June 10, 2023

The Massacre of the Greeks in Distomo on 10 June 1944

The Massacre of Distomo was a Nazi war crime which was perpetrated by members of the Waffen-SS in the village of Distomo, Greece, in 1944, during the German occupation of Greece during World War II. The Waffen-SS troops belonged to the 2nd company, I/7 battalion, 4th SS Polizei Panzergrenadier Division under the command of the 26-year-old SS-Hauptsturmführer Fritz Lautenbach. This company serving in Greece in 1944 was made up mostly of volksdeutsche (ethnic German) teenagers from Hungary and Romania commanded by zealous SS officers. The heavy losses taken on the Eastern Front had caused the SS to lower its standards as the war went on and many of the teenagers in the company were underaged with some as young as 14 or 15. The British historian Mark Mazower described the 2nd Company as being made up of a "lethal combination" of ill-trained volksdeutsche teenagers determined to prove their sense of deutschtum (Germanness) with fanatical SS officers. This was especially the case as almost all of the Hungarian and Romanian volksdeutsche teenagers serving in the division did not have the requisite family histories proving that they were of pure German descent, and instead had only vague written statements from their local volksdeutsche community associations attesting to their pure German descent.

The standing orders of the Wehrmacht in Greece was to use terror as a way to frighten the Greeks into not supporting the andartes (guerrillas). The main andarte force that fought the Germans during the war was the ELAS (Ellinikós Laïkós Apeleftherotikós Stratós-Greek People's Liberation Army), which was the military arm of the EAM (Ethnikó Apeleftherotikó Métopo-National Liberation Front), which was dominated by cadres of the KKE (Kommounistikó Kómma Elládas-Communist Party of Greece). Throughout the war against the Soviet Union, German propaganda portrayed the war as a noble struggle to protect "European civilization" from "Bolshevism". Likewise, German officials portrayed the Reich as nobly occupying Greece to protect it from Communists and presented EAM as a demonic force. The andartes, especially those of the ELAS, were portrayed in both the Wehrmacht and the SS as a "savages" and "criminals" who committed all sorts of crimes who needed to be hunted down without mercy.

Nazi troops photographed in front of burning Distomo.

On 10 June 1944, for over two hours, Waffen-SS troops went door to door and massacred Greek civilians as part of "savage reprisals" for a partisan attack upon the unit's convoy.

A Greek housewife living in Distomo in a postwar affidavit known only as Nitsa N. stated on the afternoon of 10 June, she saw the Waffen-SS drive into the village and they immediately shot down everyone they saw on the streets. She reported that one of the SS kicked in the door to her house and shot down her husband and her children in the kitchen. Other accounts mentioned that 2nd company engaged extensively in rape, looting and mutilation. A Greek schoolgirl known as Sofia D. reported that she was with her father and brother working the fields outside of the village when they saw smoke rising up to blacken the sky on a bright, sunny afternoon. Sofia D. reported that her father told the children to stay in the field while he headed back for their mother. While heading away from Distomo, Sofia D. and her brother encounter Waffen-SS men on a truck headed towards the village and were both shot down as they attempted to run away.

A total of 228 men, women and children were killed in Distomo, a small village near Delphi. According to survivors, SS forces "bayoneted babies in their cribs, stabbed pregnant women, and beheaded the village priest." An appalled Red Cross team from Athens which arrived at the ruins of Distomo a few days later reported seeing mutilated bodies hanging from the trees all along the road to Distomo. The account was so chilling that Life Magazine featured an entire spread about the town’s destruction by the Nazis in its November 1944 edition.

Following the massacre, a Secret Field Police agent, Georg Koch, accompanying the German forces informed the authorities that, contrary to Lautenbach's official report, the German troops had come under attack several miles from Distomo and had not been fired upon "with mortars, machine-guns and rifles from the direction of Distomo". Following a complaint from the collaborationist Hellenic State regime of Ioannis Rallis to Hermann Neubacher of the Auswärtiges Amt, an investigation was opened. As a diplomat, Neubacher was concerned at maintaining the increasing shaky Rallis government whose authority was collapsing by 1944. An inquiry was convened. As Lautenbach was operating under the command of the Army Group E at the time of the massacre, the inquiry was conducted by Wehrmacht officers, not SS officers. Lautenbach admitted that he had gone beyond standing orders, but the tribunal found in his favor, holding that he had been motivated, not by negligence or ignorance, but by a sense of responsibility towards his men.

During the German occupation between 1941 and 1945, 460 Greek villages were completely destroyed and approximately 60,000 men, women and children were killed. 65,000 Greek Jews were deported with the support of the German Wehrmacht and killed in Auschwitz. All in all 800,000 people died in Greece, 600,000 of those starved because their food was used for the occupying troops or destroyed by them.

None of the murderers of Distomo or any other massacre in Greece ever got tried by a German court. Most cases got dropped and in no case did the Federal Republic of Germany recognize any demands or pay reparations. The cynical reasoning was that these massacres were not crimes but the usual conflicts pertaining to a war against partisans. Besides that Greece had been paid 116 million for reparations in 1961. In reality the victims of war crimes did not receive anything and Germany only paid that other money because the former "war administrator" Max Merten, responsible for the deportation and murder of the Jews of Thessaloniki, got arrested and tried in Greece in 1959. The FRG at that time was scared that the NATO member Greece would officially recognize the second German state, the GDR, because of a potential reparations agreement. After agreeing on the money, Greece extradited Mertens to Germany where he was supposed to receive a trial which never took place.

Testimony of Sture Linner: An Account of Nazi Atrocities and Greek Philotimo

An illustrative account of the aftermath of the mass murder in Distomo is documented in the book, My Odyssey (Min Odysse) by Sture Linner (Stockholm: Norstedt, 1982), a Swedish national and former head of the International Red Cross in Greece. He writes:

We [he and his wife Cleo] were married on June 14. Emil Santrom, chair of the Greek Committee of the Red Cross, organized a wedding banquet for the occasion. Late in the evening he approached me and pulled me aside to a corner, away from the laughs and voices, to talk privately.

He showed me a telegram he had just received: The Germans had been slaughtering for three days the people of Distomo, near Delphi, and then they burned the village down. If there were any survivors, they would be in need of immediate assistance.

Distomo was within the region of my responsibility for the supply of food and medicines. I passed on the telegram to Cleo to read. She winked and we immediately departed discretely from the festivity.

About an hour later we were on our way in the darkness of the night. It took several agonizing hours to travel the ravaged roads and pass several roadblocks. It was dawn by the time we finally reached the main road that led to Distomo.

Vultures were rising slowly and hesitantly at a low height from the sides of the road when they heard us coming. For hundreds of yards along the road, human bodies were hanging from every tree, pierced with bayonets – some were still alive.

They were the villagers, who were punished this way – they were suspected of providing help to the guerrillas of the region, who had ambushed an SS unit.

The odor was unbearable.

In the village the last remnants of the houses were still burning. Hundreds of dead bodies of people of all ages, from elderly to newborns, were strewn around on the dirt. Several women were slaughtered with bayonets, their wombs torn apart and their breasts severed; others were lying strangled with their own intestines wrapped around their necks. It seemed as if no one had survived…

There! An old man at the end of the village! He had miraculously survived the slaughter. He was shocked by the horror around him, with an empty gaze, his utterances incomprehensible. We descended in the midst of the disaster and yelled in Greek: “Red Cross! Red Cross! We came to help!”

From the distance a woman approached with hesitation. She told us that only a handful of villagers managed to escape before the attack begun. Together with her we started searching for them. It was after we had set off in this search that we realized she was shot in the hand. We operated on her immediately with Cleo performing the surgery.

It was our honeymoon!

Not long after this horrific massacre, our connection with Distomo would conclude with this remarkable epilogue.

When the German occupation forces were forced to leave Greece [after the defeat of Nazi Germany], things did not go as planned for them. A German unit was surrounded by guerrillas exactly in the same area, at Distomo. I thought that this might be taken by the Greeks as an opportunity for a bloody revenge, especially when considering that for quite a while the region had been cut off from any food supplies. I loaded with food necessities a few lorries, I wired to Distomo word of our planned arrival, and we found ourselves on the same road, once again, Cleo and I.

When we reached the outskirts of the village, we were met by a committee led by the elderly priest. He was an old fashioned patriarch, with a long, wavy, white beard. Next to him the guerrilla captain, fully armed. The priest spoke first and thanked us on behalf of everybody for the food supplies. Then he added: “We are all starving here, both us and the German prisoners. Now, though we are famished, we are at least in our land. The Germans have not just lost the war; they are also far from their country. Give them the food you have with you, they have a long way ahead.”

At this phrase Cleo turned her eyes to me. I suspected what she wanted to tell me with that look, but I could not see clearly any more. I was just standing there weeping….

Testimony of Argyris Sfountouris, a Survivor of the Massacre

A Song for Argyris is a 2006 documentary film that details the life story of Argyris Sfountouris, a survivor of the massacre. According to IMDB: "In 1944, four-year-old Argyris Sfountouris survived a Nazi massacre of over 200 people, including his parents, in the small Greek farming village of Distomo. As a war orphan, he was sent to the Pestalozzi Children's Village in Switzerland. He later obtained a Ph.D. in mathematics and physics at the ETH Zurich, and made a new life for himself in exile." He says the following:

Distomo, June 10, 1944. None of us will ever be able to forget this day, although what we all want most is to erase from our memory this incurable wound... We children played living in a beautiful world, despite war and foreign occupation, when we saw the German trucks arriving full of armed soldiers... On the way to the village the soldiers shot farmers working in their fields. Others were captured. Tied to the front of the trucks, they served as a shield in case of an attack by insurgents... The village was surrounded... We were hostages... Soldiers entered the houses, searched for armed insurgents and took food and wine, handmade blankets and valuable household utensils. The trucks were filled with loot... Hours passed... We looked out the windows at the road that passes in front of the school... What will my childish eyes see down there in a little while? What will my mind learn that does not imagine what agony of death means? What does the father say, whose protection seems to us self-evident and certain? And where is the mother? Why hasn't mother come back yet? In the distance, there is the sound of thunder. For a long time... Then there is quiet again... But the soldiers suddenly become furious... They shoot everything alive they find in front of them... They enter the houses, kill women, old people, children, babies... They hurry, mark the houses so that someone else does not try wrongly … Now they come to us … Our father goes down to prevent them. His footsteps on the steps of the great stone staircase still echo in my memory and emphasize his last words. We must remain quiet, hidden... Is there any point in holding one's breath lest the German death hear?... Later, when no more shots are heard and the sound of engines and trucks going away, the noise of the sparks reminds us of the burning house... In the corner of the square, right in front of the well, our father is lying. I want to run at him, but my sisters hold me back. Do they even know he's dead?… When did they realize those red holes in the head don't heal?

Photo: Demos Karantsalis (lower left), a dark-skinned descendant of Arvanites, hid in the mountains of Boeotia, where he protected his three sisters during World War II. (Courtesy of the Karantsalis Family)
Distomo, Still We Mourn

In this poem, Theo Karantsalis recounts what the Nazis did to his family on June 10, 1944. He forgives the Germans.

Tenth of June, one-nine-four-four,

Germans came, left blood and gore.

Woman raped, heads cut loose,

babies stabbed, swung from noose.

Hair ripped out of Papou's head,

down below, dirt-soaked red.

Patera hid, Kutupi bound,

sisters, too, on stable ground.

Mountain shack, out of sight,

goats and snakes, little light.

Headless nuns surround my bed,

then float off, matera said.

Village burned, killed with hate,

total count, two-two-eight.

Distomo, still we mourn,

dressed in black, hearts are torn.

Haunted sounds, rise from the hole,

how to measure, depth of soul.

Even after so much time,

no reason for this Nazi crime.

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