On the morning of May 30, 1941, two Greek teenagers, Manolis Glezos and Lakis Santas, scaled the Acropolis and took down the Nazi flag. It was the very first of many brave acts of resistance against the occupying army during World War II in Greece.
One of the most humiliating moments – not only for Greece but for all humanity – was when on April 28, 1941, the Nazi flag, the swastika, was hoisted to the top of the Acropolis hill on the very cradle of democracy and Western civilization.
It was the day German troops entered Athens to take control of the surrendered city. The moment the Nazi flag flew in the skies of Attica marked the start of three and a half years of pain, hunger and death under the boot of the Wermarcht.
Yet two young men, barely 18, made a heroic gesture that later turned out to be the start of the great Greek resistance to the Nazis. The two youngsters, Manolis Glezos and Lakis Santas climbed the Acropolis Hill at night and pulled down the swastika flag, delivering a symbolic blow to the powerful occupying forces.
Pulling down the Nazi flag, an act of defiance
It was a gallant act, an act of proud defiance that finally lifted the spirits of Greece and made them believe that indeed they could resist the Nazis. It was a demonstration of the power of the human mind against the power of guns.
The young men’s plan to pull down the Nazi flag from the Acropolis had been staged days earlier. They read everything they found on the Acropolis in encyclopedias. More importantly, they read information about the natural tunnels and crevices of the Sacred Rock and other places where they could hide.
On the morning of May 30, 1941, Glezos and Santas heard on the radio that Crete had fallen. The two young men decided it was time to act.
At 9:30 p.m., the small guard of the Acropolis was assembled in Propylaia, drinking beer and getting drunk. The two jumped over the wire fences and crawled through the cave to the Pandroseion Shrine.
They climbed the scaffolding of the archaeologists and arrived a few meters from the flagpole, without being spotted by any guard. Moving quickly, they pulled down the hated Nazi flag.
The two students, armed only with a small knife, a lantern and a ton of courage, had done what seemed impossible: they climbed 34 meters (111.5 feet) up the hill of the Acropolis at the middle of the night under a strict curfew, approached the flag, and cut it. They then descended 34 meters, crossing the empty streets of central Athens, and quietly returned home.
Later in life, Glezos and Santas spoke of the carefully orchestrated act, their vigil practice, and the fear they felt upon returning home. They were certainly lucky in every way, but luck is always on the side of the brave.
Sentenced to death in absentia for pulling down a flag
Early the next morning, the German guards realized the flag was missing. Nazi authorities ordered several interrogations, and at 11 a.m. a new Nazi flag flew above the Acropolis.
On June 1, the Greek newspaper Eleftheron Vima issued a proclamation from the German commander stating that the “unidentified culprits” responsible for removing the Nazi flag from the Acropolis had been sentenced to death in absentia – a sentence which was never carried out.
Glezos ended up being arrested three times by the Nazis during the German occupation of Greece for a variety of other acts of defiance. He was even temporarily imprisoned, but managed to escape while Lakis Santas escaped the enemy entirely and joined the left-wing Greek People’s Liberation Army (ELAS), which resisted the Nazis.
Apostolos Santas died in Athens aged 89 in 2011 and Manolis Glezos died aged 98 on March 30, 2020.