Saturday, May 28, 2011


Μεγαλοψυχία, a Greek compound word literally meaning greatness of soul, translates as generosity or magnanimity. For Φιλότιμο, also a compound word literally meaning love of honour, no proper translation can capture the connotations of mutual assistance, willingness to help, provide succour and otherwise act in an honourable way for the benefit of one's neighbor, that the term connotes. Both of these qualities, highly prized by the Greeks existed in large quantities among the valiant Cretans who not only fought alongside Australian troops during the Battle of Crete, but also risked their lives and those of their loved ones to hide Australian and other Allied troops when the Battle was lost and the Nazi occupation commenced.
Crete was seen by the Allies as an important bulwark in their Mediterranean strategy. Furthermore, new research by Maria Hill in her ground-breaking book: "Diggers and Greeks," suggests that Britain may have deliberately provoked Germany into invading Greece, as a way of coercing Turkey, who would have felt insecure at such an invasion close to her borders, into entering the war on the side of the Allies. Considering the devastation and loss of life that such a cynical exercise in realpolitik caused, the after effects of which are felt to the present day among survivors who still nurse traumas, the prospect that this hypothesis has basis in fact is a sickening one.
The Battle of Crete and the war in Greece is significant for Australian military history in a number of respects and yet how many Australians know that:
83% of the Australian soldiers captured by the Italians and Germans came from the Greek and Crete campaigns?
The Australians who fought on the Greek mainland were the only 'Anzac corps' to fight in World War Two?
The campaign in Greece is regarded as the 'Second Gallipoli', yet is rarely discussed and often ignored?
The Diggers who fought in Greece and Crete were never issued with a campaign medal by Australia ?
The soldiers were forbidden for many years to wear the medal issued to them by the Greek government on Anzac Day?
The Australians in Crete endured some of the worst aerial bombardment of World War Two, causing many to suffer from war neurosis or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?
The relationship they developed with the Greek people during the war, saved over one thousand Australian lives?
'It has always annoyed me that we never got an Australian medal for Greece and Crete or a European medal, but the New Zealanders got it but for fighting in Italy, not for fighting in Greece' Keith Hooper of the 2/6th Australian Infantry Battalion opines, 'I always felt you don't find much about Greece and Crete in many histories and I always felt that the British were a bit ashamed of that campaign.' No wonder, given the disaster of the Greek campaign where Australian troops were deployed on a suicidal mission or the debacle of Crete, a campaign that should have been won by the allies but instead resulted in the capture of most of the Australian forces at Rethymnon. The Greeks of Crete paid a heavy price for resisting the Germans, complying with Allied plans and hiding Australian soldiers. The razing of Kandanos, where an entire village was destroyed and all its inhabitants massacred, along with the massacre of the entire male population of Kondmari by the Nazi's are indicative of the fate of the lion-hearted Greeks who sacrificed everything to fight alongside and protect Australian soldiers, guest in their land.
It is for this reason that the Herald Sun's characterization of the cross-party trip, led by Upper House president Bruce Atkinson and organised by member of parliament John Pandazopoulos to Greece, including a four-day tour of Anzac war graves from the World War II campaign at a time where only gradually is the Australian military recognising the importance of the Cretan campaign. (Federal Minister for Veterans' Affairs Warren Snowdon points out that: "There are more than 40 Commonwealth grave sites in Greece but it is a largely forgotten part of the war.") as one where: "The bankrupt Greek Government has played host to a gaggle of junketing state MPs," is particularly hurtful, and disrespectful.
The Greek government is not bankrupt. And even if it is, does that disqualify it from honouring and welcoming the representatives of a country whose soldiers fought so valiantly for its freedom? If anything, the Greek government should be commended, not vilified and subjected to ridicule for allocating sorely needed funds towards honouring Australians representing their government. The Greek people, both in Australia and Greece itself, would never take the approach of sections of the Australian media and ignore or make light of the contribution of Australian soldiers to our country. This is because μεγαλοψυχία and φιλότιμο are concepts that are still revered. We will never forget the Australian contribution to the defence of our freedom. In parallel, we will also never forget the price our people paid for that contribution. It is a price that demands respect and cannot be reduced to a dollar value. Certainly, if honouring Australian soldiers and the Greeks who gave up their lives to protect them is deemed to be a junket by Herald Sun journalists then we thank them for letting us know. The Greek-Australian community is grateful to the Herald Sun for implying that Greece is not a country that Victorian MP's should bother visiting, despite the existence of a large Greek community in their state, simply because in their estimation, Greece simply is not possessed of the requisite funds to qualify in their estimations, as a country worth having relations with. It is useful to know where one stands.
For the Diatribist, it is immaterial whether most Australians do not acknowledge or care about the sacrifices and suffering of ordinary Greeks in defence of their valiant Australian friends in Greece. Nor is it material that the revering of Gallipoli does acknowledge that 15,000 Greeks were ethnically cleansed from the villages of that peninsula by the Ottomans, so that it could be fortified against the ANZAC's, nor indeed that enough evidence now exists to suggest that the ANZAC landing at Gallipoli may have been the catalyst for the most brutal and deadly bout of the genocide of the Christian people of Anatolia. Regardless of the ingratitude, insensitivity and possibly blatant racism that attitudes of disrespect may betray, one is secure in the knowledge that the Greek people will never forgert, or cease to appreciate and honour those friends who stood up for their country in its time of need and will welcome them always with open arms. This is the reason why so many Australian veterans are drawn to Crete year after year. The bonds forged with its people, in blood, battle and friendship can never be sundered by the obtuseness of the unenlightened. We, an ancient nation that has endured immense hardships but has also given our friends such concepts as democracy, aesthetics and civic duty, does not need to say: Lest we forget. We never do.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 28 May 2011