28 Jun From the cretan to the european political scene.
Eleftherios Venizelos’s life stretched out evenly across the 19th and the 20th centuries. He lived during the most turbulent period of Modern Greek History, which he marked indelibly in his wake, as he was one of the leading political figures during a crucial period in European history.
He grew up as an enslaved Greek, having experienced despotic foreign rule and humiliations since very early in his life. When he was only two years old, he experienced the hardships of life as a refugee, living in self-exile with his family for six years in mainland Greece in the aftermath of the great Cretan Revolution in 1866. As a young lawyer and Member of the Cretan Parliament he fled to Athens, this time In order to avoid the wrath of the Ottoman regime in the aftermath of a new revolutionary movement in Crete in 1889.
Crete was in a continual state of rebellion that was always followed by bloody repression. Venizelos’s year as a young man were the epitome of the Cretan’s life for over two hundred years: insecurity, oppression, persecution and murder.
The last Cretan Revolution, whose leadership Venizelos assumed gradually, broke out in January 1897. During this Revolution, bloody clashes between the Christian and the Muslim populations took place.
Twenty-two months later, Crete was liberated and declared an autonomous state under the rule of a High Commissioner, Prince George, son of George I King of Greece.
Eleftherios Venizelos, who took part in the Prince’s government as the Chancellor (Minister) of Justice, played a significant role in the formation of the new State. Within a very short time, he created a modern, effective judicial system consolidating a feeling of justice and security among the inhabitants of Crete. His legislative work covered all the aspects of civil and penal legislation, completely safeguarding the rights of the Turkish minority and introducing provisions providing for their legal and political equality and their religious freedom.
Despite the traumatic incidents of the recent revolution, Venizelos felt neither rancour nor vindictiveness because of his frightful experience of his childhood and early youth. Besides, he had proven his respect for Turkish minority rights in practice a few years before, by jeopardizing his reputation as Crete’s most eminent lawyer, when he ignored the strong reactions of public opinion to the fact that he had defended Muslims in a case of murder, which had resulted in a conviction and execution of two Christians.
He was a man of a high moral stature and of full awareness of his vocation as a lawyer, providing all people, regardless of religion or race, with his assistance. Even more, he professed a spirit of toleration and moderation based on liberal concepts, on a spiritual integrity and on moral principles developed in a family environment dominated by the exemplary figure of a father and a patriot.
He had enjoyed a classical education, being fond of reciting verses from ancient Greek texts and of reading both Greek and foreign literature since his early youth. He lived in and breathed the air of Chalepa, a suburb alive with the ideas of Greek irredentism blended with the ideas of the European enlightenment and with modern European ideological and cultural trends. Chalepa was the centre of Crete’s political life and the place where the Consuls of the Great Powers resided and where important men lived and significant events took place. Chalepa’s vibrant, heroic, resistance-inspiring political and spiritual atmosphere influenced his mentality decisively and left a permanent mark on the young politician’s personality. During the period of the Cretan State, Venizelos had already formed clear ideological and political principles and expressed Crete’s liberal spirit. This drove him to a confrontation with the island’s High Commissioner, a confrontation that had been smouldering long before it broke out on the occasion of their disagreement over the handling of the Cretan affair.
With these ideological and political principles, in 1910 he moved from the Cretan to the Greek political scene, became the Prime Minister of Greece, where he initiated a series of radical reforms that led to the modernization and transformation of Greece into a European country, and to the establishment of a state of law. He has previously declined the proposal of the leaders of the military coup that had come to power in Athens in 1909 to establish a dictatorship, confirming his faith in parliamentary democracy and in free institutions.
During the first years of his rule as Prime Minister, Venizelos extended a hand of friendship toward Turkey and inaugurated a policy of peaceful cooperation between the two countries. Besides, the idea that the Greek populations, who lived in the coastal areas of Asia Minor and Constantinople and who controlled Turley’s trade and economy, could live peacefully in a liberal Turkey had numerous supporters in Athens.
However, the hopes of liberation generated by the revolution of the Young Turks were dashed and the cruel persecutions against the Christian populations throughout the Empire triggered off the outbreak of the First Balkan War, which resulted in significant territorial gains for the allied countries, Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia and Montenegro. The end of the war found Bulgaria dissatisfied with her share of the gains, and in June 1913 she sought redress by means of a sudden onslaught against Greece and Serbia. Venizelos had tried to avoid Greece’s implication in a new war and to settle disputes by peaceful means, offering concessions to Bulgaria and exerting pressure on Serbia to do the same. Nevertheless, Bulgaria’s claims gave peace few chances: War broke out, in which Bulgaria was defeated, and the belligerents, to whom Romania and Turkey had been added, settled their differences temporarily in Bucharest on July 28/August 10, 1913.
In the aftermath of the war, Venizelos strove to heal the wounds caused by two wars and to consolidate peace in the Balkans, campaigning in favour of the establishment of a Balkan Federation. However, international circumstances did not favour that policy. Thus, on the eve of World War I, Greece was running the risk of a new Greek-Turkish war. The Young Turk regime claimed the islands in the Eastern Aegean, unleashing large-scale persecutions at the expense of the Greek population of Asia Minor. Venizelos even proposed an exchange of populations between the two countries and a compromise settlement with Turkey on the issue of the Aegean islands in order to avert a new war. In addition to Turkish threats, the revisionist policy of the Bulgarian leadership, Austria-Hungary’s imperialist aims in the area and the disputes with Italy over the status of the Dodecanese Islands and over the delimitation of the Albanian frontiers compounded Turkey’s threats. Venizelos agonisingly sought strong international support that would enable him to face the perils threatening Greece.
The outbreak of World War I provided him with the opportunity of obtaining the backing he had been seeking. So, immediately after the war had broken out, on two occasions he offered the allies Greece’s participation both in the alliance and in the war. The Greek Prime Minister believed that this strategy would guarantee the threatened territorial integrity of his country and further the irredentist aspirations of Greece. For this reason, he hastened to join the Entente first and to drive Turkey to the camp of the Central European Powers, while attempting to ingratiate Greece with Bulgaria, or compel her to remain neutral. Venizelos, being a staunch supporter of the power at sea, had an unwavering faith in the victory of the Entente on account of its undisputed maritime supremacy. Besides, as he pointed out, “In war, Great Britain always wins one battle: the last one”.
However, his military evaluations aside, the Greek leader believed that the place of Greece was on the side of the Western parliamentary democracies for ideological and political reasons, and he sought a close association with them. This was a position that certainly justified his being regarded as the founder of Greece’s accession to the Western world. What is more, giving the ideological dimension of his policy, he stated, “Greece must take part in the struggle of free Europe against a barbaric, totalitarian militarism that will cause the destruction of both Greece and the whole of Europe”. These initiatives of Venizelos did not receive any response whatsoever on the part of the allies, who feared that Greece’s participation in the war, might drive Bulgaria to the camp of their rivals. The policy of the Entente, totally lacking insight, not only failed to draw Bulgaria to their camp, but resulted in the collapse of Serbia, undermined Venizelos’s domestic position and reinforced the pro-German policy of neutrality advocated by the Greek King and the General Staff.
The events that ensued proved a painful trial for the policy of the Great Powers in the Balkans and implicated them in the turmoil of the Greek tragedy, which cost Greeks a disastrous civil war and the allies, the protraction of the war. By the time the allies realized the significance of the Greek factor it was too late.
Despite his recent electoral victory, King Constantine dismissed Venizelos, while, in the name of “neutrality”, the royalist governments that succeeded him turned down proposals of the allies inviting Greece to participate in the war in return for the acquisition of Smyrna, Eastern Thrace and Cyprus. Meanwhile, the royalist government tolerated the occupation of Eastern Macedonia by German and Bulgarian troops without protest.
The violation of the constitution by the King and the mutilation of the country prompted Venizelos to leave for Thessaloniki, where he established a second Greek State, which entered the war on the side of the allies. The confrontation between the pro-German state of Athens and the pro-Entente of Thessaloniki assumed the dimensions of a civil war, in which London, Paris, Berlin, Saint Petersburg and Rome were implicated. Eventually, with the aid of the allies and despite Britain’s initial reservations and Russian and Italian objections, Venizelos, dethroned Constantine and united Greece. Greece entered the war undivided and contributed significantly to the victory of the allies on the Thessaloniki front, a victory that brought about the fall and surrender of Bulgaria and Turkey, Germany’s two strongholds in the Near East.
Throughout this period and until the end of the war, Venizelos maintained a free hand in Greek politics and took advantage of the presence of the Western Powers in order to resolve Greece’s domestic problem and to accomplish his goals in the domain of foreign policy.
Mutatis mutandis, as historians have pointed out, the National Defense Movement under Venizelos in Thessaloniki in 1916 was a phenomenon similar to that of General Charles de Gaulle during World War II.
However, the relations of the Allied Powers with the two leaders differed dramatically: their attitude towards Charles de Gaulle, besides being insulting and pejorative, had all the characteristics of a blatant intervention in the internal affairs of the French people.
On the contrary, Venizelos enjoyed the absolute recognition and respect of all Western leaders and was the “spoiled child” of their press. He may have been the leader of a small and deeply divided nation, but his opinion carried weight and influenced the political and military leaderships of the West. At the end of the war and during the peace conference, as H.A. Gibbons remarked, “The Greek Premier secured a place in the conference, not only in the heart of the public, but also among his counterparts, that was disproportional to his country’s size and importance”. In Paris, Venizelos was welcomed with a real “apotheosis”. The entire French press devoted laudatory comments in his favour. The London Times wrote, “it was the occasion of his personal triumph”. The allies and public opinion had not forgotten that it was he who had proposed the participation of Greece in the war at its most crucial moment in August 1914, when the Germans were outside Paris. Winston Churchill, in his book The World Crisis, wrote that “his personal skills, his prestige and the invaluable services he offered to the allies have given him a place which is almost equal to that of the leaders of the major victorious countries; with him, his country has ascended breathtaking heights and glanced at bedazzling horizons”.
Venizelos strove to accomplish his country’s national goals. Besides, transcending the Greek domestic scene, he became a pioneer in the efforts for the foundation of the League of Nations and fought for the prevalence of this idea. Asquith, Britain’s former Prime Minister, described him as “the most prominent authority in the case of the League of Nations” and Balfour proposed him as its first Secretary General, a proposal did not accept.
The Treaty of Sèrves, the culmination of the diplomatic triumphs of the Greek politician, was signed in Paris on July 28/August 10, 1920.
Venizelos returned to Greece and proclaimed elections that took place on November 1, 1920. His electoral defeat as a great surprise to international public opinion and to Europe’s leaders. “Lloyd George and I” wrote Winston Churchill, “happened to be in the cabinet room when the telegram arrived announcing the result of the Greek elections and Venizelos’s decision to give up politics. He was greatly shocked and, even more, greatly baffled […]”, and he commented with a grimace. “I am now the only one left (President Wilson was seriously ill, Clemenceau had retired and Orlando had been defeated)”. Churchill added, “the results took us all by surprise”.
After his electoral defeat Venizelos gave up politics and settled in Paris in self-exile.
His opponents returned to power and King Constantine to his throne. These developments gave rise to strong reactions among the political leadership, the press and the public opinion of the allied capitals. The London Times wrote in a lengthy and especially penetrating article on November 17, 1920 that “the voters […] expelled from power the great politician and patriot who had raised them from the state of weakness and disintegration in which he had found them almost to the position of a Great Power. We are unable to recall a more characteristic example of a people’s ingratitude or folly than this one since the times of Aristides”. The same newspaper went on to say, “the allies will deny all aid to a German agent, who is sitting on the throne of Athens”, and, quoting relevant articles in the Western press, pointed out that “the allies would not cede Thrace, the European bank of the Dardanelles and Smyrna to such a monarch or such a people”. And Churchill, expressing the reactions of the political leadership in Britain wrote: “There was a pro-Allied Greece of Venizelos and a pro-German one of Constantine. All the faith of the allies began and ended with the Greece of Venizelos; all the discontent was concentrated on the Greece of Constantine”. The French, who had held bitter feelings against Constantine due to the bloody episode in November 1916, reacted even more strongly. The Figaro came up with the need for a revision of French policy in relation to the Greek question and pointed out that “even if the Powers ignored the difficulties (and supported Greece) for the beautiful eyes of Venizelos, they have every reason to loathe the perjurer son-in-law (of Kaiser Wilhelm)”. The French Premier stressed that Constantine’s policy “would result in the protraction of the war for one year or, very likely, two years”, and the ex-President of the United States W. Wilson, in a letter addressed to Venizelos, prays for his quick return to power, stressing, “… I am willing to express my great admiration, as there is no other statesman in Europe more capable for leadership during these difficult times for the political future of the world …”.
Venizelos’s defeat and Constantine’s return to the throne created a particularly hostile climate against Greece and gave France and Italy the opportunity to alter their policies on the Greek question. Greece was no longer considered an ally.
Besides, Venizelos’s successors, who had won the elections thanks to their pacifistic demagoguery, instead of ending the war as they had promised prior to the elections, led the Greek army to a disastrous expedition to the outskirts of Ankara. This absurd military operation, the division of the Greek people, the abandonment of Greece by the allies and, finally, the presence of a Turkish leader of a high calibre, Kemal Atatürk, who was reinforced by the Soviet Union and, later on, by France and Italy, led inevitably to the Asia Minor disaster. Apart from other evils, this disaster caused the violent exodus of 1,500,000 refugees from Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace to Greece.
In the aftermath of a disaster, Greece struggled for survival. In these hard times, it remembered once again the man it had expelled from power two years earlier. The new government in Athens addressed itself to Venizelos and called on him to represent Greece at the negotiations with Turkey that would be held in Lausanne, Switzerland. Containing his mortification at the sight of the destruction of his work and setting aside the dream of the Great Idea, the objections of the Greek generals and the expectations of millions of refugees, the Greek leader signed a fair peace treaty in July 1923 determining the definitive borders between Greece and Turkey and establishing the foundations of a Greek-Turkish friendship.
Venizelos was distinguished for symmetry between idealism and realism. Even during the darkest hours of modern Greece, Venizelos did not allow his fellow-countrymen to be obsessed by a desire for retaliation that had other peoples under similar circumstances. On the contrary, he persisted in reiterating the need for an amicable settlement of Greek-Turkish differences and, overcoming the longstanding nationalism and the bitterness of millions of refugees, who happened to be both voters and followers of his, he signed a Greek-Turkish Treaty of Friendship in Ankara in 1930. On this occasion he made the following statement: “I regard the Lausanne Treaty as the definitive settlement of the territorial status between the two countries […]. For these reasons, we have come to shake hands with you in good faith, declaring that the age-long struggle has come to a definitive end”. Going even further, Venizelos proposed Kemal Atatürk as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in recognition of his role in the achievement of the Greek-Turkish understanding. Beyond doubt, the presence on the political scene of Ankara of the founder of new Turkey and of Ismet Inönü greatly facilitated the rapprochement between the two countries. Venizelos believed that this policy would consolidate peace in the Near East and attain Greek-Turkish friendship forever. About this friendship he had written as early as August 1908 in his personal newspaper, Κήρυξ (Herald) of Chania, “the realisation of common interests and perils will lead the two peoples to a close and sincere cooperation”.
Returning to power in 1928, the Greek leader undertook peace initiatives among the Balkan States, while laying emphasis on Greece’s internal reconstruction. Although by that time the other leaders of World War I had disappeared from the European political scene, Venizelos was received with great respect and high regard in the major European capitals.
At the age of 65, he was full of new ideas and raised his voice in defence of the peaceful future of Europe. He was especially touched by the idea of a United Europe, undertaking specific diplomatic actions and lending his international reputation to the initiatives of the French Premier A. Briand for the creation of a new Europe. Venizelos believed that Europe had a historic role and, in October 1929, in one of his interviews on this issue, he remarked that “the war has proven that the winners are as poor as the losers. I think that the United States of Europe will represent, even without Russia, a power that is strong enough to promote to an acceptable degree the prosperity of the other continents as well. “The idea of the unification of Europe and the prevalence of peace in the old continent were ideals he tried to instill into the mind of the Greek youth, which he addressed with the following words: “Within today’s Greece we are called on to create a modernised state which, on the domestic front, has the mission to elevate on a daily basis, the moral, spiritual and material level the people and, on the international front, to be an element of peace and harmony among nations […]. Therefore, I strongly believe that the first ideal a people must have, after it has achieved its independence, is how to secure peace. Because only in conditions of peace can all the flowers of civilisation bloom”.
During that time, in a speech delivered before the monastic community of the Holy Mountain (Mt Athos), he castigated nationalistic prejudices, pointing out: “I wish to stress in particular that you have managed here to solve the problems of the League of Nations through the wonderful cooperation of all the members of the orthodox faith. I am that this cooperation will set an example to us, politicians, who do not wear the cloth, of how to shake hands with each other and stop wars, leading the world to the implementation of the high teachings of Christianity […]. We no longer need wars. I think, as I wrote to Ismet Pasha when I came to power, that this ‘dava’ (trial) in which we had been implicated we had been implicated with the Turks for so many centuries should come on to an end after the last war and the Treaty, even that of Lausanne. In Europe we won this ‘dava’, to a large extent. In Asia Minor, unfortunately, we lost completely. It is best for us to accept what has happened and to focus our entire attention on the land we now have, abandoning from now on our national struggle”.
At the end of his turbulent career Venizelos was consumed with his passion for establishing permanent peace in the sensitive area of the Eastern Mediterranean and throughout Europe and he worked hard for the purpose. His successful initiatives for a mutual understanding and for the settlement of disputes in the Balkans are of a great historical significance. Once again, he transcended the narrow national limits of Greece, his horizons embracing the entire European continent. He envisioned a peaceful future that would promote civilization and progress and would overcome old nationalisms.
In a historical speech at the League of Nations before the leaders of Europe, he declared with unwavering conviction, “Who can doubt today that, from now on, war is a very bad cause for all the world? It will affect the elderly, the women and the children as much as the combatants. And it is not possible to have winners or losers among the combatants, for, from now on, they will all be losers. Who can have any doubt whatsoever, in the face of the continual improvements in weapons of destruction, particularly in chemical weapons, that the outbreak of a new war will not be an act of appealing and criminal insanity”?
In Greece, Venizelos is identified mainly with his great success in national unification. This achievement has unfortunately overshadowed his brilliant work of domestic recovery and modernisation and his decisive contribution to the establishment of a peaceful future for the Greek people.
In particular, as far as his peace initiatives are concerned, it should be pointed out that history has done him injustice. His work, nevertheless, is of great historical interest and lends itself to drawing useful conclusions of great national and international significance.
Nikolaos Emm. Papadakis,
General Director of the National Research Foundation “Eleftherios K. Venizelos”