To the honour of those patriots executed by
the Germans of the Third Reich
giving their lives for our liberty
July 15 1944
These are the words on a memorial to 9 Greek partisans executed by firing squad in the square of Chora, the hill top (and former main) town on Alonissos in the Northern Aegean. Consulting Wikipedia indicates that the wording on the memorial was changed in the 1980s to state that the perpetrators were German troops from a particular era – and, I like to think, makes clear that all Germans should not be held guilty by association. War is brutalising and I have often wondered how I would behave in such extreme and stressful circumstances.
When travelling abroad there is always a point when Sue and I have a conversation about how lucky we have been to be born into post world war prosperity and (for England) a time of peace. Observing the continuing fall-out from centuries of warfare in many foreign destinations we also remark on how fortunate we are to live a country that hasn’t been invaded since 1066. Every European country has a history of invasion and counter invasion, defeat and victory stretching back over generations which has left its mark – physically (eg the artillery shell pock marks on the inside of walls in buildings in Berlin), socially (eg the transfer of populations in Poland after WW2) and politically (eg the Franco regime in Spain). A couple of years ago I was astonished to read that during a hundred rear period, mid 1700s to mid 1800s the northern plains of what is now Italy had to put up with marauding armies on average every four years! How can anything like a normal carry on be maintained in these circumstances? Even if you managed to sow and harvest a crop in the gaps there was another army coming along to eat it!
When Sue and I travelled to the Sporades in 1980 we were woefully ignorant of the history and politics of the country – we didn’t even have those handy short sections in our Rough Guide as we had torn out and carried only those pages relating to the islands we were visiting in order to lighten already heavy rucksacks. When on Alonissos I remember two discussions about politics: one with a member of the Greek CP (I assume they weren’t being interred at that time) which although very warm and friendly was significantly hampered by our lack of a shared language and the copious volume of ouzo that we had consumed (I haven’t touched ouzo since!); and another with a drunk English man who kept shouting derogatory remarks about ‘Wedgy Benn’ – the details of which must not detain us here. We were also pressed to give our views on whether Greece should join the Common Market, as it was then, by a policeman in Athens later in the trip – but that takes us somewhere else (and I wonder what we said!)
We know more about recent Greek history and politics now; The Ottoman Rule, The war of independence, ‘The Catastrophe’, the horrors of Smyrna and subsequent exchange of populations with Turkey, the resistance to Italian and subsequent German invasions. Accounts of the following ‘civil war’ are hard to contemplate and the role of perfidious Albion in it is difficult to acknowledge, especially as the deal Churchill struck with Stalin was a key component in the post war peace in Europe that we have undoubtedly benefitted from.
There is a museum on Alonissos now – a modern, statement building with engaging and creative displays of subsistence agriculture, fishing and domestic arrangements from the last couple of hundred years. They were familiar to us – not dissimilar from what we remembered from walking the island interior on our last visit 36 years ago. There was also a display about the island’s resistance to Italian / German occupation in World War 2, which seemed to have focused on helping allied airmen escape from capture and send them back to Egypt so they could re-join the fight. The execution of 9 partisans by firing squad is covered, but I could find nothing that told me precisely what their resistance had comprised and how this had provoked such a response. My main thought had been how near to the end of the war this had been and must have been close to the point of the German troop withdrawals in order to defend the rapidly shrinking Greater Germany.
I later found out that the partisans had been betrayed by collaborators – and that after the war the families of the collaborators had been forced to wear black armbands in a collective holding to account for the actions of some of their members. They were permitted to live and partake in community activities but no one would talk to them – people would turn their backs on them in the village shop. What shook me was being told now that this had still been in operation in 1980, unknown to us when we had last visited the island, 36 years after the event.
I find the issue of collaboration to be a tricky one; anger and outrage directed to those who collaborated with an occupying force is very understandable and no doubt reasonable where this has involved the active undermining and betrayal of resistance groups, or where profits have been made exploiting local populations. However, recalling vivid images of women publicly having their hair shaved for literally sleeping with the enemy, or the accounts of female survivors from the fall of Berlin to Soviet troops, suggests that many ‘collaborators’ find themselves drawn into situations largely beyond their control. As an ex public servant I am also conscious that entire public administrations are subsumed into an occupying force’s control (and exploitation) strategies and again wonder how I would manage in such a situation, especially with a dependant family.
So, maybe it’s important to understand the nature of any collaboration before passing judgment and in this specific instance ask why and how members of these Greek families provided information that resulted in the capture and execution of the partisans and subsequently led to decades long marginalisation of whole families.
I found the answer to this question very hard to hear, to write about subsequently and I know will be for you to read. The ‘collaboration’ comprised teenagers from these families being tortured until they gave away the whereabouts of the partisans to their interrogators.
War is so brutalizing – and its effects so long lasting.