The persecution of minorities
Although the nationalist discourse of the 4th of August regime did not contain any aggressive or imperialistic resonance towards neighbouring countries, it did have a strong supremacist rhetoric concerning minorities in Greece, and most ethnic and religious minorities underwent hardships under Metaxas’ rule.
For Greek minorities such as of Slavs, Chams, Pomaks, Vlachs and Jews, the period of Metaxas was marked by forced assimilation, yet the degree varied depending on each minority. While the 4th of August regime tried to impose upon the minorities living in Greece a ‘Greek national consciousness’, in contrast to some other authoritarian regimes, no mass killings were ever executed and there is no evidence that any were ever planned.
The Metaxas dictatorship was especially brutal in its treatment of the Slavic speakers of Macedonia in Northern Greece, who by then had begun to identify themselves as Bulgarians and many of them had irredentist claims. On December 18, 1936, a legal act was issued concerning “Activities against State Security”, which punished claims of minority rights. On the basis of this act, a reign of terror began and thousands of Macedonians were arrested, jailed, sent to internal exile (“Exoria”) on arid, inhospitable Greek islands, or directly expelled from Greece.
On September 7, 1938, the legal act 2366 was passed. This law banned the use of the Slavic language in Greece, even in the domestic sphere. To enforce the law, Slavic-speaking localities were flooded with posters saying “Speak Greek”, evening schools were opened in which slavophone adults were taught Greek and Slavic-speaking schools were no longer permitted.
In general, any public manifestation of Slavic or Bulgarian national feeling and its outward expression through language, songs or dance was forbidden and severely punished. People who spoke Slavic were beaten, fined or imprisoned and slavophones were ill-treated during their military service. Some disputable sources claim that punishments in some areas included piercing of the tongue with a needle and cutting off a part of the ear for every Slavic word spoken, but this has never been confirmed officially.
In an attempt to suppress all kinds of expressions of Slavic cultural distinctiveness, Slavic inscriptions in churches were plastered over and the names of Slavic villages in the area were changed, although this process had begun decades before, since 1914, and had occurred much earlier, in the 19th century, in the South, where placenames of medieval Slavic origin had been changed into Greek names (some say restoring the original, ancient Hellenic names). The situation for many Slav-speakers became unbearable and many chose to flee their homes and migrated to the United States, Canada and Australia.
Meanwhile the Chams, the Albanian-speaking Muslim minority of Epirus in North-Western Greece, were also a victim of the 4th of August’s harsh measures towards minorities. Metaxas was firmly opposed to them due to their irredentist tendencies towards Albania, and like other Greek leaders before him, he did not consider the Chams as trustworthy citizens of the Hellenic state. For these reasons, Metaxas made administrative changes and put Chameria under full surveillance inside a new military zone with restricted access called EZ (Epitiroumeni Zoni), and moved the capital from Filiates (which was located beyond the river Kalam and near the Greek-Albanian border) to Igoumenitsa, a more ethnic Greek town.
One of the biggest impacts of the Metaxas regime in the Chams was related to real estate ownership. In order to allocate a part of the ethnic Greek refugees who had arrived to Greece after the 1922 catastrophe, Metaxas passed laws assigning ownership rights of many properties in Epirus to the Christian Orthodox refugees coming from Asia Minor, infuriating many Cham owners who claimed these assignations were unlawful. Chams also complained that Metaxas wanted to change the ethnic makeup of Epirus by populating the region with thousands of ethnic Greeks.
On the other hand, Metaxas anticipated an Italian attack from Mussolini’s protectorate in Albania, and as the Italian moves in Albania hinting to an attack against Greece were more visible, Metaxas’ distrust in the Cham population grew. Two months before the Greco-Italian war, the government in Athens ordered to detain all males from 16-70 years (over 5,000 men according to Cham sources), imprisoned them and took them to remote Aegean islands.
Additionally, at the onset of the Greco-Italian war, the Greek government made a prompt move to behead the Chams’ leadership. The Asfaleia, the Greek political policy leaded by the formidably efficient Maniadakis, located and isolated key personalities among the Chams, and Albanian leaders in every community of Chameria and every Muslim village were arrested.
Further discriminations followed the outbreak of the Greek-Italian war. During the conflict, the ethnic Cham soldiers who served in the Greek Army were not given weapons to fight the Italian occupiers, but instead were used in the rearguard as labor force to build bridges and roads. This kind of discrimination was not new for Chams in the Greek military – in earlier years, Cham lads were called to military service just like the rest of Greeks, but they were kept in separate wards and in services which did not involve use of weapons.
The actions of the Metaxas government to the detriment of Cham Albanians were always justified on the presumption that Chams would be collaborators of the Italians in an attempt to separate Chameria from Greece in order to join a Greater Albania. These suspicions revealed themselves as true when, during the Axis occupation of Greece, many Chams did join the Italian-sponsored Muslim Albanian battalions. On retaliation for the Chams’ collaboration with the Axis occupiers, post-war Greece expelled thousands of Albanian Muslims and the Epirus region was finally ethnically cleansed.
Like the Chams, Metaxas abhorred the irredentist factions of the Pomaks of North-Eastern Greece (consisting of slavophones of Muslim faith living in Thrace, near the Turkish border), and many of them underwent political persecution due to their advocacy of Muslim religious rights and their irredentism towards Turkey. In order to be kept under Greek military control, the Pomaks were also caged inside the EZ military surveillance zone, since this strip of land, which ran along Greece’s northern border, also included Thrace, where the Pomaks lived.
On the contrary, the regime was more benevolent towards Greek Vlachs, who had often expressed a genuine ‘Greek national consciousness’. Despite their characteristic Latin-based language, the majority of Vlachs also spoke Greek, were Christian Orthodox and considered themselves Greeks and had no irredentist agendas, so they enjoyed their lifes practically undisturbed by the 4th of August state. Like the Vlachs, the Arvanite Greeks, another well-integrated minority, also identified with the Greek state and like the Vlachs, went to fight ferociously for Greece on the Greco-Italian war together with their compatriots.
The Metaxas regime was also relatively tolerant to the Greek Jews, repealing the anti-Semitic laws of previous Greek governments. However, the 4th of August state had different stances on the two Jewish populations of Greece: the Romaniote Jews, who had lived in Greece for more than 2000 years and were well integrated into Greek society, and the Sephardic Jews, who had come from Spain and lived in the city of Thessaloniki which was annexed by Greece in 1913 and hardly spoke Greek.
Metaxas respected the Romaniote Jews (it helped that they were largely opposed to Venizelism, because former prime minister Venizelos was anti-Semitic) but he resented the Sephardic Jews and the 4th of August regime issued a wealth of anti-Semitic propaganda. Books from German anti-Semitic authors were translated and published during the Metaxas dictatorship, and there were anti-Semitic calls in official outlets of the Greek state like ‘H Neolaia’ or ‘To Neon Kratos‘. However, none of these anti-Semitic stances were put into action in practice in any way similar to Nazi Germany.
Although Metaxas wasn’t blatantly anti-Semitic, he nevertheless did not consider either group, Romaniote and Sephardic, to belong to the Greek ethnos, and in fact Jews were forbidden to enter the National Youth Organization EON, as it was a ‘Christians-only’ organization. The same prohibition applied to the young members of the Pomaks, the Muslim minority living on the border with Bulgaria and Turkey.
– Andreas Markessinis