Today is Όχι (or ‘No’) Day in Greece, which marks the beginning of the formal Greek involvement in the Second World War.
Across the country there are parades of school children, marching bands, and military outfits. Shops close down, people flock to the squares to drink coffee, and Greek flags fly from almost every balcony in Athens.
We headed to the centre of the city to see what was happening, and catch the main parade that would pass through Syntagma square. The city felt like a different place, and there was more than a couple of bemused tourists wandering around not knowing what on earth was going on. Even the large hotels like the Grand Bretagne were decked out with rows of flags.
In 1940, Mussolini, fresh from a successful (and rapid) invasion of Albania, decided to flex Italy’s military muscles and demonstrate their power to Hitler by occupying parts of Greece.
Infamously, he delivered an ultimatum to the then Greek dictator Metaxas. Either soldiers were allowed into Greece to occupy areas that they chose, or they would face war. Irrespective of what he actually said, the response was a defiant No, with Greeks in Athens taking to the streets to shout Όχι!
The Italians attacked, and got their asses royally kicked. Infact the defeat was so bad, that the Greeks pushed them not just out of their own country, but right back deep into Albania itself.
Ultimately, Hitler was forced to come to the aid of his Italian allies and crush the Greek opposition. But this moment is one of the defining parts of the Second World War, with (British) historians observing that the unexpected problems caused by Greece helped lead to the ultimate downfall of the Nazis.
As Churchill reportedly said:
‘until now we would say that the Greeks fight like heroes. From now on we will say that heroes fight like Greeks.’
I’ve always found the history of Greece with relation to the Second World War fascinating – partly because it’s a side that we never normally hear about in the UK, but also because of the passion and fierce resistance that the stories are filled with.
When the Nazis did finally invade Athens, they headed immediately to the heart of the city, and ordered the guard stationed at the Acropolis to replace the Greek flag with the Swastika. Even in pictures there is something chilling about seeing that image of hatred flying over such a symbolic place… and I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a proud nation like Greece at the time.
Distraught, as the guard brought the blue and white flag down from its position, he wrapped it around his body and threw himself off down the sheer rock face.
That was then though. Greeks face a whole different set of challenges today, but the passion and spirit of resistance remains.
As a result, Όχι day has become a focal point in recent years for protests against the sweeping austerity cuts imposed by a Government tied by the European Union, and importantly, German money.
Today, Syntagma square that sits in front of the Parliament was completely barricaded off by riot police and armoured vans.
Droves of police and soldiers gathered along every street, armed with shields, gas masks, and guns. (They may just have been police, but it’s pretty difficult to tell at times here.)
It really was a sight to behold.
The protest itself was small, and I’ve never seen such a massive police presence before, with the exception possibly of previous G8 summit related riots. The fiery, stubborn Democratic will of the Greek people could flare up at any time though, and they weren’t taking any chances. Whether or not the show of strength from those in power would placate or antagonise is a different question.
There’s a beautiful irony in that today the police were barricading off the main square in Athens against their own people, rather than an outside force.
and in the midst of it all, the dogs reclaimed the streets alongside those that were protesting. Something that seems to be a recurring theme during Greek demonstrations.
Greece is filled with rich imagery, everywhere you look.
Through the small crowd shouting and throwing flyers, and directly in front of the police with their weapons, passed a Greek Orthodox Priest, with nuns closely following behind. Photographers scrambled to get a picture of the deeply symbolic scene.
Wee boys weaved their bikes in between…
…and suddenly, just like that, the protesters seemed to disappear; the police busses started up their engines.
The square re-opened, and within just a few minutes it was as if nothing had happened.
All that was left was the lingering TV presenters…
and the odd iced coffee abandoned by the police, who always seem to be either drinking them, or smoking.
To have such a significant police force just pack up and leave all at once was an extremely bizarre thing to witness… though in some ways it makes sense. The event was over. There was nothing left to protest. The focal point of the day was gone.
Greece (and in particular, Athens) is a fascinating place. I love it.