28 Jun The politician
Venizelos began his political career in Crete in 1889 as a member of the liberal party of the island, and distinguished himself as a politician during the 1897 Revolution. During the period of the Cretan State (1898-1912), from its first days, he contributed with unwavering zeal to the formation of its institutional framework and its Constitution, producing an impressive amount of legislative work as Chancellor of Justice, as a revolutionary and a political leader and as the most reliable negotiator with the Consuls of the Protecting Powers. His disagreement with Prince George, the High Commissioner of Crete, although related to the issue of promoting the national cause of Crete’s union with Greece, developed into a confrontation over the form of the island’s regime. This confrontation ended by the revolution of Therisso, the replacement of the totalitarian Prince by the moderate Greek politician Alexander Zaimis an by the establishment of a new, more liberal constitution for Crete. The politics on the island evolved within the framework of this Constitution until the end of September 1908, when a new uprising in Crete abolished the absent High Commissioner Alexander Zaimis, declared union with Greece and adopted the constitution and the laws of the Greek State. For four more years, years of almost continuous political crisis in both Greece and Crete, Greece was unable to acknowledge the new regime, because the Ottoman Empire was threatening with war. Throughout this period, in the island’s efforts to achieve union with Greece, Venizelos kept a delicate balance moving flexibly between boldness and moderation.
In October 1910, Eleftherios Venizelos abandoned his office as Prime Minister in Crete to assume the premiership of Greece. His first concerns involved smoothing Greece’s relations with the Ottoman Empire, restoring regular political procedures in combination with the amendment of the 1865 Constitution – a task completed in June 1911-, and establishing a state of law in Greece. He restored tranquility in the Greek armed forces, reinstating Crown Prince Constantine to their leadership and he personally supervised the reorganisation of the Greek army and navy assigning their training to foreign military missions. Venizelos launched the political and financial recovery of Greece and the victorious Balkan Wars (1912-1913), which resulted in Greece’s territorial aggrandizement and in a radical change in its international position. During World War I, he clashed with the Crown over the orientation of Greek foreign policy. Nevertheless, at the expense of the nation’s division (1915-1917), he imposed his policy of Greece’s participation in the war on the side of the Entente. As a reward for its contribution to the allied war effort, Greece gained East and West Thrace and the High Commission of Smyrna (1919). However, in the crucial elections held in November 1920, the Greek people, exhausted by continuous wars and domestic hardhips, condemned Venizelos’s policy. After his defeat, Venizelos withdrew from active politics, only to return to the diplomatic stage in the aftermath of the Asia Minor disaster of 1922. His two radical initiatives (1923) –the mandatory exchange of Greek and Turkish populations and the Lausanne convention which established stable frontiers between Greece and Turkey- altered the orientation of Greek politics and established the foundations of peaceful development.
The inter-war years were a period of painful ordeals for Greece: the economic and social consequences of the recent wars and of the disaster of Asia Minor; the refugee question; political instability and military coups. On the issue of the country’s regime, although initially Venizelos objected to the abolition of parliamentary monarchy in Greece, after the proclamation of the Republic in 1924 he opposed the restoration of the monarchy. His opinions on the issue of the regime alienated both the extreme republicans and the supporters of the monarchy.
Although on the international stage his prestige remained undiminished, within his own country, after 1920, Venizelos had ceased to be the undisputed leader of a united liberal camp, his policy having been questioned by former close associates of his, like Andreas Michalakopoulos.
Nevertheless, his last four-year term in office (1928-1932), for which he mustered up all his mental and physical powers, was a short-lived interval of stability and creativity. The end of his career was marked by the unsuccessful coup of Venizelist officers in March 1935 and his self-exile in Paris. Yet, his interest in his country’s affairs never ceased. He continued to work on the reconciliation of the dissenting sides and on the salvation of parliamentary democracy even during the last days of his life.
His political career may be characterized by numerous revisions and ostensible discrepancies. Yet underneath, one can discern two tendencies that are only ostensibly incompatible with each other: a tendency, once convinced of the correctness of his political decision, to impose it, whether by manoeuvring and compromise or by open confrontation; and a tendency to pursue social progress by seeking solutions that would reconcile and balance conflicting social interests. In Venizelos’s opinion, parliamentary democracy was the most appropriate regime for this social role of politics.