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Be Careful What You Wish For

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Roger Hudson sheds light on a haunting photograph from the Greek Civil War.

Communist fighters or sympathisers imprisoned by the Greek government at Salonika during the Greek Civil War (1946-49) await a visit by a United Nations team investigating prison living conditions in March 1947. They hold up placards spelling out in French the message ‘The British Must Go’, referring to the 16,000 British troops stationed in Greece. The reason for their presence lay years back, in the middle of the Second World War.

Soon after the Germans occupied Greece in 1941 it became clear that the Greek Communists saw it as their chance to get into a position from which to seize power once the occupation ended. The only options were going to be civil war or an unopposed Communist takeover. The Communist-controlled Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) had at least 50,000 armed men by 1944, greatly outnumbering other resistance groups. The British had stopped supplying ELAS in 1943 and in 1944 were forced to negotiate a ceasefire between them and their main rival, the National Republican Greek League (EDES), in an attempt to get them to attack the Germans rather than each other. In October 1944 British troops, together with regular Greek units that had been fighting with the Allies in Italy, entered Athens. That very month Churchill had flown to Moscow to meet Stalin to discuss spheres of influence in Eastern Europe. They agreed Russia was to have a virtually free hand in Romania, Hungary and Bulgaria, while Britain was to have ‘90 per cent’ influence over Greece. Yugoslavia’s future remained to be clarified, while Stalin prevaricated over Poland.

In December there was a big demonstration in Athens against the order for ELAS to disarm, 28 demonstrators were killed and open warfare soon followed between the British and the Communists in the capital. ELAS was only defeated with great difficulty and, if Stalin had not stood to one side, but rather actively supported them, things might have been very different. Greece had become in effect ‘a kind of British protectorate’.

The Communists boycotted the 1946 elections and hostilities soon began again. The Democratic Army of Greece (DSE), the successors to ELAS, had 19,000 under arms by the end of 1946, with support from Bulgaria, Yugoslavia and Albania, and a now more overtly hostile Russia. By early 1947 Britain had spent £85 million in Greece and told the US that it could afford no more. Luckily President Harry Truman was ready and willing to take over the burden, announcing what became the Truman Doctrine on March 12th: ‘It must be the policy of the US to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or outside pressures.’ No one could be in doubt which country in particular he had in mind: Greece was set to become the first battleground of the Cold War. Those prisoners in Salonika got it badly wrong.

The DSE was also to get it wrong later in the year, dropping guerrilla tactics for set-piece battles. In 1948, when Tito split with Stalin, it remained loyal to Moscow so lost the support that it had been getting from Yugoslavia. Final defeat came in October 1949, by which time 100,000 ELAS/DSE members and Communist sympathisers were imprisoned, in exile or executed, half a million Greeks were homeless and nearly 30,000 children had been carried away over northern frontiers to be brought up under Communist regimes. The economy was in a worse state than in 1944 and the people of Greece were to remain divided for decades.



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