The triple occupation at the hands of the Nazis, Fascist Italians and Bulgarians started in April 1942, and by the time German troops surrendered on Crete in June of 1945, over 300,000 people had died from starvation alone. Occupying forces executed some 70,000 Greeks, while a further 60,000 Greek Jews perished in the death camps of Auschwitz and Treblinka, killing off 91% of the large Sephardic population of Thessaloniki.
The war for Greece began in October 1940 with an unsuccessful invasion by Fascist Italy, which was repelled into the Italian protectorate of Albania. However, on 6 April 1941 Operation Marita commenced and German forces opened a second front, attacking via Bulgaria. Greek forces, supported by British and Antipodeans, mounted a spirited defence but were eventually overrun, with Athens falling on 27 April and the occupation being completed with the capture of Crete in June that year.
As elsewhere in Europe, the occupying forces installed a collaborationist government known as the Hellenic State (1941-1944), the first Prime Minister of which was the military officer Georgios Tsolakoglou. Many ordinary Greeks also supported the Axis forces, with over 20,000 Greeks serving in numerous battalions and reporting to the orders of Walter Schimana, the senior SS official in Greece. Some were ideologically pro-Nazi, some were motivated by anti- communism, while others were motivated by opportunities for financial gain, by becoming public officials or by appropriating Jewish wealth.
The conditions under occupation were harsh with the wholesale economic rearrangement of the country. Private companies were transferred to German ownership and industry and production made completely subservient to the needs of the Axis powers. However, the deadliest result of occupation was the mass starvation that resulted from the destruction of nearly 900 villages and the theft of agricultural produce to feed the Wehrmacht, killing 40,000 in Athens alone.
The brutality of the occupation contributed to the growth of one the strongest resistance movements anywhere in occupied Europe. Acts of resistance occurred immediately following the invasion, though more structured resistance forces emerged in the remote mountain regions of Greece and Yugoslavia in the months that followed. The largest nation-wide resistance organisations was EAM Ethniko Apeleutherotiko Metopo (National Liberation Front - EAM), controlled by the Greek Communist Party, and its military branch ELAS Ellinikos Laikos Apeleutherotikos (Greek People’s Liberation Army - ELAS) which became an effective guerrilla force. The next largest was the republican EDES Ethnikos Democratikos Ellinikos Syndesmos (National Democratic Greek League - EDES ) followed by the 5/42 Regiment of Evzones under the control of the liberal democratic EKKA Ethniki Kai Koinoniki Apeleutherosi (National and Social Liberation - EKKA).
In addition to these major national organisations were a plethora of smaller urban resistance groups, such as the Panellínios Énosis Agonizómenon Néon (Panhellenic Union of Fighting Youths). The group, centred mainly in Athens and Piraeus, published newspapers and in 1942 blew up the headquarters of both the pro-Nazi Organisation of the National Forces of Greece and the Hellenic Socialist Patriotic Organization.
Unfortunately, the Greek resistance movement was deeply divided along pre-war political lines, and by visions of a postwar Greece. The result was a damaging civil conflict between the communist led EAM/ELAS and republican resistance organisations. However, in July 1943 an agreement was signed between EAM/ELAS, EDES and EKKA to join forces under the Allied Middle East High Command.
While deep distrust and division between various groups remained throughout the war the Greek resistance, aided by British Special Operations Executive, achieved some of the most iconic acts of wartime resistance, including the blowing up of the Gorgopotamos railway bridge in November 1942 and the Battle of Fardykambos, fought between the EAM/ELAS and the Italian army in May 1943.
Despite these heroic victories, tensions and political differences spilled over into violence in 1944. Following the German withdrawal from mainland Greece in October, the government-in-exile returned to take control with the support of the British. The most controversial issue was the disarmament and disbandment of the armed resistance organisations. On 3 December a pro-EAM demonstration in Athens was fired upon by the police, killing 33 and injuring 150. It marked the start of 33 days of fighting in Athens between EAM/ELAS supporters and a coalition of British troops and pro-government forces. Motivated by a fear of a communist Greece, then accepted as part of Britain’s ‘sphere of influence’, Winston Churchill was determined to destroy the EAM both militarily and politically. The ELAS were successfully driven out of Athens and signed a truce that included their complete disarmament. However, the events of December 1944 proved to be just a precursor to the Civil War that subsequently erupted in 1946.