The Greek Civil War began in 1944 as the Germans left the country. Britain and America supported the government against local Communists. Very brutal on both sides, it was an early conflict of the Cold War.
Occupation and Conflict
Many people think of Greece as the land of gyros, 'Mamma Mia', and the Parthenon. But in the 1940s it had a bloody civil war. This conflict marked the passing of British power to America and was the first proxy war between the West and Communist states, meaning big powers indirectly fighting through another country.
In the 1930s, depression-hit Greece was run by the right-wing dictator Metaxas. Just after he died in 1941, the Germans invaded. KKE, the banned Greek Communist Party, reemerged to head EAM, the National Liberation Front, and its Liberation Army, ELAS. Eliminating all rivals except EDES (the Republican League), they freed much of Greece. The vengeance of the Nazis and their Security Battalion collaborators was murderous. Britain, protecting the Greek king in Egypt, sent military supplies and forced EAM and EDES to form a provisional government.
In October 1944, the Germans pulled out, leaving Greece ruined and starving. To return the king, British forces arrived, releasing jailed Security Battalion soldiers and demanding ELAS disarm. In Athens December protests led to a massacre and urban warfare (the 'Dekemvriana'). Britain took the city, and ELAS retreated to the countryside, killing thousands of hostages. Thousands more were murdered by right-wing forces.
British paratroopers fighting in Athens
Stalin did not help the KKE. In the Percentages Agreement, he and Churchill had established spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, with Greece going to the British. Later he said he knew the West would never surrender this country. He also did not want to risk a war here. But seeing Communist governments being established in Europe, this was something the West never understood.
An Uneasy Truce
In February 1946, KKE and the Greek government agreed that ELAS was to disarm and plebiscite be held, creating a convention for a new Greek government. The Communists surrendered some weapons but, protesting against right-wing atrocities, refused to participate in the parliamentary elections. This mistake kept them out of the government. Fighting began again between government and ELAS forces, now renamed DSE, the Democratic Army of Greece. The September plebiscite approved the king's return, but it was not held in Communist controlled areas.
Poster urging a vote for the king
Meanwhile, relations between the Soviet Union and the West continued to deteriorate. Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, and Albania sent arms and advisors across the Greek border, increasing Western concerns about Moscow's influence in Greece. Now the country entered the second and larger phase of the civil war.
The Battle Rejoined
By late 1946, DSE, which had about 20,000 fighters, controlled much of the Greek countryside, while with 90,000, troops the rightist government held the major urban areas. Many civilians were sympathetic to one side or the other. Lines hardened as Red and White forces committed terrors against suspected opponents in their respective areas, killing or displacing tens of thousands.
In 1947, a bankrupt Britain could no longer support the Greek army, so London turned the battle over to the United States. Told that Greece could fall in a few weeks, Washington developed the Truman Doctrine, pledging America to support governments fighting Communism. It was justified by the Domino Theory that stated once a country became Communist it would infect its neighbors.
Under its military assistance program, the United States poured in weapons and advisors, arming and building the Greek army until it was 260,000 strong. With the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe, America gave hundreds of millions of dollars more. Although some went to civilian projects, about 85% of all foreign aid was used by the military. However, the guerilla war continued. In the mountainous north, DSE was able to fight, then melt back across the border.
In 1947 the Communist KKE declared a Provisional Democratic Government. It also switched to conventional war tactics. While it held a third of the population and half the country, even able to fight near Athens, this was a serious error. As an army, DSE did not have the troops and weapons for full scale battles. Defeats in the north at Konitsa and at Zacharo in the south cost thousands of fighters.
Last Phases of the War
In the Peloponnesus and on the Greek islands, DSE forces were encircled and defeated. Northern mountain ranges were cleared. In Macedonia the turning point came in 1948 when Tito sharply split with Moscow. While most of the KKE's supplies came from Yugoslavia, it remained loyal to Stalin. Soon Tito closed the border and DSE weakened. In August 1949, under attack from planes bombing with napalm, the last thousand fighters fled to Albania.
The war killed about 160,000 people. Social damage was extensive, with a tenth of the population left homeless. The government had forcibly evacuated villages and resettled 25,000 children, some taken from KKE parents. The Communists sent 30,000 more to Eastern Europe.
Those partisans the Greek government caught, and people suspected of being sympathizers, were often executed or spent years in island concentration camps. For the Communists who left Greece, Stalin ordered they cease fighting, then scattered them. Of these, 12,000 were sent to Uzbekistan. Starting in the 1970s some returned to Greece.
Let's take a moment or two to review what we've learned.
Civil wars are often bitter affairs that leave terrible scars on a society. In Greece the fight was between a right-wing government and the insurgency of the banned Greek Communist party, the KKE, which re-emerged to head EAM (the National Liberation Front) and its Liberation Army, ELAS. Ultimately the former won, though the country was wrecked, its policies now dominated by the United States. America, claiming a victory over Moscow, had created the Truman Doctrine, which was a pledge to fight Communism everywhere, which was justified by the Domino Theory that stated once a country became Communist it would infect is neighbors. Later it was used, with Greece the model, for other proxy wars, which are when big powers indirectly fight through another country - a mistake, as it assumed that guerrilla wars could be won by conventional means. Thus, the Greek Civil War began half a century of small wars run by big powers. It was civilians caught in the middle who suffered the most, with a total of 160,000 dead and 10% of the population homeless.