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Historical Observations: Nikolaos Plastiras, the Strong Man of Greece, 1922-24

December 21, 2022

Nikolaos Plastiras (1883-1953) was a military officer who served in the Balkan Wars (1912-13), on the Macedonian front (1916-18), Ukraine commanding the 5/40th Evzone regiment (1919) and Asia Minor (1919-22). He was an ardent Venizelist and also became active in politics after September 1922. This article focuses on his life from September 1922 to early January 1924.

As the Greek army retreated in the Asia Minor campaign in late August 1922, Plastiras proved an excellent commander in such dire circumstances. The British military attache in Athens, Colonel Hoare Nairne described him as “a more determined fighter who counter-attacked and took back [lost] ground. At one time captured many prisoners and even guns, which he had to abandon for lack of support.” As a result of the military defeat in Asia Minor, the Royalist government faced a political and refugee crisis that it couldn’t handle.

A Revolutionary Committee (RC) headed by Colonels Plastiras, Gonatas, and a naval captain Focas demanded the abdication of King Constantine in favor of the Crown Prince who assumed the throne as King George 2nd, the resignation of the government, dissolution of the chamber, and the reinforcing of the Thracian front. Constantine abdicated in September 1922 and went into exile never to return to Greece.

When Plastiras met the British Charge d’Affaires in Athens, Sir Francis Lindley he told him that Greece could put 60,000 men in the field to defend Thrace from the Kemalists. Lindley told him it would be madness to go to war which would not have the support of the allies. Greece would be better-off reorganizing its army in case Mustapha Kemal had other ideas. Lindley was optimistic that Kemal would accept the allied invitation to a conference.

The RC appointed Eleftherios Venizelos as its representative in the forthcoming peace negotiations with Turkey and arrested the royalist politicians and military blaming them for the Asia Minor debacle. Plastiras and Gonatas gave an assurance to Lindley that the accused would not be executed. However, the executions were carried out which led to Britain withdrawing its minister and severing its ties with Greece. For Lindley, Plastiras had broken his promise.

In early 1923, Plastiras went to Lausanne to discuss the internal and external situation of Greece with Venizelos. Venizelos told him that the RC couldn’t remain in office indefinitely and that elections had to be called as quickly as possible. Venizelos promised Plastiras that he would do everything in his power to obtain credit from the Anglo-French-US financial agreement that Greece signed in 1918. Plastiras seemed satisfied but was disappointed that no peace agreement had yet been signed with Turkey.

Plastiras wished to justify the aims of the revolution by the creation of branches of the Union of National Salvation to replace the former Royalist Political Clubs. Michael Llewellyn Smith in his book :Ionian Vision states that Plastiras embarked on “a propaganda campaign of ‘popular enlightenment’ sending out teachers, priests, and speakers into the provinces to preach the message of the revolution.” He hoped that this would lead to “a majority of revolutionary candidates at the general elections.”

In April 1923, there was talk of reviving the stalled Lausanne conference. Greek military circles were discussing the revival of war with Turkey. The Greeks might have been influenced by the following factors: 1. Political dissension within Turkish political and military circles;2. The Greeks resented paying war reparations; 3. The Greek War Office believed the Turks could not offer serious opposition to the Greeks in Eastern Thrace; and 4. General Pangalos declared that if peace was signed, he would return to Athens as chief of the revolution in place of Plastiras who would not relinquish power. Despite their differences, both of them inspected the troops together on the Thracian front. If the Greeks attacked the Turks, there was no way the allies would support the Greek action nor provide them with weapons and financial aid.

The Lausanne Conference nearly stalled over Turkey’s demand that Greece pay reparations. Venizelos told the Kemalist chief delegate, Ismet Pasha, that Greece could not pay but the Turks insisted on this point. The Greeks were prepared to leave Lausanne with the Greek army on the Maritza ready to march at short notice. Plastiras believed that Turkey’s insistence on reparations would result in a casus belli which the major powers sought to avoid. Sanity prevailed with Turkey accepting the Greek offer of territory around Karagatch in the end.

Following the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne on July 24th, 1923, there was a strike of flour mill workers in Athens demanding higher wages in August. The government stopped the free entry of foreign flour which further angered striking workers. This dispute spread to Piraeus forcing Plastiras to take drastic action against the strikers and the union. The government seized the assets of the union and enforced this measure. Plastiras stated that unless the strike ended, the government would convene extraordinary court-martials for the trial of offenders. He accused the communists of organizing the strike. A battle ensued between strikers and the military in Piraeus with martial law being imposed. Plastiras was an individual who disliked disorder and chaos and took necessary action to establish law and order.

In October 1923, rebel Generals Leonardopoulos and Gargalidis, demanded the disbandment of the RC and requested that the King appoint a government that inspired confidence to carry out elections. The garrisons in Patras, Corinth, and Chalkis joined the insurgents which were later joined by small garrisons in Kozani, Drama, and Macedonia. The government responded by dispatching troops from Athens and sending two warships to Corinth to crush the revolt. Colonel Kondylis suppressed the revolt in Macedonia. Plastiras and Pangalos clever plan was attributed to surrounding and forcing the rebels to surrender. This paved the way for the December 2nd election.

The election also raised the future of the monarchy with King George leaving Greece ‘temporarily.’ Admiral Koundouriotis was sworn in as regent in the presence of Plastiras, Cabinet members, and the Holy Synod. The Liberals won 250 out of 397 seats in the Chamber. On January 2, 1924, the RC ceased to exist with Plastiras rendering a long speech favoring a republic. He hoped that Venizelos would return to his place in Greek politics.

In conclusion, as this brief overview shows, Plastiras maintained law and order through a tumultuous period and proved to be the strong man of Greece.

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