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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Athens War Museum

What is the Athens War Museum?

The Athens War Museum explores the history of Greek warfare from antiquity to the 20th century.

Athens War Museum History

Greece was occupied by foreign powers for much of its modern history. For nearly 400 years, the country formed part of the Ottoman Empire, until Greek revolutionaries won their independence in the 1820s. During the Second World War newly-independent Greece became the ‘Hellenic State’, its government collaborating for three years with the occupying Nazi forces.

This late Modernist building, designed by Thoukidides Valentis in the 1960s, was originally supposed to be an art gallery. But in 1964, its remit changed. With the Second World War and the ensuing Civil War fresh in the collective memory – and with the War of Independence a century earlier continuing to resonate in Greek culture – the government felt compelled to commemorate the armed forces and volunteers who had fought for Greek freedom over the centuries, but especially in the recent past. Today, the four-storey museum offers you a unique opportunity to learn about the impressive range of weaponry used from antiquity to the 20th century, as well as admire artistic representations of battles, photographic archives, and historical maps.

It’s estimated that between 7 and 11% of the Greek population died in the Second World War. 60,000 Greek Jews were murdered in the Holocaust, and thousands of resistance fighters were killed. The occupying forces also used starvation as a weapon; food production was suppressed and farm animals were systematically slaughtered. The Greek resistance was one of the most effective resistance movements during the war, composed of groups with political allegiances spanning a wide spectrum.

Less than two months after the Germans vacated Greece, the country became embroiled in a deadly civil conflict. The various militant groups that had united against fascism soon turned against one another, in the name of their respective ideologies. British-backed Royalists warred with Communist forces for control of Greece. The Royalists were victorious, however in the process 158,000 people were killed and around one million Greeks were forced out of their homes.

In April 1967, the Greek military, with American backing, launched a coup ahead of a general election that they feared the left would win. The far-right colonels seized control of the state, and were in power for the next seven years.

Unsurprisingly, the Athens War Museum, which had not yet opened, became a pet project of the autocratic military government. The colonels envisaged a ‘monument to Greek valour and military prowess’. In the end, the museum didn’t open until the year after the dictatorship collapsed, in 1975, so their vision was never fully realised. Today’s museum will afford you an opportunity to celebrate heroic resistance, but also for reflection on the bloody nature of the far-right past; a doubleness not enforced in the colonels’ vision.

Visiting Athens? Design your own route with our GPS audio guides of Athens.


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