Seventy three years ago on a spring day in Athens just like yesterday, the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas were two young 19 year olds who decided to hoist down the German flag from the Acropolis. With great daring the two students climbed the Sacred Rock up to the Acropolis and completed their heroic act. Its symbolism ignited the resistance in Greece and has been credited as lighting the fires of resistance across Europe.
Today Manolis Glezos (see wiki entry) is 94 years old and has just been elected to the European parliament as a member of SYRIZA. He has vowed to continue the fight for Greek independence and dignity. The threat posed to the freedom, independence and dignity of Greeks takes a very different form to that offered by Nazi Germany. But the threat today is real and Glezos has vowed he will be there for this fight as well.
It is worthwhile, 73 years later, to stop and consider the daring and bravery of two young men who put their lives on the line for the cause of national liberation, dignity and justice.
At the end of May in 1941, the Germans had completed their first month of occupying Athens. They had also just managed to capture the island of Crete, where many Australian soldiers were fighting side by side with the Cretans to resist the German advance.
On that May spring evening Manolis Glezos and Lakis Santas look up and stare at the Acropolis from the Zappeio. They then decide to make and implement a plan, knowing they have to get every detail right. It is obvious to them failure means capture and death.
On that day, the two students go to the National Library and read what they can find about the Sacred Rock and the possible paths up to the Acropolis. They quickly realize that the only possible path to avoid being noticed by the German guards was via a path through Pandroseiou Androu.
That morning they also learn via public radio that Crete has fallen. The Germans are now openly boasting of their conquest with notices in Athens. They decide it is the right time to strike a symbolic blow to against the invading conquerors. They decide to act that evening, with the only weapons at their disposal – a lantern and a knife.
At 9:30 pm, at the small garrison of the Acropolis of the Propylaea, Glezos and Santas jump wires, crawl to the Pandroseiou Cave and use the archaeologists scaffolding that is there to climb up to the Acropolis. It is their great fortune there are no guards at that time around the flag pole. They act quickly to hoist down the flag and symbol of the Third Reich. It is a powerful blow. They fold the flag and follow the same route down without being caught. Eventually they burnt the flag at their houses as they correctly anticipate a German hunt for the flag involving house searches.
Early the next morning the German garrison is left dumbfounded by the sight of the shredded remnants of the Nazi flag. The German authorities order investigations, and execute the men who were standing guard. They also relieve Greek commanders of police stations in the region of their duties.
The swastika is not replaced until 11am, but the damage has been done. It is a powerful tonic for the morale of the Greeks. Lowering the Nazi symbol is the first great symbolic act of resistance in occupied Athens and helps usher in the organization of the resistance movement.
Later, when recounting the venture to lower the Nazi flag from the Acropolis, Apostolos Santas reminisced :
“And suddenly one afternoon we were in Zappeio. The sun was bathing the horizon with those colours that only the Attica sky can bring. Our eyes turned to the rock of the Acropolis. Surrounded by the wonderful background of that sunset we stood and stared. And then our eyes fell on the Nazi flag proudly waving. Its dark shadow fell heavy and depressed Athens and all of Attica.”
“The idea came to us like a spark –We must take it from them. We must bring it down and tear it up and wash the stain from this Sacred Rock. They had set this very flag of war in Warsaw, Vienna, Antwerp, Norway, Paris and Belgrade and threatened to take it worldwide. But this is Greece, a small country which gave birth to a civilisation. It is the country that always shows by example during the critical moments of history.”
See for more in depth article in Greek here