ATHENS, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST and most fabled cities, has earned its fame because the cradle of Western civilization over its 3,400-year historical past. As we speak a contemporary metropolis of three.5 million residents, Athens’s wealthy heritage is seen at a look: dotted throughout the city sprawl are historical pillared relics, a marble stadium, Byzantine church buildings, mosques, and arguably the capital metropolis’s most well-known landmark, the Acropolis—translated as “excessive level.” It’s right here that I begin my self-guided tour—ascending the summit not just for the view but in addition in quest of a storied previous that sheds mild on Greece’s often-overlooked function in World Conflict II.
The rocky promontory, rising virtually 500 ft above town’s sea of concrete, is house to a number of historical temples and is the location of one of the recognizable ruins on the planet, the Parthenon. The Doric-columned temple, devoted to the goddess Athena, was accomplished in 432 BC and stood largely untouched till pirates sacked it in 276 AD. It was transformed to a Christian church within the sixth century, and the Ottomans later used it as a mosque. The Venetians shelled it in 1687, archeologists raided it in 1799—and, on its grounds in 1941, German invaders raised a large red-and-white flag adorned with a black swastika.
Metaxas vs. mussolini
Greece was a reluctant World Conflict II belligerent, its try to stay impartial ending at 3 a.m. on Monday, October 28, 1940. When Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini demanded the Greeks undergo occupation, Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is claimed to have replied with one phrase—“No!”—which grew to become a rallying cry all through the nation. Two and a half hours later, the Italians invaded from Albania with six divisions.
The dogged Greek protection, with British air assist, held the Italians at bay. In January 1941, the Hellenic Military’s counterattack pushed the invaders again over the border, giving the Allies considered one of their few early victories, however at the price of a number of thousand casualties. With the arrival of the British Expeditionary Power and Greece now firmly dedicated to the Allied trigger, the Germans invaded in April. Three weeks later, they reached Athens.
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Atop the Acropolis, I wander the grounds, winding my manner round guests mingling in entrance of the 45-foot-tall marble Parthenon, some marveling at its magnificence, others posing for selfies. There isn’t a shade on the summit, so arriving earlier than the warmth of the day was prudent—besides, I really feel the solar beating down on me as I move the Erechtheion, an asymmetrical temple, additionally devoted to Athena, to the north of the Parthenon. Interval images reveal that its ornamental wall of six sculpted feminine figures was a preferred vacationer vacation spot for occupying Wehrmacht troopers. Lastly, I make my method to the statement deck on the east aspect of the rocky outcrop. Right here an infinite blue-and-white Greek flag flutters within the breeze. It was close to this website on April 27, 1941, the day the Germans rolled into the capital, the place Konstantinos Koukidis, a soldier of the elite Evzones mild infantry, was on guard responsibility.
Because the story goes, the Germans ascended the Acropolis, intent on elevating their flag over town. An officer hailed Koukidis, commanding he decrease the nationwide colours to hoist the swastika instead. Koukidis did as he was instructed, however quite than surrendering the Greek flag, he wrapped it round his physique and leapt off the cliff to his loss of life.
A small plaque commemorates the occasion, which has generated its share of skepticism. In 2000, the mayor of Athens declared that no documentary proof had been discovered to substantiate the act, regardless of a number of claims by eyewitnesses. My casual survey of tour guides, docents, and locals are unanimous of their assist of the story’s validity.
Koukidis’s unit of Evzones was disbanded through the occupation, with most of the troops forming the ranks of resistance teams. As we speak the Evzone traditions and battle honors are carried on by the Presidential Guard, a distinctively garbed infantry unit that performs ceremonial duties.
Nationwide Parliament constructing
To get extra perception into their historical past, I hike again down the hill and head to the Nationwide Parliament constructing. My route takes me by the Plaka, town’s oldest neighborhood, and it feels virtually legal to make use of my telephone’s GPS to assist me thread my manner by the traditional, twisty streets. Not a lot has modified right here because the late 1800s, and the wrought-iron balconies, neoclassical structure, and slender alleys make it simple to think about the neighborhood within the Nineteen Forties. What’s tougher to think about is the Third Reich’s shadow dimming these cozy labyrinthine streets, many teeming with hibiscus and olive timber.
The Parliament constructing, a commanding three-story edifice tucked into the northwest nook of the 38-acre Nationwide Backyard, was in-built 1842 as a palace for Greece’s first king after independence from the Ottomans. In 1926, it was gutted for renovation right into a single-chamber parliamentary council. On the base of the constructing, under its columned facade, is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flanking the tomb are two blue-roofed guard shacks, manned by Evzones standing at consideration, with bayonet-tipped M1 Garand rifles at their sides. They’re unmoving, reminding me of the red-coated British troopers posted in entrance of Buckingham Palace. The guards put on their conventional uniform, with its origins within the 1800s: a small pink fez with an extended black tassel, a knee-length, button-up tunic with a black leather-based cartridge belt, white leggings with black garters, and hobnailed clogs topped with black pompoms.
I watch the 2 guards start their measured, ceremonial march towards the tomb, which is dominated by a marble reduction of a prostrate Spartan. Inscribed on both aspect of the fallen warrior are the names of battlefields relationship again to the early 1900s. Included are greater than a dozen from World Conflict II, reminiscent of Pindus, Crete, Hill 731, and El Alamein, all serving as reminders of the 35,000 Greek troopers who met their deaths through the struggle. The guards, with rifles shouldered, transfer painstakingly slowly with a regimented excessive kick on every step. Juxtaposed in opposition to the noise of passing buses and vehicles on the close by multilane boulevard, the solemn ritual is made extra poignant by the Evzones’ silent focus.
lodge grande bretagne
Throughout the road from the Parliament constructing is the Resort Grande Bretagne, my final cease. The posh lodge overlooking each the Parliament constructing and Athens’s central plaza—Syntagma Sq.—is one other instance of town’s layered and hidden previous. Inbuilt 1842 as a personal mansion, it was renovated in 1874 right into a lodge. In 1930, the lodge expanded with the addition of a brand new wing. Throughout the struggle, the Greek Basic Headquarters established itself within the lodge till the German occupation, when it served as Wehrmacht headquarters. The lodge’s well-appointed foyer and ornate tapestry within the atrium’s Alexander’s Lounge would make the employees officers of any military really feel comfy.
It was right here in Could 1941 that Basic-leutnant Kurt Scholar deliberate Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete. The glider and parachute assault was a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans, who suffered greater than 26 p.c casualties, but it surely accomplished the Axis occupation of Greece and started a multi-year reign of terror: tens of 1000’s of civilians died from famine, torture, and executions, whereas an estimated 60,000 Jews have been deported from Greece to German loss of life camps.
Tomb of the unknown soldier
In the identical month that Crete fell, two Greek college students, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, crept by the darkish to scale the Acropolis and make off with the Germans’ swastika-emblazoned struggle flag. It was ultimately changed, and the occupiers sentenced Glezos and Santas to loss of life in absentia. However the brazen act additional impressed a fledgling Greek resistance motion, which by 1944 had grown to over one million women and men. The underground harassed the Germans till October 1944, when the invaders withdrew after the Soviet Purple Military seized the very important Ploesti oil fields in Romania, lowering Greece’s strategic significance as a deterrent to Allied air raids. Fittingly, interval newsreel footage reveals a German soldier scurrying from the Acropolis with the Nazi flag bunched over his shoulder.
With the occupation in thoughts, I head as much as the lodge’s rooftop patio, from the place I can see the Unknown Soldier’s tomb to the left and the Greek flag flying excessive above the Acropolis to my proper. The sweeping view of recent buildings, public parks, historical ruins, and distant mountains jogs my memory that Athens is a metropolis of celebrated legends. And on the finish of the day, I don’t know if Koukidis actually leapt to his loss of life or not, however I do know Athens’s historical past of sacrifice and resistance makes it simple to consider he did.
WHEN YOU GO
Athens is definitely accessible by air or sea. The worldwide airport is serviced by all main and regional airways, and close by Piraeus is Europe’s largest cruise ship port. Getting across the metropolis is simple by Metro, bus, tram, ridesharing, or foot.
The place to Keep and Eat
Athens has a myriad of accommodations, B & Bs, and trip leases to satisfy any traveler’s funds. These in search of a historic luxurious expertise could be hard-pressed to beat the centrally situated Hotel Grande Bretagne, the place the bartenders serve a number of the metropolis’s greatest cocktails. For contemporary fish and a view of the well-lit Acropolis, strive dinner atop The Old Tavern of Psaras.
What Else to See and Do
With Athens’s quite a few world-renowned museums, it might be simple to miss the War Museum, protecting Hellenic martial historical past from antiquity to the current day. On show are uncommon weapons, uniforms, artwork, and battlefield relics.
Six miles south from town heart and accessible by way of a tram experience from Syntagma Sq. is the Phaleron War Cemetery. Inside its well-curated grounds stands the Athens Memorial, which commemorates the 1000’s of Commonwealth troops who died throughout World Conflict II campaigns in mainland Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia, and the Dodecanese islands.
this text first appeared in world struggle II journal
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