Wednesday, 14 April 2021

Eleftherios Venizelos and the Asia Minor campaign

Above is a talk by Roderick Beaton on Eleftherios Venizelos’ attempt to annex western Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace to Greece following the Great War and the collapse of the Ottoman empire.

Beaton asks what Venizelos was trying to achieve with his irredentist policy and, with the benefit of hindsight, how realistic was the aim of fulfilling the Megali Idea.

Beaton traverses the period 1912-1922, i.e. the successful campaigns in the Balkan wars; the predicament Greece faced with the outbreak of the Great War – whether to join the Triple Entente, as Venizelos ardently believed or remain neutral as King Constantine and his supporters demanded; and the occupation of Smyrna, the Treaty of Sèvres and the defeat of the Greek army by Turkish nationalist forces.

Beaton insists that the National Schism over participation in the Great War that led by 1916 to Greece having two governments – one with Venizelos at its head in Thessaloniki and the other in Athens loyal to the king – was not a constitutional dispute – Constantine insisted that foreign policy was his prerogative, whereas Venizelos insisted that the monarch had to subordinate himself to the wishes of the country’s political leadership on the British model; but rather a rift over what it meant to be Greek and what sort of Greece each side of the civil war – Beaton asserts that the schism amounted to a civil war – imagined.

Venizelos saw the Great War as an opportunity to liberate Greeks who found themselves outside of Greece’s borders – Beaton interprets this as prioritising the Greek ethnos (nation;) whereas Constantine and his followers had a narrower vision of Hellenism, were committed to the Greek state and wary of adventures that might undermine or overburden it. The latter argued that Greece was already stretched digesting the gains of 1912-13 – all areas of which were strongly pro-Venizelos – and that Greece was too weak to absorb more people and territory.

Eventually, in 1917, after the French navy blockaded Athens and its army occupied Thessaly, Constantine went into exile and Venizelos, having been forced to resign at the end of 1915, resumed power over the whole country, with Constantine’s brother Alexander ascending the emasculated throne.

Greece’s contribution to the Macedonian front gave it a place at the Paris Peace Conference at the end of the war. Here, Venizelos, in May 1919 got approval for the occupation of Smyrna, confirmed by the Treaty of 
Sèvres in August 1920, which also ceded Eastern Thrace to Greece.

In seeking to enforce the Treaty of Sèvres – which the Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal had rejected – Greek forces found themselves dragged deeper and deeper into Anatolia, where the Turks had retreated.

At the same time as Venizelos was lobbying the British for financial and material support for Greek forces to deal a knock-out blow to the Turks, he was also preparing for elections in Greece. When they were lost in November 1920, Constantine and his supporters returned to power.

For opaque reasons, Beaton argues, even though the royalists had campaigned to end the Asia Minor war and bring the troops home, they decided to pursue Venizelos’ knock-out blow policy – but, critically, Beaton says, without seeking British backing. The result was defeat at the Battle of the Sangarios River in August/September 1921 and a year-long retreat to the Asia Minor coast and the end of the Ionian vision.

Critics of Venizelos have argued, Beaton says, that the root causes of the Asia Minor Catastrophe was the idea itself; that a Greek enclave in western Asia Minor was unviable, both from an economic and security standpoint, and that Sèvres was inherently unworkable.

But Beaton argues that Smyrna cut off from its Anatolian hinterland would have been no different from Thessaloniki, liberated in 1912, cut off from its Balkan hinterland and that the Macedonian city survived and thrived within Greece.

Beaton also asserts that rather than Greece, with the annexation of Asia Minor and Eastern Thrace, ending up having to rule over large numbers of resentful Muslim Turks, Greece would have pushed for a population exchange on the lines of the Balkan wars, with those Turks and Muslims left in the newly-liberated Greek territories being exchanged with Greeks and Christians who found themselves in the rump Turkish state.

As for the assertion that the Asia Minor campaign was doomed from the start by the military difficulties involved, Beaton argues rather that Greek forces nearly won the Battle of Sangarios River – the Turkish nationalist leadership ensconced in Ankara had made plans to evacuate the city – but that the declining morale of Greek troops and, crucially, the lack of backing from Britain swung the war the Turks’ way.

Venizelos, Beaton argues, would never have advanced further into Anatolia without British backing and it was a fatal mistake of the royalists to do so.

Where Venizelos is at fault, according to Beaton, was his over-enthusiastic support for the Triple Entente, his willingness to take Greece into the war from 1914 – even when the French and British were still trying to keep Turkey and Bulgaria out of the war and wanted Greece to hold off its involvement.

Rather than dismissing the objections of King Constantine and his supporters to Greece allying itself with Britain and France, Beaton believes Venizelos should have used his diplomatic skills – which outside of Greece had him heralded as a great European statesman – to persuade Constantine and the royalists of his vision.

If Venizelos wasn’t responsible for the Asia Minor Catastrophe, Beaton says, then he must take his share of the blame for the National Schism.

The project of creating Greece of the five seas and two continents, of reversing hundreds of years of history, needed to be underpinned by a strong, unified state and Venizelos’ failure to ensure this is where his responsibility for the demise of the Megali Idea lies.