October 28th marks the 71st anniversary of a little known event that changed the course of world history. If you don't believe me, read on.
Backwater, forlorn, near-bankrupt Greece -- with a handful of rickety airplanes, a navy that was barely afloat and a hodgepodge military that hadn't yet recovered from a decimating defeat in a war with Turkey -- was faced with an ultimatum by Benito Mussolini to surrender to the Axis Powers. It was October 28, 1940.
From the November 11, 1940 edition of Time Magazine, we are reminded of the odds against the Greeks:
The odds were appalling: 250,000 Italians against perhaps 150,000 Greeks; The (Italian) fourth biggest navy in the world against one obsolescent cruiser, ten destroyers, 13 torpedo boats, six submarines and a few miscellaneous craft. Five hundred modern planes and as many more in reserve against perhaps a few old rust buckets; the tacit support of Germany, with some 70 divisions of 1,125,000 men poised in the Balkans, against overt help from Britain, militarily pinned down at home and in Egypt. Despite this apparently overwhelming disparity, the Greeks chose to fight. Ancient valor was reborn.
The Greeks -- in what would become the single defining moment in the nation's modern history -- said no to Mussolini. The Italians invaded -- with the military might second only to that of Nazi Germany. Hundreds of invading aircraft attacked and thousands of Italian troops poured across the border within moments of the telegram reaching the Italian formations. "The Greeks said no!"
The outcome -- Greece pushed the Italians back, defending their homeland from the Axis Powers. It was a time in Europe when one nation after another had fallen. The mood in Europe was one of doom. The sentiment in the United States was the same. The Nazi epidemic was spreading.
The headline on the editorial page of the December 1, 1940 edition of the Boston Globe read:
Armies Cannot Slay the Spirit of Greece. The Italian attack on Greece has aroused the old Greek spirit of national pride, freedom and personal courage. This spirit expressed itself in Greek philosophy, literature and arts that have been the basis of European culture. All European nations have gone to the school of ancient Greek artists and philosophers. Roman art and literature as well as philosophy started flourishing after the Roman armies had defeated the Greek Empire, rival of ancient Rome. Greek artists, poets and philosophers were taken to Rome as teachers. Now, 2000 years later, the Roman armies are on the march against Greek independence. Modern Italy, with her German ally, may defeat the Greek army, but the Greek spirit is deathless.
"When the entire world had lost all hope, the Greek people dared to question the invincibility of the German monster raising against it the proud spirit of freedom." (Franklin Roosevelt)
And along came the Greeks. The poor, destitute, near-bankrupt Greeks, facing the biggest military power that world had ever seen up to that point -- and winning. It was "Freedom's first victory," according to Life magazine, which carried a front-page image of an Evzone -- a proud, Greek soldier.
"Historic justice forces me to admit, that of all the enemies that stand against us, the Greek soldier, above all, fought with the most courage." (Adolf Hitler)
As a result of the Greek victory against the Italians, Germany was forced to change its plans to invade Russia in the spring and instead invade the Balkans and Greece in an attempt to clean up Mussolini's mess. This led to the diverting of valuable resources and time away from its original Eastern campaign plans. The result was a delayed invasion of Russia, which forced the Nazis to contend with the dreaded winter.
History has recorded the outcome of these historic times. What we don't know are the "what ifs."
What if the Greeks hadn't said no and surrendered to the Axis, like most Europeans had done before them?
What if the Germans never had to divert attention from Russia and were able to avoid Greece all together, thus allowing for a springtime invasion against Moscow?
What if the Greeks hadn't risen to the occasion and acted the way Greeks had acted throughout history when faced with similar odds?
"If there had not been the virtue and courage of the Greeks, we do not know which the outcome of World War II would have been." (Winston Churchill)
Today, seven decades after Greece was tested to her max -- and survived -- she once again finds herself on the brink of collapse. Like the generation of the 1940s who rose to the occasion to fight the Italian and rise up against the German, the Greek of the 21st century must rise up and do what Greeks have done best at times of adversity: face it.
I'm not channeling the ghosts of Socrates, Plato or some great statesmen from two thousand years ago. On the contrary, I'm referring to those Greeks -- many of whom are still alive today -- who like the generations before them, had taken seriously the burden -- the gift -- of their heritage.
Like this generation of the 1940s, the contemporary Greeks must take advantage of the gifts that come with their heritage -- the gifts they have always carried with them but may have lost somewhere along the way in recent years.
These gifts are the ideals that have governed generations of Greeks before them and have made the tiny swath of land not much larger than the size of Rhode Island the world's greatest, single producer of human greatness and intellectual capital -- never before seen at any time in history.
A fitting conclusion of this homage to the spirit, and real ideals of the Modern Greek and a testament to his true character, not the one that has been painted of him by the Western media, can be found in the April 29, 1941 editorial in the Atlanta Constitution, shortly after the German invasion:
The Greeks came bearing a gift. A priceless gift which we need not beware, for it is beyond compare. While we debate in fear and waver in useless longing for peace, the Greeks have shown the world that men still die for freedom, for a cause, against hopeless odds knowing that death is inevitable yet preferring it, as Socrates accepted it, before dishonor. It seems strange in this modern, cynical world of ours to hear of men dying for honor and glory. You have heard of men preferring to be live cowards than dead heroes-- it is symptomatic of our civilization. These Greeks of a more remote heritage without material wealth have proved richer than we thought, for they have kept alive the sacred fire that through the years has burned its beacon to the wayfarer who sought freedom and dignity. It is hard to die with dignity. But the Greeks have.
Greeks need to start acting like Greeks again. And like in 1940 -- and so many times in the face of adversity, greatness will come.