The Metaxas dictatorship

metaxas greece ιωαννης μεταξας νεολαια εον

The undisguised consent of the throne, but also of the British, allowed the Regime of the Fourth of August to establish itself in power as a dictatorship without meeting with serious resistance. Besides, the inertia of the two basic party blocs (Venizelist and anti-Venizelist politicians), in combination with the practices of immediate supression, eliminated any possible pocket of reaction. The Parliament was dissolved, the activity of political parties was prohibited and the opponents of the Regime were sent to exile.

By removing the latter from the political scene, Ioannis Metaxas established himself, despite his limited impact on a popular basis. His policy was characterized by authoritarianism but also the advancement of personality cult towards himself. Towards the end of the 1930s, the attempts at war preparation before the imminent war (equipment, integration to the British allies’ network) was especially preoccupying the vehicles of the Regime. The culmination of Italian provocation with the torpedoing of the warship Elli, in August 1940, demonstrated to the leadership of the country the inevitability of war.

The rejection by Ioannis Metaxas of the Italian ultimatum, on 28 October 1940, marked the involvement of the country in the swirl of a destructive war. The world -as it turned out- clash overthrew all the earlier socio-economic correlations of powers, the limits between political blocs, their character, the form of power exercise itself. In the middle of the next decade, the issues at stake but also their pretenders were completely transformed.

The Regime of the Fourth of August and the return to the past

From 4 August 1936, the dictatorial Regime established by Ioannis Metaxas imposed censorhsip and tried to put intellectual activity under its control. In the ideological field he adopted the cause of Greekness putting it in a framework of his own, that was matching nationalistic ideology, which he tended to establish. He endeavoured to combine in this way the return to tradition and classical Greek -mainly with references to ancient Sparta- civilization. Literary and artistic creation were not interupted. Many intellectuals, however, were persecuted, while others came to terms with the new situation, each in his personal manner. Some chose silence or defined their relation to politics, through the values they expressed in their literary output, while in some prose writers a tendency for escape from reality and reminiscence of the past is manifest. In this period the First Panhellenic Exhibition of Artists with one-sided participation was organized. At the same time the School of Fine Arts was reorganized and works in public buildings were assigned to Yorgos Gounaropoulos, Photis Kontoglou and Spyros Vasileiou.

The institutions of Metaxas’ Regime

The dictatorship of Metaxas, making the best of previous experience and institutional infrastructure, perfected the suppression mechanisms of the state (powerful police network, deportations of opponents, censorship etc.), only now the basic aim was not the “neutralization” of citizens, but their adherence to the ideology of the 4th of August Regime. This orientation was manifested with the abolition of legality of political parties, the prohibition of political life and the atmosphere of fear nurtured in the social body.

The attempt at establishing the “Third Hellenic Civilization” was favoured by the creation of mechanisms, such as the institutions of political culture founded by the Regime. In his anguished effort to attract to his side wider masses he created a wide propaganda mechanism, with main axis, the National Youth Organization (EON), that aimed at dragooning all the Greek youth. In addition, this basic attempt was corroborated by impressive public ceremonies, the systematic use of new technology (of radio), being adaptations of the dominant foreign Fascist models.

The Regime of the Fourth of August and society

The dictatorship of Metaxas made strong efforts to secure a wider popular support. The particularly, however, unequal distribution of income, caused the discontent of the city’s labour force, the majority of petit bourgeois and farmers, which was undisguisedly expressed against the Regime of the Fourth of August. It is characteristic that the purchasing power of the population in the period 1935-40, was lower than that of 1929. During the four-year dictatorship, the state mechanism, violently stripping political parties of their role as go-betweens, functioned exclusively as an independent political power. Various representative bodies (unions, professional associations, corporations etc.) were abolished or turned into vehicles of state policy. The systematic however suppression of every kind of activity, both in the public and private sphere, was obstructing more effectively than any other economic and social measure the manifestation of every gestation and popular outburst.

Respectively the Press, the newly established radio, large rallies were the exclusive means of contact of the Regime with the people. In this way the crystallization of discontent was prevented, as the contact of organized groups of the opposition with popular classes on a massive scale was prohibited. The function of political parties was banned and those considered opponents of the Regime suffered various persecutions: incarceration, torture, exile. Removing the latter from the political scene, Metaxas definitely prevailed, despite the fact of his limited appeal on a popular basis.

The rhetoric of Metaxas concerning society

The idiom in which the labour policy of the dicatorship was expressing itself demonstrates a mixture of various elements. The conjunction of social policy and racial vigour, became the basic motif of the Regime’s propaganda. The state, as Ioannis Metaxas frequently declared, in the context of the capitalist society of the 20th century, to fulfil its social mission had necessarily to become totalitarian. Basically, it did not aspire to the elimination of social division but to the manipulation of its expression, in order to abolish every social and political doubt. Besides, the social agitation translated in a form of rhetoric (being basically the pretext) of the imaginary “communist threat”, effectively nurtured these attempts.

The rhethoric towards the lower classes, which incorporated, transformed and presented their claims, was the basic tool of the Regime, used additionally as an alternative form of wiping out social vibrations. All these belonged to a coherent narration, which was accusing the (old) political parties that, because of their indifference for the labour class, they were equally responsible with Communism, for the pre-war social misery and its expoitation for subversive purposes.

The diplomatic orientation of the Regime of Ioannis Metaxas

Ioannis Metaxas, graduate of the War Academy of Berlin and supporter of the institution of monarchy, in the first phase of his career and until the early 1920s, was devoted to the idea of the military supremacy of Germany. In the period however that he undertook the governing of the country, Metaxas practised a traditional, moderate foreign policy, dictated by two factors. On the one hand, by the realistic estimation that the geostrategic position of Greece demanded her alignment with England. In addition, a significant factor in the mapping out of his policy was the support liberal Britain gave to his authoritarian Regime. In this choice the role of the Greek King George II must not be underestimated. On the other hand, trade ties and ideological affinity of the Regime of the Fourth of August with Nazist Germany allow students to express the view that the actual economic -among others- penetration of Germany, was much wider than it is apparent (percentage data in trade exchanges show a triple volume in favour of Germany).

From 1936 and until the outbreak of the Greco-Italian war of 1940, British-Greek relations went through various stages of strengthening climaxing all the time. The personal political motives of the Greek leadership were interwoven with rational criteria of evaluating the gravity of the international conjuncture (occupation of Ethiopia by Italy etc.). Metaxas was forced to abandon the policy of neutrality and gradually became part of the British-French network, the result being the definite breach in the relations between Athens and Rome.

The relations with Nazi Germany

The rapprochement of the National Socialist Germany with Greece was formulated mainly on two levels, in the form of Metaxas’ Regime and the development of trade exchanges between the two countries. It must be noted of course that the Greek-German contacts had a long tadition, especially in the field of culture (influences of classical Greece etc.).

In the field of trade, after 1935, Germany was developing to the most important partner of Greece, on the basis of older agreements of trade clearing. Berlin accepted with satisfaction the news of establishment of the Regime of the Fourth of August, which was anyway expected, since the new political situation allowed the Third Reich to hope for an expansion of the German weapons trade. The degree of economic dependence decreased only after 1939, when under pressure of the formulated axis Athens-London, the Greek-German trade exchanges were placed on a new basis. The increase of the provocations of Italian expansionism and the formation of the Italian-German axis, eliminated any dilemma for the orientation that the country had to follow. Thus, despite the economic ties and the ideological affinity with Nazist Germany, the political choices of Greece tended definitely -despite occasional waverings- towards Britain. After the declaration of the Second World War and the pressure of Britain, Greece signed a trade agreement restricting its exports to Germany in October 1939. It was the first serious violation of the Greek neutrality, which caused the anticipated strong German reaction. Already from the beginning of 1940, the active political and economic harnessing of Greece to British interests was taken for granted in the plans of the General Staff of the belligerent countries.

The events that led to the declaration of the Greek-Italian war

Following an extreme expansionist policy, in the spring of 1939, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia and the Italians Albania. The placatory stance that has been so far adopted by the western Powers (England, France) did not prove effective. Under this light, the official assurances of Italy, in April 1939, that the latter did not intend to undertake aggressive acts against Greece, understandingly did not convince the Greek political leadership. The British diplomacy, examining all possibilties -especially after its involvement in the war in September 1939- concluded that for military reasons it was to its advantage that Greece be placed outside the war zone. The one-sided though exit of Italy to war, on 10 June 1940, restructured once more balances in the Balkans.

In August 1940, Italian aggression against Greece escalated, with the torpedoing of the Greek warship “Elli”.

The British leadership notified -without specific commitments though- once more its support to the government and the people of Greece. In mid October 1940, the Italian General Staff had worked out, on the suggestion of Mussolini, a strategic plan for the possibilities of invading Greece. The definite date was fixed towards the end of October. The connection of Greece and its people with Britain was projected as the moral justification of the attempted design. When on 28 October, Ioannis Metaxas received -and rejected- the Italian ultimatum, he knew that Greece would be basically on its own in its military attempt to repel the Italian design. The course of the “Battle of Greece“, as it was called, had a disproportionately strong repercussion for the continuation of the international clash causing strong surprise among its enemies and allies.