27 JUNE, 1917: Eyes Wide Shut

Today was the day, a century ago, that the politics of Greece sorted itself out, at least for the moment.  The monarchy, if not pro-German then at least unwilling to upset Germany, had been driven from Athens, and a Provisional Government – based in the northwest of the country, led by veteran statesman Eleftherios Venizelos and protected by the huge Allied army camped at Salonika – finally took formal control over the state as a whole.

So what had happened to untie the political and diplomatic knot that had condemned Greece to almost two years of virtual civil war?  It hardly needs saying, this being the imperial world war, that the big European empires had something to do with it, and if you’ve checked into any of my earlier rambles through Greece you won’t be surprised to find that the French were the prime movers.

Most of the French government, the French armed forces and the French population had been united in coercing the Allies into parking an international army at Salonika, and keeping it there, by way of appearing to defend Serbia.  Government and armed forces were less united when it came to dealing with Greek King Constantine and his apparently pro-German regime.  The French government kept faith with diplomatic efforts to persuade Constantine into the Allied ranks, a cause made plausible by the monarch’s affable, courteous assurances that he was almost ready to agree.  Meanwhile the French Army and Navy, which dominated Allied operations in the theatre, encouraged the breakaway, pro-Allied movement led by Venizelos and plotted the King’s overthrow.

This destructive echo of the divisions in elite French society reached a crisis at the end of 1916, when the military found excuses to send French ground forces into Athens, and royalist Greek troops used extreme force to drive them away (1 December, 1916: Gunboat Diplomacy).  At this point, the French political establishment and population lost patience with Constantine, but for a lot of very good reasons they were in no position to do anything about it for a few months.

Once the French war effort had gone through a change of government, the disastrous Nivelle Offensive and the Army’s mass mutiny; once the world and all its battlefronts had taken a deep, shocked breath in the cosmically uncertain aftermath of revolution in Russia; and once the vast, multinational collection of diseased, demoralised or potentially mutinous troops at Salonika could be trusted to at least look menacing – the French got rid of King Constantine.

It wasn’t a difficult job.  On 11 June, French forces seized strategic points in southern Greece and presented an ultimatum demanding Constantine’s removal from power.  Constantine left the country next day, abdicating in favour of his second son, Alexander, leaving the way clear for the resignation of the royalist government, the appointment of Venizelos as premier and, on 27 June, his arrival in Athens.

King Alexander of Greece  caused a scandal by marrying a commoner – that’s colonel’s daughter Aspasia Manos at his side – and died after being bitten by a monkey.  That’s about all you need to know.

The Provisional Government had declared war against Germany in November 1916, and the declaration became effective for all of Greece on 29 June, while a ‘state of war’ was declared against Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.  What had been the Provisional Government’s 60,000-strong Army of National Defence became the basis for a reconstituted Greek national army, which joined Allied forces on the Salonika front in July, and Greek ships seized during the previous year’s quarrels were returned to join Allied anti-submarine forces in the Mediterranean.

The first Greek troops head for the Salonika front… expensive, late and not about to make much difference.

So the Allies had finally brought Greece into the War after almost three years of tying themselves in knots trying.  History backs the impression held by contemporary critics, that the success added almost no strategic value to the Allied cause and had cost far more than it was worth – but the same can be said of almost all the bribes offered to entice smaller countries into the conflict.  More resonantly from a modern perspective, the French had overridden mild objections from the British and Italians to institute regime change in Greece.  To liberal opinion worldwide, and despite reservations about the means involved, this at least seemed cause for some satisfaction, because Venizelos espoused liberal values and boasted a solid record as a supporter of representative democracy. After decades of turbulence and war, surely the people of Greece could at last look forward to a more stable and peaceful future.

Well, no…

Venizelos was indeed inclined to follow democratic process, but he was above all a nationalist.  He went on to prove it by demanding full satisfaction of his territorial ambitions at the post-War peace conference and, when he didn’t get it, ordering the military occupation of the region around Smyrna (Izmir) in western Turkey, ostensibly to protect the ethnically Greek portion of its population. As Turkish resistance matured into war, and the war went badly for Greece, the illusion of stability evaporated.

Venizelos was a nationalist with expansionist ambitions… but then so was every Greek leader for more than a century.

The sudden death of King Alexander in October 1920, immediately followed by a landslide electoral defeat for Venizelos and his Liberal Party, brought Constantine back to the throne, but he abdicated again in September 1922 after the final defeat of Greek forces in Turkey.  His successor (and eldest son), George II, lasted eighteen months before he was overthrown and a republic proclaimed… and so it went, on and on into the twenty-first century.

I think we know by now that war can make for strange bedfellows – the British and Ibn Sa’ud spring to mind, while Roosevelt and Stalin make the point in spades – and it’s easy to assume such arrangements are the product of clear-eyed realpolitik on both sides. The Greek denouement of June 1917 wasn’t at all like that.  Some Allied authorities on the ground understood Venizelos in the context of his political environment, but by 1917 their masters were set on a happy path laid out by their own relentless propaganda.

Years of propaganda had portrayed Venizelos as the good guy, the political moderniser who would bring coherence, stability and a grateful attitude towards western democracies.  Meanwhile Constantine, a complex character who was no more willing to join the Central Powers than the Allies, who was liked and trusted by the network of European aristocrats who knew him personally, and who could be described as a peaceful man with the best interests of his people at heart, was publicly dismissed in Allied circles as the greedy partner to tyrants.  By 1917 all that propaganda had convinced its creators to invest energy, resources and extravagant promises in a new regime that paid back nothing but the same old trouble – and the trouble has never really gone away.

Like so many other places reshaped by the needs of great powers during the Great War, Greece offered some fairly obvious lessons for future exporters of regime change, especially the one about accepting your own propaganda view of the candidate you’re backing.  Lesson learned?

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