Eleftherios Venizélos (1864-1936)

The maker of modern Greece

Elefthérios Kyriakos Venizélos (23 August 1864 – 18 March 1936), was one of the most significant politicians of modern Greece. Hardly any Cretan town exists which has not a street or a square named after this famous politician who influenced significantly Greek and Cretan life during the chaotic first decades of the 20. century.

Venizélos was born in Mourniés, near Chania. He was the son of a Cretan revolutionary, Kyriakos Venizélos, who in 1866 was deported by the Ottomans to Síros with his family. Venizélos studied law at the University of Athens. Later he returned to Crete where he practiced as a lawyer and journalist. A year after he came to Crete he was elected to the National Assembly for the newly-formed Liberal Party.

At that time Crete was not yet a part of Greece but under Ottoman rule. Venizélos who was in favor of Cretan Union with Greece became leader of the Cretan rebellion of 1897 which ended with Crete being granted autonomy by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman army was forced out of Crete by British, Russian, Italian and Austro-Hungarian armies and the same European powers persuaded Prince George of Greece to become High Commissioner of the island. Venizélos served him as minister of justice from 1899 to 1901.

Prince George and Venizélos, however, soon had a falling out, because George assumed absolute power. Venizélos withdrew from his post and instead became leader of the opposition. In 1905 he led an armed insurgency, which forced the prince to leave the island. The prince was replaced by Alexandros Zaimis, a former Greek prime minister, and Venizélos again joined the government.

In 1910, the Greek Parliament in Athens was dissolved due to a political crisis. Venizélos was invited to move to Athens and on the 8th of August 1910, he was elected member of the Parliament. He then founded his political party, Komma Fileleftheron (the Liberal Party). On the 2nd of October 1910, he formed a government and started to reorganise the economic and political affairs of Greece.

Among other things he reorganised the Greek army and fleet. Therefore, Greece was well prepared for the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, where the Northern territories of Epirus, Macedonia, and the Aegean Islands were united with Greece. Crown Prince Constantine became king of Greece after his father's assassination in 1913. Venizélos had a number of conflicts with this king which came to influence Greek politics significantly. Notably during World War I.

Greece remained neutral for the first years of the war. But Venizélos was in favour of forming an alliance with the Allied forces, as he believed that Britain and France would win. Constantine, however, favoured the Central Powers and wanted to remain neutral. Debates followed and Venizélos resigned in protest on the 21st of February 1915. But his party won the elections shortly after and again formed a government.

Venizélos had originally promised to keep Greece neutral, but Bulgaria's attack on Serbia, with which Greece had a treaty of alliance, obliged him to abandon that. And again a major dispute with the king caused him to resign and the Paliament to be dissolved. Meanwhile, the Allied forces (the Entente) disembarked an army in Thessaloniki, giving as cause thay they wanted to save Serbia. And in 1916 a joint German, Austrian and Bulgarian army then invaded Greek Macedonia.

Now, Venizélos's followers organized a military movement called the "Temporary Government of National Defence" and even founded a new state that included Northern Greece, Crete and the Aegean Islands. King Constantine was exiled i 1917 and succeeded by his second son Alexander. Venizélos then returned to Athens, allied with the Entente and declared war on the Central Powers. Greek military forces began to take part in military operations against the Bulgarians. The Allied forces now launched a major offensive against the Bulgarian and German armies in 1918. The Bulgarian army quickly gave up retreated.

Following the conclusion of World War I, Venizélos as Greece's representative signed the Treaty of Neuilly and the Treaty of Sèvres. As the result of these treaties, Greece acquired (but later lost) Eastern Thrace and Smyrna. He survived an attempt of assasination in Paris and back in Greece he was received as a hero due to this liberation of areas with Greek populations.

Nevertheless, he lost the election in 1920. And as a result of this defeat combined with the fact that King Constantine was recalled as king of Greece he wanted to withdraw from politics and went to live in Paris. Still, he came to play a political role in the years to come.

The Greco-Turkish War (from 1919 to 1922) followed. And in 1922 King Constantine was dethroned once more and the year after his son King George was forced into exile. Now, Venizelos represented Greece by signing the Treaty of Lausanne with Turkey in 1923 and returned to Greece to become prime minister once again. In 1924 after quarrelling with anti-monarchists he left again only to return later and once again become leader of the Liberal Party.

The Liberal Party regained power in the elections held in 1928. The party won 228 out of 250 places in Parliament. Venizelos then governed Greece until 1932, when the People's Party under Panagis Tsaldaris came into to power. In 1933 Venizelos was the target of a second - failed - assassination attempt. Pro-royalist sympathies of the government had Venizélos and a general called Nikolaos Plastiras to attempt a military coup in 1935. But the coup failed and Venizelos left Greece once more.

Trials and executions of prominent members of his party followed his departure. Venizélos himself was sentenced to death in absentia. The Second Hellenic Republic was abolished in 1935 and King George II returned to the throne. Venizélos had left for Paris, and here he died in 1936. His body was taken to Chania, avoiding Athens for fear of unrest. He was buried in Akrotiri in Crete. Eleftherios is the grandfather of Nikitas Venizelos (Prime Minister from 1980 to 1988).

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