“Megali Idea” And Greek Irredentism In The Wars For A Greater Greece, 1912−1923

The origins of Megali Idea

Greece became the independent state (from the Ottoman Empire) in 1829−1833 with the crucial diplomatic, political, financial and military assistance by the UK and Russia. It was a very fact that the Kingdom of Greece incorporated at that time only around 25% of the Greeks who were living at the Balkans and Asia Minor (the Near East). Such situation created tensions between Greece and the Ottoman Empire as the Greeks wanted their total national unification what was possible only under the conditions of the destruction of the Ottoman Empire. Therefore, from the very beginning of its sovereignty, the chief aim of the Greek foreign policy was to realize the idea of national unification which was some 60 years after the granting of independence officially formulated as an irredentist project of Megali Idea (Great Idea) – a territorial extension for the sake to create united (Greater) Greece[1] based on the claiming historical and ethnic Greek territories existing within the borders of the Byzantine Empire, which is considered by the Greeks as their medieval national state. Therefore, the capital of such Greater Greece would be Constantinople (the Ottoman/Turkish Istanbul). The proponents of Megali Idea, in other words, aspired to unite within the borders of a single national political unity all the areas of Greek settlement in the Near East. The historical sources indicate that this term was used for the first time by Ioannis Kolettis who was a Hellenized Vlach. In 1844, in the debates about the Greek constitution, I. Kolettis championed the state’s policy to include the so-called heterochthons – the Greek-speakers living as diaspora outside the national state. As a contrast, Greece was populated by the autochthons or the “natives”, i.e. the Greeks from the heartland of the struggle for the national independence. For him, Greek territory was any land associated with Greek history and/or Greek people and their culture. In the first half of the 19th century, there were two centers of Hellenic culture: Athens – a capital city of the Kingdom of Greece and Constantinople – a capital city of the medieval Byzantine Empire called by the Greeks “the dream and hope of all Greeks”. What exactly told Ioannis Kolettis before the constituent assembly in Athens in 1844 is:

“The Greek kingdom is not the whole of Greece, but only a part, the smallest and poorest part. A native is not only someone who lives within this Kingdom, but also one who lives in Ioannina, in Thessaly, in Serres, in Adrianople, in Constantinople, in Trebizond, in Crete, in Samos and in any land associated with Greek history or the Greek race…”[2]

However, the policy of Greek irredentism was not a unique phenomenon in the 19th-century Balkan history as Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Albanians, and Croats had their own political projects to create their own mega national states too. A difference between the Greeks on one hand and all other Balkan nations on other was a fact that other Balkan nations were relatively compactly settled in comparison to the Greeks who have been widely scattered within a region of the Near East.[3] More precisely, the Greek settlements were located from Valona (today Albania’s Vlorë) in the west to Varna in Bulgaria in the north and from Crete in the south to Cappadocia in the east. The problem was that such huge territory was intermixed by many Balkan and Anatolian people making some microregions even without a clear ethnic majority. Therefore, it is not of any surprise that Balkan nationalisms met each other in many provinces bringing Balkan nations into the open military conflicts (for instance, the Second Balkan War in 1913). The Greek-speakers were divided into two groups according to their confessional affiliations: The Muslims and the Christian Orthodox. The first group was presented, for instance, in Cyprus and Crete, while the inhabitants of the Aegean Islands belonged to the second group. However, only a few of those islands became parts of independent Greece after the War of Independence in 1821−1829. In addition, there was a very large Greek population in Constantinople/Istanbul around the shores of the Sea of Marmara, and along the western littoral of Asia Minor especially around the city of Smyrna/Izmir and in the very center of Anatolia (Cappadocia). However, there were many ethnic Greeks who spoke the Turkish language being, in fact, assimilated and denationalized. The northern littoral of Asia Minor – the Pontos (between the Black Sea and the Pontic Alps), was as well populated with a large number of Greeks who were kind of specific and extraordinary members of the Greek national corpus as having been isolated for the centuries from the mainstream of the Greek culture and civilization. The Pontic Greeks in large numbers preferred to emigrate to much more welcoming Christian Orthodox Russia’s northern shores of the Black Sea. They were speaking a form of the Greek language that was basically a dialect hardly understood by the heterochthons Greeks in Greece.

Ideas for Greek expansion
Ideas for Greek expansion

It is very important to emphasize that the choice of Athens as a capital city was, in fact, of the temporal solution till Constantinople would be incorporated into the united national state of Greece according to the design of Megali Idea. In the early 1830s, Athens was, on one hand, nothing more than a big dusty village but on other hand it was a settlement which was dominated by the imposing ruins of the Antique time like the Acropolis and its splendid Parthenon with their associations with the glories of the Classical Age of the Greek history.[4] Nevertheless, the choice of Athens was a clear indicator of the cultural orientation of a new Greece toward the classical past of the Greek national history. Very soon the proponents of Megali Idea developed an ideological framework which connected a Greek classical history with the medieval Byzantine time[5] and modern period into one theory of unbroken continuity of the national historical development. The Greek literal language at that time experienced the Katharevousa – a purification of the language according to the classical standards. In 1837 the university was established with the prime task to spread out the ideas of a Hellenic culture and civilization for the sake of re-Hellenization of Greeks. The university’s students, however, have been not only from Greece but as well from other Greek-populated territories who then returning to their homes were spreading the ideas of Hellenism and unified Greek lands into a single nation-state. The Ottoman authorities started only after the Greek-Ottoman War of 1897 to restrict educational and national propaganda among the heterochthons Greeks, i.e. those who were living in the diaspora.

A practical realization of Megali Idea

A practical realization of the pan-Hellenic unification was passing through several stages what primarily depended on the matter of international relations between the European Great Powers. Surely, for the whole century, after Greece obtained its independence, the Greek foreign policy was dominated by Megali Idea – a grandiose vision of restoring the Byzantine Empire by the annexation of all lands of compact Greek settlement in the Near East (Asia Minor and the Balkans), with Constantinople as the capital. During the period of Pax Ottomanica (or Tourkokratia), Russia was seen by all Balkan Christian Orthodox people as a natural protector and ultimate liberator from the Ottoman yoke. For Greeks, Russia was playing this role during the first decades of the independence as well for the sake to assist in the realization of the Greek irredentist ambitions framed by Megali Idea. During the Crimean War in 1853−1856, there was a great enthusiasm among Greeks to support Russia hoping that in the case of Russia’s victory, Thessaly and Epirus, in which the Greek guerrilla detachments were operating, will be annexed by Athens. However, in the decade after the Crimean War, the Greek enthusiasm for the Russian support declined for the reason that Sankt Petersburg championed Bulgarians, especially in disputed Macedonia – the fundamental rivals of the Greeks for the influence and hegemony in the Ottoman Macedonia. Therefore, Athens turned its attention toward the UK from which got seven Ionian Islands in 1864 (according to the London Treaty)[6] likewise Thessaly and the Arta district of Epirus in 1881 as a result of the decisions by the West European Great Powers at the Berlin Congress (June−July 1878).

The process of industrialization and political realization of Megali Idea, as the dominant ideology of the emerging state, brought Greece into a large international (primarily to the UK) debt.[7] However, the debt, on another side, provided the fundamental basis for the Greek victory in both Balkan Wars in 1912−1913, as a result of which Greece doubled its territory by annexing Aegean Macedonia, Crete and some other East Mediterranean islands. During the time of the Great War in 1914−1918 the Greek political agenda was influenced by fundamental constitutional, ideological, and social conflict about the side Greece should support in order to go further toward the final realization of the project of Megali Idea. Two basic positions became crystallized from the very beginning of the war:

  1. The Germanophile King, Constantine I,[8] insisted on the Greek strict neutrality that was, in fact, an indirect supporting of the Central Powers.
  2. The liberal government of Eleftherios Venizelos[9] advocated supporting the war on the side of the Entente (the UK, Russia, France).

As a result of such struggle, King Constantine I dismissed his ministers, who now formed an alternative government in opposition to him residing in North Greece in Thessaloniki in September 1916. Therefore, Greece became divided during the WWI into the southern Germanophile part with Athens, governed by the King and the northern pro-Allied part administered by the alternative government. Taking into consideration this internal political disputes and instability, the external pressure by both military blocs made the Greek neutrality practically impossible to further maintain. Finally, the Entente’s powers entered North Greece in April 1916 for the sake to protect the alternative government in Thessaloniki forcing, at the same time, the King into exile in June 1917. The Macedonian Front was created in North Greece wherefrom the beginning of the end of the Central Powers and their satellites started in mid-September 1918. Subsequently, Greece found itself at the end of the war on the side of the victorious Entente with a great hope to ultimately establish a unified national state of Greeks by the annexation of the Greek-populated lands in Anatolia (Asia Minor), the Aegean Sea islands and the Balkan Thrace with Constantinople.[10]

A catastrophe of Megali Idea

After the Great War, according to the Peace Treaty of Sèvres (August 10th, 1920), Greece had to realize its greatest territorial expansion since its independence in 1829/1833.[11] More precisely, according to the treaty, Adrianople (Edirne), East Thrace, and Smyrna (Izmir) region in Asia Minor were given to Greece from the Ottoman Empire which participated in the war on the side of the Central Powers. Rhodes and the Dodecanese Islands went to Italy, while, according to the same treaty, a short-lived independent Republic of Armenia was created and Kurdistan gained autonomy as well. The Ottoman Empire lost its Arab-populated provinces. The Bosphorus and Dardanelles were demilitarized and placed under the international supervision. The Ottoman army had to be reduced to 50.000 soldiers. However, the Peace Treaty of Sèvres increased Turkish nationalistic sentiments and united nationalistic Turks around a new leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The treaty was never ratified by the Ottoman Parliament in Istanbul and, therefore, it never came into force. A war criminal and killer of Armenians, Assyrians, and Greeks Mustafa Kemal Atatürk reclaimed Smyrna region from Greece in a successful military campaign in 1922, which finally led to the new treaty now much favorable to the Ottoman Empire – the Treaty of Lausanne (July 24th, 1923). This is a settlement which, basically, replaced the earlier Treaty of Sèvres after the Greek-Ottoman War of 1919−1922[12]: Greece had to return Smyrna region and East Thrace with Adrianople to the Ottoman Empire (soon transformed into the Republic of Turkey).[13] According to the same treaty, Kurdistan lost autonomy and the Ottoman reconquest of independent Armenia was confirmed. The Ottoman/Turkish government, in returned, accepted the British mandate over Palestine and Iraq and the French mandate over Syria and Lebanon. Cyprus was confirmed as UK’s possession as the Dodecanese Islands were confirmed as Italy’s possession. All Aegean Islands, except Tenedos and Imbros, remained under Greece. The Dardanelles remained demilitarized and open to shipping but supervised by a newly established League of Nations. However, this new and final settlement of the Greek-Turkish border resulted in serious refugee crises, basically, legalized ethnic cleansing under the auspices of an international community. In other words, some 1.5 million of the Ottoman Greeks, primarily from the Smyrna region, were forced to leave Asia Minor to Greece, while at the same time up to 350.000 Muslims and Turks left Greece to Turkey. This peace treaty still up today is the fundamental basis of the political tensions between Turkey and the Greeks.

Death of Megali Idea
Death of Megali Idea: The Greek Occupation of Izmir ends as Mustafa Kemal’s Turkish Army enters the city on September 9,1922

Greece, after the military disaster in 1922, primarily due to the facts that France and especially the UK did not support the Greek side in the conflict, followed by diplomatic catastrophe in 1923, achieved the integration of Greek refugees from Asia Minor by a large redistribution of land (the land reform), which at the same time destroyed large landholdings (latifundias) and created a large group of small landowners, who now became the backbone of Greece’s economy for a long time. However, after the military catastrophe in 1922 and a diplomatic disaster in 1923, the concept of Megali Idea in the foreign policy of Greece left to be only on the paper with no real hope to be implemented in the reality anymore regardless on the fact that still up today Greek political culture is much ideologically imbued.[14]

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[1] Jan Palmowski, A Dictionary of Contemporary World History from 1900 to the Present Day, Oxford−New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, 253.

[2] Richard Clogg, A Concise History of Greece, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 48.

[3] In the British mind, the Near East was composed by the Ottoman Balkans and Asia Minor followed by the Aegean Sea between.

[4] On this issue, see in Josiah Ober, The Rise and Fall of Classical Greece, Princeton−Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2015.

[5] About Byzantine history, see in Eric Brown, The Byzantine Empire: A Complete Overview of the Byzantine Empire History from Start to Finish, Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2018.

[6] Those seven Ionian Islands were under the British protectorate since 1815 according to the decisions by the Vienna Congress. Formally, the Great Powers of the UK, France, and Russia gave over the Ionian Islands to Greece in 1864, with their 2.000 square meters and 200.000 inhabitants. In the same year, the new constitution of Greece was adopted according to which, the ruler became “The King of the Greeks” [Georges Castellan, History of the Balkans from Mohammed the Conqueror to Stalin, Boulder: East European Monographs, 1992, 334].

[7] On this issue, see in John A. Levandis, The Greek Foreign Debt and the Great Powers, 1821−1898, New York: Columbia University Press, 1944.

[8] Constantine I (1868−1922), a son of the Greek King George I, was twice the King of Greece: in 1913−1917 and in 1920−1922. He was married to Sophia, the sister of a German Emperor Wilhelm II. During the war with the Ottoman Empire in 1897, Constantine commanded the Greek army in Thessaly and was a Greek commander-in-chief during the Balkan Wars of 1912−1913. Constantine I was forced to leave Greece in June 1917 under the British and French pressure. He died in exile in Palermo after being the King of Greece for the second time in 1920−1922. See more in [George Melas, King Constantine I of Greece and the War, Scotts Valley, CA: CreateSpace, 2015].

[9] Eleftherios Venizelos (1864−1936) was a leading Greek politician and statesman of the first half of the 20th century, born on Crete. He was PM for a total time of 12 years. E. Venizelos became known for the first time as a very active national worker at the time of the Cretan Revolt and Greek-Ottoman War of 1897. The conflict with the Ottoman authorities in Crete started in 1896 when the local Greeks required that all decisions of the 1878 Berlin Congress have to be implemented but also and as a reaction to the first Armenian genocide in 1896 organized by the Ottoman government [Михаило Војводић, Србија у међународним односима крајем XIX и почетком XX века, Београд: САНУ, 1988, 83−94. About this war, see more in Theodore George Tatsios, The Megali Idea and the Greek-Turkish War of 1897: The Impact of the Cretan Problem on Greek Irredentism, 1866−1897, New York: Columbia University Press, 1984]. At that time, he was an ardent supporter of the enosis, or union, of Crete with the motherland Greece. After the Greek-Ottoman War of 1987, Crete got autonomy and E. Venizelos participated in the drafting of Crete’s constitution as a member of the island’s assembly. In 1912 he led Greece into a political-military alliance with Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Serbia against the Ottoman Empire. On the break of the Great War, E. Venizelos’ decisive support of the Entente caused him the open conflict with King Constantine I who formally favored neutrality but, in fact, was supporting the Central Powers. In September 1916 E. Venizelos established a rival government in Thessaloniki and, therefore, opened the door to the „National Schism“. In June 1917, as a result of direct pressure from France and the UK, the King Constantine I left Greece and E. Venizelos established his own government as the new PM. After the war, he became the architect of a short-lived project of „Greece of the Two Continents and the Five Seas“. After 1922 defeat of Greece in Asia Minor, he was a Greek representative at the Lausanne peace conference. He died in France in 1936. See more in [Doros Alastor [Evdoros Joannides], Venizelos: Patriot, Statesman, Revolutionary, London: Lund Humphries, 1942; Kostas Kairophylas, Eleftherios Venizelos, His Life and Work, Los Angeles, CA: HardPress Publishing, 2012].

[10] About Greece in the Great War, see in George B. Leon, Greece and the Great Powers, 1914−1917, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1974.

[11] On Greece at the post-war peace conference in Paris, see in N. Petsalis-Diomidis, Greece at the Paris Peace Conference 1919, Thessaloniki: Institute for Balkan Studies, 1978.

[12] About this war, see in Michael Llewellyn-Smith, Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor, 1919−1922, London: Allen Lane, 1973. This war was, in fact, the last stage in the final solving of historical Eastern Question.

[13] During this war, the Greek-inhabited city of Smyrna was destroyed and burned by the Turkish army under Mustafa Kemal Atatürk [Marjorie Housepian, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City, London: Faber and Faber, 1972].

[14] Loring M. Danforth, “The Ideological Context of the Search for Continuities in Greek Culture”, Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 2, 1984, 53−85.

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