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The Greek Famine During the Nazi Occupation

Greek Famine Nazi occupation
German troops are seen marching into Athens in 1941. Credit: Bundesarkiv/Wikimedia Commons

The Greek famine during the three and a half years of Nazi occupation killed at least two hundred thousand and perhaps as many as three hundred thousand people.

The local population suffered greatly during 1941 to 1944 while the Axis Powers initiated a policy of large-scale plunder.

Moreover, requisitions, together with the Allied blockade of Greece, the ruined state of the country’s infrastructure, and the emergence of a powerful and well-connected black market, resulted in famine, with the mortality rate reaching a peak during the winter of 1941 to 1942.

Greek-Australian author and professor Violetta Hionidou, the author of the work “Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944,” teaches modern European history at the University of Newcastle in the UK.

She 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,” said Professor Hionidou at a recent seminar held in Melbourne. “Mykonos, Syros and Chios certainly suffered more. Piraeus too, as it was a much poorer community at the time.”

Italy, Bulgaria, and the Allied blockade contributed to the Greek famine

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

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

“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 Nazi occupation 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 the local level,” Hionidou said that Greece had been divided into three zones after it fell to the Germans in April 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 that 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 and exacerbated the famine, according to the professor.

Greek famine Nazi occupation
A soup kitchen in Athens during the Nazi occupation. Public Domain

Greek Nazi collaborators were inept in dealing with famine

With the former Greek government in exile, the new Greek government under the collaborator General George Tsolakoglu, consisted mostly of officers with no experience in governing people. The government was completely incompetent and 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 explained.

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.

Black market under the Nazis and the Greek famine

The black market became the primary way most Greeks could obtain food and other goods during the rest of the war years.

Needing a scapegoat, the professor said, 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,” Hionidou said. “The black market was the only market and had essentially been legitimized.”

“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,” she said. “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,” Hionidou revealed. “He explained that his family of five could not have survived only from the food he grew on his land.”

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 ten 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, 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.

Hionidou 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,” the professor stated. “All my informants, whether peasants or urbanites, confirm this.”

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,” Hionidou said. “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).”

Food becomes the major currency of Greece

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 hoard food as the war loomed beginning in late March 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, by civil servants. This was known to have occurred on Samos and in Epirus.

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

The professor also says 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 irregularly if at all.

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 three hundred thousand people may have died from starvation, according to the most current statistics.

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.

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