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The Grab for Greece

The Prelude to the Truman Doctrine: British Policy in Greece 1944-1947

by G.M. Alexander
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 299 pp., $46.00

Most Greeks believe that Greece is the center of the earth. The belief has more than twenty-five centuries of history behind it, for in the ancient temple of Apollo at Delphi there stood a carved stone known as the “navel of the earth.” A few years ago President Karamanlis, who has been trying for years to educate his fellow countrymen in the facts of international life, was alarmed to be told by the French archaeologists at Delphi that they had unearthed the original stone which was called the navel of the earth. “I begged them to throw it into the sea,” he told his astounded parliament. No one but Karamanlis, with his unique prestige, could have uttered such a heresy without starting a riot.

Forty years ago, having as yet no Karamanlis, the Greeks were still contemplating their own navels. Greek politicians in particular knew that they need never accept responsibility for anything because whatever went wrong was always the fault of somebody else. They were convinced in 1944 that the sole war aim of the Allies was the liberation of Greece from German occupation. After that nothing was important except the future of Greece, which must be the sole preoccupation of the major Allies.

Churchill’s sole object, it was assumed, was to restore King George II to his throne, from which he had been obliged to take refuge abroad after the German invasion in April 1941. Stalin’s object was assumed to be the absorption of Greece into the Soviet empire. It was a pity that President Roosevelt seemed to have no object at all, but eventually that gap was filled by his successor with the Truman Doctrine in 1947. The “Greek question” was thus seen to be whether Greece was to become a British, a Soviet, or an American colony.

In reality Greece did not enjoy nearly so much attention from the Allied leaders as the Greeks supposed. There were short periods of crisis when Greek affairs needed intense concentration, but the average amount of attention given to Greece by the leading figures in London, Moscow, and Washington during the 1940s was probably about one hour a week. Stalin in particular regarded Greece with indifference. When Churchill asked him, at a historic meeting in Moscow during October 1944, to allow Britain a virtually free hand in Greece in exchange for a similar freedom of Soviet interest in other parts of Eastern Europe, he agreed without hesitation.1 When a delegation from the Yugoslav Partisans, who were intensely interested in Greece, raised the question with Stalin, he made it clear that he would not encourage a communist attempt to take over Greece, because the Western allies would not tolerate it, “and besides, we have no navy.”2

The Greeks are not the only people who have misunderstood the attitudes of the great powers toward their country in the 1940s. Many Western historians, both European and American, have done the same. Their common error has been to assume that great-power policies are essentially conspiratorial, and that conspiracies can somehow override hard facts and real interests. There had to be either a Soviet conspiracy or a British conspiracy against Greek independence, or more probably both, and eventually an American conspiracy as well.

During the 1940s the role of arch-conspirator was assigned to Stalin. These were the years in which Greece was torn apart by war (1940-1941), enemy occupation (1941-1944), and civil war (1946-1949). After the civil war was ended, revisionist historians began to transfer the role of arch-conspirator from Stalin to Churchill and his successors—first Ernest Bevin (foreign secretary in the Labour government of 1945) and later President Truman.

All these conspiratorial theories focused upon the relations of what were then known as the Big Three with the two rival forces in Greece: the king and the left. The Greek monarchy was taken to be the natural partner of the Western allies, though its enemies unkindly pointed out that during the First World War it had been the partner of the Germans. The Greek left was taken to be the natural partner of the Soviet Union, and therefore the enemy of the West, although from 1941 to 1945 the Soviet Union was our ally. There can be no serious dispute that King George II and his successors were natural friends of the British, though sometimes troublesome ones. But was the Greek left their natural enemy or not? That is the question on which conventional, revisionist, and counter-revisionist historians have been endlessly divided.

During the German occupation of Greece, the strongest organization of resistance was the National Liberation Front (EAM), which controlled an armed force (ELAS) larger than all the other resistance organizations combined. The Churchillian view (which I must not conceal has always been my own view) was that EAM was a creation of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) for the primary purpose of gaining absolute power after the war; and that although much of ELAS fought bravely against the occupation, this was a purpose only secondary to that of providing the KKE with a basis of armed force. The revisionist view, which has grown and prevailed from roughly 1960 to the present day, is that EAM was a genuinely democratic organization that happened to include a minority of communists; that ELAS was solely concerned with resisting the occupation; and that Churchill (followed by Bevin and Truman) ruthlessly crushed them and their successors in order to restore and maintain an unpopular monarchy and a succession of tyrannical right-wing governments.

Now comes a new voice. George Alexander was born after the drama of the 1940s was finished. Being half-Greek and half-American by birth, he is naturally bilingual; perhaps one could even say trilingual, since he took his postgraduate degree at the University of London. He is a well-trained and judicious historian. His very important book is the first account of a crucial period in Greek history to be based on a thorough examination of the British official documents in the Public Record Office, which became available while he was studying in London. The most sincere praise I can give his book is that there is nothing in it that surprises me, since I was intimately involved in the events, but much that ought to surprise both the Greeks and the revisionist historians of the last generation.

It may be wondered why the Machiavellian interpretation of British policy ever gained credence at all. Communist propaganda is of course one explanation, but only partially sufficient. Another possibility arises from the observation that it is particularly over the last fifteen years or so that the events of the 1940s have been subjected to a proliferation of interpretations hostile to the West. The process began, outside Greece, during the military dictatorship of the Greek colonels (1967–1974). It gained great impetus inside Greece as soon as freedom of expression was restored after the fall of the dictatorship.

That dictatorship had unfortunately enjoyed excessive tolerance from the Western allies, especially the US, France, and Britain. Greek anger and disappointment were reflected in the re-interpretation of past relations with the Allies. Revisionism did not begin at that date—it had begun even before the colonels seized power—but it was stimulated by the restoration of democracy. A clue to this consequence can be seen in a sentence which Mr. Alexander writes without arrière-pensée: “A nation governed by an unpopular dictatorship, even if friendly to Britain, was judged to be of little long-term value.” That was true in 1944. But it describes exactly what was tolerated from 1967 to 1974. No wonder the revisionist backlash gained such an impetus. The sins of the children were visited on the fathers.

But Mr. Alexander, to his credit, is immune to such emotional fashion. He completely rejects the revisionist view both of British policy and of the nature of EAM/ELAS. He is on stronger ground in the former case than in the latter, because his primary sources are British official documents. These clarify what British policy actually was, but they cannot by themselves expose the true nature of EAM/ELAS: they can only show what the British thought it was. Documentary sources on EAM/ELAS and its relations with the KKE and the Soviet Union are scanty. The KKE has published only what suited the party line; the Soviet authorities virtually nothing at all. The party line is itself something of a tangle, changing every few years. But individual Greek communists have published copious and revealing reminiscences, chiefly by way of diatribes against one another. These tend to support Mr. Alexander’s (and Churchill’s) contention that the real objective of the KKE was “a Bolshevist Greece,” and that EAM/ELAS was the instrument by which it was to be achieved.

This is hardly surprising. What may be more surprising is the clean bill of health that Mr. Alexander gives to British policy-makers. He finds that the primary aim of British policy in Greece was “to produce a friendly, stable, and democratic ally.” Since a Bolshevist Greece, though stable, would be neither friendly nor democratic, a conflict was inevitable. “Ideally, she would be a constitutional monarchy,” but “ideally” meant not necessarily, if the Greeks chose otherwise. The king was admittedly unpopular because he had sanctioned the prewar dictatorship of General Metaxas, but that disadvantage was thought, perhaps overoptimistically, to be temporary and remediable. At any rate, British motives were honest and not conspiratorial. By resting his case on a very extensive examination of hitherto unpublished documents, Mr. Alexander places on those who dispute it the onus of arguing that British policy-makers were persistently lying, not only in their public statements but in their private communications with one another.

He does not give to US policy the same detailed attention he gives to British policy. That is understandable, because his subject is the prelude to the Truman Doctrine, not the doctrine itself. Published sources on US policy are therefore sufficient for his purpose. They make it clear that at the official level Washington was suspicious of British policy chiefly because it was seen to be too closely tied to the person of King George II. Just as the British papers reveal not what Communist policy actually was but only what the British thought it was, so American publications reveal only what Washington thought British policy was. And a number of paradoxes spring from that distinction.

American officials tended to favor the Greek left during the war largely because it was republican in outlook, and they saw, quite correctly, that the monarchy was unpopular. But they overestimated the degree of British commitment to that unpopular monarchy. Churchill certainly hoped that the king would be restored, but he had no intention of imposing him by force. Mr. Alexander quotes him as assuring Molotov, the Soviet foreign minister, that upon liberation the Greek people “would be at liberty to choose by free elections the sort of constitution and government they desired.” Eden, the British foreign secretary, similarly declared that there was “no question of our forcing any particular form of government on the Greeks…nor were we in any way committed as regards the position of the King.”

In fact, oddly enough, the king’s best friend turned out to be President Roosevelt, who was probably influenced by Field Marshal Smuts, who was probably influenced in turn by the king’s sister-in-law, Frederika. In December 1943, when Churchill and Eden had persuaded the king, with great difficulty, to agree that he would not return to Greece before the future of the monarchy had been settled by a plebiscite, the king then sought the advice of the president. Roosevelt, who had little respect for official advice and liked making up his policy as he went along, advised the king not to let the British bully him into giving up his throne. When I was writing the first account of those years in 1947, I included that story, which I had heard from Eden. But when I showed him the passage, he begged me to omit it because Roosevelt’s reputation had already suffered enough. Unwisely, I complied; and so that “inexplicable intervention,” as Mr. Alexander calls it, had to wait many years to be revealed.

That the king did finally recover his throne, after a plebiscite in September 1946, was not owing to the machinations of Churchill and Roosevelt, or even of Truman and Bevin. It was the Greek communists who ensured the restoration of the monarchy by their reckless and sanguinary attempt to seize control of Athens in December 1944, two months after the liberation of Greece from German occupation. After that terrible experience, the majority of Greeks—including many who had sympathized with the Greek left during the occupation—saw the king as the only symbol of salvation. But even with that symbol of restored, they were not to enjoy their salvation for several years.

The last phase of the conflict between communism and nationalism in Greece began almost simultaneously with the king’s restoration, and no doubt partly because of it. Once again the causes of the outbreak are disputed. Some historians attribute it wholly to the “white terror” which succeeded the “red terror” of December 1944. For others, it was just another communist conspiracy, inspired by Stalin and supported by the communist governments of Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria. In this case Mr. Alexander rightly allows a modicum of truth on both sides, but the condemnation of both sides must be qualified. It was the constant preoccupation of Greece’s allies to avert and mitigate the “white terror”; nor was the conflict caused by vindictiveness on the part of the Greek government, but only by their incompetence to restrain vengeful subordinates. Neither were the communist rebels inspired by Stalin or even Tito: on the contrary, they were trying to drag Stalin and Tito into an armed confrontation, with the West on their coattails. “There is no evidence,” Mr. Alexander writes, “to support the view that the Russians aided and abetted the guerrilla movement.”

The subsequent development of this conflict lies beyond Mr. Alexander’s scope. Little more than six months after the restoration of the monarchy and the outbreak of the civil war, King George II was dead and the British had decided that they could no longer carry the burden of rehabilitating Greece. At that point the Truman Doctrine enters upon the scene, and Mr. Alexander’s story ends.

He concludes that British policy ended in failure. On the short-term view, that is true. “At best,” he adds, “it can be argued that Britain’s achievement in Greece was to prevent the communists from attaining power until the Americans decided to take up the load.” On a long-term view, that was not an inconsiderable achievement. If there had been no British intervention in 1944 (and in fact even earlier), there would have been no Truman Doctrine in 1947, because Greece would already have become a “people’s democracy” under communist control, like all the other countries of Eastern Europe.

Although Stalin kept his promise not to interfere with Britain’s freedom of action in Greece, as Mr. Alexander says, he would not have declined to accept Greece on a plate if the communists had won. Stalin’s successors would then have had no need to argue: “and besides, we have no navy.” The history of the eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East, and the Western Alliance would have been very different. But it would be rash to speculate in detail how different things would have been, for that would only encourage once again the belief that Greece is the center of the earth.

  1. 1

    Elisabeth Barker, Churchill and Eden at War (St. Martin’s, 1979), p. 283.

  2. 2

    Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin (Harcourt Brace, 1962), p. 164.

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