On October 28, 1940, Metaxas gave his legendary answer to Mussolini. His “OXI” was not simply an act of defiance. It was a matter of principle. And it changed the course of WWII.
In October 1940, the war in Europe was less than one-year-old. Between September of 1939, when Hitler’s Germany invaded Poland and October, when his ally Mussolini threatened to invade Greece, Hitler had conquered so much territory and so quickly, the world stood stunned and many wondered if the Axis powers of Germany and Italy were unstoppable. Poland fell in 10 days. Denmark lasted a few hours. Norway held out for two months. The sense of dread that fell across the parts of Europe, yet unconquered in the fall of 1940, is hard to imagine today. Let’s look at how this came about.
The tank was introduced about twenty years earlier in World WarI as an instrument of support for infantry (foot soldiers). Hitler’s revolutionary new strategy that he called the Blitzkrieg (German for “lightning war”) used tanks and other mechanized transport combined with air support to rapidly move whole armies and overwhelm opposition with breathtaking speed. The world had never seen anything like it.
WWI was a catastrophe on a scale we can scarcely comprehend today. If you are ever in London, stop off at any church and look for a plaque on the wall listing the names of the young men from that parish who died in that war. You will be amazed at how many from each church fell. As bad as things were for England, it was far worse for France. Nearly 1.4 million Frenchmen, 4% of the total population, died on her home soil. France vowed to never let that happen again so they spent many millions building an impregnable defensive border called the Maginot Line. It is quite possible Hitler would have been stopped there had he chosen that route. Instead he went around it through Belgium and the Netherlands. The mighty French nation with over 5 million men in arms (the top three armies in the world today combined are around 5.2 million) and an inpenetrable Maginot line fell to Hitler in six weeks.
Hitler & Mussolini join forces
In Europe, Hitler’s Germany had aligned itself with Mussolini’s Italy to form the Axis powers. Their plan was to conquer all of Europe and the Soviet Union. When Mussolini massed his troops over the border in Albania near Epiros, the world expected the worst. Up to that point, Hitler’s plans had gone better than any of his most experienced generals had dared imagine. The plan called for Mussolini to quickly take Greece and secure the Balkan Peninsula, then solidify their hold on the Mediterranean Sea so Hitler’s armies could move on to conquering the Soviet Union before the dreaded Russian winter.
On the morning of October 28, 1940, the Italian Ambassador Emanuele Grazzi presented Mussolini’s ultimatum—allow the Italian troops to enter Greece from the North and surrender or Italy would declare war and take Greece by force. Much of the rest of Europe fell quickly to the Axis. Mighty France with more soldiers than Greece had people fell in a month-and-a-half. The world fully expected tiny Greece to capitulate and spare the bloodshed and destruction. How did Greece’s Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas respond? He simply said “OXI” (Greek for “no”). At least that’s how history records it. We don’t know for certain. Some say he also said “Alors, c’est la guerre” (French for “Then war it is”). Accounts are given that in many places in Greece citizens shouted “OXI” in the streets as they armed themselves to defend their homeland.
All children who attend Greek school know this story and why it is important to Greece. Even though Greece did eventually fall to the Axis, it was not without a valiant and very brave fight. However, it is important to note that in a war that took place all over the globe—from Hawaii and the Pacific to China and Burma, North Africa, and all of Europe and the Soviet Union, the battle for this small corner of Europe had a huge impact on the eventual outcome.
Greece gives 1st Axis setback
Despite some initial success by the Italians, the Greek army pushed them back into Albania and took the offensive. Historian Mark Mazower called this “the first Axis setback of the entire war.” Mussolini reinforced his line with thousands more troops (28 divisions) and launched a spring offensive in 1941 but that too failed. He had to call Hitler for re-enforcements. This was decisive. Greece fell to the German army in April 1941 and Crete followed two months later. However, this sacrifice that the Greeks made in defending their homeland and in stopping Mussolini and diverting Hitler’s military caused Hitler to delay his attack on Russia. This delay lead to catastrophe for Hitler on the Eastern front: the brutal Russian winter helped Stalin defeat Hitler’s army.
‘Tiny’ Greece’s huge impact on the war
Victory in war occurs when one side loses the will to continue fighting. Aside from the tactical significance of stalling Hitler’s attack and diverting his resources, it cannot be overstated what it must have done to the confidence of Hitler’s foes to see how tiny Greece held her own against great odds. The British, under British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, may well have taken inspiration from the Greeks to hold out against Hitler’s Luftwaffe (air force) and prevent his invading England. After the fight in Crete, Churchill did say:
Over the centuries Greece, has given so much to the world. We must not forget that even though Greece, like most of the rest of Europe, was conquered by Hitler in WWII, it was her brave stand that played a critical role in the eventual defeat of the Axis and the victory of the Allies. This is why we celebrate on October 28 – that seemingly inconsequential OXI changed the course of the war, saving countless lives.
For an interesting dramatization of the events, read Louis de Bernieres 1995 historical novel, Corelli’s Mandolin. Refer to Chapter 5, The man who said ‘No’, plus other dramatic accounts of the fighting in Albania.