seize and hold onto a major urban center in northern Greece, Moscow would openly support it. Still, there can be no doubt that Stalin feared being blamed in the West for reigniting the Greek Civil War. Whatever assistance to the Greek Communists was authorized in Moscow, it was to be clandestine and not traceable to the Kremlin. Such assistance was thus bound to be less than adequate and too slow in reaching its destination. In addition, the few Russians eventually attached to Democratic Army headquarters as radio operators lived in strict isolation so as not to be recognized. The contrast to the conspicuous presence of British and American civilian and military personnel advising and assisting the Athens government at every turn could not have been more stark or revealing. When the Democratic Army later switched from guerrilla tactics to positional warfare, it was dispersed and destroyed by the far superior government forces in a series of bloody battles along the Greek-Albanian border.
Despite Churchill's electoral defeat in July 1945, the Labour government was determined to keep Greece from slipping into the Communist camp. London continued to support a variety of Greek politicians whose principal qualification was opposition to the Communists. Britain also provided economic, military, and technical assistance through 1945-46, and played the key role in the decisions concerning the timing of the Greek elections and plebiscite. British military missions trained the new Greek armed forces and police and selected their senior commanders.
Anxious to revive the Athens government's authority and to rebuild the agencies responsible for border defense and domestic order, the British proved unwilling or unable to stop the wide-spread persecution of EAM/ELAS veterans and, indeed, of the republican left. At the United Nations, the harshest criticism of the Soviet Union's suspected involvement in the Greek crisis was delivered by British diplomats. Then, suddenly, in late 1946, realizing that propping up Greece was a task Britain could no longer afford to perform alone, the cash-poor Attlee government sought to involve a far more powerful partner.
The most dramatic change in the international dimension of the Greek civil war involved the new attitude of the United States. To be sure, American views on the situation in Greece had been slow to change. For more than a year after Varkiza, the U.S. embassy in Athens continued to dismiss reports that the Greek Communists were pliant tools of a Moscow intent on bringing Greece into the Soviet orbit. Instead, Ambassador MacVeagh blamed the Athens government for a royalist mind-set which (he thought) "actually approximates Fascism," and for conducting a "crusade against communism" which might result in an "alliance of large numbers of democrats with the extreme Left," and bring about "the same sort of ideological civil war which has occurred in Spain." 22
But such perceptions of the (ostensibly deeper) causes of turmoil in Greece were now discarded: first, as can be seen in the overall tenor of the new analyses and critiques of the Greek situation surfacing in Washington official circles; then, in the "new look" of the Athens embassy's own reports. On March 11, 1946, for example, just as Kennan's "Long Telegram" was beginning to be widely circulated, an internal State Department memorandum argued that "Greece fits into Russia's plans for expansion into the Middle East and toward the Mediterranean and Indian oceans..."; and that Greece and Turkey were the countries where "the Western [democratic] system has the opportunity of presenting the strongest front to the outward and downward extension of Soviet methods and influence." 23
The logic of this argument was simple: a new Communist uprising and possible victory in Greece would naturally benefit the Soviet Union. Therefore, continuing unrest in the Greek countryside--above all, the increased evidence of clashes between government forces and guerrilla bands that had refused to abide by the Varkiza Agreement--had to be viewed as Moscow's handiwork.
In August 1946, MacVeagh reported for the first time that, according to American intelligence sources, the Greek Communist Party was indeed secretly funded and controlled by Moscow. A month later, the American ambassador openly blamed the Soviets for the continuing instability in Greece. Over the fall and early winter of 1946 MacVeagh's views hardened even further as he came to believe that the KKE intended to provoke a full-fledged civil war. Then, in March 1947, during the course of a visit to Washington (timed to coincide with the ongoing debate over the promulgation of the Truman Doctrine), MacVeagh told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that responsibility for the violence along the Greek borders lay with "the fellow who controls the little countries to the north of Greece...right square back to the Moscow Government." 24 And in a hyperbolic reference to the perceived strategic importance of Greece, Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson told President Truman and congressional leaders that if Greece fell to the Communists, "like apples in a barrel infected by one rotten one, the corruption of Greece would infect Iran and all to the east. It would also carry infection to Africa through Asia Minor and Egypt, and to Europe through Italy and France, already threatened by the strongest domestic Communist parties." 25
Obviously, a remarkable change had occurred in Washington's perception of the causes and possible consequences of the Greek Civil War. By the end of 1946, American officials were becoming genuinely alarmed over a series of other international developments that seemed to suggest that the Kremlin was bent on expanding its reach globally, and that in Eastern Europe in particular Stalin meant to install puppet regimes--by brute force--through the elimination of the local Communists' domestic opponents. Having thus concluded that the Soviet Union was on a path of aggressive expansionism, which ultimately threatened vital American security interests, the Truman administration now searched for places where it could implement its own, gradually evolving, policy of "containment." In the spring of 1947, Greece presented just such an opportunity. To convince Congress and the American public that the Truman Doctrine was indeed justified, Greece was now portrayed as the linchpin in the defense of the West against international communism. Thus, the Third Round of the Greek Civil War was declared a major battleground of the Cold War.
The Truman administration was therefore determined to preside over the total defeat of the KKE and the Democratic Army, in the process turning Greece into a showcase of American counterinsurgency policy. A strictly political settlement of the civil war was from the outset considered to be out of the question. Beyond generous military and economic assistance to the Athens government (to the tune of approximately $1 billion during 1946-49), U.S. policy necessitated the near-total control of the machinery of the Greek state and of its armed forces: this was made clear in a number of formal bilateral agreements. Accordingly, the American "penetration" of Greece was much deeper and more extensive than anything the British had ever attempted or contemplated.
Yet it is important to point out that this very active American involvement, which certainly undermined Greek sovereignty, was initially welcomed and even encouraged by the country's anticommunist political elites, including the traditionally antiroyalist center and center-left, for whom the American presence represented the sheet anchor against the twin dangers of "Slavdom" and Bolshevism.
The consequences of American intervention were profound and long-lasting. On the positive side, Greece was thus spared the stifling effects--and other miseries--of a communist dictatorship, all too obvious today in the rest of the Balkans. Under the Marshall Plan, Greece experienced a remarkable period of economic recovery and development, beginning soon after the civil war had ended. Membership in the Atlantic Alliance, secured in 1952 thanks to American insistence, provided a measure of additional security and contributed significantly to the improvement of the country's infrastructure and modernization. In turn, the benefits of the European Recovery Program and of NATO membership strengthened Greek ties with Western Europe and prepared Greece for entry into the European Union.
On the negative side, emboldened by American support, and clearly thirsting for revenge, the triumphalist Greek right did little, at first, to promote reconciliation among winners and losers; nor did it address (as quickly or intelligently as it should have done) those longstanding social problems and class disparities, dating from the pre-Metaxas years, that had made EAM (and even ELAS and the Democratic Army) so popular with so many Greeks for the better part of ten years.
Yet notwithstanding the widespread and senseless discrimination suffered by Greek leftists in the immediate post-1949 period--in the case of KKE members, and those Democratic Army recruits who did not manage to escape north, the penalties visited upon them were often extraordinarily harsh--and despite countless other inequities and inanities committed by a succession of (mostly) right-wing cabinets that governed between 1950 and 1974, Greece is today a stable democracy largely because it was never taken over, or ruled, by the KKE.
For the United States, the consequences of its involvement in the Greek Civil War are far more difficult to assess, although a good case can be made that the American experience in Greece influenced U.S. policy-makers in devising and implementing new variants of "containment" in other parts of the world--including Korea in the 1950s, Vietnam in the early 1960s, and much of Central America during the past half-century. Indeed, it has been argued that Washington learned a number of wrong lessons from its Greek experience.
This said, 50 years after the conclusion of the Greek Civil War, it seems clear that, whatever the deeper causes (and plausible justification) of the initial leftist uprisings that occurred both within the resistance movement in occupied Greece and among Greek troops and naval units operating under Britain's Middle East Command, Greece escaped the ugly postwar fate of its Balkan neighbors, in the first instance, because Athens--thanks to Churchill's foresight and dogged persistence--managed to survive the close call of December 1944. And, in the second place, because--however much Acheson may have exaggerated Greece's strategic importance in early 1947--the United States did throw its full weight behind the beleaguered Athens government and against the Democratic Army.
But the Greek Civil War experience remains an instructive case study for two additional sets of interrelated reasons. First, to borrow from John Lewis Gaddis's most recent reexamination of Cold War history, we now know--with a high degree of certainty--that, for his own good reasons, Stalin did not, in fact, encourage or significantly assist the Greek Communists at any stage during the years 1942-49. Yet this does not mean that had control of Greece been effectively taken over by the KKE, the resulting "people's democracy" would have proved any less distressing to the vast majority of Greeks than did similar "socialist" experiments that were imposed by Moscow in Eastern Europe and the Balkans with the help of the Red Army.
Second, the analogies that are so often drawn between the Spanish and Greek civil wars--to wit, the simplistic argument that, in both countries, the victory of the right resulted initially in a "white terror," followed by widespread repression, the denial of basic civil rights to those connected to the losing side, and the emergence of militaristic and authoritarian regimes (Franco's in Spain; the Colonels' junta in Greece)--overlook one crucial and essential difference.
Franco's Nationalists prevailed, with much help from Hitler and Mussolini--whose own interests in promoting democratic norms or in safeguarding the rule of law were as minuscule as those of the Republican side's Stalinist supporters and handlers. Ten years later, the Greek "Nationalists" also won out--with much-needed help from, first, the British and, then, the Americans. Nonetheless, whatever Churchill's (and subsequently Attlee's and Bevin's) selfish motives in doing whatever it took to preserve Britain's traditional sphere of influence in the Aegean, whatever the skewed Cold War imperatives that inspired Acheson and Truman to pick up where the British reluctantly left off in early 1947, it is simply misleading to then also infer that no element of altruism--that is, a desire to save the long-suffering Greek people from the even worse blight of entrenched Bolshevism--ever entered the minds of British or American officials.
In the event, between 1947 and 1949, the American plan of action for Greece consisted of four basic objectives. First, to create a broadly based coalition government that would enjoy the support of the majority of Greeks and unite the nation against Communists at home and elsewhere. Second, to make the state bureaucracy an efficient, impartial, and dynamic instrument for the rebuilding of the war-torn country and for addressing the people's basic needs. Third, to provide the economic and technical assistance needed to set the country firmly on the road to full recovery, stability, and long-term development. Fourth, to improve the strength and performance of the armed forces so that they could defeat the Communists quickly and totally.
Overall, the results were, at best, mixed. Most successful were the efforts to equip and energize the armed forces, which were able to defeat the insurgents in less than two years. Despite requests from Athens, and some discussions in Washington, sending American combat troops to fight in Greece proved unnecessary. The civil war was fought and won by Greek soldiers.
At the same time, there can be no doubt that American policy in Greece during the last phase of the civil war was interventionist, imperious, and often insensitive. It was the Americans who ran the show from Athens. And by focusing on the short-term goals to be achieved, and demanding quick results, they made it even more difficult for the Greeks to find their own solutions to their longstanding national problems. Cold War imperatives took their toll: it would take another 25 years before Greece could truly claim to be a pluralistic democracy.
Nevertheless, these shortcomings were outweighed by the one all-important result achieved, with American help, by 1949: the defeat of the Communists consolidated the place of Greece within the Western family of nations.
1. Mary Soames, ed., Winston and Clementine: The Personal Letters of the Churchills (Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1999), p. 512.
2. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States (hereafter FRUS) 1946, vol. 7, pp. 233-35.
3. Among a number of prominent Communists of that period, Grigoris Farakos, later secretary general of the KKE, argues persuasively that the KKE in fact intended to seize power by force (Grigoris Farakos, ed., Dekemvris tou '44 [Athens: Filistor, 1996], pp. 84-89).
4. C. M. Woodhouse, Apple of Discord: A Survey of Recent Greek Politics in Their International Setting (London: Hutchinson, 1948), pp. 198-99; see also Woodhouse's "History of the Allied Military Mission in Greece," in the Liddell Hart Centre for Military Archives, King's College, London (typescript, 1945, hereafter "History of the AMM"), pp. 198-99. According to Woodhouse, who headed the Allied Military Mission in Greece, one of the Russians told a British officer: "What they cannot understand in Moscow is why you have put up with this rabble [ELAS] so long."
5. John O. Iatrides, ed., Ambassador MacVeagh Reports. Greece, 1933-1947 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980), pp. 377-78.
6. FRUS, 1944, vol. 5, p. 118; Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill and Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, vol. 3 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984), pp. 177-83, 200-01. It has been argued that Churchill's insistence on striking a deal with Stalin for keeping Greece in Britain's sphere of influence and offering in exchange to consign Romania to the Soviet sphere set the stage for the imposition of communist regimes in East-Central Europe in the postwar period (Lloyd C. Gardner, Spheres of Influence: The Great Powers Partition Europe, From Munich to Yalta [Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1993], pp. 184-206).
7. Richard Clogg, "`Pearls from Swine': The Foreign Office Papers, S.O.E. and the Greek Resistance," in British Policy towards Wartime Resistance in Yugoslavia and Greece, ed. Phyllis Auty and Richard Clogg (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp. 167-205.
9. Christina Goulter-Zervoudakis, "The Politicization of Intelligence: The British Experience in Greece, 1941-1944," Intelligence and National Security, vol. 13 (spring 1998), p. 183.
10. Jordan Baev, 0 Emfylios Polemos stin Ellada: Diethneis Diastaseis (Athens: Filistor, 1996), pp. 79-81; Panos Dimitriou, Ek Vatheon (Athens: Themelio, 1997), pp. 143, 167-68.
14. John O. Iatrides, Revolt in Athens: The Greek Communist "Second Round," 1944-1945 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), p. 214.
20. Mitsos Partsalidis, Dipli Apokatastasi tis Ellinikis Antistasis (Athens: Themelio, 1978), pp. 199-200; Baev, 0 Emfylios Polemos stin Ellada, pp. 112-13, 174-77; Kostas Siaperas, Mystikoi Dromoi tou Demokratikou Stratou: Apo ti Varkiza sto Boulkes (Athens: Glaros, 1990), pp. 120-21, 131; Ioanna Papathanasiou, "To 1/3 tou Ellinikou Edafous sta Heria Mas," Ta Nea, May 22, 1999; Vladislav Zubok and Constantine Pleshakov, Inside the Kremlin's Cold War (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996), pp. 56-57, 126-28; Peter J. Stavrakis, Moscow and Greek Communism, 1944-1949 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989), pp. 127-85.
22. John O. Iatrides, "Perceptions of Soviet Involvement in the Greek Civil War, 1945-1949," in Studies in the History of the Greek Civil War, 1945-1949, ed. Lars Baerentzen, John O. Iatrides, and Ole L. Smith (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 1987), p. 231.
24. U.S. Senate, Committee on Foreign Relations, Legislative Origins of the Truman Doctrine: Executive Hearings of March-April 1947 (Washington, D.C.: GPO, 1973), p. 40.
25. Dean Acheson, Present at the Creation: My Years in the State Department (New York: Norton, 1969), p. 219.
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