Famine in Greece: The Market’s “Invisible Hand”. 1

Taming the Market Forces in the UK War Economy. 4

German Atrocities against Greek Civilians. 6


Famine in Greece: The Market’s “Invisible Hand”

If we are to believe some historians, in using food as a weapon of mass destruction, the British were no slackers when it came to starving people, as can be gleaned from the “Great Famine” in Greece (Greek: Μεγάλος Λιμός) during the occupation by Nazi Germany, which began in April, 1941.  Is it really true, or were there other forces at work?

You’d be the judge. Here’s how it all transpired:

On Oct. 28, 1940 the fascist Mussolini government of Italy demanded the surrender of Greece, but Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas refused (literally answered “No”) and in the ensuing Greco-Italian War, the Army of Greece repelled Italian forces back into the high mountainous terrain of Albania, the first Allied on-land victory of WW-II.

The jubilation did not last long: the urgently dispatched German forces poured into the country whose small (and old-fashioned) army was absolutely no match for the modern Wehrmacht: In April 1941 the German 12th Army invaded Greece; it was organized in 10 divisions and 3 regiments with 1,907 tanks. Allied forces opposing the Germans included British Expeditionary force of 56,657 men organized in 2 divisions and 1 brigade and the Greek army. The Germans Blitzkrieged the Allies, rapidly advancing their tank columns through the country. The heroism of Greek riflemen was not a good substitute for modern warfare and Greek army had suffered heavy losses:  Germans lost 1,423 KIA and 3,411 WIA. The British lost 3,700 KIA and 8,000 taken prisoners. The Greeks lost 70,000 killed and wounded plus 270,000 POW. Allied troops managed to evacuate by sea 50,732 men to Egypt.[1]  Many in the German High Command later remarked that because of their involvement in the Greek Campaign, they had to postpone the invasion of Russia by six weeks and thus lost the war forcing the German Army to battle during the bitter winter months. This is not necessarily true as the Red Army, fighting during the same bitter winter months, and affected by the same low temperatures launched a counter-offensive and pushed Germans back some 100-150 km.


The rapid German Blitzkrieg in April 1941 brought Greece under joint occupation by three Axis powers: Germany, Italy and Bulgaria by mid-May, 1941. Having occupied Greece, Nazis requisitioned raw materials and foodstuffs for their own consumption, using the puppet Hellenic Government to do the dirty work of collections and enforcement. The famine was caused by the German requisitions and inability of the Hellenic government to organize distribution; the black market flourished, taking food out of reach of average city dwellers.  This was exacerbated by the sea blockade imposed by the Royal British Navy, ostensibly against Portrait of Sir Winston Churchill - the British BulldogGerman troops. Food became too expensive to buy. “Market forces” and speculation are the keys to understanding the sources of Greek famine. Germans made the Hellenic government pay all the military expenses of the occupying Wehrmacht; this lead to horrendous inflation. Thus, in October 1940 bread cost 10 drachmas, and by the time of liberation in October 1944 it was 34,000,000 drachmas.[2]

While President Roosevelt urged Churchill to soften the blockade, the British Bulldog answered in a straightforward manner of an imperial British officer: any food supplies reaching Greece would be confiscated by Germans.  According to the official (Nazi-controlled) Greek sources of the period, the famine caused the death of just 70,000 people. According to Mark Mazower[3], a British historian specializing in Greece, some 300,000 died in the famine in the greater Athens area[4] alone, although a number as high as 1 million has also been mentioned for all of Greece. Some 2,000 people a day were dying of hunger at some point, and by 1943 infant mortality reached 50 percent.

The mass-murder of Greek civilians by starvation is yet another illustration to a simple fact, demonstrated by history over and over again: the civilian masses may not and must not rely on the governments, often elitist, selfish, corrupt and self-serving, to solve even the simplest problems faced by society, especially in Western democracies. In Greece it was a simple problem of equitable distribution of food, while foodstuffs were hoarded by the black marketers. German administration tossed the task of dealing with the famine to the Italian administration, Italians – themselves dependant on food supplies from Germany A poster of the Ministry of Food– argued that dealing with the famine was Germany’s responsibility.  The Greeks believed the famine was a German plan to exterminate them, while in reality there was no such plan, not for Greece, anyway – just utter German indifference instead: Germans only cared to requisition food and to collect tax levied on Greek population to pay for German occupation.  Italy claimed the famine was caused by the British naval blockade; For the British the blockade was the only form of pressure they could put on the Axis powers; the corrupt Hellenic Government was well-supplied by black-marketers and could not care less what happened to the people, while the black market profiteers used the “free market” laws of supply-and-demand to raise food prices through the roof. 

This is what happens with commodities of limited supply in capitalist economies all the time, from coffee beans, corn and pork bellies to copper and oil, except in case of Greece it was greatly exacerbated by the world war and a dysfunctional puppet government. In the US, for example, the White House has been routinely reducing price pressure for oil and gasoline by releasing the strategic oil reserves on the market, the last announcement made as recently as in June of 2011.

Text Box:  

In this UK cartoon of 1942, the women are saying: “Aye! It takes a brave laddie to look well i' the new austerity kilts.”
Taming the Market Forces in the UK War Economy

In contrast to the agricultural economy of Greece, the UK produced only 30% of its demand for food, paper and clothing. Yet, as a result of war-time rationing and austerity programs, its poor people were as healthy as never before, giving rise to the post-war phenomenon of the “Welfare State.” The Churchill’s government kept the value of the “demand” variable in the UK relatively (and artificially) low by rationing of certain foodstuffs, applied universally. The UK applied certain measures of a “command economy” and managed to prevent panic hording of food by tight controls over information (secrecy and censorship.) Thus, although at some point the supplies of vital food commodities in the UK fell to no more than 2 months worth, while shipping was severely limited by German U-boats, nobody except a few Government officials close to Churchill and Lord Woolton, the Minister of Food, knew about it. 

The message of national unity in the UK was strong enough for political parties to close ranks behind the PM. Lord Woolton regularly spoke on the radio.   He was jovially chatting to housewives as if speaking to his daughters, and was widely liked. He told them what food was good for them and their families and convinced them to grow food instead of roses in their backyards Propaganda, such as jolly advertisements and humorous comics in newspapers, bright posters and catchy rhymes – “the sight of potato peelings, hurts Lord Woolton’s feelings” and cartoon characters – “Potato Pete” and “Dr. Carrot” – were used to encourage people to eat more foods that were not rationed and were easy to grow in their own backyards.   The Women’s Land Army of 80,000 volunteers worked the farms, replacing the conscripted male farm workers. The UK government’s efforts to keep the nation nourished and healthy were quite successful. 

But then, unlike Greece, the UK was not occupied.

During the famine, there were Greek families who left their children's corpses in the streets in order to continue using their ration cards. But for nine months, Churchill refused to end the naval blockade preventing food from reaching Greece. The first three months of the blockade did little damage to Germany: Stalin, cognizant of inevitability of a world-wide conflict for which he felt the USSR was not ready, was buying peace by sending trains of wheat and cattle into Germany until June-22, 1941, when Germany attacked the USSR despite the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of Non-aggression. 

The National Greek War Relief Association, an organization formed in October, 1940 by the Greek Orthodox Church, raised funds in the United States, and organized relief efforts to supply the suffering Greek population with food and medicine. The International Red Cross brokered a limited compromise to allow limited shipments of grain to come from neutral Turkey, but that was a drop in the bucket, though the effort saved some lives. 

German Atrocities against Greek Civilians

German military administration conducted many reprisal operations. They committed atrocities for which the commanding officers, NCO’s and soldiers should have been really executed without statute of limitations. On 16 August 1943, the 1-Gebirgs-Division (Mountain Division) executed 317 inhabitants of Kommeno  and torched the village; The attack was led by an enthusiastic 12th Company's leader, Lieutenant Röser, nicknamed “Nero,” a former Hitler Youth leader, who personally shot the village priest[5], then proceeded to hunt down other civilians. Although there were muted protests among soldiers, those “less enthusiastic” still followed orders, killing civilians indiscriminately, men, women, and children – 74 children under the age of 10 – but nearly half of the village’s population managed to escape by swimming across the Arachthos river. [6]The “reason” for execution was that German scouts thought they had spotted a couple of Greek resistance fighters in the vicinity of the village a day before the massacre.

Elite Wermacht soldiers executed over 500 civilians from 20 villages in the “Holocaust of Viannos” on 14–16 September, 1943 on Crete. The executions were in reprisal for a Greek partisan action in which a small group of 40 partisans ambushed and killed between 40 and 200 Germans en route to destroy a village, partisans losing just one fighter, taking 12 soldiers prisoner, then retreating into the high mountains. The executions were carried out by the Wermacht’s 22-Luftlande Infanterie-Division (paratroopers) on the orders by Generalleutnant Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller. Oh, the valiant German paratroopers! Taken prisoner by the Soviet Army, Müller, nicknamed “the Butcher of Crete” was identified by the Soviet NKVD and extradited to Greece to face military tribunal. His paratroopers demonstrated unspeakable cruelty to innocent civilians, cutting open wombs of pregnant women, butchering males with bayonets, cutting off limbs and killing infants with bayonets.[7] Ironically, Bruno Bräuer, the previous German commander on Crete, who made some effort to encourage the troops to be more respectful of the civilians, was tried with Müller and also convicted. Both Bruno Bräuer and Müller were executed by a firing squad.[8] No one else was ever tried.

In the “Massacre of Kalavryta” (13 December 1943) Wehrmacht troops of the 117th Jäger Division, marched to the town from from the coastal area of Achaea in Northern Peloponnese methodically destroying villages on their way and murdering their civilian population. When they reached the town of Kalavryta, they forced all male residents 12 and older to a field outside the village. There, the German troops machine-gunned down all of them. Only 12 survived, protected by the piled up bodies of the fallen. The 13th survivor was a boy in school in another town. Over 1,200 civilians were killed during the reprisal operation. About 1,000 houses were looted and burned, more than 2,000 sheep, cows and other large domestic animals were seized by the Germans to vary their dinner menus. [9] [10] The order for the operation was signed by the division’s highly decorated commander, general Karl Hans Maximilian von Le Suire. General Karl von Le Suire was captured by Soviet troops in May 1945 and died in the Soviet camp for German POW’s in Stalingrad in June of 1954. 

In the “Distomo massacre” in Boeotia on 10th of June 1944 an SS Police unit killed 218 civilians, looted and burned the village; In the “Holocaust of Kedros” on the 22nd of August, 1944 in Crete, 164 civilians were executed and nine villages were blown up with dynamite after being looted. In their anti-guerrilla campaign, the German army and SS police units torched hundreds of villages, leaving homeless about one million Greeks.[11]

History is an uncomfortable thing: it dispels the fallacy of a notion of a humanitarian conduct of war, atrocities were committed by all sides, especially against helpless, unarmed civilians. If there is a morale to it, it is get armed, have a rifle, plenty of ammunition and requisite rifleman’s skills, and be ready to die fighting, or be executed at a whim. When it comes to a limited amount of food, one group or another is starving, often unnecessarily, because of stupidity, prejudice, greed, inaptitude, arrogance or indifference of the ruling elites. Civilians are mass-murdered, being attacked directly, often by the most barbaric methods: incinerated in massive air-raids or by an atomic bomb, murdered by chemical gases, bayonets or rifle butts. Who suffers? – The innocents, although they are not so innocent, after all, if they permit the arrogant “elites” to ascend into absolute power, thus making the “innocents” becoming guilty by association.


All rights reserved ● Copyright ©  2011, Eric Ross, Ph.D.


[1] Clodfelter, Michael. Warfare and Armed Conflicts- A Statistical Reference to Casualty and Other Figures, 1500-2000 2nEd.. 2002. ISBN 0-7864-1204-6.

[2] The Oxford Companion To World War II, by I.C.B. Dear and M.R.D. Foot, 2001

[3] Mark A. Mazower (born 1958) is a British historian. His expertise is Greece, the Balkans and 20th century Europe. He’s currently teaching at Columbia University, NYC, USA.

[4] Mark Mazower (1995). Inside Hitler's Greece: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-44. Yale University Press, ISBN 0300089326.

[5] Inside Hitler's Greece: the experience of occupation, 1941-44 By Mark Mazower, Yale University Press, New York and London, ISBN 0-300-05804-7 (hbk) 0-300-06552-3 (pbk), 1995, P. 199.

[6] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler's Greece (Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993),

PP 191 – 197.

[7] Στέφανος Α. Γεροντής. Τα καημένα χωριά. Μνήμες της καταστροφής των δυτικών χωριών της Ιεράπετρας το 1943. Έκδοση Νομαρχιακής Αυτοδιοίκησης Λασιθίου, 2008.

See also, Καζαντζάκης, Ν., Καλιτσουνάκης, Ι. και Κακριδής, Ι.Θ. Έκθεσις της Κεντρικής Επιτροπής Διαπιστώσεως Ωμοτήτων εν Κρήτη. Σύνταξις 29/6 - 6/8/1945. Έκδοση Δήμου Ηρακλείου, 1983;

As well as Kokonas, N.A. The Cretan Resistance 1941-1945. London, 1993.

[9] Just Another Man: A Story of the Nazi Massacre of Kalavryta [Hardcover], by Andy Varlow. 1998; (A story by Survivor). ISBN 1-883319-72-2

[10] Crimes of the German Vehrmacht http://www.verbrechen-der-wehrmacht.de/pdf/vdw_en.pdf

[11] Mazower, Mark (2000). After the War was Over: Reconstructing the Family, Nation, and State in Greece, 1943-1960. Princeton University Press. ISBN 9780691058429;