ATHENS, ONE OF THE WORLD’S OLDEST and most fabled cities, has earned its reputation as the cradle of Western civilization over its 3,400-year history. Today a modern metropolis of 3.5 million residents, Athens’s rich heritage is visible at a glance: dotted within the urban sprawl are ancient pillared relics, a marble stadium, Byzantine churches, mosques, and arguably the capital city’s most famous landmark, the Acropolis—translated as “high point.” It is here that I start my self-guided tour—ascending the summit not only for the view but also in search of a storied past that sheds light on Greece’s often-overlooked role in World War II.
The rocky promontory, rising almost 500 feet above the city’s sea of concrete, is home to several ancient temples and is the site of one of the most recognizable ruins in the world, the Parthenon. The Doric-columned temple, dedicated to the goddess Athena, was completed in 432 BC and stood largely untouched until pirates sacked it in 276 AD. It was converted to a Christian church in the sixth century, and the Ottomans later used it as a mosque. The Venetians shelled it in 1687, archeologists raided it in 1799—and, on its grounds in 1941, German invaders raised a massive red-and-white flag adorned with a black swastika.
Metaxas vs. mussolini
Greece was a reluctant World War II belligerent, its attempt to remain neutral ending at 3 a.m. on Monday, October 28, 1940. When Italy’s fascist dictator Benito Mussolini demanded the Greeks submit to occupation, Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas is said to have replied with one word—“No!”—which became a rallying cry throughout the country. Two and a half hours later, the Italians invaded from Albania with six divisions.
The dogged Greek defense, with British air support, held the Italians at bay. In January 1941, the Hellenic Army’s counterattack pushed the invaders back over the border, giving the Allies one of their few early victories, but at the cost of several thousand casualties. With the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force and Greece now firmly committed to the Allied cause, the Germans invaded in April. Three weeks later, they reached Athens.
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Atop the Acropolis, I wander the grounds, winding my way around visitors mingling in front of the 45-foot-tall marble Parthenon, some marveling at its magnificence, others posing for selfies. There is no shade at the summit, so arriving before the heat of the day was prudent—but even so, I feel the sun beating down on me as I pass the Erechtheion, an asymmetrical temple, also dedicated to Athena, to the north of the Parthenon. Period photographs reveal that its decorative wall of six sculpted female figures was a popular tourist destination for occupying Wehrmacht soldiers. Finally, I make my way to the observation deck on the east side of the rocky outcrop. Here an enormous blue-and-white Greek flag flutters in the breeze. It was near this site on April 27, 1941, the day the Germans rolled into the capital, where Konstantinos Koukidis, a soldier of the elite Evzones light infantry, was on guard duty.
As the story goes, the Germans ascended the Acropolis, intent on raising their flag over the city. An officer hailed Koukidis, commanding he lower the national colors to hoist the swastika in its place. Koukidis did as he was told, but rather than surrendering the Greek flag, he wrapped it around his body and leapt off the cliff to his death.
A small plaque commemorates the event, which has generated its share of skepticism. In 2000, the mayor of Athens declared that no documentary evidence had been found to confirm the act, despite multiple claims by eyewitnesses. My informal survey of tour guides, docents, and locals are unanimous in their support of the story’s validity.
Koukidis’s unit of Evzones was disbanded during the occupation, with many of the troops forming the ranks of resistance groups. Today the Evzone traditions and battle honors are carried on by the Presidential Guard, a distinctively garbed infantry unit that performs ceremonial duties.
National Parliament building
To get more insight into their history, I hike back down the hill and head to the National Parliament building. My route takes me through the Plaka, the city’s oldest neighborhood, and it feels almost criminal to use my phone’s GPS to help me thread my way through the ancient, twisty streets. Not much has changed here since the late 1800s, and the wrought-iron balconies, neoclassical architecture, and narrow alleys make it easy to imagine the neighborhood in the 1940s. What is harder to imagine is the Third Reich’s shadow dimming these cozy labyrinthine streets, many teeming with hibiscus and olive trees.
The Parliament building, a commanding three-story edifice tucked into the northwest corner of the 38-acre National Garden, was built in 1842 as a palace for Greece’s first king after independence from the Ottomans. In 1926, it was gutted for renovation into a single-chamber parliamentary council. At the base of the building, below its columned facade, is Greece’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Flanking the tomb are two blue-roofed guard shacks, manned by Evzones standing at attention, with bayonet-tipped M1 Garand rifles at their sides. They are unmoving, reminding me of the red-coated British soldiers posted in front of Buckingham Palace. The guards wear their traditional uniform, with its origins in the 1800s: a small red fez with a long black tassel, a knee-length, button-up tunic with a black leather cartridge belt, white leggings with black garters, and hobnailed clogs topped with black pompoms.
I watch the two guards begin their measured, ceremonial march toward the tomb, which is dominated by a marble relief of a prostrate Spartan. Inscribed on either side of the fallen warrior are the names of battlefields dating back to the early 1900s. Included are more than a dozen from World War II, such as Pindus, Crete, Hill 731, and El Alamein, all serving as reminders of the 35,000 Greek soldiers who met their deaths during the war. The guards, with rifles shouldered, move painstakingly slowly with a regimented high kick on each step. Juxtaposed against the noise of passing buses and cars on the nearby multilane boulevard, the solemn ritual is made more poignant by the Evzones’ silent focus.
hotel grande bretagne
Across the street from the Parliament building is the Hotel Grande Bretagne, my last stop. The luxury hotel overlooking both the Parliament building and Athens’s central plaza—Syntagma Square—is another example of the city’s layered and hidden past. Built in 1842 as a private mansion, it was renovated in 1874 into a hotel. In 1930, the hotel expanded with the addition of a new wing. During the war, the Greek General Headquarters established itself in the hotel until the German occupation, when it served as Wehrmacht headquarters. The hotel’s well-appointed lobby and ornate tapestry in the atrium’s Alexander’s Lounge would make the staff officers of any army feel comfortable.
It was here in May 1941 that General-leutnant Kurt Student planned Operation Mercury, the airborne invasion of the Greek island of Crete. The glider and parachute assault was a Pyrrhic victory for the Germans, who suffered more than 26 percent casualties, but it completed the Axis occupation of Greece and began a multi-year reign of terror: tens of thousands of civilians died from famine, torture, and executions, while an estimated 60,000 Jews were deported from Greece to German death camps.
Tomb of the unknown soldier
In the same month that Crete fell, two Greek students, Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, crept through the dark to scale the Acropolis and make off with the Germans’ swastika-emblazoned war flag. It was eventually replaced, and the occupiers sentenced Glezos and Santas to death in absentia. But the brazen act further inspired a fledgling Greek resistance movement, which by 1944 had grown to over a million men and women. The underground harassed the Germans until October 1944, when the invaders withdrew after the Soviet Red Army seized the vital Ploesti oil fields in Romania, reducing Greece’s strategic significance as a deterrent to Allied air raids. Fittingly, period newsreel footage shows a German soldier scurrying from the Acropolis with the Nazi flag bunched over his shoulder.
With the occupation in mind, I head up to the hotel’s rooftop patio, from where I can see the Unknown Soldier’s tomb to the left and the Greek flag flying high above the Acropolis to my right. The sweeping view of modern buildings, public parks, ancient ruins, and distant mountains reminds me that Athens is a city of celebrated legends. And at the end of the day, I don’t know if Koukidis really leapt to his death or not, but I do know Athens’s history of sacrifice and resistance makes it easy to believe he did.
WHEN YOU GO
Athens is easily accessible by air or sea. The international airport is serviced by all major and regional airlines, and nearby Piraeus is Europe’s largest cruise ship port. Getting around the city is easy by Metro, bus, tram, ridesharing, or foot.
Where to Stay and Eat
Athens has a myriad of hotels, B & Bs, and vacation rentals to meet any traveler’s budget. Those seeking a historical luxury experience would be hard-pressed to beat the centrally located Hotel Grande Bretagne, where the bartenders serve some of the city’s best cocktails. For fresh fish and a view of the well-lit Acropolis, try dinner atop The Old Tavern of Psaras.
What Else to See and Do
With Athens’s numerous world-renowned museums, it would be easy to overlook the War Museum, covering Hellenic martial history from antiquity to the present day. On display are rare weapons, uniforms, art, and battlefield relics.
Six miles south from the city center and accessible via a tram ride from Syntagma Square is the Phaleron War Cemetery. Within its well-curated grounds stands the Athens Memorial, which commemorates the thousands of Commonwealth troops who died during World War II campaigns in mainland Greece, Crete, Yugoslavia, and the Dodecanese islands.