Under the Wheels of the War Machine : INSIDE HITLER'S GREECE: The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944, By Mark Mazower (Yale University Press: $30; 437 pp.)

History's botches can be crueler than history's deliberate cruelties. When the German Army withdrew from Greece in 1944, after a 3 1/2-year occupation, it had destroyed some 1,200 villages wholly or partly. Thousands of Greek civilians had been shot or hanged. Of 70,000 to 80,000 Greek Jews, only 10,000 or so remained. Perhaps 300,000 Greeks had perished from lack of food, most of them during the famine winter of 1941-42.

And yet, Mark Mazower writes after making these estimates, and painstakingly weighing high-end and low-end claims, the Germans never meant to be there. Hitler was not interested in taking Greece. The Nazis, whose racial theology had them descending in some fashion from the Hellenes, exempted the Greeks from the category of "slave" peoples. They admired the ferocity with which they had chased Mussolini's troops back over the Albanian border; and, in any case, Germany was turning its attention to Russia and needed no diversions.

Admiration or not, though, Greece had humiliated Hitler's ally and something had to be done. An army was dispatched early in 1941, meeting little effective resistance, and by April the Greek Army had surrendered. After Mussolini's outraged protests, the Greeks were asked to surrender a second time with the Italians included. At this point, the German plan was to keep a strategic force in Macedonia near the Turkish border, give the Italians responsibility for the rest of Greece and the islands, and otherwise let Axis interests be taken care of by a compliant right-wing Greek government.

There would be no light at the end of that tunnel. This was natural, perhaps, in the country that invented the Labyrinth. For the first couple of years, no Greek politicians would collaborate, and only an incompetent quisling general was available. Civil government broke down, the Italians failed to meet German standards of firmness--they refused to shoot civilian hostages--and after Mussolini's overthrow they disintegrated and some turned hostile. The Germans had to kill a number of them.

What Germany had got into, as the author, a British historian, points out, became the model for quagmires ever since, from Algeria to Vietnam to Northern Ireland. It was singularly more ghastly, of course, in that the "dirty war" was infinitely dirtier; and that it developed not just in practice--big-power fish thrashes furiously in hostile water--but as a policy proclaimed at the top with mystical-nationalist trimmings.

To employ humanitarian considerations, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel decreed in 1943, would be "a crime against the German people." Not only did the German commander in Greece, Lt. Gen. Alexander Loehr, announce a schedule for reprisals--50-100 Greeks to be executed for every dead German, 10 for every wounded one--but he threatened to court martial any officer who failed to carry it out. Bear in mind that Loehr was old Army, and that any Nazi true- believers in his entourage found themselves frozen out. One of Mazower's points is that when it came to brutality and deporting Jews, the SS had no special edge over the regular military.

Using the vast German military archive, Mazower draws a vivid picture of the German occupier's mind and actions, though this is only part of his portrayal of all aspects of wartime Greece. (Greek records were far less well kept, and documentation was scarce, both from inside the Resistance and from the Greek armed factions on the Right that came to power at the end of the war and the start of the subsequent civil war. Mazower's account of what the Greeks were doing, though lucidly and lovingly expounded, seems less concrete and, relying more on secondary materials, not quite as fresh.)

Perhaps the book's single most telling section, in fact, examines a German "action" in the town of Komeno. First we get the field report. It speaks of heavy gunfire from the village, its subsequent storming and burning by German troops, and the deaths of 150 "civilians." Once the report reaches Athens it has been sanitized to 150 "enemy" dead. And in Athens we meet a familiar figure: Lt. Kurt Waldheim of the planning staff. He sanitizes the detail further, and solemnly magnifies the raid's strategic significance. Now it becomes a major battle, with "enemy" air attacks, "heavy enemy resistance" and "enemy losses."

And then, Mazower gives a different account. A German patrol had spotted some guerrillas who had come to the village to requisition supplies. A major assault is launched days later. The guerrillas are long gone, but the army attacks the sleeping village, shooting more than 300 men, women and children and the village priest. The descriptions are agonizing; what makes them compelling is that they come not only from survivors but, years later, from German soldiers who took part and speak in sick, horrified remembrance.

Such drastic use of force--augmented by the full entry of the Gestapo in 1943--had no policy complement. Not having intended a Greek policy at the start, the Nazi system lacked the flexibility to develop one. There were political administrators, such as Hermann Neubacher, who fought to build up a functioning if subservient Greek administration. In 1943 Iannis Rallis, a conservative politician, was named Prime Minister but he was never very effective, since much of the Right preferred to keep in underground contact with the British. There was a regular traffic of politicians slipping out of Greek ports in caiques bound for Turkey, and traveling on to visit the British Middle East command in Cairo.

Worse than that, while Neubacher was doing one thing, the soldiers were doing another. For the first year they lived off the land, stripping agriculture and industry, and entirely dismantling the economy that the German civilians were trying to sustain. The famine, which Mazower vividly describes, was one result; another was an entire collapse of local administration across the country. In its place came local committees of peasants and villagers, soon to be strengthened by EAM, a political umbrella group in which the Communists played the strongest but by no means the only role. Their success in organizing the populace opened the way for the emergence of ELAS, a nationwide armed resistance network.

In the internecine bloodshed begun during the Occupation and flaring up after it, Mazower's sympathies incline to the Left; if only because he believes that the Rightist forces, partly tainted by collaboration with the Germans during the war and later supported by the British, did more to precipitate the conflict. They won it, furthermore, and did, to say the least, nothing to heal it. Mazower's arguments are always fair. If they are not always clear or convincing it is because in a civic enmity as deep-rooted and passionate as Greece's, clarity and conviction can only honestly--and oppositely--belong to the fighters. The honest outsider may clarify a great deal, and Mazower does, but he will eventually hit murk.

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