The Greek King and the Present Crisis

By Stanton Leeds

[The Century Magazine, April 1916]

The Balkans, where Constantine I, king of the Greeks, has taken position as the latest significant figure in the near-Eastern political procession, may properly be likened to a bottle. Their dark interior processes remain mysterious. This, too, is true: in the peninsula blood ferments as wine does. Events there have been as frequent as unexpected, but during the last year, to pursue the simile further, from that narrow neck only two figures, like genii, have loomed up with any tangible proportions, those of Czar Ferdinand of Bulgaria and that imposing Cretan, Eleutherios Venizelos, lately Prime Minister of Greece. As a personage that it is possible to appraise definitely the Greek king is just emerging.

It is the purpose of this article not only to establish Constantine's relation, but his exact relation, to the present crisis, and to do so in a manner uncolored by sympathy for one side or the other in the European unpleasantness. Nor will this writing attempt either to justify or excuse the king of the Greeks; it merely seeks, with some claim to honest precision, to mirror Constantine's point of view. Anything more is for the reader's own judgment to supply.

To do even this it is first necessary to clear away the rubbish of opinion sedulously spread broadcast by certain portions of the American press. Let it be said at once, then, that the king is not pro-Teuton. He is primarily for himself and his people, the Greeks, and his attitude, based upon a common sense both manly and patriotic, has been bulwarked by events.

The belief that Constantine has German leanings has been premised on two facts: his wife, Sophia, is the German emperor's sister; at his brother-in-law's war college in Berlin the future conqueror of Janina received his later military training. The value of this training he acknowledged handsomely when, in September, 1913, he was invested by the kaiser's hand with the dignity and baton of a field-marshal in the Prussian army, and declared in a speech of thanks that Greek victories could be ascribed first to the courage of the troops and then to the training "given me and my officers here at the staff college in Berlin." Later that month, at President Poincaré's luncheon in Paris, King Constantine lessened French indignation slightly by his tribute to the utility of the reorganization his army underwent by virtue of the visit paid to Athens in 1910 by General Eydoux and other French officers, a tribute which in no way lessened the forceful completeness of the king's previous statement.

Constantine's admiration for the German war-machine is admitted. He knows that machine, recognizes its efficacy, and feels that what the French gain by élan they lose by inferior organization; but to extend this admitted admiration into a declaration that the king is fully German in sympathy as far as the present struggle is concerned is misleading and, if you will, unjust.

"But," your traditional Missourian remarks, "the queen?" Precisely, the queen. Your diplomat, who has lived in Athens through troublous days, receives the query with that patient and deprecatory smile that disposes of all things uninformed. To those who know Constantine and his consort the question has its risible aspect, for of late years the king and queen's existence together has been little lightened by any term of affectionate agreement. They have quarreled continually. For Sophia to recommend anything would be for Constantine to oppose it; a queen pro-Teuton would mean a king inclined toward the Allies.

This state of affairs gave rise naturally, perhaps, to the rumor that Constantine's illness last spring—a diplomatic illness is a good explanation of it—was the result of a disagreement between him and the queen. The first whisper bruited abroad—a whisper that accused Sophia of entering her husband's study, of provoking an altercation that ended in her seizing a paper-knife and stabbing the king— grew to such proportions that finally the Greek embassies gave it a public denial.

It was always ridiculous, this story, to those in a position to form an accurate mental contrast, to balance the king's physique—he may be described as almost burly—against the diminutive queen, pale from continual weeping; for during the troubles in Greece, when every circumstance threatened, Sophia rarely went to bed without first crying her eyes out. Only ignorant guesswork can picture her as really able to wound the king. For one thing, he usually wears a uniform, and uniforms are padded; and, too, their relations for a year or two have been so ordered as to preclude the possibility of her meeting him in other than formal dress.

Did Venizelos procure an attack on the king? This, too, seems a titbit of scandal certain portions of the American press have gulped down without the least regard to providing their readers with proper information. To those who without prejudice have returned the gaze of what an American diplomat recently described to the writer as "the mildest blue eyes ever a man looked into" this appears incredible. "Venizelos is incapable of meditating a personal plot," said this same gentleman. Placid, soft-spoken, the Cretan's manner is almost deprecatory, and it is on these very qualities that King Constantine depends completely in the present crisis. In overriding the constitution, the king is counting on the forbearance of Venizelos.

If he were a vengeful man, Venizelos would have crushed his enemies long ago. He has had the power, never the will, to do so. Of simple habits and the most meager income, Venizelos has lived quietly in the five years that have marked his premiership, by way of hospitality never so much as dispensing a cup of coffee or even a cigarette; he does not smoke. Always regarded askance by the royal family—for several years the queen's method of reference to him was as "one of the little lawyers" Athens abounds in—he has nevertheless established that family securely on Greece's throne, and has made Constantine a king in more than name only.

To understand the present situation in Greece it is necessary to remember continually that while Venizelos's point of view is civilian, the point of view of the statesman, the king is always a soldier. This broad generality in description extends to the king's appearance. Born of what is reputed to be the cleanest-lived, best-looking, best-educated, and best-behaved royalty in Europe, he has been made sturdy by military training. Huge, bulky, muscular, over six feet tall, and tending to baldness, as his father did and his brothers do, Constantine is peculiarly impulsive and generous. Patriotic, almost brusk in manner, he rarely takes the mild view of anything; but to arrive at the truth of him, we must tunnel deeper yet, and recognize the king as a wire through which the current of Greek opinion has passed.

What, then, has been the reshaping process, what the result which has given the Constantine who is now the puzzle of Europe?

His first taste of a disagreeable phase of the existence of modern royalty came at the close of the Turkish War of 1897. The crown prince, as he was then, a young man in his thirtieth year, executed a "strategic retirement" from Larissa that did anything but edify the Greeks. They name names, the Greeks do. The curtain fell on the Turko-Hellenic disagreement, leaving these descendants of Homeric forebears with a crown prince whom they regarded as a coward. On the very threshold of potential importance Constantine found himself loaded with this handicap.

He did not check, on the contrary, he hastened his subjects' diminishing good opinion of him by his court and military policy. A prince rarely hears the truth. In the presence of royalty men put their best foot forward. Consequently, kings and heirs to thrones are flattered, deceived, cajoled to a point where they may well pray for magic glasses wherewith to recognize the truth. Constantine fell heir to an old disease.

He promoted favorites, and this policy, coupled with the native politicians' pursuit of their own venal self-interest, in 1909 brought on the smash of civil government. On August 23 of that year the Military League, an organization of patriotic, but arbitrary, officers, seized a hill outside Athens, trained guns on the capital, and demanded certain reforms, among them the removal of the princes from all authority in the army. Facing these conditions, Rhallis, then premier, resigned his place, and Mavromichalis headed a government which undertook to carry out the league's commands.

Crown Prince Constantine, the very iron of defeat nailed to his soul, asked to be retired as commander-in-chief. In the end he was granted a leave of absence, and went to Berlin to study. The other princes—they are so only by courtesy, for there are no titles in Greece save that of the king and his heir—were eliminated, and the following March the Military League, having summoned Venizelos to Greece, disbanded. The threat to the monarchy remained in abeyance, and in December we find the tall, angular Cretan announcing from the balcony of his hotel to an expectant crowd his hope that thereafter the crown would take a more active and determined part in affairs; in other words, his hope that in future the king would constitute himself the public's defender against the designs of irresponsible politicians.

Nor is that all. When Venizelos came to discuss the character of the Assembly that was about to meet, three times the crowd cried out "Constituent," and three times he answered "Revisionary," standing as firmly against the mob's encroachment as he would stand, and has, against any attempt by royalty to overstep the line. To such a deliverer there was presently returned a chastened crown prince, who in Berlin had learned military science till he could recite its maxims backward. Much of the understanding Constantine was able to come to with the new premier he owes, Greeks say, to the kindly offices of the American minister of that time, George H. Moses, in his sphere one of the most completely capable chiefs of mission known to our modern American diplomatic service.

Venizelos's belief—it is his chief point of agreement with the royal family—that the Greeks are not yet prepared for complete democracy was probably the main force that worked to permit the return of the crown prince. This belief renders ridiculous the largely discredited Rhallis's charge that Venizelos is aiming at a republic. If more proof is needed, witness the Cretan's acquiescence in the circumstances at present controlling Greek policy.

At that time, however, Venizelos was not Greece, and popular opinion, sullen, exacting, explosively pugnacious, still edged away from any tendency to accord a completely renewed confidence to Constantine. Not till General Sapounjakis dealt Venizelos a royal flush by his costly attacks on the hill of Bizani outside Janina in the First Balkan War did the premier's chance come to reëstablish the throne in popularity. As his high card the Cretan played the crown prince.

Taking command of the Greek army about Janina, Constantine immediately moved his main attack from Bizani toward the west, where the forts were less formidable. Making few mistakes, treasuring every effective's life, the new commander pushed his forces carefully forward and upward. Finally Fort St. Nicholas fell before a spirited attack, and Constantine spent the night having his big guns hauled to the eminence it occupied, in the morning opening fire on Bizani. Surprised and demoralized, the Ottoman forces withdrew into the city; on March 6, Essad Pasha surrendered with 33,000 Turks, and Athens went mad over victory—and the victor. Twelve days later the king was assassinated at Saloniki, and the crown prince succeeded as Constantine I.

As a soldier the new king was considered a precisian, a well-trained strategist, a commander lacking only in the supreme gift for leadership—the ability to sense and inspire the state of mind of his troops. To that last magic the docile Greek common soldier soon was to vote him heir.

There had already been conflicts at Nigrita, near Saloniki, between Greek and Bulgar. They began the day of Janina's fall. Many minor difficulties finally culminated in the action precipitated by the Bulgarian staff's orders of June 28. As the result of the Third Bulgarian Division's attack on both Greeks and Serbs, the Second Balkan War began the night of June 30.

Constantine took command, cleared the Bulgars out of Saloniki, advanced from Doiran to Kukush, and by July 3 found himself facing 115,000 Bulgars with 80,000 Greeks. There began then one of the swiftest and most merciless campaigns in the history of war. It was over in a month.

Everywhere massacre, pillage, arson, and rape characterized the Bulgar withdrawal. British observers found wounded Greek officers on the field with tongues slashed out and eyes gouged from their sockets. On July 13, Constantine protested to the powers. "Declare before the civilized world," he wrote to Venizelos, "that I shall be compelled to take vengeance in order to inspire terror in these monsters." During that terrible month a race antipathy, already as passionate as any of ancient days, acquired a new fury in Greek hearts.

At Kilkis, meanwhile, so rapid became the Greek advance that the Bulgars could hardly alter their artillery range quickly enough to deplete it with raining lead. Finding the bridges over the Struma blown up, the Greeks halted, but only temporarily. Rolled through the twenty-mile Kresna Pass, the Bulgar rear-guard finally held. Over mountains seven thousand feet high the Greek infantry and artillery struggled, to descend on the Bulgars at Semitki, and, when ammunition gave out, to fight them with stones. Behind the line the Greek king made strategical rearrangements that won this last battle and the war.

During the month the Greeks had marched two hundred miles, taken 12,000 prisoners and 200 guns, and lost 27,000 in killed and wounded, a loss that brought their total casualties for both wars to 68,000 men, Greece gained 2,000,000 inhabitants and 56,000 square kilometers of territory by the peace of Bukharest, and was able to regard with complacence Bulgaria's casualty-list, numbering 156,000 men, and Bulgaria's gain of only 500,000 inhabitants.

In Athens that August the Greeks gave their king a medal inscribed "To The Bulgar-Killer." Recently, in Washington, a Greek waiter, serving two diplomats at luncheon, answered a question regarding the existing situation.

"Our king is a great soldier," the man said. "Unless we can win, he will not let us fight."

Right there you have King Constantine himself. There you have before you a man whose character, under the pressure of an unpopularity occasioned by early military inefficiency, was resolved into elementals as open to impression as a child's; a man whose character was reshaped by victory and the hard work that led to it; a man congealed in the mold of the people's favor; a soldier who believes that his future, his fortune, his throne is dependent on popular delight in his generalship; lastly, a prince whose outlook is focused by his subjects' faith, which rests implicitly in the conviction that between the Greek and the dreaded Bulgar stands a puissant protector, an invincible warrior, the king.

His whole experience teaches Constantine that to risk his military reputation would be to endanger his popularity and to court disaster and the loss of his throne; but this is merely the negative side of the picture.

It has frequently been asked why Constantine no longer seems to fear the Bulgar. It is precisely because he does fear the Bulgar that he has acted as he has. It is no longer Servia and Greece against the Bulgar, but Greece alone against that ancient enemy, and the king believes that the decisive struggle with Czar Ferdinand's people is yet to come. Then let the Bulgars waste themselves in the present struggle, while the Greeks conserve their powers; for with Ferdinand trapped into spending his troops against Servia and the Allies, so much the larger looms the chance of Greek success when the inevitable collision of Greek with Bulgar shall at last come. This is the positive side of the picture.

The king's first disagreement with Venizelos rested upon his own and his staff's opinion that not 15,000 or even 40,000 Greek soldiers would be effective at Gallipoli. The Greek staff told the Allies how best to take Constantinople. It should also be remembered that old Greek policy always aimed at an understanding with Turkey till the Ottoman Empire should be ripe to fall into Greek hands as part of a new Byzantine Empire. This policy Venizelos reversed. So, too, the relentless tramp of events has left behind the Gallipoli incident, a milestone marking what might have been.

The circumstances surrounding Venizelos's second resignation, in last October, are of more immediate interest. What the ex-premier has looked east to gain, through taking sides in the war, is not all to which Greece aspires. Epirus remains; there Italy blocks the way.

To discuss the arrangement with Italy, whereby that power has so far neither declared nor made war on Germany, would be pointless here; of interest is the unquestioned fact that Prince von Bülow, German ambassador at the court of Victor Emmanuel, returned to Berlin from Rome last May bearing a summary of the sea powers' agreement with the Italian Government as to the division of the spoils of war.

In late August a gentleman, described variously as a grand duke high in the councils of the Government or merely as a special envoy, but certainly a messenger from the German emperor himself, arrived in Athens. This man saw Constantine and made the privileged communication that only one sovereign makes to another, a communication the king would be in honor bound not to divulge. It has been urged that this gentleman saw not the king, but the queen, and that she told her consort of the communication. That seems beside the point. Unquestionably the full scope of the Italian agreement with the sea powers was declared to the king of the Greeks, with special emphasis on such particulars of it as menaced Greek aspirations. Whether Venizelos has now guessed the nature and content of the privileged communication made to his king in August is a matter for conjecture. Certainly, he has acquiesced in events, seen in the landing in Albania of an Italian expeditionary force not a menace to the German drive to the Bosporus, but a warning to Greece to keep off.

His training has taught Constantine that the German army is the greatest the world has ever seen. When the sea powers asked him to fling his loved Greek soldiers against this invincible machine, when he reflected that the reward Greece had a right to expect for such service had already been promised to Italy, when he looked past the Bulgarian border into the heart of Rumania and saw that eager race mark time and hesitate, when he reflected on the inadequate force the Allies were sending to Serb assistance—the privileged communication also set forth the Teutonic near-Eastern military dispositions at that time being planned,—is it any wonder that all his impulsiveness exploded in "No!" There is a sibilant quality to Constantine's speech that has led those who converse with him in English to say that he lisps; certainly his great minister detected no lisp in his utterance that October afternoon.

If he, the king, has had to promise the kaiser to return Kavala to Bulgaria, what of it? Kavala is a port it will cost millions to develop to a point on a par with Saloniki; but while the Bulgars sink gold in the former, how will the Greeks not improve and strengthen the last-named port, already a city of 150,000 inhabitants, 75,000 of whom are sharp trading Jews? Meanwhile let the Allies defend it against Bulgar-Teutonic attack.

If the Allies succeed in doing this, if, in future, they land there a force sufficient for real aggressive action—action informed with the possibility of success—then Constantine may be able to imagine a real use for the Greek army. That time has not yet come. It may come next year, unless by then Germany has opened a through route to Asia, Egypt, and India, and so nullified English control of the seas.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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