October 12, 1944. It was a sunny Thursday morning when church bells began ringing, inviting Athenians to take to the streets and celebrate the end of the German occupation.
The countdown for the Germans and their Bulgarian allies leaving Greece had come a few months earlier, on June 6, when the Allies landed in Normandy and began to squeeze Germany along with advancing Soviet troops from the East. It was clear that the days of Nazi Germany were numbered.
Until the liberation, political consultations on the post-occupation situation in Greece had intensified. For their part, the Germans were parleying behind the scenes for their safe departure from the country. From April 26, 1944 the Greek government in exile was led by George Papandreou, but the English were the ones who pulled the strings. Under the Lebanon (17-20 May 1944) and Caserta (26 September 1944) agreements, the ELAS and EDES guerrilla groups had been placed under government orders.
The Germans began to gradually leave Athens starting on the night of October 11 heading north. At 8 in the morning of October 12, the few Germans left in Athens gathered at the monument of the Unknown Soldier. There, in a shoddy and hurried ceremony, the head of the occupying forces, General Helmut Felmi, accompanied by the Mayor of Athens Angelos Georgatos, laid a wreath.
All that was left was taking down the Nazi flag from the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis. A German soldier lowered the swastika without any formalities at 9:15 in the morning, took it under arms and bowed his head, marking the end of the 1,625-day German occupation and the start of a crazy feast in the streets of Athens.
The end of the German occupation
Thousands of people with blue and white flags in their hands were shouting “Christ has Risen”, children climbing on tram roofs, and the National Anthem echoed from one end of Athens to the other. After three and a half years of slavery and oppression, Athenians breathed for the first time the heady air of freedom.
In the six days leading up to the government’s arrival in Athens, the three-member governing committee was comprised of Themistocles Tsatsos, Philippos Manouilide,s and Giannis Kougos, assisted by Athens Police Commander Angelos Evert. Two days later units of the 3rd Corps of the British Army under Lieutenant General Ronald Scoby began arriving in the capital and were enthusiastically received by the Athenians.
On October 18, Georgios Papandreou and his government arrived in Athens. On the same day, the Prime Minister in a moving ceremony raised the Greek flag on the Acropolis and then spoke to the crowd that had filled Syntagma Square from the balcony of the Ministry of Finance.
In a masterfully articulated speech, he proclaimed his government’s intentions, stressing, inter alia, the need to satisfy national aspirations, restore popular sovereignty, resolve the state issue after a free referendum, and punish the perpetrators of treason. The crowd often interrupted him with slogans in favor of the EAM resistance organization and the communist party KKE, welcomed the proclamations with shouts and applause in support of popular democracy. Papandreou, who had to constantly clash between the Left and the Right, responded with the characteristic phrase left in history: “We believe in popular rule.”
But the joys and festivities of liberation lasted only 53 days. In early December, guns were to resonate on the streets of the capital, but this time they would be targeting Greeks (“The December Events”).