Writing Armageddon

Writing Armageddon
Furious writing or writing furiously?

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

The Brexit and "1915"

The Brexit and “1915”

by Konstantinos Travlos



I recently finished reading “1915” by Yeorgios Mavrogordatos, in Greek. This is a new history and analysis of the period of Greek History known as the “National Schism”. During this period the Greek body politic was divided into opposed camps set up around two charismatic, in the Weberian sense according to Mavrogordatos, personalities, Prime Minister Eleutherios Venizelos and King Constantine I. I have been thinking about how to put down reactions to the book in a way that has an impact to current event and the Brexit has given me a perfect opportunity.


Let me talk about the book first. The book is party a historical narrative of the events of the “National Schism” starting with the Goudi Revolt of 1909 (which closely followed the Young Turk Revolt of 1908 in the Ottoman Empire), that would lead to the Prime Ministership of Venizelos and ending with Trial of the Eight and execution of the Six in 1922. The historical narrative is not per-se novel but it is comprehensive and relies on a lot of primary sources.

The two protagonists of the Tragedy


The second part of the book analyses what happened from the prism of four independent variables: 1) the mysticism and fanaticism inherent in the clash of Weberian Charismatic Personalities 2) The clash of different models of nationalism 3) Class and economic struggles between a drive for a rational liberal economic state vs. a self-contained clientalist state 4) the violence of civil war. Mavrogordatos credibly argues that the “National Schism” cannot be explained by any one of these variables by itself, but all together produce a picture of importance. The book is not perfect. The writer is pro-Venizelist even if he is upfront about it. He engages in psychological analysis but he is not a psychologist. He might be over-reading some sources and ignoring others. However in total it is a good book worth reading, and of translation.

From 1909 to 1936 two opposed factions arose. The Venizelist faction was an extrovert faction aligned to the further integration of Greece in an increasing global capitalist system. It sought to do this by free trade, liberal economics and the expansion of the Greek state to include the parts of the Ottoman Empire that were the economic hinterland of the global Greek commercial diaspora. Domestically it called for a meritocratic and professional civil service system, the end of clientalism, and a parliamentary liberal democracy with strong limits on the monarch.

Its main support was the export mercantile class, the greek Diaspora in the Mediterranean (Asia Minor, Black Sea, Egypt), and parts of the Greek population of “New” Greece (Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Crete, especially those which lived in areas with large non-Greek populations). Venizelism saw itself as a multi-class movement and was instrumental in the creation of the first Greek Socialist party (SEKE-Socialist Labor Party of Greece) and the first major labor Union (GSEE-General Confederation of Labor of Greece) as potential allies (both broke from Venizelism early on). Its conception of nationalism was instrumental as can be seen from this quote of Venizelos himself:

"How can we not recognize that we crush the national future, the moment we declare that only adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy can be part of Hellenism? Who does not know, that sooner or later, our national dreams shall be fulfilled and in the Greece of future there will be people of other faiths and other churches? How it is not considered that it is of the utmost importance and interest for Hellenism is to declare that its definition is so broad and independent of religious dogmas, that in that definition it is possible to include not only the adherents to Christian dogmas, but also the adherents of all known and unknown religions"
Elefterios Venizelos speaking to the Second Constituent Assembly of Crete, 28 October 1906

Their view of the Megali Idea terminated with the supplementing of the Ottoman Empire in the Aegean by a liberal democratic Greek dominated multi-religious state. They were willing to initiate actions rather than wait for events and saw war in conjunction with international coalitions as the main tool for the accomplishing of this goal. The Balkan Wars were the archetype of action for them. It was also flexible, willing to give up elements of the Megali Idea in order to make sure it held others.

Cartoon about the Greek issue in World War 1.


Thus in January 1915, Venizelos was willing to give Bulgaria some of the Greek gains in the Second Balkan War (Kavala and Drama) in return for a Bulgarian alliance against the Ottoman Empire. As he noted to his memorandum to the King, Greece would lose 2,000 square kilometers and 30,000 Greeks in return for 125,000 square kilometers and 800,000 Greeks in Asia Minor. Earlier in 1914, he was even willing to give up a Greek presence in Anatolia,in negotiations for a population exchange with the Ottoman Government of the Three Pashas (CUP) in return for an Ottoman recognition of Greek sovereignty over the Eastern Aegean Islands( see my reaction to Dundar).

Opposed to them was a political movement that started as a current of reaction against the reforms initiated with the Goudi Revolt. It only became a political faction with the final break between King Constantine and Eleutherios Venizelos over the King’s final refusal to bring Greece into World War One through a participation in the Dardanelles Campaign.  Unlike Venizelismos with its clear political program, the opposition was a diverse coalition of political forces.  It coalesced around the person of King Constantine, who after being the commander and chief during the victorious Balkan Wars, was extremely popular among the population of “Old” Greece (the Morea/Pelloponesus, the Ionian Islands, Thessaly, and Sterea Ellada/Rumeli).

Despite the diversity and lack of a clear ideology, the main common thread of the members of this was to block or roll back the liberal reforms of Venizelos. Between 1864 and 1909, Greece has seen the crystallization of a highly efficient clientalist system. A number of old families (Tzakia), many of them with a history in the 1821 Revolution, controlled the state. Civil Service jobs and other state related positions were part of a spoils system that was used to reward the general population.

Mass voting, widespread small-holding, a vibrant education system to offer social ascension opportunities, and a spoils system to satisfy the newly educated, created a highly stable political system by 19th century standards.  It was essentially a country-wide Tammany hall, inefficient from an economic point of view but highly successful from a political point of view. Its view of the Megali Idea was one of long term activity, primarily based on the successful use of Ottoman crises to gain new territory. The 1897 War strongly entrenched in it an dislike for military adventures, and a belief that the accumulation of new territories in Greece should come as a result of Great Power politics than Greek action. This was essentially a passive view of national politics, but in the eyes of its supporters the incorporation of Thessaly in 1881 and the autonomy of Crete were proof of its success.

These groups saw Venizelos push for immediate Greek expansion as dangerous. The inclusion of new populations in Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus and the Eastern Aegean Islands endangered their clientalist networks. Civil Service reform took away an important source not just of patronage for them, but for social ascension for their voters. Expansion on Venizelos terms meant a complete dismantling of the 19th century system they had headed so successfully up to 1909. They thus reacted to this by creating a broad coalition opposed to Venizelism. Their nationalism was chauvinistic but introvert. It was not opposed to a multi-ethnic or multi-religious state as long as the clientalist networks were protected, and as long a Greek meant only Greek Orthodox of Morea and Rumeli.
A cartoon referring to the supposed satisfaction of Bulgaria and the Ottomans at the National Schism

They had no problem with giving voting rights to the non-Greeks of “New” Greece, and working with the patronage systems created in the Ottoman Empire that controlled that vote. They saw Greece and any expanding Greece as a coalition of clientalist networks, united by the looting of the same state system, not by any nationalism. For that reason expansion should be slow, and protective of existing networks(ergo there initial opposition to land reform in Thessaly that would free serfs, both Greek and non-Greek, from the clientalist networks of agas and big land-owners). They disliked diaspora Greeks seeing them as outsiders to these networks and by their support for liberal reform as deadly enemies of “Old” Greece. Where Venizelos dreamed of a National Liberal Democratic Empire, they dreamed of a much smaller Greek dominated version of the old Ottoman Empire. And if expansion made this impossible, then expansion be damned. It is from here that springs the willingness of successive Royalist governments to give up most of Macedonia to Bulgaria in 1915-1916, and later on sacrifice Greece in Asia Minor.

These were the two forces that engaged in a deadly struggle between 1915 and 1922 (really extending to 1935) in Greece, with a vast future at stake. How now is this relevant to “Brexit”? History, as GennadyRudkevich points out , is not a guide to the future. Only general patterns can be gleaned from it and never exact analogies. But despite that we can use history to show how very similar dynamics, under slightly different conditions, could end up with extreme outcomes. The extreme outcomes in one story can and will be very different from those in the other, but they will both be extreme.

In another name we can use history to tell people that if these actions are taken Bad things will happen, because in slightly similar conditions in the past Bad things did happen. It is not necessary for the Bad things to be the same, for Bad takes different forms in different social, material and political conditions, but Bad is Bad.

There are disquieting similarities between the polarization of “Brexit” and the polarization of “1915”

1.Progressive vs. Conservative:
The Venizelists saw themselves as the vanguard of progress by late 19th century-early 20th century standards: Liberal Economics, Liberal Parliamentary Democracy, National Liberalism and expansion were seen as the hallmarks of a movement open to the world. Its elite was cosmopolitan made up of persons from the global greek diaspora, heavily invested in the world system, and in close relations with the maritime powers. They saw themselves as the future and their opponents as “small minded” reactionary localists tethered to the past. They saw their opponents as willing to sacrifice a global Greece for an insular Greece. They saw themselves as educated with a global and rational view, and their opponents as caught up in repressive and primitive modes of thinking (exemplified by the Anathema, the expulsion of Venizelos from the Orthodox Church).

A charges political cartoon against Brexit


The Royalists on the other hand saw themselves as defending an “organic” order, a “small but honest Greece” from globalized influences that would deny it its soul. They saw their opponents as willing to sacrifice a “real” local Greece for a soulless “global” Greece, mostly tethered to people unworthy of being “Greeks” ,essentially the Greek diaspora in the Russian, Ottoman and Egyptian states.

In the Brexit such sentiments between the Remain and Leave campaign are also rife. The Remain supporters see themselves as cosmopolitan, liberal, progressive people dedicated to a UK that is part of global order, and open to the world. While the most libertarian and classical liberal supporters of Leave also make their own case of being the party of “global openness” a central sentiment of Leave was that the UK of Remain was a soulless global entity, alien to the “organic” real soul of England and Wales.



For the Remainders, as for the Venizelists, the Leave supporters are caught up in primitive and repressive ideas.  For the Leave Supporters, the Remainders are soulless cosmopolitans, as alien to “real” England, as Diaspora Greeks were for the Royalists to “real” Greece. Where Remain claims cosmopolitan, Leave insults globalist. Where Leave claims patriot, Remain insults racist. Both sides mobilize to find proof of the picture of themselves and of the picture they hold for the opposition.

2. The consideration of the other side as stupid
On December 11,, 1920, Penelope Delta, the most important Greek children’s book writer in the later 19th early 20th century and an ardent Venizelist wrote the following in her dairy:

“By what right does this amorphous mob dooms to slavery hundreds of thousands of Greeks: By what right does it resigning of Greek places: “We do not want them”: Who the devil asked you if you did not want them? And with what right, you shortsighted and small in soul Palakiotes, do you decide that you do not want the union of the Greek nation?”
Delta was rebelling against the results of the 1st November 1920 elections, where a broad coalition of Royalists opposed to Venizelos and the Asia Minor Campaign, won. This victory was mostly brought by votes in “Old “ Greece and the vote of non-Greek populations in “New” Greece. It was widely understood as a rejection of the newest phase of expansion unleashed by Venizelos in 1919. For the Venizelists it was seen as a betrayal. A betrayal of not only Venizelos personally but a betrayal of all that he stood for.

The Greece of Venizelism. Rejected in 1920 by "Old" Greece


More ominously a betrayal of the Asia Minor Greeks to the rapaciousness of the Turkish National Movement, which in the eyes of Venizelists was a continuation of the destructive population policies of the Committee of Union and Progress. The voters could only had been foolish, mis-lead or malicious. In crucial similarity to the Remain campaign, the Venizelists did not expect to lose and were stunned by it.

Venizelos as a foreign King


The Royalists were not unknown for such sentiments either. The Venizelist victory in the May(June) 1915 elections, after the first resignation of Venizelos, was unexpected for them. They in general considered the continued popularity of Venizelos as the result of stupidity, black magic, or irrationality.

An anti-EU cartoon

The similarity to the reaction of the Remain camp to the Leave victory, and the reaction of many on the Leave camp to the worry of the Remain voters for the future is obvious. The Remain camp voters consider the Leave victory the result of lying, xenophobia, racism, and outright stupidity or lack of education. The reaction of the Remain voters to the result by the Leave camp is seen as one of petulance, immaturity, irrationality, fear.

In both cases the factions have a very Platonic view, in which democracy is meaningless except if the voters are educated in a specific way, usually their preferred way. Just like Plato considers oligarchy and monarchy the best system as long as the monarch or oligarch is educated in a specific way, so they consider Democracy good only if the voters are educated in their preferred way.

An anti-Leave cartoon


In the case of “1915” the result of the intersection of these two conditions led to two “Bad” results with long term consequences

Consequence 1) Democracy is not to be trusted except if voters vote our way

The dance along this tune was started by the Royalists who in 1915 reacted to the Venizelist victory with attempts at a constitutional coup and with some, like Theotokis, supporting a military regime. The continuous support to Venizelos by large parts of the electorate led the Royalists to reject parliamentary democracy and seek a more Prussian style regime of constitutional monarchy. The Venizelists outright denied any legitimacy to the December 1915 elections, called after the second resignation of Venizelos, boycotting it and never accepting the result. This breakage of democratic legitimacy led to the creation of the National Defense Government by Venizelos in “ New” Greece, the de jure division of the country, the November pogroms in “Old” Greece against Venizelists, and  in return acts of revenge by the Venizelists in the 1917-1920 period.

The choice of Greece(Gounaris Royalist leader to the left, Venizelos to the right)


The 1920 election turned the Venizelists against democracy. The end result of this was the attempt of both factions to impose regimes by force, validated afterwards by referendums. This trend came to a head during the Second Republic which faced a number of coups , including a Venizelist one despite the Republic being a Venizelist creation. The Republic ended with a failed Venizelist coup in 1935, a Royalist counter coup shortly after, which restored a parliamentary monarchy, and a successful constitutional coup by the Royalist Iohannis Metaxas in 1936 that led to an authoritarian regime with some aping of fascism. The path of delegitimizing democracy led to an end point where none of the main factions of Greek politics anymore trusted democracy.

Consequence 2) Violence
Mavrogordatos makes a good case that the National Schism was a civil war. Like the Iouniana Events in the Athens of 1863, or the Sonderbund War of the Swiss Federation in 1847, the violence never reached the level of casualties that we associated with civil war (1000 battle or civilian deaths). But it never the less was an armed struggle. It took that form more clearly in the Battle of Katerini in October 1916 when troops of the Government of National Defense and of the Kingdom of Greece met in battle, with at least six dead. Entente intervention separated the two sides with a neutral zone, so this kind of direct fighting between armies did not take place again. Instead both sides reverted to guerrilla warfare in the territory controlled by the other and extra-judicial one sided killings within their own territory.

Venizelos cast out of the church like a small deamon


The catalogue of events is depressing: Noemvriana targeting Venizelists (30 dead at least), Iouliana targeting Royalists (1 dead at least, IonDragoumis), fighting between the National Defense Government and Cretan insurgents (at least 20 dead), fighting between the National Defense Government and anti-conscription Samos insurgents (unknown numbers), fighting between National Defense Government and anti-conscription  Chalkidiki insurgents (at least 34 dead),massacre of Apeiranthos-Naxos by National Defense Government (28-32 dead), January 1918 mutiny of the 2nd Infantry Regiment (12 dead from battles+ 25 executed), June 1918 mutiny of the 12th Infantry Regiment (at least 10 executed). In total at least 160 people died due to violence between the two factions of the National Schism in the period between 1916-1918.

Royalist Demonstrators 


The violence was exacerbated by the media of the time. Venizelist newspapers reported heavily of the Noemvriana and increased both the magnitude and brutality of the events. Royalist newspapers reported and exaggerated the brutality of the Venizelist regime. Both sides feared and expected that the other side will unleash a pogrom against it. Isolated instances validating that fear were magnified. Things got so bad that by 1922 the Royalists expected that any succor to the Asian Minor Greeks escaping the Turkish Nationalist victory would mean their death:

"better that you are slaughtered by Kemal, rather then we be slaughtered by Gyparis"
I.Kinias, MP from Boetia answering to Liberal MPs from Thrace who wanted to discuss the Entente 1922 offers. Gyparis was one of the main thugs of the Venizelist side.

There is some belief among Venizelists that the general disorganization of the Greek retreat from Asia Minor, and at least the lack of any attempt at a negotiated withdrawal after the failure of the Sanggario(Sakarya) operation might had been on purpose with the goal of minimizing the impact of Anatolian refugees on Greece. The important thing here is less the truth of this claim, debatable, but the belief that the Greek Government would be willing to see one million Greeks destroyed rather than face a Venizelist revolt and the violence that they expected would come with it. Only the execution of the Six in 1922 satisfied the Venizelists and only the execution of the 1935 coup satisfied the Royalists.  The schism ended with World War II when it was supplemented by a much deadlier "National Schism" between Left and Right that would give the bloodbath of the Greek Civil War, and that would only heal in the 1990s.

The Trial of Six in 1922

Back to “Brexit”

I am not claiming that the polarized conditions “Brexit” has given rise to will result in a series of coups and counter-coups, and widespread violence (though 160 dead are not that hard to get). The UK 2016 is not Greece 1916-1922. But if this polarized climate continues, if the two sides refuse to recognize any legitimacy to the other considering the cast votes the result of stupidity, maliciousness or lack of proper education, and if they continue to consider democracy as worthy only when voters vote as they want, British democracy could get frayed. A series of referendums and counter-referendums could have just as much a pernicious result as the coups and counter-coups of 1916-1922 Greece.


The Bad result need not be similar, but it will be Bad. A Bad in accordance to the unique conditions of 2016, but a bad nonetheless. Violence has already marred both the vote (with the assassination of MP Cox) and the aftermath (with an increase in seemingly ethnic violence). The problematic thing is not that these events happened per se, though they are terrible, but the climate they can be used to create.  Again, one cannot predict the specific form of Bad based on history. Just that as things are going Bad will happen.  One blessing for the UK is that unlike Greece 1915 it has a death of charismatic personalities, in the Weberian sense. Jeremy Corbyn,  Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and the rest are not a Venizelos in the kind of popular adoration they bring out. They are not even a Konstantinos. Many lament that lack of “Great” politicians in our times, but if “1915” has taught me one thing, is that some times their presence can be a curse. 


2 comments: