D-Day, for a great part of the world, is considered a pivotal event that changed the course of human history. Canada’s identity as a state distinct from the British Empire was reinforced; America emerged as a world-class power and the leader of the West, while the British realized that this was the beginning of the end of their empire.
Equally significant, the total defeat of Germany and the rise of the Soviet Union realigned the balance of power in Europe and throughout the world.
Yet for Greece and Greeks its celebration is barely noticed. Certainly, it is understandable; with the exception of one destroyer, Greek participation on the beaches of Normandy was nonexistent.
For many Greeks, the memories of 1944-1945 were and continue to be clouded with the brutality of the German occupation, followed by liberation that quickly transformed into an Uprising in December 1944, a period of White Terror in 1945 and then a three-year vicious civil war that has forever scarred the country and its people.
The Greeks paid a high price for remaining within the allied camp in 1940. They continued to do so by waging a relentless resistance movement against one of the most vicious and heartless occupation armies in modern warfare, which left a trail of destruction when it finally retreated. Indeed, the price was high in ways that are only becoming evident in the 21st Century.
The occupation destroyed the small middle class that had slowly emerged in Greece after the strain of: the Balkan Wars; the First World War; the great disaster of the Greek-Turkish war in 1922; the population exchange, which brought over one million refugees to a bankrupt country; coups and countercoups; dictatorship; and finally war.
Not only was the middle class almost wiped out, but the rest of the population also faced political divisions that made it almost impossible to find common civic values.
The left retreated onto to itself and for generations treated its opponents as enemies, rather than political rivals. The right followed suit and saw the left as traitors and enemies of the state.
Under such circumstances, the concept of constructing a civil society was not a priority – survival was the ultimate, and only, goal. The occupation and famine undermined the health of the Greek people and hundreds of thousands suffered from chronic diseases and premature death because their immune systems had been undermined by famine and malnutrition.
The dearth of political leadership, a plague that has walked ahead of Modern Greek history in the second half of the 20th Century, is a contributing factor to the malaise that has led to the country’s near failed-state status.
Juxtaposing the liberation of Athens and the liberation of Paris offers revealing insights into how countries can emerge from defeat and how others fall prey to civil strife.
In August 1944, General Charles de Gaulle entered liberated Paris and had to deal with the potential threat of a Communist uprising. The French Communists had played a key role in the liberation of the French capital and expected an equally significant role in the postwar French Government.
Instead of alienating the communists and risking civil war, de Gaulle thanked them for their service to the country and urged them to join the army.
When George Papandreou returned to Greece in October 1944, he adopted a completely opposite stance than de Gaulle. Papandreou, dominated by King George and the British, lacked de Gaulle’s independence and followed rather than led events in post-war Greece.
Papandreou was hostage to the coterie of advisers around the king, the various competing British agencies, the Venizelists, royalists, communists and the remnants of the Metaxas regime.
Almost from the moment of liberation, the Greek premier appeared to be doing the bidding of the British – an awkward image since the Greeks had had three years of German puppets. De Gaulle, throughout the occupation of France and to the frequent furry of his allies, remained an independent agent. He did not, however, have a king supported by the British to undermine him and the future of his country.
The rest, as they say, is history. The failure to establish a civil society and the chronic political divisions overlaid with endemic corruption – a byproduct of the absence of a civil society – has left Greece on the sidelines of the history of the Second World War. D-Day is celebrated by a major part of the world because it was a defining moment in history.
The Greeks continue to obscure their significant contribution to the allied victory in the Second World War. The Greeks paid a dear price by remaining loyal to their allies, but fewer and fewer people are aware of the Greek sacrifices.
The year 2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. It is an opportunity for Greece to make allies and former enemies know that the Greeks were instrumental in bringing about the liberation of Europe from the Nazi yolk.
(Andre Gerolymatos is Director of the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Centre for Hellenic Studies at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver)