I went to London recently to a series of short talks at the Hellenic Centre in Paddington Street. The talks were about Greece in World War Two and the speakers all gave an interesting talk on their specila subject. But the one that stayed with me most was given by Dr Violetta Hionidou who had come down specially from Newcastle University where she is a Senior Lecturer on Modern European History to speak about the Great Famine in Greece.
My Greek mother married my English father in April 1941 and just escaped in time so the full horrors of the Nazi Occupation were only known second hand to our family. They fled to Egypt and I was born there and there was no rationing or shortage that I knew of. It was a pleasant enough life for my mother at any rate. But in Thessaloniki, one of her dearest cousins died of tuberculosis brought about by the harsh conditions they all had to endure over there. Their mother had to sell many precious family objects to the Germans (for useless occupation money) in order to get something for her family of six. The eldest cousin, handsome Costas, was killed in the earlier war with the Italians. My grandmother in Athens actually fared a little better as she had a large two storey house and a German Officer was billeted there. He was a kind and decent man and often shared food with her which she secretly passed on to friends.
How they all survived I have no idea. Macedonia and Thrace was ministered by the Bulgarians while the Italians controlled most of the mainland areas and the islands. The Germans occupied Thessaloniki, Athens, Crete and important strategic outposts. Though the Nazi ideal was to emulate the conquests of the Ancient Romans, they certainly did not follow their more intelligent and benign method of ruling conquered territories. The Romans mainly left each country to carry on with self rule under a governor appointed by Rome, yielding tribute in taxes and so on. The Nazi style was to subjugate all conquered territories to the feeding and welfare of Germany and Italy (under Mussolini) and this meant plunder of all the food, machinery and priceless art and other objects. There is such a greed in this that it is almost unbelievable.
Here I quote from a letter from Herman Goering when writing to the military commanders in the occupied territories on 6 August 1942:
…This continual concern for the aliens must come to an end once and for all… I could not care less when you say that people under your administration are dying of hunger. Let them perish so long as no German starves.
Thousands of Greeks died during the famine, the streets of Athens were so littered with dead bodies, many of them soldiers who had returned from the war with Italy (in Albania) but could find no work. Children were pot bellied with malnutrition and starvation. It was so common a sight that in the end people just passed by the dying unfortunates and hurried on. Some of the images Violetta showed us were so disturbing, they were tragic. What possessed the world at that time? What possessed a small group of madmen to behave in this callous, inhuman way towards the rest of humanity? However, it has to be said that even the Allies played a part in this Greek crisis by enforcing a blockade (their one weapon against the Nazis but a weapon that meant more suffering for the Greeks) so that no foodstuffs were able to reach Greece which had always relied upon its imports. .
Amazingly people managed on a black market system. Some worked their smallholdings and had better yields during that period than ever before because they knew that their survival depended on it. They worked harder than usual and allowed no laziness as before. Then they sold their excess and survived on this. People can be surprisingly resourceful and cunning.
If you want to know more about this time in Greek history, read Dr Violetta Hionidou’s book Famine and Death in Occupied Greece. it is shocking reading but let us pray it never happens again. The Greeks are once more being forced into starvation and privation but it’s pointless to say who is at fault. If the Greeks wanted to be in the EU it’s as much because they felt they deserved a share of the good things that seemed to be going around. That was a humiliating mistake they now are sadly paying for but they will rise again. Even Hitler admitted that the Greeks were the bravest race his armies had to try and subjugate. But this very bravery led to their being the most persecuted besides the Jews.