Article by Stephen Woodward. Edited by Ellie Veryard. Additional Research by Matt Greaves.
It is often said that growing up is hard. In Greece during the 1940s this was undoubtedly the case. Any child growing up in Greece at the end of the decade had known virtually nothing but upheaval; Greece had entered the Second World War in 1940 following an Italian invasion via Albania. From that point on Greece experienced a harsh joint Italian, Bulgarian and German occupation that led to widespread famine and hardship for the largely rural Greek population. By the end of the war things were not much better; the Germans were gone but the countryside was still ravaged with conflict.
Devoid of strong national unity a bloody civil war emerged between the government and what had been the largest resistance force in the war, ELAS – a largely communist backed resistance organisation, although this was rarely admitted openly during wartime. Numerous scuffles had erupted since 1943 between ELAS, other resistance organisations and even liberating British troops in Athens. By 1946 tensions that had been simmering for years boiled over and Greece was plunged into a violent fratricidal conflict that would last till 1949 when the government finally subdued the last of the communist guerrillas. The civil war tore families apart and the lives of millions of children were heavily disrupted and tainted by the strife of conflict.
Children effectively became bargaining chips, the difference between life and death for their parents. It was not unheard of for government troops clearing the mountains of communist guerrillas to spare the lives of pregnant women whilst killing on the spot their female comrades who were without child. Meanwhile in Athens’ notorious Averoff women’s prison children were often used as a stay of execution. Mothers would have their young children smuggled in to ensure the prison authorities could not have them shot. Over the course of the war some 119 children spent time in the prison alongside mothers incarcerated for their political activism/involvement in the communist insurrection.
The civil war for some Greek children changed their lives beyond all comprehension, in some cases even changing their nationality. During 1948 the Greek communist party began ‘evacuating’ children out of northern Greece to neighbouring communist Balkan countries. This was justified as removing children to safety from combat areas, but alleged by the government as an attempt to indoctrinate Greek children into radicalised communism abroad for future penetration of the Greek state. Somewhere between 25,000 and 28,000 children were removed from Greece and resettled in Slavic countries over the course of the war. By 1953 only 538 children had been reunited with their families in Greece.
Government forces were equally responsible for the displacement of children during this period, ensuring 25,000 children were ‘removed to safety’. There is a large amount of dispute as to who began the resettlement of children first, but the government of the time embarked on it’s own programme of resettlement claiming it’s aim was to save the children of Greece from kidnap by communist forces. The consort to King Paul of Greece, Queen Frederika donated country houses alongside other wealthy women to be opened up as Children’s Villages to offer shelter to children displaced by the conflict all over Greece. Here children were given education, trips to the cinema as well as food and shelter. Although this may all sound a noble and idyllic solution to the problem of children with lives torn apart by war it still came with a sinister motive. Children were taught how their parents fighting for the rebels had betrayed their country and were inherently evil people. Encouraged to believe the Royal Family were their true carers, children who returned to Greek families from the Queen’s camps were often hostile and outwardly distrusting of the parents they had been told were the enemies of Greece. There are even allegations that once in the camps, far from their families, children were offered to American families for adoption and accordingly removed to the United Sates.
The actions of both sides were as reprehensible as the other. In a conflict where brother often fought brother and entire communities were torn apart the treatment of children is just another sad footnote to the tragedy of a fratricidal war. To take a child away from and then turn them against their parents, to indoctrinate them purely for political means is the final nail in the coffin of integrity for both the KKE (The Greek communist party) and the supposedly tyrannical government it was attempting to oust. The children who grew up in late 1940s early 1950s Greece suffered many hardships; they were an unfortunate generation exposed to the worst elements of the modern world. One can only hope that in the future children would not be exploited in such a way, that lessons would be learnt. But no doubt other articles in this issue of New Histories will safely quash that hope.