On 18 October, as the Germans were still desperately trying to evacuate Thessaloniki, Papandreou entered Athens to establish the prearranged ‘National Liberty’ government, only to find the economic, social and political situation in total free fall. Hyperinflation and rampant unemployment due to a wrecked economy had to be curbed. The lives of Greek citizens had to be rebuilt from ruinous subjugation. The four-way tensions between the political right and left were stretched beyond breaking point.
What was desperately needed was the reestablishment of both a regular army and central political control. However, the sticking point was the disarmament of the Greek resistance groups, particularly communist E.L.A.S.. Having fought off the Germans and rival resistance groups, E.A.M. and its militant arm E.L.A.S. were entirely unwilling to relinquish their de facto power, especially now that they also had representation in government. Political wrangling ensued but resignations and cabinet reshuffles did little to contain the situation.
It all came to a head on the 1st of December when Papandreou decreed that all Greek resistance groups must disarm, save for the 3rd Greek Mountain Brigade and the Sacred Regiment, both of which were loyal to his ‘National Unity’ government. The decree included the proviso that some E.L.A.S. and E.D.E.S. fighters would remain armed until the Germans on Crete and Rhodes were finally expunged. A third group called the ‘X’ Organisation (Chites) were ultra-right monarchists who also supported the government and seemed unlikely to be disarmed. Among other things, E.A.M. accused the ‘X’ Organisation of being Nazi collaborators and six of its ministers resigned their cabinet posts as a protest against the decree.
On the 3rd, a general strike organised by E.A.M. was held in Athens, despite the government retracting their initial permission. It deteriorated into what is now called ‘the December events’ (Dekemvriana) when shots were fired as the demonstrators approached the ‘Tomb of the Unknown Soldier’ at the foot of Parliament at Constitution Square (Syntagma). Although later denied, it was undoubtedly one of the sharp shooters the police had deployed around the Square who had fired first. Nearly 30 citizens were gunned down and up to 150 others wounded. One policeman was also said to have been killed.
On the 4th of December, E.L.A.S. fighters made an early morning move on the ‘X’ Organisation. It responded by attacking an E.A.M. funeral held later on the same day. As many as 100 were killed. All-out street-to-street fighting erupted within hours. The police were said to have killed indiscriminately from positions on rooftops they maintained for days, while a vicious campaign of vendettas carried out by factions on both sides resulted in summary executions and murder.
Papandreou resigned in the mayhem, later to be replaced by Themistoklis Sofoulis. At 4:50 hrs on 5 December, Churchill dispatched a telegram to Scobie which included the following; “You are responsible for maintaining order in Athens and for neutralising or destroying all E.A.M./E.L.A.S. bands approaching the city. We have to hold and dominate Athens. It would be a great thing for you to succeed in this without bloodshed if possible, but also with bloodshed if necessary.”
Churchill’s “Don’t hesitate to shoot” policy (he uses these actual words to retrospectively analyse his own thinking at the time) meant that the gloves were decidedly off. British troops supported by M4 Sherman tanks moved in on the city centre on the 6th of December. The headquarters of the E.A.M. and K.K.E. (the Communist Party of Greece) were stormed and seized. The R.A.F. flew missions against E.L.A.S. machine gun positions in buildings and on rooftops while the Shermans fired their 75mm shells into enemy strongholds. An all-out pitched battle for the nation’s capital had begun.
Despite the heavy weapons, the British found themselves hopelessly outnumbered. Within a week, the communists had overrun most of the Athens and Piraeus. Desperate, the British had the Red Eagle Division of the Indian army flown in from Italy. It also had the R.A.F. stationed in airfields around Athens bolstered. British warships were deployed to all the major ports. On the 15th of December, orders were given to the Royal Navy for the evacuation of E.D.E.S. troops and their civilian supporters from Kalamai. Kavallo, Preveza, Volos and the Ionian islands to avoid victimisation and bloodshed.
With their ammunition expended and the possibility of relief still four hours away, Scobie’s headquarters in Kifisia in the northern Athens suburbs fell to E.L.A.S. on the 19th December. Scobie issued an ultimatum the following day by way of dropping leaflets all over the city; if the E.L.A.S. did not capitulate, he would use all forces at his command to put down the fighting. Presumably, this included the destruction of entire suburbs by Royal Navy bombardment and/or Allied heavy bombers. While this threat did alleviate the situation in the centre to some degree, it did nothing to quell the violence in Piraeus and other areas.
On Christmas day, Churchill himself arrived in Athens in a bid to defuse the impossible situation. But even as he prepared to mediate a conference between representatives of the warring parties at the Grande Bretagne Hotel in the heart of Athens, an E.A.M./E.L.A.S. assassination plot was uncovered. The communists had planted three-quarters of a ton of German explosives – all fully packed and fused – in the sewage pipes under Constitution Square with the intention of blowing the building and the conference to kingdom come.
Nonetheless, the mediation did take place on the H.M.S. Ajax, moored safely out of the city at Phaliro. With E.A.M. demands in exchange for disarmament being seen as unreasonable, the only tangible outcome after three days of discussion was that a Regent should be installed to head the Hellenic State until the issue of the King’s return could be resolved. Archbishop Damaskinos was famed for pleading clemency for the Jews to the German Command during the occupation while having the Orthodox priesthood ask their congregations hide Jews from Nazi persecution. He was therefore regarded by all sides as a man above the devious nature of politics. To the relief of many, he was appointed Regent on the very last day of 1944.
Fighting in Athens finally died down by the 5th of January as E.L.A.S. began a general withdrawal out of Athens and back into its rural strongholds. A reprieve was achieved with the Treaty of Varkiza, signed on the 12th of February 1945 between E.A.M. and the Sofoulis government. It offered amnesty for those who fought against the Germans, irrespective of their political beliefs, in exchange for disarmament. It therefore neutralised E.L.A.S. and severely weakened the E.A.M. in favour of the K.K.E..
War, however, inevitably ends in recrimination. As the Treaty of Varkiza excluded amnesty for non-political criminal offenses, many former E.L.A.S. who had participated in wartime atrocities or ‘the December events’ unexpectedly found themselves classified as outlaws. So began the campaign of ‘White Terror’ prosecutions during which the ‘X’ Organisation played a major role. Adding fuel to the fire was the fact that prosecutions against the Nazi collaborators (often carried out by former collaborationist judges) were seen as being unfairly light compared to prosecutions against the communists.
Instead of rebuilding the country after the ravages that had been beset upon it, Greece’s internal strife continued with a vengeance. Shortly after the K.K.E. boycotted 31 March 1946 general election in protest, the civil war erupted again. It would eventually end with the remnants of E.L.A.S./E.A.M. taking to the mountains and escaping into Albania.
The results of a referendum held on the 1st September 1946 were in favour of the monarchy. Therefore, George II returned to Athens on the 26th September 1946, only to find his palace and birth place at Tatoi not accidentally bombed by the Allies, but ransacked by the mob. Needless to say, his country was in utter disarray. He died on the 1st of April 1947 – the significance of the date not being lost on some Greek cynics as a poor joke – with the civil war still raging all around.
British efforts to keep Greece politically stable during the war and in its aftermath had come at no small cost them, most especially in terms of life and limb. Certainly, the British economy had been ruined by all the expenditures of war. Accordingly, its prominence in the postwar world waned rapidly. It lost Jordon, Pakistan and India to independence in 1947, Burma (Myanmar), Sri Lanka to independence in 1948 and Israel to a United Nations resolution in the same year. The burden of sponsoring the Greek government while the country was still embroiled in the civil war fell to America and its seemingly endless resources.
Finally declared over by the last communist radio broadcast on the 16th of October 1949, the civil war had lasted five years – again almost to the day. However, countless were left dead or wounded in its wake. The entire population had suffered adversity and loss as it had pitted neighbour against neighbour and friend against friend – all in the name of inalienable political belief. In doing so, it had literally torn the country apart from deep within. To add insult to injury, it also irrevocably crippled the country’s postwar recovery by many decades. In retrospect, it seems an altogether sad end to an even sadder tale. In other words, a veritable Greek tragedy.