PETER FROST takes us back 70 years to a massacre by British soldiers in a square in Athens
On this day, 70 years ago, December 3 1944, a huge demonstration of communists, progressives and democrats in Syntagma Square in Athens was attacked by British soldiers.
This little-known massacre by British forces saw 28 protesters, mostly young boys and girls, shot dead and another 128 injured.
The orders for the bloodletting had come direct from Winston Churchill, who was determined to stop the advance of popular communist support in the Balkans.
A young Mikis Theodorakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek and became a legend as Greece’s best known composers, was one of the demonstrators in Syntagma Square.
In an ultimate symbolic demonstration of defiance the young Theodorakis daubed a huge Greek flag on the pavement using the blood of his fallen comrades.
This watershed in Greek politics would become known as Dekemvriana and the clashes would go on until January 11 1945. But they would shape Greek politics until the present day.
Indeed many believe they sowed the seeds that have seen the erergence of right-wing movements like today’s far-right Golden Dawn.
The 1944 conflict was the culmination of months of tension between the huge communist and other left-wing resistance movements which controlled most of Greece.
On the other side was the British-backed right-wing Greek government, which had returned from exile once the partisans of the resistance had driven out the nazi occupiers in October 1944.
Soviet forces were advancing across the Balkan states and being warmly welcomed by local people sick and tired of living under the nazi yoke.
That didn’t suit Churchill and the British generals. They panicked and decided that Greece should become the bulwark against the Soviet advance. Churchill planned to put the hated monarchy back on the throne to combat communist influence. The Dekemvriana was the opening salvo in that strategy.
The Western Allies reached Greece in October 1944, by which time the Germans were in full retreat and most of Greece’s territory had already been liberated by Greek partisans, many of them communists.
On October 13 British troops entered Athens, the only part of Greece still occupied by the nazis, and exiled prime minister Georgios Papandreou and his ministers followed six days later.
Churchill had ordered Sir Charles Wickham to Athens to head up new Greek security police force. Wickham had gained a harsh reputation for counterinsurgency heading the Royal Ulster Constabulary from 1922 to 1945.
At this point there was little to prevent a communist and left coalition from taking full control of the country. Indeed they already controlled the countryside and of most cities.
Greek communists were divided on what to do. Both Stalin and Tito offered advice to the Greek Communist Party (KKE).
Tito was outwardly loyal to Stalin but had come to power through his own means and believed that the communist Greeks should do the same.
Papandreou and the British head of the Allied forces in Greece, General Scobie, announced an ultimatum to take the weapons from all partisan guerilla forces by December 10.
Six KKE members resigned from their positions as ministers in the National Unity government. A general strike was called and a massive demonstration was organised for December 3.
On the day 200,000 people marched towards Syntagma Square, home of the parliament building.
They made a colourful picture carrying the flags of the wartime Allies – Greek, British and Soviet flags, even the Stars and Stripes fluttered in the breeze. Demonstrators shouted: “Viva Churchill, viva Roosevelt, viva Stalin.”
British tanks (below) along with local police units, units that had collaborated with the nazis and had now been issued with guns by the British, tried to block the way.
The huge march surged onward. These people had faced the rigours of a cruel nazi slavery, they were not going to bow down to another occupation – this time from the British nor the very same Greek police that had helped the hated nazis.
The shootings began when the marchers arrived at the tomb of the unknown soldier above Syntagma Square.
The first shots came from the general police headquarters, from the parliament building and from British forces firing from their headquarters in the Grande Bretagne hotel.
The battle escalated. Within days, RAF Spitfires and Beaufighters would be using machine guns to strafe leftist strongholds in and around Athens.
This fighting between Allied forces and an anti-German European resistance movement, while the war in Europe was still being fought, was a serious political problem for Churchill.
There were questions and protests in both the British press and the House of Commons.
Like some benevolent peace-keeping Santa, Churchill arrived in Athens on Christmas Day to try and calm the situation. He failed miserably but by early January the Dekemvriana ended with the defeat of the left.
By September 1947, the Communist Party had been outlawed. Twenty-thousand leftists were held and tortured in Greek camps and prisons with a further 40,000 exiled or held in British concentration camps across the Middle East.
It would lead to a sad post-war history for Greece, long celebrated as the cradle of democracy.
That history would include the 1946 civil war and then several fascist juntas, internment and torture for Greek progressives, Nato bases, military rule by fascist generals, as well as generations of CIA and British intelligence dirty tricks and direct military intervention.
This article first appeared in the Morning Star 3 December 2014