In Southern Europe, Benito Mussolini, feeling that a German victory was at hand, had taken Italy into the hostilities alongside its fellow fascist regime. Hoping to match German successes, Italian Forces had made gains in North Africa, but in Europe, only Albania had succumbed to them. A more significant prize was Greece. Given the speed with which the small nations of Europe had so far capitulated, neither Italy nor Germany expected any resistance to come from little Greece. How wrong they were.
Greek Fascist Dictator, Iaonnis Metaxas, receiving the Nazi Salute outside the Greek Parliament
The Greek Prime Minister at the time was one Ioannis Metaxas, a fascist Dictator and (hardly a surprise) an admirer of Hitler. Using industrial unrest as an excuse, and with the support of the Greek King George II, he had declared a state of National Emergency in 1936 to cement his regime, and had gone on to abolish all political opposition. Older people in Greece can remember being in his National Youth Organisation, a Greek version of the Hitler Youth.
At 2.50 a.m. that Sunday morning (though some versions of the story have it as 4:00am), Metaxas was woken at his home in Athens (those same other versions say it was at a party at the German Embassy instead!) to be told that the Italian Ambassador, one Emanuele Grazzi, had made an unexpected visit and demanded to be seen. When Metaxas came down, Grazzi thrust out his hand containing an ultimatum to the Greek Government from Mussolini that Italian Forces stationed in Albania be given free passage over Greece and be allowed to garrison their troops at whatever parts of the country they saw fit. A reply was demanded by 6:00 a.m.
Did Metaxas, despite being a member of the same club of fascist dictators as Hitler and Mussolini, love his country in whatever way dictators love their countries, and so would never hand it over to another country? (that's what the "right" in Greece say) or instead (here comes what the "left" say...) did he understand that the Greek people would have tolerated only one answer and would have lynched him had he got it wrong? Whatever the truth, Metaxas had no need of the three hours. He gave his reply at once. Whatever he said to Grazzi exactly (some say it was in French, for some reason), it was equivalent to a single word…”No!” (in Greek, “Ohi”…pronounced with the “o” as in “dog” and the “i” as the “ea” in “sea”), and it is this "No" that has entered the Greek consciousness.
At 5:30a.m., Italian troops poured over the Albanian border and within a few hours, the crowds in Athens had filled the streets shouting “Ohi!, Ohi!” Metaxas in an address to the Nation said to his people “Greeks, now we must prove ourselves worthy of our forefathers and the freedom they bestowed upon us…Now, over all things, fight!"
Greek soldiers prepared for Winter Warfare, Winter 1940/41
The first important land victory of the Allied Forces in World War II is accredited to Greece. Within two months, not only had the Italians (who outnumbered the Greeks by almost 3 to 1) been driven back beyond the border, but Greece had even taken one quarter of Albania from them. Throughout that winter, over half a million Italian troops remained tied down, ill-provisioned, and without the winter clothing that they so desperately needed. As Spring came in 1941, a massive Italian counter-strike was crushed by the Greeks with over 12,000 Italian casualties.
"In the name of the captured yet still living French people, France sends her greetings to the Greek people who are fighting for their freedom. The 25th of March, 1941 finds Greece in the peak of her heroic struggle and at the peak of her glory. Since the battle of Salamis, Greece had not achieved the greatness and the glory which she holds today".
Charles de Gaulle, Greek Independence Day (25 March) 1941
After four months of Italian embarrassment, a furious Adolf Hitler ordered German troops to clean up the mess that the incompetent Mussolini had made and to attack from Bulgaria. The speed and strength of the German attack was too much for the Greek fighters to resist and within three weeks, Athens had fallen to the Nazis, with the rest of Greece (except for Crete) succumbing a week later. Metaxas, having died in January, did not live to see his country fall. A very controversial figure in Greek politics, his “Ohi” is viewed by all as a source of great pride for the Greek people. However, you needn’t just accept from them how important that little word was on that October morning. Here are some more quotes from a few people you may have heard of…
“The glorious fight of Greece was the first big turning point of World War II”
George VI of Great Britain, Speech to Parliament May 1945
"You fought unarmed and you won, the Small against the Big. We owe you eternal gratitude, because you gave us the time we needed to defend ourselves. As Russians and as people we thank you….I feel Sorry that I am so old and will not live for long enough to be able to express adequate gratitude to the Greek people. Your resistance turned the path of World War II."
"The resistance of the Russian People at the gates of Moscow, where they reversed the German tide, is in debt to the Greek People, who delayed the German divisions for all the time when they would have knelt upon us."
Georgy Tzoukov, Head of the Soviet Army.
“For the sake of historical truth I must admit that only Greece, of all opponents that we faced, fought with daring, courage and contempt, and to the Death”
Adolf Hitler, 4 May 1941, Reichstag Speech, Berlin.
“Whatever the writers of history will tell in the future, that what we can say now is that Greece taught Mussolini a lesson, and that lesson…held the Germans for six weeks…and reversed the timelines drawn up by the German Military Staff and wrought a change in the course of the whole War…allowing us to win World War II."
Anthony Eden, British Prime Minister 1955-57
“On 28th October 1940, Greece was given three hours to choose war or peace, but even if three days or three weeks or even three years had been given, the answer would have been the same."
Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the U.S.A.
"Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks".
Every October 28th, the Greek people still take to the streets in what they call “The Commemoration of the No”. The army marches and so do the children from every school in the land. Symi is no less proud of that “No” and what followed it than is the rest of Greece, and SymiGreece has covered “Ohi Day” in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 with photos and videos. We’ll be covering the 61st Ohi Day this Friday…so please come back and look at the photos and videos and join Symi in remembering that “No”!
Photos from 28 October 2010 Ohi Day 2010 on Symi was celebrated in warm sunshine with hundreds of people parading, and even more lining the road by the War Memorial. After the formalities, the crowds dispersed, with the bars and cafes full. I imagine that with the possible exception of the upcoming Panormitis Day, it will be the last time this year that so many people are out and about at the same time making the place feel like the summer season is still here. To see the full gallery of videos and photos, go and look at the page for the 2010 Ohi Day.