Ioannis Metaxas – The epitome of the Greek spirit
Trained in the German authoritarian tradition, Metaxas was nonetheless an ardent patriot who made no secret of his preference for an alliance with Great Britain. The torpedoing of the Elli taxed his self-control to the utmost. He could not retaliate because Greece could not afford to be stampeded into war with the Axis.
A few days afterwards he received an encouraging message from Winston Churchill citing Greek valour in the ancient battles of Marathon, Thermopylai and Salamis, and by implication urging the Greeks to similar heroism. Though flattered, Metaxas was not deceived by such claptrap. He needed nor words but weapons. On 23 August he quietly called up the army’s 8th and 9th Divisions as a trial run for a real mobilization. The results heartened him. ‘The machine,’ he wrote in his diary, is running exceptionally well.
loannis Metaxas at the time was 69 years old, and had ample reason to believe that his best years were behind him. He was not a prepossessing figure by any means. Short and pudgy, with thinning grey hair and owl-like spectacles, he was often misjudged by friend and foe alike. Yet the penetrating look from his clear hazel eyes revealed the razor-keen brain behind them.
A native of the western Greek island of Kefalonia, Metaxas had displayed a talent for soldiering and strategy at an early age, graduating at the top of his class from the Scholi Evelpidon, the Greek Military Academy, in 1889. His abilities as a young field officer in the brief and disastrous Greek-Turkish war of 1897 impressed his Commander-in-Chief, Crown Prince Constantine (later King Constantine I) enough to suggest that he attend higher military studies at the German Knigsakademie in Berlin.
As Constantine was a cousin of Kaiser Wilhelm II, the young Metaxas might have been expected to receive privileged treatment. Yet he proved to be extraordinarily competent in almost anything handed to him – mechanics and chemistry, art and literature, philosophy and battle tactics. By the time he graduated, his awestruck professors avowed that no problem was insoluble for ‘den kleinen Moltke’ –‘little Moltke’, a reference to the legendary General Helmuth von Moltke, the chief of the Prussian general staff and architect of victory in the Franco-Prussian War in 1871.
Back in Greece Metaxas rose in the army hierarchy thanks to distinguished service in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13. His unwavering loyalty to the Greek throne in the face of attacks by liberals plated him firmly in the ramp of the now pro-German King Constantine during the Frost World War. While Greece was neutral for most of that conflict, the royalist-liberal rift worsened into a brief civil war in 1916. As the Allies fought their way to victory and took control of Greece, the king was forced into mile. Metaxas, one of the king’s chief aides, was also exiled and sentenced to death in absentia. After Greece’s shattering defeat in Asia Minor at the hands of a revived Turkey in 1922, Metaxas’ death sentence was revoked. But the anti-royalist politicians in power forced him again into exile, from which he returned in 1924 only after a general amnesty.
Metaxas found himself repelled by the dishonesty and corruption of the political class and alarmed by the rise of the militant far left. ‘It makes one sick,’ he wrote in his diary on 28 November 1924. ‘This is why we don’t go forward. In the evening I help the children with their homework. The best thing I can do is retire to a happy family life.’ He was now past fifty. But the desire to serve and reform his country, however unrewarding, kept him like a moth to a flame. He formed the Libertarian Party whose policy was to heal the chronic and bitter royalist-liberal rift and build up Greece’s trade and industry. He gained enough votes in 1926 to become minister of communications, signing off on extensive road-building and irrigation projects in impoverished country districts. Two years later, out of office, he took up his pen as a newspaper columnist. He refused all cans to re-enter politics. Typical is a diary entry in 1931:
The mere idea of running from grocer to grocer, from village to village, pleading for votes, excusing myself for the complaints [voters] may have, humiliating myself … having to lie and flatter people I have no regard for, to praise scoundrels, to act unjustly toward able people and be good to incompetents … to harm my home financially and make my family suffer – all this fills me with horror.
Yet Greece continued to need him. Partly as a consequence of long-term economic mismanagement and partly because of the world economic crisis, the country slid into bankruptcy in May 1932. To avert social chaos Metaxas agreed to serve as interior minister. While suppressing strikes, he kept the price of bread low by working out an agreement among bakers, flour suppliers and consumers.
His commentary columns helped him form a picture of Greece that thereafter would remain dear to him: the heiress of classical Athens and the Orthodox Byzantine Empire, a historically-continuous mystic entity that was being scandalously ill-served by the mean-spirited political class and deserved far better. He rejected as defeatist the idea that Greece should pull in its home and take care only of its own house. While dreaming of the revival of classical and mediaeval greatness he damned the moneyed classes for living lives of decadence and unconcem for the welfare of the less fortunate. ‘Youth cannot live without ideals,’ he wrote in his final newspaper column on 23 January 1935. ‘A vague and nebulous leftism has become the vogue. Others have turned towards fascist reaction [because] they are disappointed that their lives have become bereft of a higher purpose. “Human being” has become a mere zoological term …’
The words betray the depression that intermittently plagued him. Some-times he would spend long periods doing nothing but seeking escape in reading detective novels. ‘I despise myself and the whole world,’ he confided to his diary on 5 September 1935, in the midst of one such crisis. ‘I don’t feel very well.’ And the following day: ‘I feel I’m worth nothing. I no longer work …’
Revisionist commentators, mainly on the left, have pointed to such passages as signs of incipient mental illness that were soon to blossom into a full-fledged megalomania and urge to become a dictator. Yet it is equally possible, in fact probable, that Metaxas’ journeys into the ‘dark night of the soul’ were simply the trials of a sensitive and highly intelligent man who now his best years wasted in inaction and felt deep inside himself that he was cut out for better things, namely, to save the country he loved from terminal political decline. In hindsight, he need not have fretted. Six months after his darkest diary jottings, the time came for him to act. In early 1936 the military and the right wing were spooked by a political cooperation agreement between the liberals and the rising Greek Communist Party (KKE). For the first time, there was a possibility that the communists could enter the government. King George II moved to head off the threat by appointing Metaxas as war minister. But barely had Metaxas time to settle in to his new job when a month later Constantine Demertzis, the prime minister, died unexpectedly and the king promptly moved Metaxas into the vacant seat.
There is little doubt now that he was the best man for the job at the time. The international horizon was darkening by the day. Italian forces were active in Abyssinia in a telling demonstration of the aggressive power of Greece’s western neighbour. Two days after Metaxas had become war minister, Hitler had marched into the Rhineland. In this worrisome atmosphere, when Metaxas unveiled his policy statements in the Parliament on 25 April he found many willing ears. His priority, he told the nation, was to maintain Greece’s harmonious relations with other powers while at the some time building up the military for any eventuality. It all made eminent sense, and by an over-whelming vote of 241 out of 300 deputies, Metaxas was handed extraordinary powers to rule by decree for the next five months.
Metaxas’ first challenge as national leader came from tobacco workers in the northern port of Thessaloniki who were striking for better pay and work-ing conditions at the instigation of the communist KKE. He ordered the army to quell riots in that city, resulting in a number of deaths. It is not true, as many have claimed, that he was against parliamentary democracy in principle; he had a soft spot for the working class and also well knew what pitfalls a dictatorship could fall into. Yet he saw Greek parliamentary democracy as fatally ill and vulnerable to destruction by the communism. The philosophy of Marxism filled him with dread. In communism he saw the one virus that could destroy the Greeks’ patriotism, Orthodox faith and family values which he held dear.
Metaxas’ tough stand against the strikers mobilized the full force of the KKE against him. Between January and the end of July 1936 there were 247 strikes costing the national economy 195 million drachmas in lost wages. From the pyrite mines of Lavrion to the shipyards of Folios and the textile mills of Sevres, the streets seethed with protests. To cap the scattered unrest, coordinated nationwide general strike was called for 5 August. The nation’s police were placed on the alert. Many predicted bloodshed.
In the afternoon of 4 August Metaxas conferred with King George. To thwart the expected violence, he recommended darkly, it might be wise to suspend some articles of the constitution. The king at first opposed the idea; autocratic measures would do nothing for his own uncertain popularity. But Metaxas talked the king round. He hoped he wouldn’t have to do it, but at the head of a democratic government full of squabbling ministers he felt hamstrung.
An authoritarian regime was the only solution. By midnight the king had signed the royal decree suspending some articles of the constitution and dissolving the Parliament. King George II has been accused of acting unconstitutionally. But in May 1935 the Parliament had passed an act authorizing any government to suspend constitutional articles when it deemed it necasary. Metaxas had simply pushed at an already open door. The Dictatorship of 4 August —or the Third Hellenic Civilization, as its adherents preferred — had begun.
Metaxas’ Third Hellenic Civilization — which inevitably gave rise to comparisons with Hitler’s Third Reich — depended heavily on a Bismarckian tradition of industrial progress and social justice resting on a prospering middle class and muscular military establishment. Technically the Metaxas regime was a fascist one, ideologically underpinned by a glorification of the Greek past, in control of the media and mobilizing a national youth movement modelled on the Hitlerjugend. But if Metaxas was a fascist, he was an unusual one. His social conscience moved him to set up Greece’s social security system, the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA) which to this day provides most Greeks with their medical coverage and pensions. Building up Greece was his job. He was a fanatical believer in the great potential that he was convinced still lay hidden in the putative descendants of Perikles and Leonidas, of Alexander the Great, of the emperors of Christian Byzantium. Balancing this romantic idealism, however, was his training in the German school of pragmatism. He knew how power relationships worked and saw curtailed civil liberties as a lesser evil than the alternative.
The magnitude of Metaxas’ task left him no time to write in his diary for some months. The first entry after 4 August comes under the date of 31 December, where he exults: ‘It’s the renaissance of Greece, and my own renaissance as well.’ Guiding a country in a Europe careening towards a major crisis, he was in his element. Hitler had shown how to get results through a combination of guile and force. Soviet Russia under Stalin was busy trying to spread communism over the continent. Only Britain and France remained on overtly friendly terms with Greece. Days after Metaxas assumed dictatorial powers, King Edward VIII of England (in one of the very few official acts of his momentary reign) paid Greece an official visit. Sir Reginald Leeper, the British ambassador, noted wryly that Metaxas’ penchant for banishing politicians had somewhat cramped the ‘game of politics, the king of sports in Greece’. But if Metaxas could guarantee an oasis of stability in the uncertain Mediterranean, Britain wished him well.
– Excerpt from the book “The Defence and Fall of Greece 1940-1941″, by John Carr