Refugees from Asia Minor and the Greek Left

by Theo Pavlidis

This essay discusses the reasons that many Greeks joined the communist-led resistance during World War II even though few were committed communists. I include it in the section about the Asia Minor refugees because many of people in the left were from Asia Minor.
The Situation

Greece had the great misfortune that the German occupation of World War II was followed by five years of civil war between "communists" and "nationalists" and some wounds have not healed nearly sixty years after the events. One of the effects of the civil war was to taint all those involved in the World War II Greek resistance of EAM/ELAS as communists. While the leadership of the group was certainly communist this was not true for many (if not most) of the rank and file. It is probably accurate to describe the majority as leftists and anti-royalists but they were far from understanding or being dedicated to Marxism. Others were quite apolitical who found themselves in EAM/ELAS because of circumstances. At least two kinds of people had little choice but to join a resistance group.

Already living in the "Mountains": During the German (and Italian) occupation the enemy had control of the cities but the mountainous countryside was up for grabs and it was under the control of various guerilla groups: ELAS (communist controlled), EDES (under Zervas, a centrist), and a few smaller ones. People who lived in the villages had little choice but to go along with the dominant group. The situation was aggravated because the Germans, in sporadic forays, used to take all men between the ages of 16 and 60 as hostages, so they would not join the guerillas. Eventually, this had the opposite effect. Men in that age group would go ahead and join the guerillas to avoid been taken hostages in the next German raid.

Jews Fleeing German Roundups: Several Jews also fled to the mountains to avoid deportation (and certain death) by the Germans. ELAS welcome them and several became active in the resistance. Their touching stories are described in the recent book by Steven Bowman [SB06] and in the earlier book by Michael Matsas [MM97] as well as in a recent story [YO05]. The following statement from Bowman's book (p. 4) is pertinent to our discussion:

" ... only a minority of Jews who went to the mountains was sympathetic to communism. More were socialists ... Even more were apolitical; they came out of desperation, as an escape from persecution and deportation."

Asia Minor Refugees in EAM/ELAS

A group that was highly represented in EAM/ELAS were refugees from Asia Minor who landed in Greece in the 1920's after being expelled from their homelands in what is now Turkey. They faced wretched living conditions in Greece, not only physical hardship but also cultural shock and discrimination. Many of them spoke only Turkish and they were classified as Greeks only because they were Orthodox Christians. Greece was for them a strange place. (Greek speaking Moslems who were expelled to Turkey found themselves also in a similarly tough situation.) The locals resented them and used for the refugees such derogatory terms as" Turkish-seed" (Τουρκοσποροι). They also used the term "refugee" to threaten unruly children (Αν δεν κατσεις ησυχος, θα σε παρει ο προσφυγας)

Not all the refugees were poor. What is probably more accurate to say is that almost everybody saw a big drop in their standard of living as well as in the social standing. People who were well off in their old location were usually able to bring some gold and they had skills to start a small business. But it was nothing similar to what they used to have. People who were small farmers or fishermen they left behind their sources of livelihood and ended up in extreme poverty. I remember that as late as in the 1950's (30 years after the "population exchange") there were large areas with flimsy housing called refugee areas (προσφυγικα). (The ones who faired best were the trained professionals and it was drilled in to me very early that the only thing worth having is what you can "carry in your head", namely professional skills.)

It was natural for many, especially the young, to be attracted by revolutionary slogans and the promise of a "workers' paradise." It is the purpose of this essay to show that for most of them (and many other Greeks) their leftward move had more to do with the difficult situation they have found themselves in Greece rather than any deep commitment to Marxism. I should add that the older generation was far more skeptical. They had seen too much to be convinced that any particular ideology was going to "save the world" and they were dismayed by the leftward drift of their sons and daughters. Even amongst the younger generation not all ended on the left. Several distinguished themselves and even gave their lives in the nationalist side during the civil war.

The subject is too important to rely only on my own memories (they are limited anyway) so I want also to draw on published sources. Foremost amongst them is C. M. Woodhouse's account of the period [WH76]. Woodhouse (with the rank of colonel) was commander of the Allied Military Mission to the Greek guerillas in German-occupied Greece and he had an intimate knowledge of the immediate situation. His book exhibits enormous insight and understanding of the politics. In spite of the title of the book, the coverage starts in 1918. He describes how the communist party attracted people who "came from the periphery of Greece, both geographically and sociologically." Prominent amongst them were refugees from Asia Minor (Woodhouse calls them Anatolian refugees) and Jews from Salonica (p. 11-13).

To start with, the refugees were anti-monarchist for historical reasons. Asia Minor was part of the Ottoman empire and in 1919 the Greek Army arrived in the area while the head of the government was Venizelos, head of the liberal (centrist) party and sworn enemy of the king. However Venizelos lost the 1920 elections, king Constantine returned from exile and two years later the Greek Army was defeated by the Turkish forces (I have described those events and I have listed several books about the history of the period in my History of a Family from Asia Minor) Rightly or wrongly most of the million and half refugees blamed the king for the loss of the ancestral homelands and thought of Venizelos as their liberator. (Of course, a good argument has been made that Venizelos should have never sent the Greek Army there, so he, rather than the king, was the cause of the misery of the refugees. But that was not the popular view then.) It was not a big step for young people to drift further to the left, some of them going all the way to reach the leadership of the Greek Communist Party (for example Zakhariadis). Others, amongst the more politically sophisticated, were disillusioned by the tortuous politics of the party and moved away, but when the German occupation came and joined the resistance they found a natural home in the leftist EAM. EAM went into great lengths to hide the extend to which it was controlled by Stalinist communists.

Other non-communists in EAM/ELAS

Another good source for the diversity of people in EAM/ELAS is the book by Nicholas Gage [NG83] that gives an account of the period culminating with the execution of his mother by the communists. It may surprise some people that I include this book in an essay that is trying to rehabilitate the reputation of the leftist resistance, but Gage differentiates between the leaders and the followers. For example, on page 87 there is a particularly revealing passage:

"Although they had been defeated (by the Zerva's EDES guerillas) ..., Prokopi (a local guerilla leader) was proud of the way his men comported themselves in battle ... He had turned his army of tinkers and shepherds into a disciplined fighting unit. But the regional leaders of the Greek Communist Party, which controlled ELAS, could not forgive the defeat ... (because) ... he allowed the Mourgana unit to be directed by a local committee rather than than men handpicked by the party leaders in Yannina. ... The party decided to tighten the reins on the Mourgana guerillas."

Gage goes on to describe how Prokopis was replaced by a man sent by the party leaders and how Prokopis was accused of weakness "because he had allowed men in his organization who were not true believers." Eventually party discipline was established but "Within a week ... a dozen of the unit's most experienced fighters ... (deserted and eventually) joined Zervas' rival EDES forces."

Mark Mazower's [MMZ93], [MMZ00] books also provide similar views about the diversity of the people who were in EAM/ELAS and point out that both organizations varied a lot from place to place. Mazower presents extensive documentation of his sources but I would like to add that he is writing as a historian after the facts. In contrast, Gage and Woodhouse were eye-witnesses, with the latter being involved at a very high level.

I heard once Nicholas Gage giving a talk in New Jersey where he made a very astute observation. I had always been puzzled that some of the most fanatical communists in Greece had come from strongly religious family. Gage solved my puzzled by pointing out that while these people rejected their religious upbringing, they kept the habit of blind faith, replacing one belief by another.

The really bad guys

Greece had had a long time problem of banditry in the mountainous regions. There was a major cleanup effort in the 1920s, but they were not entirely eliminated. Such bands ended joining up one or another guerilla group. Also in any political upheaval criminal elements and sociopaths tend to surface and join the fracas. There is a Greek proverb: "The wolf is the happiest when there is an upheaval." (Ο Λυκος στην αναμπαμπουλα χαιρεται). Such elements were probably responsible for most of the random atrocities committed by both sides. Of course fanatical political elements did their share, but they tended to be more focused on whom they went after. In several cases the criminal/pathological element would change sides and continue their atrocities, supposedly on behalf of the opposite site.

It is an interesting coincidence that such a character is described in Orhan Pamuk's book "Snow". While that book deals with events in Turkey, some of the situations are parallel to what I saw in Greece. (After all both countries were part of the Ottoman Empire for several centuries with mixed populations that were not separated until the horrible "population exchange" of 1922-24. As a result they share many cultural and social traits.) Pamuk also describes how some of the radical Turkish Islamists used to be Marxists, illustrating that fanatics may change their beliefs, but the extreme ways they adhere to them, very much as Gage described.

After the War

The Germans left Greece in a hurry in October 1944 because the advance of the Russian Army in the Balkans would have cut them off. A government of national unity was established with the premier being a left-of-center politician, George Papandreou. EAM had six cabinet posts with two of them held by Communist Party members. Of course, this was not good enough for the communist leadership and in an early December 1944 they launched a coup to take over. Eventually this led to a full blown civil war and their eventual defeat. There is a good account of these events in Woodhouse's book (as well as those of Mazower) that includes the following telling passage (p. 233)

"The rebels failed because the mass of the Greek people was against them. ... There were other factors at work: the growing scale of United Stated aid, ..., the discord within the Communist alliance, ... . But none of these could have been decisive without a clear determination on the part of the Greek people. ... Greece was indeed genuinely, not artificially divided. There was right and wrong on both sides. But when the Greek people had to choose, on balance, if without enthousiasm or euphoria, they deliberately chose the nation-state they knew rather than the Communist paradise they were offered."

My own personal experience fits quite well with this observation. The attitude of most people could be described by the colloquial expression: "Better stay with the devil you know." Major credit is due to the leaders of the anti-royalist parties. During the civil war they supported the king, wisely chosing the (far) lesser of two evils. What is ironic is that during the mid 1960's the same leaders were accused by the extreme right of facilitating the establishment of a communist regime and, therefore, the extreme right would have to take over with unconstitutional means to stop them!!!

I have heard (and I find it credible) that there were some particular factors at play (they fit to certain extend with the accounts in Eleni [NG83]). During the German occupation there was a clear enemy that everybody hated. As long as ELAS was fighting the Germans, it was guaranteed a certain popularity. This factor was gone during the civil war. It seems the communist leadership had misjudged the reason for the support they had during the war when launched the December 1944 coup. In addition, most peasants in the world do not like their central governments who collect taxes and conscript their sons into the Army while providing little in return. When the communists first took power over a region its inhabitants might have been to get rid of the central government. But the communists started conscripting their sons (and daughters) into their Army and taxing them (often by confiscating crops) they turned around quickly. The point here is that the communists had to achieve a certain degree of success before people turned against them.

These are important points that go beyond the subject at hand. The "American stand" in Greece that stopped a communist insurrection is often cited in justifying the Vietnam war and other military campaigns. There is a big difference though. There were no American troops in Greece, except for a few officers who were truly advisers. All the fighting was done by Greek troops. (British troops were involved in a brief period during the December 1944 coup because the country had just been liberated from the Germans and the Greek government had not had yet the chance to organize an army.)

In my personal experience the worst result of the December 1944 Communist coup was a rightist backlash with the result that Greece fell under extreme right wing governments culminating with the military junta of 1967-74. The Greek Nazi collaborators were left off the hook and Greece is probably the only country in Europe where those who fought the Germans fared worse than those who collaborated with them. The label of communist was applied to anyone who dared expressed an opinion not in accordance with extreme right wing ideology. For example, Greece used to have two languages, the spoken (Δημοτικη) and an archaic idiom used in official documents (Καθαρευουσα). The communists had tried to gain points by advocating using the spoken language in official documents as well. That was an eminently reasonable position and it has been the practice in all Western European countries (once the use of Latin ceased). It also became the practice in Greece after 1974. But there was a time when taking such a position would expose a person to accusations of being a communist.

It was only in 1974 that a centrist government came back to power and effective democracy was established in Greece. The communist leadership had set the political development of the country back for thirty years. During the 1944-49 civil war there were hundreds of thousands of deaths and large parts of the country side were devastated. There was massive emigration to Australia and Canada because normal life in the villages occupied alternatively by communist and nationalist forces had become impossible.

Caught in Between

One problem in any civil strife is that many people may like neither side but they are forced to take sides. During the 1944-49 civil war the choice was between the communists and the royalists. I have not been following Greek politics very closely, but my impression is that each of these extremes never gathered much more than 10% of the votes in the post 1974 free elections. Therefore, during the civil war 70-80% of the people may not have been too keen about either side but they had to make choices. Worse of all was that people were caught with an affiliation because of circumstances.

Woodhouse (p. 233) cites a Greek source that claims that the non-Communist component of the rebel army might have been as high as 70% and the same source emphasizes the extreme brutality of the discipline imposed on them. Gage devotes the major part of his book on the forced recruitment of young people into the rebel army.

The Aftermath

People who had been part of the EAM/ELAS resistance during World War II were suspect by the nationalists and many of them were arrested and sent into exile into desolate islands of the Aegean. There were no judicial proceeding and no evidence gathering. All that was necessary was a suspicion that a person was sympathetic to the other side. (People for whom there was evidence of collaboration with the communist side were jailed and often sentenced to death and executed.) To prove one's innocence one had to name "collaborators" and undergo several humiliations. At end of the civil war all these people were let go although for a long time were not allowed to work for the government and their employment opportunities remained limited.

In several cases people were denounced for personal or business reasons. If person A owed person B money, A could get away from repaying the loan by denouncing B as a communist sympathizer. Unless A had been actively pro-royalist, he was in trouble. (He had to prove his innocence, the government did not have to prove his guilt.)


[SB06] Steven Bowman: Jewish Resistance in Wartime Greece, Vallentine Mitchell, 2006.

[MM97] Michael Matsas: The Illusion of Safety, Pella, 1997.

[MMZ93] Mark Mazower: Inside Hitler's Greece, Yale Nota Bene, 2001, original edition 1993.

[MMZ00] Mark Mazower (editor): After the War was Over, Princeton Univ. Press, 2000.

[NG83] Nicholas Gage: Eleni, Random House, 1983.

[OP04] Orhan Pamuk: Snow, Alfred A. Knopf, 2004 (transl. from the Turkish)

[WH76] C. M. Woodhouse: The Struggle for Greece 1941-1949, Ivan R. Dee, Chicago, new edition 2003, original edition 1976.

[YO05] Yvonne Ouziel: The Unfortunate Fate of Menty - Memories from the Occupation, available from the archives of Kekhila Kadosha Janina. Site Map