Hostages of the Germans

In April 1941, the Germans set themselves the task that the Italians could not accomplish: conquering the country(12). They declared war on it and invoked the usual pretexts. Metaxas died(13). The Prime Minister, Koryzis, committed suicide shortly after the German invasion. King George took on the presidency of the council himself. The armoured columns of Hitler moved forwards crushing all resistance. The dictatorship’s generals surrendered and the army was disbanded. The New Zealanders(14) did not have the strength to contain the fascist columns which descended, sweeping aside everything in their path. The only thing they could do was to flee Greece as quickly as possible.

Nafplio was one of their ports of embarkation for the ships for Crete and Egypt. Each evening, under a complete black-out, the port filled up with transports and war ships which the New Zealand soldiers got onto. During the day, every day, swarms of German planes bombarded the port, the forts and the railway station. Some ships burned, others exploded.

Every day we lived a nightmare, in a permanent anguish about being blown to bits. But the situation was more favourable for our escape. In a state of panic, the camp garrison no longer left their improvised shelters. It was absolutely possible for us to escape, and without a single victim. The garrison, in the psychological state it was then in, would not have had the strength to oppose it.

We were always posing the question of our collective escape, everywhere finding an echo in the mass of detainees. It was the only subject of conversation. You heard it on all sides: “Why don’t we flee? Are we going to wait for the Germans to come and take us?” The Stalinist detainees were exasperated by the passivity of their leadership. In response to the outcry the Stalinist leadership dispatched a committee to the camp governor to ask him to grant us our freedom. After endless discussions with him the committee, satisfied enough, told us that the governor had assured them that he would open the gates and let us go when the government had abandoned Athens. “It is, he said, the order that I have received from the Ministry of Security”. To prove to the committee that the government was still in Athens he had put them in telephone contact with Maniadakis. Persuaded of the sincerity of the governor, the committee denounced proposals for escape as adventurist and dangerous, recommending calm, discipline, confidence in the leadership and… reinforcing the Stalinist guard so as to prevent any attempt at individual or collective flight.

This is what this committee, made up of men enjoying the absolute confidence of the party leadership, declared. But was it the truth? We believed it was then. We couldn’t read the newspapers and had no means of knowing what was happening outside. Today we can be sure that everything in its communications was false. It was absolutely impossible, when the last New Zealand soldiers were getting onto the ships and running away, when Nafplio was being savagely bombarded, that the government could still be in Athens. Their supposed intervention with the governor to free us was a lie. The assurance received from the governor that he had the order to open the camp gates after the departure of the government from Athens was a lie. The telephone contact with Maniadakis was a lie. These were all lies that they had invented with the governor to prevent any escape.

Two or three days later German paratroops seized Nafplio. Armed, they surrounded the camp.

If the dictatorship is guilty once for handing us over to the Germans, the Stalinist leadership is guilty a hundred times. We want to make it clear here that the majority of the detainees of Akhronaflia were shot. None of the leading cadres were, because, evidently, everything was arranged for them to escape.

Their shameful and criminal attitude can first of all be explained by their fear of a probable confrontation with the garrison, but above all by the illusions which they harboured about the attitude of the Germans, who were still allies of the USSR at that time. They awaited them as friends, as their own.

Once, the mass of Stalinist detainees did become discontented and irritated with their bosses, who were so obviously responsible for handing them over to the Germans. But it didn’t last long. The Stalinist leadership quickly persuaded them that the Germans would in any case free them. They believed it, there’s no shadow of a doubt.

At the beginning of May, a few days after our handover to the Germans, two German officers and a dignitary from the Bulgarian embassy(15) came into the camp with a list of names of twenty seven “Slavo-Macedonians” and freed them. We all knew that these twenty seven were Communists. Those who made up the list, the Bulgarian embassy (more exactly, the Bulgarian security police) had assured the Germans, were not Communists but Slavo-Macedonian nationalists. This guarantee from the embassy was enough for them.

The Stalinist leadership felt no need to politically explain such a strange event and on the contrary they rejoiced in it, presenting it to the mass of detainees as proof on their part of the good intentions of the Germans.

This had reinforced their certainty about a liberation in the near future and they had begun their preparations. Every day we were subjected to their aggressions and provocations: for us there was no question of their Hitlerian friends and allies liberating us. We all had to prepare ourselves for the firing squad. They spoke and conducted themselves as if they were from then on the masters or the associate masters, with the Germans, of the situation. Those reading these lines must understand that nothing is in the least bit exaggerated.

From the day that the German troops seized the country, all of us, the political prisoners, became hostages. They told us it, and we knew it. The collective executions must have started in 1942. The hostages were promised death, the Greek gendarmes guarded them and handed them over to their executioners on behalf of the occupation authorities.

The German paratroops only disarmed the camp garrison for a few hours. They very quickly agreed things with the governor. It wasn’t difficult. There was only the obstacle of language between them. They found some interpreters and they found that, beyond the differences of speech, they spoke the same language. The gendarmes got back their arms, and the governor his position.

A lot has been written, more or less everywhere, about this dramatic period of the Occupation. We will confine ourselves to one point: the strict guard, very strict in fact, of the warehouses of goods for the army maintained by the Greek police. A guard against who? Against the Greek people. On behalf of who? The Germans. When a few people set about opening the warehouses at Kokkinia they were confronted by the guns of the police.

How many of the thousands of people who died of hunger in the terrible winter of 1941-1942 would have been saved if the population had been left free to share out the goods in the army warehouses and merchants’ shops, after most of it had been taken by the Germans?

Some of those who describe, “with their pen drenched in tears”, the shame, emotion, etc., who direct the people to the sight of the swastika flag floating over the Acropolis, present, filled with “national pride”, the fact that their was no looting or vandalism as an example of civic responsibility.

(12) The Greco-Italian front stabilised itself in Albania. Two months from the invasion of the USSR, Hitler had decided to lance the boil on his southern flank, all the more because the British had landed troops in Greece. He attacked on 6 April 1941, setting out from Bulgaria.

(13) From an illness, 29 January 1941.

(14) The New Zealanders were mostly in the British Expeditionary Force.

(15) Bulgaria, allied to Germany and Italy, had its own zone of occupation in the north-east of Greece.