Greek Resistance in WW2: Patriotism or internationalism?

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In mid September an article by ‘Jack Ray’ was posted on the libcom website: A short history of the Andartiko - the Greek Resistance partisans who fought against Italian and German fascist occupation.

The author says that nowhere in Europe during the Second World War was the resistance as simple a question as “good guys in the hills with rusty rifles, and bad guys wearing swastikas and burning villages”. Yet, to be honest, that’s the impression you get. We hear about the radical, democratic working class spirit” of the movement, that there were guerrilla fighters who wanted to create” a ‘peoples’ democracy’, but that the potential for ‘revolution’ was betrayed. It brings to mind the view of leading SWP member, Chris Harman, in ‘popularising Trotskyist’ mode: “Resistance movements had emerged which seemed to be a foretaste of revolutionary change in much of Europe” (A People’s History of the World).

Not like in the movies

Books and films have done a lot to glamourise the various resistance movements over the years, distinguishing the military actions of the guerrillas from the manoeuvres of the official armies. In Ray’s account, we read about the theft of a German flag from the Acropolis, the daubing of graffiti, and the patriotic singing of the national anthem at the funeral of a nationalist poet that was “an opportunity to voice opposition”. But he also tries to give us a picture of the organisation of the resistance.

For example, the Greek Stalinist party (KKE) played “a key role in the resistance movement” and was one of the main forces behind the formation of the National Liberation Front (EAM) in September 1941. “The EAM became a whirlwind of activity, establishing sections for civil servants, workers, women, students, school kids, as well as town and village committees. All this was hesitantly working toward April 1942 and the founding of the Greek People's Liberation Army (ELAS) and physical force resistance”. Ray makes claims for the “relatively autonomous” action of individual groups, but admits that they were “generally sympathetic to the KKE”.

The areas that came to be dominated by the EAM are described as ‘liberated’. “Liberated zones started governing themselves as autonomous communities, run by elected village committees, whose work was to be overseen by monthly mass meetings of all the villagers.” This was in tune with the needs of the resistance, and the “EAM sought to export the local self-government model” across the country. The reason for using this “emerging 'people's democracy'” was, in Ray’s words, because it was “vital in a country with poor communications and scarce supplies that an effective form of administration could keep the war effort going.”

Following Italy’s surrender to the Allies in September 1943, EAM/ELAS controlled most of the country by the end of the year. In March 1944 it announced the formation of a provisional government. In October 1944 the German army started a rapid withdrawal because of the continuing advance of the Russian Army into the Balkans. “The ELAS quickly lost contact with the German rear guard, and merely filled in the vacuum they left” (Gabriel Kolko, The Politics of War). Ray admits that “the EAM set out to restore order rather than seize power”, but seems here to have forgotten that, to “keep the war effort going” you need “an effective form of administration”.

In late 1943 EAM/ELAS “administered two-thirds to four-fifths of Greece” (Kolko op cit). They “administered most of the villages, collected taxes, supplied schools and relief, endorsed private property, and even the churches to the extent of gaining much clerical support” (ibid). What this means is that “EAM/ELAS set the base in the creation of something that the governments of Greece had neglected: an organised State in the Greek mountains” (CM Woodhouse, Apple of Discord). Ray’s text does mention the establishment by the EAM of “a secret police force and andartes courts”, but you’ll have to look elsewhere for an understanding of the functioning of the state for the war effort.

Class antagonisms in times of war

Agis Stinas was a part of the Trotskyist movement in Greece from the early 1930s until his final break with the Fourth International in 1947. In International Review 72 we published some extracts from his Memoirs translated from French. There are also extracts translated by Antagonism on their website. The significance of Stinas and his comrades lies in their defence of an internationalist standpoint, in continuity with the revolutionary position established in the First World War, against the participation of the working class in imperialist war.

In a report from the Stinas group in July 1946 they characterised support for the Greek resistance as ‘social patriotic’ – meaning to use socialist language in the defence of a patriotic position. “The social-patriotic character of support for the resistance movement is brought into particularly sharp relief in the regions that EAM completely controls. It has both the space and the geographic borders of a ‘country’, with parliament, government, courts, concentration camps, prisons, police and tax collectors, in a word, a state, which conducts an official war against the Germans. In what way, in its class nature, can this state differ from any other bourgeois state? What do the workers and poor peasants have to defend in this war, and in what way does it differ from that conducted by the government of Metaxas?” There is no ambiguity in this, it insists, “a territory where EAM was the state, in every sense of the word used by Engels, existed in occupied Greece”.

The resistance is seen here in the context of a global conflict. Not taken in by talk of ‘socialism’ or ‘liberation’, Stinas recognised it is as “A nationalist movement in the service of imperialist war.” “The ‘resistance movement’, that is to say the struggle against the Germans in all its forms, from sabotage to guerrilla warfare, in the occupied countries, cannot be considered outside the context of imperialist war, of which it is an integral part”. The framework for this understanding: “The defence of the nation and the fatherland are in our era nothing other than the defence of imperialism, of the social system which provokes wars, which cannot live without war and which leads humanity to chaos and barbarism. This is as true for the big imperialist powers as it is for the little nations, whose ruling classes can only be accomplices and associates of the great powers.” So to “participate in the resistance movement, under whatever slogans and justifications, means to participate in the war.” At the social level “The growth of the ‘resistance movement’ … destroys class consciousness, reinforces nationalist illusions and hatred, disperses and atomises the proletariat … into the anonymous mass of the nation, submits it even more to its national bourgeoisie, bringing to the surface and to the leadership the most ferociously nationalist elements.”

Specifically, in Greece, “this movement, because of the war which it conducts in the conditions of the second imperialist massacre, is an organ and appendage of the Allied imperialist camp”.

In the service of Allied imperialism

In an introduction to Stinas’ Memoirs, the leading Trotskyist, Michel Pablo, rejects “the argument that it was simply a question of a nationalist movement in the service of imperialism” because of the attacks on EAM/ELAS by British imperialism and right-wing factions of the Greek ruling class from the time of the departure of the German forces. Far from refuting the argument, this confirms the imperialist framework. In October 1944, Churchill and Stalin had agreed, in the carve-up of Eastern Europe, that Greece would be in the British zone of influence. However, although Stalin provided negligible assistance to the KKE, Churchill was not going to leave anything to chance, and so, as the Russian bloc emerged, EAM/ELAS were the targets of a Greek state backed first by British and then US imperialism. More people died in Greece in the Civil War that lasted until 1949 than did in the World War. In the same way that the Civil War can’t be detached from the early days of the Cold War, the Greek resistance can’t be separated from the World War.

The population of Greece not only suffered from the brutality of the German occupation, and the complete destruction of nearly 900 villages, there were also widespread famine conditions which resulted in death by starvation and related diseases for up to 500,000 in a population of seven million. A sustained British naval blockade was a more important factor in the food crisis than German exports of supplies to North Africa. Against these conditions there was a will to fight, a fight for life. However, EAM/ELAS were a force for both social order and channelling the will to fight into the nationalist anti-fascist struggle that served Allied imperialism, not the interests of the workers and peasants of Greece.

On the libcom site you can read articles about the role of anarchists in the resistance in Italy, Hungary etc. The anarchist heritage certainly includes examples of genuine internationalist opposition to imperialist war, but it also contains many examples of this participation in nationalist movements in the service of imperialism. The revolutionary marxist heritage, by contrast, includes Stinas and the group that reconstituted itself in Athens in 1943, having escaped from various camps and prisons. Within days they were producing leaflets and daubing slogans on walls: “It is capitalism in its entirety which is responsible for the carnage, devastation and chaos, and not just one of the two sides!”; “Fraternisation of Greek workers and Italian and German soldiers in the common struggle for socialism!”; “National unity is nothing but the submission of the workers to their exploiters!”; “Only the overthrow of capitalism will save world peace!; “Long live the world socialist revolution!” This is the real working class spirit in action.   Car 17/10/06.

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