The “Little War” that Changed the World: The Day The Greeks Said “No”
Erini Kosmas, HALC Pericles Fellow
“If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been.” — Winston Churchill
Rain, sleet, then snow covered the grounds of Eastern Europe in late October of 1940. Angst accompanied the tumultuous weather: Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas was becoming increasingly concerned about the looming presence of Italian forces in Albania, north of his country’s border. On October 28th, his suspicions were confirmed when he was served an ultimatum by Italian Ambassador Emanuele Grazzi. The ultimatum demanded that Italy - a close ally of Hitler’s Germany - be allowed to occupy Greek territory, or there would be war.
Metaxas’s response to Grazzi would cause an uproar louder than the howl of the frigid winds. To both Grazzi and Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini’s surprise, Metaxas responded confidently to the ultimatum set before him with “c’est la guerre.” His French response, which translates to “then it is war,” was then followed with the famous Oxi — or No — that citizens carried through the streets that night. With that phrase, the Greeks refused occupation and launched an epic resistance that is celebrated to this day. In the early morning of October 28th, 1940, Italian forces began their attack on Greece.
To say that this invasion strategy began months before the initial attack would give too much credit to an overzealous Mussolini and his Foreign Minister Galeazzo Ciano. In the months leading up to October 28th, Italy struggled to establish a concrete strategy to invade its Mediterranean neighbors. Furthermore, Mussolini’s confidence was not shared by his counterpart, Adolf Hitler. Hitler had other interests in the Balkans, and warned against such an invasion as it would not only jeopardize natural resources such as gas and oil from the region, but would also destabilize the region and pull energy away from his plan to invade the Soviet Union. Nonetheless, Ciano craved a “little war” in the Balkans that would establish Italian domination in the region. Expecting a swift and easy victory, Mussolini exuded confidence despite his faulty plan and proceeded forward.
To the Italians’ dismay, they were not only faced with the strength of Greek forces but the wrath of the weather. Perhaps Mussolini and his troops should have been warned by the blistering cold winds and soupy mud trenches: don’t enter Greece. Soon enough, the Greek troops had pushed back the Italian forces, eventually forcing them into Albania and delivering the first wins against the seemingly unstoppable Axis Powers. The Greek victories put the Italians in a desperate situation, and Hitler was forced to bail out his ally Mussolini, thus delaying his plan to invade the Soviet Union and diverting nearly 600,000 troops to Greece.
Greece’s initial victories against the Axis and its fierce resistance throughout the entire war had unforeseen consequences, altering the course of World War II completely. It not only weakened the Axis Powers, but boosted Allied morale at a crucial moment. The Allied Forces were able to eventually go on and defeat the Axis Powers. Without the strength and courage of the Greeks in 1940, however, the outcome may have been very different.