Civil War: Greece (1944-1949)

Neal G Jesse. Civil Wars of the World: Major Conflicts since World War II. Editor: Karl DeRouen Jr. & Uk Heo. Volume 1, ABC-CLIO, 2007.


The Greek civil war of 1944-1949 is best understood as the product of two long processes, one external and one internal. The external process was the development of social conflicts in Western and Eastern Europe dating from the end of World War I, which set in motion both the Communist revolution in Russia—and the subsequent consolidation of the Soviet Union—and the expansion of fascism throughout most of Europe. These competing ideological pulls would have a great impact on the Greek civil war. Of equal effect was the internal process of the persistent division of Greek society known as the National Schism (Ethnikos Dikhasmos). The National Schism arose out of two questions: whether Greece should participate in World War I and on whose side it should participate. Originally, Greece devolved into two camps: Venizelists, who supported the provisional government of Eleftherios Venizelos, and anti-Venizelists, who supported King Constantine.

This division would later expand into many different areas of Greek social and political life, the constant being that the division of Europe into competing camps before, during, and after World War II, would be mirrored by the division of Greece into competing camps, eventually leading to a showdown in the Greek civil war between the restored government of Georgios Papandreou, with his British and (later) American supporters, and the armed Communist resistance. The defeat of the Communists in 1949 and the establishment of a parliamentary government temporarily ended the division of Greece. However, the eventual descent into military government in 1967 exposed the continual division of Greek society into two camps: one that supported democracy and one that did not. Only in the 1970s would Greece put this division behind itself and move forward with stable, parliamentary democracy.

Country Background

We can divide Greek history before the Civil War into two periods: the preoccupation of Greece and the occupation of Greece. Preoccupation, or interwar, Greece dealt with problems similar to those of a large number of Eastern European countries. Greek independence from Ottoman Turkish rule occurred in 1822 with the proclamation of the constitution of an independent Greece. From that time until the end of the nineteenth century, Greece would move in fits and starts from a powerful monarchy to a dual system wherein both king and parliament would contribute to governance. The 1909 military coup led to the rise of the Liberal Party and its charismatic leader, Eleftherios Venizelos. Venizelos supported economic modernization, social reform, and the Great Idea, a larger, expanded Greece. Venizelos and his supporters clashed with the royalists and other social conservatives, resulting in the eventual tug-of-war over foreign policy between King Constantine and Venizelos.

In the run-up to World War I, Greece displayed both social and economic underdevelopment relative to the larger Western European powers. The participation of Greece in the two Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 led to a massive territorial gain, mainly from the Turkish cession of Macedonia to Greece. Greece added “some 70 percent to her land area, while her population increased from approximately 2,800,000 to 4,800,000” (Clogg 1992, 83). Greece became a major power in the Ionian and Aegean seas and perhaps even in the Mediterranean. Yet Greece was mainly an agrarian country consisting mostly of small farm owners. A bourgeoisie did exist and formed most of the political class, although it was only a small fraction of the population. The agrarian society was maintained for decades; by the 1940s around 60 percent of the population engaged in agriculture, producing more than 50 percent of the gross domestic product (Svoronos 1981, 4). Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s, Greek national production was one-third that of Britain and the United States, half that of Austria, and only slightly better than that of Romania (Svoronos 1981, 4).

Returning to the 1910s, the beginning of World War I led to difficulties in Greek foreign policy. Prime Minister Venizelos supported the Entente powers of Britain and France, whereas King Constantine favored Germany. This division led to Greek neutrality at the start of the war and two dismissals of Venizelos from government by the king. In August of 1915, with British and French forces already in Salonica and Corfu, pro-Venizelist army officers launched a military coup against the royalist government. Venizelos established a provisional government in Crete, deepening the split between the two factions. In 1916, British and French forces invaded Athens to enforce Greek neutrality and collect war materials. The royalist Greeks resisted and pushed the Allies out of Athens while at the same time purging supporters of Venizelos. The Allies consequently blockaded Greek ports and caused severe economic hardship in royalist areas.

The result of the Allied pressure was the June 1917 departure of Constantine, without abdication, and the succession of his second-oldest son, Alexander, to the throne. Venizelos became prime minister again, but Greece was still divided. Venizelos recalled the 1915 parliament, in which he held a firm majority, and sent seven divisions to the Macedonian front to help the British and French war effort. True to his aims of establishing the Great Idea, Venizelos used the end of World War I to push for more concessions to Greece from the declining Ottoman Empire. Chief among his demands were Smyrna, “a city with more Greek inhabitants than Athens” on the Turkish mainland, and the territory of Thrace (Clogg 1992, 93). Before Venizelos’s aims could be recognized, Italy landed troops in Asia Minor and started marching toward Smyrna. In May 1919, Britain, France, and the United States agreed to land Greek troops in Smyrna as a way to head off this Italian advance. Venizelos had now achieved his Greece of “the two continents and five seas” (Clogg 1992, 95).

But the deep division of Greek society would not allow Venizelos to enjoy this success. With the death of King Alexander, royalists won the 1919 elections, returning Constantine to power and purging Venizelists. Turkish nationalists waged a campaign against the Greek possessions in Asia Minor, while in 1921 all the allies of Greece declared their neutrality in the budding Greco-Turkish conflict. The massive Turkish offensive of August 1921 led to a rout of Greek forces, the hasty and incomplete evacuation of Smyrna, and the massacre of around 30,000 Greeks and Armenians. The Great Idea ended in catastrophe.

A military coup in 1922 led to government by a revolutionary committee. The court-martial known as the Trial of the Six ended in the execution of six of the eight defendants, mainly military officers who campaigned in Asia Minor and pro-Venizelist politicians (Clogg 1992, 100-103). Further, more than a million refugees flooded into Greece, most of whom were firm supporters of Venizelos and his Great Idea. A military dictator, General Theodoros Pangalos, ruled Greece until 1926; in 1927 a two-chamber parliamentary system came into existence, and the monarchy was abolished. From 1928 to 1932, Venizelos returned to power as prime minister of Greece and leader of the revived Liberal Party. A parliamentary election led to legislative deadlock in 1933, followed by an election won by the People’s Party.

Venizelist supporters launched a failed coup in March 1933 in an attempt to overturn the election results. With royalist sympathy gaining ground, Venizelists launched a second coup attempt in 1935, again resulting in failure as well as the eventual exile of Venizelos to France, the restoration of martial law, and the purging of Venizelists from the military and civil service. The People’s Party, led by Prime Minister Panayis Tsaldaris, abolished the Senate (the upper house) and held elections under martial law. Under pressure from royalists to reestablish the monarchy, Tsaldaris resigned. Tsaldaris’s successor, General Georgios Kondylis, abolished the republic and held a farcical referendum in favor of restoring the monarchy. King George II now sat on the throne of Greece.

By now, the social unrest in Europe was catching up to Greece. An election created a weak parliament split between the People’s Party, with its royalist sympathizers, and the Liberal Party. The remaining seats were held by the new Communist Party of Greece (KKE) and the far-right Freethinkers’ Party, led by General Ioannis Metaxas. In 1936, Metaxas replaced an ineffectual minister of war, and later the king appointed Metaxas caretaker prime minister. In August, Metaxas suspended key articles of the constitution and soon thereafter established his dictatorship (also called the Regime of the Fourth of August 1936) (Clogg 1992, 117-19). Metaxas ruled as a fascist dictator from 1936 to 1941 and neutralized all opposition.

Despite his profascist leanings, Metaxas maintained warm relations with Britain, a policy also supported by George II. In April 1939, after the Italian occupation of Albania, Britain and France guaranteed the integrity of Greece. When World War II started in September 1939, Metaxas hoped to keep Greece neutral. However, Mussolini had designs on Greece; within hours after a humiliating ultimatum of October 28, 1940, Italian forces crossed the border into Greece. Within days, the Greeks had stemmed the Italian advance and counterattacked into Albanian territory. After the death of Metaxas, and fearing a German invasion, Alexandros Koryzis asked for and received a British expeditionary force (composed mostly of New Zealand and Australian troops). But this did not deter the German invasion, which occurred on April 6, 1941. The Germans could not be stopped, and on August 20 General Tsolakoglou negotiated an armistice with Germany. On August 23, Athens fell to German troops. Britain evacuated its forces to Crete, along with King George II, most of the government, and some Greek forces. These elements would later be further evacuated to the Middle East once Crete fell to a German invasion.

Thus, the occupation of Greece by German, Italian, and Bulgarian forces began. In September 1941, the Communists established the National Liberation Front (EAM) as its political movement and the National People’s Liberation Army (ELAS) as its military wing. The vacuum in political leadership created during the Metaxas dictatorship left the Communists to fill the void. A number of noncommunist resistance groups also emerged, of whom the National Republican Greek League (EDES) in northwest Greece became the most significant. The king and the exiled government, first in London and later in Cairo, had almost no contact with the resistance groups, and even opposed their use of sabotage because of reprisals against the civilian population. British support for the king led to a lack of British support for the resistance efforts.

A meeting in Cairo in August 1943 between the British military, the representatives of George II, and the guerrillas led to nothing. The guerrillas demanded some exercise of ministries in the exiled government and that the king not return until a referendum approved it. Britain and George II rejected these demands. The guerrillas, particularly EAM, became convinced that Britain wanted to restore the Greek monarchy. Fighting between ELAS and EDES in late 1943 led to British support of EDES. The establishment of a Communist “mountain” government in free Greece (that is, occupied territory under only nominal occupation but really under EAM control) led to the mutiny of EAM supporters in the Greek army in Egypt. The direct consequences of these developments were twofold: first, the establishment of Georgios Papandreou, a Venizelist and anticommunist, as prime minister in exile, and second, the Percentages Agreement between Churchill and Stalin in Moscow, in which Churchill demanded and received Stalin’s agreement that Greece would remain outside the Communist sphere.

At the Lebanon Conference of May 1944, EAM agreed to a unity government in which it retained only a small number of minor ministries. Another part of the agreement was that after the German withdrawal from Greece, which was only a matter of weeks or months at this time, all resistance groups would demobilize and disarm and a new national army would be formed from both the Communist and non-Communist elements. The Germans withdrew in October 1944, and the Papandreou government returned with the British to Athens on October 18, 1944. At its moment of liberation, tragically, Greece was now on the cusp of civil war.

Conflict Background

The Greek civil war of 1944-1949 began almost by accident. With liberation, the Papandreou government took control of major cities, mainly as a result of British occupation of them. But Papandreou’s “national unity” government was neither effective nor unified. Moreover, it had no control whatsoever over territory that the British army did not occupy, including most of the mountainous terrain, which was occupied by ELAS and EDES. Less than one month after liberation, on November 8, 1944, Papandreou brought to the Greek mainland the Mountain Brigade, a unit formed in exile that had been purged of all pro-EAM elements. Following the Lebanon Agreement, all resistance units were to demobilize from December 1 to December 10. The British ordered all EDES and ELAS elements to comply.

But mistrust, misdeeds, and suspicion led to the December 2 resignation of the EAM ministers from the government, citing in particular the continued mobilization of the Mountain Brigade. EAM called for antigovernment demonstrations in Athens on the December 3 and a general strike on December 4. The December Crisis (also known as the Second Round) worsened as the government first approved of the demonstration and then banned it. Police units fired upon the demonstrators, leading to approximately fifteen deaths. As a result, ELAS units began to attack police and government offices in Athens; the Greek civil war had begun.

Fighting between Communist and non-communist elements around Athens ended with the intervention of sizeable British ground and air support for the government forces. General Plastiras replaced the ineffectual Papandreou as prime minister. By January 10, the British had firm control of the city and the surrounding area. A cease-fire agreement between the government and EAM was negotiated and signed at Varkiza on February 12, 1945. ELAS agreed to disarm, and the government promised political amnesty for all EAM supporters. However, EDES and other right-wing elements used the cease-fire and the ELAS stand-down as an opportunity to take revenge on leftist elements. The government was either incapable of or unwilling to check these rightist elements and their campaign of terror and violence infuriated EAM.

A new government, under Themistoklis Sophoulis, a Liberal and pro-Venizelist, reneged on the Varkiza agreement. Sophoulis announced elections for March 1946, to be quickly followed by a plebiscite on the restoration of the monarchy, a reversal of the order to which EAM had agreed at Varkiza. The Communists abstained from participating in the election, as did some members of Sophoulis’s government. The far-right People’s Party won a majority of seats and formed a government under the leadership of Dino Tsaldaris. Tsaldaris advanced the plebiscite date from March 1948 to September 1946 and held it under questionable circumstances and conditions. As a result, King George II returned to Greece. The Third Round of the Greek civil war began as violence between Communist and government forces escalated.

Any chance for a political solution had now passed. In August 1946, Tsaldaris claimed that ELAS was supported by Yugoslav and Bulgarian Communists. In October, the EAM declared the formation of the Democratic Army to resist the Greek government, and the establishment of the Provisional Democratic Government. In December 1947, Tsaldaris outlawed the Communists. Under these worsening conditions, Britain relinquished its position as sponsor of Greece to the United States and its new Truman Doctrine. American pressure led to the removal of Tsaldaris and a new Liberal-Populist coalition government headed by Sophoulis. Truman convinced the U.S. Congress to pour substantial military and economic aid into Greece as part of “emergency aid” to support free peoples. By 1948, American military aid (American forces did not directly participate in fighting) turned the tide, and government forces began to get the upper hand.

The decisive blow to the Communist insurgents came in late 1948. After the Communist International (Comintern) expelled Yugoslavia, EAM sided with Moscow in the decision. In retaliation, in early 1949 Yugoslavia closed the border to Greek guerrillas, forcing them to rely only on Albania as a safe haven. Moreover, Stalin was convinced that Greece was a lost cause and ended all aid to the rebels. With American aid creating a well-trained, well-equipped regular army, by the summer of 1949 the Greek government forces had pushed the Communist resistance over the Albanian border, effectively ending the Greek civil war. What had begun as a “largely spontaneous and defensive guerilla activity and ending up as a full-scale revolution directed by the Communist Party” would leave scars on Greece for decades (Iatrides 1981, 153).

Sources: Close 2002, Doyle and Sambanis 2000.
War: Communist resistance vs. installed government
Dates: 1944-1949
Casualties: At least 50,000 combat deaths and at least 100,000 civilian deaths
Regime type prior to war: Occupied by German, Italian, and Bulgarian forces
Regime type after war: Restricted democracy
GDP per capita year war began: US $1,400
GDP per capita 5 years after war: US $2,000
Insurgents: EAM/ELAS
Issue: Ideological and factional struggle for control of central government
Rebel funding: Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Albania, Soviet Union
Role of geography: Rebels hid in mountains.
Role of resources: No practical impact
Immediate outcome: Government victory through British and American intervention
Outcome after 5 years: Stable peace, elections, oppressive government
Role of UN: UNSCOB activity
Role of regional organization: None active
Refugees: 50,000
Prospects for peace: Government declined into right-wing and military domination.
Table 1: Civil War in Greece

The human cost of the war was high. Greek officials announced the killing of “nearly 50,000” insurgents, but the actual figure is probably closer to 37,000 (Wittner 1982, 253). The government also captured approximately 20,000 insurgents. Government losses numbered more than 14,000, with more than 30,000 wounded and more than 4,000 missing (Wittner 1982, 253). Civilian deaths are harder to estimate, but conservative figures estimate 100,000 and another 50,000 displaced (Close 2002).

The Insurgents

The main opposition to the government was the broad-based National Liberation Front. Originally designed to oppose Axis occupation, EAM later became the opposition to the return of the Greek government in exile in 1944. EAM was organized under the larger aegis of the Greek Communist Party. Although a number of independent elements, some Republicans some Liberals, operated during Axis occupation, most had come under EAM control by 1946. Indeed, the early success of the EAM in organizing resistance displayed the ability of the left (Communists, Socialists, and Agrarians) to combine their struggle for national liberation (Fleischer 1995, 50).

Estimates of EAM supporters at the time of liberation in 1944 range from 500,000 to 2 million (Clogg 1992, 128). EAM earned this support for two reasons: its resistance to Axis occupation and its programs to help rural communities (e.g., improving education, political involvement, women’s rights). As a consequence, peasants and women made up a sizeable proportion of the rebels. One estimate of the female contribution to EAM is that in May 1944 women constituted 35.4 percent of EAM’s entire membership (Fleischer 1995, 66).

By 1948, and with the slow decline of the popularity and fighting capacity of ELAS, around 40 percent of the Democratic Army were Slav Macedonians (Clogg 1992, 141). Thus, by 1949 the rebels had become more concentrated in the northern mountains, more Macedonian and nationalist, and more radically Communist. Once the EAM, and especially the ELAS, represented more Communist and narrower ethnic groups, its national popularity waned. By the end of the civil war, EAM and ELAS numbered fewer than 100,000, probably only half that number.


The geography of Greece played three important roles in the conflict. The mountainous areas provided a safe haven for the insurgents throughout most of the civil war. ELAS was entrenched in the mountains during the Axis occupation and used these same bases to resist the government forces. The second role of geography was to render government forces unable to secure the Yugoslav and Albanian borders. Before the Yugoslav closing of the border in 1949, the rebels were able to receive supplies across the border and could even cross the borders to evade government harassment. The third role had to do with the importance of Macedonia. The rise of Macedonian nationalism, and in particular the participation of Macedonia Slavs in the Communist resistance, led to Communist strength in Macedonia (particularly from 1948 to 1949). However, the Communist support of Macedonian nationalism alienated the main Greek nation and weakened the popular appeal of the Communist resistance.


The tactics of the Communist resistance changed over time from that of guerrilla warfare to conventional military engagement. EAM used tactics of terror, sabotage, assassination, and clandestine action that it had learned and perfected during the Axis occupation. During the Axis occupation, EAM had enjoyed widespread popular support, especially in the mountains and countryside. However, this did not stop EAM (and ELAS) from using terror against its political rivals and their supporters. Such tactics were also used during the time of resistance to the Greek government (1944-1949). In fact, it is the use of terror by the Communists that infuriated the right and contributed to the White Terror of 1944-1946, in which right-wing groups retaliated.

More broadly, EAM initially called for a national unity and a nationally popular government comprised of more than just the left. During the German occupation, EAM was genuinely popular among the rural population, whatever each peasant’s political persuasion. EAM followed a policy of resistance, first to German occupation and later to the returned Greek government, that concurrently sought to avoid civil war. EAM switched its tactics in 1946-1947, when the KKE demanded that EAM realign itself with the Communist Party and its ideology (Fleischer 1995, 68-82). The KKE met in the Third Plenum of the Central Committee in September 1947 and formalized the reorganization of EAM. The KKE was responding to the militant threats and attacks from the right. Thus, the left switched its tactics from avoiding civil war to a defense-oriented posture that contributed to civil war (Smith 1995).

The reasons for the defeat of the Communist insurgents are many. The main tactical disadvantage of the Democratic Army was that it never “developed a sufficiently strong popular base and the military force necessary for a reasonable chance of ultimate victory” (Iatrides 1981, 217). The transformation from a guerrilla army to a regular army left it vulnerable to the superiority of the American-supported government forces in conventional warfare. The main strategic disadvantage is related to the tactical one: The Communists did not secure significant external support. The small amount of aid from Yugoslavia and Albania was not commensurate with the massive amount of aid the government received from Britain and later from the United States. Other reasons include the Stalin-Tito feud (which effectively eliminated Yugoslav support for Greece), the increased morale and effectiveness of government forces and recruitment, the KKE’s inability to commit to revolution before 1947, the KKE’s poor management of the Democratic Army, and alienation of the populace after 1947 (Iatrides 1981, 216-19).

Causes of the War

Iatrides suggests that although “the deeper causes of the civil war surely lie in the interwar period and the Metaxas dictatorship, the immediate origins are to be found in the years of enemy occupation, and the resistance movement” (1981, 199). The history of National Schism, the division into Venizelists and anti-Venezelists, the royalists versus liberals, support for or resistance to the Great Idea, and even divisions over foreign policy and British support all divided Greeks. The culmination of these divisions is that “the civil war was produced by the clashing objectives of two Greek camps, each determined to impose its will upon the nation, each believing in its own legitimacy, and each realizing that the success of its efforts ultimately depended upon external factors and upon the foreign assistance it could secure” (Iatrides 1981, 196).

Perhaps unlike a number of ethnic or religious civil wars, the Greek civil war was fought “between people most of whom shared a strong sense of ethnic identity, and often too of local community” (Close 2002, 39). The external causes—that is, World War II, which created the power vacuum, and international communism, which inspired the KKE—contributed to the development of armed camps on the left and the right. But it is the breakdown of political consensus about the future of Greece that perhaps contributed even more to the civil war. The National Schism and all the many tendrils that extended from it were unanswered. As both the left and the right envisioned a different future for Greece, neither could accommodate the other’s solution. With each wave of violence, hatred contributed to a further round of civil war (Close 2002). The unfortunate product of all this division was violent confrontation.


Conflict Status

The Greek civil war lasted for roughly five years (December 1944 to December 1949) and ended with the defeat of the Communist insurgency. Government forces eventually drove the Communists over the border into Albania. With the end of the war, the government established firm control over Greece, including the northern territories and mountainous regions. In January 1952, the government adopted a formal constitution establishing the Greek state. The Communists would not play a role in Greek society until their reestablishment as a legal party in 1974.

Duration Tactics

The nature of the Greek civil war changed over time. It occurred in two phases: a brief uprising in December 1944 in response to the failed Lebanon agreement, and a longer civil war from 1946 to 1949. During this time, the tactics of the government and the Communist rebels changed to meet the changing conditions of the conflict.

Iatrides (1981) categorizes the conflict into three phases primarily according to the tactics employed by the Communist resistance. The first phase is the unplanned insurrection, or Communist revulsion at the failed Varkiza Agreement of February 1945. This period lasted until February 1946 and the Second Plenum of the KKE Central Committee meeting, in which the Communists decided to boycott the elections. The second phase is the transition from 1946 to 1947, in which the Democratic Army was formed. The third phase is the planned insurrection, in which regular combat occurred between Communist and government forces (Iatrides 1981, 199-216).

During the unplanned insurrection, most of the Communist resistance formed into “small bands of ten to thirty, linked together by a makeshift network of messengers and contacts” (Iatrides 1981, 200-201). As such, their organization was not much different from what it had been during Axis occupation. Most resisted from distrust of the government’s willingness to comply with the amnesty program, hatred of the rightist paramilitary groups, fear of reprisals from victims of past Communist actions, and anger at the government’s betrayal of the Lebanon Agreement. Thus, during this first phase, the Communist resistance numbered probably about 10,000 and lacked centralized command and organization. The resistance did have contacts with Bulgaria and Yugoslavia, but neither of these nations involved itself directly in Greek affairs.

The second phase, transition, began with the second plenum of the KKE central committee in February 17, 1946. The KKE agreed to boycott elections. There is evidence that the Soviet Union advised the KKE to participate in elections, but Nikos Zakhariadis, the secretary-general, overruled such an action. This hardening of the Communist line toward the government, and the change in rhetoric from populist to revolutionary, signaled that the Communists no longer believed that democratic participation was a viable option. In November of 1946, the KKE established a general partisan headquarters to coordinate the bands of Communist resistance, primarily those in Macedonia. In December, the KKE renamed these bands the Democratic Army of Greece (DAG/DSE) and imposed strict ideological discipline on the groups. The Communists slowly modified the bands, organizing them into a more normal military formation. Likewise and in response, the government forces during this time consolidated and expanded, perhaps from 100,000 to 120,000. Although violence and conflict slowly escalated during this period, both forces were largely ineffectual in inflicting large-scale damage on each other.

The third phase, planned insurrection, represents the Communist insurgents’ military confrontation of the government forces. In September 1947, the Third Plenum of the KKE Central Committee advocated direct overthrow of the government, starting in Macedonia and working all the way to Athens. The government immediately banned the KKE, whereas in December the Communists announced the Provisional Democratic Government, located at Pyli near the Albanian and Yugoslavian borders. Positional warfare became the norm. The Democratic Army numbered somewhere between 26,000 and 28,000 troops, but because of irregularities in participation and counting, the true number may be as high as 100,000 men and women (Iatrides 1981, 213).

According to American calculations at the start of 1948, the Communist insurgents held half the territory of Greece (mainly the north), and about one-third of the Greek population was under their dominion (Iatrides 1981, 213). Of course, the United States responded by “increasing its effort to improve the effectiveness of the government forces” (Iatrides 1981, 214). By the end of 1948, the Greek government forces numbered more than 150,000, which does include the number of armed civilians or rightist groups operating independently of the government (Iatrides 1981, 216). Thus, as Communist tactics increasingly shifted toward armed, militarized insurrection, the weaker their position became. Lacking any significant external support, the Communists could not defeat the externally funded government forces.

External Military Intervention

The two main military interventions were first by Britain and second by the United States. The British intervention was the direct result of the end of World War II. Britain had supported the Greek government in exile and also wanted to retain Greece as part of the Churchill-Stalin Percentages Agreement. Britain desired a hand in Greece for two reasons. First, Britain wanted to maintain its interest in the eastern Mediterranean, a policy that dated to the middle of the nineteenth century. Second, Britain did not want the Soviet troops, which by 1944 were advancing on the Balkans, to enter Greece (Baerentzen and Close 1993, 72-73). Britain saw three obstacles to its intended policy: securing an understanding with the Americans and the Soviets over British interests; occupying Greece when the Allies had no plans to do so; and defeating the largest resistance movement, the EAM/ELAS, which controlled most of the country and was allied with the Greek Communists (Baerentzen and Close 1993, 73).

The Percentages Agreement of October 9, 1944, in which Britain traded Romania for Greece, removed the Soviet obstacle. By August of that same year, Churchill and the war cabinet had agreed to send 10,000 British troops to occupy Athens, solving the second obstacle. It is noteworthy that a plan to send 80,000 troops with air support to occupy all of Greece was rejected as a bit impossible. Thus, the biggest difficulty was the presence of the Communist resistance. In October, as the Germans retreated and the Soviet Army entered Bulgaria, ELAS units attacked military garrisons in the hopes of securing them before British troops arrived. British troops arrived in Athens on October 14, with Papandreou returning from exile on October 18. As mentioned earlier, by December 2 fighting had broken out between progovernment and pro-KKE forces. The British did not desire a war with the KKE and as such were willing participants in the January peace negotiations. By early 1945, the British had secured the stability of the Greek government and thus began to look at options for a withdrawal of British forces (Baerentzen and Close 1993 ; Clive 1987). The British became aware that they were regarded as the prop holding up an illiberal Greek government, and Atlee’s government began to look for ways to reduce British commitment and expand the U.S. commitment (Clive 1987, 222-23).

The British decision to turn over sponsorship of Greece to the United States is best summarized by the comments of Prime Minister Clement Atlee. Atlee would say that “We [Britain] were holding the line in far too many places and the Americans in far too few” (Wittner 1981, 233). Fortunately, by October 15, 1945, the American ambassador had informed the British minister of defense that an American program of assistance to Greece was ready. Thereafter, British policy and initiative took a back seat to U.S. actions. Of course, it was not until 1947 that the British informed the United States of a planned British troop withdrawal, a slow departure that would end in 1950 (Frazier 1987, 249).

The decision of the United States to intervene in Greece in 1947 “was based on the belief that Greece had become the target of Communist aggression orchestrated by the Soviet Union” (Iatrides 1981, 154). U.S. policy was centered on the Truman Doctrine’s goal of anticommunism. On whether the king should be reinstated, American policy was not consistent; some favored restoration of the pro-British George II, and some preferred going with popular antimonarchical opinion as a way to stem Communist sympathy (Wittner 1981, 229).

After the December Crisis of 1944, American opinion supported supervised elections and the restoration of order. The U.S. ambassador Lincoln MacVeagh reported on the “growing official tendency [of the Greek government] (1) to consider all persons Communists unless Royalists, (2) to protect former Metaxists and collaborators, and (3) to accept armed assistance from disreputable elements professing royalism” (Wittner 1981, 232). Moreover, while assuming that the main threat to a free Greece remained the Communists, MacVeigh opined that the Greek right “actually approximates Fascism” (Wittner 1981, 232). Thus, American policy was not to encourage free government but merely to negate any possible Communist government. An American army commander reported in 1947 that “a government comparable to that formed by Metaxas… is needed in Greece today. A democratic form of government as we know it… is too mild” (Wittner 1981, 236). Moreover, George McGhee, the U.S. State Department official coordinating aid to Greece supported “bringing about the creation of a more authoritarian government” in Greece than the Liberal-Populist coalition (Wittner 1981, 236). To be fair, the American government was torn between a “choice of two evils” (George 1982, 109-39).

On June 20, 1947, the United States and Greece signed an agreement to begin American military and economic aid (in the United States this was the Act to Provide for Assistance to Greece and Turkey). The agreement called for Greek administration of reconstruction aid and U.S. control of all expenditures of U.S. aid. In a September 1947 meeting, the U.S. State Department agreed to dramatically increase military assistance in an attempt to strengthen the Greek army (Roubatis 1987, 56-58). One of the main aims was to move U.S. military advisors into actual Greek field operations, which exceeded the current involvement level of training and operational advice. In October 1947, the United States created the Joint United States Military Advisory and Planning Group (JUSMAPG) to place advisors within Greek Army divisions. By January, the National Security Council (NSC) had moved further, authorizing “assistance to the Greek armed forces to the extent necessary to cope with the guerilla situation by reallocation of funds with the present aid program and by placing emphasis upon the military assistance in future programs” (Roubatis 1987, 66). Direct U.S. intervention was ruled out, primarily because of the objections of George Kennan, who opposed the introduction of American troops. Kennan argued that although it might be easy for the United States to go in, it might be difficult to determine when and how to get out. He also thought that the presence of a U.S. occupation or military government in Greece would not be beneficial to the American cause (Iatrides 1981, 215).

By the end of the civil war, the United States had sent Greece $353.6 million worth of military aid, “including hundreds of warplanes and ships, 4,130 mortar and artillery pieces, 89,438 bombs and rockets, 159,922 small arms weapons, 7.7 million artillery and mortar rounds, and 455 million small arms rounds” (Wittner 1982, 253). Although the exact impact of this aid on the progress of the war is debatable, the existence of massive American intervention is not.

Conflict Management Efforts

On January 21, 1946, the Soviet Union internationalized the Greek conflict by introducing the “Greek Question” at the United Nations. The Soviets complained that the British presence in Greece constituted interference in the domestic affairs of that nation. As most historians of the time comment, the Soviet action was in retaliation for the Iranian complaint against Soviet incursion into Iranian territory. After a couple of weeks of discussion in the Security Council, primarily between the USSR and Britain, no formal resolution occurred, and the question was dropped. In Greece, the government took notice of the Soviet interest, and this only confirmed their fears about the nature of the Communist rebellion (Coufoudakis 1981, 278-79).

In August of 1946, the Ukrainian government informed the United Nations that the Greek government’s actions in the Balkans (primarily in Macedonia) were a threat to international peace. This time, the United States rose to the defense of the Greek government, and the Soviet Union backed the Ukrainian complaint. Clearly, stances regarding the Greek Question were now parallel to the emerging Cold War divide. The United States and Soviet Union each rejected the other’s proposals, and in the end the United Nations took no action on the Ukrainian matter (Coufoudakis, 1981, 279-81).

In December 1946, it was time for the Greek government to go on the diplomatic offensive. The government filed a complaint against its northern neighbors (Albania, Yugoslavia, and Bulgaria) and their support of guerrilla raids emanating from across the border. The United States provided advice on both the proposal and the tactics of promoting it in the Security Council. This time, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed on a commission of investigation to look into cross-border incursions. Each superpower hoped that the commission would find evidence to support its claims and reject those of the other. The majority opinion of the commission was that the east-west division was not the source of the civil war, whereas the minority opinion (supported by the Communist states) was that the actions of the Greek government were responsible. The two superpowers sponsored resolutions based on either the majority or minority report, and then each superpower vetoed the other’s resolution in September 1947 (Coufoudakis 1981, 281-85).

Ten days later, the United States introduced the Greek Question in the United Nations General Assembly, where the Soviet Union could not use a veto. On October 21, 1947, the General Assembly authorized the establishment of the United Nations Special Committee on the Balkans (UNSCOB) (Coufoudakis 1981, 285). Under American guidance, UNSCOB operated only along the northern border. Other western states, particularly Australia, disagreed with this blatant use of UNSCOB as another weapon in the cold war and attempted to establish an independent committee or at least seek conciliation between East and West over the use of UNSCOB. From 1948 to 1951, UNSCOB recommended continued international vigilance at the northern border. A number of Soviet attempts to address other issues of the Greek Question (e.g., government imposed death sentences on rebels, abolition of concentration camps) were defeated by the United States and its allies (Coufoudakis 1981, 285-89).

Therefore, international action in the Greek Civil War was minimal. The United Nations was not used by the United States or the Soviet Union as a tool of reconciliation or peacekeeping but rather as another weapon in the emerging cold war.


Vergopoulos (1981) summarizes the changes in Greece brought out by the civil war. He argues that the magnitude of the American assistance program and the role of government agencies in administering it resulted in a form of state capitalism and fostered the emergence of a new middle class built around the state bureaucracy. Tsoucalas (1981) expands upon this conclusion, saying that the government’s anti-insurgency policies inflamed ethnocentrism, led to ideological rigidity, created a façade of democratic institutions, encouraged an underproductive economy, and led to the authoritarian mentality of a culturally sterile bourgeoisie. In short, the post-civil war regime looked like a modern democracy but acted strikingly like the pre-World War II Metaxas government.

Like all civil wars, the Greek Civil War exacerbated existing divisions and created new ones that would not heal quickly. Of particular note is how the authoritarian instruments used during the civil war by the government were institutionalized under a formal, democratic regime. In this way, the “democracy” of post-civil war Greece looked a bit more like the continuing authoritarian governments of Portugal and Spain than like the truly free countries of Western Europe. Of note was the large role of the state in society following the civil war. At the conclusion of the war, the civil service numbered 144,000, 69 percent more than in 1938. Also, the military employed another 65,000 permanent personnel, with another 40,000 employed in other security positions (Tsoucalas 1981, 322). The 1951 census estimates just over 1 million wage earners. Thus, the state employed close to 20 percent (or more) of the active workers. Figures from the Ministry of Labor suggest that only 548,000 wage earners existed, so this would put the number of government employees at close to 40 percent. Likewise, the 1949 government budget lists budgets, salaries, and pensions of government employees as 52.4 percent of total expenditures (Tsoucalas 1981, 322).

The ruling class established during the civil war dominated politics until the military coup of 1967. This class of bourgeois industrialists and capitalists sought only its own economic interests. Its primary political objective “was the containment of communism … rather than any serious effort to reform or restructure society” (Clogg 1992, 146). It can be argued that the Greek Civil War did not end until 1974, when the military dictatorship was overthrown and the new democratic government legalized the Communist Party (Tsoucalas 1981, 319).

The international implications of the war were profound. The Greek government became allied with the West and a participant in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The United States considered Greece a compliant ally with staunch and irreproachable anticommunist policies. Regionally, tension between Greece and its Communist neighbors was minimal. Later, tension between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus would be the dominant concern of Greek foreign policy (and would almost lead to outright war between the two during the rule of the Greek military dictatorship).