When Heroes Fight Like Greeks

On a cold October night in 1940, the military general and prime minister of Greece sat pensively at his desk reading and re-reading the cable which had been sent to him by Benito Mussolini via the Italian ambassador to Greece. Ioannis Metaxas was faced with an ultimatum – either surrender strategic locations on the Greek-Albanian front to the Italian forces or face war. Men all over Greece gathered in homes or “kafeneia” (coffee shops) and huddled in front of hot stoves and short wave radios. Women lay sleepless in their beds worrying about their husbands at war and feeding their children and all the other horrors that wars bring. What Metaxas did know was the night of October 27 to the dawn of October 28 would be the longest night of his life. What he did not know was that his decision would change the fate of the world.

At 3am Metaxas picked up his receiver and called the Italian ambassador. “You shall not pass, it shall be war.” The news spread like wildfire through the streets of every city, town and village from Crete to Evros. There was fear, yes, but mostly there was pride. David was standing up to Goliath. The Greeks were determined to protect their country and they were going to fight like lions. In a matter of hours the word OXI, the Greek word for NO, was ringing in the streets. “Metaxas said OXI” the people cried.

Mussolini wanted so much to impress Hitler with an easy victory. The Greeks would fall in a week he thought. But things didn’t go exactly as planned. Four months later the Greek forces had pushed a stupefied, humiliated and defeated Italian army into Albania giving the Axis forces their first land defeat and giving the allied forces renewed hope and time. Churchill said “Greeks do not fight like heroes, heroes fight like Greeks”.

Soon Hitler had no choice but to come to Mussolini’s aid sending the German army and resources. Hitler eventually invaded Greece but it cost him dearly and perhaps even the war. His detour in Greece caused him to delay his invasion of Russia by five weeks meaning that he had no choice but to conduct his offensive during a deadly Russian winter which eventually caused his defeat.

OXI Day is a national holiday in Greece and is celebrated with parades in all major cities of Greece. But it is also a day of remembrance of more heroic times. It is a chance to remind ourselves of virtue, statesmanship, courage and pride. It is a day when all Greeks can hold their heads up high.

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