The legacy of Greek history is a heavy one. It has shaped Greeks like the powerful blows of a blacksmith's hammer on red hot iron. During the twentieth century Greeks suffered multiple traumatic events that have left their indelible mark on succeeding generations. I am often asked by non-Greek friends why Greeks and Turks can't get along. There is no easy answer. To understand the present predicament one has to understand the shared history. Modern Greece and Turkey are two countries founded by wars of independence in which the opposing side suffered catastrophes that changed each in fundamental ways for better and worse. The Greco-Turkish War of 1920-1922 and the resulting destruction of Smyrna, a city with a Greek population greater than Athens at the time, was a defining moment equal to the Fall of Constantinople in Greek history and its ramifications are still reverberating today. Today this piece of history is forgotten except for the two countries involved. It created over two million refugees, the largest mass exodus of its kind prior to World War II.
When Greece won its independence in 1821, only a small portion of Greeks lived within its borders. The nation that emerged from the crucible of the Greek War of Independence was one ridden by factionalism. The one unifying concept that fired the imagination of all Greeks regardless of political persuasion was the "Megali Idea (Great Idea)." This concept of manifest destiny, the dream of uniting Greeks scattered over the entire eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea would become a major source of friction with the neighbors of this emerging state, especially the Ottoman Empire. It would cause Greece, despite its limited financial assets and natural resources, to fight a series of wars that greatly enlarged her borders and shaped the country we now recognize. Unfortunately it cost the lives of countless Greeks and ended in a major national catastrophe that set the stage for future cataclysms. The Greeks knew that the only way they could achieve their foreign policy objectives was through the help of one of the "Great Powers." This idea of a resurrected "Greater Greece" was appealing as well to many European Philhellenes, particularly in Britain. .
The architect who did more than any other Greek to realize the dream of the Megali Idea was Eleftherios Venizelos. In 1910, Venizelos became Prime Minister and lead his country through two Balkan Wars in which Greece gained enough territory to double in size. Venizelos could see the writing on the wall and wanted Greece to join the Allied cause in World War I. When King Constantine, who was married to the Kaiser's sister, refused to allow Greek support for the Dardanelles campaign, Venizelos resigned. He was reelected by a landslide in 1915, and immediately ordered the mobilization of the Greek Army and invited Allied Forces into Thessaloniki. He was subsequently dismissed by the King and retired to Crete where he formed a revolutionary republican government. Through his efforts the King was forced to abdicate and Greece entered World War I on the Allied side. A deep chasm was created between monarchists and republican Venizelists. It would prove to be costly, long lived and a portent of other deep seated divisions in Greek society. Venizelos' astute reading of the outcome of World War I and recognition of the potential for Greek foreign policy to reap substantial benefits was rewarded at the Versailles Conference. Greece gained important territory belonging to Bulgaria and Turkey including Imbros, Tenedos, and Eastern Thrace.
Part II will be published on July 14.