Historical Observations: Barton Hall: An American Diplomat in Athens in 1921 and His Reports

November 18, 2023

The U.S. Charge d’affaires in Athens, Barton Hall, wrote an interesting report to Washington on August 10, 1921 describing the military situation in Asia Minor, Venizelism, and the prevailing economic and social conditions in Greece.

Hall explained that the Greek military successes at Afion Karahissar, Kutahia and Eski Shehr were considered “generally unexpected” and partially went along “in making Constantine’s throne safe.” These military victories shored up King Constantine’s shaky position, though the internal political situation could have changed rapidly without them, forcing him to flee Greece. Hall thought Constantine’s position was the strongest since his arrival in December 1920. Constantine owed his position to his soldiers and officers in Asia Minor. There was even talk that the military successes might help in Constantine’s recognition by the allies. Hall’s assessment would be validated with the Greek defeat in September 1922 that resulted in Constantine’s second abdication in five years, leaving Greece never to return, dying in Palermo, Italy on January 11, 1923.

Hall was aware of the Venizelist factor in the Greek army which also exposed the sharp divisions in Greek politics. He noted “that there is a big force in the army, Venizelist in sympathy there is no doubt. It is proved by the large number of wounded lieutenants and captains arriving from the front and known to be Venizelist. Practically all the higher officers of the army have been replaced by Royalists. Furthermore, the Greek private has proved he can fight. The inference of all this is obvious. Someday this Venizelist force in the army, which at present is thinking only of country must inevitably be reckoned with.”

When the Royalists came into power in November 1920, they had some 1500 Royalist officers either reinstated to their former senior ranks or promoted ahead of Venizelists who had their promotions held up. This caused resentment within the officer ranks of the Greek army. This would be a grievance that the Venizelists would use against their Royalist opponents in October-November 1922.

On September 28, 1922, after the Asia Minor Disaster, Venizelist officers staged a coup in Chios and Samos which toppled the Royalist government. They established a Revolutionary Military Committee (RMC) led by Colonels’ Stylianos Gonatas, Nikolaos Plastiras, and Naval Captain Phocas, who ordered the arrest, trial (also known as Trial of Six) and execution of the Royalist Cabinet ministers: Nikolaos Stratos, Dimitrios Gounaris, Nikolaos Theotokis, Petros Protopapadakis, Giorgios Baltazzis, and the former Commander-in-Chief of the Asia Minor army, General Giorgios Hatzianestis in November 1922.

Prince Andrew escaped execution due to the intervention of Gerald Talbot – a personal friend of Eleftherios Venizelos – who was with the RMC, which had been dispatched to Athens by Venizelos to intervene in the trial of Six. Talbot arrived too late to save them but secured the release of Prince Andrew, who was banished from Greece.

Hall had believed that the Greek military establishment was disorganized. He stated that even the soldiers’ staple food of bread and olives was sometimes not provided due to inadequate transportation and mechanical breakdown of vehicles meaning that “soldiers [went] without food.” Greek officers fared no better. It is interesting to note that the U.S. military attache who visited the Asia Minor front reported that Greek officers invited him to dinner where he was served “in a black tent with flies and dinner consisted of an uneatable stew of tripe and some filthy black meat also stewed.”

He continued quoting the military attache who described “the treatment of the wounded [as] heart-rending.” The wounded were “loaded into lorries and jolted for hours over rough roads to so-called hospitals where there were a few volunteer nurses – since the Venizelist volunteers [were] not being allowed to serve.” The Venizelist nurses’ prohibition from serving in the Greek army once again revealed the sharp divisions of Greek society.

Hall goes on to describe the economic and social conditions in Greece. Industrially the country was at a standstill, with empty shops and even buying shoes was difficult. He understood the perilous state of Greek finances and wondered how long the economy could continue to function in this manner. The dire conditions could be attributed to the depreciation of the Greek drachma and to the subsequent increase in the cost of living. There were three factors that contributed to the demise of the Greek economy. Firstly, the loss of confidence caused by the electoral defeat of Venizelos; secondly the withdrawal of financial by the allied powers; and finally the issue of a large amount of paper money without the approval of the international financial commission.

Hall wondered “how the fig the olive and raisin crop will be gathered.” The enlistment of all young males in the Greek army meant that the harvest of figs and raisins would be up to on the women and elderly. This created a labor shortage, pushing up wages in the hiring of scarce farm labor. Greece being an agricultural society largely depended on these crops for its export income. The prices fetched for these crops were dependent on the vagaries of the international economy, however.

He was critical of the Greek military authorities and government officials, Hall stating that the government had failed to impose law and order and discipline in Greek society. He apportioned “blame on the character of the people themselves. To the Greek, liberty is what we would call lawlessness.” He regarded the average Greek to be noisy and rowdy and having dinner at 10 PM or after. For example, he noted that a Greek complained to the police of a French family living in the same apartment building who woke him up every morning at 7 AM. The Frenchman, a captain in the French mission, was compelled to wake up and go to work every morning. Responding to the charges, the Frenchman declared that he felt no problem waking the Greek at 7 AM “since the Greek kept him awake overnight until two or three in the morning with his dining and singing.” The Greek thought the Frenchman to be most unreasonable.

Hall was justified in commenting that the ordinary Greek was noisy and boisterous, but he failed to understand the easygoing Greek lifestyle compared to the faster pace of life in the United States. (to be continued).


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