Venizelos, Eleutherios (1864–1936)

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Greek statesman.

The noted Greek statesman Eleutherios Venizelos was born in Ottoman-ruled Crete on 23 August 1864. He studied law at the University of Athens. He became one of the leaders of the movement for the union of Crete with Greece. When Crete was granted autonomy Venizelos headed a revolt (1905) with a view to accelerating the process of unification. In October 1908 the Cretans proclaimed the union of Crete with Greece and Venizelos stood out as the strong man in the committee that was appointed by the Greek government to conduct affairs in the name of King George I (r. 1863–1913).

In August 1909 a military revolt broke out in Athens organized by a group of young army officers (Military League) demanding the reorganization of the army and expressing wider social discontent with the political establishment. The Military League asked Venizelos to come to Greece and head the struggle for political reform. Venizelos arrived in Athens in January 1910 and the election of August 1910 confirmed the need for political reform: the old parties suffered a major defeat and Venizelos became prime minister in October 1910. He established a new party, the Liberal Party, and his power was greatly enhanced by a sweeping victory in the 1912 election.

Venizelos's long political career can be divided into two phases, 1910–1915 and 1928–1932. In the first phase Venizelos introduced significant reforms in the direction of liberal modernization. The revised constitution of 1911 together with the laws that passed later affected major aspects of public life: elementary education was made free and compulsory; tenure was secured to civil servants as a means to curb clientelism; it set minimum wages and legalized trade unions; land reform passed to break up large estates and give land to poor peasants. The objective of his foreign policy was the fulfillment of the Great Idea (Megali Idea), the incorporation to the Greek state of Ottoman territories where Greek-speaking Orthodox populations lived. He reorganized the army, and military expenditure rose while it forged alliances with other Balkan countries against the Ottoman Empire. Greece fought in the two Balkan Wars (1912–1913) and by the end of those it had acquired new territories (notably Macedonia, South Ípiros, the Aegean Islands, and Crete) and had roughly doubled its population.

The dispute between Venizelos and King Constantine (r. 1913–1917 and 1920–1922) is a turning point in modern Greek history. When World War I broke out Venizelos supported the entry of Greece into the war on the side of the Entente powers because he believed that they would be the victors and would consider favorably Greek territorial claims. King Constantine, however, had closer ties to the Central Powers and advocated the neutrality of Greece. The dispute led to the resignation of Venizelos and in August 1916 he established a rival government in Salonica. The so-called National Schism between Venizelos and King Constantine was further aggravated in December 1916 when Entente troops landed in Piraeus and Athens and forced the royalist government to resign and the king to leave the country. Venizelos became again prime minister and Greece entered in the war on the side of the Entente.

The territorial gains of Greece after the end of World War I did not help Venizelos to win the election in November 1920. The war-weariness of the country, the resentment of the population for the foreign intervention, and the persecution of political opponents explain the defeat of Venizelos, who a few days later left the country. Following the defeat of the Greek army in Asia Minor and the expulsion of a million and a half Greeks from Turkey Venizelos headed the Greek delegation that signed the Treaty of Lausanne (24 July 1923).

Venizelos became again prime minister in 1928. Since the territorial aggrandizement of Greece had been completed his primary foreign-policy goal was to establish good relations with the neighboring countries. In this direction the most remarkable step was the agreement with Turkey that settled unresolved disputes (10 June 1930) and a pact of friendship (30 October 1930). Venizelos's ambitious modernization plan (educational reform, increase of agricultural production, industrialization) addressed the problems of poor peasants and refugees in the newly acquired territories, who were the main constituency of the Liberals, but it was to a large extent thwarted by the international economic crisis. Venizelos lost the election in 1932 and the two abortive coups that his supporters organized (in 1933 and 1935) made the reaction of the royalist bloc even more resolute (purge of the army, coup by royalist officers in 1935, reinstatement of monarchy that had been abolished in 1924). Venizelos died in Paris on 18 March 1936.

See alsoBalkans; Greece.


Leontaritis, George B. Greece and the First World War: From Neutrality to Intervention, 1917–1918. Boulder, Colo., 1990.

Mavrogordatos, George T. Stillborn Republic: Social Coalitions and Party Strategies in Greece, 1922–1936. Berkeley, Calif., 1983.

Mazower, Mark. Greece and the Inter-war Economic Crisis. Oxford, U.K., 1991.

Polymeris Voglis