Following the assassination in Sarayevo of the Archduke Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Austria declared war on Serbia. Thus began the First World War. Very quickly Russia, England, France and Germany were to became involved and consequently the two coalition blocks which coalesced around them.
The war had its causes in the conflicting interests of the industrialized European nations, in their competing colonial ambitions and in their economic penetration into the Near East. Venizelos sought for Greece to enter the war on the side of the Entente. The British and French, however, were looking for an alliance with, or to secure the neutrality of, Bulgaria and Turkey and for this reason Venizelos' proposals were rejected in the first instance.
The attempt on the part of the Entente to bring about a reconciliation among Serbia, Bulgaria, Turkey and Greece and to create a united Balkan alliance in support of their interests failed. In spite of these efforts, the British and French were unable to prevent the entrance into the war on the Austro-German side of Turkey in the first instance and later of Bulgaria.
The Greek royal establishment, however, was to oppose Venizelos' pro-Entente policy when the Greek Prime Minister petitioned for Greece to participate on the side of the Allies in the Dardanelles operation (February 1915).
King Konstantinos disagreed, influenced both by his belief in the military superiority of Germany and also by his German wife, Queen Sophia, and his pro-German court. He therefore strove to secure a neutrality which would be favourable to Germany and Austria.
The disagreement between the King and the Prime Minister led to the resignation of the Venizelos government on the 21st February 1915. In the elections held in May Venizelos was re-elected and he reiterated the treaty obligations which Greece had towards Serbia in the event of Serbia being attacked by Bulgaria. The Palace unyieldingly insisted on its position of neutrality. This led the Greek Prime Minister to a new resignation and his abstention from the elections which were held on 6th December 1915.
The pro-royalist governments which were installed thereafter succeeded only in creating a polarization of sentiment which divided Greece into two camps - the pro-royalists and the pro-Venizelists. This was to lead to the growth and entrenchment of national division with all its later consequences.
The National Defence Uprising 1916
On the 16th August 1916 the uprising of the National Defence took place in Thessalonica. This uprising was supported by the allied army which had in the meantime landed in the Macedonian capital. After some initial hesitation, Venizelos declared his support for the uprising and on the 26th September he moved to Chania where he set up a Provisional Government constituted initially by the triumvirate of himself, Admiral Koundouriotis and General Daglis. From Chania he then moved to Thessalonica. Venizelos' decision was influenced by the invasion of the Germans and Bulgarians into Eastern Macedonia and the capture and transferral to Germany of 4th army corps with the passive acquiescence of the pro-royalist government.
The first proclamation of the Revolutionary Government was published in the 1st edition of the Bulletin of the Provisional Government which was circulated in Chania on the 15th September 1916. It read as follows:
"The cup of bitterness, dishonour and humiliation has overflown. A policy, the motives of which we do not wish to examine, has led to a year and a half of such national disaster that anyone who compared the Greece of today with the Greece of a year and a half ago would doubt whether it was one and the same nation.
The Crown, having given ear to the advice of bad counsellors, has attempted to implement a personal policy through which Greece, having distanced herself from her traditional friends, has sought to ally herself with her traditional enemies."
On the 11th [24th] November 1916 the Provisional Government declared war on the Central Powers.
Greece in 1916 had been cut in two: On the one hand the state of Thessalonica, which included Macedonia, Crete and the islands of the Eastern Aegean, decided to conduct widespread conscription and organized the Archipelago Division and then the Cretan and Serres Divisions. On the other hand the government in Athens defended itself against the supporters of Venizelos with the discharged conscripts (men who had been liable for conscription) whom Ioannis Metaxas had organized into unofficial military units. In the course of Allied attempts to bring southern Greece under their control French battleships sailed into the port of Piraeus and landed 3,000 troops and at the same time bombarded areas of Athens around the Stadium and close to the Palace.
The intervention of the French forces infuriated the opponents of Venizelos. They were now able to accuse their adversaries of being traitors. National division reached its apogee. "The man who kills a supporter of Venizelos does not kill a human being", they proclaimed.
On the 2nd [15th] June 1917, following an ultimatum from the allies, the King abandoned the throne without resigning officially and fled to Switzerland, leaving his second son Alexandros in his place. Venizelos came to Athens and formed a government on the 13th June. On the 15th June he declared war on the Central Powers, confirming the similar declaration by the Provisional Government of Thessalonica. The war situation did not allow elections to be held and so Venizelos revoked the decree which had ordered the dissolution of the Parliament elected in 1915. The reconstituted Parliament was known ironically as the "Parliament of the Lazaruses". The active participation of Greece in the war at the side of the Allies led to the triumphant victory over the German and Bulgarian forces on the heights of Skra di Legen on 17th [30th] May 1918 and to the participation of the Greek forces in the final assault which caused the collapse of the front in September of the same year.
A few days later Bulgaria surrendered and in October Turkey signed an armistice at Moudros.
Following the victorious campaign fought by the Greeks, France d' Espere, the commander-in-chief of the Balkan Front, wrote, "Especially in relation to the Greek army I emphasize the zeal, the bravery and the proverbial passion which it displayed during the glorious role it played on the banks of the Strymona and the Axios".
The surrender of Germany on the 11th November 1918 brought an end to the Great War which had lasted four years and had caused unprecedented bloodshed throughout Europe.
From the outset of the war Venizelos' foreign policy had been predicated on the ultimate victory of the Allies and had aimed to give Greece a place at the side of the victors at the end of the war. This policy had now triumphed.
The Peace Conference: Venizelos' Memorandum: the Treaties of Neigy and Sevres
The Peace Conference was convoked in Paris from January until June of 1919. The aim of the conference was to settle the differences and outstanding issues which had arisen among the victorious and the defeated parties.
Greece's role at the Conference was not easy. The Greek Prime Minister prepared a memorandum about the Greek claims taking account of ethnological and geo-political considerations. In the Memorandum he lays claim to areas with a Greek population such as Thrace, Smyrna and its hinterland and Northern Epirus. The Greek claims conflicted with the interests of some of the Great Powers (Italy and France) and the job of the premier was made more difficult by the fact that Greece had entered the war on the Allied side following a lamentable series of misadventures and at the eleventh hour. In spite of this, the question of Western Thrace was resolved by the Treaty of Neigy (27th November 1919). Bulgaria abandoned the area east of the Nestos river up to the river Evros and this territory was awarded to Greece. Events such as the Ukrainian Campaign (February 1919) and the landing of Greek troops in Asia Minor (May 1919) were to pave the way for the signing of the Treaty of Sevres which concerned areas of vital importance for Greece and made the Great Idea a reality.
Venizelos, purely for reasons of national interest, responded positively to the Allied proposal for Greece to participate with an expeditionary force in the Ukraine in order to prevent the Bolsheviks from establishing their control in the area following the October Revolution of 1917.
The Treaty of Sevres (1920) ceded to Greece Western and Eastern Thrace, the islands of Imbros and Tenedos and confirmed her sovereignty over the other Aegean islands which she had held since 1913. It also entrusted the administration of the Smyrna area to the Greek state with the role of interim authority responsible for public order in Ionia. In accordance with the principle of self-determination, the inhabitants of the area were to decide after a period of five years whether they preferred union with Greece or to remain part of Turkey.
Northern Epirus was to be incorporated into the newly established Albanian state, which was to be in effect a protectorate of Italy which, however, ceded to Greece the Dodecannese with the exception of the island of Rhodes. (This agreement was revoked by Italy in 1922.)
With the signing of the Treaty of Sevres Venizelos reached the high water mark of his diplomatic success.
In 1913 with the Treaty of London and the Treaty of Bucharest he had extended the boundaries of Greece to include Macedonia and Epirus. He had incorporated Crete and the islands of the Eastern Aegean and now, with the Treaty of Sevres he gave Thrace to Greece and laid the foundations for the transfer of a part of Asia Minor to the Greek state after a five-year period.
Greece celebrated the creation of a state "of five seas and two continents".
In spite of all this, fanaticism continued to create a deep rift between the opposing political parties and to impel them towards unacceptable actions. Two cashiered royalist soldiers shot the Greek leader in Paris at the Lyon railway station as he was returning to Greece. Venizelos was wounded in the right hand. This event was to provoke unrest in Greece and to create a sorry impression on the Allies and provided more fuel for the national division. The persecution of opponents of Venizelos reached a climax with the unthinking and pointless assassination of Ion Dragoumis.
Venizelos' return to Athens created a climate of enthusiasm. At a special ceremony the Greek Parliament proclaimed Venizelos a "Worthy son of his country" in recognition of his invaluable services to the Greek people.
Once the Greek Parliament had ratified the Treaty of Sevres, elections were called for October and the long lived Parliament was finally dissolved.
The pre-electoral period was marked by two events which were to have much more decisive consequences than was originally apparent. The first was the unexpected death of King Alexandros and the second was the populist rhetoric adopted by the United Opposition.
The elections, which were postponed on account of the King's death, were fixed to take place on the 1st [13th] November 1920. Venizelos' opponents made the form of government (Monarchy versus Republic) the central issue of the elections in order to damage the Liberal Party.
The result of the elections was to belie the forecasts and the initial expectations of an extensive victory for the supporters of Venizelos.
The Liberal Party received 375, 803 votes as against the 368,678 votes cast for the United Opposition (cf. Alexandros Papanastasiou, ?EIOIU·U›· I·E EIIOAEI_ ™‡UUEI· [Democracy and Electoral System]). On account of the electoral system (simple majority with a broad electoral district), however, the Venizelos party won 118 seats while the United Opposition secured 251. Venizelos failed even to be elected as an MP. The national division, the political propaganda of the populist party, the mistakes of the Liberals and the war-weariness of the conscripted Greek soldiers who had been serving continuously for eight years and more (a point exploited by the anti-Venizelos party during the run-up to the elections), all led a large proportion of the population to be misled by the promises of the opponents of Venizelos or to place their personal advantage above the general good, since they were unable to understand how crucial these elections were and what the more general consequences of a defeat for Venizelos would be.
The first priority of the newly elected members was to return King Konstantinos to the throne following a referendum on the 6th December 1920. Thereafter they proceeded to replace the senior administrators in the public services and the army leadership with people of their own party and to do away with many of Venizelos' reforms.
The return of Konstantinos was to give the Allies an occasion to withdraw their confidence in Greece and some of them entered into negotiations with Kemal. At the same time the purges in the public services and in the army weakened the country at a crucial moment, the very time when unity and a sense of national purpose should have been forged.