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The national campaign and the collapse (1912-1922)

On the 5th of October 1912 Greece and its Balkan allies had declared war against the Ottoman Empire, intending to set their territories free from the Ottoman domination. Greece soon achieved to accomplish its main aims: the liberation of Salonica and Macedonia and the dominance in the Aegean Sea. The news of success, published every day in the newspapers of Athens, had an immense impact to the moral of the people and made them overlook and forget the problems of their everyday life. And, when Bulgarians attempted, by surprise attack against Greece, to gain some of its new territories, they were forced back after a series of strong battles. Finally, the treaties of London and Bucharest entrenched the possession of Epirus, the major part of Macedonia, Salonica included, as well as many of the Aegean islands, except Dodecanese and Crete.

The most somber event of this period was the quite questionable assassination of King George I at Salonica, in March 1913, while the war was still on its peak. It was widely known that George’s successor, Constantinos and his wife Sofia were germanophile, which made the prime minister El. Venizelos quite anxious; the World War I was about to break out and this latter counted more on the alliance of Entente (Britain, France and Russia). However, when the World War I finally broke out on August 1914, Greece was united as never in the past under an excellent and very capable prime minister and a popular king who had led the country to the victorious Balkan campaign; moreover, despite the war, the country enjoyed a rapid economic growth and development. Facts proved that this unity not only was it fragile; it did not exist at all, as the prime minister and the king had totally opposite ideas. Venizelos, foreseeing that Britain and its allies would be the winners of the war, wished that Greece would be on their side; Constantinos, on the contrary, Germanophile and without experience in politics was on the side of the Central Powers and insisted on the neutrality of Greece during the war, which in practice served the German plans.

The result of this quarrel was that the king dismissed twice the prime minister elected by the people. After that, Venizelos moved in Salonica where he established the movement of “National Defense”. Meantime Bulgaria, already an ally of the Central Powers, had taken the chance to attack Greek borders and British and French troops had disembarked in Salonica and pressed the king and the government of Athens to change their policy. In Athens and in other towns of southern Greece the royalist paramilitary “Reservist’s League” terrorized democrats and Venizelos’ followers; at the same time the royalist newspapers wrote about pogrom of the royalists in Macedonia. Greece had been divided in two: the southern part of mainland Greece was under the king and the conservatives, whereas the northern part, the so-called “state of Salonica” was under Venizelos and the liberals and fought on the side of Entente. The “National Schism” had been accomplished.
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In November 1916 a French detachment arrived at Piraeus and proceeded to Athens, in order to force the government to comply with the demands of the British and French allies. The French were pushed back by the Reservists; the skirmishes lasted for about a week resulting in decades of dead people from both parts and finally the French started to bomb Athens from their ships. A bit later the French detachment retired, but a blockade of Athens was imposed by the Allies which caused epidemics and famine that resulted in a great number of victims, especially children and elderly people. People, especially the royalists reacted violently: they persecuted the liberals and followers of Venizelos, caused damages to the equipment of the newspapers friendly to Venizelos, as well as to private houses. And, on the day after Christmas the Archbishop of Athens excommunicated Venizelos and an effigy of him was placed at Pedeion tou Areos and stoned by the crowd. The stack of stones remained on site for several years; it is the so-called “anathema” (“malediction”). However, the final result of this conflict was that Venizelos was officially recognized as the legal prime minister and returned to Athens; at the same time, the Allies started to press him to oust the king. Thus, in June 1917, the king Constaninos was forced to abdicate and leave his place to his younger son Alexandros (Alexander). Constantinos and his successor, George, departed for Switzerland from the port of Oropos at northern Attica.

These arrangements restored peace in Athens, although persecutions continued, this time against the royalists, but also against the socialists who had recently appeared. Greece entered the war on the side of Entente and Greek troops were fighting successfully at the front of Macedonia against the German and Bulgarian army. And, once the Central powers were defeated and capitulated, the Greek fleet, led by the battleship “Averof” was found at Constantinople (Istanbul), where it was placed under the commands of the Allies. According to the Treaty of Sevres, signed in 1920, Greece took the territories of Eastern Thrace up to the surroundings of Istanbul, the islands of Imbros and Tenedos, as well as Smyrna (Izmir) and its surroundings in the inland. In May 1919, a Greek corps had already disembarked at Smyrna, to take the government and organize the defense of the town and the area around.

These arrangements were far than welcomed by the nationalist Turk leader Kemal, who instigated people against the Greeks and the Entente. For a while, Greeks achieved to push back the Turkish nationalists from Eastern Thrace and continued to the inland of Asia Minor. This news was received in great enthusiasm; official celebrations took place, the buildings were flagged and a Te Deum was done in the Cathedral of Athens.

Everything looked to be nice, until an attempt on Venizelos’ life in Paris by two retired officers brought things upside down. A pogrom against the opponents of the prime minister started, in which the most important episode was the arrest and execution at Goudi of the leader of the opposition Ion Dragoumis, an intellectual, pretty moderate man. In addition, King Alexander, pretty popular, died of an infection caused by the bite of a monkey. Thus, the elections of 1920 took place in a heavy atmosphere; as his opponents promised the retirement of the army from Asia Minor, Venizelos, suprisingly enough, lost the elections and was forced to leave the country. Under the pretext of the new royalist government the Great Powers abandoned Greece and started to help Kemal who resigned in the inland of Asia Minor, carrying the Greeks after him. Well armed and supported by the powers interested in the area, Kemal and his army launched the final attack in August 1922; soon the Greek army retreated and put on the run. In a few days the Turkish troops entered Smyrna which they raided, while the Greek population, in panic, tried to move by any means from the town and the area, following the Greek army, which had already taken refuge at the islands of Chios and Lesvos. The situation was chaotic; some 300 thousands of Greeks were massacred and many others were lost. Fortunately, the majority of them achieved to move to the Greek islands and from there to mainland Greece. The Greek population that lived at the coast of Asia Minor for more than 3000 years was deracinated and disappeared from the area, as soon after, population exchange became compulsory. An immense number of refugees, some one million and a half people, arrived in Greece which, already being in a desperate economic condition due to the long war, had now to feed and take care of this people who arrived from Asia Minor, from Pontos and from Thrace.
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