Eleftherios Venizelos was one of the principal protagonists in the events of this period. Nonetheless, scholarly interest in his activity during this period has been much less than the interest shown in the later periods of his national and political contribution.
In this respekt we believe that the establishment of the National Research Foundation "Eleftherios Venizelos" will contribute significantly to historical research in that it will bring to light unknown documents which will illuminate many aspects of his activity at this time.
The early steps of the young lawyer, journalist and Member of Parliament, who as he becomes involved in the events, develops and to a large extent is formed into a leading personality gradually winning recognition and international influence, constitute one of the most interesting chapters in modern Greek history.
And it is in the nature of things that a great personality such as that of Eleftherios Venizelos should arise at the end of the 19th century in the political firmament of Chania with its heroic, revolutionary and political atmosphere.
In 1889 a revolution with a marked political and party character breaks out in Chania with consequences which will weigh heavily on the Cretan Question in the years that follow.
It is a revolution which was to be brilliantly analysed by the then 25 year old Eleftherios Venizelos and which was to be given literary form in the novel "Kapetan Mihali" by Nikos Kazantzakis.
In 1889 two years had passed since Eleftherios Venizelos had returned to Chania. During that period he had twice been candidate for the position of judge in the Court of Appeal. He was elected, however, in second place as deputy judge and resigned. After this failure he turned to work as an attorney.
Έπειτα από τη δοκιμασία αυτή στρέφεται προς τη Δικηγορία.
In December 1889 his brother-in-law K. Mitsotakis, a leading personality in the political and journalistic scene in Chania with important revolutionary activity, was elected Appeal Judge and thereafter resigned from his journalistic activity transferring his ownership of the newspaper "White Mountains" (Lefka Ori) to Venizelos.
Venizelos undertook the publication of the newspaper in colaboration with his fellow lawyers K. Foumis, H. Pologiorgis and I. Moatsos. This team of young intellectuals was known as the "White Mountaineers". Venizelos' first foray into journalism, though brief, was exceptionally successful. He succeeded in making the "White Mountains" into a serious platform for promoting national, social, cultural and international questions. His own articles in the paper are marked by perpicuity, maturity and realism, especially as regards the national issue of Crete and at the same time he exercises the most bitter criticism of the Turkish administration for the economic and social deprivation which existed then in Crete.
The time, however, had come for Eleftherios Venizelos to assume a political role.
On the 2nd April 1889 he was elected for the first time as Member of Parliament of the Cretan Parliament. Along with him the other members of the "White Mountaineers" group were also elected. They brought into Cretan political life new manners and new ideas, foreign and often opposed to the primitive parliamentary mores of the time.
The appearance of Venizelos himself on the political scene "would adorn Crete with a new light and rhythm" as Th. Sofoulis was later aptly to remark.
His first appearance was accompanied by a personal triumph which he imposed on friends and enemies. Disregarding the political cost, he rejected and abjured the political ostracization of opponents of his party. This ostracism, in accordance with the then existing parliamentary tradition, was imposed by the majority party which, with a simple majority and without any other procedure, had the ability to remove seats from the opposition.
Venizelos' parliamentary presence was characterized by the articulation of a new political discourse which was distinguished by authority, clarity and strong arguments. It was inimical to demagogic discourse, especially on the national issue of the union of Crete with Greece. Here he studiously avoided exploiting the inmost desires of the Cretan people, though it would have been easy for him to do so. He feared the strong party passions of the period and causing division in the Cretan people and he was filled with anxiety for the future of Crete.
On the 6th May 1889 Venizelos' parliamentary career was abruptly interrupted. Members of Parliament belonging to the travellers' party, in order to embarrass the liberal majority, brought a petition to the house demanding the immediate proclamation of the union of Crete with Greece. Venizelos immediately saw the dangers in this unrealistic and untimely intervention and for that reason he remonstrated against it while at the same time struggling to maintain an atmosphere of moderation and appeasement.
The tumultuous and tragic events which followed fully justified the fears of the young politician. Crete paid for the new wave of rebellion with blood, terrorism, persecutions and destruction. The Ottoman establishment imposed Military Law and seized this unhoped-for opportunity to remove privileges which had been granted to the Cretan people in the Chalepa Agreement.
After the failed uprising its instigators fled to the Greek mainland. Venizelos and the group of "White Mountaineers", even though they had been opped to the rebellion, in order to avoid arrest, were helped to escape at night by the British Consul Billioti.
Venizelos and his group, as soon as they arrived in Athens, were received by H. Trikoupis who in no uncertain terms expressed his resolute opposition to any uprising in Crete which was not under the direction of the Greek Government.
A few days later Trikoupis repeated the same position in the Greek Parliament emphasising that "the Turks will repay the handful of fighters in the mountains with slaughters and imprisonments in the towns... and in terms of magnitude and in terms of duration the movement must be such as to provoke the intervention of Europe to create the future Cretan State".
During this period Trikoupis refused to encourage and support revolutionary movements since he knew that Greece did not have the forces to pursue a policy of liberation.
During his stay in Athens Venizelos had meetings with the Greek Prime Minister, a powerful figure who was to influence significantly the formation of the personality of the young politician. Trikoupis' policies exercised a deep influence on the formation of Venizelos' opinions in relation to the Cretan Question and more generally the question of the liberation of Greek populations.
Venizelos understood that the Greece of that time could not help Crete and the enslaved Greek populations if it did not first acquire a strong economy, battle-ready military forces and above all strong international support.
Trikoupis' line of foreign policy was to be followed a few years later by Venizelos when he became Prime Minister and it was formulated by him in the statement that "it is in the interest of small nations to avoid conflicts with the Great Powers. They must adapt to the prevailing circumstances and pursue the fulfillment of their national aspirations step by step"..
Throughout the many vicissitudes of Venizelos' career he was to face similar tragic dilemmas to the one faced by Trikoupis during the Cretan Revolution of 1889. In particular, in regard to the Cretan and Cyprus questions, in oder to avoid a premature Greek-Turkish was, he was obliged to prohibit entrance to the Greek Parliament to Cretan Members of Parliament before the Balkan Wars. And in 1931 he was to publicly renounce the uprising of the Cypriots against the British because he regarded it as untimely and dangerous to the general interests of the Greek populations.
In the spring of 1890 Venizelos and his group of "White Mountaineers", after the intervention of the Greek Government and negotiations through the consulates of the Great Powers, returned to Chania without receiving an amnesty and in spite of the fact that they were under trial. For a period of 6 years Venizelos withdrew from active involvement in politics and worked exclusively as an attorney. At the same time he put his personal life in order and married Maria Katelouzou.
At the same time the situation in Crete deteriorated dramatically and the Ottoman rule became ever more tyrannical. In 1895 the Political Reform committe broke out and spread particularly in Western Crete. On the 22nd August 1896, after successes by the revolutionaries and under pressure from the Great Powers, the Porte conceded the "New Cretan form of Government".
A few days earlier, on the 17th and 18th August, during the revolutionary assembly at Kamboi Kydonia, Venizelos reappeared as delegate from Chalepa. Indeed, during the assembly there was a conspiracy against his life which was averted by Koundouros as he himself reveals in his book, "Historical and Diplomatic Revelations". It is certainly known that Eleftherios Venizelos was opposed to and often antagonistic to the Governance-change Revolution for the same reasons that he opposed the revolution of 1889.
The new form of government, however, was a great success for the Revolution and a personal success for its leader Manousos Koundouros since the reforms which it entailed established in effect the supremacy of the Christian population in Cretan public affairs.
The Muslims understood the very negative consequences which the introduction of the new form of government would have for them and the reacted violently.
At the instigation of Constantinople and of the Turkish Military Administrator of Crete they formed an illegal organization, armed themselves, planned disruptions and prepared for a counter-attack. A proclamation of the Turkish Cretans which circulated in Chania writes: "Sons of our fatherland, the gradual surrender of our beloved Crete to the claws of our merciless enemy is being concocted... Look at the privileges which are now being accorded to the Christians instead of punishments. These privileges are the destruction of the nation:. We are thus led to a new conflict which, apart from the Turks, was also desired by many Greeks in Athens and in Crete.
The impending storm was sensed by Venizelos and other Creatan leaders and in a letter which they wrote in the autumn of 1896 they wrote: "... a terrible eruption of the Cretan volcano is in the offing". The eruption is coming "much sooner than expected" wrote the newspaper "Akropolis" in Athens.
The supreme moment for Crete had come. It was the time for the decisive settling of accounts that had gone back centuries. In effect the Muslims attempted a counter-revolution which ignited the new revolution of the Greeks. At the beginning of 1897 the collision of the two populations, which was to assume violent proportions, commenced. The Turks attacked in the towns and the Greeks responded in the countryside. On the 12th and 18th January the Turks proceed to slaughters in Iraklion and Rethymnon.
The climax of the tragedy, however, is played out in Chania where on the 22nd January a great conflagration burns the Christian quarter of the town and defenceless Christians are slaughtered indiscriminately.
At the time the troubles erupted elections had already been announced in accordance with the new form of government. G. Papantonakis, in his book "The Political Career of Eleftherios Venizelos":, writes: "Venizelos was at that time going around the province of Kydonia. He was in the area south-east of Chania when he noticed smoke which was rising above the town and without delay he joined an armed group of Christians in the village of Malaxa.".
On the 22nd January 1897 in the Akrotiri Diary there is the entry: "Venizelos and G. Mylonogiannis with 100 rebelsare dispatched via Almyrida to the Akrotiri"..
Thus the epic events of the Akrotiri began and Venizelos the revolutionary was born. Gradually Venizelos was to become the mind and heart of the revolution. Venizelos took part as a member in the Administrative Committee of the Revolutionary Camp of the Akrotiri and on the 25th January, after instructions from the Greek Government, he signed along with the other members of the Committee the proclamation of Union which was subsequently communicated to the Consuls of the Great Powers in Chania.
A number of historians are puzzled by Venizelos' change of heart and regard it as sudden and inexplicable in view of his previous opposition to dynamic solutions to the Cretan Question. In her book, "Eleftherios Venizelos 1864-1910. The formation of a national leader", Lili Makraki notes that Venizelos never ceased to strive for union with Greece. He believed, however, in a step by step approach to his goal. The developments following the concessions from the Sultan in conjunction with the encouragement from the Greek Government created the impression that union was a possibility. Moreover, the violent unrest which had broken out in Crete at that time did not leave many options open.
A book devoted to the Revolution of 1897 (published by the Haniotika Nea newspaper and the Charitable Foundation "Saint Sophia") has recently given an answer to this delicate question. In the chapter entitled "Venizelos" the historian Haralambos Bournazos publishes and comments on an unknown and unpublished manuscript of Eleftherios Venizelos which was brought to light after research in the archives of the Benaki Museum. This document which bears the date 28th January 1897 was written by Venizelos on the Akrotiri and is addressed to the whole of revolutionary Crete. In this document it is stated that the Greek Government was the one that recommended the proclamation of union and proposed the formation of a Revolutionary Government. It adds that the union "was proclaimed as soon as we received knowledge of this recommendation" and concludes with the exhortation "that it is esential to proclaim the union as swiftly as possible". This document in Venizelos' own hand expresses his own views. Form this moment Venizelos became the standard-bearer of the revolution and gradually assumed its leadership.
The developments from this point are rapid. The seige of Arhanes near Iraklion which was to last for many months now begins and on the 3rd of February Greek forces land at Kolymbari in the Gulf of Chania under the leadership of Colonel Timoleon Vassos. On the 7th February Venizelos himself takes part along with 70 revolutionaries in the taking of the Prophet Ilias hill above Chania and raises the Greek flag. For two days thereafter the fleet of the Great Powers bombards the Akrotiri and there follow the heroic acts of rebellion culminating in the raising of the flag by Spyros Kagiale. On the 9th February in conjunction with K. Foumis and G. Kotzabasakis they compose that famous letter in which they claim that number of the dead on the Akrotiri as a result of the bombardment by the fleets of the foreign Powers has reached 18. The letter is deliberately leaked to the international press and there is an international outcry and the policy of the Great Powers.
In the Akrotiri Diary the explanation is given that "the absence of victims would diminish the impression created by the bombardment" and that for reasons of national expediency the truth was distorted. To avoid any misinterpretation the letter does not refer to those who were in fact killed in encounters with the Turks.
On the 15th February Venizelos wrote a memorandum on behalf of the Administrative Committee protesting to the admirals about the bombardment of the Camp. From this date he assumed official responsibility for the exchange of diplomatic correspondence and enters into the stage of international diplomacy.
On the 15th March the Great Powers conceded autonomy to Crete. At the Revolutionary Assembly at Armenes Apokoronou which took place from the 26th June to the 10th July it was decided not to discuss the question of Union versus Autonomy. Venizelos along with Foumis visited the Admiral Kanevaros and informed him of this decision and they extracted from him the promise that the Great Powers would resolve the Cretan Question immediately after the signing of the Peace between Greece and Turkey (there had intervened in the meantime the humiliating defeat of the country in the 1897 war ). At all events it was agreed that the discussion of the national question would take place in Chania close to the admirals' command post. On this basis the new Assembly at Archanes Iraklion commenced on the 5th August. Venizelos here took the chair and refused to allow discussion of the political question in accordance with what he had agreed in Chania.
There followed dramatic events during which two different views on the resolution of the Cretan Question came into collision. The autonomists took advantage of the absence of delegates and forcibly ousted Venizelos from the chair. They then voted in favour of autonomy and sent their vote to the Admirals, who, fortunately, refused to accept it.
An unknown and unpublished document by the delegate Malevizios Perdikaris (an important intellectual and educationalist, later founder of the Iraklion Lyceum "Korais" and headmaster of the Chania Gymnasion from the year 1892 at the time when Venizelos was a member of the School Board) which has recently been brought to light by N. Petroulakis following research in the archives of the Foreign Ministry illuminates a murky area of our modern history and fully justifies Venizelos' actions. In this document of Perdikaris, which is addressed to the then Greek Prime Minister and is confidential, the events of Aharnes are described and it is explained that the decision was taken by a minority of 40 delegates after a crowd of armed men laid seige to Venizelos' house. "With pointed weapons and with threats to blow up the house with dynamite or to burn it down they tried to force the occupants of the house to sign the declaration accepting Autonomy. Desperate attempts were made by some to disperse the armed crowd and finally they succeeded, but only after assurances had been given to the crowd that their wishes would be complied with."
Under these conditions the decisions of the Arhanes Assembly were regarded as void and for that reason two months later a new Assembly was convoked at Melidoni Mylopotamos which accepted the autonomy of Crete.
The following year 1898 the seat of the Assembly was moved to Plakoures on the Akrotiri and there on the 5th July the Cretan Executive was elected with I. Sfakianakis as chairman and Eleftherios Venizelos, G. Mylonoyiannis, E. Zaharakis and N. Yiamalakis as members.
In the meantime developments were accelerated by the events in Iraklion. On the 25th August the Turks at the instigation of the army set fire to the town, slaughtered numerous Christians, 17 British soldiers and the British Consul. The British landed troops, took the town and executed 17 Turkish Cretans by hanging. On the 13th September the Ambassadors of the Great Powers in Constantinople delivered an ultimatum to the Turkish Government to withdraw their troops from Crete. On the 3rd November the Turkish army abandoned Crete followed by half the Muslim population of the island. On the 9th December Prince George arrived at Souda and assumed the position of High Commissioner. On the 25th December the committee for the preparation of the Constitution for the Independent Cretan State was appointed. Eleftherios Venizelos was a member of this committee and principal author of the Constitution.
Thus the period of the Cretan State commences. This solution was accepted by the Cretans, leaving the demand for Union for more favourable national and international circumstances.
Nikolaos E. Papadakis,
General Director of the National Research Foundation "Eleftherios K.Venizelos"
- Manousos Koundouros, Diary. Historical and Diplomatic Revelations, Athens 1921.
- Lili Makraki, Eleftherios Venizelos 1864-1910. The formation of a national leader, Athens 1992.
- Zoi Mitsotaki, The House of Eleftherios Venizelos in Chalepa Chania. His lifetime home, published by the National Research Foundation "Eleftherios Venizelos", Chania 2001.
- Georgios Papantonakis, The Political Career of Eleftherios Venizelos, Vol. I, Athens 1921.
- Konstantinos Svolopoulos, Eleftherios Venizelos and the political crisis in Autonomous Crete 1901-1906, Athens 1974.
- The Cretan State, (published by the Haniotika Nea newspaper and the Charitable Foundation "Saint Sophia") Chania 2000.