Wednesday, 28 October 2020

When Greece said No
80 years ago today to
Fascism and oppression

The Greek flag flies with the EU flag and the flag of the Ecumenical Patriarch at Arkadi Monastery in Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Today marks 80 Years since ‘Oxi Day’ – the day on 28 October 1940 when Greece and Greeks said ‘No’ to Fascism and oppression. Oxi Day (Επέτειος του «'Οχι»), celebrated throughout Greece and Cyprus and by Greek communities around the world on 28 October each year.

Oxi 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 the Greek Resistance during the war to 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 strategic locations – or face war. It is said Metaxas replied with a one-word laconic response: Όχι (No!).

Putting popular myth aside, the actual reply was in French: ‘Alors, c’est la guerre!’ (‘Then it is war!’). The moment provides the background for a dramatic but humorous scene in the movie Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, set on the Ionian island of Kephallonia, making Oxi Day well-known around the world.

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 the following spring, rather than his disastrous attempt to capture it during winter.

On this morning 80 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 Oxi Day, first within the resistance and then after the war by all 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.

The Greek flag flying at the Monastery of Great Meteron in central Greece (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Those events 80 years ago 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 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.

This year’s commemorations have an added significance as Greece and Greeks around the world prepare for next year’s commemorations of the 200th anniversary of the beginning of the Greek War of Independence on 25 March 1821.

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

To mark today’s 80th anniversary of Oxi Day, the Hellenic Community of Ireland is organising an online event to mark the resistance of Greece to the Italian forces on 28 October 1940.

During this evening’s programme, the Greek poet and academic Dr Natasha Remoundou will read pieces from Nikos-Gavriil Pentzikis, Primo Levi and Hannah Ardent about that period. The historian Fergus D’Arcy will answer questions about World War II in Ireland. The president of the anti-war movement in Ireland, Mike Youlton, will explain the influence of that movement at that time. The scholar and former diplomat Paddy Sammon will talk about Irish neutrality.

In addition, Pantelis Goularas, Irish representative of the International Society of Friends Nikos Kazantzakis, will talk about Nikos Kazantzakis at that time, and David Howley will read poetry by Odysseas Elytis.

This programme will be broadcast live at 7:30 pm this evening (28 October 2020) on Facebook: https://fb.me/e/2XEYTEweD and on YouTube: https://youtu.be/9tjT2geQoaA

The Greek flag at the war memorial in the mountain village of Sellia in southern Crete (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

1 comment:

Stella Xenopoulou said...

Thank you so much Patrick for describing in this unique way the events of 28th October 1940 and the meaning of that day for Greeks. As Paddy Sammon said, the majority of Irish people visit Greece in the summer so they would not be around during October and they would not be aware of the celebrations. Thank you.