- Famine and Death in Occupied Greece, 1941–1944
The famine in Greece during the Second World War was, together with the one in Holland, the most lethal in the occupied Europe. When Greece capitulated in April 1941, the first signs of food scarcity appeared already in the summer of the same year. Flour, vegetables, and olive oil either disappeared from the market or their prices soared on the black market. As the collaborationist government was incompetent and the occupation authorities were unwilling to supply the starving population with food, a deadly famine broke out. In the winter of 1941–1942 thousands of people died of starvation or hunger-related diseases, literally in the streets of cities, especially Athens and Piraeus. Due to the humanitarian disaster, the Allies were obliged to lift the naval blockade and reached an agreement with the Germans allowing thousands of tons of wheat and other foodstuffs to be transported to Greece every month and distributed to the population under the auspices of the International Red Cross. There was no such degree of starvation in the subsequent years of the Nazi occupation, although scarcity of food continued to occur in different places and at different times due to shortcomings in the distribution of the relief and German retaliatory campaigns.
Violetta Hionidou’s monograph is about the famine in occupied Greece and is the first book-length study on the subject. In it, she examines the causes of the famine in the cities and the countryside and then focuses on three islands—Mykonos, Syros, and Chios, discussing in more detail the impact on the local populations. She consulted the International Red Cross Archives and Italian and British archives to draw a general picture of the famine in Greece, while her findings for the three islands are based on material from the local archives, local newspapers, and interviews. The author divides the occupation into three periods to examine the changing characteristics of the famine: May 1941 to March 1942, April 1942 to April 1943, and May 1943 to the end of the occupation. The most severe famine occurred during the first period when the urban centers of Athens, Piraeus, and Thessaloniki were severely affected. Workers and artisans were the groups that suffered the most. In the second period, mortality levels were reduced thanks to the relief efforts, but the food crisis continued, albeit in different forms. In Athens and Piraeus high inflation and rising food prices put pressure on the poor and middle classes whereas in other parts of Greece high mortality occurred for different reasons. For instance, in Thessaloniki there was a malaria epidemic.
In the third period, the food crisis was not as severe, but the population suffered from the combination of galloping inflation, German retaliation, and the curtailment of relief activities. The famine brought both death and other miseries. Hionidou repeatedly hints at the broader social and political consequences of the food crisis, but does not shed light on the radical changes that occurred in wartime Greece.
After this general examination of the famine and the food situation in occupied Greece, Hionidou proceeds to examine the causes of the famine. She avoids any single-factor analysis and instead discusses many causes, assessing the [End Page 499] role that each played in the famine. First, the ineptitude of the Greek government and the conflict over decision-making between the Greek administration and occupation authorities created administrative chaos. It should be pointed out, however, that it was the primary responsibility of the occupation forces to provide food to the population and that they failed to do so. Second, plundering by soldiers, rather than the requisition of foodstuffs by the occupation forces, seems to have played a role in the famine since it drove the peasants to hoard their produce. This leads Hionidou to consider another factor that for a long time was believed to be prominent in the outbreak of the famine—the decline in agricultural production. She argues, as Yiorgos Margaritis has suggested, that agricultural production did not decrease...