Saturday, 28 October 2017

When Greece said ‘No’
and played its part
in saving democracy

The Greek flag flies beside the European flag and the flag of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Arkadi Monastery in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

Patrick Comerford

Today is Ohi Day or Oxi Day (Επέτειος του «'Οχι»), and it is celebrated throughout Greece and Cyprus and by Greek communities around the world on 28 October each year.

Ohi Day commemorates the day the Greek Prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected the ultimatum from the Italian Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini on 28 October 1940. This day also recalls the Greek counter-attack against invading Italian forces in the mountains of Pindus during World War II, and he Greek Resistance during the occupying Italians and Germans.

Mussolini’s ultimatum was presented to Metaxas by the Italian ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi, around 3 a.m. on the morning of 28 October 1940.

Mussolini demanded Greece would allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unnamed strategic locations – or face war. It is said Metaxas replied with a one-word laconic response: Όχι (No!).

Despite popular aside, the actual reply was in French: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre!’ (‘Then it is war!’)

In an immediate response to Metaxas’s ‘No’, Italian troops based in Albania attacked the Greek border two hours later at 5.30 a.m. That ‘No!’ brought Greece into World War II on the side of the Allies. Indeed, for a period, Greece was Britain’s only ally against Hitler.

Without that ‘No,’ some historians argue, World War II could have lasted much longer. One theory is that had Greece surrendered without any resistance, Hitler could have invaded Russia in the spring, rather than his disastrous attempt to capture it during winter.

On this morning 77 years ago, 28 October 1940, Greek people of all political persuasions took to the streets in masses, shouting «'Οχι», ‘No!’ From 1942, this day was celebrated as Ohi Day, first within the resistance and then after the war by all the Greeks.

The Battle of Crete and the extra resources required to subdue Greece drained and distracted Nazi Germany from its efforts on other war fronts.

Today, Ohi Day is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus. The events of 1940 are commemorated with military and student parades, public buildings are decorated with Greek flags, there folk dances, and Greek Orthodox churches hold special services. Coastal towns may have naval parades or other celebrations on the seafront. In Thessaloniki, reverence is also paid to the city’s patron, Saint Dimitrios, and the city celebrates its freedom from Turkey.

There are traffic delays, especially near parade routes, some streets are blocked off, and most archaeological sites are closed for the day, along with most businesses and services.

In Dublin, Ochi Day and the fallen will be marked at 11 a.m. tomorrow morning [Sunday 29 October 2017], during the Divine Liturgy in the Greek Orthodox Church, with the Greek Diplomatic Corps in attendance. This will be followed by a holiday banquet at the Mykonos Restaurant with Irish and Greek music.

In the West, politicians are always happy to credit ancient Greece with the development of democracy. But in the present crises in Europe, when Greece is often seen as a burden rather than a partner, it may be worth remembering that Europe owes modern Greece an unacknowledged debt for helping to preserve democracy against the Nazis and Fascists during World War II.

The Greek flag at the church in Tsesmes, near Rethymnon in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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