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Venizelos and the Asia Minor Catastrophe

For many he was the most beloved and for others the most hated personality in modern Greek History. There is no doubt that Eleftherios Venizelos was probably the most important.

Map of Greater Greece and VenizelosIn 1910 Eleftherios Venizelos, born in Ottoman ruled Crete, and founder of the liberal party, becomes the prime-minister. Venizelos is the kind of leader that comes around once in a generation and it is not a coincidence that this is the period of the greatest growth for Greece. In October of 1912 the first Balkan War breaks out with Greece, Serbia, Montenegro and Bulgaria attacking Turkey. A month later Thessaloniki is captured and becomes part of Greece. In March of 1913 King George is assassinated in Thessaloniki and is succeeded by Constantine I. In July during Balkan Wars 2, Bulgaria attacks Greece and Serbia and is beaten. The two victors split Macedonia. Venizelos is hailed as Europe's most charismatic statesman but in Greece he has his passionate followers and there are those who just as passionately hate him, including King Constantine whose sympathies are undoubtedly with the Kaiser and the Germans, though he claims to wish Greece to remain neutral in the war. Venizelos resigns and then in June is re-elected, returns to power only to be forced to resign again in October. In the December elections his followers abstain and Venizelos establishes a provisional government of the New Hellas in Thessaloniki. The Royalists in Old Hellas are attacked and then blockaded by the French and British who want Greece to enter the war with Germany on their side. In the end King Constantine escapes from Greece. Though he does not abdicate the throne, he is replaced by George's second son Alexander who is more acceptable to the French and British. The Venizelist Parliament of June 1915 is recalled and dubbed 'The Lazarus Chamber' because it has been awakened from the dead.

The Averoff in ConstantinopleAt the start of the 20th century Greece's navy is obsolete, consisting of three old battleships and some torpedo boats. In the shipyards at Livorno, Italy is a battleship which has been ordered by the Italian Navy and then cancelled. The Greek government buys the ship and it is christened the Averoff after the wealthy benefactor George Averoff. The ship rules the northeast Aegean during the Balkan wars and is an important part in the liberation of Mount Athos and the islands of Limnos, Thassos, Samothraki, Tenedos, Aghios Efstratios, Mitilini, and Chios. The power of this one  important ship and the success at sea keeps the Sultan from challenging the Greek Navy and keeps the Turkish fleet out of the Aegean. The Jewel of the Hellenic fleet was destined to sail through history, through the two world wars with greater glory than any other Naval vessel in the history of the Hellenic Navy. For more on the Battleship Averoff which is now a floating museum in Faliron near Athens click here

On Tuesday November 21 1916, the HMS Britannic, larger and considered even more unsinkable than her famous sister ship the Titanic, explodes and sinks in just 55 minutes outside the harbor of the island of Kea while doing service as a British hospital ship in the Gallipoli campaign.  For more see

In Turkey the decaying Ottoman Empire is continuing a policy that could be called the Turkization of Asia Minor. In 1909 Armenians are massacred in Adana, Tarsus and other towns of Cilicia. Among the 30.000 Armenian dead are a handful of American missionaries. In 1912 the Turkish army loots the villages of Didymotichon and Adrianopoli districts. Villages of the Malgara district are burnt as well as Kessani and a number of assassinations and massacres accompany the destruction and looting in this predominantly Greek region of Eastern Thrace. A year later the Turkish army commits atrocities and the massacre of Greeks in the same area killing more than 15,000. In May of 1914 the Turkish authorities at Pergamum command all Christians to leave the town within two hours. The terrorized inhabitants cross over to the Greek island of Mytilini (Lesvos). That same year the Turkish government creates forced labor battalions made up of Greek-Ottoman citizens who are drafted into the Turkish army. Thousands die or disappear.

Armenian intellectuals and prominent national Armenian leaders in Constantinople and the provinces are arrested and deported to Anatolia. Many are slain on the road. The Armenian soldiers who are in the Turkish army are disarmed and massacred by thousands. The Armenian population is forced to march to exile in the Syrian desert. Tens of thousands die from the elements or are killed and massacred by the Turkish Army and civilians along the way. In all over a million and a half Armenians die during this period. The Turks also begin persecution against the Syrian Orthodox and Nestorians living in Hakkari, Mardin and Midyat regions, their deaths equaling that of the Armenians. Of 16,750 Pontian Greeks who are forced to leave their villages and march east towards Syria, only some 500 survive. (Read the book Not Even My Name by Thea Halo)

In 1918 the Armenians who have been fighting the Turks are victorious and proclaim the Independent Armenian Republic, which Turkey recognizes. In August 1920 the treaty of Sevres provides an independent Armenia, self determination for Kurdistan and liberation of Eastern Thrace and Smyrna. President Woodrow Wilson declares the right for self-determination of all peoples of Asia Minor. But a month later Nationalist Turkish forces attack Armenia. The Armenian defeat is followed by a general massacre and the annexation of one half of the independent Armenia to Turkey.

King AlexanderAt the 1918 Paris Peace Conference Venizelos lobbies hard for an expanded Hellas including the large Greek communities in Northern Epirus, Thrace and Minor Asia. In 1919 Greek troops are sent by the victorious allies to the beautiful and multi-ethnic city of Smyrna in Asia Minor to 'protect' Greek citizens but in reality to serve as a buffer between the Italian army which is advancing up the southern Turkish coast and the British who are in Constantinople, (Istanbul). What is known as 'To Megali Idea' or The Great Idea of a new Hellenic Empire on both sides of the Aegean looks like it is about to become a reality. (see map) Even the major powers are behind it and in the Treaty of Sevres create a Greece of Two Continents and Five Seas. But in October of 1920 King Alexander (photo) is bitten by his favorite monkey in the Royal Gardens, and dies. It is a monkey bite that changes the course of Greek history.

Greek Orthodox Archbishop ChrysotomosVenizelos would rather declare a republic and be done with kings but knows that this would not be acceptable to the European powers. Despite the national triumph of Smyrna he loses the elections in November of 1920 and leaves the country. A month later a royalist-rigged election calls for the return of King Constantine. The Greek Army which has secured Smyrna and the Asia Minor coast is purged of Venizelos supporters while it marches on Ankara. Little known to the Greeks, the Italians and Russians are selling arms to the Nationalist Turks under Mustapha Kemal, soon to be known as Attaturk, and the British and French have negotiated a separate peace, realizing that the Ottoman empire is dead and the Nationalists are the new face of Turkey. After being encouraged by their European 'friends' the Greek Army finds itself isolated in central Turkey. They are defeated by the forces of Kemal and forced to flee to the shores of the Aegean. In their wake they bring with them thousands of Greek and Christian citizens of the Ottoman empire who fear that the advancing Turks will massacre them. While ships from the French, British, and US fleets watch in the harbor waiting to sign contracts with the new Turkish government, the city of Smyrna is burned. Approximately 30,000 people are murdered in Smyrna, among them the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Chrysostomos who had been hacked to death by a frenzied mob. See Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of A City by Marjorie Housepian Dobkin

Burning of SmyrnaThe disaster of Smyrna meant the end of the three thousand year Hellenic presence in Asia Minor. A million refugees leave for Greece, a land that is familiar to them only barely in language. The populations of Athens and Thessaloniki double. Working and upper middle-class Greeks who had lived comfortably in Smyrna and other towns and cities in Turkey, become the bottom rung in a society that can barely take care of its own people. In the cafes and back streets of Athens and Thessaloniki Rembetika music, Greek Urban Blues, is being played and will have a powerful effect on the music and culture of Greece. The lyrics tell of the frustration of being poor in a strange land, and the sadness of exile as well as the misery of being reduced to a life of crime and drugs out of desperation and hopelessness. Smyrna which had been the cultural center of the Eastern Mediterranean is no longer multi-ethnic or beautiful. Almost the entire city with the exception of the Turkish and the Jewish quarter has been destroyed. More than 150.000 Greeks of the Pontus region and more than 400.000 Greeks of Asia Minor die in the massacres. Of the half a million refugees who don't go to Greece, about 200.000 Pontian Greeks go to Russia and the rest are dispersed all over the world.

Trial of the SixThe Asia Minor Disaster, as it came to be known, changes the face of Greece forever and many of the problems of modern Athens are hangovers from this period. A Venizelist revolution begins with officers of the Second Army on the battleship Lemnos after being evacuated from Smyrna. The revolution spreads to Athens and demands that the government resign and Constantine abdicate the throne. Led by Colonels Plastiras and Gonatas and Captain Phokas of the Lemnos, 12,000 soldiers march into Athens. King Constantine is forced into exile and the politicians and officers whose incompetence is blamed for the defeat of the Greek army are tried and executed for treason, against the wishes of the British government. Venizelos is asked to represent the revolutionary government in negotiations in Paris, which he accepts. Meanwhile a stream of refugees continues to enter Greece from their homes in Asia Minor. Though many of the revolutionaries would like to see the country become a republic, George II, the son of Constantine, becomes the new king of Greece.

C.P. CavafyIn January of 1923 there is a compulsory exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. In July of 1923 the Treaty of Lausanne reverses all Greece's gains of the treaty of Sevres. There is to be no 'Greater Hellas' with the Aegean a Greek sea and Constantinople the capital. But there are now a million and a half new Greeks in Athens and Thessaloniki. This same year Stratis Myrivilis publishes in serial form his book Life In The Tomb, a personal account of trench warfare on the Macedonian front in 1917-18. Banned  by both the Metaxas dictatorship and the Germans during the occupation, it becomes one of the most widely read and important works of modern Greek literature, translated into more than a dozen languages. During this same period the Alexandrian-Greek poet, Constantine Cavafy is writing poetry rich in Greek history and imagery. He retires from his office job in 1922 to focus on his poetry but dies a few years later of throat cancer. His poems not only bring to life the ancient Greeks and Romans, but also the modern Greeks of Alexandria, Egypt.


As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement stirs your spirit and your body.

Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral,
amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind— as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.

Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.

Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

(C.P. Cavafy, Collected Poems. Translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Princeton University Press, 1992)

Eleftherios VenizelosIn 1924 Venizelos returns to power but is forced to resign again in a disagreement over the makeup of the government. He moves to Paris to translate Thucydides. In 1929 he is elected again and begins a remarkable period of growth for Greece including the founding of the Bank of Greece, the Agricultural Bank, the State Council and the National Theatre as well as over 3000 schools. Treaties of friendship are signed with Italy, Yugoslavia and Turkey. But in 1933 after two attempted coups and an assassination attempt on him, Venizelos leaves Greece for Paris. Some of his followers are tried and executed and in another rigged referendum King George II returns to Athens. Venizelos dies in Paris in March of 1936. His body is taken back to Chania, Crete. Many people in Greece are in deep mourning though the funeral can't be held in Athens for fear of unrest by those who oppose him. Today he is considered by many to be the most important leader in modern Greek history, with numerous streets, squares, monuments and the Athens airport named for him. He had fought to free Crete from the Ottoman empire and used his skillful statesmanship and charismatic personality to expand the borders of Greece to include the islands of the eastern Aegean, Epiros, Salonika and Macedonia, the farmlands of Thrace and had nearly made Constantinople and the coast of Asia Minor a part of Greater Greece.   However despite being out of power during the disaster in Smryna, there were those who blame him even today. But it was Venizelos who made the Greeks realize that the dream of a Greater Greece was dead and the road to take was one of acceptance of its borders and to make Greece great within those borders as a modern state.

Ioannis MetaxasOne of the most important improvements during the Venizelos years was in education. Under the Minister of Education, George Papandreou, the educational reforms of this period were massive and extended compulsory education to six years and built some 3,500 schools throughout Greece. In May of 1931 the Greek government gives the American School of Classical Studies permission to excavate a populated area in Monastiraki-Thission in search of the boundaries of the ancient agora. They tackle the project with a vengeance, leveling nearly 400 neo-classical houses and Asia Minor refugee homes displacing thousands of Greeks and obliterating several hundred years of modern Greek history in the search for its ancient past.

In August of 1936 after a deadlocked election where the communists held the balance of power, using strikes and unrest as the excuse, former general Ioannis Metaxas, with the backing of the King, overthrows the government. Metaxas is a graduate of the Prussian Military Saturday in Berlin and lover of German order, and he installs an anti-communist, quasi-fascist regime, modeled on the governments of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.

Stefanis family 1920By the beginning of the First World War there are about 300,000 Greek immigrants in the United States, having left Greece because of a lack of jobs. Most Greeks settle in cities where they find menial, unskilled work. Important Greek colonies emerge in New York, Chicago and the textile town of Lowell, Massachusetts. In fact all large cities in the United States had Greek communities with their own churches, coffee house, societies and political clubs. Greek Orthodox religious festivals and traditions were strictly observed. By 1910 both New York and Chicago had Greek-language newspapers. In the early 1900's after a blight that wipes out the Mediterranean sponges, the fishermen of the island of Kalymnos come to Tarpon Springs, Florida, many with their fishing boats, to continue their trade. The town becomes a center of Greek culture and after the sponge die off, turns into a tourist attraction. In 1930 there are 303,751 Greeks in the United States with over 50,000 in Chicago and 35,000 in New York. By 1978 over 655,000 Greeks had immigrated to the USA. See Greek Immigration Figures

The Great FireThe Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide:

In 1922, the richest city of the Ottoman Empire was set ablaze. Hundreds of thousands of refugees begged to be rescued. Their prayers were answered by a small-town minister confronting the first genocide of the 20th century. His tools were a bribe, a threat and an unshakeable faith in God. As it turned out, God got some help — from the United States Navy. Author Lou Ureneck tells the exciting story in The Great Fire.
For information on ordering click here

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