May 30, 1941: Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas, members of the Greek Resistance, climb the Acropolis of Athens and tear down the swastika.
Manolis Glezos and Apostolos Santas were both nineteen years old when Wehrmacht soldiers marched south on Macedonia in April 1941. Three weeks later, when German tanks rolled into Athens and took the city and the country, the pair hatched a stunt, involving secret tunnels and torches, in defiance of the impending occupation.
Greek troops had beaten back Italian forces that winter, but the new German onslaught quickly overwhelmed. Optimism born of the temporary victory over the Italian campaign was extinguished. The Germans, it was clear, came bearing a long, painful night. In mid-April, facing the imminent German entrance into Athens, Prime Minister Alexandros Koryzis shot himself, and King George II and his family fled to Crete before departing for exile in Great Britain. The thin spread of Allied forces left in Greece, badly outnumbered and depleted of resources, could stave off very little before they too departed. In the aftermath of this retreat, Italy took hold of the majority of the peninsula — but the country’s vital regions, including the small center within Attica containing Athens, fell under German administration.
Walther Wrede, director of the German Archaeological Institute at Athens and leading Nazi party representative in Greece, was tasked with welcoming the occupiers to Athens. As the Wehrmacht took Athens and draped the city in Nazi colors, as Nazi flags unfurled over balconies and doorways, Wrede wrote: “I spring to our lookout post on the upper floor. The cry: ‘Swastika over the Acropolis!’ rings through the house… and thus prepared we stand at the windows waiting for the first German soldiers.”
When Hitler wrote to Mussolini a year later regarding the Duce’s visit to Greece, he described the Acropolis as the “place where all that we today call human culture found its beginning.” Now the Nazi war flag — red emblazoned with black swastika, bars, and Iron Cross — flew above. According to wartime folk legend, the Greek soldier on guard at the Acropolis the first day of occupation chose to leap off the rock rather than lower the Greek flag and raise the swastika overhead.
Apostolos Santas, who died in 2011, and Manolis Glezos, who was, until his resignation in 2015, the oldest member of the European parliament as a member of SYRIZA, were first-year college students in 1941. But both already had early political experience, having participated in anti-fascist organizing against Greece’s own authoritarian government and subsequently the Italian invasion.
Under the cover of night, the two boys, wielding a torch and a pocketknife, crept into a cave whose mouth was hidden in undergrowth at the foot of the Acropolis. Together they climbed to the top of the Acropolis and surfaced near the Erechtheion. At the summit, bathed in moonlight, as Santas later described, they paused to look upon the temples and “became emotional.”
They then scaled the flagpole and tore the Nazi flag from its post overlooking Athens. The two scaled down, embraced and “did a quick dance,” and escaped undetected. They kept a corner of the flag, the upper left carrying the Iron Cross, and discarded the remaining scraps down a well. The missing flag — and the weight of their act — was realized the next morning. German authorities publicly condemned the theft, inadvertently publicizing the brazen stunt to a dispirited public. They sentenced the perpetrators to death, though they had no idea who they might be. They would never learn, at least during the course of the occupation.
Both Glezos and Santas survived the death sentence, and the war and the one after it, but not unscarred. Both continued their activities with communist factions of the Resistance, and both were imprisoned multiple times, first by German occupiers, later by their fellow Greeks during the partisan violence that erupted in the vacuum of the German departure. In 1963, a New York Times correspondent described Glezos, no longer a symbol of heroic Allied resistance but rather of the communist threat in Greece, as “heroic but dangerous.” Later, Glezos described that, despite their youth, theirs had been “a conscious act… The swastika on the Acropolis offended all human ideals.”