On December 3, 1944, one of the bloodiest and most polarizing incidents in the history of the 20th century Greek civil war occurred in Athens. Known as “Dekemvriana” (from December, the month they started), the incident has come to characterise the month-and-a-half-old bloody period of civil atrocities following the Nazis’ departure from occupied Greece.
During a banned left-wing demonstration of approximately 250.000 people in central Athens, an outbreak of shooting of co-commanded X and LOK (Lochos Oreinon Katadromon, the Greek stay-behind) troop members, British troops, and police forces with machine guns positioned on the rooftops of Syntagma square, resulted in 28 deaths (including that of a six-year-old boy) and 148 wounded people.
The incident led to full-scale fighting between Communist-backed EAM/ELAS resistance forces and government army in the following days. The role of the government LOK troops in the Syntagma massacre was never investigated.
Greece’s western allies tried to stay neutral at first, but when the battle escalated they intervened with artillery and aircraft fire. During the outbreak of violence, the government deployed only a few policemen and a brigade without heavy weapons. By December 12, ELAS forces were in control of most of Athens and Piraeus.
The outnumbered government forces and its western allies flew in the 4th Infantry Division from Italy as reinforcements. Conflicts continued all through December, with the government forces slowly gaining the upper hand.
Curiously, ELAS forces in the rest of Greece initially did not join the fight. They did so later in December, when the conflict turned into a full scale civil war between government and allied forces on one side and communist and leftist forces on the other. Extreme violence and atrocities were recorded on both sides.
As the end of the year was approaching, British PM Winston Churchill attempted a peace initiative. He arrived in Athens on December 25, 1944, and presided over a conference, in which Soviet Union representatives participated, to bring about a settlement.
The peace conference failed because the ELAS demands were considered excessive and ultimately rejected. Soviet Union’s position during the conflict, deliberately unclear as it was, played a crucial part in the final outcome.
The Soviets were neither encouraging, nor discouraging the Greek communists’ ambitions, as, according to the 1943 Moscow agreement, Greece belonged to the British sphere of influence. It seems that Stalin didn’t have the intention to avert the Dekemvriana as he would profit, no matter the outcome.
By early January ELAS forces had been driven from Athens. As a result of Churchill’s intervention, centrist Prime minister Georgios Papandreou resigned and was replaced by General Nikolaos Plastiras, a firm anti-Communist.
On January 15, 1945, a ceasefire was agreed upon, in exchange for ELAS’ withdrawal from its positions at the cities of Patras and Thessaloniki and its demobilization in the Peloponnese. It was a severe defeat for ELAS forces, but not the end of their campaign.
The communist-led army made many enemies by summarily executing up to 8.000 people for various political “crimes”, during the time Athens was under their control. They also took another 20.000 hostages with them when they departed.
After the Athens fighting, Communist party support declined sharply, and as a result, most of the prominent non-Communists in ELAS left the organization.
The Communist party had an opportunity to reconsider its strategy and its forces were to resume their campaign four years later, in the final chapter of the bloody Greek civil war.