Ioannis Metaxas came to power in early 1936. He came from a military background and in his youth he had attended the Berlin War Academy for 4 years from 1900-1903. His time spent in Germany was a happy one, and he was later considered by most to be a Germanophile. He worked his way up the ranks of the Greek Army to be Chief of Staff by 1913 and was then King Constantine’s principal military adviser until the King was forced into exile in 1917. Metaxas also went into exile, later returning and entering Greek politics. After a further exile and return, he was appointed to the post of Prime Minister President by King George II in April 1936. Four months later, he suspended the Greek parliament and parts of the constitution, taking all power for himself and soon assuming the title of Arkhigos (“Leader”). This was perceived at the time by Metaxas and the King as the only solution to a political crisis (one of many) that had paralysed Parliament. Opposition parties were banned and the dictatorship of the “4th of August Regime” had begun.
He was a staunch royalist and anti-Communist, but whether his regime can be classified as “Fascist” is the subject of academic debate. Certainly it was authoritarian or at least quasi-fascist. He engaged in many reforms but also brutal repressions of his left wing enemies. His government has been compared to that of Franco’s Spain, rather than the pure fascist states of Italy and Germany.
During this period Italian expansionism began to assert itself against Greece. This drew Greece ever closer to the British, although Metaxas made an effort to keep the country effectively neutral for as long as possible. He did, however, declare that in the event of invasion he would fight alongside the Allies. A factor in this position was that the Allies promised the return of the Dodecanese after the war, which had been occupied by Italy in 1912.
Nonetheless, the Italian occupation of Albania in April 1939, along with a subsequent guarantee of Greece’s borders by Britain and France, began to sway him even further towards the Allied side. Prime Minister Chamberlain declared to the House of Commons on 13 April that
“…in the event of any action being taken which clearly threatened the independence of Greece or Rumania, and which the Greek or Rumanian Government respectively considered it vital to resist with their national forces, His Majesty’s Government would feel themselves bound at once to lend the Greek or Romanian Government all the support in their power”.
In addition, Metaxas’ patron King George II and many of Greece’s elite were strong Anglophiles. For better or worse, Great Britain was committed to supporting Greece in the event of an attack.
Metaxas was also prepared for an assault from Bulgaria, and he had a huge chain of fortifications that bore his name built along the border. Redoubtable as they were, the Germans were to easily outflank them in 1941 by going through Yugoslavian Macedonia during Operation Marita.
The Greek cruiser Elli was torpedoed by the Italians at anchor in August 1940, but Metaxas chose to ignore this provocation in a last ditch attempt to keep Greece out of the war. Unfortunately this was in vain. At 3am on 28th October 1940 the Italian Ambassador Emanuele Grazzi delivered an ultimatum demanding free passage for Italian troops to unspecified strategic sites in Greece. Metaxas’ paraphrased reply was said to be “Oxi!” (No!). The date is a national holiday for Greece to this day – Oxi Day. Within hours of the rejection, the Italians invaded Greece from Albania.
Ioannis Metaxas died in January 1941, with the Greek Army having successfully counterattacked the Italians and driven them back into Albania. It was the first time during the war that Axis forces had been defeated in a land battle.