Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History. Lecture 14: Greek nationalism, the “Megale Idea” and Venizelism to 1923

Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture 14: Greek nationalism, the “Megale Idea” and Venizelism to 1923


As noted in Lecture 13, some themes and trends in Balkan history are easier to understand if we abandon preconceptions drawn from general European history, including preconceptions about periodization. This is true in Greek as well as Serbian history, and very apparent when we gauge the proper place of World War I in Greek historical chronology. 1914 and 1918 are not the most useful or critical dates for an understanding of Greek nationalism, because the forces at work began well before the start of the Great War and continued after its conclusion.

Broadly, we can say that nationalism in foreign relations began for Greece with the Revolution of 1821. Narrowly, we can say that the European War of 1914-1918 was only one episode in a series of wars for national territorial expansion, than began with the First Balkan War of 1912 and ended with the war against Kemal Ataturk’s revived Turkish republic in 1923. And this decade-long contest was merely one link in a chain of events that is still being forged in places like Cyprus and in Greek relations with the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Origins of the Megale Idea

Greek nationalism has the “Megale Idea,” the counterpart of Serbia’s “Nacertanije.”  Literally translated as the “great idea” or “grand idea,” the Megale Idea implies the goal of reestablishing a Greek state as a homeland for all the Greeks of the Mediterranean and Balkan world. Such a Greece would be territorially larger than the Greek state of today, but would be smaller than the Greek world of classical times, which extended west to the coast of Sicily, northeast into the Black Sea, and south to Egypt. Alexander the Great — a figure of classical Greek history and legend exploited by competing modern-day politicians — spread the influence of Hellenism even wider, into Africa and Asia. The Eastern half of the Roman Empire became solidly Greek as Byzantium, and sustained Greek culture in the Balkans and Asia Minor.

One of the unsettled aspects of the Megale Idea and the goals of Greek nationalism has been uncertainty about what is properly considered Greek, and why. In the nineteenth century, religious affiliation with the Greek Orthodox church was often confused with ethnic affiliation: the Bulgarians, for example, worked for many years to secure a separate Bulgarian Exarchate Church for this reason. Extreme Greek territorial claims resulted when the geography of classical Greece was applied to modern maps. The result has been conflict with Albania over Epirus, with Serbia and Bulgaria over Macedonia, and with Turkey over Istanbul (Constantinople), the western coast of Anatolia and islands from the Aegean to Cyprus.

While the fall of Constantinople in 1453 put an end to Greek political power in the Balkans, the Ottoman millet system ensured that Greek influence would remain strong through the agency of the Orthodox Church. As indicated in Lecture 6, the power of the Patriarch and his hierarchy opened important doors for Greeks, and this helped to keep alive visions of a revived Greek state among the Greeks of the Ottoman empire.

Intellectual currents outside the Ottoman Empire also contributed to a consciousness of things Greek. Some educated Greeks fled to Italy after the fall of Constantinople: their writings promoted interest in antiquity during the Renaissance. Western European interest in ancient Greece led to Phil-Hellenism. The British ruling class, in particular, gained an interest in Greece from their education in the classics, and this led to British support for the Greek revolution in the 1820s.

Rhigas Pheraios published a manifesto in 1797, one year before his arrest and execution for anti-Turkish plotting. His work offers insight into Greek thought about a revived Greece, on the eve of the modern revolutionary era. Rhigas envisaged a large country occupying both the Balkans and Anatolia, sheltering all the ethnic groups found there but ruled according to Greek ideas. Rhigas was advanced enough in his thinking to abandon religion as a criterion for national identity but he was not farsighted enough to see the ways in which modern ethnic nationalism, with its emphasis on shared language and culture, would make such an idea impossible. He influenced the planners of the Revolution of 1821: we can see echoes of his thinking in the plans for a three-fold uprising, to take place in Istanbul and the Romanian provinces, as well as in the Greek Peloponessus. And we have seen how this idea broke down in the face of incipient Romanian nationalism, so that the uprising in Romania failed because Romanians resented their Greek Phanariot hospodars.

The Megale Idea after 1830

After the achievement of Greek independence in 1830, the Megale Idea played a major role in Greek politics. Between two-thirds and three-quarters of the Greek people remained outside the borders of the limited Greece permitted by the Great Powers, who had no intention that a large Greek state should replace the Ottoman Empire. King Othon became “King of Greece” and not “King of the Greeks” for exactly that reason: the latter title would have implied interests outside the new border.

The Megale Idea continued to be an intellectual as well as a political concept. The work of the historian Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos shows how ideas underlay politics. Paparrigopoulos was born in 1815 in Istanbul. As a child his family fled to Odessa after the 1821 uprising failed in the Turkish capital. In the new Greece, he became an influential professor writing history in the service of nationalism and “the fatherland.” His work shows to what degree the Greek state relied not only on present-day needs but historical roots to justify and identify itself. In 1843 Paparrigopoulos refuted a German paper claiming that the present Greek population was descended from Slavs and Albanians who had repopulated Greece in the 500s CE. His work was self-consciously political: he spoke at political rallies and offered his expertise at the Congress of Berlin to ensure that the borders drawn in 1878 reflected Greek positions about the ethnic identity of the Macedonian population. Paparrigopoulos tied modern Greece to its classical and medieval roots, a position which implied valid claims to all the lands of the Byzantine Empire.

Greeks and their leaders uniformly wanted to liberate the “unredeemed” Greeks abroad, but differed about when and how to do so. In the 1880s, Kharilaos Trikoupis (seven times prime minister between 1875 and 1895) stood for reform and modernizing the domestic economy before taking international risks. His rival, Theodoros Deliyannis (five times prime minister between 1885 and 1905) took the opposite tack, and his career shows the risks at work. When the small Bulgarian principality expanded into Eastern Roumelia in 1885, Deliyannis mobilized the Greek army in an effort to secure more territory for Greece as well: but the Great Powers reacted with a blockade that damaged Greece’s economy. Deliyannis went to war with Turkey in 1897 over the island of Crete, leading to twin humiliations: the Ottomans soundly defeated Greece in battle and a state bankruptcy led to Great Power control of the Greek national budget. But despite these setbacks, pursuit of the Megale Idea remained a viable basis for a political career.

The Olympic Games

It is slightly unfair to dwell always on the negative aspects of nationalism. While national pride has caused some of the worst of wars, it can also lead to positive results. One of the most interesting has been the revival of the Olympic Games in a modern form, which took place for the first time in Athens in 1896.

The impetus for our modern international Olympics came from Pierre de Coubertin, a Frenchman who hoped that athletic programs on the British model would help revive France after the defeat by Germany in 1870. Interest in the Olympic concept was not new. Groups of Phil-Hellenes in England held “Olympic Games” off and on since the 1600s: Shakespeare referred to the ancient Olympic Games in ‘Henry VI.’ The King of Greece contributed one of the trophies for a long-running series of English games held in Shropshire from the 1840s to the 1880s. King Othon sponsored Olympic Games outside Athens in 1859, an event that took place again in 1870, 1875 and 1888.

None of these festivals involved competition between athletes from different countries but the notion of an international event, held in modern Greece but harking back to classical times, had obvious appeal for Greeks trying to attract attention in the world community. The Games carried the clear message that ancient and modern Greece were one and the same, and supported Greek hopes that the glories of the former would attract international support for the ambitions of the latter. Greeks therefore welcomed de Coubertin’s idea.

When de Coubertin began serious planning in 1894, a Greek named Demetrios Bikelas organized the International Olympic Committee. Consistent with their contrasting politics, Deliyannis endorsed the idea, while Trikoupis rejected it as a waste of money. However, the idea had the support of both the Greek population and King George. The king agreed to host the Games at Athens in 1896, and private funds were found to pay for them. To further the identification between ancient feats and modern sports, sponsors invented a new 40-kilometer “Marathon” race based on legends about the Athenian victory at Marathon in 490 BCE. Again in line with nationalist undercurrents, the games opened on the Greek independence day: April 6, 1896. Greek pride received a boost when a Greek won the first marathon race. Even though a Greek proposal to make Athens the permanent site of the quadrennial games was rejected, the Olympics became an unusual and peaceful way to secure credibility for Greece, based on its national history.

Crete and Macedonia

After the high good times of 1896, the lost war of 1897 was a reminder that economic backwardness, military weakness and political corruption still prevented Greece from achieving the goals of the Megale Idea.

The country was unable to achieve union (“enosis”) with Crete despite repeated uprisings on the island. In Macedonia, Greeks were surprised by the pro-Bulgarian uprising of 1903 and had to create a rival guerilla force in haste. When Paul Melas, son of a prominent Athens family and a commissioned officer in the Greek army, was killed while serving secretly and illegally in Macedonia, the revelation caused a scandal: the Great Powers condemned Greek interference inside Turkey, but the Greek population condemned the government for not doing more to secure Macedonia for Greece. Although Greek guerillas gradually secured the southern half of Macedonia by defeating pro-Bulgarian units, nothing came of their victories because the 1908 Young Turk revolution restored Ottoman rule, apparently in a form that was stronger than ever. 1909 saw another uprising on the island of Crete, and once again Greece was too weak to risk “enosis” by war.

The Goudhi coup

No one was more aware of political corruption and military weakness, or more susceptible to patriotic embarassment, than the officers in the Greek army. In July 1909, 1300 junior officers organized themselves as the “Military League” and drew up a petition asking for financial and tax reforms, to be used to pay for expansion and improvement of the military. King George installed a ministry that promised reform, but within a few days the new prime minister (the unremarkable Mavromichalis) went back on his pledge and installed the usual cronies in key posts. The officers’ protest seemed to have become an excuse for the usual factional politics. Mavromichalis then began court martial proceedings against the Military League’s leaders and refused to meet with a delegation of officers.

In response, the Athens garrison marched to the suburb of Goudhi, then threatened to occupy the capital to enforce demands for reforms and amnesty. The small craft guilds of the city came out in favor of the League, which was also calling for lower taxes. Another reform ministry took power but this time the Military League placed the government on notice: unless specified laws were passed, the League would assume power as a military dictatorship. The measures were promptly passed.

As in Serbia in 1903, a dangerous precedent had been set: the civilian government now functioned at the mercy of junior officers in the army. In the next months, the Military League forced some civilian officials and ambassadors out of office, repressed a mutiny by naval personnel who wanted a share of the power seized by the army, and forced the legislature to pass a list of economic bills, many of which were unworkable (lower taxes, for example, could not be reconciled with demands to spend more on the military).


By January 1910, the officers were frustrated by an inability to make progress through dealings with the legislature. Most members of the Military League had no wish to become politicians, only to assure themselves that the military would get sound financial support. To improve their legislative negotiating skills, they brought in the Cretan politician Eleutherios Venizelos as their adviser and spokesman.

Venizelos was 46 years old and a native of the island of Crete, which was still under Ottoman rule and remained so until the Balkan Wars. He had attended law school in Athens, then returned to Crete. Venizelos was active in an 1896 rebellion that led the Great Powers to grant the island some degree of autonomy under Turkish rule. He served in Crete’s assembly and as minister of justice. Venizelos’ supporters called him a political genius; his detractors, an opportunist. By 1910 he saw that he could do little more in his position on Crete, so he accepted the League’s offer to become its spokesman. He soon negotiated the dissolution of the League, when the officers accepted a royal promise to hold special elections for a national assembly.

When the special elections took place, independents and reformers replaced the old party hacks as the majority and Venizelos was invited to lead them, even though he was technically not a citizen. Venizelos’ rhetoric appealed to all the important constituencies: he spoke in favor of a moral regeneration of Greece, but also praised the monarchy. In this way he gained the support of the king, who felt threatened by republican extremists in the Military League. Late in 1910 Venizelos had the king call another round of elections: Venizelist delegates now took 260 of 362 seats. This large majority let him pass a long list of reform bills aimed at ending the spoils system, the manipulation of votes, and other tools of the old oligarchical parties.

Venizelos’ success has been ascribed to a “bourgeois revolution” in Greek politics: the political heirs of the old notables and landowners gave way to a new class based on manufacturing, shipping, the professions and other new forms of enterprise. The Venizelist party also captured popular support by becoming the primary advocate for the Megale Idea. The old elite was often lukewarm about national expansion, because its power base in the the old core of the state would have been diluted by the addition of new lands whose inhabitants often worked in the new industries. When World War I raised the question of national expansion in an acute form, Venizelos’ identification with irredentism led to a crisis in Greek politics.

We can also call this a conflict between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Recall that at the time of the Greek Revolution, there was a deep split — even civil war — between two competing classes. On one side, power and wealth flowed from a legacy of old privileges granted to ex-Ottoman officials and the landowning notables of the Peloponnessus: both had been well-connected insiders during the Ottoman period. On the other side, the outsiders came from a newer class of merchants, shipowners and professionals, and were sustained by incomes, skills and connections derived from ties to Western Europe.

By 1909, the old wealth-holding class of landowners had been joined by a new kind of insiders: bureaucrats and politicians who lived by controlling government patronage. The status quo satisfied these groups: for them, reforms meant higher taxes and the potential loss of their jobs. All their rivals, in turn, suffered under the status quo: those rivals included reform-oriented liberal politicians, a growing industrial and commercial middle-class, and members of modern professions ranging from teachers to army officers.

These outsider groups — the party of Venizelism — looked favorably on the expansion of Greek territory because it offered them access to more resources, expanded markets and new voters, all of which further pushed the balance in their favor against the entrenched power of the insiders and oligarchs. Every territorial expansion not only took Greece closer to the goals of the Megale Idea: it also strengthened Venizelism. After the victorious Balkans Wars of 1912-1913 Greece added a million new citizens, and most of them voted as Venizelists.

Greece in World War I

Involvement in the Balkan Wars was not controversial or risky: Greece had pursued land in Macedonia for thirty years, and the Balkan League alliance clearly was too strong to be defeated by Turkey. But in 1914, Greeks were divided about their best course. When Bulgaria and Turkey joined the Central Powers, the potential stakes rose for Greece. It was likely that the end of the war would bring major border changes. If the Central Powers won, Bulgaria might claim land in Macedonia and Thrace at the expense of Greece. On the other hand, if the Allies won, Bulgaria and especially Turkey would lose territory. As a noncombatant, a neutral Greece would have no say in the peace treaty and the lands of the Megale Idea might be awarded to rival states.

King Constantine (George having been assassinated in 1913) opposed entering the war at all, and especially opposed joining on the Allied side. His family was German: he was the Kaiser’s brother-in-law. He expected the Central Powers to win. Prime Minister Venizelos on the other hand was sure that the Allies would win the war and that Greek participation would yield benefits against Bulgaria and Turkey.

Relations between the king and Venizelos deteriorated. When Bulgaria attacked Serbia in October 1915, Allied interest in a Greek alliance rose. As Prime Minister, Venizelos invited French and British troops to land at Salonika. He justified his action under a very wide interpretation of an old Greco-Serb treaty, and under the original 1830 treaty that gave the British and French rights to act as protecting powers for the Greek state. The assembly voted (147 to 110) to declare war against Germany. When the King refused to go along, Venizelos resigned and Greece remained neutral (despite the presence of Allied troops in the north).

In 1916 Venizelos’ party boycotted new elections: by doing so he ended any chance to resolve the crisis through constitutional, parliamentary channels and made the situation much more dangerous. In September 1916 Bulgarian forces occupied part of northern Greece (the Allies had forced neutral Greek troops out of the area, uncertain whether Greece might unexpectedly join the Central Powers). Venizelos decided on extreme measures to save the state. He proclaimed himself the head of a revolutionary government. Eager to bring Greece into the war, the Allies backed Venizelos and forced the king to abdicate in June 1917. This divided Greece into hostile camps, on the verge of civil war.

Venizelos had staked his political prestige on the assumption that the Allies would allow Greece to fulfill the Megale Idea, but he had no specific promises that Greece would gain control of her unredeemed populations in the event of an Allied victory. Meanwhile, the Royalists were treated as potentially hostile elements to be neutralized. The Allies demanded control of the Greek navy, key railroads and military supplies, and enforced their demands with a naval blockade that left the country short of food and fuel. King Constantine left the country to defuse the crisis. Prime Minister Venizelos became head of a regency, and Greek units joined the French and British facing Bulgarian units around Salonika.

For the Balkan states, World War I had now become a referendum on the Balkan Wars: the territorial winners (Serbia, Greece and Romania) faced the losers (Bulgaria and Turkey).

For a while the Central Powers prospered. Serbia was overrun, and Romania forced to sue for peace. Bulgaria recovered lands in Macedonia, Thrace and the Dobrudja. Greece faced an ambiguous situation, thanks to contradictory Allied promises about post-war arrangements. Greek designs on Albania competed with Serbian, Montenegrin and Italian plans. Greek hopes to annex Western Anatolia conflicted with Italian plans for a protectorate. Greek claims on Constantinople (Istanbul) faced Russian plans to annex the zone of the Straits.

Despite the minor and ambivalent role played by Greece during World War I, the Allied victory brought substantial rewards. Competing Russian claims to Constantinople were ignored after the Russian Revolution took Russia out of the war: instead the area became a demilitarized zone under weak Turkish control. The collapse of Turkey allowed Greece to act in Anatolia. Greek troops landed at Smyrna (Izmir) in 1919, and the 1920 peace treaty with Turkey designated a large part of western Anatolia as an autonomous zone under Greek occupation. A plebiscite was planned for 1925: after five years of Greek administration, it was a certainty that the population then would vote for annexation to Greece.

However, the apparent triumph soon fell apart. Turkish nationalists refused to accept the harsh treaty and retreated into the interior of Anatolia. A Greek army followed them to enforce Allied wishes. At the end of extended supply lines, their advance stalled in 1921 and in 1922 a Turkish counterattack threw the Greek forces all the way back to Izmir. The remnants had to be evacuated by sea and much of the city’s Greek population left with them, ending a Greek presence that stretched back thousands of years. A revised peace with Turkey made the situation permanent: a million Greeks from Turkey were transferred to Macedonia in exchange for a smaller number of Muslims.

The Megale Idea after the defeat of 1923

On the verge of the greatest achievement of the Megale Idea, the loss of Anatolia was a stunning defeat. The disaster poisoned Greek politics, already strained by the civil conflict during the war. Although the Anatolian adventure was the direct result of Venizelos’ policy, the events of 1922-23 took place under a Royalist administration thanks to an accident of timing (King Constantine had returned to the throne in 1920 after his son King Alexander died of an infection from a pet monkey’s bite). When six royalist generals were shot for treason after trial by a new and revolutionary government of Venizelists, the seeds were sown for lingering political bitterness.

The competition between Venizelists and Royalists involved the social fabric as well. A million refugees needed to be integrated into social and economic life. Many families arrived without possessions, sometimes unable to speak Greek (Turkish-speaking Orthodox Greeks were a feature of Anatolia) and certainly without connections in the cozy world of the Athens insiders. Quintessential outsiders, these new voters became Venizelists. Most settled in northern Greece, where farms forfeited by expelled Turks were redistributed by Venizelist administrators to refugees who remembered which party gave them their land. 38 percent of the cultivated land of Greece came into new hands during this period. Living on small plots, the refugees found that export crops like tobacco offered a better living than subsistence farming. The Venizelists were also the party that favored exports and trade.

The royalists, on the other hand, kept the allegiance of older rural smallholders who gained nothing from the land reform; of the old-fashioned shopkeepers of Athens, who were threatened by imports and new industries; and of Greece’s small organized labor movement, whose members watched wages fall thanks to the influx of refugees.


The legacy of the Megale Idea in the 1920s and 1930s became a destructive cycle of political rivalry and dictatorships. Instead of seeking compromise and solving national problems, the two sides expended their energy attacking each other. We will return to this in a later lecture, but it is safe to say that the immediate interests of the Greek nation were sacrificed in the service of an illusory Greek nation that might have been, based on the Megale Idea. This fundamental flaw in Greek politics continues as an influence even today: the Megale Idea and aggressive nationalism reappear whenever one side or another needs a rallying point at times of crisis. Both the right-wing Colonels of the 1970s and their leftist successors have employed nationalism this way, and the ongoing Cyprus crisis is fueled by it. After generations of population exchanges, the rationale for Greek irredentism has dwindled but its power has not.


This lecture is a portion of a larger set of texts, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism). 

This page created on 7 January 1997; last modified 17 January 2023.

Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards

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