Italy and Greece in the Mediterranean

By Theodore P. Ion

[The Nation; November 30, 1918]

The diplomatic tension between Italy and Greece in regard to the final disposition of certain possessions in the Ægean and Adriatic seas which were formerly under the control of the Ottoman Porte, although denied or minimized by the official spokesmen of both countries, is not only a fact, but an occasion as well of no little embarrassment to the statesmen of the Entente Powers. This antagonism between Italian nationalistic claims to lands and people which have nothing in common with Italy either by reason of territorial contiguity or racial affinity, and Hellenic aspirations which are founded on both contiguity of territory and homogeneity of nationality, has from its beginning strained the cordial relations which formerly existed between the Governments of Italy and Greece, and given rise to bitter ill-feeling between the Italians and the Hellenic people.

The first signs of this estrangement between Italy and Greece, and between the Italians and the Greeks within and without the Hellenic kingdom, appeared when the Italian Government showed a strong disposition to transform the twelve Greek islands, known as the Dodecanesos, which have been under its military occupation since the Italo-Turkish war of 1911-1912, into real Italian colonies.

To this is to be added the determination of Italy to incorporate in the much-heralded and newly-created Albanian state northern Epirus, a region to which Italian and Austrian diplomacy, for political reasons of its own, gave the name of Southern Albania—a name contrary to tradition, history, and the ethnology of its inhabitants.

In a word, the Italo-Hellenic conflict is centered in the Dodecanesos and Northern Epirus. It is the first of these two questions that will be examined in this article.

The Dodecanesos, strictly speaking, consists of the islands of Icaria, Patmos, Leros, Calymnos, Astypalea (Stampalia), Nissyros, Telos, Symi, Halki, Carpathos, Cassos, and Castellorizo; but Icaria is under Greek occupation, and Castellorizo, since the European war broke out, has been occupied by France. It is the first ten of these islands, together with Rhodes and Cos, which are now under the occupation of Italy, and which constitute today the so-called Dodecanesos. The population numbers about 143,000 Greeks, 4,500 Turks, and 2,500 Jews. The early history of the Dodecanesos, like that of other Greek islands, goes back to the borderland between mythology and history. Pindar tells us how Apollo, being absent when Jupiter distributed the world's possessions to the other gods, later succeeded by artifice in securing for himself the island of Rhodes. According to Homer, the islands, or some of them, furnished vessels to the Grecian fleet in the expedition against Troy. In historical times, one of them acquired fame as the birthplace of Hippocrates and the seat of a medical school founded by the famous Greek physician of antiquity. The part played by Rhodes—the metropolis, so to speak, of the Dodecanesos—both in Hellenic times and during the Roman period is well-known to students of Greek and Roman history; while even to many who know little of history the Colossus of Rhodes is a familiar name. The island of Patmos, the scene of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, has from the first century been regarded with reverence by Christians.

Notwithstanding the conquest of the islands by various nations, and their subjection to a foreign yoke for many centuries, the Dodecanesians have never lost their Hellenic character. The islands took an active part in the war of Greek Independence (1821-29); their vessels joined the Greek revolutionary fleets and contributed to the liberation of Greece from Turkish tyranny. Several of them had even formed part of the early Hellenic state, but later they were detached from it by the Powers, were brought once more under Ottoman rule, and the privileges of self-government granted by the early Turkish conquerors summarily abolished.

In 1912, when Italy during its war with Turkey occupied the Dodecanesos, the inhabitants of the islands fancied that at last their age-long, hopes of realizing their national aspirations and of being united with Greece were nearing fulfilment. It is worthy of note that during that war the Greek people in general looked upon the Italian experiment in Africa, notwithstanding its irregularity, with sympathy, not only because Turkey, the hereditary enemy of Hellenism, was now also the enemy of Italy, but also because it was rightly thought that the substitution of the rule of Victor Emmanuel for the misrule of the Sultan in Tripoli would confer a great benefit upon civilization. Accordingly, when the Italian troops landed at Rhodes, in May, 1912, the Rhodians welcomed them with joy and afforded to the Italian army such military assistance as was in their power. The same hearty welcome was extended to the Italians in all the other islands of the Dodecanesos which they occupied.

The hopes of the Dodecanesians were further heightened when General Ameglio, the commander-in-chief of the Italian army of occupation, assured them that his Government would not only show generosity towards the islanders, but would also respect "their customs and traditions." "I assure you," he declared, In the most categorical manner, that after the termination of the Italo-Turkish war, the islands which are under the temporary occupation of Italy will receive an autonomous system of government and that the Turks will never return. I tell you this," he added, "both as a General and as a Christian, and you may consider my words as gospel truth."

The islanders naturally received these utterances of the official representative of Italy with gratification; but fearing lest silence on their part might be misunderstood, and at the same time wishing to make known, not only to the Italian Government and people but also to the rest of the world, their national aspirations, they secretly sent representatives to Patmos who, on June 17, 1912, meeting in assembly in the famous monastery of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, framed and adopted the following significant resolutions:

1.   The Assembly expresses to its sister nation Italy, to its King and to its Government, the unbounded gratitude of the inhabitants of, these islands for their deliverance from the unbearable Turkish, yoke.

2.   It declares the firm determination of the peoples of these Christian islands to submit to any sacrifice in order that they may not again come under the terrible tyranny of the Turks.

3.   It proclaims the age-long national wish of the islanders for union with their motherland, Greece.

A copy of these resolutions was presented to General Ameglio, who, however, refused to receive it, and copies were also transmitted to the European powers.

This outburst of national feeling on the part of the Dodecanesians had no effect save to anger the Italian Government, and ever since that time the local authorities in the islands have tried, by various means, to suppress every nationalist movement and every expression of the sentiments of the people. Thus, the hoisting of the Greek flag, or any display whatever of the national colors of Greece, was forbidden; a number of the leading men of the islands were expelled, while others who were abroad were not permitted to return; newspapers from Greece were barred, and various petty restrictive measures were put into effect.

During the sessions of the London Conference of 1913, convened for the purpose of bringing the first Balkan war to an end by the conclusion of peace between Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria on the one side and Turkey on the other, the Dodecanesians, fearing lest, in spite of the official assurances of the Italian Government, the islands would be restored to Turkey as had been provided for by the Treaty of Lausanne, again passed resolutions reiterating their previous declaration, namely, their "unalterable determination to be united with their motherland, Greece." Such union, they asserted, was the only solution which would insure permanent peace, tranquility, happiness and progress." The Italian representatives, on the other hand, insisted that, the question of the Dodecanesos should not be acted upon until Turkey had carried into effect the stipulations of the Treaty of Lausanne. It was the same Italian representatives who strenuously opposed the incorporation with Greece of the Greek islands of Mitylene and Chios, the occupation of which by Italy had been prevented principally by the opposition of Austria; but on this point Great Britain, France and Russia carried the day, and the two islands were annexed to Greece. The Italian Government itself did not deny that had it not been for the presence of its troops in the Dodecanesos during the Balkan War, Greece would have conquered the islands and made them a part of the Hellenic state. Thus, in a despatch to the Italian Ambassador at Vienna, February 12, 1912, Baron Sonnino, the Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs, emphasized the fact that "Italy had rendered a signal service to Turkey," since these islands would have been inevitably acquired by Greece; and he added that "the Italian Government had learned that Turkey was very anxious that the Italian occupation should continue."

It became, in short, the settled policy of Italy, realizing as the Italian Government did that the Dodecanesians would under no circumstances acquiesce in the incorporation of the inlands with the kingdom of Italy, to postpone the final solution of the question, evidently with the hope of making the temporary occupation permanent at the first convenient opportunity. The alleged non-execution of the Treaty of Lausanne by Turkey, and the refusal of Turkey to grant to Italy concessions in Asia Minor as compensation for the expenses incurred by Italy during the occupation of the Dodecanesos, were the arguments invariably resorted to whenever the question of the evacuation of the islands came up for discussion in the Italian Parliament or in the official declarations of Italian ministers to foreign Governments.

Ever since the entrance of Italy into the war on the side of the Entente Powers, the question has been asked what the attitude of the Italian Government would be in regard to the Dodecanesos at the future peace conference. How will Italy be able to reconcile her own claims to the Austrian territories inhabited by Italians with her desire to retain control of the twelve islands whose inhabitants are Greeks who long for union with Greece?

The answer to this question has been given indirectly by Italian ministers. The substance of their arguments is that, so far as the Dodecanesos or other territory in the Mediterranean which Italy covets is concerned, a departure from the principle of nationality may be justified by the doctrine of the balance of power. In other words, Italian statesmen of the school of Giolitti, whose views in this matter are reflected and championed by Baron Sonnino, the present Minister of Foreign Affairs, claim that while Italy is entitled to invoke the principle of nationality when it is a question of incorporating Italian populations now under foreign rule, the application of that principle may be waived if it happens to clash with the ambition of Italy for territorial expansion, and the doctrine of balance of power substituted. The further specious argument, often employed by Italian apologists for Italy's foreign policy, that since in former ages Italians had conquered the Dodecanesos and ruled the islands or some of them, the present Italian kingdom, being the inheritor of these one-time political entities, is justified in reasserting its claim to them, is in harmony with the preceding contention. The answer to this kind of sophistry would seem to be that if the Italians found their national claims on the so-called right of previous conquest, Austria may also be justified in laying claim to Venice and other parts of Italy on the plea that those territories were, at one time, under her sovereignty.

That Italy still persists in its intention of annexing the Dodecanesos is apparently evidenced by the fact that since the downfall of the imperial regime in Russia, and the renunciation by the Kerensky Government of the claims to Constantinople by the secret treaty concluded between the late Imperial Government and the Entente, the Italian Government on its side has not denounced the provisions of the secret Treaty of London under which the twelve islands 'are to be incorporated with Italy.

What should be kept in mind, in the face of such circumstances as these, is that the final disposition of the Greek islands does not alone concern the Greek and Italian Governments, but also the people who inhabit these islands. For Italy to put pressure upon the Greek Government in order to induce it to accept the Italian point of view in the solution of the question would be an injustice, for no state, and least of all a Government, can be regarded in this day as having a right to barter away the liberties or destinies of a people, especially a people connected with it by ties of race, language and common traditions. It should be the aim of the peace conference to solve this problem as it may be expected to solve; other problems of a like nature—not according to the political exigencies of the moment, or with a view to reconciling conflicting interests and ambitions of Governments, but solely in conformity with the wishes of the people themselves. If self-determination is to be accepted as a principle capable of general application, the burden of proof will be upon the peace Conference to show that the principle has not particular application in the case of the Dodecanesos.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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