Ochi Day

On this day in 1940, Italy invaded Greece after Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas rejected Benito Mussolini’s ultimatum demanding that Greece give up its territory. It is commemorated as a public holiday called “Ochi Day”, because the reply was said to have been simply “No”. (Ochi in Greek).

Unsurprisingly, such a terse response by an underdeveloped little country could not stand, and the Italians launched their invasion almost immediately. The rough terrain and unexpectedly fierce resistance by the Greek Army forced the Italians to fall back, with the Greeks launching a counter-offensive that wiped out a key division and ground into a stalemate. The event is regarded as the “first Axis setback of the entire war”, with the Greeks “surprising everyone with the tenacity of their resistance.”

Indeed, the Germans were forced to intervene on behalf of their ally, whom they henceforth regarded as a liability. It took the combined efforts of Italy, Germany, and Bulgaria (a little-remembered Axis satellite) fighting on two fronts to expend Greece’s limited manpower and resources. The country finally fell on June 1941, more than seven months after the first Italian invasion. The conflict spelled the beginning of the end of Italy as a major Axis power; a few more setbacks were to follow, rendering them a mere satellite dependent on Germany. The Greek War also negatively impacted Axis forces in the North African Theater.

Uniquely, Greece would be occupied by three different Axis forces until its liberation in 1944: the Italians, Germans, and Bulgarians. Nevertheless, they would maintain one of the largest and most tenacious resistance forces in the Second World War: one resistance group alone, the National Liberation Front (EAM in Greek) counted 1.8 million members by 1944, out of a total population of 7.5 million.

Pictured are some political cartoons from the time that widely mocked Mussolini and gave some hope that the Axis weren’t so unstoppable after all (a hope that would not be realized, at great cost, for nearly five years).

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My personal favorite is the one that references the Greek legend of the Sword of Damocles, with the “Roman Axe” (or “fasces”, from where the word fascism derives) standing in for the sword that symbolizes inevitable peril for those in power (the lion represents the U.K., which attempted to aid Greece during its conflict).

Alexander Pechersky and the Sobibor Uprising

On this day in 1943, inmates at the Sobibor extermination camp in eastern Poland led a revolt, killing 11 SS officers. The inmates were led by Alexander Pechersky, a Soviet Jew who had been captured exactly two years prior during the Battle of Moscow.

Sobibór_extermination_camp_(05b)Pechersky was an unlikely soldier, the son of a Jewish lawyer who studied music and literature and worked at an amateur theater. But like tens of millions of his countrymen, he was thrust into the Second World War following the Axis invasion and conscripted into the Soviet Army, where he quickly served with distinction, saving a wounded commander during an attack.

As a POW, Pechersky had already miraculously endured a series of close calls, including a painful seven-month battle with typhus; imprisonment in a cellar called the “the Jewish grave”, where for ten days he sat in complete darkness was fed only a few ounces of wheat every other day; and an attempted escape from a POW camp in 1942, where he was recaptured.

Pechersky was transferred to Sobibor a month before the uprising, in a cattle car packed with over 2,000 Jews. Upon arrival, he and just 79 other prisoners were selected for work, while the remainder were immediately led to the gas chamber. Continue reading

The Bloodland of Belarus

Belarus, a former Soviet republic of about 10 million, is said to have the highest per capita number of World War II films in the world. Many of them are considered to be some of the finest war movies in history, most notably the 1985 film Come and See, which tells the story of a young teenager who joins the Belarusian resistance and witnesses horrific atrocities.

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The Soviet theatrical poster for Come and See.

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Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

WWII’s Forgotten Allies

A lot of people forget that the Second World War, by definition, involved a lot more countries than the U.S. and U.K.

Increasingly better-known, but still underappreciated, is the role of the Soviet Union, which took on 90% of Axis forces, dealt the first decisive blow in Stalingrad, and ultimately took the fight to Berlin, ending the war at the cost of 25-27 million citizens — about half of whom were civilians.

China, which is barely acknowledged as a combatant, served a similarly morbid but crucial function: its large population, tenacity, and willingness to be as brutal as the enemy meant that it took up the bulk of Japanese manpower while losing tens of millions of people in the process, including many civilians. Hence why it is one of only five countries with permanent seats on the U.N. Security Council, as acknowledgement of its role as one of the “Big Four” during the war.

Beyond these two juggernauts — whose importance was acknowledged by the Americans at the time — were dozens of other countries and factions who contributed to the Allied cause, often at great sacrifice.  Continue reading

Mexico’s Forgotten World War Two Posters

Mexico hardly comes to mind when one thinks of the Allied powers. But it was one of dozens of countries that joined together to defeat the Axis, doing so just months after the United States.

Following the losses of several ships — most notably the Potrero del Llano and the Faja de Oro, which are referenced in the propaganda — to German U-boats, Mexico declared war on the Axis on May 22, 1942 Though most of Latin America joined the Allied cause, Mexico was one of only two Latin American countries (along with Brazil) to send troops overseas to fight the Axis.

According to SplinterNews.com, like most countries that participated in the conflict, Mexico sought to mythologize its role with hundreds of posters and political cartoons. To that end, the government commissioned an existing artistic, Taller de Gráfica Popular, which had been founded in 1937, to glorify its role in this just war.

The most famous Mexican contribution was “Escuadrón 201“, also known as the Aztec Eagles, a group of more than 300 volunteer pilots who trained in the United States to fight against Japan. It was the first Mexican military unit trained for overseas combat, and it partook in close to 100 combat missions and nearly 800 sorties.

Mexico also signed a series of agreements with the U.S., known as the Bracero Program, which sent much-needed Mexican labor to the U.S. to support the war economy.

Even though its contributions were small in the grand scheme of things, the efforts of Mexican artists were creatively outsized.

The Former Italian Fascist Who Teamed Up With a Franco-Era Spanish Diplomat to Save Thousands of Jews During WWII

Giorgio Perlasca (pictured left, some time before his death in 1992) was an Italian businessman and ex-fascist who cleverly used international law and bold impersonations to save thousands of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Perlasca was once a committed fascist who had fought for Italy in its brutal war against Ethiopia, as well as for the Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War. By the start of the Second World War, however, he had grown disillusioned with fascism, especially following Italy’s alliance with Nazi Germany and the implementation of Italian racial laws in 1938.

While serving as an Italian delegate in Hungary (another Nazi ally), his country had surrendered to the Allies, forcing citizens to choose between remaining loyal to the fascists or joining the Allied cause; at great personal risk, Perlasca chose the latter, and he was subsequently arrested by Hungarian authorities.

Using a medical pass that allowed him to travel in the country, he fled to the Spanish Embassy in Budapest, where he requested political status. Fortunately, his service to the victorious Spanish Nationalists endeared them to his request, and he was subsequently given protection, since Spain was neutral. Perlasca then took full advantage of his diplomatic cover to save people of a completely different faith and nationality.

Lucky for him, Angel Sanz Briz (pictured right, in 1969) was stationed there with the same idea in mind.

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The Greek Prelate Who Stood Up to the Nazis and Saved Thousands

Archbishop Damaskinos of Greece

Wikimedia Commons

Archbishop Damaskinos Papandreou was the leader of the Orthodox Church in Greece during the Second World War, credited with saving the lives of thousands of Greek Jews. His actions were characteristic of the Greek resistance, which was among the fiercest and most stubborn in Europe; indeed, the Greeks are credited with inflicting the first major loss to Axis forces, when they turned back a numerically superior Italian invasion, which ultimately required Germany to divert precious manpower to overpower them.

Although conquered, Greeks like Damaskinos continued to make life difficult for the occupiers. He frequently clashed with both the collaborationist government and Nazi officials, often against repeated threats to this life. In 1943, when the Germans began rounding up and deporting Greek Jews, Damaskinos officially protested in a manner unique in Europe: he published a letter condemning the Nazis and calling on his people to protect their Jewish neighbors. Part of it read:

In our national consciousness, all the children of Mother Greece are an inseparable unity: they are equal members of the national body irrespective of religion… Our holy religion does not recognize superior or inferior qualities based on race or religion, as it is stated: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek’ and thus condemns any attempt to discriminate or create racial or religious differences. Our common fate both in days of glory and in periods of national misfortune forged inseparable bonds between all Greek citizens, without exemption, irrespective of race…

Today we are… deeply concerned with the fate of 60,000 of our fellow citizens who are Jews… we have lived together in both slavery and freedom, and we have come to appreciate their feelings, their brotherly attitude, their economic activity, and most important, their indefectible patriotism…”

The local SS commander, Jürgen Stroop — a nasty character who would be executed for war crimes after the war — threatened to execute the Archbishop if he published the letter. Yet not only did Damaskinos proceed with publishing the letter, but he dared to reply sarcastically:

According to the traditions of the Greek Orthodox Church, our prelates are hanged, not shot. Please respect our traditions!

This is in reference to past Greek Orthodox leaders and martyrs being lynched historically. Miraculously, Stroop never followed up on his threat, perhaps because he was intimidated by the man’s lack of fear, or knew of his influence and esteem among an already riotous populace.

In addition to this bold and high profile act of resistance, Damaskinos ordered churches to distribute Christian baptismal certificates to Jews fleeing the Nazis, thus saving thousands of Jews.

For these actions, Damaskinos is named among the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, an honor bestowed on non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Sources: RaoulWallenberg.net;  www.db.yadvashem.org

If Only We Listened to De Gaulle

In 1934, Charles de Gaulle, leader of the Free French Forces and the French Resistance during the Second World War, wrote Vers l’Armée de Métier (Toward a Professional Army), which formulated how France should organize its military. It was ahead of its time in advocating for a professional army based on mobile armored divisions, namely mechanized infantry and tanks. Not only did he propose this as a way to keep Germany in check, but he saw it as a means of enforcing international law.

Unfortunately for France and its allies, the book did extremely poorly in its home country: only 700 copies were sold. However, it sold ten times as many copies in neighboring Germany, where even Adolf Hitler himself reportedly studied it. Sure enough, Germany employed a very similar approach to du Galle’s, with its panzer units and mobile infantry sweeping through the country in the invasion of France in 1940.

At the time, de Gaulle, who had served with distinction in the First World War, remained a colonel, due to his bold views antagonizing France’s conservative military leaders. He nonetheless implemented many of his theories and tactics as commander of a tank regiment, and during an offensive against German armor at Montcornet on May 17th, he managed to temporarily turn back enemy forces without the benefit of air support. While this ultimately proved inconsequential in slowing the invasion, it was one of the few victories France enjoyed prior to its rapid capitulation just one month later.

Whereas French collaborators and traitors would blame French society for the fall of the country, de Gaulle – who refused to surrender and extolled his countrymen to continue fighting – took the reverse stance, blaming French military and civilian leaders while believing the French people had the courage and moral stamina to keep resisting. Given the sheer size and strategic value of the French Resistance, as recognized by Allied leaders like Eisenhower, his point was validated. If only his prescient book and ideas had been heeded, or at the very least he be placed in the higher ranking he earned. World War Two may have gone very differently, if at all.

H/T to  Jean Lacouture‘s DeGaulle: The Rebel 1890-1944 (Vol. 1)

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Brazil’s Forgotten WWII Contribution

Fun history fact: Brazil actively participated in the Second World War, and in some respects played a relatively significant role. Joining the Allied cause in 1943 — one of the few independent states outside of Europe or the European sphere of influence to do so — Brazil assembled a force of over 25,000 men and women to fight in the Mediterranean Theater under U.S. command: the Brazilian Expeditionary Force (BEF). Continue reading