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From Enmity to Nobel Nomination; Atatürk and Venizelos

One of the most interesting developments last week was Erdogan’s meeting with the Egyptian leader Sisi, whom he had declared an “enemy” and targeted in the squares with the “Rabia” gesture after the coup in Egypt.

While many were surprised by this change, this development also brought to mind the Venizelos-Atatürk rapprochement. A hundred years ago, enmity arising from wars and occupations eventually turned into friendship, and even Venizelos nominated Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize.

ELEFTHERIOS VENIZELOS, AN OTTOMAN CITIZEN

Eleftherios Venizelos was born in 1864 in Mournies, Chania on the island of Crete, as an Ottoman citizen. Due to his father Hacı Petros’ involvement in the Cretan revolt, Venizelos, who met exile at the age of two, lived for a while in Syros in the Cyclades islands with his family and received his education there. At just 14, including Istanbul and İzmir in the map of Greece he drew at school showed that he had embraced the idea of Megali Idea (Great Idea) from a very young age.

In 1881, he began studying law at the University of Athens, but returned to Crete to continue the family business of commerce after his father’s death. His student leadership in Athens and even meeting with British Prime Minister Chamberlain to discuss the annexation of Crete to Greece, were signs of his future in politics.

In 1887, after completing his law degree via correspondence, Venizelos became one of the seventeen lawyers in Crete, six of whom were Muslim and eleven Greek. Venizelos, who bought a newspaper in Crete and wrote articles there, was elected as a member of the Cretan parliament established in accordance with the Halepa Charter. He actually advocated for the annexation of the island to Greece, despite its “autonomous” status.

Although Venizelos took a break from politics for a while, he continued to defend the policy of Enosis, meaning union with Greece, through his articles in the newspaper. Indeed, he led the rebellion that began in 1897 with the slogan “Crete belongs to the Cretans,” becoming a national hero in Crete and Greece.

Following the Megali Idea, Venizelos pursued a policy of annexing the Aegean islands and İzmir, which were under Ottoman rule, to Greece after Crete. Thus, Greece would form a triangle including Athens, Thessaloniki, and İzmir, seizing trade routes and turning the Aegean into a Greek lake. Interestingly, his goal did not include occupying Istanbul to avoid confronting Russia and other European states.

Venizelos’ next step was to initiate the rebellion that led to the 1897 Greco-Turkish War. He led the rebellion, and although the Greco-Turkish War ended with the victory of the Ottoman army, the intervention of European states resulted in the autonomy of Crete.

Venizelos, re-elected to the parliament in the 1899 elections and taking on the role of Minister of Justice, disagreed with High Commissioner Prince George. His sole aim was the annexation of Crete to Greece. He led a rebellion against the Prince in 1905, forcing him to leave the island. Even though a new commissioner was appointed, he was now the de facto political leader of the island.

Venizelos’ efforts culminated in the Cretan parliament’s decision to unite with Greece in 1908. Although this decision was not accepted by the Ottoman State, the annexation of Crete was ratified in the Athens Treaty following the Balkan War.

THE GREEK EXPANSION

The support of European states for the revolt that began in the Peloponnese in 1821 resulted in the establishment of an independent Greek state according to the 1829 Treaty of Edirne. Afterward, Greece continually expanded against the Ottoman State; after the Peloponnese, it annexed Thessaly.

The defeat in the 1897 Greco-Turkish War dealt a heavy blow to Greece, leading to political and economic crises. By 1909, a military coup known as the Goudi movement ousted the government, and a provisional government was formed. In 1910, Venizelos, the “fresh blood” from Crete, was elected as a member of parliament. The only objection to him came from the Ottoman administration, to which he was a subject.

After his electoral victory, Venizelos became prime minister and embarked on an expansionist policy that would continue until the “Asia Minor Adventure.” With his newly founded Liberal Party, he won 84% of the seats in the renewed 1910 elections, earning the right to form the government again. His electoral success showed that his policies had the full support of the people. He would win the 1912 elections as well and be the person in charge of the country during both the Balkan Wars and the beginning of World War I.

During his tenure, Venizelos drafted a new constitution and strengthened the army and navy. His primary goal was to seize the Macedonian territories of the Ottoman Empire and make Crete Greek territory. In foreign policy, despite the royal family’s German origins, he preferred to align with England and France. Under his administration, the navy received support from England and the army from France.

Venizelos allocated a large budget to the army and navy, increasing the army’s strength to 92,000 before the Balkan War. Acting on the belief that the environment was right after the 1911 Italo-Turkish War, he first made a mutual defense pact with Bulgaria against the Ottoman Empire. Since an alliance had already been formed between Serbia and Bulgaria, the Balkan Alliance was now operational.

In the Balkan War, Greece would dominate the Aegean with its strong navy and also prevent the Ottoman army’s dispatch to Rumelia. Ultimately, in this war, it achieved its goals by dealing a significant blow to the Ottoman navy, capturing the Aegean islands, occupying the Epirus region, and taking control of Thessaloniki, the most important port and gateway to the Balkans, before the Bulgarian army.

Another success for Greece in the Balkan War was declaring the annexation of Crete to its territory during the war. Additionally, Western Thrace and Kavala, which were occupied by the Bulgarians, would later become Greek.

Thus, Venizelos expanded the borders of Greece by twofold at the end of the Balkan War, capturing rich cities like Ioannina, Thessaloniki, and Kavala. Consequently, a significant part of the Megali Idea was realized, with only the occupation of Western Anatolia remaining.

The final step for Venizelos was possible with Greece’s entry into World War I. However, due to differences of opinion with King Constantine, he was forced to resign as prime minister in 1915. After winning the subsequent elections and wanting to join the war on the side of the Entente powers, he was again removed from office.

During this period, Venizelos continued his struggle by forming a government in Thessaloniki. In 1917, with the support of the British and French, he exiled King Constantine and regained the prime ministership. Subsequently, Greece entered the war on the side of the Entente powers.

After the war, Greece, as one of the victorious states under Venizelos’ leadership, took a significant step in the path of the Megali Idea by starting the occupation of Anatolia. However, despite this success, Venizelos lost the elections and went to Paris.

ATATÜRK AS A NOBEL NOMINEE

In Greece, which suffered a great disaster in the Anatolian occupation, Venizelos reappeared in the Lausanne negotiations. Venizelos would also serve as prime minister for a while in 1924.

The National Struggle was largely against the Greeks, and the Treaty of Lausanne made many decisions concerning both sides. Nevertheless, there were many problems between the two states until 1930.

The issues brought by the Treaty of Lausanne, such as the exchange of Muslim populations in Greece with Anatolian Greeks, determining the Greeks who would stay in Istanbul (established), and the status of properties left behind by the exchangees, also arose.

Another tension between the Greek and Turkish sides was the Patriarchate issue. Ankara wanted to move the patriarchate abroad in Lausanne but failed, and after the treaty, it pursued a policy of constantly making things difficult for the patriarchate.

First, Patriarch Meletios, allegedly fearing for his life, left the country in July 1923 before the signing of Lausanne. He was succeeded by Patriarch VII. Gregorius. However, a new crisis erupted when Constantin Arapoglou was elected as patriarch. The cause of the crisis was again related to the interpretation of the exchange. Eventually, Arapoglou was deported, and the problem was solved with the election of a new patriarch.

The problems encountered in the exchange caused relations between the two sides to be tense for a long time. In 1925, the Ankara Treaty between the two sides resolved the issue of established, and the process of rapprochement began. Indeed, the first Turkish ambassador to Athens was sent after that, and diplomatic relations were reestablished.

In 1927, the Treaty of Athens was signed concerning the properties left behind by the population exchanges. A year later, with the rise to power of Venizelos, a fervent advocate of the “Megali Idea” in Greece, the rapprochement process between the two states rapidly advanced.

Nine years prior, Venizelos, who had initiated the Greek occupation of Anatolia, called for reconciliation with Turkey in his election campaign, urging respect for the existing borders between the two states. Upon his party’s success in the 1928 elections and the formation of the new government, Venizelos sent a letter to Prime Minister İsmet Paşa.

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In his letter, Venizelos emphasized the need for both sides to respect the current borders and stated that Greece had no designs on Turkish territory. İsmet Paşa, in his response, highlighted the importance of establishing friendship and good relations.

This initiation of rapprochement, despite intermittent tensions, culminated in the Ankara Treaty of 1930. Following this, Venizelos, responding positively to İsmet Paşa’s invitation, visited Ankara in October 1930, leading to the signing of neutrality and reconciliation agreements that facilitated trade relations. İsmet Paşa reciprocated with a visit to Athens in 1931.

Despite past conflicts, including the war up until 1922, the two states had entered into significant cooperation. Even amidst occasional tensions, by 1933, ambitious ideas like forming a customs union and political alliance, once deemed fanciful, were being discussed.

The underlying reasons for this policy shift were Turkey’s non-expansionist stance and Venizelos’s realism. The emerging threat from Italy in the Balkans and the Mediterranean, along with Bulgaria’s revisionist policies, also played a significant role in this rapprochement.

These evolving relations led to the formation of the Balkan Pact, Greece’s favorable stance on the Montreux Convention, and even the expulsion of the 150 Personae non gratae.

After losing the 1933 elections and moving to the opposition, Venizelos furthered Turkish-Greek friendship by nominating Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1934, acknowledging the peace and benefits derived from this rapprochement for both countries and the peace in the Near East. He credited Mustafa Kemal Paşa, the President of Turkey, for this significant contribution.

The 1934 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Arthur Henderson, the leader of the Labour Party in the United Kingdom, for his contributions to disarmament efforts. This event serves as a striking example of how quickly relationships between states and political leaders can change.

It is noted that Atatürk, during his fifteen years of presidency, never visited any foreign country. However, had he undertaken such a journey, Greece would likely have been one of his first choices.

After a coup attempt in Greece in 1935, Venizelos left the country and passed away in exile in Paris in 1936.

Sources:

  • Eser, M. (2017), Greek Sources on Eleftherios Venizelos’ First Term and Turkish-Greek Relations, Istanbul University Graduate Thesis, Istanbul.
  • Yanardağ, M. (2020), Eleftherios Venizelos, Ankara University Graduate Thesis, Ankara.
  • Bilgiç, B. S. (2015), “Turkish-Greek Relations During the Atatürk Era 1923-1938”, ATAM, No. 91, pp. 1-28.
  • Çakmak, Z. (2008), “Venizelos’ Nomination of Atatürk for the Nobel Peace Prize”, Erdem, No. 51, pp. 91-109.
  • Mango, A. (2000), Atatürk, Istanbul, Sabah Books.

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DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
DR.YUKSEL NIZAMOGLU
Dr. Yüksel Nizamoğlu is an Historian focuses on Ottoman Balkans, Middle East Studies, and Military History. PhD. 2010. Istanbul University.
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