This Week in Greek History

Makarios at the royal palace in Tatoi, Greece. (Photo by Eurokinissi/Aristotelis Sarikostas)

July 15: On this day in 1974, a Greek dictatorship-sponsored coup d’état is launched in Cyprus that deposed President Makarios III and elevated Nikos Sampson to the Cypriot presidency. Cyprus became an independent nation on August 16, 1960 after being ruled by the British from 1878 to independence and the Ottoman Empire before that. The military junta regime that ran Greece from 1967-1974 sought to accomplish “enosis” with Cyprus, meaning they wanted Cyprus to formally become a part of Greece. Such a policy wasn’t unique to the junta but was rather part of the grander notion of Megali Idea foreign policy that originated formally during, and immediately following, the Greek War of Independence, but always had a presence in the Greek national psyche. Makarios III of Cyprus began his presidency as staunchly pro-enosis but as the years went on, his stance somewhat softened and he no longer wished to bend blindly to the will of Greece and sought for Cyprus to strike out on its own. It was a grave error for the national security of the island. Makarios was the first President of Cyprus and as such was in office from August 16, 1960 to July 15, 1974.

The coup that took place on that fateful July 15 was ordered by Dimitrios Ioannidis, who was the shadow leader of the Greek military regime. He had Greek officers stationed in Cyprus and together with sympathizers in the Cyprus National Guard they captured the Presidential Palace in Nicosia. The building was nearly razed to the ground and Makarios III narrowly escaped with his life to Paphos, where British security personnel were able to safely evacuate him to Malta. Makarios III appeared three days later at the United Nations and maintained that Greece had invaded Cyprus. The coup was successful and in the following days Cyprus was run by the Sampson administration but the coup had one massive, disastrous consequence for Cyprus and the island’s Greek population. Turkey, seeking to protect Turkish citizens on the island and to prevent a Cypriot enosis with Greece, used the Treaty of Guarantee (1960) as justification for intervening militarily on the island. The Treaty of Guarantee signed between the Republic of Cyprus, Turkey, Greece and the United Kingdom in 1960 stipulated that Cyprus was banned from participating in a political or economic union with any other state and that the island would remain fully independent. The Turks proceeded to route the security forces in Cyprus with an initial invasion of Cyprus occurring just days after the overthrow of Makarios iII and they took 3% of the island. A second invasion one month later in August resulted in the taking of 40% of the island the creation of nearly 200,000 refugees that were forced to flee their homes by the Turks. The island remains to this day divided and the Cyprus question is open with little hope in sight for a resolution to the illegal occupation of the Turks in the northern part of the island. The Greek junta collapsed under the weight of colossal failure in Cyprus and Constantine Karamanlis restored democracy in Greece and is largely credited with successfully maneuvering out of an even worse situation by stabilizing Greece and avoiding all-out war with Turkey.

July 19: On this day in 1890, King George II of Greece was born at the Tatoi Palace on the outskirts of Athens. George II was the eldest son of Prince Constantine of Greece and Princess Sophia of Prussia. George II was born during the reign of his grandfather King George I. George immediately embarked on a military career much like his father and he trained with the Prussian Guard in his latter teenage years. When the Balkan Wars broke out, George II served with the 1st Greek Infantry. In 1913 when his grandfather George I was assassinated in Thessaloniki, George II became the crown prince. As the successive wars that Greece fought ravaged on, Greece inevitably succumbed to the fast-advancing Ottoman forces under Ataturk in 1922. Prior to that, George II and his father Constantine I were expelled into exile only to be brought back by plebiscite in 1920 following the electoral defeat of Eleftherios Venizelos in the same year. Venizelos’ generals, who were winning the war, were replaced with ardent monarchists who were inferior tacticians but their allegiances were fully with the palace. Crown Prince George became a colonel and later a major general during the war against Turkey. When the Greek forces were annihilated in Asia Minor, the military forced King Constantine I’s abdication and George succeeded his father to the throne and became George II on September 27, 1922. On December 19, 1923 following a failed royalist coup, George II was forced into exile to his wife’s home country of Romania. It wouldn’t be until November 25, 1935 that George II would reign over the Hellenes again and upon his arrival there was controversy as to how much amnesty the king could grant. The question drew a hung Parliament and led to political instability which proved to be the exact situation needed for Ioannis Metaxas to set up a rightwing royalist military coup with the king’s blessing on August 4, 1936. During the censorships, such priceless pieces of Greek brilliance such as Plato, Thucydides, and Xenophon were outlawed. In elections held on March 31, 1946 following the liberation of Greece from the Nazis, a referendum on the monarchy was held and the monarchy was kept albeit with widespread knowledge of a rigged election in favor of that result. During the war, George II had exile governments in Crete and then Egypt followed by England as he was the recognized sovereign of Greece and a rallying point for Greeks abroad. When George II returned from exile, he found his palace at Tatoi looted, bodies buried in shallow graves on the premises, and the King’s Forest chopped down for fuel purposes. Just over a year later, on April 1, 1947, George II was discovered dead in bedroom in the Tatoi Palace after succumbing to arteriosclerosis at age 56. George II delivered the memorable quote, “ the most important tool for a king of Greece is a suitcase”. George II’s brother Paul succeeded him on the throne, due to George II not having any heirs.