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Historical Observations: King Alexander of Greece

January 16, 2022

Alexander was born in August 1893 in Tatoi as the second son of King Constantine I and Queen Sophia. On the eve of the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, he was appointed a second lieutenant in the artillery and duly served his nation. After which he was supposed to continue his military studies in a foreign military academy. During the great war, the lively prince divided his time between military issues and his primary love of cars. He wasn’t cut out for a military career like his father.

The young prince never imagined that he would be cast into the role of the sovereign at a time of great political division in Greece. In May 1917, the Anglo-French alliance decided to take joint action against King Constantine whom they distrusted. On June 11, the French envoy, Charles Jonnart arrived in Athens on behalf of the protecting powers: Great Britain, France, and Russia demanding the abdication of Constantine. At the same time, the Isthmus of Corinth was occupied by allied naval forces while Anglo-French troops landed in Athens. Constantine and Queen Sophia along with Crown Prince George left for Switzerland. George was viewed as an unacceptable candidate and deemed too much a ‘Germanophile’. Premier Zaimis advised Constantine to abdicate in the interests of Greece. Prince Alexander was sworn in as King on the same day his family departed from Athens.

In his address to the Greek people on June 11, King Alexander stated he was prepared to continue the policy of his father of non-participation in the war. The allies were alarmed at this. On June 20, in the Official Government Gazette, he clarified his position that “I will sincerely cooperate with good intentions [with the allies] and achieve reconciliation with the nation.” Meanwhile, Premier Venizelos reunited the country by declaring war on the Central Powers on July 2 fighting alongside the allies. It ended Constantine’s policy of so-called benelovent neutrality.

Alexander’s first meeting with Venizelos on July 2 didn’t go down too well. The young King stated: “It came cold. As I didn’t shake his hand during the swearing-in, it seemed as if (he) didn’t expect it even today. We greeted each other with our heads. When I told him that I was ready to listen to him, he began to speak maliciously. “You will do this, you will do the other or you will not do that.” I tried to discuss some of his views, but he interrupted me, “I will arrange everything. Your Majesty, you are irresponsible” and continued that “[he] taught me a lesson on English parliamentarianism and the constitutional monarchy. He treated me like a student. Behind the glasses, his eyes looked hostile: What should I do? He has the power. I have nothing.”

There was distrust and hatred towards Venizelos by Alexander. However, in time, Alexander began to see that Venizelos’s policy served Greece’s national interests and gradually distanced himself from his father’s policy.

In July 1920 Greek troops occupied Adrianople with Alexander receiving a rousing reception from the inhabitants. Venizelos was happy for the young King to enter Adrianople as the head of the Greek army. The Scotsman reported on August 2 that “King Alexander may be seen daily in the Adrianople streets driving his motor car without an escort.”

After the signing of the Treaty of Sevres on August 10, Venizelos telegraphed Alexander informing him of the peace treaty with Turkey granting Greece – Thrace, and Dodecanese as “new diamonds to the Crown of His Majesty.” The future of Smyrna would be determined by a plebiscite giving the citizens the opportunity to vote for union with Greece conducted under the auspices of the League of Nations.

Venizelos returned to Athens after several weeks after the failed assassination attempt on his life in Paris and was cordially received by Alexander. The King was impressed with the achievements of his Prime Minister.

In November 1919 Alexander secretly married Aspasia Manos in Athens before a priest without the permission of the Archbishop of Athens. A morganatic marriage, i.e. between royalty and a commoner, wasn’t permitted under Greek law. During his absence in Macedonia, Aspasia took up residence in the palace but accepted without demur government insistence and left for Paris. In May 1920, Alexander with the full consent of the government visited Aspasia in Paris. Both returned separately to Athens and Aspasia didn’t live in the Palace but in her own house. She could never hold the title Queen of the Hellenes and her children would be excluded as candidates for the Greek throne. This arrangement worked well for a few months before Alexander’s tragic death.

In early October, Alexander was walking in the palace gardens of Tatoi with his German Shepherd dog, Fritz. When a fight broke out between a female monkey and the King’s dog. Alexander tried to separate them and ended up being bitten by a male monkey in the left thigh. The male money was taken away by the palace keeper only to escape and bite the King in the left arm.

At first, it was viewed as an ordinary bite that he would make a full recovery. His condition deteriorated, with the king eventually drifting into a coma and dying on October 25. A daily bulletin of the King’s condition was reported in the Athens press. Dr. Koryllos blamed his colleagues for incorrect treatment. A section of the opposition press blamed Venizelos for the “murder of Alexander.” The New York Times quoted the French specialist Dr. George Vidal, who took care of Alexander, in an article on October 23 stating that “the monkey was suffering from rabies with which it had been artificially inoculated.” The Athens newspaper, New Day published a similar story on October 24.

The Manchester Guardian reported on the King’s funeral in Athens. Queen Olga, (the consort of King George I of Greece who was allowed to return to Greece for her grandson’s funeral), the Archbishop of Athens, and Aspasia Manos attended. There was general sympathy for Aspasia “as she is considered as a good angel who nursed the unhappy King” until the end.

The Greek parliament appointed Admiral Koundouriotis as regent until the future of the dynasty was settled. Prince Paul was named as King but declined to accept it. He believed that his father, Constantine, was the rightful heir to the throne. Venizelos also called a general election in November thinking his achievements with the Treaty of Sevres would win him the election, however, the Royalists won.

In conclusion, Alexander carried out his duties, avoiding the national divisions, involvement in active politics, and while he initially distrusted Venizelos, he eventually supported him for his achievements at the peace conferences.

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