Soldiers vs. politicians; soluble and insoluble problems
Seeing clearly where this was heading, a group of royalist army officers attempted a military coup. Their leader (who organized but took no overt role in the uprising) was Lt. General Ioánnis Metaxás. In 1914, he had been chief of the Greek general staff and one of those influential officers who believed that Germany was certain to win the war. (When the allies informed him in 1915 of their intention to land troops at Salonika, Metaxás replied that they’d be driven into the sea before they even had time to cry for mercy.) His public threat to resign had caused King Constantine to withdraw his approval of Venizélos’ war plans, with the result that it was Venizélos who resigned instead.
King George’s position was greatly weakened by this takeover attempt, even though there’s no evidence that he was in on the plot. However, the army was now purged of 1200 royalist officers, and the royalist political party became so unpopular that it stayed out of the next election. Venizélos’ Liberals won most of the seats, but the Republicans—a separate party, for despite his constitutional struggle with Constantine, Venizélos and the Liberals had never opposed the monarchy per se—came in second. The revolutionary government asked the king rather delicately if he would mind leaving Greece temporarily until the question of the country’s form of government was settled. George consented, although he declined to abdicate.
Venizélos proposed a plebiscite on the monarchy, to be held in two months, but he faced strong demands that the Assembly should first declare a republic and only then hold a plebiscite. Despite his majority, he found republican sentiment too strong to overcome, even within his own party, and he resigned as prime minister after less than a month. (Only a day after the publication date on the magazine cover, although that was probably as fictional as publication dates generally are.)
The republic—called the Second Hellenic Republic, the first having been that of the original revolutionary leaders back in the 1820s before Greece accepted a foreign monarch—lasted from 1924 to 1935. Those were not, generally speaking, years of good government (except for a stretch from 1928 to 1932, which we’ll come to). During the republic’s 11-year run, according to Wikipedia, “there were in Greece 23 changes of government, [one] dictatorship and 13 coups.” Political power was so evenly distributed between republicans and monarchists that parliamentary rule was nearly impossible—that's the reason coups and counter-coups were so frequent. According to Woodhouse, “the truly democratic forces were throughout fighting a losing battle with revolutionary extremists, among whom the best-known names were generally the holders of high rank in the army or navy. […] The spirit of anti-constitutional rebellion in the armed forces,” he says, was “pervasive and infectious.”
It was characteristic of Greek politics during the National Schism—the name given to the polarization that began with the quarrel between Venizélos and Constantine, culminated in the Asia Minor Catastrophe and the events that followed it, and continued well into the thirties—that each of the opposing parties, royalist and Venizelist, had a faction of military supporters that it depended on to defend it when in office, or, when it was out of office, to do what could be done to remedy that situation. It was therefore usual, whenever power changed hands, for the winning party to purge the officer ranks of the army and navy, replacing as many of its opponent’s adherents as it could identify with adherents of its own. This practice doubtless strengthened the tendency of the military to interfere in the process of governance, because, when the party an officer favored lost power, it meant not only the adoption of laws and policies he deplored; it also meant that his career was over—at least until his own party regained the upper hand. Instability was thus woven into the pattern of politics, and no one who held power under the republic was innocent of responsibility for this; Venizélos was, in his turn, as guilty as any royalist leader.
Although he imposed censorship on the press and exiled most of his opponents, Pángalos seemed to have no further ideas on what to do. He did, however, impose a minimum length on women’s skirts. (In Greece, nostalgia has more than once played a significant part in the politics of military men. I recall that the sole general who joined the colonels’ coup of 1967 was responsible for a law requiring schoolgirls to wear hair ribbons.)
The general announced that a new constitution would be promulgated in April, 1926 and that under it he would run for the office of President. Koundouriótis finally resigned in disgust.
Woodhouse’s judgment is that “Pángalos was not at heart anti-democratic, but he preferred action—any action—to argument, and he was irritated by opposition.” Whatever his heart might have been telling him, the practical result is difficult to distinguish from anti-democracy.
Having made sure that he was the only candidate, Pángalos was duly elected president in April, but four months later he was displaced by another military coup, led by Gen. Giórgios Kondýlis. An election followed, in which the republicans won a small majority, but had to accept the monarchists in a coalition government—a combination destined to achieve nothing much. The government pottered along from November, 1926 to March, 1928, thoroughly fulfilling this destiny.
Greece had a host of problems. Many were diplomatic, involving relations with its neighbors. Numerous border issues remained after the World War I peace settlements. The new state of Yugoslavia (which until 1929 labored under the name “The Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes”) felt entitled to use the port of Salonika, which was the natural commercial outlet for Macedonia, without Greek interference. Bulgaria resented losing the part of Thrace that it had briefly possessed after the first Balkan War, and continued to regard it as Bulgarian territory. Albania was nominally independent, but Italy was closely involved in “protecting” it, and Greece, which in the peace settlement had lost northern Epirus to Albania mainly thanks to Italian influence, was concerned about the fate of the Greeks living there. Also, although the Greco-Turkish border had been settled, dealing with the property rights of the transferred populations was still causing problems. Between 1924 and 1928, when Venizélos returned to power, disputes had occurred with all of these countries, and Greece had little or no diplomatic relations with any of them.
Venizélos had achieved all of this through flexible negotiation and a realistic willingness to make concessions where they would do the most good. Woodhouse is surely right that “no Greek leader other than Venizélos could have persuaded the Greeks to concede all these delicate points.”
A generation later, of course, the same trouble was to break out in Cyprus again, and to this day it hasn’t been settled. That the peace Venizélos saved lasted so long is probably due mostly to the interruption of World War II. Nevertheless, it was an impressive diplomatic achievement, and it was to be his last.
Greece’s other big set of problems was economic. The country was simply not wealthy enough to absorb more than a million destitute refugees without a good deal of misery. The newcomers were not the only ones who suffered:
Greece’s peasants remained very poor. Those who lived in the mountains and took seasonal employment in the plains and cities found that the influx of refugees cut off their main source of income…. Under-employment in the countryside was not compensated by the slow growth of urban industry [which] could not cover the deficit on foreign trade. Greece has always had to import nearly half her grain supplies; and in the years between the wars her agricultural exports, which were largely in the category of luxuries, were hampered by protectionism in western Europe. Her industrial production … was chiefly confined to consumer goods for the home market. The country’s minerals, which were potentially of high value, were exploited by foreign capitalists, since Greece could not generate the necessary capital from her own resources. [Woodhouse]
Venizélos was no economist, and the scope of these problems was beyond his grasp. The arrival of the Great Depression naturally made things worse. Greece had borrowed money in Washington and London for needed public works—the service on this debt, according to Woodhouse, was in some years as much as one third of the country’s budget. It wasn’t the economic style of the time to sympathize with small, impoverished countries caught in a financial trap. “Underdeveloped nations like Greece,” says Woodhouse, “were the principal victims of international policies which sought salvation from depression in the most savagely depressive measures that could be devised.” (Of course, in our enlightened era such things never happen.)
Economic circumstances were making Venzélos’ government unpopular, and at length he was unable to keep it in power, even by such desperate measures as proposing to censor the press. Although the same measure had been taken by some of the military men who had seized power in coups, it was unworthy of Venizélos, and in any event the political opposition was too strong. When he couldn’t get censorship through the parliament, he resigned in May, 1932. (I found the picture above on a Greek website, illustrating a paragraph about this final parliamentary struggle, but I have no way to be certain that it was actually taken at that time.)