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What If Greece Did Not Say “OXI”?
Most of us are at least one generation removed from World War II, but generations of Greek Americans have lived OXI Day over and over and over again. This cycle continues this year through programs in Greek schools around the U.S., in events put on by the OXI Day Foundation, HALC, AHI, in lectures at universities.
But as we become further removed from the greatest generation, as the world order that has prevented a World War III unravels, and as the world starts reminding many of the World War epochs, it is fair to ask whether the significance of OXI Day — not only as a historic event, but as an example — is being lost. What if Greece did NOT say “OXI”?
In debating that question, let’s recall what brought the Axis to Greece in the first place. Mussolini – desperate to keep up with Hitler’s conquests – had zeroed in on Greece. Along strategic sea and air routes, Greece became the key to Italy dominating the Mediterranean. Before October 28, Mussolini admitted that invading Greece was “an operation which I have thought over for months and months before my entry in the war, even before the outbreak of war.”
Mussolini estimated that it would take him two weeks to conquer Greece. He soon learned that he had underestimated the strength of Greek resolve. On October 28th, after rejecting Mussolini’s demands, Metaxas addressed the Greek people, ending with this line from Aeschylus’ play The Persians: “The struggle now is for everything!” And the Greeks resisted accordingly.
By November 3rd, the Greek army had forced Italian forces to stall, and they began a counter attack. By November 13th, Greek forces had regained all territory lost, and on the 14th they went on the offensive against the Axis by invading Albania. By March of 1941, the original nine Italian divisions had been increased to twenty eight and Mussolini personally led another offensive, which the Greeks defeated again.
Stung by Mussolini’s defeat, Hitler diverted Nazi forces from his planned invasion of the Soviet Union and sent them to the Balkans. The German blitzkrieg came, and the Greeks kept fighting back. The German invasion would culminate in the Battle of Crete. Greece fell, but not before changing the course of the war. In the Battle of Crete, Hitler’s paratrooper corp was decimated, never to be used again. 40% of Hitler’s airforce was used in Crete – with 250 planes destroyed and another 170 damaged.
Greece – like most of Europe – was now occupied. But consider the cost to the Axis. Yugoslavia fell in 11 days. Poland in 30. France in 43. Norway in 61. Greece held out for 219 days.
We should do more than celebrate this history in a “remember the Alamo” type spirit. And we also have to reexamine the somewhat conventional wisdom that the greatest effect of Greece’s “OXI” was to slow down Operation Barbarossa and ultimately contribute to the Nazis getting stuck — and defeated — in Russia’s brutal winter.
No less an authority than historian John Keegan believed that gaining control of Greece more easily could have given Hitler another route to winning World War II. In an essay entitled “How Hitler Could Have Won the War: The Drive for the Middle East, 1941”, Keegan point at the option of using Italian controlled Rhodes to invade Cyprus, and then use Cypru and the Italian Dodecanese islands to invade Syria and Lebanon. Giving Rommel such support would have allowed Hitler to conquer Iraq, Iran and Saudi Arabia and control access to the Suez Canal. Keegan concluded that “the oil wealth yielded would have solved all Hitler’s difficulties in maintaining his military machine.” There would have been no need for an invasion of the Soviet Union at that point; there would have been no opening for General Patton’s dominance in the Mediterranean theater.
Instead, Hitler’s valuable 7th Airborne Division was decimated — or in Keegan’s words “uselessly thrown away” — in the Battle of Crete. Airborne invasions were no longer part of Nazi war planning — not in the Soviet Union, not in Cyprus, Syria or Egypt. Greece denied the Axis Powers quick control of the Mediterranean.
As we go through another cycle of reliving OXI Day, we should go beyond celebrating the history and the spirit of OXI — we must celebrate the geography of it. World War I went to the side that won the Mediterranean. The victors of World War II also won the Mediterranean. And one of the US’s great strategic victories in the Cold War was locking the Soviets out of the Mediterranean.
Greece played a key role in each one of the Mediterranean victories. This history validates renowned author Robert Kaplan’s assertion that “Greece is the register of the balance of power between East and West.” As today’s Greece is pressed to say “OXI” — to Russian influence, Chinese investment, Iranian oil — let’s remind Greece’s friends and allies of the costs of previous “OXIs”. Greece will be on the right side of history again, but this time it should have some more help.