The Complex Issue

By , October 1, 2011 12:18 am

Mediterranean Quarterly 22:2, pp. 11-19.
Copyright 2011 by Mediterranean Affairs, Inc


John P. Anton

[p. 11] Considerable discussion has been generated recently concerning the problem of war reparations with regard to the destruction the German armies inflicted during WWII on the populations and the lands of the various countries that were occupied. In this essay the special case of Greece is discussed. The Germans occupied Greece from April 1941 to October 1944 [[1]].

I am is not so much concerned with the ongoing legal disputes surrounding the unresolved issue about the war reparations that Germany still owes Greece. Rather, my interest is related to an unacknowledged and serious part of the damages that the German occupation brought upon the country as a result of the brief yet catastrophic presence of Hitler’s armies in the land. More precisely, I am raising the broader issue about the breadth of the catastrophes the German occupation forces brought to the status of Greece’s culture, beyond the already listed types of damage to the land, the people, and the official institutions of the country. Although this unacknowledged interference cannot be measured with economic and other comparable criteria, its occurrence and consequences played an enormous and irreversible role in the subsequent history of the country. By raising this issue, one can see why [p. 12] the dispute about reparations should have been resolved long time ago. Prolonging the response to the reparation demands of Greece has caused an inexcusable silence about the cultural changes that Greece suffered. A careful consideration of the multifaceted damaging effects will show that the changes the occupation caused and which continued after the withdrawal of the invading armies, were as consequential as they were inestimable.


There can be no doubt that the war disrupted what may be called the “normal development” of Greece as a modern European country. One can only guess today what would have been the “normal” changes in the political and cultural life of Greece had the war not occurred. The first thing that comes to mind is the expected transition from the dictatorship of the Metaxas regime, which commenced in August 1936, to the return to a normal democratic statehood, with the parallel changes in education and other aspects of the cultural life of the nation. It may well be that up to that time the leading European nations were confident that they had so advanced scientifically and politically that they were far beyond the level of having any need for the great achievements of the classical Greek tradition. Consequently, they would have believed that there was nothing that modern Greece could offer in this regard. If anything, the contrary was the case. The new nation was in constant need of protection, help, and support.

The historical record shows that the leading modern nation-states, including Germany, were confident that they had absorbed the substantive values of the classical civilization, especially the lessons of democracy. The literature of the Enlightenment expounded views on the superiority of the developing course of Europe. Greece, in the meantime, was still part of the Ottoman Empire and remained in that state until the War of Liberation started in 1821 [[2]].

This European stance explains, at least in part, the notable indifference that had been shown toward the issue I am raising in this essay, namely, the negligence [p. 13] toward extending reparations to cover the cultural turmoil that followed the Nazi invasion of the land.

The cultural issue goes beyond the reparations for the crimes committed by the occupying forces. The issue is not only ethical and political but also artistic and educational. It remains a fact that the actions of the German army created the conditions that led to the complex changes that continued to threaten the identity of the Greek people and the future of the cultural outlook of the country. We should include all the institutions and groups of values that were embedded in the traditions of the land. Herein lies the cause of the multiple splintering of the resistance forces, the December 1944 clash between the armed leftist organization ELAS and the government that had returned with the protection of the English army, and the civil war of 1947-49 that followed the liberation. One of the most serious consequences of these is the abnormal change in the attitudes of the people as they were forced to move from the countryside to the larger cities, especially notable in the case of Athens. The complex development that marked the conflict of ideas and values among the diverse groups encouraged the intensification of a complex attitudinal trend that can be best understood as a process of gradual de-Hellenization (αφελληνισμός), encouraging the replacement of extant traits of conduct traceable back to ancient times with modern European ways.

In effect, the Germanic presence in Greece, as the Nazi occupation of the land, shows that there was no intent to contribute to the amelioration of the inhabitants’ conditions of life. On the contrary, it destroyed whatever it could and imposed a state of terror, violence and thievery. Nothing of the so-called indebtedness to the Greek heritage and civilization was acknowledged in action. If anything, it was totally ignored. In fact, the occupation forces were responsible for extensive crimes. It has been estimated that 520,000 people, or 7.2 of the population of Greece, were killed or died of starvation; at least 800 villages with inhabitants of 500 to 1000 were burned to the ground. Beyond these atrocities, there was extensive theft of Greece’s archaeological treasures from a number of museum collections as well as private ones [[3]]. It should also be noted that in March 1942 [p. 14] the Nazis borrowed by force 10,582,120 British gold pounds (=U.S. $ 23.5 billion) from the Central Bank of Greece.

We must include in any assessment, as I have already suggested, the damage to the living elements of the classical tradition: the values and ways that have survived through the centuries in Greece despite the many invasions and occupations the country has suffered. I am certain that to this very day the official German view has not acknowledged the damage that the Nazi occupation of Greece brought upon the historical identity of the Greek people. It should also be admitted that while the Nazis did not start the de-Hellenization, they aided and perhaps inadvertently abetted trends already in operation, especially in the form adopted by the upper middle class. However, what the Nazis did in Greece was catalytic in a different way: their tactics caused new reactions and trends as political ideologies related to the postwar aims of the resistance movements were brought in and radicalized the responses of the people, both left and right.


The deeper irony of the 1942 invasion is evident in the conduct of the occupying forces of Hitler’s army. It showed a willingness to ignore the cultural ways of the people, despite the somewhat favorable disposition of a certain portion of the population toward Hitler’s Germany, mainly due to certain policies of the Metaxas dictatorship. Nevertheless Greece became an occupied land and was subjected to the exploitation of its sources and extant wealth. Nothing stopped the German occupation forces from denuding the land and ignoring its place in history. The latter stood in sharp contrast to what the German scholars had done before the Hitler era, especially in the 19th century, when substantive contributions were made toward the study of Greek philosophy, history, philology, and archaeology. The occupation forces exhibited an attitude of indifference toward the ethical and historical traditions of the Greek people, allowing the creation of a vacuum that the resistance movements were more than eager to exploit with their ideologies. The new players in this case were the leftist organizations that promoted their messages by employing heroic paradigms of action from the recent Hellenic past along with those of leaders from the communist class struggles. The conservative [p. 15] leaders of the Right invoked their own heroes of the ideal of liberty to support their inalienable claim to legitimate government and political rule. Both sides looked to the challenge of attaining power, the Left to acquire it and the Right to restore it. This sharp division of objectives, in addition to the chaotic conditions of the land after the German armies retreated and the civil war that was soon to follow obscured the issue of cultural damage. When the demand for restitutions and reparations came to the fore, the postwar governments never raised the issue of cultural disruptions as being integral to the issue of compensation for the destruction that the occupation had caused.


The postwar changes called for the consideration of certain pre-war political trends, particularly the following:

  • (1) fashionable “Europeanization” of the people by adapting to the fashions and modalities of the West, a trend that dates back to the lasting influence of the Enlightenment ideals and included the American ways after the war;
  • (2) persisting efforts to adjust the spoken and written language, either as an idiom more suitable to communication needs of city-dwelling populations or as the effective medium through which to communicate ideas in the sciences and the humanities, and for more effective response to the advancing forms of internationalism in communication;
  • (3) reforms at all levels of education, especially the universities, aiming at the installation of programs in response to new developments and trends already in force in Europe and America;
  • (4) admixture of architectural styles due to the rapid expansion of the larger cities to accommodate the influx of large numbers of people leaving the countryside; and
  • (5) abrupt adjustments that affected the character as they responded to the new conditions of living in the alienating environment of the city.

    The last point was decisively affecting the customary ethos of the old folk traditions, especially with respect to ritual as performed in song, dance, and festivities and oral wisdom.
    [ p. 16] In view of these cultural transformations, the destruction that the German occupation wrought upon Greece goes beyond the execution of innocent people, the burning of villages, the deaths of hundreds of thousands, and the theft of personal and national properties as well as of the unlisted archaeological treasures. My contention here is that the German army caused a major crime against the entire country and its inherited cultural values, including the surviving physiognomy of the historical existence of Greece. As such it caused events that would not have normally occurred, such as the multifaceted resistance movements, the division of the people into sharply opposed political forces and the forming of the Security Battalions, all becoming essential parts operating in the foreground that led to the bloodshed of the civil war in December 1944. Germany’s war policies were also responsible for the bitter consequences of the ideological divisions that continued to haunt the Greeks after the end of the occupation. To these we may add the complex difficulties that delayed the postwar recovery. And I should add the worst of all: the irreparable changes in the cultural outlook of living Greeks as they were rapidly being transformed during the occupation of Greece and continued after the withdrawal of the German armies.

    The critical issue here is the forced abandonment of the rituals, traditions, historical memories, customs, and ways of the countryside, and generally whatever elements of the Hellenic way of life had survived through the centuries since antiquity. The everyday life of the people, while gradually changing to the ways of the city, was also trying to fill the vacuum de-Hellenization was leaving with suitable elements through the cultural adaptation to a selective Europeanization. This “abandonment” was done in imitation of the attitude that had penetrated the outlook of the dominant middle class since the liberation of Greece and the enthroning of the Bavarian king, Otto. As a social phenomenon it had much in common with the misfortunes of the refugees from Asia Minor who were forced to leave their native homes after the disaster of 1922. The slow widening of a middle class in the smaller cities and the larger villages was eventually arrested and in many cases reduced to the level poverty during the postwar period. The crowded conditions of life in the expansive city of Athens affected the psychology of the masses and their cultural outlook. On the whole, it culminated in a forced abandonment of the inherited traditions. This marked the postwar continuation of the process of [p. 17] de-Hellenization. As a sociocultural phenomenon, it continues to affect in various degrees the present generation of Greeks.


    If I reiterate the responsibility of the German occupation for the changes the character of Greece endured, beyond the catastrophes, executions, and the raiding of personal and national treasures, it is because the German occupation was responsible for ushering in a new chapter in the process of the continuous de-Hellenization of the people of Greece. The events that came after the occupation intensified the addition of more decisive factors in the postwar development of the people. The demand for reparations for the damages the invasion and occupation caused should have been immediately met after having been evaluated and revised with new criteria, and not only the economic ones. But as things developed, Germany, instead of responding to the issue of reparations, decided to procrastinate and to invoke all sorts of issues, mainly legal, either to postpone reaching a decision or to simply refuse to recognize the issue’s immensity. The de-Hellenization of Greece never became an issue for reparations.

    A special note should be added here regarding the phenomenon of de-Hellenization. As the years went by after the war, the civil conflict added to the devastation of the land and the people. Greece struggled instinctively, as it were, to regain its identity, only to settle on new compromises and denials, a process that continues to this day in a variety of modalities and practices. The loss of the heritage has been aided and abetted by the advancing of “the new,” this time through the processes of globalization, which became increasingly difficult to resist. In effect, the novel quests for leisure in the environments of the enlarged cities easily affected the citizens as consuming agents. The sweeping forces of technocracy easily penetrated and altered the habits of the population, regardless of how and from where they originated. It continued as a process that could thrive mainly by replacing the old with the new, which in the case of the urbanized Greeks meant a steady and unreflective replacement of the remaining elements of their Hellenic heritage with values brought in by the sweeping forces of technocracy. It is still not sufficiently recognized that this gradual de-Hellenization will inevitably have [p. 18] serious consequences on the quality of human life once the globalization of consumerism and the type of education it fosters completes itself as an ideology posing as the most suitable way of life. As a social process it carries with itself a special political outlook favored by the more advanced technocratic powers. The humanist tradition rooted in Greece, as it has survived in whatever form down to the twentieth century, has been significantly altered and surreptitiously replaced by novel outlooks that suit the advancing technocratic demands. Globalization as an educational program cannot refrain from demanding the advancement of policies supporting the de-Hellenization of values, especially in the case of Greece as the heir of its classical humanism. What this portends for the future of humanity is another question.

    I cannot help but pose the following crucial question: Why are the living Greeks reluctant to protest and resist this powerful ideology by raising the issue of the political and cultural destruction they suffered in the past century? As for Germany, the signs are that it continues to play the usual role of an influential great power without having embraced any substantial changes in its views regarding the problem discussed in this essay. Greece, as a victim of the Nazi German occupation, has presently entered another critical phase. The life of its people is being seriously threatened as dark and difficult problems continue to cause moral, political, and economic changes in ways that remind one of the conditions laid forth during the occupation, but now under a different cover or mask. And worse of all, the Greeks, because of their wavering but still continuous de-Hellenization, seem rather unwilling to consider the damages they are bound to suffer while hesitating to put forth a resistance movement to face and respond to the present state of their culture.

    It appears that to this very day, the official German position, either willfully or through neglect, shows that it has not fully recognized the scope of the damages that the Nazi invasion and subsequent occupation of Greece brought upon the land and its people, beyond the physical and human destruction. I mean the damage it brought to the historical identity of the Greeks by creating and furthering the conditions that sustain the flow of de-Hellenization.


    Now we must also ask another crucial question: Why does the government of Germany refuse to recognize the role that determined so much of the history [p.19] of the past century? Why does it refuse to settle to issue of reparations of the war damages? One may risk an opinion and say that the government has yet to reach the heights of introducing ethical and political standards appropriate to judging the actions that caused substantial cultural damage to other nations. The Greeks, I believe, have the duty to inform the Germans that they have full knowledge of the politics of conquest, that is, of the position that continues to treat small nations as material for exploitation, even when the powerful nations adopt a façade of generosity and pose as sharing willingly the principles taught in their universities and supporting the high mission of their technologies.
    What I am afraid of is that the insensitivity of the entire modern technocracy and the political programs the powerful leading European nations are pursuing amount to playing dangerous games with the irreplaceable humanism of the Greek understanding of human life. In fact, if anything, our modern and contemporary power players have so distanced themselves from the classical view of humankind and its contemporary relevance that they feel no sense of loss at the possibility of its eventual removal. Such is also their view even if classical humanism is allowed to remain parasitically among the current set of values in education and culture in general. In this regard, the growing degrading of the humanities in our schools and universities is hardly an accident. It heralds the new expansion of the policy of de-Hellenization.
    [[1]] The Germans occupied Greece with a variety of objectives, including the need to finish the war the Italian army had failed to win when it invaded Greece in October 1940. The Germans used Greece as a base to continue their operations in the Mediterranean. The objective was to extend the war to the Near East, beyond the initial strategic goal to outflank the Allies and secure the way to advance to the Middle East.

    [[2]] The theory that the living generations of Greece had no blood relationship to ancient Hellenic “ancestors” was strenuously argued by Jakob Philipp Fallmerayer (1790-1861). Although this view was rejected my most scholars, it was finding supporters in the twentieth century.

    [3] Innumerable objects of antiquity taken from the museums and the sites were transferred to Germany. There is no record available to show that these objects have been returned or even adequately catalogued to this very day.

    John P. Anton is Distinguished Professor of Philosophy and Greek Culture and Director of the Center for Greek Studies, University of South Florida; Doctor of Philosophy honoris causa of the University of Athens; and corresponding member of the Academy of Athens. His most recent work is American Naturalism and Greek Philosophy.

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