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Historical Observartions: The Nicolson Memorandum, December 1920

December 19, 2021

In 1920, the British diplomat Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) wrote a lengthy memorandum outlining British foreign policy regarding King Constantine’s return to Greece following his exile. Lord Curzon, Foreign Secretary under Lloyd George, and Undersecretary Sir Eyre Crowe commented on Nicolson’s views.

Nicholson was born in Tehran, Persia, and participated in the British peace delegation to the Paris peace conference in 1919. His father, Arthur Nicolson (Baron Carnock) was a diplomat who served as British ambassador in Madrid and St Petersburg, and also held diplomatic posts in Constantinople and Athens. Harold held diplomatic posts in Madrid, Tehran, and Berlin, was an ardent philhellene, and a close friend of the Greek premier, Eleftherios Venizelos.

Nicolson made six points on the internal situation in Greece and Britain’s relations with its allies: France and Italy.

First, the French wanted to destroy greater Greece as created by the 1920 Treaty of Sevres and sought to undermine British influence in that country; Second, France was keen to forge relations with Mustapha Kemal and the Bolsheviks and viewed him as giving them peace in Syria and dominance in Turkey. The French government had General Georges Charpy and Colonel Pierre Chardigny to do their bidding in the Near East. Charpy commanded French troops in Constantinople whereas Chardigny could go to Armenia, which came under Bolshevik control in early December 1920; Third, Italy was identified as having the same objectives but appeared more subtle in achieving them, seeking a weak but not unfriendly Greece. Whilst Italy and France shared similar positions in Asia Minor, they diverged over their respective views regarding Constantine; Fourth, British support for Greece “was no emotional impulse but the natural expression of our historical policy in the protection of India and Suez Canal.” Turkey had been Britain’s first line of defence for a century in the Eastern Mediterranean, however, Turkey’s defeat in the great war resulted in Greece assuming this role and Britain establishing a new defensive line from Salamis on Cyprus to Smyrna. Greece’s geographic position served Britain’s interests where “politically she was strong enough to save us expense in peace and weak enough to be completely subservient in war;” Fifth, war-weariness was a contributing factor in Venizelos’s 1920 electoral defeat coupled with the arbitrary administration by Venizelos’ underlings during his prolonged absences from Greece. Nicolson also argued that the Greeks desired Constantinople, which they thought could only be attained under Constantine; and finally, Britain still retained the upper hand in Greece and her popularity was as strong as ever. However, the time had come for Britain to decide what her future policy towards Greece would be.

Nicolson’s memorandum outlined disadvantages and alternatives that needed consideration as Britain formulated its policy. To back the King breached the pledge given to Britain’s allies that they wouldn’t support Constantine. The first disadvantage would make it difficult to maintain the Treaty of Sevres and the second could render it impossible to cooperate with the new Royalist government. France was vehemently opposed to Constantine and his government and might even try to undermine Britain’s position in Greece.

Nicolson offered three policy alternatives, which are quoted in full:

“1. To obtain Greece in favour of Turkey and ourselves to initiate a revision of the Treaty of Sevres and bargain with Kemal; 2. To reverse our policy and openly support Constantine so long as he shows himself ready to maintain the Treaty; and 3. To take drastic and concerted action to depose Constantine and replace him with son and a transitional ministry.”

Each alternative contained disadvantages that could undermine Britain’s position in Greece. The first one meant that Britain would play into the hands of France. The next one would lead to a repudiation of British policy and a breach with her allies. The final point would result in “inextricable local difficulties” which would accomplish nothing and “be fatal to our prestige and our commerce.”

Nicolson believed the second alternative served British interests best and required “a non-committal attitude for some weeks until we were convinced that King Constantine did wish to maintain the Treaty.” Failing this, the third alternative would be considered. This would entail a rapid response “that the required pressure can be applied suddenly and overwhelmingly.”

He concluded that the maintenance of the Treaty of Sevres was paramount and doing nothing would make it impossible for the return of Venizelos. “I fear that if we concentrate on the second we shall sacrifice the first. Venizelos is morally and physically a more permanent phenomenon than King Constantine. The question is, however; to what will he return,” Nicolson asks.

Crowe considered Nicolson’s memorandum ‘thoughtful’ and agreed with his second alternative. He supported Lord Curzon’s position by standing “aloof neither ‘openly’ supporting nor consistently fighting against King Constantine.” Crowe was content to see how the internal situation would unfold in Greece and didn’t wish to accept French demands for the withdrawal of allied naval missions in Athens.

Curzon commented that Nicolson’s alternatives weren’t exhaustive. He believed that Nicolson hadn’t considered the development of the military situation in Asia Minor. At issue were how Greece would prosecute its campaign without money and whether the troops would continue to fight if unpaid. The French insisted that Britain withdraw its naval mission from Athens, which was refused, and the importance of maintaining allied solidarity. Even the Italians rejected the French proposal by keeping its naval mission in Athens.

As much as Britain wished to cooperate with France, Curzon had a different view which he had sketched out at the London conference during late November/early December 1920. He argued that the allies should accept Constantine under “certain clearly defined conditions and to reject him if they are not complied with. But this advice was not taken.”

We learn from this episode that Nicolson was a philhellene who may have disliked Constantine but would do anything to assist Greece. His support for Venizelos is noted in his memorandum. But while his superiors found his memorandum helpful, they remained uneasy about providing support for King Constantine.

 

 

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