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A Funeral in Athens

Should former king Constantine II have been buried with former head of state honors rather than as private citizen? Prime minster Kyriakos Mitsotakis decided not to allow a state funeral in order to avoid what might have a costly political blowback generated by the opposition parties. In the end he was criticized by both the fanatical anti-monarchists and the pro-monarchists.

The funeral at the Athens cathedral and the burial that followed at the family graves on the grounds of the palace of Tatoi, were dignified affairs. The monarchy’s supporters were in attendance, its opponents kept away. And the images of his wife and sons mourning their loss were are reminder of the human dimension of this event that inevitably became politicized.

But maybe the refusal to allow the former monarch a state funeral can function as a form of closure for Greek society, and it can start reflecting on the history of this troubled institution in a more balanced way.
It is one thing to abolish the monarchy, as Greece did in 1974 through a referendum, and it is another thing to regard its role as entirely negative.

Constantine himself brought on this treatment through his naïve interference in Greek politics. There were at least three cardinal errors he committed. The first was to dismiss centrist prime minister Georgios Papandreou in 1965 over a dispute about who would be appointed minister of defense. In retrospect, if Constantine had not interfered, the Papandreou government which included a wide spectrum of left of center, liberals, and center-right politicians would have run into internal problems and lost the next elections to the conservatives. Instead, the young king’s actions led to two years of political protests and instability which paved the way for the colonels to seize power in April 1967 and establish a dictatorship that lasted seven years. The second big mistake was to go along with the colonels after he took power. One of the coup ringleaders, Stylianos Pattakos, is on record as saying that if the king had even blown air against them their power grab would have failed. How true this was we will never know – what we do know if that the king did not try and stop them. When he did so it was another mistake because he bungled a countercoup in December of 1967 and was forced into exile while the colonels consolidated themselves in power.

Constantine, many years later, discussed those two pivotal events with Alexis Papachelas, a Greek investigative journalist who has written on Greece’s political history in the 1960s and 1970s. What he says he found striking about those conversations was that Constantine believed all those in his entourage when they told him that the people were with him in 1965 and that the military would fully back his countercoup in 1967. That this was very far from the truth confirms his political naivete and the folly of the actions he took. Recent revelations that he tried to overthrow the government of Constantine Karamanlis that emerged with a huge mandate from the first post-junta elections of 1974 have served to further tarnish his image.

It was not only Constantine II who undermined Greece’s democratic polity, it was also his grandfather Constantine I who did the same when he clashed with prime minister Eleftherios Venizelos in 1915. Though truth be said in the subsequent two-decade polarization of the country between the supporters of Venizelos and those of the monarchy, both sides were to blame.

At other times, however, the monarchy has been less controversial in Greece. For example, George I who reigned from 1863 to 1913 is regarded in a positive light and contributed to Greece’s progress in that period.
Yet one rarely finds any explicit recognition of his virtues. I spoke positively about his role when I appeared on camera in a documentary film on the history of Athens between 1821 and 1896. I remember bracing myself at the premiere screening when it ended, and the lights went on. In the past, in other films I have collaborated in, all of them directed by Maria Iliou, members of the public have voiced their displeasure.

In a film about the destruction of Smyrna in 1922 when an image of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk appeared on the screen there was loud booing. And at the end, an irate gentleman took exception to the mention that the retreating Greek forces enforced a scorched earth policy which caused Turkish civilian deaths and started loudly demanding that we retract that statement. Fortunately, at the end of the film about Athens there were no public criticisms of our treatment of George I’s reign.

There is much more to examine, of course. With the passing of the last king, and the dignified way he was laid to rest one can hope for less emotion and more reflection over the role of monarchy in Greece.

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This article is part of a continuing series dealing with reports of Greek POWs in Asia Minor in the Thessaloniki newspaper, Makedonia in July 1936.

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