Women have always proved to be strong and determined pieces willing to fight for their rights. Take a look at the story of the female resistance in Greece during WW2.
World War II is one of those terrible episodes often revisited through so many media, books, movies (only last year two major films were released), television, art, etc. My point is that this is a subject that we tend to believe we know by heart when the reality is that the vast majority of us only know the main events and facts about an episode that really reached most of the world. I mention this because ironically, I’ve always presumed to be an avid reader of texts related to WWII and a huge fan of Greek culture, but the truth is that the moment I came across this very interesting photograph portraying rural Greek women shoveling the path to let the Greek troops pass to defend their country from invasion, I realized I knew nothing about Greece’s history at all other than their golden age in Ancient Times and the terrible economic situation they’ve been going through in the past years. That photo pushed me to do a thorough research and to be honest, once I reached that moment the photo took place, I was surprised at the many stories of brave women fighting to defend their country.
In a research paper by Peter D. Chimbos focusing on the resistance movements of Greek women during WWII, he explains that to understand this mobilization of women we have to really grasp two main types of factors, situational and predisposing. Regarding the latter, and to make a very short summary, since ancient times, (and I’m talking precisely when the Roman empire emerged and started to spread throughout an important part of the global territory) Greece endured constant invasions and occupations. Basically, the Ottoman Empire wouldn’t let go from the fifteen to the nineteenth century. This constant state of occupation, especially the last ones that occurred during the Greco-Turkish war of 1821, left a sense of Nationalism that was highly ingrained in the Greek population.
Now, as for the situational factors, Chimbos explains that we have to understand the political and social realities the country lived through before the war. Greece had just been recognized as a country in 1830 but for decades (up to 1913) it had been governed by two foreign European monarchs. The first Greek-born monarch to take the crown was a pro-German royalist that clashed with the people and parliament’s interests by seeking a more democratic political system. Long story short, with the aid of the Entente (Britain, France, and Russia), Greece entered WWI and another massive war against Turkey that left a country in a terrible economic and social instability and a death toll of thousands of what was called as the Greek Genocide. After negotiations to end the dispute between both countries who wanted dominance over regions in Asia Minor, a massive deportation was agreed to leave more than 1.5 million homeless people sent to Greece.
Throughout the period between wars, Greece went through different and difficult inner crisis not only due to the consequences of war and the poverty the country was going through. There was a coup d’état that abolished monarchy for some years, only to bring it back in the form of an agreed dictatorship regime that would last until 1974. This is very important to see why people decided to act and how they were determined to use war as the means to transform the country so that they wouldn’t get back to those precarious conditions. Now, what was the role of Greece in the War?
Despite the fact that the country was under a right-wing dictatorship regime, they decided to maintain their good relationship with the Allies. For that reason, in 1940 Italy demanded the Greek government to surrender. They refused and Italy sent their troops to invade them. The Greek army, determined to avoid any occupation once again, fought bravely and managed to outnumber their invaders and even left them on a five-month siege. Unfortunately, after a cry for help from Mussolini, Hitler decided to send his troops to join Italy and Bulgaria. They ended up taking the country. King George II and the main figures of the Greek government fled to Egypt and left the occupiers to take over the territory. This is was what basically pushed people to join in resistance movements,
What’s interesting about these groups is that they were the most organized and efficient in all Europe, and as scholars like Chimbos note, this was due to the openness they had towards women participation. The women in the picture are just a tiny example of all what women did during the war. Women of all ages (including young girls), social status, or even environments, joined the many movements and groups fighting to regain their freedom. In Chimbos' paper, he gathers the stories of many of the women who took part in the movements, like Georgia (he kept their last names to protect them since until not so long ago many were still persecuted) who claimed that “fearing being rounded up by the Germans and their collaborators, most men, especially the young, would flee from the village for days or weeks. The women who remained behind took care of things.”
About one-third of the population was an active member of one of the many resistance movements. As I mentioned before, women of all social classes and ages took part. Yet the main female leaders of the movements were actually rebellious intellectuals who implemented social measures to help people go through the occupation but also by giving them tools for when the war ended. They created schools, cultural events (where they promoted feminist and egalitarian treatment of women), improvised hospitals where they taught other women the basics of medicine, and so on. All these happened mainly in the mountains where all fled to avoid executions and deportations, which is interesting because it was a time when women had more egalitarian rights even than today.
What happened was that one of the main resistance movements, as we talked, wasn’t only interested in combating the Axis, they fought for an inner transformation of the country looking to the future. One of the main points they focused on was on equality since they saw how independent women brought more benefits to society compared to the outdated patriarchal system. So, when Chimbos asked why so many women decided to become active participants of these movements the main answer could be seen in this particular egalitarian environment.
It didn’t matter that most of these women were not members of the secret and highly persecuted feminist movements going on prior to the war. They all saw the importance of their role to change a country that had been subdued for centuries and that they actually were keys to this transformation. Sadly, this free environment didn’t last for long. As soon as the war was over and the Allies gave back all the invaded territories, the main powers wanted to make sure that the country didn’t end like many others adopting a communist ideal (which was crucial in most resistance movements) and decided to dissolve all of them and restore the dictatorship. Women who fought to recover the freedom they had gained during the war were prosecuted and like men who still fought for their ideas (40,000 in total) were sent to concentration camps as political prisoners. About 20,000 were tried for crimes against the state and more than 5,000 were executed.
If you want to know more about outstanding people during WWII, take a look at these: