The "DAI Athen" from 1933 to 1945

The German Archaeological Institute at Athens
in the Nazi era

In October 1944 the German Wehrmacht troops withdrew from Greece. They left behind a country characterised by destruction, chaos and famine.
The results of the three-and-a-half year occupation were devastating:

  • The loss of 10% of the population.
  • Mass executions, including the murder of over 130,000 civilians, including women, children and the elderly.
  • The seizure of food and fuel, leading to over 300,000 deaths from hunger and cold.
  • The murder of 90% of the Jewish population (Sephardis and Romaniotes), with over 60,000 deaths.
  • The destruction of over 100 localities.
  • Forced loans of 476 million Reichsmark, (approximately 11 billion euros in today’s money), money which was never paid back.
Through their research, the historians Hagen Fleischer and Mark Mazower have shown how the country was systematically plundered and terrorised during its occupation. The goal was the total subjugation of the Greek population.

In Germany these events are still relatively unknown. Only recently have the massacres carried out throughout Greece become a subject of discussion.

In Greece, on the other hand, the Second World War is still very present. Alongside serious academic literature, there’s been a boom in biographies, novels and mainstream scientific papers about the Greek-Italian war, the occupation and the subsequent civil war. Numerous internet forums engage in discussion of the historical events, with documents from private archives, sometimes previously unpublished, appearing online.

One image that is engraved in the collective memory of the Greek people shows the archaeologist Walter Wrede guiding Field Marshal Walther von Brauchitsch round the Acropolis in April 1941. At that time Wrede was both serving director of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens (1937-44) and National Committee Leader of the Nazi Party in Greece (1935-44).

In this historical context it’s somewhat surprising that Greece’s archaeological cultural property survived the war relatively unscathed. Theft and damage of antiques did take place during the occupation, but these losses were on a small scale compared to the extent of the human tragedy resulting from the war.

It was above all the protective measures undertaken by Greek archaeologists that prevented valuable objects from being stolen or seriously damaged. However, the German occupiers also had no interest in destroying archaeological sites. As victors and representatives of what they considered the leading cultural nation, they saw themselves as the true successors of the ancient Greeks and played up to this role in these ancient surroundings.

As far back as 1946 an inventory of damages and losses resulting from the occupation was presented in two reports on the protection of culture. These reports were based on the findings of Greek archaeologists, and were published by both the Greek Ministry of Religious Affairs and Education and the British Commission for the Protection of Cultural Property. These reports are available online and remain the primary source for Greek journalists, writers and historians. A thorough investigation into the list of damages and losses from 1946 in cooperation with the former occupying powers (Germany, Italy and Bulgaria) seems increasingly unlikely, and politically there appears to be little desire for it.

The reports show that mainly smaller museums and collections were victims of theft and destruction. However, the Byzantine churches and monasteries suffered most. They were burnt down and destroyed in acts of revenge. Among the worst affected were the Meteora monasteries in Thessaly, the Hosios Loukas monastery in Stiri, the Hosios Meletios monastery on Mount Kithairon and Agia Lavra near Kalavryta.

The “human factor” plays a central role in archaeological matters of this time. German archaeologists who were partners, friends or even role models during the 1930s, suddenly appeared as the self-styled master race during the occupation, giving orders to their Greek colleagues and exploiting the situation for their own purposes. The suffering of the Greek people was simply ignored. A frequent accusation levelled by the Greeks against the German archaeologists concerns their “arrogance” and “self-centredness”, almost to the point of “academic autism”.

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