National Schism

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The National Schism (Greek: Εθνικός Διχασμός, Ethnikos Dikhasmos, sometimes called The Great Division) was a series of disagreements between King Constantine I and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos regarding the foreign policy of Greece in the period of 1910–1922 of which the tipping point was whether Greece should enter World War I. Venizelos was in support of the Allies and wanted Greece to join the war on their side, while the pro-German King wanted Greece to remain neutral, which would favor the plans of the Central Powers.

The disagreement had wider implications, since it would also affect the character and role of the king in the state. The dismissal of Venizelos by the King resulted in a deep personal rift between the two and in subsequent events their followers divided into two radically opposed political camps affecting the wider Greek society.

With the contrary actions of Venizelos permitting the landing of Allied forces in Thessaloniki and the unconditional surrender of a military fort in Macedonia to German-Bulgarian forces by the king, the disagreements of the two men started to take the form of civil war. In August 1916, followers of Venizelos set up a provisional state in Northern Greece, with Entente support, with the aim of reclaiming the lost regions in Macedonia, effectively splitting Greece into two entities. After intense diplomatic negotiations and an armed confrontation in Athens between Allied and royalist forces the king abdicated on 11 June 1917, and his second son Alexander took his place.

Venizelos returned to Athens on 29 May 1917 and Greece, now unified, officially joined the war on the side of the Allies, emerging victorious and securing new territory by the Treaty of Sèvres. The bitter effects of this division were the main features of Greek political life until the 1940s, and contributed to Greece's defeat in the Greco-Turkish War, the collapse of the Second Hellenic Republic and the establishment of the dictatorial Metaxas Regime.

Source of the conflict

For more details on this topic, see Goudi coup.

The main cause of the conflict was the dispute between Venizelos and King Constantine over power in Greece, in which the development of true representation had been slow since the creation of the state. Up till the 1870s and the King's acceptance of the principle that the leader of the majority party in Parliament should be given the mandate to form a government, the formation of political groupings around a leader who could govern if this pleased the King meant that the supposedly parliamentary government was actually at the monarch's discretion.[1]

Many reformists and liberals viewed meddling by the monarchy in politics as deleterious. The negative public attitude towards the monarchy was strengthened by the defeat of the Greek army, headed by Constantine (then the Crown Prince), in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Many of these hopes for reform were also shared by young officers in the Hellenic Army, who felt humiliated by the defeat, and who were influenced by republicanism.

A "Military League" was formed, and on 15 August 1909, they issued a pronunciamiento at the Goudi barracks in Athens. The movement, which demanded reforms in government and military affairs, was widely supported by the public; King George was forced to give in to the military's demands. He appointed Kyriakoulis Mavromichalis as Prime Minister and accepted the dismissal of the Princes from the military.

However, it soon became apparent that the leadership of the League was not able to govern the country, and they looked for an experienced political leader, who would also preferably be anti-monarchist and not tainted by the "old-partyism" of the old system. The officers found such a man in the person of Eleftherios Venizelos, a prominent Cretan politician, whose clashes with Prince George, the island's regent, seemed to confirm his anti-monarchist and republican credentials.

With Venizelos' arrival, the League was sidelined, and the energetic and relatively young politician soon dominated Greek political life. His government carried out a large number of overdue reforms, including the creation of a revised constitution. However, he also established a close relationship with the King, resisted calls to transform the revisionary assembly into a constitutional one, and even reinstated the Princes in their positions in the army, with Crown Prince Constantine as its Inspector-General.

Balkan Wars (1912–13)

Further information: Balkan Wars and Greece in the Balkan Wars

With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, Constantine was immediately appointed again as commander-in-chief, and the successes of the army in the field, especially in the Second Balkan War against the Bulgarians, helped many forget his record in 1897. Constantine, now king, was being hailed as "laurel-crowned" and "Bulgar-slayer". It was however during this war that the first tension between Constantine and Venizelos surfaced, in a dispute over the army's course following the victory at Sarantaporo. Constantine wanted to march due north, towards Monastir, while Venizelos was anxious that the army should turn east, towards the strategically important city and harbor of Thessaloniki.

The anxiety of Venizelos was doubled by the fact that the Bulgarians had also set their eyes on the city, the most important in Macedonia, and were sending their own troops towards it. Eventually Venizelos prevailed, and the Greeks captured the city only a few hours before the arrival of the Bulgarians. This episode was not publicised at the time, and in the aftermath of the Wars, the two men, King and Prime Minister, both wildly popular, were seen as making up a formidable partnership at the helm of the Greek state.

Beginning of the conflict

King Constantine I in German Field Marshal's uniform. He judged that Greece's interests were best served by remaining neutral in the First World War.

As the Great War began, the Greek authorities had to choose between neutrality and aligning themselves with the Allied forces. Outright participation in the war on the side of the Central Powers was not an option, both because of Greece's vulnerability to the Royal Navy and because, from early on (October 1914), Greece's traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, had joined in on Germany's side. Hence, neutrality was the course favored by most pro-German Greeks, including the senior, German-educated, leadership of the General Staff, who had great influence over the King.

King Constantine's German affiliations were exaggerated in the Entente's propaganda during the war. It is true that Queen Sofia was the sister of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, and Constantine himself had been educated in Germany and admired German culture. On the other hand he was descended on his father's side from the Glucksbergs of Denmark and on his mother's side from the Romanovs of Russia, spoke perfect English, was a frequent visitor to England and had relatives there.

Greece had an ongoing mutual defense pact with Serbia, a member of the Allied forces, who were asking for support after they were invaded by Austria-Hungary (see Serbian Campaign (World War I)). However, Constantine believed it was in the greater interests of Greece to remain neutral. His considerable military experience and knowledge made him especially conscious of the threat to Greece from Bulgaria's powerful military in the event that the Hellenic Army was engaged in a war with Austria-Hungary. The Prime Minister, Venizelos, was strongly in favor of joining the Entente, as he believed that Greece would gain new lands and fulfill the Megali Idea.

In January 1915, in an attempt to convince the Greeks to side with them, Britain offered Greece post-war concessions in Asia Minor (currently part of Turkey). Venizelos felt this was very much in Greece's interests and attempted to force a bill through the Greek parliament to join the Allies. Staunch opposition by the King, Army generals and their supporters forced Venizelos to resign shortly afterwards (on March, 6).

The clash and schism of Greece

Eleftherios Venizelos, the Greek Prime Minister, believed that Greece's interests were best served by entering the war on the side of the Allies.

The resignation caused political dissension in Greece, a diplomatic battle between the King and Venizelos' supporters forced a general election in June 1915. These elections were won by Venizelos' Liberal Party and he resumed his post as Prime Minister, however Constantine refused to ratify the appointment of the new government until August.

During this time the Serbian-Bulgarian conflict deepened until Bulgaria declared war on Serbia, which posed an immediate threat to the newly gained province of Macedonia, including the strategically important port of Thessaloniki. Venizelos asked Constantine for permission to formalize a defense treaty with Serbia in the interests of protecting the Greek border from direct Bulgarian attack. Constantine agreed but only on the condition that Greece was actually attacked. After his inability to sway Constantine to act against Bulgaria, Venizelos took a new route by allowing British and French troops to land in Macedonia in preparation for their attack on Gallipoli, Turkey. This caused disarray in the Greek government and Venizelos took advantage of this by forcing through a parliamentary motion (with a 37-vote margin) to declare war on Bulgaria.

The dispute between the Greek Prime Minister and the King reached its height shortly after and the King invoked the Greek constitutional right that gave the monarch the right to dismiss a government. In December 1915 Constantine forced Venizelos to resign for a second time and dissolved the Liberal-dominated parliament, calling a new election. Venizelos left Athens and moved back to his native Crete.

The Liberals boycotted this second election, which undermined the new Royalist government's position, as it was seen as a government directly appointed by the King, disregarding popular opinion. The tension between the two parties grew gradually over the course of the following year with both sides taking a more radical and divisive approach to the situation. Public opinion was not nearly as clearly divided during this period. When French and British forces landed in Thessaloniki (as invited by Venizelos earlier) against Constantine's wishes the Greek people supported the King's view that the Allies had violated the country's sovereignty. However, later on, when the Central Powers took control of eastern Macedonia in May 1916, the public took similar outrage at the King's inability to defend Greek territory.

French troops in Athens, with the Acropolis in the background, after the Noemvriana.

August 30, 1916, saw a coup against the Royalist government by Ethniki Amyna (Εθνική Άμυνα, National Defence), a secret pro-Venizelist military organization based in Thessaloniki. The coup succeeded to the extent that a second provisional government of Greece was formed by the group in Thessaloniki. With the backing of the Entente, Venizelos returned to the Greek mainland from Crete to lead the new provisional government at the head of a triumvirate. He declared: "we are not against the King, but against the Bulgarians". Towards the end of 1916 France and Britain, after failing to persuade the royalist government to enter the war too, officially recognized the Ethniki Amyna government as the lawful government of Greece.

In retaliation against Ethniki Amyna a royalist paramilitary unit called the "Reservists" (Επίστρατοι) was formed. Led by Colonel Ioannis Metaxas (one of Constantine's closest aides and a future dictator of Greece) the group targeted Venizelist people in Athens and nearby areas, culminating in the Noemvriana, the "November events", which were ignited by an armed confrontation between Greek reservists and French marines.

Ιn retaliation, the Venizelos National Defence Government and the Entente instituted a naval blockade, seized the royalist fleet and demanded the partial disarmament of the royalist forces and their withdrawal to the Peloponnese. The blockade lasted 106 days in total, during which time no goods were allowed to enter or leave royalist-controlled ports that were under the control of the Athens government. This was to set a precedent for much of the future conflict in Greece.

Greece joins the war

For more details on this topic, see Macedonian front.
Venizelos reviews a section of the Greek army on the Macedonian front during the First World War, 1918. He is accompanied by Admiral Pavlos Kountouriotis (left) and General Maurice Sarrail (right).

The Venizelist-Entente blockade eventually succeeded in its aim. In June 1917, after threats to bombard Athens if the King remained, Constantine left Greece leaving the Crown to his second son Alexander. Venizelos took control of the government and pledged Greek support to the Entente. In July the country officially declared war on the Central Powers. During the remaining 18 months of the war 10 divisions of the Greek army fought alongside the Allied forces against Bulgarian and German forces in Macedonia and Bulgaria. During the conflict Greek forces participated in many victorious battles losing approximately 5,000 troops.


Prince Alexander is sworn in as King of Greece after the abdication and departure of his father in June 1917. Venizelos is present on the podium, to the King's right.

The act of entering the war and the preceding events resulted in a deep political and social division in post-World War I Greece. The country's foremost political formations, the Venizelist Liberals and the Royalists, already involved in a long and bitter rivalry over pre-war politics, reached a state of outright hatred towards each other. Both parties viewed the other's actions during the First World War as politically illegitimate and treasonous.

This enmity inevitably spread throughout Greek society, creating a deep rift that contributed decisively to the Asia Minor Disaster and resulted in continued political and military unrest in the interwar years during the troubled Second Hellenic Republic. The National Schism was also one of the principal causes that led to the collapse of the Republic and the institution of the dictatorial 4th of August Regime in 1936.

The division between Royalists and Venizelists even came to the United States and elsewhere with the Greek immigrants of that generation: immigrants favouring the two political camps would settle in nearby but carefully separated communities in American cities, often centred on competing Greek Orthodox parishes. In some cases, the animosity and mistrust between such parishes has survived into the 21st century, long after the original political disagreement was forgotten.



Further reading
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