By Anastasia Kaliabakos
Nowadays, Greece is known for its beautiful islands, sandy beaches, and ancient ruins. It is one of the most popular vacation destinations in the world, and there is no one I know who doesn’t like Greek food. But Greece is so much more than those things—it is the birthplace of democracy, the system of government we follow here in the United States; Greece was the epicenter of ancient Western philosophy and produced famous thinkers such as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle; the Hippocratic Oath was developed there, which modern doctors still swear by to this day; it has been the home to fierce warriors since ancient times, from the Spartans to the legendary heroes of the Greek Revolution and the soldiers who fought during the Second World War. It is the latter group, whose heroics deserve to be glorified and remembered, that I write about in this article.
For Greeks, October 28th is a very important day. I went to Greek school as a child and learned why it is significant. October 28th, called “Oxi Day” (pronounced “ohi”) is the day when we remember the glorious “NO” from the Greeks to the Italians, who were then part of Hitler’s Axis powers. This event symbolizes the perseverance and strength of the Greeks and is celebrated nationwide each year with immense pride and nostalgia.
Decades before the first Oxi Day, relations between Greece and Italy had become volatile due to interest in territories they both laid claim to, such as the island of Corfu and the Dodecanese islands. In 1938, Prime Minister Venizelos of Greece signed a “friendship agreement” with Italy that served to calm the waters a bit; however, the beginning of the Second World War in 1939 shook up the newly stabilized relationship between the two nations.
In April 1939, the Italian army invaded Albania, which is located to the north of mainland Greece. The king and his family fled to Greece as the country fell and the Italians seized control, making the Italian King, Victor Emmanuel III, the new king of an Albania united with Italy. This caused great tension in Greece, even though Britain and France promised to protect it from Italian aggression. However, the Italians were undeterred by the promises of the allies and made many advances into Greece, attacking the navy. Under Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, the Greeks began to prepare for a war. Metaxas declared a state of emergency in Greece and suspended the Parliament, effectively becoming “dictator” during the rest of his leadership. Although this action made him controversial (and can allow people to draw comparisons with the infamous Julius Caesar), his actions on October 28th undoubtedly contributed to the victory of the Allied powers.
Benito Mussolini, the fascist dictator of Italy, sent word to Metaxas that he was planning to invade Greece—an assault that would take about two weeks to complete. This timeline made sense, given how fast Albania had fallen not too long before. However, the terrain the Italians would be dealing with was very different: Greece is known for being very mountainous and tough to navigate, especially where the Italian army would be entering. But the Italians wanted to conquer Greece because of its strategic location, and to help the Axis powers in the war going forward. Whoever could occupy Greece had control over most of the Mediterranean and its surrounding islands, which would serve as prime military bases during wartime. Mussolini wanted to give Greece the chance to surrender to occupation without a fight, so he issued an ultimatum to Metaxas: Greece should let the Italians in—otherwise, their refusal would be seen as an act of war.
Rather than allow Greece to fall without a fight, Metaxas stood his ground and responded in French, saying “Alors, c’est la guerre,” which means, “Then it is war.” This response has since been glorified by the Greek people, and it has been suggested that what Metaxas actually responded with was “Oxi,” which in Greek simply means “No.” In any case, although the rejection of Mussolini’s ultimatum led to war, the Greek people widely supported it and considered it an honorable act on Metaxas’ part. The Italians entered Greece within hours, and the Greek people were armed and ready. Although their forces were weaker and smaller, they were able to fend off the Italians and pushed the Axis forces back into Albania.
All of Europe was astounded by the heroism of the Greeks. The event marked the first time an Axis attack in Europe encountered that kind of reaction and shattered the early myth of the invincibility of the Axis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “When the entire world has lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster, raising it against the proud spirit of freedom.” And, indeed, the Greek fight against the Axis had significant implications regarding the fate of the “German monster.” Hitler was very agitated, believing that the Italians should have had no trouble squelching the Greeks as they did the Albanians. Additionally, the delay in the Axis plans of attack gave the Russians valuable months to prepare for an invasion, which led to Hitler’s famous disastrous debacle when he attempted to invade Russia during the winter.
Ultimately, Oxi Day serves as a reminder of the historical strength of the Greek people. As Winston Churchill said, “Hence, we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes, but that heroes fight like Greeks.”
Anastasia (Stacey) Kaliabakos, a graduate of the Brearley School, has contributed to WestView News since 2018. Currently, she is a Dana Scholar majoring in classics and philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross, a features editor for Holy Cross’ newspaper The Spire, an associate editor of the Parnassus Classical Journal, and an avid matcha latte consumer.