This Week in Greek History

Greek political icon Constantine Karamanlis. (Photo by Eurokinissi)

May 28: On this day in 1979, Prime Minister Constantine Karamanlis signed the agreement of Greece’s full accession to the European Economic Community (ECC). The signing took place at the Zappeion in Athens and is widely regarded as one of the most consequential political developments in Modern Greece’s history. Greece wouldn’t formally join the European Union’s predecessor formally until 1981, but the groundwork was laid over decades of persistence and vision by Karamanlis. Greece for the vast majority of the early to mid-20th century was dominated by conservative political forces. Following the collapse of the military junta in 1974, diplomatic isolation came to an end, but Greeks were disillusioned by conservativism as evidenced by the removal of the monarchy that same year. Karamanlis was invited to create a government to restore normality and democracy to Greece and won Greece’s first free elections since the mid-1960s. Karamanlis’ fourth and final term as Prime Minister spanned from July 24, 1974 to May 10, 1980. Toward the latter end of his premiership, Karamanlis saw the writing on the wall. The upstart socialist party PASOK headed by the skilled orator Andreas Papandreou was whipping Greece into a frenzy. Karamanlis needed to act fast in order to realize his dream of inducting Greece into the European club and steadfastly believed that without entering the ECC, Greece was to suffer a similar fate to Eastern Europe which at the time was far behind in every aspect of Western Europe.

Despite constant attacks in the media and in speeches by Andreas Papandreou, Karamanlis stuck to his convictions and using every drop of his political capital was able to convince the Europeans to allow Greece’s entry into the ECC based primarily on culturally significant grounds and convinced enough members of parliament and the Greek people to have support at home. It’s important to realize that Euroscepticism isn’t a new invention of the last few years since the current economic crisis. The fear and apprehension that many Greeks felt in joining the ECC were somewhat justified considering the historical context of the time. Greece had just been under the yolk of a dictatorship between 1967-1974 and before that there was a civil war and a Nazi occupation of the country. Unity was in short supply and furthermore many Greeks believed that western powers, particularly the United States and the United Kingdom, were behind the propping up of the military junta regime. For that reason the distrust of the West ran deep for many Greeks and Andreas Papandreou sought to exploit that for political and personal gain. He succeeded in becoming prime minister following Karamanlis, but Karamanlis would get the last laugh as he was the one to oversee the transition into full membership of Greece into the ECC in 1981 when he was the president of Greece as elected by Parliament. The further integration of Greece into Europe began to end the paternalistic relationship between Greece and the United States.


May 29: This day in 1453 is arguably the darkest day in the history of Hellenism. Ottoman Empire forces led by Sultan Mehmed II on May 29,1453 captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, putting an end to the Byzantines and ushering the Ottoman age.

Hagia Sophia, Constantinople circa 1897. Photo: Public domain

The siege of Constantinople lasted for 53 days from April 6 to May 29. The walls of Constantinople had withstood ten centuries of battles and still stood, albeit with repairs and improvements along the way. The walls were considered impregnable and seemingly divine in being able to so amazingly protect the inhabitants of the capital city and the seat of the Orthodox faith. When Mehmed II descended upon the Byzantine capital in 1453, the empire was in visible decline and bore no resemblance to the city that was the envy of the world in other times. Sultan Murad II, father of Mehmed II, attempted a siege on Constantinople in 1422 but was soundly defeated. Despite the defeat, the city was further weakened and Mehmed II would grow up dreaming of a day when he would execute his father’s vision of capturing the Christian holy city of Constantinople and making it the crown jewel of the Ottoman Empire. The Byzantine Empire was led by Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos, who reigned from January 6, 1449 until the fall of Constantinople as the Byzantine Empire’s last emperor. He belonged to the Palaiologos family dynasty, which produced 11 emperors and included Constantine XI from 1261 to 1453. It was during the Palaiologos dynasty that the Byzantine Empire took a decidedly more Greek identity approach of operation with the term “Hellene” often was used to describe themselves despite the Byzantine Empire being the last remnant of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines were left as the last Christian entity left to defend Christian Europe against the oncoming rush of Muslims in the Middle East that sought to settle the score with the Europeans over the crusades. When Mehmed II arrived at Constantinople to conquer it, with him he had between 75,000 and 100,000 soldiers with him hundreds of ships and most critically, the newest military technology of the day- gunpowder. The Byzantines were vastly outnumbered and had a force of just about 8,000 men that was comprised of Christian volunteers from continental Europe and Ottoman defectors to supplement the inhabitants of the city. The Ottomans knew that a chain would be set in the water near the Golden Horn so that ships wouldn’t be able to get behind the city walls into the Bosporus but that was calculated already by Mehmed II who ingeniously put his ships on logs out of the water and rolled them along the banks of the Bosporus and put them back in the water behind the chain. This caused the city to literally be attacked from all sides by land and sea. The initial attacks by the Ottomans against the walls were futile and they suffered enormous amounts of casualties. A negotiation for surrender was sent by Mehmed II to Constantine XI Palaiologos with the latter defiantly refusing. Following the rejection of surrender the Ottomans began to attack the defenders more frequently and with more force. The Ottomans deployed the Hungarian artillery expert Orban, who had created the world’s most powerful canon, which fired extremely slowly but decimated the walls of the great city.

Finally, on May 29, 1453, the Ottomans unleashed the entirety of their force from both land and sea simultaneously and broke through the “Kerkoporta” gate of the city. It is said that the gate was mistakenly left open by bands of Byzantine soldiers who ventured out of the city walls to conduct small-scale raids against Ottoman forces near the Ottoman camps and forgot to seal the gate all the way. Consequently, it is said that a group of Ottoman officers got through the Kerkoporta and raised Ottoman colors sparking mass panic and disorganization before finally the brunt of the Ottoman force overwhelmed the defenders. Another point of panic was when Giovanni Giustiniani of Genoa, the leader of the Genovese forces that came to the aide of the Byzantines was badly wounded fighting the Ottoman elite Janissaries. His withdrawal from the battlefield made his experienced soldiers withdraw with him and spelled doom for the Byzantine defenders. It is said that when the Ottomans finally broke through the San Romano Gate Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos took off his imperial regalia and fought hand to hand combat so that he could be with his soldiers as one of them. His body was never recovered and he is known as the “marbled king” or “marmaromenos vasilias” for he will be ready to rule the Hellenistic world when the lands that belonged to Byzantium are in Greek Christian hands again. Mehmed II strode into Constantinople on a white horse through the Adrianople Gate and the event marked the end of the European Medieval Age.  This was the last time that the culturally and historically Hellenistic lands of Anatolia and Asia Minor were in Greek hands and they continue to be in the hands of the Turks today. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos set out in 1919 to reclaim the lost lands of Byzantium and was close as he had recovered Smyrna but ultimately lost the general election of 1920 and Greece suffered the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.

1 Comment

  1. The article concludes with, “Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos set out in 1919 to reclaim the lost lands of Byzantium and was close as he had recovered Smyrna but ultimately lost the general election of 1920 and Greece suffered the Asia Minor catastrophe in 1922.”

    Admittedly, the writer was mostly writing about other events, and may have needed to wrap up the article quickly, but I nevertheless believe I should point out that such a summary primarily serves the enemies of Greece. It feeds the often-repeated narrative that the Great Catastrophe was the result of divisions between the Greek political factions of that time and not the result of betrayals by several of the great Powers who were themselves feuding with one another and who, above all, were looking for excuses to betray the Greeks.

    Young people both in Greece and in the diaspora need to be aware of the betrayal history.

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