Greece: History Repeating Itself?

As Greece suffers economic austerity and sharp public spending cuts, the historian Violetta Hionidou looks at worrying echoes of the country’s wartime experience of extreme deprivation.

Greece has been in the news constantly, and for all the wrong reasons: debt, austerity measures, strikes and riots. Being a social historian and a largely absent Greek, I catch up with things, and people, on my regular visits there. What was four years ago an optimistic, rather well off society, where discussion fluctuated between holidays and the ‘invasion’ of the country by unwanted illegal migrants, is now a society where there’s fear for the future.. Most young people still talk about migration – but now it’s their own migration and their burning desire to escape Greece by moving, preferably to Germany, Britain or Australia.

Just as it was difficult for a visitor to avoid hearing discussion of ‘migration’ four years ago (see for example various TV programs on YouTube), nowadays it is equally difficult to avoid ‘hearing’ the yearning of the younger generation to remove themselves from their troublesome homeland and the advice given to them by their parents to leave [1]. Migration has always served Greece well, especially after economic and social crisis, whether it was the currant crisis (currants were a major export) that propelled hordes of young Greek men to the US at the close of the nineteenth century and in following decades; or the Second World War and the concomitant economic collapse that steered young men and families to migrate to the United States and Australia.

What is most remarkable in the case of Greece is the speed of change – and not change for the better. Already in April 2010, while chatting to a bus driver, I was told that for some Athenians the economic situation was so harsh that they had started employing their familial networks with the countryside, transferring foodstuffs from ‘their villages to Athens in order to help sustain their families. That remark brought an immediate resonance with the famine of the early 1940s. I hastily assumed that my recent acquaintance was describing some very exceptional cases. The existence of such networks is well known and documented but the flow has usually been from the affluent urbanites to the less well-off rural residents, with one clear exception in twentieth century Greece; that of the famine of the early 1940s [2].

Nothing had prepared me for what I was to observe in October.  Working class Greeks, men and women – and visibly not from the lowest echelons of Greek society – were searching discreetly, and while thinking that they were not observed, in rubbish tips. There were tips all over Athens at the time because of a strike by rubbish collectors. When I discussed my observation with family and friends, every single one of them, much to my amazement, assured me that this was not exceptional. It had become a rather banal fact of life.  All declared that they had seen similar incidents in various parts of Athens, all involving Greeks (as opposed to migrants). Their matter-of-fact reaction was as shocking to me as the actual event.

Once again what I saw in Athens, and what I was told was happening, bore strong links to readings and images of the early stages of the 1940s famine: ‘most tragic of all: the sight of the poor and hungry who rummage around this filthy tip for something to eat’ [3]. The web has since provided photographic evidence of this practice in today’s Athens while the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) provides us with similar pictures of the 1940s [4].

image shows people searching for food in piles of rubbish in the street in piraeus, during the winter of 1941-1942. this image is reproduced with kind permission of the international committee of the red cross
People searching for food in the garbage, Piraeus, winter 1941-1942. Reproduced with kind permission of the ICRC.

Furthermore, while I was in Athens in late October, there were news reports of children fainting in schools – and it was quite clear that these were not children of migrants [5].  Again, when discussing this with my friends and family their passive reaction surprised me. What was news to me, was not to them. The web, yet again, informs us that soup kitchens are becoming busier and, importantly, that those most in need are no longer migrants and the homeless but the unemployed and pensioners [6].  The chairman of the organisation was quoted saying that the situation will worsen over coming months. He added: ‘The state must act immediately. We are currently in need of goods, not in need of money. Those who have must finally think of those who don’t. The needy are going to be soon much too many’. This quotation – and the preceding few paragraphs of this article – could have easily be referring to the Greek famine of the 1940s, bearing strong resemblance to the issues that preoccupied those who tried to organise relief at that time [7].

 three young children begging for food in panepistemiou road athens, greece in the winter of 1941-1942. reproduced here with kind permission of the international council of the red cross
Children begging for food. Athens, Panepistemiou Road, winter 1941-1942. Reproduced with kind permission of the ICRC

The famine was not a subject that Greeks were comfortable talking about in the ‘good days’. But it seems to be coming up more and more in everyday conversations and in the news. The food crisis of the occupation years (1941-44) was a result of the occupation, the policies that were implemented and the blockade that was imposed on the country by the allies. The famine is closely identified with the occupation. Even today, Greeks speak of the famine using the word that literally means Occupation (Katohe).

The 1940s food crisis evolved into a deadly famine at different times for different localities. The famine killed at least five percent of the population. Most deaths were due to simple lack of food rather than disease.  The population turned to the land in a desperate attempt to survive. Those who had strong links with the countryside took refuge there and worked the land. But this option was not open to many since there were severe restrictions on population movement. Though most deaths were in the towns, some agricultural workers also succumbed to famine [8]. An unsuccessful attempt at strict regulation of the markets led to a booming black market. The famine was also accompanied by a hyperinflation and economic catastrophe for Greece – a lot of effort and investment was required in the post-war years, by Britain initially, and later by the United States, to overcome this, while at the same time the countryside was ravaged by a civil war.

image of a woman, child and stray dog searching for food in the garbage in piraeus, greece at the crossroads of george the first and praxitelous streets, winter 1941-1942. this image has been reproduced with kind permission of the international committee of the red cross
Woman searching for food in the garbage. Piraeus, crossroad of George the first and Praxitelous, winter 1941-1942. Reproduced with kind permission of the ICRC.

Is Greece once again now moving towards a food crisis? That would not be unique for a country operating under structural adjustment measures [9].  In Athens, some sections of the population seem to be there already. Private organisations are taking action so that ‘no one gets hungry’ and so that the ‘black-marketeers’, who are said to be waiting in anticipation, are kept away [10].

But where is the state, some might ask? The intense focus on political and economic problems, much as in the early 1940s, conceals the social effects of such problems, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, crises do not have to materialise if action is taken in good time. If it isn’t, then, as in the 1940s, it will be the lack of a meaningful and fair welfare system that will be the decisive factor in determining who will suffer most and what the level of suffering will be. Both then and now, the all-vocal civil servants may suffer but they will not be the ones who will bear the most marked effects of the crisis [11].

[1] Greece: Broken Marble, Broken Future, BBC Radio 4, 6 Dec 2011, producer Mark Burman.

[2] Maria Manolakou, Apo to emerologio enos paidiou tes katohes, second edition, (Athens: Estia, 1985); Interview conducted on Syros by V. Hionidou with an informant who worked as servant in an Athenian household and who reported that her employers were obtaining olive oil from their ‘village’ during the famine years of 1941-1944 (2000); Interview conducted on Syros by V. Hionidou with an informant who was a teacher on Syros during the famine reporting that a friend of his who originated from another island was regularly receiving parcels of food, sent by his parents.

[3] K. Ntelopoulos (ed.), To emerologio katohes tou Minou Dounia (Athens: Estia, 1987), p. 38, diary entry for 16 May 1941.

[4] Giorgos Pouliopoulos, ‘Eating from bins – the new make do’ ; ‘Greek pensioner looking through rubbish for leftover food’

[5] ‘Shocking Athens: School children faint due to hunger’ (last visited 25th of November 2011).

[6] Greeks Queue for a Charity Free Meal

[7] Letter from the Bishop of Chios Ioakeim to M. Theotokas, 11 November 1943, Folder 7, no 35, Theotokas Archive, Chios Library, Chios; Proodos, ‘To provlema tes diatrofes mas. Ti legoun oi epistemones’, 11 August 1941, 3730; Proodos, ‘Katargountai oi kategories ste dianome trofimon. Anakoinose tou Demarhou’, 19 March 1942, 3829; Proodos, ‘Apo ten Iera Metropole Chiou 8 Dekemvriou pros apantas katoikous Nomou Chiou’, 12 December 1942, 3932.

[8] Violetta Hionidou, Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941-1944 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[9] See for example, D. W. Drakakis-Smith, ‘Food Systems and the Poor in Harare under Conditions of Structural Adjustment’, Geografiska Annaler, Series B, Vol. 76, No. 1 (1994), pp. 3-20; Michel Garenne, Dominique Waltisperger, Pierre Cantrelle and Osée Ralijaona, ‘The demographic impact of  a mild famine in an African city: the case of Antananarivo, 1985-7’, in Tim Dyson and Cormac Ó Grada (eds.), Famine demography: Perspectives from the Past and the Present, International Studies in Demography, Oxford University Press, 2002, 204-17.

[10] ‘Ανταλλακτήριο αγροτικών ελληνικών προϊόντων (Exchange of Greek agricultural products)’, (5th of November 2011) see also: (8th of December 2011) and (all sites last accessed on the 19th of December 2011).

[11] Hionidou, Famine and Death, 138-40, 220-234.

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