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See Athens By means of the Eyes of a World Struggle II Historian


ATHENS, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST and most fabled cities, has earned its popularity because the cradle of Western civilization over its 3,400-year historical past. At this time a contemporary metropolis of three.5 million residents, Athens’s wealthy heritage is seen at a look: dotted inside the city sprawl are historical pillared relics, a marble stadium, Byzantine church buildings, mosques, and arguably the capital metropolis’s most well-known landmark, the Acropolis—translated as “excessive level.” It’s right here that I begin my self-guided tour—ascending the summit not just for the view but additionally seeking a storied previous that sheds gentle on Greece’s often-overlooked function in World Struggle II.

The rocky promontory, rising nearly 500 ft above the town’s sea of concrete, is dwelling to a number of historical temples and is the positioning of one of the vital recognizable ruins on the earth, the Parthenon. The Doric-columned temple, devoted to the goddess Athena, was accomplished in 432 BC and stood largely untouched till pirates sacked it in 276 AD. It was transformed to a Christian church within the sixth century, and the Ottomans later used it as a mosque. The Venetians shelled it in 1687, archeologists raided it in 1799—and, on its grounds in 1941, German invaders raised an enormous red-and-white flag adorned with a black swastika. 

Occupying Germans hoist a warfare flag over the Acropolis in 1941. (Bundesarchiv Bild 101I-165-0419-19A Picture: Bauer)

Metaxas vs. mussolini

Greece was a reluctant World Struggle II belligerent, its try to stay impartial ending at 3 a.m. on Monday, October 28, 1940. When Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini demanded the Greeks undergo occupation, Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is alleged to have replied with one phrase—“No!”—which grew to become a rallying cry all through the nation. Two and a half hours later, the Italians invaded from Albania with six divisions.

The dogged Greek protection, with British air help, held the Italians at bay. In January 1941, the Hellenic Military’s counterattack pushed the invaders again over the border, giving the Allies certainly one of their few early victories, however at the price of a number of thousand casualties. With the arrival of the British Expeditionary Power and Greece now firmly dedicated to the Allied trigger, the Germans invaded in April. Three weeks later, they reached Athens.

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the Acropolis

Atop the Acropolis, I wander the grounds, winding my means round guests mingling in entrance of the 45-foot-tall marble Parthenon, some marveling at its magnificence, others posing for selfies. There is no such thing as a shade on the summit, so arriving earlier than the warmth of the day was prudent—besides, I really feel the solar beating down on me as I cross the Erechtheion, an asymmetrical temple, additionally devoted to Athena, to the north of the Parthenon. Interval pictures reveal that its ornamental wall of six sculpted feminine figures was a preferred vacationer vacation spot for occupying Wehrmacht troopers. Lastly, I make my approach to the statement deck on the east aspect of the rocky outcrop. Right here an unlimited blue-and-white Greek flag flutters within the breeze. It was close to this website on April 27, 1941, the day the Germans rolled into the capital, the place Konstantinos Koukidis, a soldier of the elite Evzones gentle infantry, was on guard responsibility.

Because the story goes, the Germans ascended the Acropolis, intent on elevating their flag over the town. An officer hailed Koukidis, commanding he decrease the nationwide colours to hoist the swastika instead. Koukidis did as he was informed, however somewhat than surrendering the Greek flag, he wrapped it round his physique and leapt off the cliff to his loss of life.

A small plaque commemorates the occasion, which has generated its share of skepticism. In 2000, the mayor of Athens declared that no documentary proof had been discovered to verify the act, regardless of a number of claims by eyewitnesses. My casual survey of tour guides, docents, and locals are unanimous of their help of the story’s validity.

Koukidis’s unit of Evzones was disbanded throughout the occupation, with most of the troops forming the ranks of resistance teams. At this time the Evzone traditions and battle honors are carried on by the Presidential Guard, a distinctively garbed infantry unit that performs ceremonial duties.

Nationwide Parliament constructing

To get extra perception into their historical past, I hike again down the hill and head to the Nationwide Parliament constructing. My route takes me by the Plaka, the town’s oldest neighborhood, and it feels nearly legal to make use of my cellphone’s GPS to assist me thread my means by the traditional, twisty streets. Not a lot has modified right here for the reason that late 1800s, and the wrought-iron balconies, neoclassical structure, and slender alleys make it straightforward to think about the neighborhood within the Nineteen Forties. What’s tougher to think about is the Third Reich’s shadow dimming these cozy labyrinthine streets, many teeming with hibiscus and olive bushes.

The Parliament constructing, a commanding three-story edifice tucked into the northwest nook of the 38-acre Nationwide Backyard, was in-built 1842 as a palace for Greece’s first king after independence from the Ottomans. In 1926, it was gutted for renovation right into a single-chamber parliamentary council. On the base of the constructing, beneath its columned facade, is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flanking the tomb are two blue-roofed guard shacks, manned by Evzones standing at consideration, with bayonet-tipped M1 Garand rifles at their sides. They’re unmoving, reminding me of the red-coated British troopers posted in entrance of Buckingham Palace. The guards put on their conventional uniform, with its origins within the 1800s: a small pink fez with an extended black tassel, a knee-length, button-up tunic with a black leather-based cartridge belt, white leggings with black garters, and hobnailed clogs topped with black pompoms. 

Evzones guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which has honored the nation’s warfare lifeless for greater than a century. (James Fenelon)

I watch the 2 guards start their measured, ceremonial march towards the tomb, which is dominated by a marble reduction of a prostrate Spartan. Inscribed on both aspect of the fallen warrior are the names of battlefields courting again to the early 1900s. Included are greater than a dozen from World Struggle II, akin to Pindus, Crete, Hill 731, and El Alamein, all serving as reminders of the 35,000 Greek troopers who met their deaths throughout the warfare. The guards, with rifles shouldered, transfer painstakingly slowly with a regimented excessive kick on every step. Juxtaposed in opposition to the noise of passing buses and vehicles on the close by multilane boulevard, the solemn ritual is made extra poignant by the Evzones’ silent focus. 

lodge grande bretagne

Throughout the road from the Parliament constructing is the Lodge Grande Bretagne, my final cease. The luxurious lodge overlooking each the Parliament constructing and Athens’s central plaza—Syntagma Sq.—is one other instance of the town’s layered and hidden previous. Inbuilt 1842 as a personal mansion, it was renovated in 1874 right into a lodge. In 1930, the lodge expanded with the addition of a brand new wing. Through the warfare, the Greek Basic Headquarters established itself within the lodge till the German occupation, when it served as Wehrmacht headquarters. The lodge’s well-appointed foyer and ornate tapestry within the atrium’s Alexander’s Lounge would make the employees officers of any military really feel snug.

It was right here in Could 1941 that Basic-leutnant Kurt Pupil deliberate Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete. The glider and parachute assault was a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans, who suffered greater than 26 p.c casualties, nevertheless it accomplished the Axis occupation of Greece and commenced a multi-year reign of terror: tens of 1000’s of civilians died from famine, torture, and executions, whereas an estimated 60,000 Jews had been deported from Greece to German loss of life camps.

Tomb of the unknown soldier

In the identical month that Crete fell, two Greek college students, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, crept by the darkish to scale the Acropolis and make off with the Germans’ swastika-emblazoned warfare flag. It was finally changed, and the occupiers sentenced Glezos and Santas to loss of life in absentia. However the brazen act additional impressed a fledgling Greek resistance motion, which by 1944 had grown to over 1,000,000 women and men. The underground harassed the Germans till October 1944, when the invaders withdrew after the Soviet Purple Military seized the very important Ploesti oil fields in Romania, lowering Greece’s strategic significance as a deterrent to Allied air raids. Fittingly, interval newsreel footage reveals a German soldier scurrying from the Acropolis with the Nazi flag bunched over his shoulder.

With the occupation in thoughts, I head as much as the lodge’s rooftop patio, from the place I can see the Unknown Soldier’s tomb to the left and the Greek flag flying excessive above the Acropolis to my proper. The sweeping view of recent buildings, public parks, historical ruins, and distant mountains jogs my memory that Athens is a metropolis of celebrated legends. And on the finish of the day, I don’t know if Koukidis actually leapt to his loss of life or not, however I do know Athens’s historical past of sacrifice and resistance makes it straightforward to imagine he did. 

WHEN YOU GO

Athens is well accessible by air or sea. The worldwide airport is serviced by all main and regional airways, and close by Piraeus is Europe’s largest cruise ship port. Getting across the metropolis is simple by Metro, bus, tram, ridesharing, or foot.

The place to Keep and Eat

Athens has a myriad of inns, B & Bs, and trip leases to satisfy any traveler’s funds. These looking for a historic luxurious expertise can be hard-pressed to beat the centrally situated Lodge Grande Bretagne, the place the bartenders serve a few of the metropolis’s greatest cocktails. For recent fish and a view of the well-lit Acropolis, strive dinner atop The Outdated Tavern of Psaras.

What Else to See and Do

With Athens’s quite a few world-renowned museums, it could be straightforward to miss the Struggle Museum, protecting Hellenic martial historical past from antiquity to the current day. On show are uncommon weapons, uniforms, artwork, and battlefield relics. 

Six miles south from the town heart and accessible by way of a tram experience from Syntagma Sq. is the Phaleron Struggle Cemetery. Inside its well-curated grounds stands the Athens Memorial, which commemorates the 1000’s of Commonwealth troops who died throughout World Struggle II campaigns in mainland Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia, and the Dodecanese islands.

this text first appeared in world warfare II journal

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