Greek Holocaust

By , July 17, 2011 2:32 am

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During the WWII Battle for Greece almost 20,000 enlisted Greek men were killed, and more than a 100,000 were wounded or frostbitten, one fifth of them ending up amputees. About 4,000 civilians were killed in air raids, which also destroyed hundreds of buildings, including churches, hospitals and schools. But those numbers pale by comparison to the loss of human life experienced during the occupation. According to conservative estimates the deaths resulting directly from the war before the war ended, adds up to about 578,000. That number comprises the deaths resulting from the persistent famine caused by the economic policies of the Axis, and the violent deaths resulting from the resistance and the reprisals; but it does not include the deaths resulting from diseases such as TB and malaria, persistent malnutrition, wounds and exposure, which are a direct result of war conditions, but which occurred shortly after the end of the war. Doxiadis estimates the overall loss of life due to the war to be 13% of the Greek population.

This note discusses how the loss of human life and of a significant portion of the Greek wealth took place in occupied Greece during the course of WWII as a direct result of actions taken by the occupying forces, primarily the German forces. To figure out the total material cost of the war on Greece, we would have to add the total loss of infrastructure, of industry, and of the economy in general, and the looting of treasure, both national and private, a loss that has been estimated at several gross domestic annual products. That material loss is also entirely attributable to the policies of the occupation forces, most particularly of the German forces.

Two executive orders issued at the highest levels of the Third Reich played an important role in the Greek Holocaust. The first, issued by Hitler himself, was the torching directive according to which, if there was a suspicion that a residence was used by the resistance, that building was a legitimate target for burning, regardless of the possibility that the majority of the inhabitants might be non-combatants. The second order, signed by Marshal Wilhelm Keitel on 16 September 1941, specified that for every German killed, a minimum of 100 hostages would be executed, and for every wounded one, 50 would die.

The first mass executions took place in Crete even before the island fell to the Germans. In 1945, under the auspices of the United Nations, a 4-member committee headed by Nikos Kazantzakis was given the task to investigate Axis atrocities in Crete. The Kazantzakis report enumerates the destruction of more than 106 Cretan villages and many massacres. The area around the Agias Prison in the Hania area was found hiding several mass graves. The first mass murder was recorded in the village Galatas, near Hania, where the villagers had dared defend their birthplace from the invading Germans. On 26 May 1941, while the battle was still raging, the Germans murdered old men and women in their homes, and looted and burned the village. One of the massacres the Kazantzakis committee did not report was the murder of all men in Kontomari. That massacre was immortalized for posterity by Peter Weixler, a German officer whose photographs graphically describe the execution(see video on Kontomari massacre).

An even worse fate befell the village Kandanos, whose men and women had fought the Germans in order to allow hundreds of Allied troops to escape the paratroopers by reaching safely the south shore of Crete. In Kandanos all men and women were murdered. Among those executed was Kostas Archakis, aged 103 and two 80-year old women who were thrown into their burning homes to endure horrible deaths.

These massacres were only the beginning. On 20 October 1941 in Ano and Kato Kerdyllia in Macedonia, the Germans gathered 222 men ages 15 to 60, ordered them to excavate a mass tomb, executed them under the gaze of their families, and then burned the villages. On 24 October, in Mesovouno of Ptolemais, they executed 165 men and then burned the village. On 25 October, in the area of Kilkis, they executed 96 men and then burned the villages Kleisto, Kydonia and Ampelofyto. Those massacres were carried out solely in order to intimidate the population. The massacres continued through 1942 and intensified in 1943, when the Greek Resistance, obeying orders from the Middle East Allied Headquarters, intensified their activities against the occupation forces. That was part of the Allied strategy, aimed to convince the Germans that a landing on the Greek shores was forthcoming, whereas their plan was to land on Sicily. On 26 July 1943 the Germans massacred 154 people in Mousiotitsa of Epirus and burned the village.

On August 16, the day after one of the greatest holy days of the Eastern Orthodox church, the Dormition of the Mother of Jesus, the Germans, also in Epirus, destroyed the village Kommeno. There had been no incident to incite that massacre. Only a suspicion that there were guerrillas in its vicinity. This particular massacre has been studied by historians in some detail, because there were survivors who managed to escape by swimming the fast waters of Arahthos river, or by hiding in the forested area bordering the village. In Kommeno, the Germans murdered 145 men, 174 women and 97 children, 414 in all. Twenty families were wiped out completely and 17 people drowned trying to cross Arahthos.

Kurt Waldheim, who reported that massacre to Berlin from his position in Thessaloniki, reported only the 145 men who were killed, neglecting to mention women and children, and falsified facts by citing explosions of large quantities of munitions, which never took place. Eventually Kurt Waldheim became Secretary General of the United Nations and President of Austria.

More than 90 holocausts have taken place in Greece, in which the majority of the inhabitants were murdered. In addition, 1,700 to 1,800 villages were burned, many of them totally. The Germans developed the act of destruction to the level of a fine art: they spread the condemned structures with incendiary powders, which under fire from a gun or a pistol exploded into flames. They also developed the military vocabulary to match their unparalleled ingenuity of destruction: the elimination of a population, as in Kommeno, was a Clean-Up Operation Undertaking: Waldheim talks about Sauberungsunternrhmen (Purging Operation) Kommeno , for example. The troops charged to carry out the systematic looting of Greek households and farms were the Aufraumtruppen(Clean-Up Troops). The stealing of Greek property was carried out under orders by the highest command of the Wehrmacht.

The story of the Greek Holocaust would not be complete without mentioning Kalavryta, Distomo, Hortiati and Agios Georgios.

In Kalavryta, 1,100 men 12 to 90 years old were executed on a gently sloping corn field outside the town, while the women and young children of the village were held in the school house, which was set afire. The women broke the doors and escaped death, but the male population was killed in the largest one-day atrocity in a non-Slavic land. The date was 13 December 1943. That massacre took place as a revenge for the killing of German prisoners of war by the ELAS andartes (guerillas). But the Kalavrytans were not responsible for that act, and in fact they had tried hard to safeguard the German prisoners that the guerillas kept in their city. All the villages in the vicinity of Kalavryta were destroyed, and their inhabitants were murdered. The monks at the nearby Mega Spilaio historic monastery, as well as the monks in Agia Lavra, where the Greek revolution of 1821 was first declared, were also murdered. The Germans killed everyone they run across as they moved from one village to the other.

The historical Archives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Athens are replete with accounts of massacres perpetrated throughout Greece. Atrocities in which the eager German troops exceeded the directive of 100 Greeks killed per German death abound. On 2 September 1944, at the village Hortiati, 20 kilometers east of Thessaloniki, the Germans executed 149 civilians of both sexes and all ages for the death of one German who was killed in a skirmish with ELAS. On 15 June, 1944, two German soldiers were wounded in a battle with ELAS near the village Ayios Georgios on the road from Levadia to Thebes. After the andartes (guerillas) left, the Germans rounded up 26 men women and children from that village, ushered the men into a small house and killed them with machine gun fire while the women, older men and children watched. Then they executed the rest of the group, threw their corpses in the same small house, doused them all with gasoline and set them afire. An infant who had survived was thrown into the pyre alive.

The massacre that took place on 10 June 1944 in Distomo surpasses in sadism virtually all massacres. On that day, the Germans gathered the residents of Distomo in the school building and slaughtered them in the most horrific ways. Two hundred and thirty two men women and children were tortured and killed in ways which we shall not detail here, out of respect for the reader (see massacre at Distomo).

The Greek Jews participated in WWII in all its aspects: in battle, the highest ranking officer of the Greek army to die in battle was the heroic Cavalry Colonel Mardocheus Frizis, who was killed on December 5, 1940, shortly after the battle of Premeti. During the occupation about 61,000 Jews were deported to the concentration camps, the largest number of them from Thessaloniki and Ioannina.

The Greek resistance helped in keeping many Greek Jews safe after the Germans managed to transfer the Jews of Thessaloniki and Ioannina to Germany and Poland. The resistance did that by removing the Grand Rabbis from Athens and other cities to the mountains, sometimes without their consent, thus signaling the rest of the Jewish population that the time for a new exodus had come. Many Jewish men and women joined the resistance and fought alongside their Christian compatriots against the Germans.

The Chief of the Police, Miltiades Evert issued new identity cards to many Jews, concealing their religion. Archbishop Damaskinos, the Metropolitan of Zakynthos and many other clerics protected the Jewish population, and many Jewish children were taken in and protected by Christian families. The punishment for concealing Jewish people was severe: a one-way trip to Auschwitz, Treblinka or Mauthausen. That did not prevent the Christian Greeks from helping their compatriots in their time of terrible need.


  1. Blytas, George C., The First Victory, Greece in the Second World War(Athens: COSMOS 2009).
  2. Doxiadis, Konstantinos, Oi Thysies tis Ellados ston Defero Pangosmio Polemo [The Sacrifices of Greece in the Second World War](Athens: Ministry of Reconstruction, 1946).
  3. Kazantatzakis, Nikos, et al., Ekthesis tis Kentrikis Epitropis Diapistoseos Omotiton en Kriti [ Report by the United Nations Central Committee for the Determination of Atrocities in Crete] (Irakleio: Township 1983].
  4. Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Ordinary Germans and The Holocaust(New York: Vintage 1997).
  5. Mazower, Mark, Inside Hitler’s Greece, The Experience of the Occupation 1941-1944(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1933).
  6. Meyer, Herman Frank, Von Wien nach Kalavryta Die Blutige Spur der 117 Jager-Division durch Serbien und Griechenland (Brussels: Bibliopolis 2001).
  7. Mulgan, John, Report on Experience (London: Oxford University Presss, 1947).
  8. Sbarounis, Athanasios, Meletai kai Anamneseis ek tou Defterou Pangosmiou Polemou [Studies and Memoirs from the Second World War] (Athens: Government Printing Office, 1950)

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