It was a sunny autumn day when the bells in the churches of Athens began ringing joyously and the citizens rushed out on the streets, many of them waving the Greek flag in celebration. Everyone knew why. The bells were ringing the sound of liberation as the Nazis who had occupied Athens for three and a half horrendous years were leaving at last.
It was October 12, 1944, a day for Athens to rejoice.
Soon the rest of the suffering country would be free as well. By November 3, the last German, Italian and Bulgarian soldier had left the mainland. Only the island of Crete had to suffer under the German boot for a few more months.
The countdown to the withdrawal of the Germans and other Axis powers from Greece had taken place a few months earlier, on June 6, when the American Army landed in Normandy and began to move toward Germany, with the Soviet Army advancing from the east. It was obvious then that the days of Nazi Germany were numbered.
In the weeks before the liberation, political consultations on the post-occupation situation in Greece intensified. For their part, the Germans were looking for ways to leave the country safely.
From April 26, 1944, Georgios Papandreou was leading the Greek government in exile — but it was the English who who were pulling the strings. With the Lebanon Conference (May 17-20, 1944) and the Caserta Agreement (September 26, 1944), the ELAS and EDES resistance groups were placed under the orders of the Papandreou government, which was enriched with EAM executives.
The liberation of Athens from the Nazis
The Germans began gradually to leave Athens on the evening of October 11, moving North. At 8:00 in the morning on October 12, the few remaining Germans in Athens gathered at the Monument of the Unknown Soldier. There, in a makeshift and hasty ceremony, the chief of the occupying forces, General Hellmuth Felmy, accompanied by the mayor of Athens, Angelos Georgatos, laid a wreath.
All that remained then was tο take down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis. A German soldier took down the hated swastika without any special formalities at 9:15 in the morning, tucked it under his arm, and left with his head down, thus signaling the ignominious end of the German occupation that had lasted 1,265 days — and the beginning of a wild celebration on the streets of Athens.
Thousands of people with the blue-and-white in hand were suddenly shouting in joy, some exclaiming “Christ has Risen,” and children were climbing on the roofs of trams, while the National Anthem echoed across the city. After 42 long months of literal slavery, the Athenians were breathing the intoxicating air of freedom.
During the six days that passed until the arrival of the new government in Athens, political power was exercised by a three-member committee, consisting of Themistocles Tsatsos, Philippos Manouilidis, and Yiannis Zevgos, assisted by the Commander of the Athens Police, Angelos Evert. Two days later, the forces of the 3rd Corps of the British Army under Army commander General Ronald Skobie arrived in the capital, enthusiastically received by the Athenians.
On October 18, Georgios Papandreou and his government arrived in Athens. On the same day, the Prime Minister in a moving ceremony raised the Greek flag on the Acropolis once again and then spoke to the crowd that had filled Syntagma Square from the balcony of the Ministry of Finance.
In a masterfully-structured speech, Papandreou announced his government’s intentions, highlighting, inter alia, the need to meet national demands, restore the people’s sovereignty, resolve state issues after a free referendum, and punish those who had collaborated with the occupying forces.
The crowd, which often interrupted him with slogans in favor of EAM and the Greek Communist Party (KKE), welcomed his announcements with shouts in favor of a people’s republic. Papandreou, who had been forced to steer constantly between the Left and the Right, replied with the characteristic phrase that remained in history: “We also believe in a people’s republic.”
However, the joy and festivities for the liberation lasted only 53 days. On December 3, the sound of gunfire echoed again in the streets of the capital, starting at Syntagma Square. The ugly events of that December, known as the Dekemvriana, were the precursor of Greece’s bloody Civil War, which raged from 1946-1949.