18 September 2014

Remembering the people of Levessi and
modern Greece’s greatest politician

Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936) … this year, Greece is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of the most outstanding statesman in modern Greek politics

Patrick Comerford

My posting earlier this week on the threat facing the former Greek town of Levessi or Kayaköy has drawn considerable reaction on social media, and Greek and Turkish media are continuing to report on the strong reaction to plans by the Turkish Culture and Tourism Ministry to hold an auction next month [23 October 2014] to rent the one of the most intriguing cultural heritage sites on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, for 49 years in return for its restoration.

The Turkish reports continue to claim that “Kayaköy was abandoned after its Greek inhabitants returned to Greece in the population exchange between the two countries in 1923.”

But the truth is very different: the Greek population of Kayaköy did not “abandon” their town – they were forced to leave in a violent act of “ethnic cleansing” in 1923, after the burning of Smyrna (Izmir). Nor did they “return to Greece” – the town and the surrounding area had been Greek-speaking not merely for centuries, but for thousands of years, and since antiquity this place was the home to successive, multiple generations of Greek people who knew their home village in the Kaya valley as Levessi, and before that as Karmylassos.

There is a subtle irony in the fact the most charismatic modern Greek statesman, Eleftherios Venizelos (1864-1936) was born in Crete while it was under Turkish rule, while the creator of the modern Turkish state, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938), was born in Thessaloniki which has become the second city of modern Greece.

This year, Greece is marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of the outstanding statesman in modern Greek politics, Elefthérios Kyriákou Venizélos (Ἐλευθέριος Κυριάκου Βενιζέλος), who was born in Crete on 23 August 1864. People in Crete are so proud of Venizelos that every town and village has a street or square named after him.

Greece is celebrating other major anniversaries or centenaries this year, including the 150th anniversary of the incorporation of the Ionian islands into the modern Greek state in 1864, and the 400th anniversary of the death of Crete’s most famous artist, Domenikos Theotokopoulos (El Greco).

But the 150th anniversary of the birth of Venizelos in recent weeks focuses minds once again on the tragic circumstances that led to the expulsion of Greek-speaking communities like those in Levessi and other parts of western Anatolia over 90 years ago.

Eleftherios Venizelos was elected several times as Prime Minister of Greece, serving from 1910 to 1920 and from 1928 to 1932. He had such profound influence on the domestic and international political life of Greece that he is seen as “the maker of modern Greece” and is still known widely known as the ethnarch (ἐθνάρχης) or creator of the nation – a popular designation that has only been earned by two other people in modern history: Konstantinos Karamanlis and Archbishop Makarios of Cyprus, but never achieved by Andreas Papandreou.

Venizelos was the innovator of constitutional and economic reforms that set the basis for the modernisation of Greek society, and reorganised and restructured both the army and the navy in preparation of future conflicts. Before the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, ahead of World War I, Venizelos played a crucial role in forming the Balkan League, a regional alliance that set in play the series of events that brought about the eventual fall of the Ottoman Empire.

Greece entered World War I (1914-1918) on the side of the Allies, further expanding the borders of Greece, and during the course of his political career, Greece doubled its area and population with the liberation of Macedonia, Epirus, and many of the Aegean islands.

Venizelos was constantly in conflict with the monarchy and royalists, and this clash paved the way for modern Greek political parties. After World War I, he helped incorporate many Greek-speaking areas of Western Anatolia into the Greek state, and he came close to the Megali Idea or the great plan of uniting what he saw as all of Greece.

The villagers of Levessi were forced to abandon their homes in 1923 ... the ruins stand as witness to a sad time in the history of Europe (Patrick Comerford)

His defeat in the 1920 election eventually led to the defeat of Greece in the 1919-1922 war with Turkey, and he was forced into exile. The subsequent Treaty of Lausanne led to the mutual exchange or expulsion of populations between Greece and Turkey, including the expulsion of the entire Greek population of the Levessi.

Venizelos was born in Mournies, near Chania in Crete, when it was still occupied by the Ottoman Turkish Empire. His father supported the Cretan revolution of 1866, and his father was forced to flee to Syros. The family was not allowed to return to Crete 1872.

Venizelos studied law at the University of Athens, and in 1886 returned to Crete, where he worked as a lawyer in Chania. He entered politics in 1889, when he stood as a candidate for the island’s liberal party.

In 1897, he supported a rebellion against Turkish rule. Following a massacre in Iraklion on 25 August 1897, The Great Powers – Britain, France, Russia and Italy – supported the proclamation of an autonomous state with Prince George of Greece as the High Commissioner and Venizelos as Minister of Justice from 1899 to 1901.

In 1910, he became Prime Minister of Greece. On 1 November 1913, the Sultan renounced all claims over Crete, thus ratifying the union of Crete with Greece. A month later, on 1 December 1913, the Greek flag was flying in Crete, and Venizelos was the Prime Minister of a united Greek nation that included his native island.

On 26 October 1912, the Greek army entered Thessaloniki, the city where Ataturk was born, and it would eventually become the second city of Greece.

In 1916, when Venizelos and his government declared war against Germany, Austria and Turkey, the Central Powers, a royal warrant was issued for his arrest and the Archbishop of Athens, under royal pressure, excommunicated him.

But King Constantine was eventually forced to abdicate and on 15 June 1917 he went to exile, leaving his son Prince Alexander, rather than his heir Prince George, on the throne. Many prominent royalists were deported or forced into exile. Venizelos returned to Athens on 29 May 1917 and a united Greece officially entered the war on the side of the Allies.

After World War I, Venizelos reached an agreement with the Italians on the cession of the Dodecanese, apart from Rhodes, and Greece extended it territory in the area around Smyrna.

He survived an assassination attack by two royalist soldiers in Paris in 1922. Later that year, in a war-weary Greece, he was strongly defeated in a general election and King Constantine returned from exile. Venizelos left for Paris and withdrew from politics.

Greece was soon with allies or friends as the war with Turkey continued. On 26 August 1922, Ataturk launched a massive attack, the Greek forces were routed to Smyrna, which was attacked and burned before it to the Turks on 8 September 1922.

In the internal turmoil that followed in Greece, King Constantine was dethroned and six royalist leaders were executed. Venizelos was recalled to lead the negotiations at Lausanne in 1923.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Lausanne, signed on 24 July 1923, more than a million Greek Christians were expelled from Turkey, while more than 500,000 Turks or Muslims were expelled from Greece. Greece was forced to give up claims to eastern Thrace and the islands of Imbros and Tenedos to Turkey. The Megali Idea had come to an end.

After another coup forced King George II into exile, Venizelos returned to Greece and became prime minister once again. However, he left again in 1924 after an internal political wrangle.

He spent these periods of exile translating Thucydides into modern Greek, but in elections in 1928 his party regained power and he tried to end Greece’s diplomatic isolation by restoring normal relations with Greece’s neighbours.

In 1930, he visited Turkey and signed a treaty of friendship, although he was accused of making too many concessions.

He was defeated in the 1932 elections and suffered a second assassination attempt the following year. In 1935, he left Greece once more, while in Greece trials and executions of prominent Venizelists were carried out and he himself was sentenced to death in absentia. He died in exile in Paris and on 18 March 1936 and was buried at Akrotiri, outside Chania, in Crete.

Eleftherios Venizelos … he was brought back from Paris for burial in native Crete

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