Saturday, October 28, 2017

Greece Created Democracy, But Did You Know It Also Saved It?


Today, October 28th, is 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. 

Today’s holiday, “Oxi Day” (pronounced “O-hee” and meaning “no” in Greek), represents the moment in 1940 when Greece set in motion events ultimately saving democracy for the world.  As Adolph Hitler’s Chief of Staff later said, “The Greeks delayed by two or more vital months the German attack against Russia; if we did not have this long delay, the outcome of the war would have been different.”

“Oxi,” together with two other words uttered nearly two and a half centuries earlier by Spartan King Leonidas in response to Persian king Xerxes’ demand that the Spartans surrender their weapons—“Molon Labe” (pronounced mo-lone laveh), meaning “come and take them”—is all you need to know to understand how Greeks react to adversity.

Those three words represent the essence of the Greek will, and permeate their attitudes toward virtually all things.  Some say that leaves them open to manipulation by nationalistic political jingoists seeking to distract their attention from otherwise serious, underlying national problems and shortcomings…but what nation these days is free from that. 

Despite all the trials and tribulations endured by this nation of eleven million over the past near decade, and the certainty of more difficult times to come, to those of you who wonder if the Greek spirit will somehow throw in the towel—I simply say as I’ve said before, ‘NO.” 

King Leonidas I

And here’s how Oxi Day came to pass.

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 to participate in a major Greek Orthodox holiday, The Dormition of the Theotokos (Assumption of the Virgin Mary).  Without warning the Elle 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.


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. 

Ioannis Metaxa

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.

So today, as Greece struggles under different serious challenges, for those who seek to capture the extent of Greece’s national determination in a phrase, let me offer a quote from someone who understood as well as anyone on earth what the world once more owed to Greece: “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but Heroes fight like Greeks.”  Winston Churchill.

Xronia Polla, y’all.



  1. I am amazed at this story of a strong, courageous determined people resisting the horrible fascists, as I am each time I read it.

    All those losses and they rebuilt their country. What incredible sacrifices. I bet every family lost members -- for the good of the world, not only Greece.

    I wonder what one says to people from Greece on Oxi Day. I may walk over to my local pharmacy where all of the owners and staff are from Corfu, and say something.

    What is the proper way to memorialize this day? Or tell people you know about their sacrifice and resistance and are inspired by the Greek people?

    1. So true, Kathy, so true. In Greece there are parades by students--as shown above in the lead photo--and in larger cities by the military ... although on Mykonos, and I suspect elsewhere, local military units (including Coast Guard) will join the students. As for what to say, I think repeating your last line is perfect!

  2. I have to say that each year when I read about Oxi Day here or elsewhere online, as I have researched it further, I just tear up thinking about the resistance, strength and sacrifices of the Greek people.

    And I appreciate that it is mentioned here each year.

  3. I asked a young woman from Corfu about the proper term to say in Greece or to Greek people on Oxi Day.

    She said what is said in Greece is "Zeto!" meaning "Viva" or "Vive." It means "Long live" but she said it informally means, "Yes. We did it!"

    And she said that often people take off three to four days from work or school.

    It really is a big deal.