See Athens Through the Eyes of a World War II Historian

ATHENS, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST and most fabled cities, has earned its fame because the cradle of Western civilization over its 3,400-year historical past. At present a contemporary metropolis of three.5 million residents, Athens’s wealthy heritage is seen at a look: dotted throughout the city sprawl are historical pillared relics, a marble stadium, Byzantine church buildings, mosques, and arguably the capital metropolis’s most well-known landmark, the Acropolis—translated as “excessive level.” It’s right here that I begin my self-guided tour—ascending the summit not just for the view but in addition seeking a storied previous that sheds gentle on Greece’s often-overlooked position in World Warfare II.

The rocky promontory, rising virtually 500 toes above town’s sea of concrete, is dwelling to a number of historical temples and is the location of one of the crucial recognizable ruins on the planet, the Parthenon. The Doric-columned temple, devoted to the goddess Athena, was accomplished in 432 BC and stood largely untouched till pirates sacked it in 276 AD. It was transformed to a Christian church within the sixth century, and the Ottomans later used it as a mosque. The Venetians shelled it in 1687, archeologists raided it in 1799—and, on its grounds in 1941, German invaders raised a large red-and-white flag adorned with a black swastika. 

Occupying Germans hoist a conflict flag over the Acropolis in 1941. (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-165-0419-19A Photograph: Bauer)

Metaxas vs. mussolini

Greece was a reluctant World Warfare II belligerent, its try to stay impartial ending at 3 a.m. on Monday, October 28, 1940. When Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini demanded the Greeks undergo occupation, Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is alleged to have replied with one phrase—“No!”—which grew to become a rallying cry all through the nation. Two and a half hours later, the Italians invaded from Albania with six divisions.

The dogged Greek protection, with British air help, held the Italians at bay. In January 1941, the Hellenic Military’s counterattack pushed the invaders again over the border, giving the Allies one in all their few early victories, however at the price of a number of thousand casualties. With the arrival of the British Expeditionary Drive and Greece now firmly dedicated to the Allied trigger, the Germans invaded in April. Three weeks later, they reached Athens.


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the Acropolis

Atop the Acropolis, I wander the grounds, winding my manner round guests mingling in entrance of the 45-foot-tall marble Parthenon, some marveling at its magnificence, others posing for selfies. There isn’t a shade on the summit, so arriving earlier than the warmth of the day was prudent—besides, I really feel the solar beating down on me as I cross the Erechtheion, an asymmetrical temple, additionally devoted to Athena, to the north of the Parthenon. Interval images reveal that its ornamental wall of six sculpted feminine figures was a preferred vacationer vacation spot for occupying Wehrmacht troopers. Lastly, I make my solution to the statement deck on the east facet of the rocky outcrop. Right here an infinite blue-and-white Greek flag flutters within the breeze. It was close to this website on April 27, 1941, the day the Germans rolled into the capital, the place Konstantinos Koukidis, a soldier of the elite Evzones gentle infantry, was on guard obligation.

Because the story goes, the Germans ascended the Acropolis, intent on elevating their flag over town. An officer hailed Koukidis, commanding he decrease the nationwide colours to hoist the swastika instead. Koukidis did as he was informed, however quite than surrendering the Greek flag, he wrapped it round his physique and leapt off the cliff to his demise.

A small plaque commemorates the occasion, which has generated its share of skepticism. In 2000, the mayor of Athens declared that no documentary proof had been discovered to verify the act, regardless of a number of claims by eyewitnesses. My casual survey of tour guides, docents, and locals are unanimous of their help of the story’s validity.

Koukidis’s unit of Evzones was disbanded in the course of the occupation, with most of the troops forming the ranks of resistance teams. At present the Evzone traditions and battle honors are carried on by the Presidential Guard, a distinctively garbed infantry unit that performs ceremonial duties.

Nationwide Parliament constructing

To get extra perception into their historical past, I hike again down the hill and head to the Nationwide Parliament constructing. My route takes me by the Plaka, town’s oldest neighborhood, and it feels virtually legal to make use of my telephone’s GPS to assist me thread my manner by the traditional, twisty streets. Not a lot has modified right here for the reason that late 1800s, and the wrought-iron balconies, neoclassical structure, and slim alleys make it simple to think about the neighborhood within the Forties. What’s tougher to think about is the Third Reich’s shadow dimming these cozy labyrinthine streets, many teeming with hibiscus and olive timber.

The Parliament constructing, a commanding three-story edifice tucked into the northwest nook of the 38-acre Nationwide Backyard, was inbuilt 1842 as a palace for Greece’s first king after independence from the Ottomans. In 1926, it was gutted for renovation right into a single-chamber parliamentary council. On the base of the constructing, under its columned facade, is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flanking the tomb are two blue-roofed guard shacks, manned by Evzones standing at consideration, with bayonet-tipped M1 Garand rifles at their sides. They’re unmoving, reminding me of the red-coated British troopers posted in entrance of Buckingham Palace. The guards put on their conventional uniform, with its origins within the 1800s: a small crimson fez with an extended black tassel, a knee-length, button-up tunic with a black leather-based cartridge belt, white leggings with black garters, and hobnailed clogs topped with black pompoms. 

Evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has honored the nation’s conflict useless for greater than a century. (James Fenelon)

I watch the 2 guards start their measured, ceremonial march towards the tomb, which is dominated by a marble aid of a prostrate Spartan. Inscribed on both facet of the fallen warrior are the names of battlefields courting again to the early 1900s. Included are greater than a dozen from World Warfare II, reminiscent of Pindus, Crete, Hill 731, and El Alamein, all serving as reminders of the 35,000 Greek troopers who met their deaths in the course of the conflict. The guards, with rifles shouldered, transfer painstakingly slowly with a regimented excessive kick on every step. Juxtaposed towards the noise of passing buses and automobiles on the close by multilane boulevard, the solemn ritual is made extra poignant by the Evzones’ silent focus. 

lodge grande bretagne

Throughout the road from the Parliament constructing is the Resort Grande Bretagne, my final cease. The posh lodge overlooking each the Parliament constructing and Athens’s central plaza—Syntagma Sq.—is one other instance of town’s layered and hidden previous. Inbuilt 1842 as a personal mansion, it was renovated in 1874 right into a lodge. In 1930, the lodge expanded with the addition of a brand new wing. Throughout the conflict, the Greek Common Headquarters established itself within the lodge till the German occupation, when it served as Wehrmacht headquarters. The lodge’s well-appointed foyer and ornate tapestry within the atrium’s Alexander’s Lounge would make the workers officers of any military really feel snug.

It was right here in Might 1941 that Common-leutnant Kurt Scholar deliberate Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete. The glider and parachute assault was a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans, who suffered greater than 26 % casualties, nevertheless it accomplished the Axis occupation of Greece and commenced a multi-year reign of terror: tens of 1000’s of civilians died from famine, torture, and executions, whereas an estimated 60,000 Jews had been deported from Greece to German demise camps.

Tomb of the unknown soldier

In the identical month that Crete fell, two Greek college students, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, crept by the darkish to scale the Acropolis and make off with the Germans’ swastika-emblazoned conflict flag. It was finally changed, and the occupiers sentenced Glezos and Santas to demise in absentia. However the brazen act additional impressed a fledgling Greek resistance motion, which by 1944 had grown to over 1,000,000 women and men. The underground harassed the Germans till October 1944, when the invaders withdrew after the Soviet Pink Military seized the important Ploesti oil fields in Romania, lowering Greece’s strategic significance as a deterrent to Allied air raids. Fittingly, interval newsreel footage reveals a German soldier scurrying from the Acropolis with the Nazi flag bunched over his shoulder.

With the occupation in thoughts, I head as much as the lodge’s rooftop patio, from the place I can see the Unknown Soldier’s tomb to the left and the Greek flag flying excessive above the Acropolis to my proper. The sweeping view of contemporary buildings, public parks, historical ruins, and distant mountains jogs my memory that Athens is a metropolis of celebrated legends. And on the finish of the day, I don’t know if Koukidis actually leapt to his demise or not, however I do know Athens’s historical past of sacrifice and resistance makes it simple to consider he did. 


Athens is well accessible by air or sea. The worldwide airport is serviced by all main and regional airways, and close by Piraeus is Europe’s largest cruise ship port. Getting across the metropolis is straightforward by Metro, bus, tram, ridesharing, or foot.

The place to Keep and Eat

Athens has a myriad of resorts, B & Bs, and trip leases to fulfill any traveler’s finances. These looking for a historic luxurious expertise can be hard-pressed to beat the centrally situated Resort Grande Bretagne, the place the bartenders serve a number of the metropolis’s greatest cocktails. For recent fish and a view of the well-lit Acropolis, strive dinner atop The Outdated Tavern of Psaras.

What Else to See and Do

With Athens’s quite a few world-renowned museums, it could be simple to miss the Warfare Museum, overlaying Hellenic martial historical past from antiquity to the current day. On show are uncommon weapons, uniforms, artwork, and battlefield relics. 

Six miles south from town heart and accessible through a tram experience from Syntagma Sq. is the Phaleron Warfare Cemetery. Inside its well-curated grounds stands the Athens Memorial, which commemorates the 1000’s of Commonwealth troops who died throughout World Warfare II campaigns in mainland Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia, and the Dodecanese islands.

this text first appeared in world conflict II journal

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