A Fitting Tribute to Venizelos
--a Brief Review of Eleftherios
Venizelos and His Era

By Basil P. Mathiopoulos

Athens News

Eleftherios Venizelos (sitting 2nd from L) and
the Greek delegation to the Lausanne
negotiations in November 1922
A new scholarly book explores the multi-faceted contribution of Greece's most significant 20th-century leader.

A new book, Eleftherios Venizelos and His Era (Ellinika Grammata and Ta Nea, 2005), attempts to provide an objective assessment of Greece's most significant 20th-century public figure, Eleftherios Venizelos. Athens University professors Thanos Veremis and Elias Nikolakopoulos had academic oversight of the work.

Eleftherios Venizelos and His Era is not merely a chronological narrative. It does track Venizelos' life from his birth in 1864 until his death in 1936. But its value lies in that it is possibly the first Greek analysis of the shaping of Venizelos' political personality by the events of his time, beginning with the uprising of 1866 in the Cretan polity.

Venizelos' career was marked by the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922 - Greece's defeat by Turkish troops while attempting to restore modern borders to their ancient greatness. The catastrophe was partly a result of his losing the1920 elections, but also led to his negotiating the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, which exchanged populations between Greece and Turkey and marked today's borders in the northeast Aegean.

Later in his career in the early 1930s during an international economic crisis, Venizelos came exceptionally well-equiped to govern without a monarch and with Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis as president. He was the only surviving politician of the great leaders of WWI. The other four were America's Woodrow Wilson, France's Georges Clemenceau, Great Britain's David Lloyd George
and Italy's Vittorio Orlando. Venizelos' international prestige was so great that when German Social Democratic Chancellor Hermann Muller learned of the Greek-Turkish rapprochement and other accords with Greece's neighbours signed by Venizelos after assuming power in 1928, he had this to say: "These achievements are the greatest seen in Europe since the end of the Great War".

At that time, he achieved a shift in the power balance in southeastern Europe, with the Greek-Italian friendship accord. After centuries-old animosity between Greece and Turkey, he transformed bilateral relations into a friendly cooperation, which presented Ankara as a regional strategic partner of Athens.

In the great four years (1928-32), he made an extremely important effort to contribute substantially to the socioeconomic progress of the Asia Minor refugees (who came to Greece after the 1923 population exchange), helping them become developing farmers in Macedonia. The1.3 million refugees became his fervent and steadfast supporters until the end of his life, and they contributed to the formation of a mass of Venizelos supporters in the agricultural class, which continued to support his successors up until the 1967 dictatorship. Themistocles Sophoulis, Alexandros Diomidis, Sophocles Venizelos, George Papandreou (grandfather of today's opposition leader), Nikolaos Plastiras and Emmanuel Tsouderos all started out as Venizelos' ministers and proceeded to form their own parties, which were all essentially liberal, in the mould of the great leader of their century.

The book is not without its honest criticism of the various phases of Vemzelos' career. In the section on the 1928-32, there is a treatment of the "special law crime", established in law 4229 of 25 July 1929, which was aimed at the communists. The law was the brainchild of then interior minister K. Zavitsanos, well known for his ultra-conservative views. As N Marantzidis writes in the book, Venizelos as PM did not fully agree with the law and had this to say in parliament: "The truth is that as concerns this law, my views are not at all similar to those of the interior minister...So he drafted the first bill which was submitted to parliament. There, one can see the psychological makeup and views of the interior minister, which are a far cry from my own.".

The second bill, supported by the opposition Popular Party (more right wing than Venizelos) and Tsaldaris with critical consensus, was strongly criticized by Venizelist MPs Alexandros Papanastaslou, George Papandreou and GeorgeKafantaris. Papanastaslou underlined that "this bill targets not only communism, but any radical, movement. It is a bill which restricts freedom of thought." He demanded that it at least be extended to cover those who disseminate fascist ideas. In his response, the then finance minister stressed that "no one will remain out of jail if the bill is applied very broadly."

Marantzidis comments: "This extraordinary legislative arsenal was a means in the state's effort to control the country's labour movement. Over 60 percent of the individuals who were convicted under the special crime law were from the working class. Despite its severity, however, the law did not achieve its stated goal of combating communism. In the first parliamentary elections after it came into force, the Communist Party of Greece not only did not disappear of lose ground, but also achieved its greatest electoral success until that moment.

"Perhaps the most accurate evaluation of the importance that Eleftherios Venizelos has taken on for all Greeks - both at home and around the world - was the March 1936 memorial speech of his almost fanatical opponent - Ioannis Metaxas. Speaking at a special session of parliament convened to honour Eleftherios Venizelos contribution, the then prime minister [and later dictator] said: "Merely the fact that his name has been so dominant among all citizens of this country - with his supporters known as Venizelists and his opponents as anti-Venizelists - testifies to the significance of the deceased and the role he played." Perhaps he also pondered that if Venizelos had not died, even if he lived in Paris, he would not have succeeded in establishing his dictatorship - not even with the support offered by the then king on 4 August 4 1936.

Basil P Mathiopoulos is a journalist and writer for the English-language Athens News. Readers enjoying his articles may wish to view other fine selections or to subscribe to this publication by visiting the website http://www.athensnews.gr.

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