Author Reexamines Greek Famine During Years of Nazi Occupation



German troops marching into Athens. Credit: Bundesarkiv/Wikimedia Commons

Just one week before the great national holiday of OXI Day, when the nation of Greece proudly commemorates its leader declaring a clear “No!” to the forces of fascism, it is timely to take another look at life under the years of German occupation in the country.

The Australian author and professor Violetta Hionidou addressed this topic as part of the Greek Community of Melbourne’s recent seminar “Famine and Death in Occupied Greece” in an attempt to set the record straight on some misperceptions that have made their way into the Greek consciousness regarding those dark times.

The exact causes of the famine — which, according to research, killed at least 200,000 and perhaps as many as 300,00 people during the War — and the reasons behind the formation of the black market were already set in stone by 1949, she says, and it has been hard to push through those misconceptions.

Professor Hionidou, the author of the work “Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944,” and who teaches modern European history at the University of Newcastle in the UK, holds that areas outside the Greek capital suffered as much as — and often much more — than Athens during those times, but that fact is little known or appreciated.

“Most of the photographs and accounts are from Athens — but Athens did not suffer the most. Mykonos, Syros and Hios certainly suffered more. Piraeus too, as it was a much poorer community at the time,” said Professor Hionidou at the seminar.

Italy, Bulgaria and the Allied Blockade

Perhaps as expected, in the memory of the nation, most of the blame for the famine has been laid at the feet of the German Army, while the parts that other nations, including Italy and Bulgaria, played in the atrocity has not been acknowledged.

Dr. Hionidou also said that the Allied blockade of the country also contributed to the ravages of the famine as well.

“Both the Greek Left and Right blamed the Germans,” she says, “which may account for a lack of an in-depth discussion of the causes of the famine. The official view developed by 1949 is that there was no one responsible except for the Germans.”

“Blaming the Germans exclusively is one-sided, as it ignores the complex causality of the famine,” Hionidou explained.

As time went on, she added, stealing from the occupying forces was widely seen as an acceptable and necessary act of resistance — but sadly, a great deal of the thefts took place when Greek natives stole from other Greeks.

Explaining that “The famine memory has variations at local level,” Hionidou reminded her listeners that Greece had been divided into three zones after it fell to the Germans in April of  1941.

Of course, it was the Germans who ruled parts of Athens, along with Thessaloniki, most of the island of Crete and areas in the Aegean. However, it was the nation of Bulgaria which controlled the region of Thrace and eastern sections of Macedonia. Italy was the nation in charge of most of mainland Greece under occupation.

The nation being divided into thirds, with strict controls on trade, made the movement of goods from place to place in Greece even more difficult, exacerbating the famine, according to the professor.

Collaborationist government’s ineptitude

With the former Greek government now in exile, the new Greek government under the collaborator General George Tsolakoglu, consisting mostly of officers with no experience in governing people, was completely incompetent, unable to garner support or obedience from its own people.

Added to that reality was the fact that its military officers had no experience in governing a nation or overseeing the distribution of consumer goods.

The Greek economy understandably collapsed completely as a result of these extraordinarily difficult circumstances, the professor explains. After that point, there seemed to be no alternative but to traffic in the black market for what was needed — and to provide a way for those with goods to make much-needed income.

The black market became the primary way most Greek people were able to obtain foods and other goods during the rest of the War years.

Needing a scapegoat, the professor says, for their many shortcomings in ruling the country, the Greek government made the black market the whipping post for the tremendous shortages in food supply at the time.

“One of my informants said there was no “white” market (for food), only the black market. The black market was the only market and had essentially been legitimized,” Hionidou told her listeners.

“Being a black marketeer had strong negative connotations and no one would admit to being part of it when I asked how they survived,” she noted. “One lawyer said he was paid (for his services) in food and he would barter with the excess. He was operating in the black market, even if he did not consider this to be the case.

“Only one informant admitted to being a black marketeer – to his wife’s dismay. He explained that his family of five could not have survived only from the food he grew on his land,” she explained.

With the political situation as dire as it was, there was and is no way to really know how much food was actually produced in Greece during those years. The collaborationist government officials came up with the idea of imposing a 10 percent tithe on the foods grown by farmers out in the countryside as a way to give the “surplus” to the starving inhabitants of Greece’s large cities.

However, very understandably, farmers often refused to give up this portion of their harvests, either keeping it to feed their own families or selling it on the black market as another means to keep their families alive.

Hinidou noted that, according to her research, “The farmers paid only a small part of the tax — while the civil servants estimated the production by multiplying the collected tax by 10 – this is why official agricultural production figures are so low for the period.”

“We have been told that food production had declined throughout the years of occupation but my research demonstrates this was not the case. All my informants, whether peasants or urbanites, confirm this,” she says.

During those incredibly difficult years, she holds, those who worked the land were even more careful than they had been before in its cultivation, knowing their survival was at risk. In actuality, she says, agricultural production was accordingly even greater than it had been in prior years.

“Peasants who had land cultivated it all as did the urbanites with their gardens. There were urbanites who entered into partnerships to work with people who could not cultivate their land for food because of age or illness – even if they lacked experience (to farm the land),” Hionidou said.

Food becomes the major currency of the nation

As can be easily understood, food itself became the main currency of the years of occupation — to the extent that the best jobs at the time were seen as those which involved working for the Germans and being paid with a plate of food.

Interestingly, the professor noted, Greeks who worked and were paid in this way were not seen as collaborators, as they were in other occupied countries, such as France.

As may be easily understood, food hoarding also contributed to the great famine, as people had begun to do so as the war loomed, beginning in late March of 1941. Professor Hionidou related that “The Metaxas government did not allow households to have more than a few kilos of food. When Metaxas died, there was a gradual loosening of restrictions and hoarding started.

“The official, national memory has variations at local level,” said Professor Hionidou as she explained the reasons why Greek citizens may have such differing recollections of those days. “Individual memory was unaffected by the public, official history in the 1990s.”

Actual paper currency during those dark years was used almost exclusively by those living in Athens, and at times also by civil servants, which was known to have occurred on Samos Island and in Epirus.

However, to survive, the professor says, “Most of the population were bartering; can you call this the Black Market? I would say ‘no’,” she maintained.

The professor also says that it is a popular misconception that farmers and others who worked the land, even landless peasants, had it easier during the Occupation since they had more access to food.

This may have been the case during the first year of the war, she says, when supplies were adequate, but that situation changed as time went on.

Unlike most of the other areas in the country, she says, Athenians received food aid after the Allied blockade was lifted in late February of 1942, with those in the rest of the country receiving little — and that irregularly.

Sadly, Professor Hionidou told the audience that there has been little research done on the long-term effects of the famine, in which as many as 300,000 people may have died from starvation, according to the most current figures.

Some research, she says, has been done by historian Sheila Lecoeur, on the island of Syros, which was under Italian occupation. Much more, however, needs to be done regarding the role other Axis powers played in this tragic chapter of Greek history.

“There is no discussion of the Italian and Bulgarian role in relation to the famine,” Professor Hionidou maintained.