Eleftherios Venizelos

Eleftherios Venizelos is widely considered one of the greatest statesmen in the history of modern Greece. Born in Chania in 1864, he played a significant role in Crete’s struggles for political autonomy from the Ottoman Empire and eventually integration into Greece, before going on to serve as Greek Prime Minister for a combined 13 years between 1910 and 1933. During this time, he formed the first proper political party in Greece, the Party of Liberals, modernized the Greek state apparatus and led military and diplomatic efforts that doubled Greece’s land area and population. Many statues of Venizelos stand throughout the country, while almost every city has a street named after him, usually a central avenue.
As is to be expected, the greatest concentration of monuments to his memory can be found in Chania, his hometown. Both Venizelos’ childhood home in Mournies, as well as Venizelos' residence in Halepa have been restored and function as Museums about the great man’s life. The tombs of Venizelos are open to the public, located at the top of Froudia Hill. Finally, at the village of Therissos, one can visit his headquarters from the 1905 rebellion, which have also been turned into a museum.

Venizelos was born in the village of Mournies, just to the south of Chania. His childhood was rather turbulent, as he spent years in Kythira, Athens, and Syros, apart from his hometown. At age 17 he enrolled in Athens University Law School, where he studied for 5 years. Following his graduation, he worked as a lawyer and prominently as a journalist. This led him to an early foray into politics, where he became a leading liberal in Crete.

During Venizelos’ early life, Crete was in the middle of a highly turbulent period, with frequent local rebellions aiming to end Turkish suzerainty over the island and have the independent Greek Kingdom annex it. Venizelos quickly became a leading figure of the rebellious Cretans, displaying a combination of radical ideas and moderate actions that helped Crete inch ever closer to its union with its conceived motherland.

Following a violent revolution between 1895 and 1898, which led to a war between Greece and the Ottomans, the Cretan State was established, under the Sultan’s suzerainty, but its leader (titled High Commissioner) was selected from the Greek Royal Family. At the same time, a six-country International Squadron was established to maintain the status quo.
The appointment of Prince George, son of the Greek King, as High Commissioner, started the decades-long rivalry between Venizelos and the Greek royal family, as George was seen as too moderate and conservative by the Cretan leader, who often publicly clashed with him despite his position as Minister of Justice.
In 1905, Venizelos led the Therisos Revolt, in an attempt to remove the High Commissioner from power and seek immediate union with Greece. This rebellion ended with international intervention which led to George’s resignation and replacement with Alexandros Zaimis, former Prime Minister of Greece. A few years later, Crete unilaterally declared its union with Greece, although Greece wouldn’t recognize this declaration until 1913.

In 1909, the liberal Goudi coup took place in Greece in an attempt to force Greece out of political stagnation. Instead of installing a dictatorship, the leaders of this movement invited Venizelos to Greece to lead the liberal faction in free and fair elections. Venizelos eventually became Prime Minister, a position he held until 1915. During this period Greece left its legislative quagmire, with 337 laws passed by 1912, as well as an extensive revision of the Constitution.
Venizelos’ government rapidly modernized the state and the military, in preparation for conflict with Greece’s neighbors, which he saw as a necessary prerequisite for Greece’s growth. Verily, in 1912 and 1913, Greece took part in the Balkan Wars, where Epirus, Macedonia and the Aegean Islands were all incorporated into Greece, alongside Venizelos’ home of Crete.

The Balkan Wars were quickly followed by World War I, where Venizelos came to a head with King Constantine, as they supported opposite sides of the conflict, leading to the National Schism, a de facto separation of Greece into two. This separation gave the Venizelist/anti-Venizelist division a new aspect as the anti-Venizelists actively rallied around the King.
Following Venizelos’ invitation towards the French and British to land at Thessaloniki, his de facto capital, the Schism came to an end in 1917 and Constantine abdicated in favor of his son, Alexander. Soon afterwards, Greece found itself on the winning side of the Great War, expanding into Thrace and Asia Minor, controlling Smyrna and reaching the outskirts of Constantinople. The instability in the collapsing Ottoman Empire inspired the Greek army to expand further into Anatolia.

The public’s war fatigue led to a shocking electoral defeat for Venizelos in 1920 and the subsequent return of Constantine to the throne. Venizelos left for Paris in self-exile, meanwhile the new government pushed ever further inland towards Ankara until 1922, when a massive Turkish counterattack pushed Greece all the way back to the Aegean, leading to the Asia Minor Catastrophe and a massive refugee wave towards Greece.
In the aftermath of this military disaster, Constantine abdicated once again, this time in favor of George II. Venizelos was tasked to negotiate the Treaty of Lausanne, which saw a massive population exchange between Greece and Turkey, before making a brief return to Greek politics in 1923.

Venizelos left the country once more as the spirit of compromise between Venizelists/Republicans and Monarchists dwindled to a minimum. In 1924, the monarchy was removed and Greece became a republic. This period was strife in political instability, with successive coups overturning each other in an attempt to overthrow or galvanize the republic. Venizelos himself returned to Greece again in 1928, just before the Great Depression launched the country into deep financial turmoil.
Despite these massive difficulties, Venizelos kept a steady course for four years, while his financial policy kept Greece afloat. His stance on social and international affairs was more controversial, as he introduced Greece’s first laws aiming to persecute left-wing politicians and civilians, while also implementing a stance towards rapprochement with Turkey, which lost him his once deep-rooted support among the refugees of Asia Minor. At the same time, Venizelos pursued cooperation agreements with Italy and Greece’s other neighbors, which cost him the support of the wide nationalist voter base.

Venizelos would lose the 1932 election, yet more coups would bring him back to govern for one last stint in 1933. Coups and counter-coups ensued, eventually leading to a second attempt on his life (the first had taken place in Paris in 1920).
Following a final series of coups in 1935, Venizelos fled to Paris, this time permanently. Soon Greece would reinstate its monarchy before King George enabled Ioannis Metaxas’ fascist regime in an attempt to combat political instability.

Venizelos passed away on March 18th, 1936, following a flu-induced stroke. During his life, he left an indelible mark on Greek politics, both with his accomplishments and with his ideals, while not steering clear of controversial decisions. Too liberal for the right, too conservative for the left, Venizelos’ main attribute was his strategizing and opportunism, taking whatever course of action best suited his eventual goal.