I was fifteen when I was taken to Kandanos. I had no idea of the history of that place, nor why I was being taken there. It was a cold, wintry day. The leaden clouds hung low in the sky, as if assailed by an unbearable burden that had seeped into the ground and was somehow dragging them down to it. When I entered the village for the first time, I was overwhelmed by an inexorable sense of dread and despondency. The hairs of my arms began to stand up as if they had been charged with electricity and I broke out into an uncontrollable sweat. I too felt as if I was being dragged, by cthonic forces I could not explain, into a tomb. Somehow, I knew that in this place, ineffably terrible things had taken place. It was a feeling that I would come to recognise again and again, upon subsequent visits to Kondomari in Crete, Kalavryta in the Peloponnese and Lingiades in Epirus yet I will never forget the first time I smelt the earth of a land steeped in bad blood.
…It is the massacre of Kandanos that encapsulates both the true significance and the magnitude of the horror of the Battle of Crete. Its destruction tells an all too terrible a tale of what can happen when people are dehumanised, either by an ideology or a society.
I didn’t need to be informed by my travelling companions that Kandanos had been completely razed and its inhabitants mercilessly slaughtered. Despite the reconstruction of the village and the prominently displayed eerie Wehrmacht signposts commemorating the destruction of the village at the local memorial, proclaiming: “Here stood Kandanos, destroyed in retribution for the murder of 25 German soldiers, never to be rebuilt again,” the sense of overwhelming brutality was and I imagine, still is palpable. It is right that this is so, for the destruction of Kandanos constitutes one of the most atrocious war crimes committed during the occupation of Crete by the Nazis in World War II.
Much is made during the month of May, of the Battle of Crete and the heroic resistance of the Cretan people against the Nazi forces. Lately, Australians have in the media, afforded increasingly greater prominence to the Battle of Crete as heroic ANZAC soldiers fought side by side with local Cretans, despite almost non-existent Allied planning, to provide Allied soldiers with enough time to evacuate the island. Rather than abandoning the Cretans to their fate, a considerable number of ANZAC soldiers remained behind to assist with the Cretan resistance. As a result, instead of being the expected proverbial walk in the park for Hitler, the airborne German invasion of Crete was a disaster, requiring the diversion of further troops and the application of extreme repressive measures in order to cower the local population.
In effect, Kandanos, which had been bombed during the first days of the Nazi attack, was punished for resisting invasion. Three days after the commencement of the battle of Crete, on 23 May 1941, the inhabitants of Kandanos confronted and fought against a motorised German detachment that sought to pass through the village. On the following day, they set an ambush for the advancing German troops of the 5th Gebirgs Division. Being vastly outnumbered, the locals were forced to retreat in the mountains and the Nazis continued their advance to the strategic location of Palaiochora.
By 31 May 1941, Crete surrendered and it was ostensibly all over for the Cretans. A legend was about to be born, one that synthesised the famed recalcitrance of the Cretans with their love of country, worship of freedom, deep sense of cultural identity, a unique sense of machismo and the ability to make the ultimate of sacrifices in order to preserve the aforementioned. Rather than be cowed by the numerical and logistical superiority of the Nazi forces, rather than being subjugated by their increasingly criminal reprisals, the Cretans refused to accept the violent occupation of their land. Extending guest friendship and protection to the few allied soldiers that remained behind, the Cretans fought on, sometimes with nothing more than their bare hands and they paid a terrible price for doing so.
For the Germans, steeped in their own perverted notions of military conduct and racial superiority could not view the resistance of the Cretans as a logical and necessary consequence of a people defending their homes from an invasion. According to them, only professional soldiers could be extended military courtesy and in effect, the locals were naught but pernicious vermin that had to be punished for having the temerity to resist and oppose the devastation and domination of their lands and, exterminated. Thus, temporary commander General Kurt Student issued an order for launching a wave of brutal reprisals against the local population, to be carried out rapidly by the same units who had been confronted by the locals.
Consequently, on 3 June 1941, a day after the execution of locals in the village of Kondomari, German troops from the III Battalion of the 1st Air Landing Assault Regiment, led by Oberleutnant Horst Trebes arrived in Kandanos. They slaughtered one hundred and eighty of its people and all their livestock, symbolic both of the manner in which for the Nazis, the Cretans were less than humans and the fact that despite their sense of cultural superiority, the Nazis descended to a level lower than that of a beast.. After its destruction, Kandanos was declared a ‘dead zone’ and its remaining population was forbidden to return to the village and rebuild it. They only did so, after the war was over.
For me, more than any gun toting, bandana wearing, heavily moustachioed Cretan, or the quite correct celebrations of the bonds between ANZAC’s and Cretans forged in battle and resistance, it is the massacre of Kandanos that encapsulates both the true significance and the magnitude of the horror of the Battle of Crete. Its destruction tells an all too terrible a tale of what can happen when people are dehumanised, either by an ideology or a society. Stripped of dignity, totally devoid of empathy or compassion, the murderous Germans considered the wholesale massacre of innocents a completely ordinary consequence of their opposition to their overlord’s violent appropriation of them, and thus, were able to kill them without the slightest bit of hesitation. Sadly, this is a scenario repeated again and again throughout Greece and Europe during the war and it appears from subsequent conflicts that the world has learned nothing from the grievous fate of Kandanos, nullifying its sacrifice.
This is ever more so because despite being captured by the British after the war and coming before a military tribunal in order to answer charges of mistreatment and murder of prisoners of war by his forces in Crete, General Karl Student was never extradited to Greece, the Allies refusing Greece’s request for him to be tried by the nation he so blighted. Instead, the unspeakable Student was found guilty of three out of eight charges and sentenced to five years in prison. However, he was given a medical discharge and was released in 1948. It goes without saying that Student was never tried for crimes against Cretan civilians and one must ask whether this was because the Allies, despite the protection and Cretan lives lost in order to preserve their soldiers from harm, saw the Greek people through the same dehumanising lens as those who perpetrated the genocidal crime at Kandanos or at least saw it as of less consequence than the London Blitz. Many other perpetrators of similar crimes in Greece also remained unpunished, on occasion, Greece being threatened by the emerging West Germany with economic or other sanctions if she continued to press for claims of justice.
In fact it could be argued that Kandanos is but a mere strand in a longer thread of genocide crimes in which Germans had active involvement, either inplanning, aiding or abetting, including that of the Herero and Namaqua peoples of Namibia between 1904 and 1907, and the Assyrian, Armenian and Greek genocides, where the forced reolcation of Christians from strategic areas and the death marches were carried out with German complicity. The highest-ranking member of Germany’s military mission to Turkey, General Bronsart von Schellendorf, for example directly issued orders for the round up and deportation of Armenians. Crimes of this nature remained unpunished and it is precisely for this reason that in the Second World War, Nazi military leaders felt unrestrained both by the force of the law or the morals of humanity in perpetrating them again and again, especially in Crete.
Kandanos therefore remains as a poignant memoir of the futility of conflict and the precarious nature of human existence. The resistance of its inhabitants did not stop the occupation of Crete, just as Kandanos’ destruction did nothing to halt the Cretan resistance. What it does do, is to endure as a stark reminder that we must seek out and actively condemn all crimes of racial violence, wherever and whenever these occur, making sure that the perpetrators are truly punished so that the aforementioned crimes are never committed. Sleep easy victims of Kandanos. The earth continues to rail against the depravities visited upon you and will continue to do so as long as the world endures.