Guest Post: A Short History of Greek Military Coups.

Submitted by The Needle blog

A Short History of Greek Military Coups.

With the recent speculation, in some quarters, suggesting that the Greek military might step in, I decided to look back and find out how the last Greek military coup came about and, as I was interested myself, and presuming others might be also, write a brief history. However, each time I looked for a starting point, an historical moment which needed little explanation of itself, I was driven further back in time. 20th Century Greek political history is so complicated, that I came to the conclusion that it could only be understood by someone who actually lived through it, so little sense it made to me. Nevertheless, never one to be put off writing on a topic I am, hitherto, completely ignorant of, I have stitched together a very brief overview of Greece’s history over the last century.

To understand modern Greece one must understand it’s ancient history and it’s Geography. The Golden era of ancient Greece was rarely Pan Hellenic, with the legendary exception of King Menelaus’ expedition and siege of Troy, the brief cooperation during the war against King Xerxes of Persia, and perhaps Alexander the Great’s domination of what is now Greece, it has predominantly been the glorious histories of city states. And it’s geography is crucial, it has always been thought to stand as the boundary between East and West, whether you consider the ‘East’ to be Persia, the Ottoman Empire, or Communist eastern Europe it is best to understand that Greece’s eastern frontiers have never been an impassable barrier, infact Greece’s porous frontiers have ebbed and flowed with fickle fate and capricious fortune. As a consequence Greece is one of the most polarised nations on the planet.

Eleftherios Venizelos

It must seem to many Greeks reviewing their own history that the First World War actually began in Oct 1912, almost 100 years ago in the reign of King George I.  Greece was then being led by a young Cretan politician called Eleftherios Venizelos who had become Prime Minister in 0ct 1910 after a military coup in 1909. Crete was then part of the Ottoman Empire, as was Macedonia at that time, Venizelos had caught the attention and imagination of the military by declaring union with Greece.

By the Spring of 1912, Venizelos had helped form the ‘Balken League’, a series of bilateral treaties between Greece, Serbia, Montenegro, and Bulgaria and in October 1912 they declared war on the Ottoman Empire. After striking decisively, led by the Crown Prince Constantine, at the Ottomans in Macedonia (modern north east Greece) and then Epirus (modern north west Greece) the combined Greek army and navy looked to the Ottoman ruled islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas.

In March 1913 King George I was assasinated by an anarchist and King Constantine I, war hero, succeeded to the throne.

King Constantine I

The war with the Ottomans was concluded in June 1913 but soon after hostilities broke out between Greece and her former allies over the partition of Macedonia.When this too was concluded in August of that year Greece had gained  southern Epirus, the southern half of Macedonia (including Thessaloniki), Crete and the Aegean islands, except for the Dodecanese, under Italian occupation, These gains nearly doubled Greece’s area and population.

The Greeks managed briefly to stay out of WW1 but in 1915 the western allies offered Cyprus in exchange for help against the Ottomans, Prime Minister Venizelos was in favour but the German educated King Constantine I,  brother-in-law to Kaiser Wilhelm, insisted on neutrality. Venizelos resigned, was re-elected, invited the western forces onto Greek soil, was fired by the King and then, following another military coup in Thessaloniki, formed a separate government which governed over all the territory taken in the last couple of years.

The western allies ignored the neutrality of the ‘Old Greece’ which King Constantine still ostensibly ruled. Royalist supporters rioted against the Venizelos supporters in Athens. When King Constantine’s cousin Tsar Nicholas was removed by the Bolsheviks, Russian protection was removed and he was forced to flee, without ever abdicating, along with most of his family. In June 1917 Venizelos theoretically then led a united Greece and officially joined WW1, he saw to it that Alexander, King Constantine’s second son, was crowned king but the country was now completely polarised between the royalists and the republican Venizelos supporters, the ‘National Schism’.

‘King’ Alexander

At the conclusion of WW1, Venizelos secured, as reward, Western Thrace, Eastern Thrace, and a zone around Smyrna, but not Cyprus. On his return from these relatively successful negotiations Venizelos was almost assasinated by  former royalist army officers. Venizelos then lost the elections in 1920 which was then followed by a referendum, following the ‘sudden’ death of ‘King’ Alexander, which saw the return of King Constantine I from exile. Venizelos prudently left the country

Meanwhile, in Turkey, a nationalist movement led by Mustafa Kemal was growing in popularity and fought to restore some of the territory lost to Greece. Following King Constantine’s return, Greece lost the support of the main European mediterranean powers, France and Italy, and by 1922 had been defeated by Turkey. In the Treaty that followed Turkey gained  back Smyrna, Eastern Thrace and the islands Imbros and Tenedos. Both countries agreed a compulsory population exchange in which 1.5 million Christians and 0.5 million Muslims were forcibly to moved.

The humiliating defeat and the economic deprivation, in part caused by a 25% increase in population due to refugees, exacerbated the difficult political situation and Army officers, who supported Venizelos, brought about yet another military coup, forcing King Constantine to abdicate in favour of his eldest son King George II in Sept 1923. A counter Royalist coup failed and in elections the Liberals won by a landslide [monarchist parties abstained] and on 25 March 1924, the Second Hellenic Republic was proclaimed, ratified by plebiscite a month later.

King George II

This democratic republic was weak and prone to interference from the military who had become the main beneficiaries of the upheavals over the previous decade. In June 1925, General Pangalos launched a military coup, and ruled as a dictator for a year until a counter-coup by another General Kondylis unseated him and restored the Republic.

In 1928 Venizelos returned from his self imposed exile and returned to government in new elections. The Great Depression hit an already poor Greece hard, and this period marks the rise of the Communist Party of Greece. Venizelos defaulted on Greek sovereign debt in 1932 and lost elections being replaced by a monarchist coalition.Eleftherios Venizelos returned to exile where he died soon after. Two pro-Venizelos military coup attempts followed and failed before in 1935 the a successful monarchist coup, led by Georgios Kondylis, abolished the republic and restored the monarchy under King Geoge II.

Ioannis Metaxas

King George II dismissed Kondylis, and in 1936 new elections followed. The result was a hung parliament with the Greek Communists holding the balance of power. Ioannis Metaxas, a former royalist general, with the king’s permission dissolved parliament and modeled Greece on Italy’s strong fascist state, as himself as leader.

When World War Two broke out Greece remained neutral but in 1940 it was attacked by Italy. The Greeks drove the Italians back but Hitler came to Mussolini’s rescue and over ran the country. By this stage Metaxas had died. King George escaped first to Crete and then to Egypt.

I’m not going to go into too much detail about the Nazi occupation of Greece, needless to say it was bloody awful. However, it is important to note that while the monarchy ‘ruled’ in exile, the communist led National Liberation Front (EAM) were the largest resistance group fighting the Germans.

After an ‘agreement’ between Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin which left Greece as a British sphere of influence, and despite the fact that the communists were in control of most of the country, a government of national unity, under British backed George Papandreou came to power. However, following disagreement the six communist EAM minister in that government resigned. Demonstrations turned to violence and then all out civil war which lasted until 1949, when the communists were defeated with the support of Great Britain and the USA. The civil war resulted in 100,000 deaths.

Greece joined NATO in 1952. The period through the 1950s and 1960s could be characterised as democratic though right of centre parties had control, with heavy American influence. Rising economic growth from a very low starting point,  due to manufacturing, shipping, and tourism. On 9th July 1961 his government and the Europeans signed the protocols of Greece’s Treaty of Association with the European Economic Community (EEC) and in November 1962 the association treaty came into effect and envisaged the country’s full membership at the EEC by 1984, after the gradual elimination of all Greek tariffs on EEC imports.

In 1964 King George I died and King Constantine II took the throne.

King Constantine II

In 1965, after so many years of conservative rule, elections saw centrist/liberal Georgios Papandreou (Sr) become Prime Minister. King Constantine II dismissed him that same year but after failing for two years to for a conservative coalition was forced to call new elections for May 1967. It looked increasingly likely that Georgios Papandreou would win and form a new government with the Democratic Left (thought by the right to be a proxy for the Greek Communist Party which had been banned)

There was yet another military coup just a few weeks before the scheduled elections, almost certainly at the behest of the King. The King didn’t bargain on what kind of people he had urged to take power, they refused to be his puppets and in December of that year King Constatine II attempted a ‘royal coup’ to seize power from the military junta, he failed and never returned to Greece as King.

The Greek Military Junta

The EEC financial aid package as well as the protocol of accession were suspended during the 1967–74 junta years and Greece was expelled from the EEC.

Under the junta torture was a deliberate practice carried out both by the Security Police and the Greek Military Police.

Examples of the types of torture commonly used included:

  • Beating the soles of people’s feet with sticks and pieces of metal pipe.
  • Sexual torture such as shoving objects into people’s vagina/anus and twisting them violently, or hoses shoved into the anus and forcing water in at high pressure.
  • Choking people and shoving rags soaked in urine and excrement down their throats
  • Ripping out hair from the head and pubic regions.
  • Jumping on people’s stomachs
  • Pulling out toenails and fingernails

In 1973 another attempted military coup by the Greek Navy failed. In 1974 the Military Junta was overthrown, democracy restored, and the monarchy abolished.

Since then Greece has been democratic, it joined the European Community on 1st January 1981, and the Eurozone on January 1st 1999.

The rest everyone should be familiar with.

Greece is still politically polarised, the ‘National Schism’  still exists and has be seen regularly on the streets of Athens over the last couple of years.

I think this short history demonstrates that a Greek military coup can not be totally ruled out but I would caution that such a coup would not only mean that Greece would have to withdraw from the Eurozone, which is likely anyway, but, because of the rules of membership, also the EU, and personally I don’t think that Greece under any form of government could claw it’s way back in isolation and the Greek military understand this.

And for this reason, I  don’t think it will happen.