“The struggle now is for everything,” Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, 28 October 1940.
At 3:00 in the morning on 28 October 1940, the Italian ambassador in Athens delivered a message to the Greek government. Allow the Italian army to enter Greece and occupy strategic positions, it said, or there will be war.
“Alors, c’est la guerre,” responded Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas. Then, it will be war.
The Italian army didn’t even wait for his answer – by 5:30 am they were streaming toward the Albanian border with Greece. At the same time, Greek citizens poured into the streets of Athens paraphrasing the reply of their Prime Minister, “OXI!” “NO!” they shouted. They demonstrated and shouted together, political differences pushed aside in the face of this threat to them all.
The Italians made a hash of it – although Mussolini had thought the small nation with its minuscule military would be an easy addition to their territory, the Greeks quickly disabused them of that notion. Not only were the Italians unable to achieve their objectives within Greece, but Greece was able to pick up territories in Albania. And, now that Greek’s neutrality had been challenged, Great Britain had become part of the resistance as well due to the Declaration of 1939.
Hitler, furious at Mussolini for his ineptitude and for putting the British planes within striking distance of the oil fields at Ploiesti in Romania, knew that the Greek resistance to Axis rule could not be allowed to continue.
On 6 April 1941, five months after the initial oxi, the German army invaded. On the night of 26 April, Athens Radio gave its last free address: You are listening to the voice of Greece. Greeks, stand firm, proud, and dignified. You must prove yourself worthy of your history. The valor and victory of our army has already been recognized. The righteousness of our cause will also be recognized. We did our duty honestly. Friends! Have Greece in your hearts, live inspired with the fire of her latest triumph and the glory of our army. Greece will live again and will be great, because she fought honestly for a just cause and for freedom. Brothers! Have courage and patience. Be stout hearted. We will overcome these hardships. Greeks! With Greece in your minds you must be proud and dignified. We have an honest nation and brave soldiers.
On 27 April 1941, the first Germans entered Athens and drove straight to the Acropolis to raise the swastika above the city. Although the story is a legend and unproven, there was yet another oxi – when the Evzone Konstantinos Koukidis, upon being ordered to replace the Greek flag and surrender, instead wrapped himself in the lowered flag and jumped to his death.
The act mirrored that of the Prime Minister who had replaced Metaxas after his January death. Alexandros Koryzis shot himself on 18 April 1941 rather than be present for a German occupation of Athens.
“OXI,” the Greeks cried.
To the world Winston Churchill said, “Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Because of the delay caused by Axis troops needing to respond to the Greek oxi, the invasion of Russia was delayed. German troops now had to contend with the harsh Eastern winter as well as the Soviet Army. The trajectory of the second world war changed. Although Greek’s initial resistance ended in occupation, they were still a vital component of the Allied victory.
All because the Greeks shouted, “OXI!“
For a more in-depth look at the Battle of Greece, see The Battle For Greece.