What does OXI Day mean to me? As a first-generation Greek-American, I never had a class in Greek history. Sure I took AP American History in high school. I faintly remember Mr Driggs, the wonderful African-American teacher who enthralled me with his knowledge, speaking about the role of Greece in delaying the onslaught of the Nazi advance through Europe. But, that was it. In order to get the real story of the pivotal role the tiny nation of Ellas played during this massive conflict, I had to educate myself. History is tied to politics. It depends on who is telling the story and who tells it with the loudest voice. When you reside thousands of miles away from your home culture, you get to study the dominant culture’s history, not your own.
The circumstances around OXI Day go something like this:
-there was a diplomatic party at German Embassy in Athens
-after the party at 4 o’clock in the morning the Italian ambassador to Greece delivered the message to General Metaxas, the dictator of Greece at the time, allow Axis forces to enter Greek territory and occupy certain unspecified “strategic locations” or go to war.
-a half later, General Metaxa delivered the answer in one short word: “OXI” (But more precisely, it was “OXI, Alors c’est la guerre.”)
-an hour after that at 5:30 am in the morning, Italian troops stationed in Albania, then an Italian protectorate, attacked the Greek border—the beginning of Greece’s participation in World War II
-after the rest of Greece find out about the news, on the morning of October 28th, normal citizens, even those at odds and at the extreme of the political spectrum, ran into the streets yelling “OXI!”
So often the political and historical sounds far away and is far removed from the present and the personal. But in a small country like Greece, the political impact of events has a way of trickling down to the individual. Fast forward to 2003. On a day like October 28th, I remember attending a screening of a little-known documentary called “The Eleventh Day” at the local chapter of the Cretan Society. It told the story of the Battle of Crete. Using archival footage and interviews of men and women who took part, the film told the story of how regular every-day people, simple village people like my yiayia who could not read or write, organized themselves and took incredible risks to smuggle maps and other intelligence to the Greek forces. (In one scene, a Greek official smuggled maps through the scrutiny of two guards by hiding them in the most apparent place–within the confines of his closed umbrella.) I saw how mothers clandestinely sent messages via a tight-knit network of children to the guerilla fighters, sons and husbands, fighting in the mountains.
I envisioned how my yiayia could have taken the butcher knife she had used to harvest grapes from the vine to a German paratrooper’s throat, the one who dropped down into her vineyards in a village outside of Sfakia, Crete. Hitler did not anticipate so much resistance on the part of the civilian population. In fact, you could say yiayiades beat the Germans’ butts off. If it hadn’t been for the Battle of Crete, the intelligence that the Germans used would never have been deciphered. Hitler underestimated the time it would take to take over Crete and continue his onslaught of Europe. The delays caused in Crete and along the Northern border with Albania forced him to dispatch reinforcements. The delay cost time and by then, the spring had turned into winter and nothing is as brutal as the Russian winter. Ultimately, it was the Russian winter that decimated Hitler’s army. This changed the tide of the war.
But the people’s resistance did not go by unpunished. This is what the Wikipedia post says about “The Battle of Crete”:
Cretan civilians joined the battle with whatever weapons were at hand. In some cases, ancient matchlock rifles which had last been used against the Turks were dug up from their hiding places and pressed into action. Civilians went into action armed only with what they could gather from their kitchens or barns and several German parachutists were knifed or clubbed to death in olive groves. An elderly Cretan man clubbed a parachutist to death with his walking cane, before the German could disentangle himself from his parachute. A priest and his son broke into a village museum and took two rifles from the era of the Balkan Wars and sniped German paratroops at landing zones. The Cretans used captured German small arms and civilians joined in the Greek counter-attacks at Kastelli Hill and Paleochora; the British and New Zealand advisors at these locations were hard pressed to prevent massacres. Civilians also checked the Germans to the north and west of Heraklion and in the town centre.
This was the first occasion that the Germans encountered widespread resistance from a civilian population and were surprised. After the shock, the Germans retaliated, killing many Cretan civilians. The Holocaust of Viannos (Greek: Ολοκαύτωμα της Βιάννου and theMassacre of Kondomari (Σφαγή στο Κοντομαρί) were exterminations of civilians of around 20 villages east of Viannos and west of Ierapetra provinces. The killings, with a death toll in excess of 500, were carried out from 14–16 September 1943, by Wehrmacht units. They were accompanied by the burning of most villages, and the looting and destruction of harvests. The massacres were some of the deadliest of the Axis occupation of Greece during World War II. It was ordered by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, in retaliation for the involvement of the local population in the Cretan resistance. Müller, “the Butcher of Crete”, was killed after the war for his part in the massacre. As most Cretan partisans wore no uniforms or insignia such as armbands or headbands, the Germans felt free of all of the constraints of the Hague conventions and killed armed and unarmed civilians indiscriminately.[a]
OXI Day has to do with the underdog. It has to do with the power of NO– with the power of keeping strict boundaries, with not caving in to bullies or power gesturing cowards. It has to do with self-esteem and dignity and integrity. It has to do with the bravery that normal people, like my yiayia, find buried deep inside them that comes out at times of crisis. I think it is a history lesson that transcends history; it has to do with everyday relations and interpersonal dynamics. It is a lesson we are still repeating today (Remember back in July when Greece said OXI to the Greek referendum?) This is the lesson that OXI Day has for me.