Sacrificing His Core Supporters in a Race Against Defeat
SINCE last November Greece has undergone a series of changes, frequent even for that volatile country. The monarchy has been restored, a non-political cabinet has been formed, and four prominent personages -- Venizelos, Kondyles, Demertzes and Tsaldares -- have died. The country is now governed by General Metaxas, a man who secured a very small following at both the last elections, but who (owing to the inability of the two large "Venizelist" and "anti-Venizelist" groups to come to an agreement) has not only succeeded to the heritage of Demertzes, but has received a vote of confidence from the Chamber and has been able to adjourn it for five months.
Many of the changes of régime in Greece have been bloodless. So it was when Otho was deposed in 1862, when Constantine was expelled in 1917 and again in 1920, and when George II was euphemistically "given leave of absence" in 1923. Similarly the Republic was abolished without a shot being fired, and the King returned to Greece without opposition, after a fanciful plebiscite, the accuracy of which no one admitted without a smile, but the result of which most people accepted as an accomplished fact. The Greek people was weary of revolutions, of which the writer has witnessed seven in twelve years. The business classes wanted stability under any form of government that was democratic, whether it was a "crowned democracy" or a republic, for in modern Greek the word demokratía has two meanings: "democracy," which is not necessarily republican, and "republic," which is not necessarily democratic but may be conservative. There have never been large numbers of convinced Republicans or convinced Royalists in Greece. Political parties there are personal and are not separated by marked differences of program or principle. Greek revolutions, as those elsewhere, have been the work of resolute minorities, and since 1843 when Bavarian rule was abolished and the way opened for constitutional government, have invariably been the work of the army, which has learned what Tacitus called the fatal secret that it could make and unmake rulers. It was the march of the "Military League" from the Goudi barracks in 1909 which inaugurated the recently closed chapter of Greek history, for it introduced Venizelos to Greek politics; and absent or present, by the affection and antipathy which he inspired, he dominated the scene till his death deprived his friends of their real if exiled leader, and his foes of their sole bond of union. For the real division of parties had long been not into Royalists and Republicans but into Venizelists and anti-Venizelists. As long as he lived his supporters used his name as a battle-cry; his enemies, however much they might differ among themselves (and the Venetians had a saying, "five Greeks, five Generals"), were united in opposition to him. He might assert, as he often did, that he had abandoned politics; but politics, not the translation of Thucydides, were his real interest. The Peloponnesian War bored him, the European situation enthralled him, and to the end he exercised political influence from Paris by his letters to M. Rouphos, an ex-Minister of Foreign Affairs, in the last of which he exclaimed: "Long live the King!"
In southeastern Europe everything is possible except the probable; real events far exceed in interest and dramatic force the imaginative creations of novelists. Hence one extraordinary result of the monarchist revival, which was the work of Royalists and especially of that tardy convert to the monarchy, the ex-Republican, Kondyles, "the General Monk of the Greek Restoration" as he called himself -- namely, the unexpected phenomenon of the opposition of the ultra-Royalists to the King and his support by the Venizelists. What the ultra-Monarchists wanted and expected was a monarch who would be "their man," a party chief not an umpire between and above parties, a Greek Bourbon, who would have "learned nothing and forgotten nothing" in his twelve years of exile, who would ostracize their political opponents and keep "the King's friends" always in power. In other words, they wanted a system which would have continued the fatal schism that for twenty years had divided Greece into two irreconcilable factions.
But even before his return King George II announced that he intended to be "King of all the Greeks," not of the Royalists only, and he had no sooner landed at Phaleron than he made a significant change in the draft proclamation prepared for him by Kondyles, altering the phrase "my government" to "my governments." He then accepted the resignation which Premier Kondyles had tendered merely as a matter of form, awarded him the Grand Cross as a consolation prize, and appointed a non-political man, Demertzes, as Prime Minister of a service cabinet from which all the political leaders were excluded. He granted a general amnesty, which displeased the intransigents, and summoned a conference of all the party leaders, including M. Papanastasiou, who, as first Prime Minister of the Republic, had abolished the Monarchy in 1924. He listened daily to what every political visitor had to say without expressing any opinion himself, and is understood to have intimated to the male members of the royal family (with the exception of his brother, the heir apparent, Prince Paul, who is his constant companion), that he did not consider their speedy return to Greece would be wise until the political situation became more settled. A royal uncle, as George I found in his early years at Athens, might be a source of trouble to a reigning nephew. Already the opinion of one had been quoted against him; and Athens, blessed with twenty daily newspapers, is productive of rumors. This self-denying ordinance must make the King's life lonely, but preparations are being made for the reception of his sisters at the Palace. The force of character which he has displayed has surprised many who knew him before his exile, and this has given him the advantage, denied to the average monarch, of coming into contact with all sorts and conditions of men instead of being confined within the circle of courtiers. He is said to have learned much in England, where most of his exile was spent; but it must be remembered that monarchy in the British Empire, with its centuries of tradition, is different from monarchy in Greece, where in one hundred and ten years three of the five kings -- all foreigners -- were deposed (one twice), one was assassinated, and only one died in Greece in his bed.
It is, therefore, too soon to prophesy whether the restored monarchy will last; for the Greeks, like the Athenians in the days of St. Paul, love "some new thing." Already the King is understood to have threatened, as his grandfather once did, to leave if his good intentions were thwarted. At present, however, if there were another and a genuine plebiscite, there undoubtedly would be a very large majority for the "Georgian" monarchy. Nevertheless the King has already experienced the difficulty which lies at the root of the national character, otherwise so brilliant, that of getting men of the same calling to work together. Teamwork is uncongenial to his individualistic subjects. Hence the failure of the repeated and lengthy negotiations between Liberals (under Venizelos's successor, M. Sophoules) and Populists (under the late M. Tsaldares) for the formation of a coalition government, not so much owing to any fundamental difference of principles as to the innate desire of both parties to hold the key positions in the Cabinet. After six months the only possible solution was a neutral ministry and the adjournment of Parliament until the autumn, with a Commission of 40 taking its place meanwhile.
The death of Kondyles removed a man of strong will and natural ability who might have aspired to be a miniature Mussolini overshadowing the monarch. But the disappearance of Venizelos has much more profoundly affected the political situation. History will probably class him with Trikoupes as one of the two great men produced by Greece in the first century of her independence. It is significant that both fell from power at a time when they seemed to be omnipotent, and that both died in exile, the modern equivalent of the ostracism of Aristides. Both had large ideas, both were too big for a small country, just as giant trees overshadow and stunt the growth of the smaller vegetation. One of Venizelos's leading opponents frankly expressed this opinion in the Chamber: "Let him go, and let us small men govern the country." Thus while abroad his death deprives Greece of an incomparable asset -- for his was the only Greek name known everywhere, indeed for some foreigners Greece meant Venizelos -- on the other hand at home his removal has already diminished the intensity of political rancor. What this was only those can realize who were in Greece at the time of his death and funeral and saw the articles, headlines and even caricatures published by a section of the anti-Venizelist press. Fortunately his body was not brought to Athens, else its faithful Cretan bodyguard might have reacted with dire results against any insult offered to his memory. Happily his successors are not prominently associated in the minds of their antagonists with the events of the bitter struggles of the last twenty years, which permeated social as well as political life at Athens to such a degree that it was difficult for the partisans of either side to meet in neutral drawing-rooms, and foreign hostesses sometimes found it desirable to have separate "at home" days, one for Venizelists, the other for anti-Venizelists. Now there seems to be a fair prospect that the King's policy of "drawing a veil over the past" and looking to the present and the future may be accomplished. It would be of much assistance if the newspapers would cease publishing articles on the history of that recent period until the passage of time allows an impartial view of it to be taken.
Besides the death of Venizelos and the moderating influence of the sovereign two other causes have contributed towards the pacification of parties: the result of the January elections and the critical international situation. The elections resulted in a dead heat, the two principal combinations securing respectively 143 and 142 seats. The fifteen Communists held the balance, just as in England in 1886 the 86 Irish Nationalists did between Liberals and Conservatives, thus tempting both sides, Gladstone and Carnarvon, to pluck the forbidden fruit of Home Rule and thereby obtain office by the Irish vote. Similar accusations were bandied about in Greece, where communism, a new danger in an individualistic country, inspires alarm. To resort to another election, which would have been the fourth in less than four years, would have been certainly fatiguing and probably futile. For the people, which had also had the plebiscite, was weary of voting. Moreover, as the last elections were undoubtedly "free," there was no reason to suppose that the result, at least under the same system of voting, would have been different. It would thus not have been worth the trouble and expense -- a formidable consideration with candidates -- to consult the electorate again.
Still more cogent was the argument derived from the threatening external situation. Greece, though a small country, occupies an important geographical position. Partly a Mediterranean and partly a continental state, she has to frame her foreign policy with regard to her neighbors by sea and her neighbors by land. She possesses valuable naval bases at Argostoli, Navarino, Suda Bay, the Gulf of Volo and Lemnos (which last she would fortify if the Turks fortify the Dardanelles), all liable to be coveted by great maritime Powers at war in the Levant. Her interest and desire are to keep out of a possible Anglo-Italian conflict, though as long as Italy holds the Dodecanese, with its almost wholly Greek population, there can be no doubt on which side Greek sympathies would lie, in accordance with the historical traditions of more than a century. But it would be difficult for Greece to remain neutral, especially as the British could, as they did in 1915, offer Cyprus in exchange for her active or even passive assistance, in other words for the free use of one or all of those ports. Venizelos, indeed, stated that Mr. Lloyd George had once proposed to him to exchange that harborless island for Argostoli. But the strategic value of Cyprus to the British Empire is said to have been lately enhanced by the project for making it an air-base. Meanwhile Italy has converted Leros into an aviation station and thus that island might be a menace to Greece as well as to Turkey. In her capacity as a continental state and as a signatory of the Balkan Pact, Greece is also concerned with her liabilities under that instrument. Venizelos was specially anxious lest she should have contracted responsibilities to her Balkan allies which might involve her in war with an extra-Balkanic Power, in other words, Italy. Suppose that Greece's ally, Jugoslavia, were attacked by Bulgaria or by Albania, both of them Balkan states and neither a signatory of the Pact. Greece would then be liable to assist the Jugoslavs; but would that liability be extended outside the Balkans, if Italy actively supported her two Balkan protégés against Jugoslavia? It would appear from the decision of all the Greek party leaders to support the present government's foreign policy that this would not be the case. Such a difficulty could not arise if the principle of "the Balkan peninsula for the Balkan peoples" were recognized. But, although the Hapsburgs and Russia have no longer their Balkan pets or peons, Italy uses her two favorite Balkan states (and Hungary and Austria) for the encirclement of Jugoslavia. In these circumstances the Foreign Office is the most important department in Greece.
Like Demertzes, General Metaxas assumed the Foreign Ministry together with the Premiership, at the same time retaining in his own hands the Ministries of War and Aviation. This is more than any single person, however energetic, can manage. It is intelligible that the Premier, a former Chief of Staff whom the Germans called "the little Moltke" for his strategic attainments, should be also Minister of War, especially as in this way he is to keep control of the army and see that it is really "absorbed in its professional duties" -- to use the official phrase which not infrequently means the opposite. But he has never been specially interested in foreign policy, and in these days of diplomacy by conferences a Foreign Minister must be often on the road -- or in the air -- on his way to and from international gatherings. Thus the Premier had to hurry his measures through the Chamber in order to attend the meeting of the Permanent Council of the Balkan Entente at Belgrade, proceeding later to Geneva for the discussion of the Dardanelles question which had just been raised by the Turkish proposal to fortify them. In fact, a modern Foreign Minister must be like Odysseus, long absent from his Ithaca, the Foreign Office, leaving his Penelope unprotected from foreign suitors. In the discussion of possible nominees as Foreign Minister, M. Michalakopoulos, an ex-Premier who has four times held the Foreign Office, was naturally mentioned. A close student of foreign affairs (and incidentally of FOREIGN AFFAIRS), he has travelled in many European countries, speaks several languages, including English, and was suggested for the post by Venizelos, an excellent judge of such a matter. But M. Michalakopoulos is supposed to have somewhat pro-Italian leanings and to be not so popular as some others at Belgrade, an important point for Greece. In the end the King appointed a non-party man, Colonel Skilakalis.
If a clear grasp of the international situation be the first essential for Greece at this juncture, another is the complete unity of the army; for in these days a foreign policy which does not have armed force behind it is academic. After the insurrection of March 1935 a number of officers, some of marked professional capacity, were eliminated from the armed forces because of their participation in it, just as several experienced diplomatists were removed from the service because they, or their relatives, were Venizelists. That the officers retained in the army should oppose the reëntry of their discharged colleagues, against whom they fought little more than a year ago, is only natural, but it is not in the national interest. The time may come when Greece may need urgently all her available military ability. The King may here be a determining factor. He is the head of the armed forces, and they are said to be impressed by his energy and firmness. Of the latter he gave proof when on March 5 he rapidly replaced General Papagos, then Minister of War and the leader in the coup d'état which deposed M. Tsaldares from the premiership in October, by General Metaxas, because General Papagos had brought him complaints of a group of officers about political matters. The King showed at that time that he meant to end the interference of the officers in politics, and that if they would not amend, he would leave for Oropos and London. Since that episode the army has been quiet, and our nights have been undisturbed by rumors of a kínema, the word which appropriately expresses both a cinematograph and a military revolution, which in Greece is suggestive of "the movies." As a young man the King was associated with the army at the taking of Yanina in 1913 (the anniversary of which he attended this year), and he has paid surprise visits to the Athenian barracks and reviewed the Greek fleet as a sign of his interest in the country's defenses. His father was specially popular with the army, which he led to victory in the two Balkan wars.
The diagnosis of a physician after examining the Greek body politic, then, would seem to be that the fever which has agitated it for the last twenty years has ceased, and that there is hope that it will not be recurrent. The patient is weary of revolutions, changes of the form of government and even elections. Nature calls aloud for repose, and so far there are signs that it may be found under the shelter of the constitutional monarchy. George II has taken George I as his example. But it must not be assumed that because he has done so well during these early months of his second reign the future of the monarchy is thereby assured. If times become bad the cry may be raised that the Monarchy costs more than the Republic, and that the abolition of the Senate does not compensate for the increased civil list. The heir apparent is unmarried, eligible princesses are nowadays scarce, and marriage with a Greek lady might arouse jealousies in a country where there is no aristocracy. Besides, southeastern Europe is volcanic soil; even the tactful George I had his ups and downs. But there seems to be no likelihood of the rise among the present leaders of another dominating personality who would embarrass and overtop the monarch; and no young man has given proof of political eminence such as Joseph Chamberlain prophesied of the young student, Venizelos, when he met him fifty years ago. Venizelos's second son, who has now entered politics, is no exception to the general rule about great men's heirs.
Barring accidents -- and such might arise from a European conflagration which spread to Greece -- the course of Greek politics seems likely to run smoothly. Like the Danube after issuing from the Iron Gates, the stream should be monotonous but useful, for the banks on either side are low and commonplace. There should thus be an opportunity for unobtrusive, practical social work, such as the improvement of hygiene, the better paving and lighting of the capital, the amelioration of highways, and the definite settlement of the claims of the foreign bondholders. These questions do not bring Greece "into the news" as did the wonderful triumphs of Venizelos abroad. But happy is the Balkan country which does not provide sensational headlines for the papers but pursues the even tenor of its way, solving its internal problems without the intervention of foreign Powers. Whatever the validity of these prophecies, the saying of Trikoupes is as true as ever: "Greece wishes to live, and live she will."