It has been 80 years since the great “OXI!” Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas said to the fascist powers of Italy, yet the events of the days leading to October 28, 1940 are similar to today, as Greece says OXI once again to Turkey’s eyeing of Greek islands and territorial waters.
World War II had engulfed most of Europe by October of 1940. Central and northern Europe were under German occupation, with Greece and Yugoslavia remaining neutral thus far. Adolf Hitler’s ally, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, thought that neighboring Greece would be easy to occupy, and an ultimatum to the Greek leadership would be enough for the small country to surrender.
The Axis’ long-desired foothold in the Eastern Mediterranean would then be complete.
Italian troops were already stationed in Albania, then a protectorate of Italy. The Greeks already knew that it was simply a matter of time before they would have to engage in war with Italy. Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas kept a neutral attitude as long as he could, yet it was known that he sided with England, which at the time was undergoing ruthless bombardment from the air by the Nazis.
Additionally, on August 15 of that year, the Italian submarine “Delfino” torpedoed and sank the “Elli”, a Greek Navy cruiser, outside the port of Tinos. August 15 is, of course, the holiest of all the Greek Orthodox feasts, the Dormition of Virgin Mary, and the church dedicated to this feast on Tinos is the place where thousands of faithful flock to worship every year.
The order for the attack was given by the Italian commander of the Dodecanese, Cesare Maria de Vecchi, a leading member of the Fascist Party of Italy, and must have been after an order from Mussolini himself. Officially, the “Elli” was said to have been hit by an “unknown” submarine, but deep down in their hearts, Greeks knew it had been Italian.
And their rage against the fascists soon began to grow in earnest.
The attack had taken place in the morning, shortly before the procession of the holy icon of the Virgin Mary at the island’s port. It was an attack against Greece and against Greek Orthodoxy, costing the lives of a Navy officer, eight seamen, and one civilian as well as injuries to 24 people.
Greeks around the country flew into a rage against the Italians, knowing that they must have been the perpetrators, since the Dodecanese were under Italian rule at the time.
So, just two months later, in the early hours of October 28, when Italian ambassador Emanuele Grazzi visited Metaxas and demanded Greece to allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified “strategic locations” or otherwise face war, he received the reply “Alors, c’est la guerre!” (“Then it is war!”).
Allegedly it was bruited about that the answer had been a simple “OXI”, simply because the reply in the language of diplomacy at the time — French — was too complicated and didn’t seem like a catchy enough slogan. Nevertheless, “OXI!” is the answer that remained in history and the Greeks’ collective consciousness.
People from all walks of life and political affiliations took to the streets to express their united will to fight the enemy. They waved the Greek flag and shouted “OXI,” declaring that not only were they willing to fight, but they would like to go to war immediately.
Similarities to Challenges Faced in 2020
Today Greece is facing a familiar enemy — but this time from the East. A military power that has grown much larger than it needs to be, led by a man who dreams of reviving the Ottoman Empire of old. A man who exhibits all the whims and behaviors of a dictator under the veil of a leader whose country is wronged by the whole world.
By flexing his military muscle in the Eastern Mediterranean, Erdogan initially believed that Greece would buckle and give him what he wanted — just like Mussolini did 80 years ago until he faced the united courage of the Greeks.
Greece did not buckle then, and it will not buckle now.
There is no denying that Recep Tayyip Erdogan acts much like the Fuhrer: He wants to conquer lands and expand his country; and he has invaded Syria and Iraq, and slaughtered Kurds, while at the same time he involves his country in wars in Libya and Armenia and threatens Greece, Cyprus — and now France.
Turkey has done much to provoke Greece and the international community in the past months. It has turned Hagia Sophia into a mosque; its leader has used derogatory terms for other world leaders; it repeatedly violates Greece’s airspace and territorial waters; it does illegal explorations for oil in Cyprus’ EEZ, and the list goes on and on.
On the home front, Erdogan jails and tortures his opponents — both real and imaginary — and acts like a dictator, taking away the civil liberties of his constituents, while promising a greater, enlarged Turkey to his fanatic followers.
Turkey is also using propaganda to present the Greek people as the ones who are committing provocative acts in the Aegean — much like the Italians did back in 1940, when they were manufacturing reports of the Greek Army attacking Italian troops in Albania days before the ultimatum of October 28.
Finally, let’s not forget that during World War II, Turkey kept an officially “neutral” stance, but through a secret trade treaty it was in reality providing metals to the Nazis for their war machine and other goods.
Greece continues to maintain its cool stance against Turkey’s continued threats and illegal activities in the Aegean — much like its stance against the Axis 80 years ago. It has chosen the diplomatic route because these are times of peace, despite Erdogan’s open aggression and aversion to diplomacy.
Greeks have a saying that roughly translates to “A dog that barks a lot, never bites,” and the Turkish leader does a great deal of the former.
But if worse comes to worse, much like thousands of Greeks from all political affiliations rushed into the streets, waving the flag and shouting “OXI!” in 1940, make no mistake –they would do the same today if Turkey pulls the trigger first in the Aegean.