Saturday, October 29, 2011

Greeks Know How to Say "NO!"

December 16, 1940
Yesterday, October 28th, was a Greek National Holiday.  One of two publicly revered ones to be precise.  The other, March 25, commemorates the day in 1821 that Greece declared its Independence from the Ottoman Empire and fought until 1832 to obtain it.  

But it was yesterday that carried a more relevant lesson for those of you who might think the omnipresent daily media frenzy over Greece’s financial situation fairly portrays the national character of the eleven million who live in Greece today.  And to those media types so quick to disparage the Greeks—or any culture for that matter—with a catchy phrase I say, ‘NO.” 

Which is only appropriate since the name of yesterday’s holiday is “Oxi Day” (pronounced “O-hee”), meaning “no” in Greek.

So what is this earth shattering revelation?

Thanks to John Pozadzides' blogsite for the photos.
On the morning of August 15, 1940, the Greek navel vessel Elli was in the harbor of the Cycladic island of Tinos.  It was peacetime and the light cruiser was anchored there to participate in a major Greek Orthodox holiday, The Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin Mary).  Without warning the Elli was torpedoed and sunk by a submarine, killing nine and wounding twenty-four.  Although fragments of the torpedo clearly identified its source, the Greek government officially declared the nationality of the attacking submarine as “unknown.”  The Greek government may have been reluctant to declare the attacker as Italy, and therefore immerse itself in war, but the people knew who was behind it.

Ioannis Metaxas
Two months later, around dawn on the morning of October 28, 1940, after a party at the German embassy in Athens, the Italian ambassador approached Greece’s Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas and demanded that Greece surrender to the Axis powers or face immediate war with Italy.  He offered Greece three hours to decide.  Italy had seven times the population of Greece, seven times the troops, ten times the firepower, and total air superiority. 

The Prime Minister’s response was simple: “Oxi.”  And less than two hours later Italian troops stationed in Albania invaded Greece.  Occupation of Greece was critical to Hitler’s plan for isolating British troops in North Africa.  The Italians expected it to be a three-day war.  They learned otherwise. 

Oxi became the battle cry of the Greek people.  Within weeks the Italians were driven back into Albania, and repelled by the Greeks at every effort to occupy Greece.  It became clear to Hitler that Italy was not up to the task and on April 6, 1941 Germany invaded Greece, but it took even the Nazis five weeks to succeed.  Greek resistance had thrown off Hitler’s plans to capture Russia before the winter of 1941. 

The Greeks were the first people in Europe (outside of Great Britain) to stand up to the demands of Germany and its allies, but their one hundred eighty-five days of resistance took a horrific toll on their country:

One million of Greece’s citizens (13% of the population) are estimated to have died from battle, starvation, resistance, reprisals and concentration camps.

Greece’s infrastructure, economy and agriculture were destroyed.

Greece’s gold, works of art, and treasures were plundered.

Civil war followed and many emigrated.

On a purely economic basis, it is estimated that in standing up to the Axis’ threats Greece was left in financial straits twice as bad as it finds itself in today… and its societal costs were inestimably worse.

Oh, yes, and on that subject of catchy phrases attempting to capture Greece’s national character, let me offer a quote from someone who understood how the actions of the many, not the failings of a few, are what matters in any such sort of measure: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but Heroes fight like Greeks.”  Winston Churchill.



  1. This is wonderful history about the courage, strength and principles of the Greek people against the heinous Axis powers.

    It's making me cry thinking about the resistance they put up.

    I have long known about the heroic Greek
    resistance during WWII, and have read about
    a few of the heroes, male and female.

    But I didn't know this specific history, the three-hour deadline, and that they pushed the Italian troops out. Nor did I know about the depth of the destruction nor the horrendous loss of life.

    I'll think of "Oxi" from now on when I think about Greece, and their completely admirable people.

    And I know about the protests there against the austerity measures, including on Oct. 15 (and I'm disregarding the "violent" groups, whomever they are).

    Everyone I've ever met over here from Greece, especially now middle-aged folks, are very proud of their history -- and incredibly politically astute.

  2. Jeff, thank you for informing/reminding us of Grrece's role in WWII. I intend to share this this widely. The press that is now giving credence to the current "Occupy" movement has been far less respectful of the Greeks' public refusal to knuckle under to the demands of Euro-zone bureaucrats. This reminder of who the Greeks really are needs broad attention. This time the world's economic structure, not its territory, that has been invaded by rapacious invaders.

  3. Just checking in here again, I completely agree with the esteemed previous blogger's comments.

    I admire the Greek resistance to the "Euro-zone bureaucrats," "the rapacious invaders."

  4. All of us who love Greece have invested our hearts and souls here. All our work(the most significant investment of all) has been in the cause of making this a good place to live, grow up, grow old and be proud of. We need..someone clean and ready to tell the truth...and act unselfishly...big order? I still believe there are Greeks capable of this...there is real gold here in the hearts of many...perhaps most...of the citizens. The northern euros just want a cheap vacation spot, and a market for their products at inflated prices. shame on them, to build this dream on the backs of the non-guilty. (which is not the same as the innocent. although there are lots of them too). Meanwhile the politicians vision is just as far as the next election, and winning is everything. And the bank workers, civil servants (neither civil nor serving,,,as usual), and unionists want the size of their piece of pitta (pie) to remain stable...while all the rest..native and immigrant alike get swept away.

  5. I have to admit total confusion about my feelings for the Greek situation. I'm sure that the current situation is the fault of relatively few people, some of whom were elected, some not. The question I have for all of you is this, "What would YOU do to deal with the current financial situation Greece finds itself in?" Stan

  6. Kathy, Annamaria, and Shrew (who's anonymity I respect, CJC), you are absolutely right in your observations. These are very difficult times for Greeks. The heroics commemorated by yesterday's national holiday involved decades of perseverance and recovery, and there is nothing to suggest that the country's current challenges will require any less of a commitment or international support.

    After this piece was written I learned that yesterday's military parade in Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, was cancelled for the first time when hundreds of austerity protestors blocked the military's way and police refused to disperse them. The Mayor of Thessaloniki and the President of the Greek Republic were said to be the only politicians or members of Parliament to attend what has been the country's most significant OXI Day parade.

    It is reported that politicians are now afraid to make public appearances in front of those who elected them. Yes, there is much more to come for the brave people of Greece.

  7. Beautifully written post, Jeff, and what a story. In some ways the villains of those times almost make me nostalgic: they wore uniforms, they had literal blood on their hands, they ranted in front of fanatical crowds. Whereas today's wear business clothes and look like the rest of us and live among us with their wives, husbands, and children, and lie with enormous skill. And, as shrew says, the vision of our politicians (in another time we might have called them our leaders) extends as far as the next election.

  8. Sorry, Stan, your comment slid in while I was responding to the other comments. I wasn't ducking your question:).

    I have a very simple place to start. Put people in charge of making the decisions who actually have some idea of what they are doing and are capable of developing a (FAIR) plan; one in which the Greek people can have a modicum of confidence that the inevitable pain will bring meaningful change to their lives and not just more "business as usual" rigmarole and exploitation.

  9. Tim, would you please for once say something I disagree with? And I'm not talking about the much appreciated praise:).

  10. Part of my confusion revolves around the whole issue of who is responsible in a democracy. It is always easy to bemoan who is in power, but it is the people who put them there. If the people don't elect trustworthy, competent people, the country is going to get incompetence in government. If the people do not indicate that the elected officials should reign in corporate or banking excesses, the country may well suffer to the benefit of a few.

    Jeff you (rightly) say that the country needs capable and fair people to work through the mess. But you don't say who is responsible for putting them in that position. Is it the people? If not, who? And if it is not the people, will the people accept whomever is put there? Confused Stan

  11. What an interesting post. The first I learned about Greece's occupation was in Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

  12. Stan, your point is well taken. There is an old Greek saying for when a fairy tale ends happily, "So, they had a happy life and we had a better one."

    That explains precisely why so many Greeks let their politicians get away with so much for so long. Everyone was profiting. Now that times are bad, and the people want someone to blame for their unhappy ending, they’re pointing at the politicians they kept electing. That doesn't excuse the wrongdoing, but finger pointers had best realize that when one chooses to point a finger, three are pointing backatcha.

  13. Thanks, Ann. You'd be surprised how many have no idea of Greece's early, seminal role in resisting the Axis march across Europe into Russia and North Africa.

  14. Marvelous and informative. It still makes me sad for a country that offers so much to pay such a heavy price. I saw a film years ago, which I think was called "Eleni," that I believe dealt with Greeks and the Communists. And Tim is right, today the good guys wear the same hats as the bad guys, and it's very hard to tell them apart.

  15. Hi, Lil. "Eleni" was a film based upon the book of the same name by the highly regarded writer Nicholas Gage. It involved his search for the killer of his mother during the Greek civil war following the end of WWII. Some of Kazantzakis work (author of "Zorba" and "The Last Temptation of Christ") on that time is even more "The Fratricides."

  16. There's also Helen MacInnes' Decision at Delphi, one of the first novels I saw to deal with the civil war.

  17. "Z" is an amazing movie.

    Whatever occurs with the financial situation, the loans, etc., it is the Greek people who are suffering and will suffer from the gun-to-the head austerity measures -- the huge layoffs of public sector workers, the wage cuts and more.

    Everything I read tells of hard-working people who can't pay their basic bills, people who have worked all of their lives.

    I'd say that I would have sided with the austerity protesters, who I am sure are very proud of their country's resistance to fascism, and whose parents and grandparents were in it -- and who feel the OXI resistance very deeply -- but who must say OXI now to the European politicians and financial "experts," i.e, Euro-Zone bureaucrats, who are "rapacious invaders."

    Their feelings of deep pride and allegiance to their country is no less because they absolutely MUST fight for their livelihoods -- and very lives against the horrific penalties being levelled against them now.

    They feel they have to resist. This is, as someone said in today's NY press, a deep intrusion into Greece's sovereignty. It is being dictated to by Western European bureaucrats and financial institutions, about their lives.

    And where is equal sacrifice? As in the U.S., will the wealthiest "sacrifice"? No.

    The majority of people should not be penalized for the economic crisis. They did not cause it. They are already suffering.
    They didn't do anything except work hard all their lives.

    I'd say "OXI" to the Euro-Zone bureaucrats.

  18. More history:

  19. This is totally superficial thought: Re Stan's quiry about how to solve the problem, since the people elect their leaders and the people themselves should be held responsible, maybe we should be in charge of electing bank CEO's.

    It's the bank top eschelons who are the rapacious invaders. Would that we could vote them out of office. As it is, if (only!) they were forced to resign, they would leave with nine figure golden parachutes.

  20. Electing bank CEO's is a good idea, if there were decent people available to run, who wouldn't repeat the sins of the past bunch.

    I think something more drastic should happen, because even the elected Socialist Party people in government voted for the austerity measures.

    Maybe the labor unions, the student groups, medical professionals, journalists and writers, retirees, and so on should elect people to run the banks, not representatives of the super-rich. After all, it's working and middle-class people, youth and retirees, who are paying the price for the financial crisis, not the wealthiest, or as the Occupy movement would say, representatives of the 99% and not the top 1%.

  21. Hi Jeff - most important, what is with the pom-poms on the shoes?

  22. Sorry for not responding earlier, but I'm in Northwestern NJ at the moment where a freak snowstorm took out not only electricity (until midweek) but Internet until just now.

    Thanks, Liz, for pointing out MacInnes' book and the additional info.

    Interesting observations, Kathy and Annamaria, but what struck me most about the back and forth was how it would have run pre-OWS? Occupy Wall Street has given a focus to discussions that was not there before, and that in and of itself seems to give the movement value. It also--believe it or not--gives some support for the way Greeks deal with their protestors (not that I agree). Greece is soundly criticized for not taking a more aggressive stand with the crowds. In counterpoint we have recent events in Oakland, California.

    That city's response generated worldwide outrage and support for the protestors. And the demonstrators are back were they were in the first place--I understand it's too expensive for the city to keep trying to move them out! Now Oakland's OWS is taking a page from Greece's protest playbook and calling for a General Strike on November 2nd. Stay tuned.

    As for the most momentous unanswered question, some might say, Yrsa, that the position of the pom-poms reflects the natural effects of time. They used to be epaulets.

    Only kidding, the shoes and uniform have considerable historic significance (do I see a blog piece looming) and the pom-poms are used to cover the point of the toe that turns up. Or so they say. Personally I think it's a bold fashion statement.

  23. People around the U.S. and world were also angry that a veteran Marine, Scott Olsen, was hit in the head with a tear gas cannister, suffering a skull fracture, and some brain damage. That and the clearing out of the Oakland encampment ended up bringing out three times the number of protesters, forcing an apology from the mayor, and garnering much more support in California and across the U.S.

    Frank Rich likened it OWS to the 1932 veterans' Bonus March, and that when it was suppressed by Gen. MacArthur and company, it garnered tremendous national support.

    We'll see what happens on Nov. 2, if the labor unions come out in a general strike. It'll be an interesting week. There is a sympathy activity in New York on that day, too, starting in Washington Square Park.

  24. A powerful, poignant footnote to the cancelled OXI Day Parade in Thessaloniki is this video.

    The backstory is simple. The young men in the video were to march in the parade. They are from a storied military academy whose graduates were some of the fiercest fighters in all of Greece's Balkan wars. The parade on Friday was to honor the fallen, not the politicians, but after the President of Greece (an essentially ceremonial position) decided not to participate because of demonstrators shouting epithets at him, a military general informed the marchers there would no longer be a parade.

    As to whether the reason for cancelation was obstruction by the demonstrators or an unwillingness on the part of the government to allow protestors a national stage for their placards is irrelevant to the point of the soldiers' actions. They sought to make the point that this day was about their comrades in arms, whom they proceeded to honor with the words of their anthem in the face of orders to disperse.

  25. I'm sure the demonstrators are very proud of their people's history in fighting fascism, and that many of their parents, uncles, aunts, and grandparents were part of that resistance -- and that they've all lost a family member or more.

    I wouldn't counterpose the protesters who are trying to survive in the face of the austerity plan's layoffs and wage cuts and other budget cutbacks. It's their livelihoods, their lives, they are worried about. The economic assault is devastating to so many people in Greece. They feel they must protest.

  26. Kathy, I don't think the issue was the protestors v. the marchers. I understood that the marchers wanted to honor those who fought for Greece and were upset at the parade being cancelled, whether it was the fault of the protestors or the politicians.

    By the way, a real dilemma facing Greece is that many private sector workers are angry with their public sector counterparts because they see striking protestors as destroying their tourist driven businesses. They're also angered at the new taxes they're being asked to pay that many see as being used imposed for the benefit of those same demonstrating public workers.

    Perhaps that is why Prime Minister Papandreaou has decided to put the whole question of whether or not to accept the EU financial package to a referendum by the people. It's either a political masterstroke that will force his political opponents to take responsibility for rejecting the plan (and not just blame him for accepting it) or a signal, monstrous miscalculation that will have the EU rethinking its commitment to Greece.


  27. Yes, the referendum, I think, is meant to show the will of the people rather than an imposition by the PM and others in the government. It's probably meant to get them off the hot-seat.

    On Oct. 15 and at other protests, I thought many workers came out, not only public sector.

    The austerity plan is really terrible, calling for 15% wage cuts, laying off 30,000 public employees, etc. This is a brutal blow. There should be solidarity as there was in Wisconsin between different sectors of workers.

    No matter what, the financial crisis is hurting and will hurt many, not only public sector workers.

    I've read of awful situations among formerly middle-class Greeks, losing jobs, housing, sleeping in their cars. Of people who'd worked for decades being laid-off and not able to find any work at all, then worried about losing their housing, people even worried about food.