Opportunity for Greece

By Frank H. Simonds

[The New Republic; June 5, 1915]

Perhaps there is no better evidence of the extent of the great war than the fashion in which the remotest periods of Greek history are being brought to mind by incidents which fill the present daily newspapers. Thus it is that in the Aegean the problem, as old as the Persian wars, of the Greek colonists of Asia Minor has become the problem of the statesmen who now rule in Athens.

To-day there is offered to Greece the chance to resume the work of forgotten centuries on the sites of Ephesus and Miletus. The kingdom of Lydia lies within the grasp of King Constantine, as Adrianople and Thrace lie within the reach of Ferdinand of Bulgaria, if only Greece could make up her mind to join the Allied camp to send her armies to aid in expelling the Turk from Byzantium and ending the empire of the Osmanli in Europe.

Briefly the situation as it affects Greece—and at the moment the key to Balkans and the Near East is found in Athens—is this: the whole Balkan problem arises from the seizure by Greece, Rumania and Servia of territories inhabited by Bulgars and included in the Bulgarian sphere as delimited by the Serbo-Bulgarian treaty before the first Balkan war or the various agreements preceding the second Balkan war. Until the Treaty of Bucharest is revised, Bulgaria remains a menace to those Balkan states desirous of joining the Allies, and the Treaty of Bucharest cannot be amended unless Greece consents to sacrifice territory won in her recent war. Several months ago there was made to Venizelos, the great Greek statesman, a proposition which he accepted. It amounted to a pledge on the part of Russia, Great Britain and France, that if Greece would send an army to the Dardanelles to aid the Allied fleet and consent to cede to Bulgaria the region between the Mesta and the Struma, with the port of Kavala, Greece should have Smyrna and the Aegean shore of the Turkish empire from Lesbos to Samos.

On behalf of Greece Venizelos promptly accepted the offer, his sovereign King Constantine agreeing to the sacrifice. But when the Allied fleet was repulsed with the loss of three battleships in the straits the king repudiated the bargain. He did more, he denied that he had ever consented to the cession, and there was left to Venizelos nothing but resignation. The territory that Bulgaria demanded was not of any great value to Greece. As the best tobacco-raising region in Europe it was bound to be useful in producing revenue. Kavala and a few towns on the coast are Greek, but inland the people are Turk and Bulgar. While Greece occupies this region the natural outlet of Sofia and indeed of all western Bulgaria is blocked, and the Bulgars are without their "window on the sea"—the only window that could be easily used by them.

Before the second Balkan war Venizelos had agreed that the Bulgarians should have Kavala. His decision was wise but unpopular; it might have proved his political ruin had not the Bulgarian attack upon Servia and Greece abolished the undertaking and left Greece free to take this territory. But in taking it Greece annexed a permanent quarrel with the Bulgarians, for she deprived them of coast land essential to their economic development. From the Treaty of Bucharest to the present moment the Bulgarians have frankly asserted their determination to have Kavala and its hinterland. This has been the sine qua non of Bulgarian acceptance of Allied wishes in the Balkans.

Venizelos perceived from the outset that for all time the Kavala question would be a peril for Greece. In taking Salonica Greece had acquired the real prize of the Near East. By retiring to the Struma she would gain a natural frontier, easily defensible, and abolish a peril as real as the Alsace-Lorraine question has proved for German diplomacy for more than forty years. He perceived also that to possess Smyrna and the hinterland, the ancient Lydia, would be for Greece the beginning of real greatness. A territory as large as the Greece of 1912, with a population as large as that of the nation before the first Balkan war, was to be had immediately. In the inevitable decay of Osmanli power in Asia Greece might hope to regain much of the ancient territory of the Byzantine Empire.

For King Constantine the change in policy was determined first by the Allied disaster, second by the intervention of his wife, the sister of the German Emperor. His own sympathies had been always German, those of his people French. But if France had served Greek ends for a century, if Great Britain had given Greece moral support and territorial expansion, he had for his German brother-in-law the argument that at the critical moment after the Treaty of Bucharest, when Austria and Russia had clamored for a revision of the treaty, it was the message of the Kaiser to him that had settled the question as to whether the treaty should be definitive.

Patently Constantine wavered. Unmistakably he went was ready, when the Allied fleet seemed to be clearing the road to Constantinople, to make the decision desired by Venizelos. But always his heart was with the Germans, and the disaster to the Allies gave him a chance to change his mind and find support in Greece because of the general reluctance of the people to surrender Kavala, to give up territory inhabited by Greeks and won in the most glorious campaign Greece had known since the age of Alexander.

Yet it is already clear that Constantine's break with Venizelos has proven a mistake. More and more clearly it is perceived at Athens that the Allied check in the straits was but temporary, that in the end the gate to Constantinople will be broken open, that Turkey is doomed, and that the Greek claim to the opposite shore of the Aegean will prove of little account if Greece has done nothing to enforce it in the critical days which are now passing.

The entrance of Italy serves to emphasize the present Greek apprehension. Italy is the rival of Greece in the Near East. From time immemorial the rivalry between the Greeks and the Venetian and Genoese traders has been a factor in Aegean history. Already as a consequence of the Tripolitan War Italy has taken Rhodes and the Dodecanese islands whose population is Greek, whose political alignment is naturally with Athens, not with Rome. It was due to Italian opposition, too, that Greek conquests in northern Epirus were abandoned, that Argyrocastro and Santa Quaranta were surrendered to Albania as Scutari and Durazzo were wrested from the Serb to satisfy Austria.

Already, too, Italy has marked out a large portion of the Aegean coast of Asia Minor, from the shore facing Rhodes to the Gulf of Adalia, as her share of the estate of the Turk. Already the words of Venizelos, bitter words spoken by a strong man who had made Greece great, are beginning to be understood at Athens, and while the king lies sick the people are turning again to the Cretan whose leadership won for them Salonica and Janina, regained northern Epirus, and planned to acquire the ancient Ionian colonies, the occasion of the wars that were the beginning of the greatness of classical Greece.

Unmistakably modern Greece is now at the real crisis in her history. She must decide between remaining a small European state and resigning European territory to take up the ancient glories of the Byzantine Empire. Every Greek has inherited the desire to revive the Byzantine Empire, to restore Greek rule at the Golden Horn and carry the Hellenic frontiers to the Halys and the Taurus. To-day, with Russia at the gates of Constantinople, her claim endorsed by France and Great Britain, with Italy ready to occupy the Carian province, this seems a preposterous dream.

Yet could Greece acquire Smyrna and the hinterland, plant Greek rule solidly between the Troad and the ruins of Ephesus, who could be certain that to-morrow she might not carry forward her frontiers as she has carried them forward in the last three years? At the very least the chance would be hers, and the chance will be lost forever, or for generations, if Italy and the other Allies are able to partition Asia Minor and Greece has no claim upon them. Already Italy has nearly extinguished Greek claim upon Allied interest by undertaking to supply the regiments needed at the Dardanelles, the regiments that Venizelos would have sent had his king permitted it. It is impossible to believe that the Greek, the best trader in the Levant, will permanently permit an alien dynasty, however popular—and King Constantine's popularity won at the Battle of Kilkis is very great—to destroy ambitions held through centuries almost innumerable. Rather it is likely that the next few weeks will see the return of Venizelos and the renewal of Greek efforts to earn the pledge of the Allies that she shall have Smyrna. Conceivably the opportunity has been lost. Yet Bulgarian hostility is still the main barrier to Allied progress in the Near East, and Bulgarian acquiescence can only be purchased by the cession of Kavala. Perhaps, then, it is not yet too late.

At Athens and Bucharest German diplomacy is renewing the battle lost in Rome. It is the last phase of the diplomatic battle, but once more the chances are against the Kaiser. Across all the centuries from Marathon to the present moment Greek history and tradition are beckoning the Greeks to Asia.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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