The MacMillan Center

Sir Llewellyn-Smith on Venizelos’ Greece

Llewellyn-SmithOn September 10, The Stavros Niarchos Foundation Lecture hosted Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith, a renowned expert on Greek history and culture who offered a fresh approach into a critical decade of Greek modern history. The talk is organized by the Hellenic Studies Program at the MacMillan Center annually and honors the Program’s primary donor whose endowment of the Stavros Niarchos Center for Hellenic Studies at Yale University in 2007 makes the activities of the Program possible. Sir Llewellyn-Smith’s lecture titled “Critical Decade: Politics, War and Schism in Venizelos’ Greece, 1910-1920” tells a story of great achievements and catastrophic defeats, with Eleftherios Venizelos as its main protagonist from his assumption of office in Greece in 1910 to the turning point of what in Greece has come to be known as “Asia Minor catastrophe.” In particular, Sir Llewellyn-Smith assessed Venizelos’ legacy, offering a revisionist approach that rejected the various extremist historical portrayals of the Greek Prime Minister that varied from heroism to anathema. In addition to the genuine interest that this remarkable decade of Greek politics commands, the talk also marked the 90-year anniversary since the Asia Minor debacle and 100 years since the outbreak of the Balkan wars.

The speaker started his narrative, focusing on the early years of Venizelos’ premiership from 1911 to 1916, often referred to as the “first Golden Age” because of the striking successes both domestically and abroad. At home, Venizelos passed an impressive array of legislation that laid the foundations for the country’s economic, social and political modernization, whereas in the realm of foreign affairs he aggressively and rather successfully pursued the dream of the “Great Idea.” The Great Idea was an expansionist plan, espoused in the 19th century and aimed at the integration of most areas in western Asia Minor, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, inhabited by Greek Orthodox subjects. For Venizelos, Greece’s national expansion and progress were organically connected to the country’s domestic reform, especially the “Europeanization” of its political and institutional structure.  All these came to play with the outbreak of the Balkan wars and then of the First World War. Greece added some 70% to its land area, while its population increased from approximately 2,800,000 to 4,800,000, thus bringing the Great Idea closer to realization. The Greek people heralded the Treaty of Serves in 1920, the zenith of Venizelos’ diplomacy as it allowed the creation of Greece of “the two continents and of the five seas,” the two continents being Europe and Asia and the five seas being the Mediterranean, the Aegean, Ionian, Sea of Marmara and the Black Sea.

However, these territorial gains came at the cost of splitting the nation with the infamous “national schism” (the fundamental dispute between Venizelos and King Constantine over the question of the country’s participation in the First World War). This ensuing period after the end of the wars up to 1922 became what Sir Llewellyn- Smith described as the “limits of daring” in Venizelos’ diplomacy and the introduction of a more grounded and sober policy. In 1923 with the Treaty of Lausanne, Venizelos pursued the road of consolidation, regional cooperation, and eventually European federalism.

In his closing remarks, Sir Llewellyn-Smith posed the question of how history should judge Venizelos. No matter the verdict, his advice to historians and the public alike was to remind them that when assessing any leader or any critical period in a country’s history, one should always keep in mind the circumstances of the time and the instruments available. And in this case, Venizelos exploited the circumstances and the tools at his disposal to the utmost, independent of the final outcome.