Cartoons join the Greco-Italian War (1940) An analysis of British and Greek propaganda cartoons during the Italian invasion of Greece.
The aim of this essay is to show the Greek British and later American cartoonists humorous attack on the Italian invaders of Greece during the Second World War. (Most foot notes lead to the images described here)
The time frame will be from the beginning of the invasion on 28th October 1940 until 30th of April 1941 because the German attack of 1941 negated Greek successes and forced the British to evaluate Greece and Greek cartoonists, those who still had work, came under the Axis Occupation Armies censorship. A cartoon film, made clandestinely in Greece during the foreign occupation though, out of the time frame will be also examined for two reasons: It relates to the Greco-Italian war and is the first ever made Greek Cartoon film. With use of Greek and British archive sources it will be demonstrated who and why was targeted by the cartoonists humor, what was aim of the propaganda officials in Greece and Britain who tried to direct – even control in a sense – the efforts of the artists. It has to be noted that there are no Italian cartoons of the period in question because Mussolini disliked them as “Anglo-Saxon decadent art”. A cynic might say that with the fiasco of the Italian attack against Greece there was no mood for humor in Italy. The absence of German cartoons is explained in Goebels entry on his diary dated 9th April 1941 where he stated that he had forbidden the German press to underestimate or ridiculing the Greeks. Perhaps he was expecting to stage a “win hearts and minds” campaign but the events evolved against his wishes not least by the brutal behavior of the occupiers.
Satire can be a very potent weapon during wartime. According to J. Michael Waller: Ridicule serves several purposes:
- Ridicule raises morale at home.
- Ridicule strips the enemy/adversary of his mystique and prestige.
- Ridicule erodes the enemy’s claim to justice.
- Ridicule eliminates the enemy’s image of invincibility.
- Directed properly at an enemy, ridicule can be a fate worse than death. 1
Waller also believes that authoritarian regimes and dictators who are full of self over-esteem and do not tolerate their image being belittled. If this true it can explain why so few Axis cartoons do exist in archives today. Waller though cautions that poor application of humor propaganda can ignite strong feelings of animosity the might cause troubles during war effort by hurting deeply the peoples feelings. It is worth the effort though because it weakens the tyrants2.
The Greek Humor Attack
Greece can trace its humor attacks on the negative aspects of life from the ancient times when during the 5th century, Aristophanes was ridiculing the Athenians political and social excesses. Greek cartoon perhaps traces its origins to the 5th century B.C. Attic pottery3. During the mid 30s Greece, while suffering from the economic depression, came under the power of Prime Minister Metaxas. To restore order after the military coup of 1935, Metaxas established an authoritarian regime loosely based on the Italian fascists and put tight control on the press and the radio of Greece. A Press and Tourism Secretariat under Theologos Nikoloudis, was established in order to control the media and promote the regime’s ideology4. That means that newspaper and magazine cartoonists had to be very careful if they did not want to come at the wrong end of the authorities. As Greece declared its neutrality after the eruption of World War Two, negative comments and much less ridiculing any of the belligerents was strictly forbidden on the press. Only cartoons making harmless (more or less) fun of everyday life were allowed. For instance making fun of the prudish society as in a 1937 image where a buxom baby nurse informs a leering old man that she uses the baby bottle and she is not breastfeeding the baby5.
Greece intended to maintain its neutrality as much as possible6. Even when Mussolini started from April 1940 a series of provocations against Greece, the Greek press was instructed not to publish anything that would give the Italian dictator an excuse to declare war. That meant absolutely no funny pictures of him on the press. All this changed on 28th October 1940 when Italy declared war on Greece despite Greek appeasement policy and the Greek media were unleashed on the enemy. Greek resistance against the Axis initial attacks lasted six months. This gave the Greek media (especially cartoonists) the ability develop a style of their own in contrast to other European media whose countries were overrun in a time frame between 5 to 60 days maximum.
In contrast to other countries no specific guidelines were given. Only the strict morals of the time that forbid foul language or whatever could be interpreted as pornography (indecent was the term at that time) posed some form of limitation. Religion also was an important factor. The Italians (Catholics) torpedoed before the war a Greek destroyer in Tenos during the holiday of Our Lady. Greeks saw it as an attack on those of Orthodox persuasion7. When war broke out the Greek government made sure that a “comics style” poster depicting the Virgin Mary protecting a marching Greek soldier8. The message was obvious. The sacrilegious invader would incur divine punishment at the hands of the Hellenic Army. Except that all other comic/cartoon art was left to the Press.
From the beginning of the Italian attack the Greeks perceived that their small country was the small relative of the other small countries who had suffered Mussolini’s aggression. This was put on paper by cartoonist the Demetriadis9. A small boy in the Evzonoi (Greek light infantry) uniform attempts to defend little children named Libya, Ethiopia, Albania and Dodecanesse from the malicious giant Mussolini. The Evzonoi (plural) were considered an elite formation and they appear in Greek cartoonists work more than the other military branches. The characteristic Evzonoi footwear with the black pom-pom (tsarouchi) became national symbol of the resistance in a manner like Churchill’s victory sign.
Kastanakis depicted Greece as a maiden that under her balcony, Mussolini as a harlequin tries to woo her with songs for two weeks but her father (implying Metaxas) throws an oversized heavy tsarouchi against him10. When the first Italian thrust had been repulsed and a communiqué from Rome said it was the bad weather that hindered the advance, Kastanakis drew Mussolini as an Italian soldier under a hail of tsarouchia. Nobody believed that the Greeks would fend off the Italians but against all odds they did and Terzopoulos painted an Evzon throwing cold water on Mussolini who has bumped his head on a rock with inscription Epeiros, the area where the first battles of the war took place.
The next to suffer were the enemy’s elite formations. The Italian motorized infantry battalions the Bersaglieri with the rooster-tail feathers on their headgear became the target of the cartoonists in their attempt to depict the Italians as cowards. According though to the veterans of the war it was rather unfair as they were very good soldiers11.
The names of the units become targets as in the case of the “Lupi di Toscana” (Wolves of Tuscany) elite division that was destroyed during a Greek counter attack. The Greek cartoonists present it as a group of frightened wolf puppies. Gevelis changed the divisional name to “Hyenas of Rome”12. The emblem of the armored division “Chentauro” (Centaur) that failed to make an impression during the battles in Epeiros is presented by Dimitriades as a beast of burden ploughing the field of an old woman13. One is to wonder if Dimitriades had seen a similar theme in Louvre on ancient pottery with Centaurs towing the chariot of Hercules or that Fate has a strange sense of humor14.
As the war progressed and the Greek received aid from the British many cartoons became bilingual. (Greek – English) The first appearance of British aid to Greece was in the form of the RAF whose airplanes appeared in the Greek and its administrative personnel that started appearing in Athens. Dimitriades capitalized on that by showing an RA.F officer and a Greek Evzon to treat Mussolini like a delinquent schoolboy taken for punishment15. The government wanted to reassure the embattled Greeks that with the British aid all would fare well from now on. A number of cartoons appeared on the press showing the British symbol, the lion, to ask an Evzon to let him have fun to with a midget Mussolini16 or an army boot full soldiers holding British and Greek flags17. Greece though was not at war with Germany despite fighting against its Italian ally. In order not to provoke the Germans, Metaxas accepted British RAF aid but refused British troops on the ground. Perhaps the cartoons showing the Greek soldiers only with British Air Force personnel was probably a way of appeasing Hitler.
In the meantime the poor performance of the Italian army against the Greeks made Mussolini to change his commanders in Albania quite frequently and that of course could not escape the pen of the Greek cartoonists. It was a good way to show to the people that the enemy was in confusion and that victory was near. Vlassopoulos painted the dismissed Italian generals playing cards on a cafeteria table like pensioners who have nothing else to do18.
While the Italian armed forces felt the sting of the pen of the Greek cartoonists the favorite target of the jokes was “il Duce” himself. His balding head and corpulence were exploited to create a funny character that ranged between a naive fool and an ape-man. Greek cartoonist almost never presented him as something terrifying even in a grotesque way. Only in one case where the Greek, the Briton and the Ethiopian are pulling out his teeth so that he “does not gnash them to terrify others” Mussolini appears a bit more terrifying than usually19. From the beginning of the Italian attack the Greeks perceived that their small country was attacked unjustly by a powerful neighbor and the cartoonists painted an oversized Mussolini being hit in the forehead by a tsarouchi20 in an analogy of the biblical David vs. Goliath story. The message is that with God’s help small Greece will prevail and also the might of Italy is ridiculed in the image of a fumbling oversized Mussolini. The Greek cartoonists also exploited his speeches about Italian territorial expansion and former Roman glories. Mussolini in a Greek government cartoon is shown as Nero who sings while a Greek Evzon is pushing his Bersaglieri to the fire started by the bombs of a British aircraft21. Even if this cartoon was targeting the more educated audience it was expected that the teacher of every Greek village would explain it to the people and possibly create a new string of jokes among them. Lydakis in contrast showed Mussolini as an arsonist Nero with a mean expression, wearing the Bersaglieri helmet and torching Acropolis22. Mean expressions of the Italian dictator were very rare in the Greek press. Perhaps the cartoonist wanted to remind the Greeks the suffering of their ancient ancestors at the hands of the Romans. Ancient history was used by Kastanakis to show an Evzon and a lion (symbol of Britain) severing the strings holding a Roman axe over Mussolini in an analogy of the story of Damocles who dined while a sword was precariously hanging over his head. Mussolini is seeing here his imperial dreams becoming a nightmare.
The Greeks felt more contempt rather than hate for the Italian dictator. Dimitriadis expressed this by painting a theatrical female character that was identified with the Greek audience of the time as the epitome of the snobbish “wannabe” aristocrat, passing by a wretched Mussolini and looking at him with contempt as she scowls: “poor person”23.
The cartoon Mussolini was expected by the readers to appear on the press and in a strange way he was also liked by the audience and its creators too. Cartoonist Mpezos last work before being called up to serve in the front depicted himself in the uniform of a Greek soldier kissing his favorite cartoon character goodbye24. The caption calls the cartoon Mussolini, the cartoonist’s personal friend!
The good mood lasted for five months as in April 1941 the Germans invaded Greece to assist their embattled Italian ally. The Germans could not be seen in a humorous manner.
Pavlidis that depicted a bayonet-charging Evzon carried away and falling from a mountaintop on an unseen enemy below summarized this. The caption reads the “Greek stuka”25 and shows the agony over the fate of Greece. The days of laughter at the enemy’s expense were over.
The British Humor Attack
In contrast to the Greeks the British media had guidelines on how to present the enemy and the aims of British war propaganda were made clear to them26. British press and cartoonists were suspicious of Mussolini’s intentions from 1934 despite the fact that he initially had blocked Hitler’s annexation of Austria. But they started attacking him more openly from the time he took Italy out of the League of the Nations in 1937. Italian attack against France in the summer of 1940 followed by the Italian thrust in Egypt during September 1940 gave more food to British cartoonists27. Mussolini was seen as hyena feasting on corpses killed by the Germans28. His attempts to bring Greece forcefully in line with the Axis were noticed by British cartoonists who presented him as a uniformed bully trying to put little Greece forcefully on the Axis lorry29. At that time Britain was fighting alone as the Axis powers had overrun its continental allies. Italian attack on Greece was expected to be just another Axis success. British cartoonists depicted Mussolini as a backstabbing thug or a jackbooted giant who steps over Greece ignoring its neutral status. The English expression “all Greek to him” that signifies lack of understanding conveys to the British reader that he chose not to understand/accept Greek neutral status30.
The Greeks who tried to maintain that they were still neutral barred foreign reporters from being near the front and so the British journalists wrote articles connecting Ancient with Modern Greek history31. That gave good material to British cartoonists. Greek resistance was seen like modern Thermopylae as none could predict any possible success. The “Punch” magazine depicted Greek soldiers defending a narrow puss under the shadows of their ancestors shown as ancient hoplites32. The Greeks managed to successfully resist the Italian attack and the British cartoonists lost no chance showing a Mussolini-like Roman legionary scared of a tiny Greek hoplite33.
The ubiquitous Greek Evzon is also present in British cartoons but in the uniform worn by the royal guards in Athens, probably a more familiar sight to the British reader. After the first Greek successes the Evzon was shown colleting the eagle standards of the beaten “modern Romans”34 thus ridiculing Mussolini’s claims to have restored the ancient Roman glory.
The Italian dictator’s prestige was completely lost after the successful Greek and British counter attacks on all fronts. After the Greeks crossed in the Albanian soil the British cartoonists showed Mussolini as a failed Napoleon advancing backwards (sic) prompted by the bayonet of a Greek soldier35. But the failed Caesar image could not be left out as the Italian dictator was presented in modern uniform but with laurels trying to comprehend the causes of his defeat36. He is also shown as trapped in Greece by having his foot caught on a wolf-trap named “Greece” while his partner Hitler advances with ease37.
Because of his continuous defeats Mussolini’s image degenerated from that of a thug to that of a coward and a common thief. He was shown trying to steel Greek antiquities only to be attacked by the pottery painting that suddenly came alive38. Again the link with ancient Greek heroic past is used.
The British favored the idea that Mussolini had attacked Greece after being enticed by Hitler and ridiculed him for this. The thief image persists as Mussolini is shown as a village bandit who asks his partner Hitler to push him into the house called “The Balkans”39. The Italian dictator was also presented as a failed boxer who cannot beat his Greek opponent and complained to his coach Hitler for failing to rig the fight while being watched by an amused Stalin40.
The British who had none of the Greeks claims to neutrality openly demonstrated British support for the Greek struggle. Greece had its back to the wall that was British sea-power as shown in a cartoon that depicts a British battleship towering over an Evzon41. In another image the artist shows an Italian chased by a Greek and a Briton and jokes that the superlative form of the word “fast” is “fascist”42. But when the Germans overrun Greece the tragedy of the Greek struggle was captured in the form of a German helmet capping an ancient Greek pillar with the ironic remark “Culture come to Greece”.
Cartoons were an important factor of information and propaganda war. In Greece where at that time illiteracy was affecting 40% of the population43 pictorial information and cartoon humor greatly aided the common people identifying the enemy, the causes of war and kept their moral high during the struggle. As shown above Greek cartoonists aimed for the enemy symbols like elite units distinguishing features or fascist emblems. Mussolini was presented as a foolish lover trying to woe the girl Greece or a fumbling Roman emperor and even looked upon with pity sometimes because he failed so miserably. The British were harsher with the Italian dictator depicting him as a dirty or animal, a hyena or even a pig. Presenting him as failed Roman was not enough so they also depicted him as a thug or murderer who was constantly rescued by Hitler. Their anti Italian feeling though never reached their anti-German sentiment44. Perhaps the Greek and British cartoonists contributed a lot to the image of inefficiency that plagued the Italians concerning their performance during WW2.
J. Michael Waller “Ridicule as a Weapon” PUBLIC DIPLOMACY WHITE PAPER No 7, Institute of World Politics, Washington, 2006
Mogens Pelt Tobacco, Arms, and Politics: Greece and Germany from World Crisis to World War, 1929-41 Museum Tusculanum Press, Copenhagen 1998
Eugene T. Rossides Greece’s Pivotal Role in World War II and its Importance to the U.S. Today American Hellenic Institute Foundation, 2001
T.H. Wisdom, WINGS OVER OLYMPUS – THE STORY OF RAF OVER GREECE AND LIBYA Allen & Unwin publishers London 1943
Stanley Casson, Greece against the axis American council on public affairs Washington, D. C 1943
A.Tzamikiretis Gloria Victis 50 years later Elftheri Skelpsis Athens 1991 (in Greek)
F. Bellou, T. A. Couloumbis, T.C. Kariotis Greece in the Twentieth Century F.Cass Publishers. N. York 2004
Stelio L. Hourmouzios Salute to Greece: An Anthology of Cartoons Published in the British Press Evans Bros. London 1991
F. Bellou, T. A. Couloumbis, T.C. Kariotis Greece in the Twentieth Century F.Cass publ. N. York 2004
Susan Briggs, The Home Front: War Years in Britain, 1939–1945, Mcgraw-hill 1975
Wartime cartoons as seen on the Hellenic Ministry for the Press and Media on 25-04-1966
British National Archives
US Cartoons Collection
“Punch” magazine archive
1 J. M. Waller “Ridicule as a Weapon” I.W.P. 2006 page 1
2 Ibid. page 2
3 http://images.metmuseum.org/CRDImages/gr/original/DP119225.jpg (N.York Met. Museum of Art)
4 Pelt Mogens Tobacco, Arms, and Politics: page 185
6 Rossides Greece’s pivotal role in WWII (2001) pages 6-12
7 Stanley Casson Greece against the Axis page 12
11 A. Tzamikiretis Gloria Victis page 95
29 S. Hourmouzios Salute to Greece page 9
30 Ibid pages 13, 14
31 T.H. Wisdom, WINGS OVER OLYMPUS page 60
32 S. Hourmouzios Salute to Greece page 36
33 Ibid page 26
34 Ibid page 43
35 S. Hourmouzios Salute to Greece page 43
36 Ibid page 44
37 Ibid page 19
38 Ibid page 14
39 Ibid page 10
40 Ibid page 30
41 Ibid page 15
43 Bellou, Couloumbis, Kariotis Greece in the Twentieth Century Page 199
44 Susan Briggs, The Home Front page 136