American editorial cartoon from 1940 (source). Today, Greeks remember Ioannis Metaxas for his defense of Greece from Italian invasion in 1940. Few remember his refusal to enter the broader conflict of World War II. His death marked the end of his country’s isolationism and the start of its gradual absorption into larger supranational entities: NATO, the Common Market, the European Union and, finally, the current system of globalism and post-nationalism.
If Ioannis Metaxas is today remembered, it is as the Greek David who fought off the Italian Goliath back in 1940. In that year, Greece was the only country that not only repelled an Axis invasion but actually drove deep into Axis-occupied territory. Metaxas is thus remembered as the man who heroically led Greece into World War II and into partnership with the Allies.
Yet that last detail is false. Metaxas was never an Allied leader. He actually kept Greece out of World War II by maintaining peaceful relations with Germany and by spurning British offers of assistance. At the time of his death, he was hoping that Germany would broker a peace deal between Greece and Italy.
Metaxas was an isolationist with a long history of isolationism. He had opposed Greece’s entry into World War I and was one of the few who had publicly opposed the 1921-1922 campaign that sent Greek forces deep into Turkey … and ultimately to a humiliating defeat. Even when war became unavoidable, in 1940, he sought to contain it as much as possible.
Greece would eventually enter World War II, but standard history texts gloss over the actual sequence of events: Metaxas’ death in January 1941, his replacement with a pro-British prime minister, and the landing of a British expeditionary force—ostensibly to counter an imminent German invasion.1 The Germans did invade, in April, and it was only then that Greece entered the broader European conflict.
Why, then, is Metaxas praised as an Allied leader? There are different reasons. For some, this myth diverts attention from his fascist ideology. For others, it justifies a postwar narrative in which the Greek people realize they can no longer be an island unto themselves. Greece must be part of the larger world: first NATO, then the Common Market, then the European Union and, finally, the current system of globalism and post-nationalism.
World War II was followed by civil war between Royalists and Communists (1944-1949). There then began a long period of sustained economic growth and rising incomes—similar to the postwar boom elsewhere. When older Greeks feel nostalgic, this is the time they think back to.
These better times owed much to the intense nationalist culture that had reached almost totalitarian proportions under Metaxas. People were now more likely to view fellow Greeks with empathy, the result being a society more conducive to trusting relationships and, hence, productive endeavor. Meanwhile, opportunities for productive endeavor grew as economic relations intensified with Western countries.
This was the basis of Greece’s newfound prosperity, but it was an unstable one. As incomes rose, people developed a wider range of socially defined needs, and these new needs tended to crowd out the old ones of family, church, and ethnos. People also found it easier to acquire individual tastes and lifestyles, and the more hardened individualists gravitated toward the arts and entertainment to indulge their need for sensation, interaction, and adulation. They were thus well positioned to reshape the ambient culture in their own image. Finally, increasing contact with the West—through trade, tourism, and foreign films—brought more contact with modern Western values. For younger and better educated Greeks, the West became the cultural model to follow.
1. Was Germany planning to invade Greece before the landing of the British expeditionary force? This is doubtful. The invasion of Greece forced the Germans to postpone their invasion of the Soviet Union—an indication that the decision had been made at short notice. It’s likely that the death of Metaxas, and the landing of British troops, raised fears on the Axis side that the Allies would use Greece for an invasion of Central Europe, much as they had back in 1918.
Had it not been for the British intervention, Greece would have probably stayed out of the war, like neighboring Turkey.
Metaxas Project – Inside Fascist Greecehttp://metaxas-project.com/
Sarandis, C. (1994). The ideology and character of the Metaxas regime, in T. Veremis (ed.) The Metaxas Dictatorship: Aspects of Greece, 1936-1940, (pages 156-157), Sunflower University Press.
Wikipedia. Ioannis Metaxashttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ioannis_Metaxas