Giannis Syngelakis was 7 years old when the Nazis arrived in Ano Viannos. It was September 14, 1943, and Syngelakis and his family were preparing to celebrate the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, a Greek Orthodox feast day. Then German soldiers stormed Syngelakis’ house on the Greek island of Crete, ordering his father and uncle outside.
Syngelakis’ mother appeared suddenly, he told German magazine Der Spiegel in 2015. “She cried; her hair was a mess,” he recounted. “She said, ‘Come, my son. Your father has been killed.’” By the end of the massacre, the Nazis had killed Syngelakis’ father, grandfather and three of his uncles. Another uncle survived by hiding under a pile of corpses.
The attack on Ano Viannos was part of a broader campaign of violence against Cretans during the Axis occupation of Greece. Now commonly called the Viannos massacres, the assaults, which took place over three days in some 20 villages across the provinces of Viannos and Ierapetra, resulted in the deaths of an estimated 500 people. They represent a lesser-known example of Nazi violence against civilians during World War II.
On both the Western and Eastern European fronts, in places like Lidice, Czechoslovakia; Oradour-sur-Glane, France; and Khatyn, Belarus, the Germans targeted noncombatants in retaliation for attacks by Allied resistance members or guerrilla fighters, destroying entire towns and villages in the process. In the Soviet Union, these indiscriminate killings underscored the Nazis’ belief that Slavic people were racially inferior; elsewhere, they testified more to the Nazis’ use of force to quell resistance and create an atmosphere of “exemplary terror,” in the words of a 1941 order.
Friedrich-Wilhelm Müller, a Nazi general later dubbed the “butcher of Crete” for his role in atrocities on the island, ordered the Viannos massacres in response to an attack by the Cretan resistance. After killing two Nazi soldiers, the resistance fighters set up an ambush nearby, catching a German unit off-guard and inflicting heavy losses, in addition to taking multiple men hostage. Nazi retribution followed swiftly, with Müller ordering 2,000 troops to “destroy Viannos and promptly execute all males beyond the age of 16, as well as everyone who was arrested in the countryside, irrespective of age or gender.”
“[The German soldiers] saw a woman breastfeeding, and they killed her and the baby,” says Spyros Tsoutsoumpis, a historian at the University of Manchester in England. “If you think everybody is nonhuman, then you consider everybody to be guilty.”
The Axis invasion of Greece
The Viannos massacres took place two years into the Axis occupation of Crete and mainland Greece. Though Italy had invaded Greece in October 1940, this initial assault failed, with the Greeks proving more resilient than Italian autocrat Benito Mussolini anticipated. When the invaders demanded the surrender of Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas, he reportedly replied with a single word: “Oxi”—“No.” Pushed north across the Albanian border in just one week, Italy only claimed victory over Greece the following spring, after a second invasion supported by the Nazis and other Axis powers.
As the situation on the mainland deteriorated, Greek officials and military personnel, as well as British troops sent to help repel the invasion, fled to Crete. The island offered only fleeting shelter: Nazi paratroopers attacked in May 1941, sustaining significant casualties but succeeding in forcing the Allies to retreat.
Locals played a pivotal role in what came to be known as the Battle of Crete. As historian Antony Beevor writes in Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance, “Boys, old men and also women displayed a breathtaking bravery in defense of their island,” wielding rifles, pitchforks, knives and any other weapons they could find against the German invaders. Together, the Cretans and the 40,000 Allied defenders left on the island inflicted such heavy losses that Adolf Hitler limited future Nazi airborne attacks during the war.
The Allies evacuated most of their troops from Crete by June 1, leaving the region under Axis control. Germany, Italy and Bulgaria split control of Greece, with Germany occupying western Crete and Italy taking the eastern side of the island. Most of the roughly 12,000 Allied soldiers who couldn’t be transported out of Crete in time became prisoners of war, languishing in unsanitary conditions in camps on the mainland. But some managed to escape the enemy’s attention, seeking refuge with locals eager to defy the Germans, who’d started their occupation of Crete with a series of brutal reprisals against civilians.
“Every time we help an Englishman, I have this additional satisfaction that we are responding somehow to the force of the occupier,” wrote Ioanna Tsatsou, a Cretan woman who provided British soldiers with clothing and food, in her journal. “Because whether by deceit, or by rebellion, we feel the need to answer their violence as a law of necessity.”
Life under German occupation
At the beginning of the Axis occupation in 1941, Greece was home to nearly 72,000 Jews, the majority of whom lived in the German-held city of Salonika. Much as they did in Poland, the Netherlands, France and other occupied territories across Europe, the Germans enacted a policy of systematic genocide against Greece’s Jews, deporting them to killing centers and concentration camps. Of Salonika’s 43,000 residents, more than 40,000 were murdered during the Holocaust, the majority upon arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Crete had a significantly smaller Jewish community, numbering 371 people in 1941. Most of these individuals died on June 9, 1944, when a British submarine sank a German ship transporting 265 Jewish passengers, as well as Greek resistance members and Italian prisoners of war, to the mainland for deportation to Auschwitz. By the end of the war, the Nazis had murdered more than 80 percent of Greece’s prewar Jewish population.
In both mainland Greece and on Crete, around 1,000 Jews fought in the resistance, which “generally welcomed [them] … without prejudice,” according to the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation. Though the Nazis viewed non-Jewish Greeks as superior to their Jewish counterparts, they disdained partisans, whether Jewish or not. As Beevor notes, military leaders advised German paratroopers to fight “against a regular enemy … with chivalry, but give no quarter to guerrillas,” as they believed “no one but professional warriors should be allowed to fight.”
The Viannos massacres and similarly merciless reprisals against Cretan civilians followed Italy’s surrender to the Allies in early September 1943. Until then, the Italians had generally been more sympathetic to the Cretans, even smuggling locals sentenced to death by the Germans to safety. Many Italian officials also refused to follow the Germans’ orders to participate in the systematic murder of Jews in the territories they occupied. But the surrender shifted the balance of power, prompting the Germans to attack their former allies and present Italian soldiers with an ultimatum: Join the Germans, sign up for forced labor or become a prisoner of war.
As the Nazis consolidated control of formerly Italian-occupied territories, including the eastern half of Crete, Greek resistance fighters readied themselves to fight alongside any Italians who resisted the Germans. But guerrilla leader Manoli Bandouvas, emboldened by the erroneous belief that the Allies were “only days away from storming ashore and liberating his homeland,” decided to disobey orders and go on the offensive—a decision with deadly consequences, writes Rick Stroud in Kidnap in Crete: The True Story of the Abduction of a Nazi General.
The Viannos massacres
On September 10, 1943, partisans led by Bandouvas killed two German soldiers who were collecting potatoes in a field near the village of Kato Simi. As Cretan woman Evangelia Dimitrianaki Andreopouli recalled in an oral history, “These hot-blooded young [rebels] thought of it as a great achievement; they got [the Germans] drunk during dinner and had them killed. They placed them afterward on a donkey and threw them off a cliff.” When a German unit arrived to investigate the soldiers’ deaths, they encountered a small group of partisans, who managed to kill an estimated 20 to 40 enemy troops, in addition to taking a dozen or so men captive.
Müller’s retribution was swift and decisive. As announced in local newspapers on September 13, the German general authorized “severe measures” against villages whose residents were supposedly “aware of the existence of [rebel] gangs” and “supplied them with food, shelter and in general all possible support.” The notice offered an ominous assessment of the Cretans’ fates, declaring that “a number of these communities ceased to exist.”
In Viannos, the Germans had orders to shoot all men over the age of 16. But in more remote areas, including western Ierapetra, the soldiers were told to show no mercy to anyone.
“If you’re a man, you could fight,” says historian Tsoutsoumpis. “If you were a woman, you could support the men who are going to fight. If you’re an old man, you provide them with advice. If you’re a baby, you could grow up and fight against the future Nazi empire of Hitler. So everybody was fair game. They made no distinctions whatsoever.”
In his recollection of his experiences, Syngelakis said the Nazis locked his mother in their home and dragged his father and uncle outside. Unable to intervene, she listened as the soldiers shot her husband and bayoneted the uncle. After escaping from the house via a window, she found her son, who was elsewhere in the village, and they fled together into the mountains. The sounds of machine gun fire punctuated the pair’s race to safety.
Chrisanthi Kasokeraki Alexomanolaki was 20 when the Nazis came to her hometown of Riza in Ierapetra, and she spoke of her father’s death and her own survival story in an oral history. While she eluded the Germans by climbing to a gully with her husband and two young children, her father fell victim to the soldiers. As a woman who watched the murder from a hiding place recounted to Alexomanolaki, he asked the Germans why they wanted to kill him, as he had done nothing wrong. In response, they struck his hand, then used a bayonet to tear “him apart, from the neck all the way down.”
Decades later, Alexomanolaki said she still struggled to “digest such a cruel death. Had it been a bullet, you would have looked elsewhere, you wouldn’t have seen it. But to kill you with a bayonet …” Even in death, the Nazis subjected Alexomanolaki’s father to indignities. Her mother brought his body into their house so she could wash off the blood. Before she could perform this rite, soldiers ordered her out, then burned down the building with the corpse still inside.
Between September 14 and September 16, the Nazis targeted no fewer than 17 Cretan villages, executing a documented 396 people and likely dozens of others whose deaths went unrecorded. In addition to murdering civilians, the Germans burned down villages and destroyed harvests, leaving survivors of the massacres to starve. Speaking with the New York Times in 2013, Syngelakis remembered his mother resorting to edible weeds to feed him and his siblings.
In the aftermath of the Viannos massacres, Bandouvas and his men retreated west, into the hills. “He realized that the British were not going to land after all,” writes Stroud. “He was now wanted by the Germans, and the Cretans were angry with him for the havoc that he had brought down on them.” In November, the British Special Operations Executive evacuated Bandouvas to Egypt; the Associated Press reported that the guerrilla leader had “voluntarily quit his mountain stronghold in order to spare his countrymen from the fearful reprisals they have suffered at the hands of the Nazis.”
Nazi atrocities in Greece
Viannos was neither the first nor the last Cretan community devastated by the Nazis. In June 1941, shortly after the Axis occupation of the island began, German soldiers executed as many as 60 male civilians in the village of Kondomari in retaliation for locals’ participation in the Battle of Crete. Three months after the Viannos massacres, the Germans killed more than 600 Cretans in the Kalavryta region, all but wiping out the male population. Even in August 1944, just a few months before the German retreat from Crete, the Nazis’ reign of terror continued, with Müller ordering the deaths of 164 civilians in Kedros.
On mainland Greece, Nazi atrocities unfolded in a similar fashion, with German troops targeting communities overtly or even tangentially linked to partisan activity. On August 16, 1943, soldiers killed more than 300 residents of Kommeno in northwestern Greece, including nearly 75 children under the age of 10. Even some of the Nazi soldiers who carried out the attack were horrified at the brutality. One participant reportedly threw down his cap at his commander’s feet and said, “Just remember, that’s the last time I take part in something like that. That was a schweinerei”—German for “disgrace”—“which had nothing to do with fighting a war.”
A year later, Matthews Dimakos, a resident of Distomo, a village some 65 miles northwest of Athens, told Life magazine about an attack that took place in his hometown in June 1944. “My wife begged them: ‘Please don’t take everything,’” he recounted. “The Germans shot her. Our baby cried, so the Germans shot it in the head. The baby was 8 months old.”
The Axis occupation of Greece ended with Germany’s withdrawal from the country in October 1944. Estimates of the civilian death toll during the occupation vary widely, from around 325,000 to 558,000. Most died from starvation, but tens of thousands were killed during reprisals. The Nazis also murdered at least 58,885 Greek Jews as part of the Holocaust.
Few of the Nazis who participated in the mass murder of civilians faced consequences for their actions. Müller was an exception, receiving a death sentence from a Greek court for his role in the reprisals. He was executed by firing squad on May 20, 1947, the sixth anniversary of the Nazi invasion of Crete.
Over the past decade, the Greek government has pushed Germany to pay reparations for its wartime crimes, among them the Viannos massacres and other retaliatory attacks. Under a 1960 agreement, Germany agreed to pay 115 million deutschmarks (nearly $300 million today) to Greek victims of the Nazi regime, but proponents of the campaign say this sum is merely a fraction of the compensation owed.
In 2013, Christina Stamoulis, the daughter of a lawyer who successfully argued a reparations case on behalf of victims of the Distomo massacre, told the New York Times that older Germans had started coming to Greek villages with their grandchildren, seeking forgiveness from locals.
“OK, apologize,” Stamoulis said. “But we are expecting actions, too.”