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Historical Observations: Venizelos and Zaimis: October-November 1915

In October 1915, there were two major events – the Salonika landing and the offer of Cyprus – that impacted Greece’s internal situation and its foreign relations with the major European powers.

On September 22, 1915 Bulgaria mobilized its army and joined the Central powers (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Turkey) by attacking Serbia. The Greek premier, Eleftherios Venizelos argued that Greece had an obligation under the Serbo-Greek Treaty 1913 to assist her neighbor since she was being attacked by Bulgaria. King Constantine was not interested in aiding Serbia as he maintained his policy benevolent neutrality in the Great War.

Constantine agreed with Venizelos that Greek mobilization should take place as a precautionary measure. However, the King remained steadfast to his policy of neutrality. Venizelos wanted his nation to join the Anglo-French against the Central powers. The best way to achieve this was the disembarkation of allied troops at Thessaloniki by allowing them to proceed quickly to assist Serbia. The conception of the Thessaloniki landing was to force Constantine to enter the war by going to Serbia’s aid.

On October 5, the landing of Anglo-French troops in Thessaloniki displeased the Royalists. After the landing, Venizelos gave a speech on foreign policy in parliament arguing that a victory by the Central powers would imperial Greece’s interests in the Balkans. A Bulgarian victory over Serbia would also alter the balance of powers in the Balkans. There was also the issue of Turkey becoming emboldened in destroying Hellenism in Asia Minor.

Constantine invited Venizelos to the Tatoi palace and told him that he disagreed with his policy. The King believed that Germany would win the war and Greece’s assistance to Serbia would be futile. According to Constantine, the Austro-German attack against Serbia on October 6 relieved Greece of any obligation to assist Serbia since it involved major powers. Constantine dismissed Venizelos a second time as premier, with the first dismissal in March 1915.

An officer of the Serbian General Staff commented on Venizelos’s dismissal. He was dissatisfied with the attitude of the Greek General Staff which he characterized as selfish. They concentrated defending around Thessaloniki without taking any measures to proceed north to assist Serbia. He thought the only hope for Serbia lay in the disembarkation of Anglo-French troops at all costs. This meant an increase in the number of Anglo-French forces needed to assist Serbia.

With Venizelos gone, Constantine appointed Alexandros Zaimis as the new premier. Zaimis continued mobilization and the allies were permitted to disembark their troops in Thessaloniki. The British Minister in Athens, Sir Francis Elliot asked Constantine whether they would change Greek policy towards Serbia with the King replying that he could not provide an answer without knowing the views of the new government. Zaimis responded that Greece would remain neutral.

Alexandros Zaimis.

The British sought ways to get Greece to enter the war on its side by fulfilling its obligations towards to Serbia and Cyprus was offered to Greece as an inducement to join the allies. Zaimis told Francis that he would have to discuss it with the King and his cabinet colleagues. On October 20, Zaimis informed the British and Russian Ministers that Greece refused to budge from its neutrality stance. Additionally, Thrace was offered as an additional inducement. Later that day, the British and Russian Ministers visited Zaimis and said that the British Government had received information that Greece had been promised by the Central Powers “in return for her neutrality, the possession of Kavalla and the islands, the acquisition of the Dodecanese, the line from Doiran to Valona, inclusive, Bulgaria obtaining the rest of Albania.” Zaimis thought this was a preposterous claim and said that Greece despite her neutrality still wished to maintain good relations with the allies.

The internal situation was becoming unsustainable in Greece, however. Venizelos did not want a dissolution of the parliament and calling of new elections, but a minor incident happened in the Chamber which led to a ministerial crisis. The trouble started over a bill for extra pay for army officers during mobilization. The War Minister, General Yanakitsas disagreed with a statement made by one of the Venizelist deputies and stormed out of the House. The Venizelists demanded an apology, whereas Zaimis thought it was unnecessary. Venizelos took the opportunity to defend his policy and criticize his opponents regarding the Balkan situation. Both sides refused to compromise and the Zaimis initiative was defeated in the Chamber on November 4 by a vote of 147 to 114.

Zaimis then tended his resignation to the King. In response, Constantine appointed Skouloudis as premier on November 5 with new elections that were held a couple of weeks later. The Venizelists boycotted the election stating the dissolution of parliament by the King was unconstitutional.

In conclusion, the actions of Venizelos and Zaimis helped to deepen divisions in Greece and allowed Constantine to maintain his neutral foreign policy.

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