Sunday, 6 June 2021

Venizelos, Britain and Cyprus

Above is an interview conducted by Roderick Beaton – former professor of Modern Greek at King’s College London and whose last three books have been George Seferis: Waiting for the Angel; Byron’s War: Romantic Rebellion, Greek Revolution; and Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation – with Michael Llewellyn Smith, former UK ambassador to Greece and historian of modern Greece, best known for Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922, and who is now set to publish the first of a two-volume biography of the preeminent statesman of modern Greece, Eleftherios Venizelos, leader of the country during the Balkan wars, protagonist in the National Schism, the Paris Peace Conference, culminating in the Treaty of Sevres that gave Greece the opportunity to realise its ambition of the Greece of two continents and five seas, and in the aftermath of defeat by Turkish nationalist forces that led to the demise of Hellenism in multiple historic homelands. 

As a British historian, Llewellyn Smith may be forgiven for concentrating on the role of Britain in modern Greek affairs and in Venizelos’ thinking and approach. 

Thus, Llewellyn Smith stresses Venizelos’ conclusion that Greece was too weak to advance its interests and hopes in the Eastern Mediterranean and would need to depend on the patronage of Britain, the region’s superpower, if Greek efforts were to succeed. 

Persuading Britain that Greece was an ascending power in the Eastern Mediterranean, which the British empire could rely on, and that Turkey – which Britain had supported in one way or another since the 1840s as a means to keep Russia out of the region – was in terminal decline was Venizelos’ obsession. 

It was an analysis and policy that laid Venizelos open to acute criticism from his opponents – the Dragoumis family and Royalists – who felt Venizelos was diminishing Greece – its sovereignty, room for manoeuvre and ability to chart a course and take decisions entirely in accord with its interests – and making the country subservient to the whims of foreign powers. 

Venizelos’ devotion to Greece’s alliance with Britain remained with him throughout his career. Even after the demise of the Megali Idea, Venizelos insisted that Greece’s foreign policy could not be in conflict with Britain’s. 

It was this caution that shaped Venizelos’ reaction to Greek Cypriot representations to the Greek government after the 1931 uprising on Cyprus – the so-called Oktovriana, which culminated in the burning down of Government House – that challenged British colonial rule on the island and brought to the surface once again the Greek population’s demand for union with Greece. 

In response to pressure from prominent Greek Cypriots and the beginnings of a movement in Greece supporting Cypriot demands for Enosis, Venizelos was scathing. Not only did he order the suppression of any domestic support for Cyprus, but he made it clear to Greek Cypriot leaders that they would find no succour from Greece if they pursued their campaign to end British rule on the island. 

Describing Venizelos’ reaction to the Oktovriana, Holland and Markides write: 

‘Two weeks after the burning of [Governor Ronald] Storrs’s residence [in Nicosia], students in the University of Athens, notably replacing ‘Armistice Day’ with a new Hellenic celebration of ‘Cyprus Day’, demonstrated… The crowd was broken up by police acting under the direction of Venizelos, in office for the last time as Prime Minister. “The maintenance of friendly relations with Great Britain”, read the stern statement issued by Venizelos, “has been the policy of Greece since independence, and those who jeopardized this were insane.”’ (Robert Holland and Diana Markides: The British and the Hellenes, Struggles for Mastery in the Eastern Mediterranean 1850-1960).