Today, October 28, marks the anniversary of one of the most important days in the history of the world, yet few people remember it’s significance. But the Greeks do, and they celebrate OXI day, every year.
The day was October 28, 1940. At dawn that morning (4:00am), after a party in the German embassy in Athens, Mussolini (through Emanuele Grazzi, the Italian ambassador in Greece) issued an ultimatum to Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas to surrender, or face open war with Italy.
Metaxas, a career military officer and more importantly a proud Greek, was not inclined to acquiesce to Mussolini’s demands (surprise!), thus touching off the beginning of the Greco-Italian War and a series of unbelievable events that would eventually neutralize Italy, cripple Germany, and cost 1,000,000 Greek lives.
The Video Montage
Here is the story of Greek resistance as told through a short video. Heroic, yet sad.
For the Record
What happened next was nicely summed up by Congressman Mike Bilirakis (R-FL), Co-chair of the Congressional Caucus on Hellenic Issues, in a special order speech on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives to commemorate the anniversary of OXI Day (pronounced “O-hee”). It comes straight from the Congressional Record in Washington, D.C., October 29, 2003.
The full text of Congressman Bilirakis’ remarks follow:
Mr. Speaker, I rise proudly to celebrate “oxi” day. The historical significance of this day and what it meant to the outcome of World War II cannot be overstated. The outcome of a decision made on a day in 1940, had a profound impact on the conducting of the war by Nazi Germany. We’re talking about a stand made by a small, battered and courageous nation, namely Greece, against the larger, more powerful aggressors Italy and Germany.
By October of 1940, World War II had begun, and the Nazi war machine was already in high gear. Along with Hitler’s ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the German and Italian forces were threatening the whole of Europe. European nations were bowing to tyranny and destruction as the Germans and the Italians marched through Europe.
Great Britain endured Germany’s aerial bombardment, forcing Hitler to seek another avenue to subdue the British. Hitler intended to eliminate British operations in the Mediterranean in order to weaken their ability to deter German advances.
To achieve this, Hitler needed the Axis powers to strike at British forces in Greece. By conquering Greece, Hitler would gain access to an important connecting link with Italian bases in the Dodecanese islands. This would give the Italians a strangle hold on British positions in Egypt, where British forces were already facing attack from the Italian army in north Africa. The British considered the defense of Egypt vital to allied positions in the oil rich Middle East.
On October 28, 1940, the Italian Ambassador in Athens presented an insulting ultimatum to Greek Prime Minister Metaxas, demanding the unconditional surrender of Greece or Italy would declare war and invade Greece. Mussolini had given the Greek Prime Minister Metaxas three hours to reply.
Prime Minister Metaxas responded with the now historic word “oxi”, which means “no” in Greek. His statement embodied the true spirit of the Greek people. His words of defiance echoed the same devotion and love of country that Greek patriots exhibited during their war of independence against the Ottoman empire when they shouted the defiant words “liberty or death.” Prime Minister Metaxas’ actions marked the beginning of one of the world’s most heroic efforts against tyranny and oppression. Italy then invaded.
It is important to note that in addition to Greece having a population seven times smaller than Italy, the disparity in their armed forces was even greater: Italy had close to ten times the firepower of Greece in its army and navy and seven times the troops. Italy’s large air force had total air superiority since Greece had a very small defensive air force. However, despite their lack of equipment, the Greek army proved to be well-trained and resourceful. Within a week of the invasion, it was clear that Italian forces were suffering serious setbacks despite having control of the air and fielding superior armored vehicles.
On November 14th, the Greek army launched a counter-offensive and quickly drove the Italian forces back into Albania. By the next month, the Greeks had captured the town of Pogradec in eastern Albania. The fighting continued for a few more months…it was clear that the Greeks were not going to stand for defeat. In a last ditch effort to bring the war to a close before the Italians would be forced to ask Hitler to intervene, they launched another assault on March 12, 1941. After six days of fighting, the Italians had made only insignificant gains, and it became clear that German intervention was necessary.
On April 6, 1941, Hitler ordered the German invasion of Greece. It took the Germans five weeks to finally end the conflict. This delay proved to be critical to the outcome of the war. Italy’s inability to capture Greece enabled the British to win major victories against Mussolini’s forces in north Africa. This solidified British positions in the region as well as in Cyprus. In addition, it contributed to the failure of the German Barbarossa campaign to conquer Russia.
Due to Mussolini’s humiliating defeat by the Greeks in Albania and Greece, Hitler was compelled to capture the Balkans, mainly Yugoslavia and Greece, thus, delaying his Barbarossa plan to invade and capture the Soviet Union before the winter of 1941. The Greek resistance, both in Albania, and in the other famous battle in Crete, altered, favorably for the allies, his Barbarossa time table by at least six months.
Perhaps most importantly, the Germans never gained the advantage against the British. Although Germany had conquered much of Europe, its inability to decimate British and Russian forces early in the war would eventually prove to be fatal. Thanks to the heroic Greek resistance and their countless sacrifices, the war tide had been permanently changed for Hitler due to the delay of this critical time table.
Nearly one million Hellenes died during that time. That was 14% of the population in 1940. That is equivalent to losing 39 million people in this country TODAY in the case of a war to defend our country.
The entire Western world, discouraged and fearful of the Axis powers and the growing ugly war, took hope from these incredible victories. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill said of the Greeks: “Today we say that Greeks fight like heroes, from now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.”
A very small number of those Greeks who fought like heroes are still alive today – some now are American citizens. One of those heroes lives in my congressional district – Mr. Demetrios Palaskas who, along with others, has shared those traumatic stories of the mountain fighting by the rag-tag Greeks against such a powerfully equipped invader. We all salute you Mr. Palaskas – you and your many fellow heroes for helping to keep the world free.
Mr. Speaker, “oxi” day is an inspiration to all those who cherish democracy and freedom. It marks defiance against terrible odds. As an American of Greek descent, I am proud to honor the memory of those brave patriots who fought for freedom for themselves and ultimately for all the free world on this important day.
I’m extremely proud to say that my grandfather, Nickolas Pozadzides, was one of those Greek heroes who fought and survived in World War II. And I’m also extremely proud to say that my other grandfather Cranford W. Gordon served our country proudly in the US Air Force.
Consequences of Resistance
- Greece was eventually forced to confront four different armies: Albania, Bulgaria, Germany, and Italy.
- Greece resisted the Axis powers for over 185 days from Oct 28, 1940 – April 31, 1941
- The Greek victory over the initial Italian offensive of October 1940 was the first Allied land victory of the Second World War, and helped raise morale in occupied Europe.
- The Greek resistance influenced the course of the entire war by forcing Germany to postpone the invasion of the Soviet Union in order to assist Italy.
- By one estimate 311,000 people, or 4.3% of the Greek population, were killed (reference). Among them 140,000 died from starvation during occupation.
- Other estimates put the death toll much higher. For example claims that “over 300,000 civilians died from starvation, thousands more through reprisals”.
- The Greek Resistance, one of the most effective resistance movements in Occupied Europe, was formed. These resistance groups launched guerrilla attacks against the occupying powers and set up large espionage networks.
- Hundreds of villages were systematically torched and almost one million Greeks left homeless.
One of the most touching episodes of the early resistance took place just after the Germans reached the Acropolis on April 27. The Germans ordered the flag guard, Evzone Konstandinos Koukidis, to retire the Greek flag. The Greek soldier obeyed, but when he was done, he wrapped himself in the flag and threw himself off of the plateau where he met death.
Quotes About the Greeks in World War II
“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.”
– Adolph Hitler (From speech he delieverd to Reichstagon May 4th 1941)
“I am sorry because I am getting old and I shall not live long to thank the Greek people whose resistance decided WW2.”
– Joseph Stalin (From speech broadcast over radio after victory of Stalingrad January 31 1943)
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.
– Joseph Stalin
“The war with Greece proved that nothing is firm in the military and that surprises always await us.”
-Benito Mussolini 10/5/1941
“Until now we used to say that Greeks fight like heroes. Now we shall say heroes fight like Greeks.”
-Winston Churchill 1941)