The Fascist hero who changed the course of History
“Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.” (Winston Churchill – 1941)
Ioannis Metaxas has been described by many as a fascist, a nationalist, a dictator, a patriot, a leader, and a hero. However, no matter the term one may use to describe him, Greek General and Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is, and will undoubtedly continue to be remembered as one of the greatest leaders in modern history. He is the man who forever changed the course of history.
Metaxas began his adult life as a career military officer, eventually making it to the position of Lieutenant General of the Hellenic Army. He successfully led the fought in the Greco Turkish war of 1897, the Balkan wars of 1912-1913, and in the Noemvriana confrontation against the Allies during World War I. He was also known for playing a large role in the modernizing and strengthening of Greek Army, which would eventually lead to much of why he is remembered as a hero to the world.
Metaxas was also a committed monarchist, and actively fought against the arising political powers in Greece. This led to his being exiled not once, but twice! He later founded the Ultra Nationalist Freethinkers Political party in 1922, but did not gain significant political ground until 1935 when Greece once again became a monarchy.
In 1936 Ioannis Metaxas was officially elected Prime Minister of Greece, where he would rule with an iron fist for the next 5 years. During his reign, Metaxas made it one of his top priorities to keep Greece out of World War II and remain neutral, as Germany was close trading partners with Greece. In addition, he wanted to stay away from war to spend most of his resources and efforts restoring Greece’s former glory.
All of this would change on October 28th, 1940 when Italian dictator Mussolini gave Greece an ultimatum and three hours to respond. Metaxas refused to give in to Italian demands for territory to set up military bases, and, responded with “Alors, c’est la guerre” (French for “Then it is war”). The Greek citizens then stormed the streets yelling “Oxi” (Greek for “No”) in regards to the Italians wanting to enter Greece. A few hours later Italian troops entered Greece from Albania. The Greeks fought with mercilessly, forcing the Italians to surrender and retreat back into Albania. The Allies later claimed that this victory was the deciding factor on who won World War II. If not for the Greeks pushing the Mussolini’s army back, the Axis surely would have won the war.
Ioannis Metaxas was born in Ithaca, Greece in April 12th, 1871 and died during while Prime Minister of Greece in January 29th, 1941. He spent much of his childhood on the Ionian island of Kefalonia, Greece, and always considered it his homeland. Likely inspired by the stories of the warriors in ancient Greece and during the Byzantine empire, he developed strong interest in the military, and enrolled in the Greek Military Academy. At the age of only 18 years old, he graduated at the top of his class for his strengths in both combat and strategy. After officially enrolling in the military immediately after, he quickly moved into the position of field officer. In 1897 he was given the opportunity to prove his abilities in the bloody, but short-lived Greco-Turkish war.
His superior abilities on the battlefield caught the attention of his Commander in Chief Prince Constantine I, who suggested he move to Berlin to study military science at the Prussian Military Academy. Once again, he demonstrated extraordinary intellect, and excelled in every single subject he attempted, ranging from complex applied sciences, such as mechanics and chemistry, to more scholarly subjects, such as art and literature, as well as the the more “typical” Ancient Greek subjects of philosophy and battle tactics.
By the time he graduated, his name was well known throughout the entire academy. During his time there, his professors had become so spellbound by his talents, that they would often make references to and compare him to the legendary General Helmut von Moltke, who acted as chief of the Prussian general staff and architect of victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
During the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, he was named assistant chief of the general staff and later chief of staff after the conclusion of the war. Around that time there had been an emerging conflict between the Pro-Axis supporting Monarchy powers and the new Ally-supported Venizelists. The armed conflict became known as the National Schism, and became a topic of controversy for years to come. Since the new government supported the Allies and voted to give aid to Serbia, most government officials of the Pro-German Monarchy, including Metaxas and now King Constantine I were exiled once Greece joined the allies in WW1.
After a bit of a turbulent beginning, Metaxas returned to Greece in 1920 and once again embarked on his political career. Meanwhile, during that time the Asia Minor Campaign, otherwise known as the Greco Turkish war, was in full effect. After the Ottoman defeat in World War 1, the British, as well as the rest of the Western European allies had promised the Greeks expansion into certain areas of Western Turkey that had majority Greek populations, as they had previously been part of the Ancient Greece and the Byzantine empire.
With support from the British, in 1919 the Venizelist-led Hellenic army had landed on the shores of Smyrna and expanded into areas of Western Anatolia and Thrace, where most the Greek-speaking communities lived. For the most part, the Greek army was met with open arms, as they were viewed as liberators. However, the Muslim Turkish populations in those areas opposed the Hellenic forces, considering them an invasion, and signaling the outbreak of a full-flegded war.
The first two years were very positive for the Greeks. The Greek Army made advancements into Anatolian territory. But back in Greece, a new government was elected and it called for a vote on the return of King Constantine, who along with Metaxas had previously been exiled. Their argument for this was primarily in regards to the King’s neutrality during World War I. The Western Allies however fought against this, arguing that the King Constantine’s pro-German views that would be considered a conflict of interest. They even threatened to cut off all financial and military aid if Constantine was once again crowned king. A month later, per the wishes of the people, Constantine (as well as Metaxas) returned to Greece.
This would mark the demise of the Greek army in the war, as the King fired off the Veteran officers who had fought in World War I under Venizelos, and assigned his own selection of vastly inexperienced monarchist officers. The remaining Venizelos officers, as well as the Venizelos supporting soldiers ended up quitting voluntarily, as they refused to give in to the new regime change. Additionally, the Allies dropped their support for the Greek enterprise. This would mark the beginning of the end for the Greek army, which began to experience the first defeats on Anatolian soil. From January 1921 onwards, the Greek forces were forced to retreat backwards. The war would end in 1922 with the Turkish devastation of the Greek-inhabited cities on the Eastern Aegean coast, and the expulsion of hundreds of thousands.
Even at the beginning of the war, Metaxas was openly opposed to the Asia Minor Campaign, because he foresaw the possibility of a disastrous outcome. Obviously, there was nothing either Constantine or Metaxas could do at the start of the war, as they were both still in exile. Even so, when Constantine was brought back to Greece, and once again crowned king, he still ignored Metaxas’ advice and continued the war with enthusiasm. Many people today are still dumbfounded by the fact that Constantine ignored a person he had such a high opinion of. If Constantine had listened to Metaxas, the Greeks likely would have at least kept control of the lands they had already occupied, since at that point in the war they had the upper hand. And thus, the Greek settlements that had been in Asia Minor for millennia would still be there.
Despite that, Metaxas decided not to take offense to it and instead focused his efforts on his political career. He re-joined the side of the monarchists and became well known among the party and its supporters. In 1922, eager to restore Greece’s former glory, and help them recover after their crushing defeat, Metaxas founded the far-right Freethinkers Party. The newly formed nationalist party focused primarily on traditional Ancient Greek and Byzantine ideals, authoritarian monarchism, as well as anti-communism, conservatism, and social liberalism. Due to his involvement in a failed royalist coup the very next year, he was once again forced into exile, but returned just a few months later.
At the beginning the party had a significant amount of support. During the first election in 1926, the party received nearly 15% of the vote and could claim 52 parliamentary seats. Metaxas became a prominent voice during the disorderly 2nd Hellenic Republic (1924-1935), which included the Great Depression. Most of the turmoil was a result of the crushing defeat in the Asia minor campaign, as well as ongoing clashes between the two political parties. The frustration of the people from people over the all the instability both in Greece and throughout the world was only adding fuel to the fire. Support for the Freethinkers party in subsequent elections dropped into the single digits, and soon became irrelevant.
The 1936 election was a bit more complex, and was full of twists and turns. The results of the election yielded a dead tie between the royalists and republicans. To further complicate things, neither could claim a majority in parliament. Because of the deadlock in parliament, King George II ended up calling the shots. Following the election, the King made the decision to appoint Metaxas to the position of Minister of War. Within just a couple of months the then Prime Minister of Greece, Konstantinos Demertzis died while in office. Without any delay at all, the King at once promoted Metaxas to Prime Minister, even though he and his party only won 4% of the vote in the general election. The ongoing violent protests by the KKE communist party were very troubling to King George II, who feared that a coup was not out of the realm of possibility. He deemed Metaxas the most qualified person to eliminate any chance of this actually happening.
Many Greeks will argue that this was one of the greatest measures in all modern-day Greece, with some even going as far as to call him “the Savior” of Greece. Others will argue that he was an egomaniacal fascist dictator who was nothing more than Greece’s version of Hitler. In response to the ongoing violent communist protests, Metaxas decided to take drastic measures to preserve order and safety of the people. And just as King Charles did in England in 1625, he dissolved Parliament in a self-coup (supported by King George II), and established an authoritarian dictatorship, with fascist-like tendencies on August 4th, 1936. Interestingly enough, it would be called the 4th of August Regime (Greek: Kathestós tis tetártis Avgoústou).
Metaxas immediately called state of emergency and declared martial law until law and order could be established. He also amended the constitution giving him more authority to rule, and established a military police system to crush any uprising and restore social order. Metaxas later announced “I have decided to hold all the power I need for saving Greece from the catastrophes which threaten her.” Metaxas then claimed absolute power and hired his own private cabinet consisting of members from small extreme political parties, and conservatives who would oversee maintaining strict social order.
While he would model much of his regime after that of Mussolini and Hitler, he did so to a much lesser degree, and therefore was able to stay in good terms with both the Allied and Axis powers for several years. In other words, his regime would fall slightly short of the true definition of fascism, but at the same time, it had many similarities. In addition, there were no death squads and or killings of Jews, Slavs, or homosexuals that would qualify his regime as Nazism. However, that is not to say that his regime did not carry some level of anti-Semitism and racial superiority. His goal was to lay the foundation for a ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’ to restore Greece’s glory back to that of ancient Greece and the Byzantine Empire of Alexander the Great. Within the country, his political policies modeled those of fascist Italy, but also had some similarities to the Nazi political policies as well.
Metaxas was always very energetic and enthusiastic about his rule. He deemed himself the “Leader”, “the First Father” and the “Savior of the Nation”. He implemented hundreds of social, industrial, administrative and economic reforms, mirrored after those of Mussolini. While he did consider Communists to be Greece’s largest enemy, his policies were largely that of socialism aimed primarily at the struggling lower classes. He dramatically modernized Greece’s economy, similar to the United States in the present day. For the first time in Greece’s history, employers were now required to provide holiday pay to all full-time workers. He also established rules for maternity leave to allow pregnant women to work without fear of losing their job if they do not promptly return to work after giving birth. Metaxas also put into place a universal 8-hour workday with opportunities for overtime. Mandatory paid vacation was also a creation of the August 4th regime in Greece. He also formed Greece’s first child labor laws and social security system, including the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA). As a devout Greek Orthodox Christian, Metaxas believed that Sundays were for Church and family, and therefore ordered all businesses to be closed, and established Sunday and the national day of rest. He also built numerous state funded child day care centers for working mothers.
Metaxas also focused on a full overhaul of state and national infrastructure. He modernized public transportation, build state of the art hospitals, improved the condition of the nation’s roads, as well as developing and upgrading drainage systems in flood prone areas. Industry and Agriculture exploded, and the economy greatly expanded. Although to achieve this he needed to keep peace and social order, which he did using a brutal police force which that often-inflicted violence upon anyone who was a suspected communist, or had negative attitudes towards the regime. There were numerous reports of communists being arrested, tortured, and imprisoned. They were then forced to renounce their views and confirm to Metaxism, or face exile from Greece. Unlike Nazi Germany however, there were no reports of murders of any sort.
While Metaxas can be credited with unifying many of the Greeks and improving their quality of life, he was still a borderline fascist dictator, and many of his policies show that as well. Although what separated him from a traditional fascist is that he still allowed the King to stay in power, and given his authority, he could have stripped Metaxas of his power at any time, but made the decision not to. The presence of a King is what allowed Greece to maintain positive relations with Britain and France. At the same time his top trading partners were in fact Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. And since he had spent much of his young life in Germany attending the military academy, he held a very Pro-German stance. For that reason, he decided to remain neutral once World War 2 began, so as not to damage relations with either the allies or axis powers.
He was also heavily influenced by Hitler and modeled much of the General message of his regime after that of the Nazis. He viewed the Greeks as superior to other races and nationalities because of their history, and for that reason he censored the media, installed mass propaganda, gave wild patriotic speeches, and had all school texts re-written to fit the regime’s ideology. He also promoted the use of the Roman/Nazi salute. All “anti-Greek” literature viewed as dangerous to the national interest, so he ordered mass book burnings from writers like as Goethe, Shaw and Freud, and several Greek writers. He even went as far as to prohibit Plato’s “Republic”, as being against traditional Greek ideology.
Per Metaxas, the glory days of Greece considered the ideologies of nationalism, superiority, militarism, anti interventionism, and anti-parliamentarism. Basically, he is saying that the Greeks are by nature very proud people who protect their own, without getting involved in the business of other’s, hence the non interventionism. At the same time, Greek history heavily focuses on warriors and various historical battles. Greeks also feel as if they are superior to other races and cultures since because of their rich history. At the same time, they also follow a concept known as Philotimo (Greek: φιλότιμο). The literal translation is “love of honor“. However, like many Greek words, Philotimo cannot be accurately translated, as it describes a concept that can encompass many virtues. Although to many it means hospitality. It means tolerance and generosity to those who are in need of help, no matter who they are, so as long as they are not causing trouble. Because of this, while the Metaxas administration did in fact feel superior to the Jewish population in Greece, as well as other small minorities, resulting from their extreme nationalism and Greek superiority views, they did not persecute those groups like the Nazis did, as persecuting them would be anti-Greek.
They also allowed them to practice their religion freely, and have a few small synagogues and other places of worship. And they would still treat them with respect. Still, when Metaxas created his EON Nazi-inspired youth groups, membership was only allowed if one was Greek and practiced Greek Orthodoxy. No other religions or nationalities were allowed. In addition, he made membership voluntary, as opposed to Hitler who required it. The motto of the organization was “One Nation, One King, One Leader, One Youth”, and focused on cultivating their nationalistic values and cooperative, prideful spirit.
While many who lived in Greece or know Greek history remember him for his policies, encouraging of pride and nationalism without harming others, and modernizing the Greek economy and infrastructure, he will forever be remembered for his key role in World War II. As stated in the aforementioned explanation, Metaxas felt it was best for Greece to stay neutral, as he was on good terms with both the Allies and Axis powers, and did not want to risk compromising trade with Nazi Germany. His pro Greek, defense only, anti-imperialism views prevented him from meddling in the business of others, even though both the allies and the Axis powers tried to convince Metaxas to fight on their side. Until the end of 1940, Greece stayed minding their own business. Then on August 28th, 1940, Mussolini contacted Metaxas and asked if he could occupy certain unnamed areas of Greece to set up strategic basis to fight the Allies. Metaxas denied his request and both countries went about their business for the next two months.
Then on October 28th, 1940 Mussolini sent Metaxas an ultimatum, which was handed directly to Metaxas by the Italian ambassador Emanuele Grazzi. However, instead of asking Metaxas like he had done two months prior, Mussolini stated in the ultimatum that the Italians either be granted permission to occupy these unnamed strategic locations, or Greece would face a war with Italy. The ultimatum stated that Greece had three hours to come up with a decision. Upon reading the letter, Metaxas immediately responded in loud, confident voice OXI! which means No! in Greek. He then followed it with the Italian phrase “Alors, c’est la guerre!”, meaning “Then it is war”. Two and a half hours later, before the ultimatum even expired, Italy invaded Greece from their bases in Albania. This would mark the beginning of the Greek involvement in WW2. Metaxas later announced “We shall be victorious! But for the Greeks, Glory is even more important than Victory”.
Just a couple of hours later when the Greek people woke up and heard the news, they stormed the streets throughout the country repeatedly chanting, “OXI! OXI! OXI!”. From 1942 on this has been celebrated publicly in Greece, and by allied governments around the world as “Oxi Day” or “No Day”. The Italians invaded with 140,000 troops, but within two weeks the Greeks stopped their progress just inside Greek territory, and pushed them back into Albania. In early 1941, the now reinforced Italian Army tried to invade Greece again, but the Greeks again fought back as hard as they could, forcing the Italians to again retreat into Albania by the middle of February. The Italians soon called on the Nazi forces to provide assistance, and on April 6th the Nazis launched a blitzkrieg on Greece from one front, while the Italians still tried to invade for a third time from Albania. Again, the Greeks pushed the Italians back into Albania on April 20th, 1941. The German Nazis however were able to break through the Greek forces and occupy Greece. They soon installed a puppet government and occupied Greece for the duration of the war.
Unfortunately, Ioannis Metaxas died in office before he saw Greece fall to the Germans. Some however still question whether foul play was involved in his very sudden death. Prior to this battle, known in Greece as the Greco-Italian war, the Axis powers were advancing quickly, sometimes up to 40 miles per day. Until Mussolini tried to invade Greece, the Axis powers at this point had not lost a single battle to the allies. The defeat of the Italians by the Greeks would in fact mark the first allied victory of World War II.
Another reason this is significant is because the ultimate goal of the Nazis and the allied forces was to pretty much walk right through the Mediterranean, and make their way over to Russia and defeat the soviets. They had it strategically timed out so that by the time they entered Moscow, they would do so before the worst part of the winter. In fact, Hitler’s plan was not even to go through Greece. The Italians were supposed to handle that. Unfortunately for them, the Greek defenses proved too much of a challenge, and the Nazis had to delay their schedule to come in and defeat the Greek forces.
In addition, Stalin’s army during this was completely unprepared to face the potential of a Nazi invasion. The Greeks held off and delayed the Axis forces just long enough where Stalin could prepare his Military forces, and ready the Soviet Union for battle. By the time the Nazis headed into Russia, they were nearly two months’ schedule, and as result they encountered and much well prepared Soviet defense, that could hold them off long enough to get caught in the peak of the Russian winter just outside of Moscow, and ultimately be defeated. If not for the Metaxas and the pride and warrior-like attitudes of the Greek soldiers, it is very possible that the Nazis would have won World War II.
Additional Notes and Important Quotes:
To this day multiple world leaders on both the Allied side, and the Axis side have praised the Greeks for their contributions in World War II. Even Hitler congratulated them, and called them his most worthy adversary of the entire war. The following list is a series of quotes by various world leaders on the heroism and warrior spirit of the Greeks in World War 2.
1. Franklin D. Roosevelt, US President 1933-1945:
“On the 28th October 1940 Greece was given a deadline of three hours to decide on war or peace but even if a three day or three week or three year were given, the response would have been the same.”
“The Greeks taught dignity throughout the centuries. When the entire world had lost hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of Freedom”.
“The heroic struggle of the Greek people…Against Germany’s attack, after she so thunderously defeated the Italians in their attempt to invade the Greek soil, filled the hearts of the American people with enthusiasm and moved their compassion.”
2. Winston Churchill:
“Until now we used to say that the Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say: The heroes fight like Greeks”.
(From a speech, he delivered from the BBC in the first days of the Greco Italian war).
3. Joseph Stalin:
“I am sorry because I am getting old and I shall not live long to thank the Greek People, whose resistance decided WWII”.
(From a speech of his broadcast by the Moscow radio station on 31 January 1943 after the victory of Stalingrad and the capitulation of German 6th Army Field Marshal Von Paulus).
“You fought unarmed and won, small against big. We owe you gratitude, because you gave us time to defend ourselves. As Russians and as people we thank you”.
(Moscow, Radio Station When Hitler attacked the U.S.S.R).
4. Adolf Hitler:
“For the sake of historical truth I must verify that only the Greeks, of all the adversaries who confronted us, fought with bold courage and highest disregard of death”.
(From speech, he delivered to Reichstag on May 1941)
5. Benito Mussolini:
“The war with Greece proved that nothing is firm in the military and that surprises always await us”.
(From speech, he delivered on 10/5/1941)
6. Sir Robert Antony Eden:
“Regardless of what the future historians shall say, what we can say now, is that Greece gave Mussolini an unforgettable lesson, that she was the motive for the revolution in Yugoslavia, that she held the Germans in the mainland and in Crete for six weeks, that she upset the chronological order of all German High Command’s plans and thus brought a general reversal of the entire course of the war and we won”.
Minister of war and the Exterior of Britain 1940-1945, Prime minister of Britain 1955-1957- Paraphrased from a speech of his to the British Parliament on 24/09/ 1942).
7. Charles de Gaulle:
“I am unable to give the proper breath of gratitude I feel for the heroic resistance of the People and the leaders of Greece”.
From a speech of his to the French Parliament after the end of WWII.
8. Maurice Schumann:
“Greece is the symbol of the tortured, bloodied but live Europe. Never a defeat was so honorable for those who suffered it”.
Minister of the exterior of France 1969-1973, member of the French Academy 1974.
(From a message of his he addressed from the BBC of London to the enslaved peoples of Europe on the 28 April 1941, the day Hitler occupied Athens)
9. Sir Harold Leofric George Alexander:
“It would not be exaggeration to say that Greece upset the plans of Germany in their entirety forcing her to postpone the attack on Russia for six weeks. We wonder what would have been the position of the Soviet Union without Greece”. (British Field Marshal during WWII- paraphrased from a speech of his to the British Parliament on 28th October 1941).
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