Ioannis Metaxas in 10 points
Metaxas’ ghost still haunts many in Greece. His historiography is often plagued by partisan politics and interpretations, which do not contribute to the true grasp of his personality and his regime. In this context, the following article about Metaxas and the 4th of August regime is a breath of fresh air. It’s written by Dr. Meletis Meletopoulos, Doctor of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.
1. The broken memory
The 1940 epic has absorbed and condensed the collective memory of Metaxas. Ioannis Metaxas (Ithaca, April 12, 1871 – Kifissia, January 29, 1941) is remembered in History mainly because of the “No” he pronounced on October 28, 1940 – his refusal to submit to imperialist and fascist Italy. After that, his memory is associated with the dictatorial regime he established on August 4, 1936 – a regime he ruled until his death on January 29, 1941.
Beyond that, there is usually ignorance. But Metaxas’ action goes back many decades, in different yet important roles. The familiar figure of the elder Metaxas who inspects EON parades or the Prime Minister of the ‘Oxi’ is only the last moments of a long, multi-faceted, decisive personality of modern Greek history.
2. Was Metaxas a military genius?
Metaxas was indeed a military genius of international caliber. It is not an urban legend that his classmates at the Prussian War Academy, where he studied in the 1898-1902 period with a scholarship from the Greek state, considered that “there was no problem unresolved for Ioannis Metaxas”. It is narrated by Ioannis Theodorakopoulos in his “My beloved Heidelberg” autobiography (Athens 1980, p.268):
“A [German] general, when he learned that I was Greek, told me that he knew Metaxas as student at the War Academy, and that at the Academy a saying circulated that ‘for Metaxas nothing was difficult’.”
Beyond this academic testimony, there are also facts. The appreciation and the confidence which always sustained him on the part of all the Greek political and military establishment and the Royal dynasty was not accidental. Metaxas, just returned from Germany, was assigned to the Joint Chief of Staff, contributed to the elaboration of the new military regulation of his time (1904) and undertook the military training of later King George II. Even Venizelos, when he became prime minister in October 1910, immediately placed Metaxas as his assistant.
During the two Balkan Wars, all the movements of the Greek army were carried out on the basis of Metaxas’ executive plans. The Thessaloniki liberation plan and Bizani’s capture plan were the work of Metaxas, who was present in all operations next to the successor commander-general. In 1912 Venizelos sent him to Sofia to conclude the Hellenic-Bulgarian alliance treaty, while in December 1912 he sent him to London to negotiate the peace treaty with the Turks. This is about Metaxas’ moves in foreign policy, at the initiative of the great “head hunter” Venizelos.
World War I. At the end of 1914, shortly before the Allieds’ departure to Gallipoli, Metaxas drafted a plan to capture the Dardanelles and handed it to British admiral Mark Kerr, deputy commander of the Greek fleet. When, however, in February 1915, the Greek government was questioned about Greece’s participation in the operation, Metaxas rejected the proposal, telling the British Admiralty that the operation would fail because the Germans and Turks had been able to fortify the Straits. Metaxas’ prediction, which led to the rupture between Venizelos and King Constantine, was tragically verified (700,000 dead English and French men).
Metaxas’ second great prediction. When in 1921 Metaxas was appointed by Prime Minister Gounaris as Senior General for the Asia Minor campaign, Metaxas refused, explaining with solid geostrategic arguments why the Asia Minor campaign had no chance of success.
Metaxas was the architect of the triumphant victory against Italy in 1940. However, there was also a radical reconstruction of the armed forces, many years of preparation, the construction of the Metaxas Line, the allocation of the appropriate persons in the appropriate positions, the psychological and communicative preparation of the Greek society, planning, creating shelters, air defense, fire fighting, first aid. All these were Metaxas’ works, which in fact set up a model of an emergency mechanism.
So, the three greatest victories of Greece in the Twentieth Century (1912, 1923, 1940) were to a considerable extent, at least in terms of staff design, the work of Metaxas.
3. Was Metaxas another military man who turned politician?
Metaxas, apart from a military commander, was also a politician. But he was not a military man who later got involved in politics, such as Marshal Papagos or Nikolaos Plastiras. His political identity emerged autonomously as a product of ideological influences and political choices. He had a consistent political thought and, as it turned out, leadership skills.
During the period of the National Schism (1915-17), Metaxas was a close associate and adviser to King Constantine. It was Metaxas who, in view of the Allied passage to Athens, organized the network of Epistratoi (the “Reservists”). It is noteworthy that the Epistratoi (mostly bourgeois, scientists, traders, and recruits from the best elements of Greek society) were mobilized because they felt that the Allied interventions affected national sovereignty and were tied to Constantine.
It follows that the regime of Constantine was overthrown by the hand of the French fleet and Senator Zonnart in 1917. Metaxas is exiled to Corsica and escapes with Gounaris to Sardinia. He returns in 1920, and he is promoted retrospectively and while he does retire as a general, he does not get involved in politics. In 1921 he refused to take part in the Staff, watched the Asia Minor Disaster, the expulsion of Constantine and the 1922 Revolution. In 1923 he attempted to overthrow Plastiras by organizing the Leonardopoulos-Gargalidis movement, failing and fleeing under fictional conditions in Italy. Perhaps this was his biggest failure. In 1924, when Papanastasiou proclaimed the First Hellenic Republic, Metaxas acknowledged it so that he could return. But this recognition costed him politically. Because when he establishes the Freethinkers party (“Eleftherofronon”), the anti-Venizelist faction does not follow him and draws its part with the People’s Party of Panagis Tsaldaris, which unconditionally supports the monarchy.
Thus Metaxas, during the interwar period, is the leader of a personalist party with limited appeal. Yet he is still elected to the Parliament, and participates as a government companion and minister in the 1926 Zaimis’ “ecumenical” government, and also in the People’s Party governments under Panagis Tsaldaris in 1932-35. He starred in the Reformation of 1935, participated in the January 1936 elections and entered the Parliament. But the Parliament was unable to produce a government, and Greece found herself with no government. In March, Metaxas is appointed Secretary of State in the government of Prime Minister Demertzis. A short time later he is appointed vice-president. The King’s support is evident.
Following the sudden death of Demertzis in April, he is appointed by the Prime Minister and receives a vote of confidence from the Parliament, even from the Venizelist and anti-Venizelist parties except for a few exceptions. In August, due to an imminent general strike and suspected riots, he asks and gets from King George II the suspension of certain provisions of the Constitution, abolishes parliamentarism and establishes dictatorship. The reputable historian Grigorios Dafnis writes in the epilogue of the classic two-volumes history ‘Hellas between two wars’ that in essence Metaxas was the uncompromising solution of the bourgeois regime to the decomposition of inter-war parliamentarism and the threat emanating from the KKE.
4. Was Metaxas an anti-parliamentary exception in his era?
Metaxas was a dictator, and he was tough and unfriendly. But he was not an exception, it was a time when many were trying to become dictators. Nikolaos Plastiras carried out a military movement in March 1933, immediately after the People’s Party election victory, it failed and escaped prosecution in France. From there he returned after the war to become the leader of the democratic faction. In March 1935, Eleftherios Venizelos headed a major military movement that plunged the country into a civil conflict, but failed and fled to France, from where it never returned. The movement of Venizelos was abolished by George Kondylis, who also imposed a short-lived dictatorship. There were many aspiring dictators, that is the bitter truth of a politically underdeveloped society. Metaxas simply succeeded in doing so, and even with the king’s “auspicies”, and bloodless.
5. Was Metaxas fascist?
Unlike the broadly reproduced literature, the Metaxas regime can not be described as purely fascist, although it had some superficial fascist elements such as an organized youth and a police state. However, the most substantial elements were missing, such as racism and chauvinism, aggressive nationalism and anti-Semitism. Metaxas had excellent relations with the Israeli community of the country, while his speech completely lacked indicators of a racial and chauvinistic ideology. Also, there is absolutely no territorial claim at the expense of other states or reference to a living space. It is characteristic that, as acting Prime Minister, he expressed the view that Hellenism is “universal, peaceful, human, omnipotent” [Logoi, Vol. II., p.320]. He once said as his greatest achievement that “not blood at all has been spilled throughout my government” [Logoi, Vol. II, p.373]. But also nationalism-chauvinism is absent from both his speech and his policy: the Greek-Turkish relations on Metaxas could be described as excellent as well as the inter-Balkan cooperation.
Anti-communism has been closely linked to the memory of the Metaxas regime with the brutal assistant Secretary of State, Maniadakis, the persecution, imprisonment and exile of Communists. But during the interwar period, most conservative, progressive and/or social-democratic regimes in Greece and throughout Europe forcibly deprived Communism (in Germany in 1919 the Socialist Chancellor Ebert suppressed the Communist Revolution, while in 1924 the Papanastasiou government dissolved violent strikes). Anti-communist legislation in the Inter-war period was enacted by the Venizelos government with the 1929 Act of Authenticity (Law 4229/24 July 1929 “On Security Measures of the Social Status and Protection of Citizens’ Freedoms”).
Anti-communism was the constituent element of all the political forces of the interwar period and exceeded their other differences. It should be noted that the Communist movement worldwide and in Greece publicly proclaimed its intention to revolutionize the bourgeois regime and impose a communist dictatorship. And it meant it. Also behind it there was a powerful state, the Soviet Union, which controlled and supported all Communist parties. Therefore Metaxas’ intense, merciless anti-communism was at odds with the international context and was a logical ending to the insecurity of the bourgeois regime and of the entire society, which did not want to undergo a communist dictatorship (except of KKE’s followers, of course). The difference is that Metaxas possessed the organizational mind, the ability and the cruelty to effectively dismantle the Communist apparatus.
6. Was Metaxas a Germanophile?
Metaxas often carries a reputation of being a germanophile, both during the period of the National Schism and during his five-year dictatorship. Both are incorrect and are not confirmed by available sources. In 1915-17, Constantine, to whom Metaxas was totally committed, had a pro-Allied orientation, but it struck the persistent refusal of the British at the entrance of Greece into the war. It is revealing that as an exilé in Switzerland in 1917-20, Constantine received a British grant, while he refused the German assistance offered to him.
In the context of the 4th of August regime, Metaxas does not emerge as a germanophile: he was fully identified with British politics at all levels, he regulated favorably towards the British loans, and led Greece to the war on the side of the Allies. But the most important thing is that Metaxas was the choice of King George II: a completely English-speaking monarch who maintained close relations with the British establishment, and for whom his biographer and close associate Pepinelis wrote that “he was an Englishman in the soul”. King George II returned to Greece with his English companion after a long exile in London, and in summary proceedings he organized Metaxas’ rise to power. The dictatorship of 4th of August was established by his own signature – his concurrement assured the regime’s legitimacy. Because, in view of the coming world war, British politics wanted a credible and capable person with military experience in the leadership of Greece as an ally.
7. What was the 4th of August regime exactly?
The Metaxas regime has been politically opposed by two groups: the old politicians and the Communists. There is no doubt that it was a dictatorship, with repressive mechanisms, censorship, persecutions, etc. But it is not true that Metaxas did not have social support or even acceptance. No serious opposition ever developed against his regime. In the official outlets of the regime (To Neon Kratos, etc.), almost all the important intellectuals of the interwar period, even leftists, contributed texts: Lekatsas, Malakasis, Marinatos, I.M. Panagiotopoulos, Papanoutsos, Paraschos, Nikos Svoronos, Angelos Sikelianos etc. The insistence by which Metaxas promoted the teaching of elementary education in education, and the commissioning of the systematic grammar of Modern Greek to the great demoticist M. Triantafyllidis, turns mad the ideologically biased analysts. Metaxas also supported the theater and the fine arts, and made it clear that it does not mean militant art under supervision” [Logoi, Volume I, p.307].
Metaxas pursued an advanced social policy, aiming at social cohesion while at the same time neutralizing the inequality that politically fueled Communism. He followed the Bismarck model. He fought against plutocracy yet he did not oppose private initiative, but he imposed rigorous legislation and hard controls.
He used the term “managed economy”. In this context, he established collective agreements, compulsory arbitration, employment agencies, insurance courts, eight-hour workdays, minimum wages, multidisciplinary services (11 in Athens, 8 in Piraeus and 7 in Thessaloniki), etc. Marxist historian N. Psyroukis records no less than 106 general Pan-Hellenic collective agreements and 545 local significance in the period 1936-38 [in his work about the 4th of August regime, 1994, p.138]. This makes an assessment of the 4th of August regime’s complex initiatives.
8. Who said No, Metaxas or the people?
Part of the left-most intelligentsia claimed that “the people did not say it, not Metaxas.” The question, of course, is falsified and untrustworthy. The ‘No’ was formulated and transferred to Italian ambassador Gracci at dawn of October 28 by a grumpy man wearing his dressing gown, but a man not surprised at all and a man who “had been ready for a long time”, the Prime Minister of Greece Metaxas. At the same time, of course, the ‘No’ expressed the overall, contagious, undivisible, brave attitude of the Greek people, who also undertook the bloody responsibility of its realization.
9. What really happened in January 1941?
Unclear and conspiratorial theories abound over Metaxas’ latest moves before his death. As there is no irrefutable evidence, one can only ask questions. The central question is whether Metaxas intended to come to some sort of conciliation with Germany in order to avoid the invasion of the German troops against a Greece which was already exhausted by the war with Italy. What exactly was the message of the famous Pesmatzoglu mission sent to Zurich to meet high-ranking German officials?
The academic writer Konstantinos Despotopoulos writes about it: “Metaxas, however, was a wise politician, as well as a military strategist. Despite the successes of the Greek army, he did not want the continuation of the war and he would not tolerate Greece to be a ‘part of the sacrifice’ of the Franco-British camp. He tried, therefore, with a secret secret mission to achieve a cease-fire with the glory of the Greek Army and the Occupied Territories of Northern Epirus. It is worth quoting now what I heard years ago on a television show: the narrator for his personal action was George Pesmatzoglu, a former minister with a perfect past. So, this trusted former minister said that Metaxas had instructed him to go to Switzerland and to take appropriate action there to conclude a ceasefire, beneficial to Greece. However, Metaxas’ death was very ill-timed. Pesmatzoglu lost his great secret command. Greece’s engagement in war continued” [Kathimerini newspaper, October 28, 2010, “O ellinoïtalikos polemos kai o Ioannis Metaxas”].
The sudden and unexpected death of Metaxas facilitated the engagement of exhausted Greece into a second war against the invincible German army. But it served the supreme Allied goal of a timely evacuation of the British troops from Greece. In addition, the dramatic April 1941 conflict between the marshals of Epirus and the Allied headquarters resulted in the officers ignoring the commandments of the Staff and unilaterally signing a treaty with Marshal Von List in order not to destroy the already exhausted militant Greek youth in the mountains of Epirus.
10. Fame after death
Metaxas won his posthumous fame due to the siege of Saranda, which is a source of inspiration, self-confidence and pride for Greek society to date. That’s why (as opposed to the junta of April 21, which precipitated Greece’s history into torture with the national disaster of Cyprus), key figures of the 4th of August regime survived politics and emerged in top positions after the war. For example, Metaxas Finance Minister Andreas Apostolidis became Deputy Prime Minister of the Karamanlis government for EPE, Education Minister K. Georgakopoulos became the Prime Minister in 1958, the frightened Maniadakis of ice and cast iron was elected post-war member of the Synagermos and EPE. The Junta of the Colonels invoked Metaxas as an ideological inspirer, but Metaxas was a personality with enormous education and military condecorations, while the Colonels were pale imitations who led the country to a national disaster. After 1974, the Left attempted to despise Metaxas more because of the fact that he was an anti-communist, and less because he was a dictator (Lenin, Stalin, Mao, etc., the left-wing intelligentsia elated).
Today that democracy is not endangered by anyone, since Greece is a member of the EU and the past background of military interventions in politics has long ceased, historical science is due to analyze the dramatic events of the 20th century with composure and objectivity.
This is an English translation of an article published in the Greek version of the Hufftington Post (link).