Sunday, 19 July 2009

19th July 1890: Birth of King George II of the Hellenes

The biographical data of His Majesty King George II originate from Balkanalysis.

Prince George was born on 19th July 1890, to this day 119 years ago, in the Royal residence of Tatoi near Athens, son of King Konstantinos I and Queen Sophia. The King died as the Greek head of state on April 1st, 1947 in the Royal Palace in Athens.

The young heir to the throne was educated at the Evelpides military academy and pursued higher military studies in the German Military Academy. At that time it was ordinary for the Royal Families in Europe to have their male members educated only in military schools and quite often they took part in wars, as was the case with Prince George . In 1913 during the the Second Balkan War, he served as a captain on the front lines, and accompanied his victorious father - Konstantinos I - who was the King of the Hellenes, and so, commander of the Greek forces.

The alliances and potential alliances for the Greeks in the First World War caused a widening gap between the parliamentary government of Venizelos, who was eager to join forces with the Entente, and the Royal Family, who preferred neutrality and had strong affiliations with the Germans.

The result of the Greek divide ultimately led to victory for Venizelos and the expulsion of the Royal Family in 1917. During his three-year exile abroad, Crown Prince George became engaged to the Romanian Princess Elisabeth and firmly clung to his royal credentials; he also used the period to expand his European high society network.

In 1920, just a few months after the signing of the short-lived Sèvres Treaty that gave Greece control in Asia Minor, Venizelos spectacularly lost the elections and the Royal Family managed after a referendum to return to Greece. Crown Prince George subsequently married Princess Elizabeth in 1921, whilst his sister, Princess Helena, married the heir of the Romanian throne, Crown Prince Carol - thus cementing the good relations between their two states. Moreover, George took part in the fateful Asia Minor military expedition and was made a colonel, responsible for drafting strategy for the troops upfront.

The expedition of the Greek Army in Anatolia resulted in catastrophe; after early gains, an overextension of forces resulted from entering too deep into the Anatolian landmass. This left the Greek army vulnerable and it was finally driven back to the sea by the resurgent Turkish nationalist forces led by Mustafa Kemal Pasha.

The dismaying news created a chaotic situation in Athens. A coup d’état led by Greek officers resulted in the resignation of George’s father, and the elevation of George to the throne on September 27, 1922 (Greek: Γεώργιος Β', Βασιλεύς των Ελλήνων). During his two-year residence as head of state, the young sovereign had to deal with the increasing propaganda against the Royal Family as an institution in Greek society. He also witnessed the execution of six members of the Greek government charged with being responsible for the disastrous Anatolian campaign.

George II as King and the Second Exile
In October 1923, after the Lausanne Treaty that created a new Mediterranean order and permanent boundaries, an attempt was made to overthrow the leaders of the 1922 revolution by several right-wing officers, including Metaxas, the would-be Prime Minister of Greece from 1936-1941. Even though King George was not involved, he was easily accused of being the culprit, and was forced to leave Greece in December 1923. As could be expected, he went to Romania. In April 1924, a Hellenic Republic was proclaimed.

The second period of exile for the Greek King had strong implications that would influence Greek politics for years to come. First of all, King George II divorced his Romanian wife and moved to Britain, where he took up residence in the storied Brown’s Hotel of London. During his stay in London from 1929-1935, George became an adherent of the British way of life and cultivated further his important relations with the English aristocracy, something that would play a major role in his future come-back in Greek public affairs.
Moreover, the exiled monarch travelled abroad regularly throughout the Greek Diaspora, in order to extract support. He managed to build a stern persona, an image as some sort of a firm and wise ruler capable of uniting a Greece so often characterised by fractiousness, instability and corruption. During this time it is highly likely that the king-in-exile managed to win British support through skilfully managing his royal family relations.

The opportunity George was looking for appeared in 1935. An unsuccessful coup d’état by Greek officers led by Colonel Plastiras changed the political climate in Greece, swinging the balance in favour of the monarchy. Meanwhile, the still mighty British Empire, fearing the expansion of the Italian and German powers, wanted to appoint a staunch supporter in one of the most important geo-strategic regions, the Balkans.

Thus, in November 1935 a referendum for the reinstatement of King George passed by a resounding 97 percent. This overwhelming approval initiated his second return to his country of birth. The reinstated King was able to have real popular support because the Greek Republic (1924-1936) was not successful. It collapsed in chaos leaving serious unresolved issues to be dealt with, such as social inequality, failures in foreign policy and general public disappointment and apathy.

Even though King George II was not generally in favour of dictatorship, the unresolved political tensions in Greece, simultaneous with a growing militarisation in Europe, proved to be decisive factors in that direction. On August 4th, 1936, George signed a government paper that declared a state of emergency in Greece; in essence, a dictatorship was being established. It was led by the Prime Minister Ioannis Metaxas, a longtime military officer well known for his monarchist sentiments.

Despite the fact that Metaxas was also in favour of the Germans, this fondness did not play a significant role in the actual governance of the state. The Greek army was almost completely loyal to the monarchy, and Metaxas was above all an officer loyal to his king.

When the Italian Army attacked Greece on October 28th, 1940, the defiant Greeks were able to claim the first great victory that the Allied forces had won against the Axis since the beginning of the war. It increased the prestige of King George II, who was very active in monitoring the progress of the military campaign against Italy. He also pressed the English in sending help to Greece, managing to redirect large British forces from the major front of North Africa, so vital to the British due to their interests in the Suez Canal.

On April 6th, 1941 Greece denied access to German troops, and a much tougher campaign started. The Greek army, after several weeks of intense fighting, was defeated and German troops occupied Athens on April 27th. At that time the King was determined to continue the resistance, despite lingering pro-German sentiment amongst the Greek political class. He formed a government under Emmanouel Tsouderos (a former opponent of the King’s), who also happened to be from the island of Crete - the place of the latest epic battle between the Greeks and the Germans.

On April 23rd, 1941, King George II and his government left Athens and went to Crete to continue the fight. After fierce skirmishes known collectively as “The Battle of Crete” German paratroopers occupied Crete and King George, along with most of his cabinet, narrowly escaped to Egypt and British protection. From that time onwards, London and Cairo were to play host to the Greek government-in-exile. Meanwhile, King George toured the world - including Great Britain, South Africa, Canada and the USA - trying to win support for Greece from the Allied governments and their peoples. He also declared the end of dictatorship and tried to compromise with his former political opponents.

The occupation by Germany brought major societal changes to the country. Greece saw the emergence of a renewed Communist Party and strong anti-monarchist forces. When Greece was liberated in October 1944, the King didn’t return immediately. In December 1944, the first round of confrontations between the Greek government and the Communists broke out in Athens. The one-month struggle between them signalled just the prelude to a three-year civil war that raged from 1946-1949.

The political strife in Greece resulted in a virtual British occupation of the country. Fearing Soviet expansion and the Communist rise, the Allied powers sought to aid through all means necessary the government in the fight against the rebels.

A coalition dominated by the new People's Party was elected and their leader Constantinos Tsaldaris in the opening session of parliament called for the return of the King and initiated a constitutional plebiscite. Once again in yet another election 68% vote for the return of the King, some of whom may have seen Greece's return to a monarchy as being better then being run by the communists. King George arrived in Greece on September 27th, 1946, and he lived only until April 1st, 1947, when he died of a sudden heart attack. During that short period of time, King George II experienced the beginning of the Greek Civil War, the enacting of the Truman Doctrine - the formal announcement of the Cold War - and the liberation of the Dodecanese after a generation of Italian occupation.

King George II: His Importance and Legacy
George II was a king who lived throughout, and in some periods ruled over, some of the most important events in modern Greek history. In fact, he shaped them in ways that are still being felt in Greek life today. His pro-British stance led Greece to the Allies in WWII, resulting in a devastating German occupation - but an eventual victory in being firmly allied on the ‘right side’ of history in the world’s greatest-ever conflict.
This alliance was cemented, sometimes brutally, by the civil war that followed WWII. Yet King George’s decisiveness against the Communist threat kept Greece firmly in the Western camp - a result that was clearly beneficial of the country, as history has borne out.

On the other hand, the King’s support for dictatorship helped keep alive a violent political climate in Greece, and the association of military power with politics condoned under King George II was a recurrent phenomenon that haunted the nation again during the disastrous Colonel’s Regime of 1967, which led up to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

As a person, King George II was a reserved, aloof character, who never became truly popular, as his father and his grandfather (George I) had been. King George II was more of a statesman, disinterested in the trappings of everyday life. King George would be the only modern royal not to leave an heir, and his successor was King Paul (Greek Παύλος, Βασιλεύς των Ελλήνων, 14th December 1901 – 6th March 1964), his younger brother.

To understand the broader international image and impact of a man who lived and travelled for such lengthy periods abroad, historians will have to examine more intensively King George’s role in helping the Allies win the war, and his deep connections to the British royal family, which invested enough political capital to have George installed on the Greek throne thrice in less than a generation. It is more than certain that a thorough survey will some day unveil many more interesting facts and dimensions of the life and career of King George II, as both a man and a monarch.

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