Seventy-five years ago this month, the Nazis were sweeping through Europe with frightening ease. The Nazi war machine seemed horrifyingly effective as country after country fell. This was the backdrop on the early morning of October 28, 1940 when the Axis forces requested a meeting with Greek Prime Minister Ioannas Metaxas. Surely, when the emissary for the Axis forces arrived in Greece to meet with Prime Minister Metaxas, one can only assume that they viewed their meeting with the Greek leader as a mere formality – that any sensible country would have witnessed the carnage brought upon Europe and would be desperate to avoid bringing that home at all costs.
The Axis’ agenda for the meeting was short. They came with only a simple demand: Greece must unconditionally surrender and allow the Axis forces unfettered use of strategic military sites or the Greek people would face war.
The Axis forces clearly underestimated the Greeks’ resolve. They did not understand that the same people who, just a decade earlier, had seen thousands of their friends, families, and neighbors slaughtered by the Ottoman Empire, would not sit idly by while a new menace terrorized a continent with unimaginable cruelty. Despite the Greeks having been war-weary people, Metaxas shocked the Axis powers by giving his now famous one word answer: “OXI!”
Perhaps it was precisely because the Greek people saw the Ottoman Empire perpetrate the first – and largely forgotten – genocide of the 20th century that Greece showed its resolve. Maybe it was Greece’s face-to-face confrontation with that level of evil just a few decades prior that made Prime Minister Metaxas make his decision to fight rather than allow that evil be directed elsewhere. While others in Europe chose to stay out of the conflict in hopes they would be spared, the Greeks willingly inserted themselves into the fray, costing hundreds of thousands of Greek lives but saving millions by continually stunting and stifling the Axis forces.
Greece’s refusal to aid and abet Axis saved countless lives as Greek forces fought heroically and prolonged the fight longer than anyone imagined, but Greece paid a terrible price as well, losing practically an entire generation of men and women. By war’s end, Greece lost 10% of its prewar population – one of the highest totals for any country during the fight.
As we remember OXI Day and the Greeks’ bravery, let us also remember the millions of Greeks who perished so that Adolf Hitler and he Nazis might be stopped.
The story of OXI Day, while well known to many Greeks across our community, is a lesson that more of America would do well to internalize. As we look around the world and see the troubling trend of rising anti-Semitism across the globe and the persecution of Orthodox Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East, we have two options: we can be filled with despair and lament that we are powerless to do anything to stop the work of evil men, or we can learn from the Greeks and say in a clear and strong voice that, no we will not tolerate this evil barbarity. We can band together and say, “OXI.”