Every October 28th, Greeks, Cypriots and millions of members of the Greek diaspora honor the past by celebrating Ohi Day – the date when Greece said ‘No’ to Mussolini, to the forces of the Axis, and to everything they represented.
On the morning of October 28, 1940, the Italian Ambassador to Greece, Emanuele Grazzi, delivered an ultimatum issued by Mussolini to Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, demanding that Metaxas allow the Italian army to enter and become a protectorate of Italy. Metaxas simply responded ‘Alors, c’est la guerre’ (Then, it is war) in French, the diplomatic language of the time. The phrase was quickly transposed into Ohi (oh-hee), the Greek word for no, by the citizens of Athens.
And so, early in the morning, before the ultimatum even expired, the Italian army crossed the Greek-Albanian border into the Pindos Mountains, north of Greece. Mussolini’s team of advisors had assured them that the invasion of Greece should not take more than two weeks, but little did they know that they would be met with unexpected resistance, underestimating the rough terrain and the harsh winter climate ahead. And while Italian troops tried to progress to the south towards Ioannina, the Greek forces responded by bombarding the Italians from above.
The bad conditions of the roads and the heavy snowfall made it difficult to supply the Italian troops. Meanwhile, the women of the nearby villages, well accustomed to the terrain, were supplying the Greek forces with food and ammunition. With the battle growing fierce, Greece needed help, and while the British forces tried to respond, they couldn’t do much as they were hard-pressed by German forces. And so Crete responded with its powerful soldiers. Within three weeks, Greece had completely freed itself from any invading forces and even went on to counterattack in Albania. This was the first land defeat for the Axis powers and a ray of hope for democracies across the world.
Furious, Hitler had to come and help a humiliated Mussolini. By April, the German army advanced toward the Greek-Bulgarian border. And though Metaxas had built fortifications all along the border, the Germans also attacked from the Greek-Yugoslavian border. Quickly, the German army overcame the Greeks. Greece then fell, though lasting longer than France and other greater powers before it; however, the detour through the country cost Hitler five weeks.
In the end, Churchill applauded the courage of the Greek people, saying, ‘Hence we will not say that Greeks fight like heroes but that heroes fight like Greeks.’
And this is the story behind the 28th of October, when a small nation stood against Nazism and the threat against democracy. And while Metaxas is a controversial figure in Greece, as he ruled as a dictator in the years leading to his death, his courage on October 28th ultimately led to the victory of the Allied Forces.
Today, the day is a public holiday in Greece and Cyprus. To celebrate, there are military and student parades, and citizens adorn their houses with the Greek flag.