Modern history




The Greatest Greek Statesman Since Pericles

IN DECEMBER 1918, when the Greek delegation to the Peace Conference left Athens, members of Parliament lined up to kiss the hand of its leader, the prime minister, Eleutherios Venizelos. A curious display for a man who was seen, in Western Europe at least, as a great democrat. The delegation stopped in Rome, where Venizelos talked with the Italian prime minister and foreign minister about the competing Italian and Greek claims for Albanian and Turkish territory. No agreement was reached. The Italian press, hostile at the start of the visit, became even more so when the train carrying the Greeks from Italy to France accidently killed two railway workers. In Paris, the delegates took possession of three floors of the Hôtel Mercedes, close to the British. Although they numbered only nineteen, they had taken rooms for eighty people.1 Greek demands at the Peace Conference demonstrated a similar optimism.

The Greek delegation included the foreign minister and a future president, but the only one who really counted was Venizelos. “A magnificent type of Greek,” said Frances Stevenson, “cast in the classical mould mentally and physically.” Energetic, persuasive, indefatigable, he won over the British, cajoled the French, reassured the Americans and almost neutralized the Italians. He worked fifteen-hour days in Paris; he wrote the memoranda and letters, gave the interviews and wooed the influential. Even the dour, self-important Hankey felt the spell at a lunch where Venizelos chatted “in abominable French” and was “deliciously indiscreet”; “a delightful old boy; a really big man.” Only a few wondered whether his influence over the peacemakers was a good thing; “he has most certainly the good will of all who know him,” said one American observer, “but is that really helpful? He enjoys the sympathy and the esteem of all the delegates and all the plenipotentiaries, but they also fear him because of his well-known and incontestable charm.” Venizelos was Greece’s greatest asset and, in the long run, its greatest liability. Without him Greece would never have won what it did at the conference table; without him it would not have tried to swallow so much of Asia Minor. 2

Venizelos was born into privilege, the son of a wealthy merchant on Crete, at a time when much of Greek territory (including Crete itself) was still under Turkish rule. He was christened Eleutherios, “Liberator”; his father had fought for Greece’s independence and three of his uncles had died in the cause. When Venizelos was only two, in 1866, a ghastly incident occurred which he never forgot. A rebellion, one of a series that shook the island repeatedly, ended in disaster when beleaguered Cretan rebels blew themselves up in a monastery. The survivors were massacred by the Turks. 3 His heritage, his history and his own character combined to produce a passionate Greek nationalist.

In 1881 Venizelos went to study law in Athens. Even then he was self-assured, haughty and a leader among his fellow students. He calmly contradicted his professors, refusing to back down even when it meant failing an examination. When a visiting British statesman, Joseph Chamberlain, was reported to have made a disparaging remark about Cretan nationalism, Venizelos demanded, and got, an interview. He informed Chamberlain that he was quite wrong and, in what was to become his style, showered him with facts and figures, all woven artfully together.4

The university of Athens, which had been founded just after Greece won its independence from the Ottomans, set out to revive classical culture; even the language of instruction was that of Socrates and Aristotle, not that of contemporary Greece. Many of its students, like Venizelos, saw themselves as missionaries of a Hellenic world to their fellows who still lived, unredeemed, under Turkish rule. One day, in his study, Venizelos gathered his friends around a large map. On it he drew the boundaries of the Greece he wanted: a good half of today’s Albania and almost all of today’s Turkey. Constantinople would be the capital.5

This was the megali idea—the “great idea.” “Nature,” said an early nationalist, “has set limits to the aspirations of other men, but not to those of the Greeks. The Greeks were not in the past and are not now subject to the laws of nature.” The megali idea (the word “megalomania” comes from the same root) was made up of dreams and fantasies, of a reborn empire reflecting the golden age when Greek had been spoken from Rome to the Crimea.6

At the end of the century, as Crete first freed itself from Turkish rule and then joined Greece, Venizelos was prominent in the struggle. By 1910 he was prime minister. In the Balkan wars of 1912 and 1913, he maneuvered on the international stage with such success that Greece emerged with a large swath of territory in the north, from Epirus in the west to Macedonia and part of Thrace in the east. The new territories more than doubled its size. As soon as Venizelos signed the 1913 Treaty of Bucharest, which confirmed Greece’s gains, he said, “And now let us turn our eyes to the East.”7

The East meant Ottoman Turkey. So much of the Greek past lay there: Troy and the great city-states along the coast of Asia Minor—Pergamum, Ephesus, Halicarnassus. Herodotus, the father of history, was born there, and so was Hippocrates, the father of medicine. On Lesbos, Sappho had written her poetry, and at Sámos, Pythagoras had invented geometry. At the Hellespont (now the Dardanelles), Leander had drowned for love of Hero; Jason and his Argonauts had sailed to the eastern end of the Black Sea to retrieve the Golden Fleece from Colchis (in today’s Georgia). The Byzantine empire and Christianity added another layer of memories and another basis for claims; for a thousand years, since Constantine became the first Christian emperor, his successors had sat in his city of Constantinople (today Istanbul), speaking Greek and keeping alive the great traditions. The Greek Orthodox patriarch still lived there, not in Athens. Santa Sophia, now a mosque, was the church built by the great Justinian in the sixth century. Centuries-old prophecies foretold that the city would be redeemed from the heathen Turks, who had taken it in 1453; generations of Greeks had longed for this.

Venizelos swore to the powers in Paris that Greece did not want Constantinople. Perhaps an American mandate might be desirable. Privately, he assured his intimates that Greece would soon achieve its dream; once the city was out of Turkish hands, the Greeks, with their natural industry and dynamism, would rapidly dominate it. “The Turks,” he told Lloyd George, “were incapable of administering properly such a great city and port.” During the Peace Conference Venizelos lost no opportunity to emphasize how very Greek the city was.8

For all that Greece, and Greek society, bore the imprint of the Ottoman past, Venizelos spoke for many Greeks when he insisted that his people were part of the modern, Western world. The Greeks would naturally civilize the backward Turks, just as the British or French were civilizing Africans and Asians. Why, he argued, one had only to look at the Greek birthrate (especially in Crete); the fact that it was the highest in the world demonstrated clearly the virility of the Greek nation. In 1919, he claimed, there were about two million Greeks living under Turkish rule.9

The correct figure was probably closer to one and a half million. 10 Not all of that number, however, despite what Venizelos claimed, thought of themselves as part of a greater Greece. All through Ottoman Turkey there were Greek colonies; some, like those in Pontus around Trebizond on the south shore of the Black Sea, had been founded so long ago that their inhabitants spoke a barely recognizable Greek. In the interior there was little difference between Greek and Turk. Perhaps as many as 400,000 nominal Greeks were distinguished from their Turkish neighbors solely by their religion and by the fact that they used Greek characters to write Turkish words. It was mainly in the great ports, Smyrna (today’s Izmir) and Constantinople, that Greek nationalism meant something.

In the decades before 1914, thousands of Greeks migrated to Turkey looking for work and opportunity. They brought with them the hopes of their countrymen that the Turkish Greeks could be redeemed.11 Changes in Turkey itself stimulated Greek nationalism. When the Young Turks seized power in 1908, the old easy tolerance the Ottomans had shown to minorities was doomed; in 1912 and 1913, when Muslim refugees fled from the Balkans back to Turkey, reprisals started there against Christian minorities. Even so, before the Great War Venizelos was cautious about talk of protecting the Turkish Greeks or of bringing them into union with Greece; his country had to recover from the Balkan wars and absorb its conquests. Indeed, in 1914 Venizelos was prepared to negotiate a peaceful exchange of populations, Greeks from Thrace and Asia Minor for Turks from Greece. The exchange, eight years later, was neither negotiated nor peaceful.

The First World War changed the picture completely. The Ottomans chose the losing side, Venizelos and Greece the winning one. By 1919 the Ottoman empire was in disarray and even Turkey seemed fated to disappear. The extent of the victory and the power of Greece’s friends were intoxicating; Greek newspapers talked of “the realization of our dreams.” Only Constantinople was not mentioned, because the censors forbade it. In reality, Turkey was defeated but far from finished; Greece’s friends were neither as powerful nor as steadfast as Venizelos assumed; and Greece itself was deeply divided between supporters and enemies of Venizelos.12

The divisions were a legacy of Greece’s entry into the war. Although Venizelos had been outspokenly pro-Ally from the start, King Constantine, who was married to the German emperor’s sister and, more important, was a realist, wanted to keep Greece neutral. The king and his supporters were immune to the heady vision of a greater country; “a small but honourable Greece” was their preference.13 A prolonged political crisis between 1915 and 1917 saw Venizelos driven from office; in 1916 he set up a provisional government in defiance of the king, which brought half of Greece into the war; and in 1917 Constantine was forced to leave Greece. A reunited Greece entered the war on the Allied side, but the unity was as thin as the excuses that Venizelos now used to round up his opponents. Government, judiciary, civil service, army, even the Orthodox church, were all purged, leaving a rift in Greek society that endured for a generation.

In the Allied camp these actions, if they were noticed at all, did little damage to Venizelos’s reputation. He had bravely allowed British and French troops to land at Salonika (today Thessaloníki) when Greece was still neutral; he had spent millions that Greece could not afford on the military; and Greek troops had not only fought in the war but had gone off to help Allied anti-Bolshevik forces in Russia. He was a loyal ally, completely in sympathy with the West and its values, and opposed to German militarism. Venizelos quoted Wilsonian principles whenever possible; he became an enthusiastic supporter of the League of Nations.14

Venizelos was a star of the Peace Conference, the “biggest man he met,” said Wilson with unwonted enthusiasm. He held dinner tables spellbound with stories of life as a guerrilla in the Cretan mountains, of how he had taught himself English by reading The Times with a rifle resting on his knees. And always the conversation included references to the glorious past and great future of Greece. “The whole,” reported Harold Nicolson, “gives us a strange medley of charm, brigandage, welt-politik, patriotism, courage, literature—and above all this large muscular smiling man, with his eyes glinting through spectacles, and on his head a square skull-cap of black silk.15

On February 3, 1919, Venizelos got his chance to present Greece’s case to the Supreme Council. He came with his notes, his statistics, even photograph albums showing happy Greek fishermen on the islands he wanted. That morning and the following day he was so reasonable, so persuasive. History, language, religion and of course, with a nod to the Americans, self-determination—he used them all. It was quite simple, he argued; in Europe, Greece must have the southern part of Albania (North Epirus, as he preferred to call it) and, farther east, between the Aegean and the Black Sea, Thrace (at the very least the western part), a few islands and a huge piece of Asia Minor stretching from a point halfway along the south shore of the Sea of Marmara almost four hundred miles down to the southern coast of Asia Minor to Smyrna. He pointed out that Greece was not asking for Constantinople. He complimented the Italians and made flattering references to the work of American teachers in his part of the world. It was a masterly performance: “such amazing strength & tactfulness of argument combined,” in the opinion of a junior British diplomat. It was also dangerous—to Greece, to the Greeks and to the future peace of the Middle East. In that moment of triumph at the Peace Conference, Venizelos lit a fuse that led to the catastrophic destruction of ancient Greek communities in Turkey and to a hostility between Greece and Turkey that persists today.16

One look at a map (not something the great statesmen did often enough) would also have showed that Venizelos was proposing a very strange country, draped around the Aegean Sea. His Greece would stretch one finger northward up the Adriatic, and another thin one along the top of the Aegean toward Constantinople; then it would jump across a bit of Turkish territory and the Dardanelles to take in about two thirds of the coast of Asia Minor, with a big lunge inland at Smyrna. This Greece of the “two continents and the five seas” was a country turned inside out, a fringe of land around waters it did not control. It would have enemies: Turkey certainly, and probably Bulgaria, both of which were down to contribute land, and probably also Italy, which had its own plans for the Adriatic, Albania and Asia Minor. Yes, agreed Venizelos, the shape was inconvenient. “But for thirty centuries Greeks had lived under these conditions, and had been able to surmount great catastrophes, to prosper and to increase.”17

Yet how could a country with fewer than five million people take on such a burden? A country so poor that in the years before 1914 a sixth of the population, almost all vigorous young men, had emigrated? So divided that there had almost been a civil war in 1917? For all the talk of ancient Greece, the country at the Peace Conference was new and shaky. As in the dreams of the other Balkan countries, the glories of the past compensated for the imperfections of the present.

Venizelos’s arguments, so logically laid out before the Peace Conference, were as full of holes as the Greece he wanted. His statistics were as dubious as any in the Balkans, a mix of outdated Ottoman numbers and wishful thinking. In making his claim for southern Albania, for example, he argued that people who looked like Albanians and spoke Albanian were really Greek; if they were Orthodox, they were Greek to their very souls. Why, the Greek military was full of men who were Albanian in origin. Venizelos dealt with population figures like a conjurer: there were 151,000 Greeks in North Epirus, out of a total population of 230,000. Take away the purely Albanian districts, and that left 120,000 Greeks and only 80,000 Albanians. Majority Greek areas should of course go to Greece (self-determination) but so should all areas without a clear majority: “for it would be contrary to all equity that, in a given people, a majority which possesses a higher form of civilization should have to submit to a minority possessing an inferior civilization.” The Albanians, indeed, were fortunate that Greece was willing to take them on.18

Its past gave modern Greece a ready-made circle of supporters. Clemenceau, in a rare burst of unqualified enthusiasm, told his secretary, Jean Martet, that humanity had reached its summit in ancient Greece: “Immerse yourself in Greece, Martet. It is something which has kept me going. Whenever I was fed up with all the stupidities and emptiness of politics, I turned to Greece. Others go fishing. To each his own.” (Clemenceau had reservations about the modern Greeks, whom he found sadly ignorant about their own glorious history.19) The Greeks were the descendants of Homer and Pericles and Socrates. Serene temples, noble discus throwers, the golden light thrown by classical Greece and the Byzantine empire floated between the statesmen in Paris and the reality of a small, faction-ridden, backward nation. From Berlin to Washington, national parliaments, museums and galleries, even the whitewashed churches in small New England towns, showed the continuing power of classical Greece over the imagination of the West. Indeed, the young United States had nearly adopted classical Greek as its official language. The foreign services and governments of Britain, France and the United States were staffed by the products of classical education, their love for ancient Greece unimpaired by any close acquaintance with the modern nation.

Moreover, the struggle of the Greek people for freedom from Turkish rule which had started in the 1820s had been one of Europe’s great liberal causes. Lord Byron gave his life, Delacroix some of his greatest paintings. And as long as Greeks were under Turkish rule, the cause lived on. In 1919, in cities all over Europe and the United States, supporters of Greece and its claims met to pass resolutions and raise money. The Daily Telegraph published Rudyard Kipling’s translation of the Greek national anthem, the “Hymn to Liberty.” For Jules Cambon, the Peace Conference brought “the best means of satisfying the ancient claims of the Hellenic nation and of at least completing the work of independence begun by the Liberal Nations of Europe a century ago.”20

If Greece was golden, Turkey was shrouded in darker memories: a tangle of ferocious riders from Central Asia; the crescent flags waving outside Vienna; the massacres of the Bulgarians in the 1870s and, much more recently, of thousands of Armenians. Its sultan was the heir to the great and ruthless warlords who had made Europe tremble. (In fact, he was a shambling middle-aged man with rheumatism.) One of the Allied nightmares during the recent war had been that the sultan, who as caliph was the spiritual leader of Muslims all over the world, would call on all those millions to fight against Britain in India, or France in North Africa. Ottoman Turkey stood for Islam against Christianity, and now there was a chance to win a victory in that centuries-long clash of civilizations. In Britain, the archbishop of Canterbury and other notables hastened to form a Santa Sophia Redemption Committee.21

The world saw only a decaying, brutal, inefficient power which should not continue to exist. Its Arab provinces had already gone, freed by their own efforts or liberated by the Great Powers, depending on your point of view; the remnants of the Armenians had proclaimed an independent republic in May 1918, and the Kurds on the eastern borders were agitating for their own country. As for the fate of the Turkish-speaking heartland, of Thrace in Europe and of Anatolia in Asia Minor, that could be sorted out at the Peace Conference after Greek and Italian claims had been satisfied.

The British, who for so long had propped up Ottoman Turkey, now needed an alternative partner to keep the eastern end of the Mediterranean safe for their shipping. Clearly they did not want an extensive French empire there, and they did not want to spend their own money if they could help it. That made Greece, a strengthened Greece, quite appealing. Principles and interests conveniently overlapped. Greece was Western and civilized, Ottoman Turkey Asiatic and barbaric. And Venizelos was so admirable, “the greatest statesman Greece had thrown up since the days of Pericles,” in Lloyd George’s opinion. A stronger Greece, thought Lloyd George and many in the Foreign Office, would be a very useful ally. As Venizelos was quick to point out, Greece could provide ports for the British navy and airfields for what was clearly going to be an important new way of getting to India. Greek power could fill the vacuum left by the collapse of the Ottomans. Only the military, whose job it was to look at maps and assess strengths and weaknesses, tended to be skeptical, about both Greek military power and the extent to which Turkey really was finished. When the British general staff were asked to comment on Greek claims in Asia Minor, they warned that a Greek occupation “will create a source of continual unrest possibly culminating in an organised attempt by the Turks to reconquer this territory.”22

Lloyd George, however, backed Venizelos as he backed few people. “He was,” said Lloyd George, “essentially a liberal and a democrat, and all the reactionary elements hated and feared his ideals, his legislation and his personality.” He could have been speaking of himself: the fighter, orator, iconoclast, the man who held out, as Lloyd George had done in the Boer War, against an unjust policy and his own government. The two men already knew and liked each other; at their first meeting, in 1912, it had been difficult to tell who had charmed the other more. To Venizelos, Lloyd George was like an Old Testament prophet, with “splendid capacities and clear insight of people and events”; to Lloyd George, his counterpart was “a big man, a very big man.” Together they spun entrancing visions of a strong alliance among Greece and France and Britain, controlling the eastern Mediterranean to the benefit of all. Greece would flourish, while Ottoman Turkey would be reduced to a client state.23

During the war, the two men kept in touch. Lloyd George later claimed that he and Venizelos had plotted Constantine’s overthrow together. In October 1918, when the war was in its last stages, Lloyd George took time out from a frantic schedule to discuss Greek claims with Venizelos over lunch. The meeting was friendly, and Lloyd George was encouraging, although at this stage he did not firmly commit himself to supporting all Greece’s claims. Venizelos followed up with a memorandum and a private letter in which he stressed how anxious Greece was to be cooperative. On the one issue where he might have caused trouble for Britain, that of Cyprus, which was about 80 percent Greek, Venizelos was tact itself. If the British wanted to hand it over to Greece, why that would be delightful, and of course Greece would always let British forces use the bases there; if Britain wanted to keep it, that was also understandable.24

When Venizelos made his case to the Supreme Council, he was sure that the British stood behind him. He thought he could probably count on the French as well: Greek troops were fighting with the French against the Bolsheviks. The Americans were sympathetic; the Italians were his only major worry. From time to time Lloyd George prompted him with gentle questions; Wilson asked for minor clarification on Turkish atrocities, Clemenceau said virtually nothing; and Orlando referred delicately to differences between Greece and Italy which, he hoped, would be speedily resolved. (On that, as so much else, Orlando was wrong.) Venizelos wrote back to Athens full of confidence: “I think that the impression created by my exposé was a favourable one. Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George and even Orlando reassured me of this when taking leave of them.” The Greek foreign minister, who witnessed the performance, was equally delighted: “In principle we have all the Great Powers on our side—except Italy, who begins thinking of agreement and conciliation herself.”25

The Italians may have been thinking of conciliation but they were also thinking of Albania and Asia Minor, where they had their eyes on some of what Greece wanted. They also hoped to keep the Dodecanese islands, even though their inhabitants were overwhelmingly Greek. Italian newspapers demanded everything that Italy had been promised, and more. Writers inveighed against the barbarous Serbians and their friends the Greeks. The situation in Albania, where Greeks and Italians actually rubbed up against each other, made matters worse. Italy had occupied much of Albania during the war; local Greeks and the Greek government complained repeatedly about the behavior of the Italian forces. The Italians, it was said, were trying to win over the Albanians with extravagant promises, of no taxes for example. In Greece the papers carried lurid stories of Italian brutalities and rapes. “The whole population,” in the opinion of the British ambassador in Athens, “would flock to the colours if mobilisation were ordered against Italy.” 26

During the war, Greece and Italy had talked in a desultory way about coming to a compromise, and early on in Paris, Sonnino and Venizelos, the charmless and the charming, met several times to see whether they could put together a deal. Sonnino suggested that Greece let Italy have all the coast of Albania and about half the interior; in return Greece could have the area around Korçë (Greek: Korytsa), the Dodecanese, and the area around Smyrna on the coast of Asia Minor. While the two men were prepared to bargain over Albania and the Dodecanese, neither would budge on Asia Minor. A deal would have saved much grief later on, but it never had a chance. Neither man trusted the other; both thought their countries could do better negotiating directly with the Great Powers.27

In February 1919 it looked as though Venizelos had been right to gamble. The only large question mark was the United States, and Venizelos had every reason to think that he could woo the Americans as successfully as he had wooed the British. He had long talks with House, who assured him that the United States would be helpful. Nicolson arranged for him to meet some of the younger Americans; “he is moderate, charming, gentle, apt. A most successful luncheon.” Venizelos was always good at judging his audience. Seymour, the American expert, described another meeting to his family: “Realizing that his strongest asset would be our belief in his honesty, he determined to lay his cards on the table and speak with absolute frankness, and I think that he did. This policy was almost Bismarckian in cleverness.” The Americans were sympathetic, but not blindly so. They had reservations about Greek claims in Albania and Thrace. When it came to Asia Minor, though, they preferred the Greek claims to the Italian. Even early on, American relations with Italy were deteriorating.28

As the Commission on Greek and Albanian Affairs began to meet in the second week of February, Venizelos kept up the pressure and his hectic pace of activities. He made another presentation: “He is overwhelmingly frank, genial, and subtle,” reported Nicolson. The lunches and dinners went on; the letters and memoranda flowed from his pen. In the United States and Europe his sympathizers organized meetings; in the Balkans and Turkey, his agents stirred up Greek communities to send in petitions to the Peace Conference demanding that they be made part of Greece. Professors urged that Greeks should not be left under the rule of Albanians, “the one race which Europe has not been able to civilise.” (For their part, Albanians begged the United States to take a mandate over their country.) Be careful, warned a member of the government back in Athens: “Trop de zèle can harm us.”29

From its first meeting, the commission fell out on national lines, with the British and the French supporting Greece’s claims, the Americans taking a more detached and moderate view and the Italians for denying virtually everything. Italy did not want a stronger Greece just across the Adriatic. The narrowest part of the Adriatic was at the heel of the Italian boot; sixty miles east, on the Albanian coast, was the superb natural harbor of Vlorë, guarded by the island of Sazan (Italian: Saseno). If Italy held both island and harbor, it could reach across and squeeze shut the entrance to the Adriatic. If an unfriendly power, though, sat on that eastern shore, Italy would always be at its mercy. When Serbia put in its claim for a slice of northern Albania, Italy opposed that as well. Italy had other interests too: the Catholic minority in the north, ministered to by Italian schools and Italian priests. From the Italian point of view, it would have been easiest to take over directly, or at least turn much of Albania into a protectorate.

As February and March wore on, the crisis between Italy and its allies made the commission’s work even more difficult. The two Italian representatives tried to delay the meetings; they quibbled; they threatened to withdraw; they absented themselves, claiming illness (this caused awkward moments when other members met them dining out in Paris). The two, reported Nicolson, “are behaving like children and sulky children at that. They obstruct and delay everything. ”30

The Greek demands on Albania raised the wider issue of whether the little country, so recently created, would survive at all. Greece wanted most of the south on the basis of its own dubious nationality statistics. And, since little was simple in Paris, other issues lurked in the background. If Italy made gains in the southern Balkans, would it drop its demands at the top of the Adriatic? Would Greece back down in Albania in exchange for Asia Minor? Where did self-determination of peoples fit in?

Poor little Albania, with such powerful enemies and so few friends. It had almost no industry, little trade, no railways at all and only about two hundred miles of paved road. Albania emerged just before the war, created out of four districts of the Ottoman empire. Few outsiders ever visited it; little was known about its history or its people. Only rarely had Albanians—the great Roman emperors Diocletian and Constantine, for example—popped up in Europe’s history. According to some, the Albanians were the original Illyrian inhabitants of the Balkans, who had been pushed into the poorest and most inaccessible parts by the slow sweep south and west of the Slavs. Certainly their language was different from those of their Montenegrin, Serbian and Greek neighbors. In the Ottoman empire, they were valued for their fighting abilities and their beauty.

History and geography—the tangle of mountains and valleys that stretched inland from the coast—had produced a myriad of tribes, equally suspicious of outsiders and each other. The Gegs of the north and the Tosks of the south spoke different dialects and had different customs. As elsewhere in the Balkans, the past had left in its wake religious divisions; the 70 percent of the population that was Muslim was part Sunni and part Shia; a minority were dervishes. The Christian minority was Catholic in the north and Orthodox in the south. Rules about honor and shame, of a dazzling complexity, governed daily life. In some areas, one man in five died in a blood feud.

The rare travelers who made their way into Albania by foot or on horseback tended to fall in love with the land and its people. Byron had had himself painted in Albanian costume; perhaps inevitably, he also took an Albanian mistress. At the end of the nineteenth century, the journalist Edith Durham went there on the advice of her doctor. He had told her travel was good for the nerves, but Albania was not what he had in mind. She explored the country from end to end before the war, usually on her own or with a single servant. The Albanians did not know what to make of this strange dumpy creature; in the end, they decided to treat her as an honorary man. When British soldiers were moving through eastern Albania during the war, they found that if they said “Durr-ham,” it acted as a passport. 31

When Durham first encountered Albania, national feelings were stirring. An Austrian professor assembled an Albanian dictionary and grammar; this convinced literate Albanians that they might indeed be a people. After much discussion the Latin alphabet was chosen in preference to Greek or Arabic characters. Albanian books were published; folktales, histories, poetry. Albanian schools were opened, often surreptitiously. As long as Turkish rule remained relatively light, many Albanians were content to work for the Ottomans, as soldiers or administrators. When the Young Turks tried to reinvigorate the Ottoman empire just before the Great War, their heavy-handed repression provided the missing stimulus; nationalist uprisings broke out, with freedom from the Ottomans their goal. The large Albanian community abroad lent its enthusiastic support.

Independence became a matter of national survival in 1912, when it looked as if Albania’s neighbors—Greece and Serbia prominent among them—were about to drive the Ottomans out of Europe altogether and divide up the spoils of war. This did not suit the Great Powers, who feared yet another war in the Balkans; so, in 1913, they created Albania. Its boundaries were drawn by an international commission, to the accompaniment of objections from the Serbs and the Greeks. When the commission visited southern Albania, a sharp-eyed journalist noticed the same people coming out at every stop carrying signs that read, “Welcome to a Greek Town.” Greek troops who were temporarily in occupation made children sing Greek songs and householders were ordered to paint their houses in the Greek national colors. Even after Greece withdrew its troops, it continued to smuggle in irregulars, who tried to stir up rebellion.

Albania’s short history had been an unhappy one. Tribal chieftains, brigands, Turkish loyalists, Greek, Serbian and Italian agents all pursued their own ends against the weak central government. One figure stood out: the sinister and beguiling Essad Pasha Toptani. It was said that, although he spoke no European language properly, he knew the value of money in all of them. He had worked variously for the Ottomans, as head of the police in Shkodër (Italian: Scutari); for the Young Turks; for the Montenegrins (who had designs on the north of Albania); and for the Italians, but always for himself. His compatriots feared and hated him. When his first wife threatened to poison him for taking a second wife (he was a poor Muslim but found his religion useful at times), she was widely admired.32

Into this maelstrom the Great Powers in their wisdom plunged Wilhelm of Wied, a German prince—“a feeble stick,” in Durham’s opinion, “devoid of energy or tact or manners and wholly ignorant of the country.” In an act of stupendous foolishness, the new king made Essad his defense minister. Wilhelm lasted six months before he fled back to Germany, leaving five separate regimes each of which claimed to be the government of Albania. By that point the Great War had broken out and Albania, because of its position, was almost at once drawn in. Italy reached across the Adriatic to occupy Vlorë. Greece moved into the south. When the Serbian army fell back in 1915 before the Austrians, it marched through Albania. The long history of mutual suspicion between Serbs and Albanians now had a new chapter, as Albanian brigands harried the desperate Serbs on their way to the Adriatic.33

By the war’s end, most of Albania was occupied: by Serbians in the north, Italians and Greeks in the south, Italians in most of the coastal towns and French in the interior around Shkodër in the north and Korçë in the southwest, where they flew a curious flag in which the French national colors were joined to a traditional Albanian design. In the south, Greece opened schools and held elections for deputies to the Greek parliament. Serbia and Greece talked in confidence about dividing Albania between them, but that ignored Italy, which had been promised Vlorë in the Treaty of London. (In 1917 Italy had tried to grab the whole of the country but was forced to back down.) The treaty hinted at yet another arrangement: Albania parceled out among Serbia, Montenegro and Greece, with a little statelet in the middle under Italian control.34

The Albanians, in the face of these threats to their country, attempted to pull themselves together. At a meeting in December 1918, representatives from different parts of the country elected a provisional government under Turkhan Pasha, an elderly gentleman who had once worked as an Ottoman diplomat. Essad, as usual, played his own game, insisting that he was the president of Albania or, alternatively, its king. (He had spent part of the war designing a dazzling uniform for himself and covering it with decorations of his own awarding.) When the provisional government sent a delegation to Paris led by Turkhan Pasha, Essad went on his own behalf and quarreled violently with the official delegates, whom he accused, in a case of the pot calling the kettle black, of intriguing with the Italians.35 He was handicapped because he scarcely dared stir from his hotel for fear that one of his many enemies would try to assassinate him.

Albania’s friends abroad, a motley crew, provided what help they could. One group hired a charming Hungarian aristocrat to lobby the Americans; unfortunately, it turned out that his main passion in life, and the subject of all his conversations, was the tooth structure of dinosaurs. The Pan-Albanian Federation of America dispatched an American missionary, who was equally ineffectual. Then there was Aubrey Herbert, a younger son of one of Britain’s great aristocratic families. (His half-brother the earl of Carnarvon uncovered Tutankhamun’s tomb.) He spent much of his time before the war traveling throughout the Ottoman empire, preferably, it seemed, in the most uncomfortable and dangerous conditions. He spoke several languages fluently, including Turkish and Albanian, and was an unpaid agent for the British Foreign Office. John Buchan used him as the model for the hero of Greenmantle, a man “who was blood brother to every kind of Albanian bandit.” The Albanians offered him their throne. Herbert turned it down but created the Anglo-Albanian Society to work for Albania’s independence. Edith Durham was its secretary. 36

The Supreme Council granted an audience to Turkhan Pasha on February 24. “Very, very old and sad,” reported Nicholson. “The Ten chatter and laugh while this is going on. Rather painful.”37 The Albanians threw themselves on the mercy of the Peace Conference and, in particular, on the Americans. “They trust,” their written statement said, “that the principle of nationality so clearly and solemnly proclaimed by President Wilson and his great Associates will not have been proclaimed in vain, and that their rights—which have, up to now, been trampled underfoot—will be respected.”

The Albanians challenged the Greek claims, producing their own statistics. Where Greece counted 120,000 Greeks in the south, the Albanians could find only 20,000. Religion was not an indicator of anything; Christian or Muslim, all Albanians were united in a love of their homeland, and had been for centuries. The Greeks claimed to be more civilized than Albanians, yet they had committed appalling atrocities. So had the Serbs. During the war, the Albanians had done whatever they could to help the Allies. Albania ought not to lose any territory; in fact, in strictest justice, it should be given the parts of Serbia, Montenegro and Greece where Albanians were in a clear majority.

The Albanian claim included Kosovo, a relatively prosperous farming area on Albania’s northwest frontier, where, the Albanian delegates said, Albanians had been since “time immemorial”; the Serbs, who also claimed Kosovo, had not arrived until the seventh century. Moreover, Serbia, which had controlled Kosovo since 1913, had behaved appallingly. There would be trouble in the future if Albanians had to live under Serb rule.38 (Serbs were saying the same thing about the Albanians.)

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the past (always a difficult matter to establish in the Balkans), it was clear that the Albanians had a good case. The majority of the population of Kosovo was Albanian. But for Serbs Kosovo was their Runnymede, their Valley Forge, and their Lorraine. Kosovo was where, in 1389, the Ottomans had defeated the Serbs and brought them under Muslim rule. It was at once a defeat and, paradoxically, the Serbs’ great victory, celebrated annually down through the centuries. Legend had it that a saint, in the form of a falcon, offered the Serbian prince a choice between winning the battle on earth and winning in heaven; he chose the latter and, although he died, his salvation and that of the Christian Serbs was assured. “This region was undeniably a part of the great Serbian Empire in the thirteenth century,” said House’s assistant Bonsal. “Should it be restored to Belgrade now? Should California and New Mexico be restored to Spain or Mexico? I don’t know.” One solution might be a simple exchange of populations. “All would be well if friendly relations could be established between the disputants, but unfortunately all the experts say this is impossible; on this point at least they are in full agreement.” 39

Kosovo did not become an issue in 1919 because the powers saw no reason to enlarge Albania’s borders in any direction. Albania was weak, its government ineffectual. What did it matter if some half-million Albanian farmers lived under Serbian or Yugoslav rule? Occasionally, in succeeding years, the world heard rumblings of discontent. Albanian priests appeared at the League of Nations to complain that their schools were being closed. During the Second World War, with German and Italian support, Albania at last seized Kosovo; but Tito, the new ruler of Yugoslavia, seized it back at the end of the war. Albania grumbled but dared not do anything openly. And Tito’s rule was relatively light compared with what came later. In 1989, seventy years after the Paris Peace Conference, Albania revived the old claims to Kosovo.

The Greek commission ignored Albania and its claims and spent most of its time trying to sort out the competing demands of Italy and Greece. Various schemes were floated; for Italy to have a mandate over the whole of Albania, or Greece one over the south. The French, mainly to block Italy’s expansion, urged that Korçë in the south must go to Greece because it controlled the only road joining the Adriatic side of Greece to Greek Macedonia. There were rumors that Greece and Italy were talking again about a separate deal; that Italy was arming friendly Albanian gangs; that the French intended to remain in occupation of Korçë unless it were given to Greece. The Americans were curiously passive, perhaps because the inner circle around Wilson was absorbed with the German treaty and the worsening relations with Italy. In desperation, Nicolson came up with an absurd scheme: for Albania to be divided up, with the north linked to Serbia, a Muslim state in the center under an Italian mandate, the south under Greek rule, and Korçë the home of a Central Albanian University under American protection. 40

The Albanians were horrified, reported Wilson, who had received a number of petitions, at the thought of an Italian mandate. Perhaps they should have their independence. “I really don’t know what they would do with it,” replied Lloyd George, “except cut each other’s throats.” Albania would be just like the Scottish highlands in the fifteenth century. “Don’t speak ill of the mountains of Scotland,” said Wilson, “it is my family’s place of origin.” And that was the end of the matter as far as the Council of Four was concerned.41

In the summer of 1919, when a new and more conciliatory government came to power in Italy, it made an agreement with Venizelos, himself under pressure to settle Greece’s disputed claims. The deal was a matter of old-style horse-trading: Italy would support Greek claims, including those to Thrace, if Greece gave up its claims to the territory Italy wanted in the southern part of Asia Minor. Italy would also hand over all of the Dodecanese islands except the most important one, Rhodes. (This was not as much of a sacrifice as it sounded, because Italy had no legal claim to them.) In the case of Albania, Italy agreed that Greece should have the south; in return, Greece would recognize Italy’s possession of the port of Vlorë and its hinterland, and an Italian mandate over what was left. As a symbol of the new spirit of compromise, a railway would be built from Vlorë to Athens.

Almost immediately, other powers raised objections. The French refused to leave Korçë until a more general settlement was achieved. The new state of Yugoslavia was agitated at the thought of so much Italian territory along its borders. And if Greece and Italy were getting pieces of Albania, then it wanted some in the north.

The final blow to the agreement came in February 1920 from an unexpected quarter. President Wilson, defeated in his struggle to get the Treaty of Versailles accepted by Congress, still clung to his principles. The United States, he said in a note to his European allies, was not prepared to do an injustice to the people of Albania. By the spring, the Albanians were in full-scale revolt against the Italian occupation. By August, Italy was prepared to sign an armistice that left it with only the island of Sazan, facing the port of Vlorë. “It is very sad,” commented an Italian newspaper, “to witness this debacle after so much noble and generous Italian blood has been given and so many millions have been expended for a great work of civilisation and for the security of our frontiers.” 42 The French pulled out of Korçë, and Greece and Yugoslavia, for the time being, dropped their demands. At the end of 1920 Albania was admitted to the League of Nations as an independent state, its boundaries virtually the same as they had been in 1913.

Not for nothing was Albania the birthplace of the king who gave his name to the Pyrrhic victory. Internal politics continued in their turbulent fashion. Essad briefly achieved his dream of being king, but he never sat on his throne. In spite of his bodyguards and Browning revolvers, as he left the Hôtel Continental in Paris an old enemy gunned him down. The assassin was killed in turn, on the orders of Essad’s nephew Zog, who duly became king.

Italy never completely abandoned its designs. Under Mussolini, Italian influence continued to grow; finally, on the eve of the Second World War, Italy annexed Albania. After the war, a former teacher of French, Enver Hoxha, set up one of the stranger and more reactionary communist regimes. Repeated attempts by the Albanian resistance and their Western supporters to restore King Zog came to nothing, largely because they were betrayed by the leading Soviet mole in the West, Kim Philby. In the 1990s, after the end of the Cold War, Essad’s great-nephew, an arms dealer from South Africa, revived his claim to the throne.

Greece did much better in Thrace, where Venizelos claimed almost the whole. What he glossed over, with much clever juggling of statistics, was the population mix. Eastern Thrace probably had a Greek majority; in the western part, which had belonged to Bulgaria since 1913, Turks outnumbered Greeks by almost three to one. There was also a significant Bulgarian minority. This was awkward; if the principle of nationality were to apply, something the Americans always favored, then Greece could claim only eastern Thrace. Western Thrace should go back to Turkey or possibly stay with Bulgaria, which needed its seaports. The Italians, who were rumored to be intriguing with the Bulgarian government against Serbia, supported the latter solution. In either case, another country would sit between the main part of Greece and its new province of eastern Thrace. The Greeks argued that the Bulgarians, and many of the Turks, were really Greek. As one delegate assured Bonsal, “They are of straight Attic descent and the land is full of them; but to pacify their ferocious Slav neighbors, and so that they may be understood in their daily life and pursuits, many of them have lost all knowledge of their mother tongue.” The Greek fallback position was that the Muslim majority in western Thrace, whether Bulgarian- or Turkish-speaking, would prefer rule by Greece. Conveniently, Venizelos produced a pleading letter from local Muslims: “It would not be just to allow us to suffer under the hardest and most un-pitying yoke that one can imagine—under the Bulgarian yoke.”43

In any case, the Greeks urged, why should defeated enemies be given consideration? Venizelos was prepared to allow Ottoman Turkey a small slice of Thrace just to the north of Constantinople. (He hoped, of course, that the city and its surroundings would soon be Greek.) As for western Thrace, it would be better for the future safety of the world, not to say the Balkans, if Bulgaria relinquished the whole to Greece. “Whatever concessions might be made would be useless, for Bulgaria would never rest until the whole of the Balkans were handed over to her. Bulgaria claimed complete hegemony over the whole of the Peninsula, and she would seize every opportunity to fulfil her ambitions. Bulgaria represented in the Balkans, the Prussia of Western Europe.”44 The British and French, who disliked Bulgaria, agreed. Apart from any other considerations, Greece needed a land link to eastern Thrace.

To objections raised by the Americans and the Italians that Bulgaria would suffer economically if it lost all its ports on the Mediterranean, Venizelos, as always, had an answer: “The principle of nationality should take precedence over economic considerations. Bulgaria had excellent ports on the Black Sea.” And, given Bulgaria’s past record, it was quite capable of building submarine bases on the Aegean and menacing Greece. If Bulgaria really needed an outlet, Greece would allow it to use a port. (When such a provision was eventually drawn up, Bulgaria rejected it outright: “A Bulgarian outlet to the sea through Turkish and Greek territory is not only impossible, but also unacceptable psychologically.”45)

Although the Greek commission finally recommended giving both parts of Thrace to Greece, the Peace Conference postponed making any decision at all on the grounds that it was premature, since the fate of Constantinople had not yet been settled. (There was talk of the United States taking a mandate.) When Thrace came up before the Peace Conference again in the summer of 1919, the United States had given up the idea of the mandate and was now also firmly opposed to giving western Thrace to Greece. Instead, the Americans argued for leaving it with Bulgaria, much to the irritation of the British, who pointed out that if one of Greece’s claims were denied, the whole lot would have to be reviewed. Venizelos was coming under attack at home; he told Lloyd George that his position would be very dangerous unless he could show some solid gains.46

The gradual withdrawal of the United States from Europe made it possible for the European powers to ignore its wishes. In the Treaty of Neuilly with Bulgaria, which was signed in November 1919, Bulgaria lost western Thrace. The Bulgarian delegation made one last futile appeal: “The exclusion of Bulgaria from Western Thrace, of which even our enemies the Greeks and the Serbians, who were our conquerors in the war of 1912–1913, did not have the courage to deprive us, . . . will further separate Bulgaria geographically from France and the great sea powers.”47 In 1920, western and eastern Thrace, which had by now been taken from Turkey, were handed over by the Allies to Greece. The Greeks were to enjoy their new acquisition in peace for precisely two years. Far to the south, in Asia Minor, the “great idea” was crashing rudely against reality. Greece had stretched too far; in doing so it had awoken the forces of Turkish nationalism.

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