Seen above in the heady days of national unity after the Balkan Wars, Prime Minister Elefthérios Venizélos and King Constantine I have been at odds since the war broke out. Venizélos favors the Entente allies, for he would enlarge the Greek nation’s boundaries to include more of those who speak its language, whereas Constantine favors the Central Powers for personal and professional reasons. After Venizélos lost a parliamentary vote over a British proposal to join their war in January, leading to his resignation in March, Venizélos won an election against royalists in June, but Constantine delayed the formation of a new government until August.
Venizélos had therefore only been in charge for a matter of weeks before the European crisis once again loomed large with Bulgaria’s declaration of ‘armed neutrality’ in September. As it became increasingly clear that Bulgaria was mobilizing to join the Central Powers in an attack on Serbia, Venizélos privately invited France and Britain to send troops to Salonika in order to secure their land connection with the Serbs, an offer that both powers finally accepted just three days ago. Yesterday, Venizélos told the Greek parliament that his government “will not oppose the Anglo-French armies hastening to the aid of the Serbians, allies of Greece,” and then called on the lower house to fulfill the Greek treaty pledges of 1913, winning the ensuing vote 142-102.
With his army already mobilized in response to the crisis, Constantine is the only brake left on his nation’s runaway journey towards war with Kaiser Wilhelm II, who is the brother of his German wife, Sophie. Also a student of German military training and doctrine — just like many of the most powerful officers in the Greek Army — Constantine publicly declared himself “in complete agreement” with Venizélos three days before the Premier’s invitation to London and Paris. But today, the king fires the Prime Minister and once again throws his country into a political crisis. He interprets the treaty with Serbia as applying only to Balkan powers, not ‘great powers,’ and predicts Greece will “share the fate of Belgium” if she opposes Germany, Turkey, and Austria; there will be no Greek intervention in the Great War, after all — at least not while he is king.
Although he has once again moved his goalposts, Constantine’s geopolitical reasoning and strategic vision are not altogether misguided. Though amassed in divisions already, his army is still recovering from the Balkan Wars, and his nation lacks the industrial base with which to prosecute a war of material and attrition. Moreover, there is no clear sign that the Entente allies can win the war as yet, for their campaign in the Dardanelles is as deadlocked as the Western Front, while the great Russian tide is at low ebb. Yet the sudden and swift reversal is a poisonous blow to the nascent project of modern Greek democracy, for this stifling of democracy is the beginning of the ‘national schism.’
Constantine will now ask Alexandros Zaimis to form a new government, but Venizelists vote no confidence on November 4th. Constantine dissolves the parliament afterwards; an election for the lower house will be held in December. This time, however, Venizélos will call on his partisans to boycott the vote, vastly reducing turnout at the ballot box — and the credibility of the results. As a result of Constantine’s policy, which avoids conflict with the Bulgarian Army, the Greek Army quickly becomes uncooperative and even resistant, limiting their troop movements. London and France respond with a partial blockade of Greek ports, a sanction they will repeat in greater force later.
The new year will see the former Prime Minister’s agitation increase in volume and urgency, for in the wake of his dismissal, French and British troops find themselves in an increasingly isolated position at Salonika. Venizélos will eventually form a shadow government and privately encourage the allies to act against the king. Restricted in their movements, the simmering resentment of the Entente allies finally boils over in 1917 when Constantine begins to surrender his border forts to the Bulgarians.
These territorial concessions are ironic, for Constantine’s primary public attack line against Venizélos has been to criticize his diplomatic agreements with the Entente allies, which were aimed at helping entice Bulgaria into the alliance through land swaps. During his previous time out of office this spring, Venizélos found himself forced to release correspondence and waste time defending himself from the king’s betrayal; now the smears restart anew as Constantine announces that the Prime Minister was willing to give away the Aegean port of Kevala. The divide between these two men is no longer just political, but deeply personal and destructive.