European War and National Schism

For Greece, the First World War was not the momentous event that it was for other European countries, many of which have even declared November 11 (1918) a national holiday. In modern Greek history, the “Great War” is rather part of an entire decade of armed conflicts, which began with the First Balkan War (1912) and ended with the Asia Minor Catastrophe (1922). In the context of the latter, the Anatolian expedition resulted in a terrible defeat of the Greek army, leading to the Greek-Turkish population exchange mandated by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). In her essay, Christina Koulouri provides a brief overview of the overlaps between the developments in Greece, the Balkans, and Western Europe.

The military and humanitarian catastrophe in Asia Minor has eclipsed the fact that Greece was one of the victor nations of the First World War. The National Schism, too, plays a role in the lack of interest in the “Great War”. That Greece actually joined the war on the side of the Allies was the result of a domestic conflict between Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and King Constantine I, which temporarily split the country into two separate states.

It was against this background of the National Schism that the ideological, political, and military confrontations between the warring parties in Europe were displaced onto the Greek domestic scene: while Venizelos sided with the Allies, Constantine supported the Central Powers. The debate about the war was also a collision of two different concepts of how to shape and develop the country. From a Greek perspective, the war was situated in the context of the Balkans and related to the “Megali Idea” (Great Idea), a nineteenth-century irredentist vision that aimed for territorial expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire.

European Powder Keg and Balkan Fuse

As it was, the war started in the Balkans—with the assassination in Sarajevo of the heir to the Habsburg throne. Once again it seemed that the “Balkan powder keg” had exploded, which is why many Europeans saw the First World War as the Third Balkan War. In reality, however, it was Europe that was the powder keg, with the Balkans serving merely as its fuse.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a tragic figure of history, is said to have had a rather abrasive personality, impeccable taste, and a love for the arts. Reputed to be a Slavophile, he was hostile to the Hungarians and was even planning a structural reform of the Dual Monarchy as it had existed since 1867 in favor of the Slavs. It is thus a rather strange twist of fate that he and his wife were murdered by the very people he supported: the South Slavs. The vision of a greater Yugoslavia presumably pursued by the Black Hand, a nationalist terrorist organization to which the assassins belonged, stood in contrast to a union of Slavs within Austria-Hungary—an option known as “trialism” and favored by Franz Ferdinand.

By aligning themselves with the major alliances—Serbia, Romania, and Greece on the side of the Allies, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers—the belligerents of the Balkan Wars renewed their existing enmities. The fragile equilibrium that had been achieved by the wars was contested, at least from the defeated parties. And although Greece had emerged victorious from both wars, doubling its territory and its population, it still considered the “Great Idea” to be unrealized. If anything, the Balkan Wars had added to its self-confidence to once more pursue irredentist goals.

A Nation Divided during the First World War

As the European war began to spread, Greece was faced with the choice to remain neutral—an option favored by the King—or to enter the war on the side of those who would best serve its interests. Venizelos was firmly convinced that Greek interests corresponded with those of the Central Powers, especially Great Britain. Calculating that the British would continue to dominate the eastern Mediterranean regardless of the war’s outcome, the Greek prime minister rejected an alliance with Germany. In his estimation, German interests would lead to support for Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, the two main enemies of Greece. Besides, Venizelos saw plenty of economic and geopolitical reasons for an alliance with England and France.

Constantine, on the other hand, much admired the German political model and was a firm believer in the invincibility of the German army. Here, his thinking was also influenced by his wife Sophia, a sister of the German emperor, and by his foreign minister Georgios Streit, professor of international and constitutional law at the University of Athens, whose political views were rooted in the traditional European balance of powers principle that sought to preserve both the Habsburg Monarchy and the Ottoman Empire. The threat posed by Pan-Slavism also played a role in the king’s choice of allies; seeing Pan-Slavism as the biggest danger of all, Constantine strove to align Greek interests with those of the Central Powers. Resisting pressure from Wilhelm II to ally Greece with Germany, he opted for a neutral stance, believing that only Greece’s neutrality would protect the country against the costs entailed by a risky and ultimately futile war.

In the beginning, Greece did, in fact, remain neutral—a “temporary state” in Venizelos’ view, a “permanent state,” as far as Constantine was concerned. When the Ottoman Empire entered the war on the side of the Central Powers, Venizelos saw this as an opportunity to realize his plans for Greek expansion, provided that Greece relinquish its neutrality. When the Allies, in early 1915, launched their Dardanelles campaign against the Ottoman Empire, Venizelos proposed to send a Greek army corps. Constantine refused, causing Venizelos to resign.

Given the turmoil of the major political crisis that developed into the National Schism, the boycott of the December 1915 elections by Venizelos’ Liberals only added fuel to the fire. August 30, 1916, saw the emergence of the National Defence Movement, composed of Venizelists such as Alexandros Zannas, Periklis Argyropoulos, Major General Leonidas Paraskevopoulos, and Colonel Emmanouil Zymvrakakis. In the meantime—following Romania’s war entry and the German-Bulgarian attack on Macedonia—the situation in the Balkans had changed. What ultimately tipped the scales was the capitulation of the 4th Army Corps and the Bulgarian occupation of Kavala that sent a shockwave through the Greek population. Constantine’s refusal to retaliate determined Venizelos’ future course of action: On October 9, 1916, Venizelos formed a Republican rival government in Thessaloniki, consisting of a “triumvirate” composed of himself, Panagiotis Dagklis, and Pavlos Kountouriotis. This revolutionary act gave the National Schism a concrete spatial dimension: Greece was now divided into two states.

The “Battle of Athens”

In a last attempt to move Constantine from his neutral stance, the Allies, in late November 1916, landed in Piraeus and Faliron. Following the Battle of Athens, Constantine conceded to surrender parts of the Greek war materiel. Just when the Allied forces were about to retreat, the city was gripped by the “Noemvriana” (November Events): a wave of terrorist attacks against Venizelos and his supporters that included killings, imprisonments, lootings, and intimidations, topped off by the public excommunication—the notorious “anathema”—of Venizelos by the Archbishop of Athens.

The confrontation with the Allies in the Battle of Athens and Constantine’s decision to employ partisan groups in Epirus and Thessaly with the support of Germany suggested only one solution: the abdication of the King. In May 1917, Allied troops occupied Thessaly and the Italian army advanced toward Epirus and took Janina, while the fleet under the command of High Commissioner Charles Jonnart occupied the Isthmus of Corinth. Constantine abdicated and appointed his son Alexander as his successor before leaving the country with his family. Greece, again a unified state, declared war on the Central Powers on June 15, 1917. Deploying a Greek army that would be capable of fighting alongside the Allied forces proved to be no simple task, however. Most of “Old Greece” (the south) was pro-royalist, and the interventions by the Allies were experienced as a major national humiliation. The Greek population for the most part was opposed to a war that it deemed too horrible and “big” for a small country. The full mobilization that Venizelos ordered to be completed by March 1918 was accompanied by riots and desertion, even defection to the enemy. Eventually, the Greek army participated alongside the Allies in the final battles that took place on the Macedonian front until the Bulgarian capitulation.

While the Armistice of November 11, 1918, officially marked the end of the Great War, the next five years saw the continuation of armed conflicts, even conventional war hostilities, such as, for example, the Asia Minor Campaign. A century after the Congress of Vienna, a series of treaties, with the Treaty of Versailles being the most important one, redrew the map of Europe. The major empires were no more; what had prevailed was the ethnically homogeneous nation-state, which inevitably led to the problem of minorities within new borders. For Greece, too, the war did not end in 1918. Seeing the Treaty of Sèvres (1920) as offering another opportunity to realize its “Great Idea,” Greece led a military campaign into Anatolia until the Treaty of Lausanne (1923) finally put a tragic end to the First World War in the Balkans.

Christina Koulouri, Copyright: privat Christina Koulouri teaches Modern History at Panteion University in Athens.

Translation: Manuela Thurner

A longer version of this article was originally published in To Vima, 12 January 2014.

    PERSPECTIVES: Back to Overview >>

    Calendar of events >>

    Projects of Goethe-Institutes worldwide >>