Ingenious scholars, surveying life from afar, are apt to interpret historical events as the outcome of impersonal forces which shape the course of nations unknown to themselves. This is an impressive theory, but it will not bear close scrutiny. Human nature everywhere responds to the influence of personality. In Greece, this response is more marked than anywhere else. No people in the world has been so completely dominated by personal figures and suffered so grievously from their feuds, ever since the day when strife first parted Atreides, king of men, and god-like Achilles.
The outbreak of the European War found Greece under the sway of King Constantine and his Premier Eleutherios Venizelos; and her history during that troubled era inevitably centres round these two personalities.
By the triumphant conduct of the campaigns of 1912 and 1913, King Constantine had more than effaced the memory of his defeat in 1897. His victories ministered to the national lust for power and formed an earnest of the glory that was yet to come to Greece. Henceforth a halo of military romance—a thing especially dear to the hearts of men—shone about the head of Constantine; and his grateful country bestowed upon him the title of Stratelates.
In town mansions and village huts, men’s mouths were filled with his praise: one dwelt on his dauntless courage, another on his strategic genius, a third on his sympathetic recognition of the claims of the common soldier, whose hardships he shared, and for whose life he evinced a far greater solicitude than for his own.
But it was not only as a leader of armies that King Constantine appealed to the hearts of his countrymen. They loved to explain to strangers the reason of the name Koumbaros or “Gossip,” by which they commonly called him. It was not so much, they would say, that he had stood godfather to the children born to his soldiers during the campaigns, but rather that his relations with the rank and file of the people at large were marked by the intimate interest of a personal companion.
In peace, as in war, he seemed a prince born to lead a democratic people. With his tall, virile figure, and a handsome face in which strength and dignity were happily blended with simplicity, he had a manner of address which was very engaging: his words, few, simple, soldier-like, produced a wonderful effect; they were the words of one who meant and felt what he said: they went straight to the hearer’s heart because they came straight from the speaker’s.
Qualities of a very different sort had enabled M. Venizelos to impose himself upon the mind of the Greek nation, and to make his name current in the Chancelleries of the world. Having begun life as an obscure lawyer in Crete, he had risen through a series of political convulsions to high notability in his native island; and in 1909 a similar convulsion in Greece—brought about not without his collaboration—opened to him a wider sphere of activity. The moment was singularly opportune.
The discontent of the Greek people at the chronic mismanagement of their affairs had been quickened by the Turkish Revolution into something like despair. Bulgaria had exploited that upheaval by annexing Eastern Rumelia: Greece had failed to annex Crete, and ran the risk, if the Young Turks’ experiment succeeded, of seeing the fulfillment of all her national aspirations frustrated for ever.
A group of military malcontents in touch with the Cretan leader translated the popular feeling into action: a revolt against the reign of venality and futility which had for so many years paralyzed every effort, which had sometimes sacrificed and always subordinated the interests of the nation to the interests of faction, and now left Greece a prey to Bulgarian and Ottoman ambition. The old politicians, who were the cause of the ill obviously could not effect a cure. A new man was needed—a man free from the deadening influences of a corrupt past—a man daring enough to initiate a new course and tenacious enough to push on with inexorable purpose to the goal.
During the first period of his career, M. Venizelos had been a capable organizer of administrative departments no less than a clever manipulator of seditious movements. But he had mainly distinguished himself as a rebel against authority. And it was in the temper of a rebel that he came to Athens. Obstacles, however, external as well as internal, made a subversive enterprise impossible. With the quick adaptability of his nature, he turned into a guardian of established institutions: the foe of revolution and friend of reform. Supported by the Crown, he was able to lift his voice for a “Revisionist” above the angry sea of a multitude clamouring for a “Constituent Assembly.”
All that was healthy in the political world rallied to the new man; and the new man did not disappoint the faith placed in him. Through the next two years he stood in every eye as the embodiment of constructive statesmanship. His government had strength enough in the country to dispense with “graft.” The result was a thorough overhauling of the state machinery. Self-distrust founded on past failures vanished. Greece seemed like an invalid healed and ready to face the future. It was a miraculous change for a nation whose political life hitherto had exhibited two traits seldom found combined: the levity of childhood and the indolence of age.
For this miracle the chief credit undoubtedly belonged to M. Venizelos. He had brought to the task a brain better endowed than any associated with it. His initiative was indefatigable; his decision quick. Unlike most of his countrymen, he did not content himself with ideas without works. His subtlety in thinking did not serve him as a substitute for action.
To these talents he added an eloquence of the kind which, to a Greek multitude, is irresistible, and a certain gift which does not always go with high intelligence, but, when it does, is worth all the arts of the most profound politician and accomplished orator put together. He understood, as it were instinctively, the character of every man he met, and dealt with him accordingly. This tact, coupled with a smile full of sweetness and apparent frankness, gave to his vivid personality a charm which only those could appraise who experienced it.
Abroad the progress of M. Venizelos excited almost as much interest as it did in Greece. The Greeks are extraordinarily sensitive to foreign opinion: a single good word in a Western newspaper raises a politician in public esteem more than a whole volume of homemade panegyric. M. Venizelos had not neglected this branch of his business; and from the outset every foreign journalist and diplomatist who came his way was made to feel his fascination: so that, even before leaving his native shores, the Cretan had become in the European firmament a star of the third or fourth magnitude. Reasons other than personal contributed to enlist Western opinion in his favour.
Owing to her geographical situation, Greece depends for the fulfillment of her national aspirations and for her very existence on the Powers which command the Mediterranean. A fact so patent had never escaped the perception of any Greek politician. But no Greek politician had ever kept this fact more steadily in view, or put this obvious truth into more vehement language than M. Venizelos: “To tie Greece to the apron-strings of the Sea Powers,” was his maxim. And the times were such that those Powers needed a Greek statesman whom they could trust to apply that maxim unflinchingly.
Excerpted from Greece and the Allies: 1914-1922 (1922), by G.F. Abbot, courtesy of Project Gutenberg. Photographs courtesy of European Parliament, Bloco de Esquerda, and Matthew Tsimitak. Published under a Creative Commons license.