‘The first incident after the shooting began’: Photographing the Greek Civil War, 1944-1945

The Greek Civil Wars (December 1944- January 1945, 1946-1949), are one of the lesser known European conflicts spanning both the Second World War and early Cold War years. Fought between the Greek Government Army and the Greek National Liberation Front (EAM), along with its guerrilla faction the Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), the civil war was a reaction against Greece’s Nazi occupation. The Greek Government Army received significant military support from the British army, especially in 1944 and 1945. The REMLA holds a collection of photographs taken by an unknown soldier in 1944, during the stage of the civil war often described by historians as the prelude. At this stage in the war, Winston Churchill and the British troops were focused on ensuring communism did not spread across Europe; launching attacks on EAM and ELAS groups was seen as the most effective way to achieve this. After attacks by ELAS during a demonstration in Athens in December 1944, the Greek government and Churchill granted amnesty to the EAM and ELAS in the form of the 1945 Varkiza Agreement. Three photographs within this collection tell the story of the early civil war. They show the everyday lives of Greek’s affected by the conflict, the vast political and social damage the civil wars caused, and capture key political moments on film.

‘The first incident after the shooting began.’

British involvement in the civil war was, first and foremost, an exercise in ensuring the collapse of communist factions in Greece. In order to reach the centre of the EAM, tanks and soldiers were sent to the Greek National Liberation Front headquarters, with the objective of finding and driving out all EAM members present. Captured on camera by the photographer is the exact moment when an EAM member emerged from the building. Looking straight at the camera, he raised his hands in the air. The photographer notes on the back of the photograph that many of those emerging were just kids.

The streets become more and more of a shambles.’

Images of debris littered streets and bombed shop fronts make up a substantial part of this collection, as do images of rolling tanks and soldiers darting across roads to places of safety. The photographer focuses on the structural damage caused by the fighting, taking many photographs of buildings in ruins. Whilst on a mission to Greece and surveying the economic damage of the Civil War, American politician and analyst Paul Porter wrote that the ordinary Greek citizen was reluctant to rebuild their property. One commented: ‘Four times in my lifetime my home has been destroyed… by the Turks, the Bulgars, the Nazi’s and the guerrillas. Why should I build it up again?’[1] This sentiment is echoed in the images in the collection – with the economic hardship facing the citizens of Athens, the buildings tended to be left damaged.

‘The old man with the cigar arrives.’

By the end of 1944, prominent political leaders from both Greece and Great Britain came together to resolve the conflict. Catalysed by the Athens shootings on 3rd December 1944, in which ELAS sentiment escalated during an initially peaceful demonstration, Winston Churchill arrived in Athens to talk to EAM and ELAS representatives. This collection contains a photograph of the moment Churchill arrived at talks with Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou, acting regent of Greece.  From these talks emerged the 1945 Varkiza Treaty. This treaty allowed for the peaceful amnesty of EAM and ELAS members, and bought the First Greek Civil War to a close.

These three photographs alone bring to life the realities of the 1944 Greek Civil War. Combined with the sixty other photographs in the collection, they provide a comprehensive visual guide to the events, people and politics that shaped the conflict.

 

By Bethany Godmon

(Photographs used:

23/751/35 – ‘’The first incident after the shooting began.”

23/751/40 – “The streets become more and more of a shambles.”

23/751/48 – “The old man with the cigar.”)

 

[1] P.A.Porter, Chief of American Economic Mission to Greece, Etheridge Papers, No. 3842, 17th February 1947, University of North Carolina Library, Chapel Hill, taken from A. Nachmani, ‘Civil War and Foreign Intervention in Greece: 1946-49’, in Journal of Contemporary History, (25:4), 1990, p. 498.