Thanasis D Sfikas. Cold War History. Volume 14, Issue 1. February 2014.
“A likely impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility”.—Aristotle
“Nothing in the province of logic can be merely possible. Logic deals with every possibility and all possibilities are its facts”.—Ludwig Wittgenstein
Introduction: Periodising Greek Communist Policy
The title phrase was uttered by Nikos Zahariadis, Secretary General of the Communist Party of Greece (KKE) Central Committee at the 7th Party Congress of October 1945. It was a statement on international reality as perceived, and on domestic reality as experienced, by the Greek communists on the eve of the Greek Civil War. The two realities were inextricably linked in terms of their impact on the formulation of communist strategy and tactics in the 1940s. The perception of the international setting by the Greek communists is often dismissed as little more than a case of collective unreality, while their policy choices are said to have pegged the prospects of their success on external forces.
In the words of Marc Bloch, ‘The fallacy is clear, and it is only necessary to formulate it in order to destroy it’; and to formulate it, it is necessary to periodise communist policy in the 1940s. In 1941-1944 the KKE followed a largely acquiescent and at times compliant policy. For most of that period it was largely cut off from international contacts, with the exception of British officers and operatives in occupied Greece. Then communist strategy conformed to the concept and exigencies of allied cooperation. In December 1944 the KKE briefly indulged in a course of action that was both political and military, in that precise order. In 1945-1946 the policy was oriented towards legality, based on the concept of the ‘two poles’ and the proposal for Greek neutrality, though in early 1946 inquiries were made in Moscow, Belgrade, and Sofia in search of support for armed struggle. In 1947 the mixture of legality and confrontation was preserved as the last hopes for a political settlement were played out. In 1948-1949 the balance tipped in favour of a military policy whose ultimate failure has ever since complicated the assessment of its origins.
In the light of this periodisation, which reflects the contours and shifts in allied relations, this paper seeks to assess the KKE’s perception of international realities and their impact on their domestic disposition and tactics in 1944-1949, in a particularly complicated and rapidly changing international milieu.
1944: The ‘Unfortunate Clash’ that Distorted the Course of History
On 8 December 1944, as the military clash in Athens erupted, in Moscow Georgi Dimitrov forwarded to Soviet Foreign Minister V.M. Molotov an inquiry from Petros Rousos, a KKE Politburo member, who had arrived in Sofia to report to the Communist Party of Bulgaria. To Rousos’s inquiry as to whether assistance could be granted to the Greek communists, the reply was negative. Rousos, however, told the Bulgarians that the KKE knew that it would not receive any external assistance and had been prepared to make ‘sufficient concessions’, including the disbandment of Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), its guerrilla force, provided there would be ‘a minimum of safeguards for our movement’. When the British and the Greek prime minister Georgios Papandreou refused to offer any safeguards, the KKE was forced to undertake ‘a hard struggle […] to protect the independence of the country’:
It was a difficult road but the party found it correct. As regards the domestic forces we remain fully convinced that we can make short work of internal reaction. The main problem was Great Britain’s hostile attitude towards our movement […] Of course we could not anticipate the precise intentions of British policy, in the sense of military intervention […].
Rousos thus already inscribed in the party logic the central tenet that was to recur in subsequent leftist pronouncements: upon liberation in the autumn of 1944 Greece was essentially in the hands of the communist-led National Liberation Frontz (EAM), which could impose its will upon the ‘reactionaries’ with little trouble, yet that course was checked by British intervention. The assessment of leftist preponderance may have been exaggerated but it was not wholly inaccurate in view of the fear of EAM’s opponents about their prospects upon liberation and the gratitude towards that ‘cigar-smoking Zeus who offers gifts or threatens with lightning and thunder,’ as the diplomat and poet Giorgos Seferis described Winston Churchill.
Even the KKE leadership was not all that disrespectful towards the British. While Nikos Zahariadis remained in gaol in Dachau, where he had been since 1941 (after incarceration in various Greek prisons since 1936), on 12 February 1945, the day when the Varkiza Agreement put a formal end to the fighting, Giorgos Siandos, Secretary of the Central Committee (CC), told foreign correspondents that the conflict with the British had been an ‘unfortunate clash’ and even welcomed the stationing of British troops in the country in the interests of the continued allied war effort. Siandos’s reply to charges that the communists had capitulated at Varkiza was that the continuation of the war outside Athens would not be a war for national liberation but ‘a class war’ and ‘a war against the allies’ that would bring EAM ‘in opposition to the entire Greek people’. Thus until early 1945 it was not so much the lack of Soviet support but conformity to the exigencies of the allied war effort that shaped KKE reasoning.
1945: The ‘Two Poles’ and the 7th Party Congress
There did not seem to be any change in the opposite direction under Zahariadis, who returned to Athens in late May 1945. At once the Secretary General argued that the KKE would adhere to the popular front tactics, while on foreign affairs he proposed a foreign policy based on an understanding with the British government and attentive to the regional strategic interests of both Britain and the Soviet Union.
In October 1945, as testified by the deliberations of the 7th Party Congress, the KKE still positioned itself within the framework of legal and political action towards the EAM ‘Programme for People’s Democracy’. In his keynote address Zahariadis argued that despite the defeat of fascism, a political and social conflict was raging because ‘European reaction’, under a social-democratic ‘cloak’, pursued an interventionist policy against ‘the people’s democratic and socialist current, which is rising victoriously in our continent’. This interventionism had manifested itself in Athens in December 1944 and in that sense Greece exemplified a wider trend. Incorporating Rousos’s claim that British intervention had ‘abruptly checked’ Greece’s peaceful evolution, Zahariadis elaborated that this reversal had turned:
the country into an almost unique isle in the sea of democratic Europe, where methods of government are still used that are reminiscent of the fascist regimes of terror and destruction.
Still, the orientation of the KKE remained political and legalistic, as Zahariadis proclaimed that ‘at the centre of our political activity remains the effort to achieve a normal democratic evolution towards elections’. The essential prerequisite was a change of British policy, starting with the withdrawal of British troops from Greece:
Thus a relationship on an equal footing will be restored and we shall be able to settle the Anglo-Greek problem. An Anglo-Greek agreement for the Mediterranean is needed. Without violating Greek sovereign rights upon that portion of the Mediterranean where the Greek islands lay, this agreement will also safeguard in deed English interests upon the same portion of the same sea. The economic ties between the two countries must be specially nursed.
The second pole of Greek foreign policy was conditioned by its ‘Balkan and European geographic location’, which necessitated a close economic and political agreement and cooperation with all Balkan countries and the Soviet Union. Greece would reap many rewards from such an understanding, including peace, security, tranquillity, the peaceful settlement of bilateral disputes, and the ‘massive economic benefits’ that would accrue from inter-Balkan economic cooperation and trade. Overall, and in line with the still widespread expectation that allied cooperation would continue in the postwar period, Zahariadis concluded that Greece needed the friendship and support of Britain, the Soviet Union, the US and France.’
In February 1956, at the time of his political demise, Zahariadis took special pride in his ‘two pole’ thesis. Before a specially appointed international communist tribunal set up to manage his removal from the party leadership, he defended his position as conforming to a trend that was widespread in Europe in 1945:
Comrades this policy [of the two poles] was proposed by our party as the policy of democratic power in Greece. In the conditions of 1945, when the Soviet army was still fighting against the Japanese in Manchuria alongside the Americans and the British, when in France there was a coalition government, when in Italy the communists participated in the government, when in all the People’s Democracies there were coalition governments, when in Poland there was the Mikolajczyk government, the policy we proposed was this. Taking into account our position in the Mediterranean and on the prerequisite of a British withdrawal from Greece and the safeguard of our national independence[,] our policy ought to take into account British interests in the Mediterranean, but also to count on the People’s Democracies and the S[oviet] Union.
1946 (I): The Beginnings of a Dual Policy
A shift in KKE orientation occurred in January 1946, after ten months of physical violence, legal persecution and political discrimination against the Left by the British-backed anti-communist Greek governments. In January 1946 Politburo member Mitsos Partsalidis visited Moscow to discuss with the Soviets the situation in Greece and the strategy of the KKE. He told them that the persecution of the Left and the British political and military presence in the country undermined the prospects of a peaceful transition and necessitated an ‘energetic counter-attack’. Partsalidis sought the Soviet view on the prospect of armed struggle, adding that the KKE should take advantage ‘of even the tiniest possibility for [a] peaceful and democratic evolution’. Molotov counselled that the party should not yield to provocations aimed at igniting a domestic armed conflict and thereby providing a pretext for the continued presence of British troops. The Greeks ought to ‘organize their self-defence, combined with the political mobilisation of the pop[ular] masses’.
A few days later, from 12-15 February 1946, the Second Plenum of the KKE CC reached a political decision for military action which would initially have a defensive and negotiatory thrust and become offensive if the search for a compromise failed. This was very likely Stalin’s initial pronouncement to Zahariadis, when the two met in early April 1946. Stalin counselled the KKE to proceed: ‘from village to town in a gradual manner in order to avoid an untimely armed intervention by the British and in the direction of reaching a compromise’. Zahariadis said as much in 1956 and it should be noted that although no documentary evidence of this meeting has emerged so far, the logic of prior and subsequent events tends to support his claims. On 2 April 1946 he met Georgi Dimitrov in Sofia and briefed him on Greek developments. Then on 26 April, in a second meeting with the Bulgarian communist leader, Zahariadis made specific requests for assistance—from training camps for 10,000 cadres, officers, and men to loudspeakers. On the following day Dimitrov despatched the requests to the Soviet leadership in Moscow. Such requests did not signal a full breach with legality and a declaration of civil war, but an intention for a shift to more intensive and better coordinated military activities designed at this stage to increase the pressure on the Greek government. The counsels for caution and compromise that the KKE had received from its foreign supporters could be neither ignored nor circumscribed for they reflected more than Moscow’s broader preoccupations and priorities at the time. They must also be linked to Stalin’s belief in the feasibility of continued cooperation with the western powers, while on a bilateral level, they may also have reflected a hint of Soviet displeasure at certain instances of KKE voluntarism and independent action. Stalin was unhappy with some KKE moves—the fighting in Athens in December 1944 and the abstention from the elections of 31 March 1946—though there is no evidence so far that this clouded his attitude towards the Greek communists in 1945-1949.
From Athens on 25 April 1946 Soviet ambassador admiral Konstantin Rodionov reported to Moscow that despite its abstention from the elections, the Left ‘will not proceed to an open insurrection’. This was confirmed on 4 May, when Zahariadis explained to him why he had ignored foreign ‘friendly counsel’ for participation in the elections. ‘Such counsel’, Zahariadis argued:
was based on a not wholly accurate view of KKE tactics. They understood the latter’s tactics in a simplistic manner, it was thought in other words that the KKE had only two alternatives: civil war and participation in the elections. In this context participation in the elections might indeed be seen as a more appropriate decision than civil war. Yet the KKE in reality opted for the third course, namely the boycott of the elections and the further conduct of the struggle with every possible method, yet without going as far as an armed insurrection.
The elections, he might have added, had after all been shunned by all leftist and some smaller centrist parties as a British-imposed ploy to legitimise a violent and discriminatory domestic regime bent on marginalising the Left. The alternation of war and peace in the strategy of the KKE involved two concepts and corresponding courses of action that were seen by the communist leadership as complementary and standing at the other end of ‘revolution’. The aim indeed was not the socialist revolution but the restoration of the party to the position it had enjoyed before the military clash of December 1944.
Thus in his speech to the KKE national conference on organisational matters on 16 April, Zahariadis’s tone had been towards the organisation of the KKE and EAM for political work, the broadening of the ‘democratic front’ and the effective political mobilisation of party members and supporters. At the same time his emphasis on the need to prevent the KKE’s domestic opponents from physically exterminating party cadres was typical of the divergent interests, imperatives and conflicting viewpoints that he was trying to reconcile. Still, all of them at the time seemed to be geared to a combination of political and military struggle with the former predominant.
1946 (II): Neutrality
The hierarchy of means was evident in Zahariadis’s proposal for Greek neutrality, which was a direct evolution from his ‘two pole’ thesis. On 21 August 1946 Politburo members Yiannis Ioannidis and Petros Rousos settled in Belgrade in order to coordinate external assistance to the KKE. Ioannidis carried with him a report addressed to the CPSU leadership with instructions to go to Moscow, hand it to the recipients and explain the position in person. Instead, a special envoy from Moscow collected the report and was briefed by Ioannidis. The report included the proposal for Greek neutrality:
Since the British show no intention of withdrawing from Greece and the Greek monarchofascist government serves them in everything and presents to the Greek people the stationing of the British troops in Greece as a guarantee against the danger of attack by her Northern Democratic neighbours and especially by Slavism, we suggest for your consideration whether it is in the interests of the policy of the USSR and of the Democratic states to proclaim Greece a neutral country under the guarantee of the great powers.
On 30 August, in a telegram to Dimitrov, Zahariadis elaborated that Greek neutrality would be ‘under the responsibility’ of the UNO and that the departure of British troops would be a prerequisite. Dimitrov concurred, but the Soviet reply was less enthusiastic. Moscow welcomed the prospect of an independent Greece, but the proposal for Great Power guarantees for her security and independence amounted to an indirect recognition that the communist Balkan states represented a ‘real threat […] which now is non-existent’. Yet the KKE and its lesser partners in EAM thereafter repeatedly publicised the proposal for neutrality until the end and beyond.
The August 1946 report also reaffirmed the communist tenet that EAM had prevailed in Greece in autumn 1944 but British intervention in December had checked the ‘democratic evolution’ of the country. Now the KKE aimed to increase its guerrilla force to 15-20,000, secure the necessary foreign aid, and pursue the expulsion of the British, who viewed Greece ‘as a springboard against the Balkan Democracies and the Soviet Union’. The KKE also sought the overthrow of the royalist Greek government. Yet there was a cryptic pronouncement that ‘the further development of the struggle depends not only on the domestic but also on the international situation’. This could refer either to the attitude of the fraternal parties towards the KKE and its needs; or to the future configuration of the broader international setting; or more specifically, to a possible relaxation of the British hold on Greece.
On 3 October 1946 Ioannidis cabled Zahariadis that the Soviet envoy who collected the report had ‘strengthened’ hopes for a favourable response and that ‘partial reinforcement of guerrillas was secured from here’. Moscow’s response, relayed by Dimitrov a month later, was not unfavourable but was geared towards a political settlement:
Firstly: The winter period and the international situation make it imperative that the armed movement must not be expanded. Secondly: the centre of gravity should be the people’s mass political struggle and use must be made of even the slightest legal possibilities so as to preserve the links of the party with the masses. Thirdly: To protect and preserve the party cadres and not to expose them to the dangers of their destruction. We stressed [Ioannidis informed Zahariadis] that the party line coincides with the suggestions.
On 31 December Dimitrov informed Ioannidis that ‘at this moment you should not count on the requested aid. You shall have to wait’. Zahariadis appealed to Stalin for economic assistance, and by late January 1947 money had been offered by American trade unions and the French, British and Czech communists.
January 1947: Zahariadis’s ‘Two Worlds’
In late 1946 and early 1947 the emphasis of KKE policy remained on a political settlement, the chances for which were increasingly dependent upon the international setting. Zahariadis linked the domestic and international settings on 19 January 1947 in a speech to Athens party cadres, when he attempted an ideological reading of Greece’s ‘imbroglio’ and internal turmoil. He began with an analysis of the international situation and pointed to the direction of two worlds: one was the Soviet-led world that was ‘stabilising itself, pulling itself together, reconstructing itself and rising up’; the other was headed by the US and Britain, ‘whose expansionism, generated by the growth of the US productive capacities, was the main cause for the present-day global instability and nervousness’.
In this international setting Greece ‘is the country which successfully lays first claim to the neofascist demonstration of world reaction’, because owing to the British intervention in December 1944, instead of reconstructing herself she had plunged ‘into a deep and complete political, economic, social, moral, spiritual and national crisis […] that has brought her on the brink of the abyss’. What was particularly worrying was that the ‘neofascist revival’ had led not only to civil war within the country but also rendered her a danger to regional peace.
On the subject of the forthcoming United Nations inquiry in Greece, following the Greek government’s appeal against Yugoslavia, Albania, and Bulgaria for fomenting civil war, Zahariadis argued that the governments of Greece, the US, and Britain had a lot to gain from UN involvement: to the British and the Americans the appeal offered new opportunities for meddling in the Balkans and a pretext to prolong the British ‘occupation’ of Greece; for the Greek government it represented an attempt ‘to “overcome” its domestic weakness by conjuring up an international issue’; for all three, the appeal was ‘an attempt to create a foothold and a pretext for armed foreign intervention against our people’s movement’.
Yet, despite these forebodings, Zahariadis confirmed that the KKE placed considerable trust in the work of the UN Commission of Investigation which was to arrive in Greece shortly. The efforts of the three governments were unlikely to succeed: ‘we can exclude such a possibility, because the composition of the Commission is now not one-sided’. The Commission included representatives from eleven countries, amongst them the Soviet Union, Poland, and France: such a diverse crew could hardly deny or conceal the domestic origins of the Greek crisis. The configuration of the international setting loomed large in Zahariadis’s reasoning beyond politics and economics, when he elaborated that ‘the reaction’ was trying to establish a ‘global ideological front which basically corresponded to the political objectives of Anglo-Saxon imperialism for global domination’:
And in the field of the intelligentsia, of ideology, of culture they are trying to divide the world into two camps. Western European and Eastern, to juxtapose one world against the other, to drive one world against the other.
Zahariadis had grasped the emerging global stakes, the shaping of the conflict, and the means whereby it was being fought.
KKE Reactions to the ‘North American Invasion’
Until March 1947 the KKE and EAM publicised their terms for a compromise: a new government that would include the centrist Liberal Party and EAM, restoration of order, and free elections. On 1 March Zahariadis went as far as to declare publicly that there was ‘a certain amount of convergence’ between leftist and Liberal views, therefore the KKE was willing to reach an agreement with the Liberals for the restoration of order and the conduct of free elections; thereafter the KKE would be willing to support a government headed by the ‘acknowledged’ leader of the Centre, the 87-year old Themistoklis Sofulis.
Six weeks later, in a memorandum to Stalin dated 13 May 1947, Zahariadis mentioned casually that the KKE Politburo had ‘in mid-February’ decided to lean heavily on the military side of its policy. The practicalities of that decision became visible in the ‘top secret directives’ which Zahariadis and Ioannidis sent to Markos Vafiadis, commander of the ‘Democratic Army of Greece’ (DSE), on 17 April 1947: the DSE was to be expanded and reorganised as a conventional force with the aim of liberating the country from ‘foreign occupation’ and establishing ‘a people’s democracy’.
This decision, allegedly taken in ‘mid-February 1947′ and mentioned only once in an unrelated subsequent document, may well have been arrived at later, during the time that elapsed between Truman’s speech on 12 March and Zahariadis’s departure from Athens in the first days of April. If so, this decision was the Greek communists’ reaction to the Truman Doctrine. KKE public discourse in mid-February 1947 and in subsequent weeks remained conciliatory and insisted on the exploration of the margins for a political compromise through the mediation either of Sofulis’s Liberals or the UN. Moreover, such a major decision could hardly have been taken at a time (February) when of the seven Politburo members, Zahariadis was in Athens, Ioannidis (and candidate member Rousos) in Belgrade, and Vasilis Bartziotas in Thessaloniki, while Giorgos Siandos was suspected of being a British agent. Conversely, on 17 April 1947, when Zahariadis and Ioannidis issued their ‘top secret’ directives, Zahariadis had already been in Belgrade for ten days. What had transpired in the intervening period was the realisation that British and American manipulation of the work of the UN Commission undermined the prospect of a mediatory role; and Truman’s message to Congress on 12 March. Those two developments probably combined to trigger the reorientation of KKE policy. Besides, in his May memorandum to Stalin, Zahariadis strove to convince the Soviet leader of the farsightedness of the KKE and the appropriateness of its policies, including the alleged one of ‘mid-February 1947’.
The public pronouncements of the KKE changed tone and became defiant after the announcement of the Truman Doctrine. On 14 March 1947 in Rizospastis, the party daily newspaper, Zahariadis pledged that the KKE would continue the fight and soon afterwards reiterated the proposal for Greek neutrality within the UN framework. Further KKE reactions exhibited defiance as well as concern which nonetheless was deemed insufficient to dent party optimism. Two local party resolutions from the Macedonia and Thrace Bureau on 15 March and 7 April called for the ideological, political and organisational preparation of the party and the adjustment of its struggle to the new conditions: the ‘North American invasion of Greece’ opened up a period of ‘new and hard tribulations’ and the KKE would have to adjust the policy of ‘Reconciliation’ and ‘Peace’ to the new conditions—’which means that we have to impose it’.
Spring and Summer 1947: Searching for Arms and a Compromise
The optimism of the KKE that it could ‘impose’ its version of a compromise rested on a positive assessment of the domestic and international setting. In his directives to the DSE commander on 17 April 1947 Zahariadis asserted that ‘the correlation of forces’ inside Greece and internationally allowed the DSE to carry out successfully its mission. On the home front, in 1941-1944 EAM had ‘attracted the vast majority of the people’, while in 1945-1946 it had successfully resisted the attempts of its domestic opponents and its foreign patrons to ‘crush’ it. On the international front, Zahariadis derived his optimism not only from the customary ‘contradictions of imperialism’, which were ‘increasing’, but mainly from the ‘serious moral and material support’ that was due to the KKE as ‘an integral part of the Balkan, European and world democratic and socialist movement’. Accordingly, the DSE task was to reinforce, arm, and prepare itself to strike at Thessaloniki and set up a ‘free and sustainable Greece’ in Thrace, Macedonia, and possibly Epirus, thereby pushing the theatre of military operations to Thessaly and Central Greece.
On 21 April Zahariadis met Tito. The two men agreed that the DSE, then numbering some 20,000, had to be increased and supplied with the materiel needed to discharge its new task. The possibility of armed US intervention caused some concern, ‘but then there would be a more general international complication’. It was therefore ‘essential’ to secure support for the DSE by raising this issue ‘more decisively on a European and global scale’.
Then Zahariadis went to Moscow, carrying with him the 13 May memorandum, intended for Stalin and the Soviet leadership. In this he reiterated that the responsibility for the Greek crisis lay with the British military intervention of December 1944 which had ‘robbed’ EAM of power. The memorandum breathed out optimism. The course of events and US intervention demonstrated the ‘bankruptcy’ of British policy. Moreover, despite the material deficiencies of the Left, ‘politically the enemy is always on the defensive and the political initiative remains in the hands of the democratic movement’. Central in Zahariadis’s analysis and planning was the recurrent assessment that ‘without such abundant Anglo-Saxon assistance and intervention[,] the reaction would have lost the game a long time ago’. US intervention would create ‘additional difficulties’ but would ‘not essentially change domestic developments’. The hint was that this would be the case if the KKE could offset the foreign assistance received by its opponents.
On 22 May 1947 Zahariadis met Andrei Zhdanov, who had been delegated to record Greek requests and brief Stalin. Zahariadis explained to Zhdanov the situation in Greece, the KKE decisions, and its requirements for foreign assistance. He reiterated that the Truman Doctrine signified the defeat of British policy, an assessment that seemed to inspire the KKE with optimism. As it was then impossible to gauge the precise content, form, and perseverance of US support to the Greek government, Zahariadis claimed that in spring 1947 there was an ‘equilibrium of forces’ inside the country: the KKE maintained the support of the majority of the people but was lagging behind in material means. His plan was to drive government forces out of urban centres and create a ‘new situation’ by securing a free area in the north with Thessaloniki at its centre. To that end it would need to raise its army to 50,000, a target deemed feasible provided the party received sufficient material and political aid. Zahariadis admitted that his party could not count on the Soviets’ ‘overt help’, but at the same time Yugoslav aid was ‘good but insufficient’. The KKE should receive more aid and Zahariadis indicated that arms could be procured using the services of the international arms smuggling network through France, Egypt, and Palestine. In France especially, there were people well-schooled in arms trafficking to Spain during the Spanish Civil War and they could organise shipments for the KKE. Zahariadis assured Zhdanov that he understood the constraints of Soviet diplomacy and did not seek the kind of support ‘that might cause harm to the USSR’. But apart from money to buy arms, Soviet assistance could manifest itself in the sphere of politics and culture—for instance with a visit to Greece by Ilya Ehrenburg, contacts through the Orthodox Church and even the projection of Soviet films.
After this meeting Zahariadis probably met Stalin and received assurances of aid. On 4 June, from Belgrade, Ioannidis cabled the Athens members of the Politburo that ‘in the last weeks’ Zahariadis had met Stalin and ‘discussed effectively our issues. From the results of these talks we must be totally satisfied’. Further evidence of the positive outcome was the list which, following a Soviet request, the KKE submitted to the Soviets on 24 May—an extensive list with extensive needs. In February 1956, at the time of his political demise, Zahariadis confirmed that the outcome of his talks in Moscow in May-June 1947 had been positive.
Further confirmation that Moscow approved the KKE plans and promised assistance came when a good part of these plans were publicised at the French Communist Party Congress at Strasbourg. There on 27 June 1947 KKE CC member Miltiadis Porfyrogenis announced that the Greek communists would set up their own government in northern Greece because their opponents had obstructed the road to a peaceful settlement: ‘In our struggle we expect the solidarity of the communists of the entire world which cannot but manifest itself.’ The rationale for this expectation was a corrective to foreign communists’ perceptions of past Greek developments and a call to provide assistance now:
Then, in December 1944, many, even the communists abroad could not grasp the true meaning of our people’s struggle and attributed it to a mistake. Of course it was not a mistake on the part of the Greek people, who aimed at defending their life. Such an assessment of our people’s struggle contributed, up to a certain degree, to the isolation and lack of recognition of our struggle from abroad. […] The course of events showed that the Greek people then had been right […].
It was both a plea and a warning: foreign communists had been wrong in 1944 and should not be wrong again now; they ought to do their duty by the KKE, which in 1947 saw itself as a vanguard of the European communist movement.
On 17 July 1947, from Belgrade, Rousos sent the Soviets a lengthy report ‘On the Situation in Greece after the American Intervention’. The enunciation of the Truman Doctrine was seen again as proof of the defeat of British policy. The report acknowledged that US assistance to the Greek government would exacerbate the domestic situation and might spark a clash in the Balkans. Such worries coexisted uncomfortably with optimism about the prospects of the KKE, derived from the perceived failure of British policy and the fact that the DSE guerrillas remained undefeated. The KKE tried to elicit large-scale political and material support by invoking the peril of regional and international complications stemming from Anglo-American intervention in Greece. Moreover, its optimism was reinforced by information from its cadres based in Athens that although the Greek government ‘is in panic and it is begging for the despatch of American troops to fight’, the US authorities appeared ‘indecisive’ and preferred ‘to reinforce and equip the Greek army’.
The KKE belief in the precariousness of the position of its domestic opponents was not misplaced. On 25 July the Greek war minister warned the political and military leadership that the country appeared to be entering ‘into a long-term national haemorrhage which may be compared by and large to the Asia Minor Campaign [of 1919-1922] as regards its interminable character’. A few days later Ioannidis cabled the DSE commander that sufficient supplies had been secured to equip double the DSE’s current size, though their delivery to units inside Greece was problematic. The receipt of foreign aid, the assessment of the domestic situation, and its anticipation of US reluctance for military intervention encouraged the KKE to proceed with the implementation of its new plans.
In mid August, as the major offensive of the Greek army was collapsing and a major government crisis erupted in Athens, Zahariadis appeared equally optimistic. On 13 August he wrote to Tito that the failure of the government forces and the expansion of DSE operations impelled the Greek government, amidst its own collapse, to try ‘all the more to bring about American military intervention’. Yet the DSE was emerging from its four-month military ordeal ‘strengthened’ and had to assimilate the new human resources which were arriving ‘en masse at its lines’. The necessary war materiel for their equipment had been secured but it was difficult to transport it to Thessaloniki and central Greece. Once more Zahariadis drenched his letter in sanguine forecasts:
With no exaggeration, we can say that our prospects for the coming winter and spring 1948 are positive. The Greek people and the DSE are also facing calmly and resolutely the possibility of a direct American military intervention.
Three weeks later a new US-made coalition government in Athens unified the full range of anti-communist forces and temporarily appeared to deprive the Left of its centrist interlocutors. Then in mid-September the Third Plenum of the KKE Central Committee formalised its decision for a full-scale military effort, as conceived in April 1947. Ever since then it has been customary to overplay the perceived ‘distance’ between the ‘voluntarism’ of those ‘on the mountains’ and in Belgrade, who were blind to the real facts, and those in Athens, whose outlook was more realistic. Yet even if one accepts a conflict between those two outlooks, both seemed plausible. Zahariadis’s assessment of the recent past and the immediate present was not wrong, as British records confirm his analysis of both military and political difficulties amongst government ranks in spring and summer 1947. However, his buoyancy about the future relied too much on the party’s ability to secure the human and material resources necessary for the implementation of its new plans.
On 20 September 1947, shortly after the conclusion of the Third Plenum, Zahariadis asked the Yugoslavs for more help, including mediation with other communist parties to extend moral and material assistance. The recurrent premise that Britain and the US might use Greece as a springboard to threaten her socialist neighbours added a ring of urgency. ‘Serious help’ meant that:
the democratic Europe recognises officially only the democratic Greece […] since the democratic Europe cannot view with apathy the creation in Greece of an imperialist, fascist, military and warlike nest which is directly threatening her tranquillity, her reconstruction, her peace.
It was an indirect call to communist countries to threaten with their own diplomatic interference in Greece in order to offset a potential Anglo-American military threat to themselves. The tone was sharp amidst an international setting that was rapidly deteriorating, with Andrei Zhdanov’s ‘two worlds’ taking shape in mid-September 1947.
On 1 October, from Belgrade, Zahariadis sent Zhdanov a letter reiterating that the DSE not only withstood successfully the four-month offensive of the government army, but secured ‘better positions’ and increased its numbers; as ‘panic and confusion’ increased amongst the government ranks, the prospects for success ‘are today more positive than before’ with regard to the creation of a ‘free area’ in northern Greece ‘with its own state existence’. At the same time the KKE worried about the prospect of US intervention if it set up its own government, and it tried to tackle these worries in two ways. The first was increased foreign assistance, including mountain artillery, anti-tank guns, boots and clothing for 15,000 men, and cash, so as to resist US intervention ‘irrespective of [its] form’. But also Zahariadis asked the Soviet government to embrace and propose officially the terms for pacification held by former Greek foreign minister Ioannis Sofianopoulos that Greeks ‘should be given a chance to express themselves through elections held by a democratic government.’
Until the end of 1947 the supply of foreign aid to the KKE was slow and frustrating, at least as regards its arrival to DSE frontline units. The slow supply was matched by a cautious attitude on the part of the international communist movement towards the appeals of the KKE for political and diplomatic assistance. In October 1947 and again in spring 1948 Zahariadis appealed to the Soviets and the Bulgarians to admit the KKE to the Cominform. An indirect reply came in June 1948, when at the second Cominform conference Georgii Malenkov stated that admitting the KKE ‘would create additional difficulties for the Greek comrades’. The USA and Britain would hasten to portray them as agents of Moscow and denigrate their struggle as directed by outside powers ‘and, of course, by Moscow, through the Information Bureau’. Still, the exclusion of the KKE did not necessarily imply a disapproval of KKE aims and endeavours. In the Constitutional Conference of the Cominform, the Romanian Gheorghe Gheorghieu-Dej had summed up the attitude of the communist world towards its Greek brethren as follows: ‘I consider it proper to say that giving aid to the Greek Communist Party is obligatory upon all other Communist Parties, without writing that in a resolution.’
Yet exclusion from the Cominform was matched by non-recognition of the Provisional Democratic Government (PDK) under DSE commander Markos Vafiadis, which was announced on Christmas Eve 1947. In a telling case, in January 1948 the Romanians hinted at their unwillingness to provide the kind of support that would jeopardise the building of their new state. In the following month Stalin told the Bulgarians and the Yugoslavs that ‘the neighbouring countries must be the last to recognise the government of General Markos. First let the others recognise it’. No one did.
1948: Holding Out
Reflecting the hardening of attitudes both at home and internationally, in a speech to political and military cadres on 15 January 1948 Zahariadis asserted that on the basis of the diagnosis of a capitalist bust and a socialist boom, the Cominform’s founding conference had stressed that ‘the gravest danger for the working class movement is to underestimate its own strengths and overestimate the forces of the adversary’. The link with the Greek situation was self-evident:
The world people’s democratic movement is on the rise. The world democratic solidarity is widening and materializing. For us […] this constitutes an additional encouragement and consolidation of our faith in victory, a major reinforcement of our struggle.
This assessment was further reinforced by what Zahariadis saw as the ‘bankruptcy’ of Anglo-American policies and a ‘total’ crisis for the party’s domestic opponents. He attributed the lack of recognition of the PDK to the ‘aggressiveness’ of British and American diplomacy which aimed to ‘scare’ the KKE’s foreign friends and demonstrate that ‘free democratic Greece is doomed to isolation and therefore its destruction is certain’. Yet:
international developments, with crisis and exhaustion in the imperialist anti-democratic camp and progress and development in the democratic anti-imperialist camp, as well as the political and military situation in Greece allow and impose upon the forces of the people’s democracy in our country the most robust optimism […].
What underlay this buoyancy was Zahariadis’s reaffirmation of the ideological faith in the preordained victory after the example of ‘the Light from the East’. A month later, in his famous meeting at the Kremlin on 10 February 1948, the ‘Light from the East’ discussed his doubts about the military prospects of the KKE with his Bulgarian and Yugoslav guests. When the latter indicated that they did not share his doubts, Stalin replied: ‘Fine, then wait. Maybe you are right’. And then, recalling that he had been wrong in the case of the Chinese CP, he added: ‘Maybe in this case it can also turn out that we are wrong’.
For a time in 1948 there seemed a slim chance that he might indeed be wrong. The KKE terms for an acceptable compromise could only be ‘forced’ by the arms of the DSE, since the Greek government was expected to be less inclined—or less permitted—to accept them on its own accord. On the other hand, the Greek government’s perception of reality was not optimistic, especially in mid-1948. On 22 July the war minister warned that the losses and fatigue of the government troops suggested that the successful conclusion of the campaign by the end of August was doubtful, and unless priority was given to mopping up southern and central Greece, he foresaw a drop of morale, government instability and political crisis. By the end of August the government offensive had failed, and two months later the ruling coalition barely survived a major political crisis. Political instability in Athens and the failure of the army to defeat the DSE continued to inspire Zahariadis with optimism.
The Yugoslav Breach
In 1948 the KKE faced difficulties in increasing its manpower or properly equipping its forces. But from June onwards the Yugoslav complication altered the context even more detrimentally. In the early stages of Stalin’s conflict with Tito the Greek communists preferred to keep their distance because of Yugoslavia’s vital help but also because of the separatist tendencies of Greece’s Slav-Macedonian minority. The 4th Plenum of the Central Committee on 28-29 July aligned KKE policy with Cominform strictures against Yugoslavia but the decision was not published. In late August and early September, as the DSE survived the army offensive on its northern strongholds, Rousos drafted a report to the Soviets in which he mentioned that the 4th Plenum was attended by a representative of the Central Committee of the CPSU who listened to deliberations about the political and military situation and the prospects of the KKE. The report stated that the Yugoslav crisis ‘no doubt had material and moral consequences for our struggle’. The KKE needed the efficient delivery of more help, hence it decided to appeal to the CPs of Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.
The deterioration of relations with the Yugoslavs and its impact on KKE fortunes were confirmed in November 1948, when Rousos discussed matters with Alexander Rankovic, Interior Minister and one of the three secretaries of the CPY. Rousos’s conclusion was that although the Yugoslavs would like to rid themselves of the Greek burden, they were prevented by their desire to uphold their internationalist image. But the signs already pointed to ‘preparation for an overtly hostile attitude’. In consequence, there was increased contact between the KKE and the Bulgarian CP.
In early April 1949 Rousos had two further conversations with Rankovic. The Yugoslavs had never asked the KKE to take Belgrade’s side in the dispute with Moscow, but they were unwilling to have the KKE ‘carrying [the Cominform’s] campaign against us’. Then casually Rankovic added: ‘And one more thing, too. Even now the position of the other parties vis-à-vis your struggle is not clear to us, we do not know whether they believe in victory’. Rousos understood that the prospects for even some limited cooperation with the Yugoslavs, especially in transferring materiel and people, were not hopeful.
Spring 1949 was the time when all seemed lost for the KKE. While the Yugoslav lifeline was largely severed, in April Stalin notified Zahariadis that all DSE operations should be brought to an end by early May. Stalin’s motive was his fear of western military action against Albania, which the Greek government had requested in order to prevent the DSE from seeking refuge across the border. Preparations started for the withdrawal of the DSE from Greek soil but were called off within a few days. The new message to the KKE leadership was that the situation had changed and the DSE should conduct intensive operations. The reason was an opportunity for talks in New York for a possible deal on Greece between representatives of the US, Britain and the Soviet Union; and while the opportunity was being explored, the DSE had to keep up the fight.
When the opportunity vanished, and when on 10 July 1949 Tito announced the closure of the Yugoslav-Greek border, the interests of the KKE and the Cominform became identical. On 1 August Zahariadis dished out in the pages of the Cominform’s journal an alibi for the impending defeat, enshrined in his article’s title: ‘Tito’s dagger stabs the People’s Democratic Greece in the back’. An alibi it certainly was, but in a letter addressed by Zahariadis to the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Albanian Party of Labour on 22 August 1949 the KKE leader inadvertently revealed the impossible tangles that the KKE had had to resolve in 1946: ‘if in 1946 Tito’s treachery had manifested itself we would think very hard before starting the armed struggle’.
Collective Unreality or Fluid Reality?
The December 1944 clash in Athens between leftist guerrillas and British forces became the main anchor of the subsequent KKE narrative: British intervention had thwarted Greece’s ‘peaceful political evolution’ and a political victory for the KKE and EAM. Subsequent communist strategy, including the military struggle of 1946-1949, was an attempt to turn the clock back to 1944, prior to the December clash. But the world of allied cooperation was gradually disintegrating. Before resorting to arms, the KKE appeared willing to recognise British interests in Greece with its ‘two-pole’ thesis in 1945; in the following year, in a further effort to check what it saw as a unilateral civil war, its proposal for Greek neutrality under UN auspices was then as plausible and bold as it may subsequently seem unrealistic.
The search for a political compromise was foremost in communist strategy in 1945-1947. The shift towards a full-scale military effort came not as previously thought in February 1947, but after (and probably because of) the announcement of the Truman Doctrine a month later. From then on the Greek communists’ defiant rhetoric veiled the restriction of their choices to only two: unconditional surrender, which there is no evidence that they ever contemplated, and the continuation of the policy of war and peace with the aim of a negotiated settlement.
Moreover, the immediate postwar years were a time of rapid shifts in the international setting, and the KKE’s perceptions of it were not so much faulty as selective and occasionally self-serving. In 1946-1947 the KKE aimed at a political compromise. In 1947-1949 it continued to do so but had to pretend that its struggle was a revolution, in alignment with changes in the international environment after mid-1947 and the gradual deterioration of its domestic prospects. The talk of revolution was intended for its own domestic audience and its foreign friends in order to maintain the ideological fervour and morale of its army and to consolidate its image as a revolutionary vanguard party in the socialist camp. At the same time the KKE tried to explore and even initiate moves for a compromise. In this it was not blind to the changing circumstances, but it was optimistic over margins that were shrinking, while its optimism was underpinned by the lack of palatable alternatives.
Historians and fraternal parties criticised the KKE for placing its fortunes in foreign hands. On 15 January 1950 Zahariadis and Partsalidis sent a letter to the CPSU in which they tried to refute the charge of Albanian leader Enver Hodza that:
the KKE based its struggle on outside help. C. Enver forgets that […] our struggle in Greece against the monarchofascists who had had the full support of the Anglo-Americans could not and cannot win without the support of the fraternal CPs.
Six years later, at the time of de-Stalinisation and Zahariadis’s political demise, Otto Kuusinen, in the role of chief prosecutor, repeated the charge that Zahariadis had ‘pinned everything upon assistance from abroad’ and that the preparation of the armed struggle was ‘adventurist’. Zahariadis strongly rejected:
that it was adventurism to count or to rely upon assistance from abroad. […] I believe on the contrary that it would have been adventurism if we had not taken into account the foreign situation of Greece and the situation on the border, where the allied factor had already taken shape.
The pursuit of foreign assistance was an essential prerequisite for the implementation of KKE policies after 1946 on the grounds that its domestic opponents enjoyed unremitting external support since 1943.
Accordingly, the KKE’s perceptions of reality were not fundamentally wrong. Yet the Greek communists operated in a rapidly shifting international environment during an exceptionally fluid juncture in European and world history, when there was very little correlation between the importance, complexity, and density of events and the timespan in which they occurred. In a realm of indeterminacy rather than mere uncertainty, the KKE tried to respond to rapid changes at home and abroad but there proved to be too many variables, imponderables, and contingencies. In a context whose volatility fuelled too many false perceptions, the Greek communists chose to internalise whatever they interpreted as positive signs and ignored those suggesting impediments and adversities: they internalised the expansion of communist rule in the Balkans and underplayed the possibility that someone somewhere might draw a line. Their real difficulty, however, was not the accuracy of their perceptions or lack thereof, but the lack of sufficient power to survive their inaccuracy. Their overall outlook was not a case of collective unreality—a charge based on hindsight, the post-1949 political stakes and the tireless usage of the 1940s to legitimise or delegitimise political identities, narratives, and credentials. Rather, it was more of an unconvincing possibility that in hindsight turned into a likely impossibility.