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The National Schism ( , Ethnikos Dikhasmos, sometimes called The Great Division) is a historical event involving the disagreement between King Constantine and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos over whether Greece should enter World War I. The disagreement and the subsequent dismissal of Venizelos by the King resulted in a deep personal rift between the two, which spilled over into their followers and the wider Greek society. Greece became divided in two radically opposed political camps, as Venizelos set up a separate state in Northern Greece, and eventually, with Allied support, forced the King to abdicate. The bitter effects of this division were the main features of Greek political life until the 1940s, and contributed to Greece's defeat in the Asia Minor Campaign, the collapse of the Second Hellenic Republic and the establishment of the dictatorial Metaxas Regime.

Causes of the conflict

The main cause of the conflict was the dispute between Venizelos and King Constantine over power in Greece; the King, despite his constitutional position being very limited, exercised great influence with the government, especially in the late 19th century when the political scene was very unstable. Many reformists and liberals viewed meddling by the monarchy in politics as deleterious. The negative public attitude towards the monarchy was strengthened by the defeat of the Greek army, headed by Crown Prince Constantine, in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897. Many of these hopes for reform were also shared by young officers in the Hellenic Army, who felt humiliated by the defeat, and who were influenced by the bourgeois liberalism of Western Europe. Following the example of the successful Young Turk revolt, a "Military League" was formed, and on 15 August 1909, they issued a pronunciamiento at the Goudi barracks in Athens. The movement, which demanded reforms in government and military affairs, was widely supported by the public; King George was forced to give in to the military's demands. He appointed Kyriakoulis Mavromichalis as Prime Minister and accepted the dismissal of the Princes from the military.

However, it soon became apparent that the leadership of the League was not able to govern the country, and they looked for an experienced political leader, who would also preferably be anti-monarchist and not tainted by the "old-partyism" of the old system. The officers found such a man in the person of Eleftherios Venizelos, a prominent Cretanmarker politician, whose clashes with Prince George, the island's regent, seemed to confirm his anti-monarchist and liberal credentials. With Venizelos' arrival, the League was sidelined, and the energetic and relatively young politician soon dominated Greek political life. His government carried out a large number of overdue reforms, including the creation of a revised constitution. However, he also established a close relationship with the King, resisted calls to transform the revisionary assembly into a constitutional one, and even reinstated the Princes in their positions in the army, with Crown Prince Constantine as its General Inspector.

With the outbreak of the Balkan Wars, Constantine was immediately appointed again as commander in-chief, and the successes of the army in the field, especially in the Second Balkan War against the Bulgarians, helped many forget this record in 1897. Constantine, now king, was being hailed as "laurel-crowned" and "Bulgar-slayer". It was however during this war that the first tension between Constantine and Venizelos surfaced, in a dispute over the army's course following the victory at Sarantaporo. Constantine wanted to march due north, towards Monastir, while Venizelos was anxious that the army should turn east, towards the strategically important city and harbor of Thessalonikimarker. The anxiety of Venizelos was doubled by the fact that the Bulgarians had also set their eyes on the city, the most important in Macedonia, and were sending their own troops towards it. Eventually Venizelos prevailed, and the Greeks entered the city only a few hours before the arrival of the Bulgarians. This episode was not made public at the time, and in the aftermath of the Wars, the two men, King and Prime Minister, both wildly popular, were seen as making up a formidable partnership at the helm of the Greek state.

1914/Early 1915 - Beginning of the conflict

As the war began the Greek authorities had to choose between neutrality and aligning themselves with the Allied forces. Outright participation in the war on the side of the Central Powers was not an option, both because of Greece's vulnerability to the British Fleet and because, from early on (October 1914), Greece's traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, had joined in on Germany's side. Hence, neutrality was the course favoured by most pro-German Greeks, including the senior, German-educated, leadership of the General Staff, who had great influence over the King. The situation was complicated by several other factors. King Constantine's wife Queen Sofia was the sister of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, while Constantine himself had been educated in Germany and admired German culture. In contrast, Greece had an ongoing mutual defense pact with Serbiamarker, a member of the Allied forces, who were asking for support after they were invaded by Austria-Hungary (see Serbian Campaign ).

The King's personal links gave him an obvious bias towards supporting the Central Powers. However, he believed it was in the greater interests of Greece to remain neutral - especially as long as there was no obvious victor in the war. On the other hand the Prime Minister Venizelos was in favor of joining the Allies.

In January 1915, in an attempt to convince the Greeks to side with them, Britainmarker offered Greece post-war concessions in Asia Minormarker (currently part of Turkey). Venizelos felt this was a good deal and attempted to force a bill through the Greek parliament to join the Allies. Staunch opposition by the King, Army generals and their supporters forced Venizelos to resign shortly afterwards.

1915/1916 - General elections

The resignation caused political dissension in Greece, a diplomatic battle between the King and Venizelos' supporters forced a general election in June 1915. These elections were won by Venizelos' Liberal Party and he resumed his post as Prime Minister, however Constantine refused to ratify the appointment of the new government until August.

During this time the Serbianmarker-Bulgarianmarker conflict deepened until Bulgaria declared war on Serbia, which posed an immediate threat to the newly regained Greek province of Macedoniamarker, including the strategically important port of Thessalonikimarker.Venizelos asked Constantine for permission to formalize a defense treaty with Serbia in the interests of protecting the Greek border from direct Bulgarian attack. Constantine agreed but only on the condition that Greece was actually attacked. After his inability to sway Constantine to act against Bulgaria, Venizelos took a new route by allowing Britishmarker and French troops to land in Macedonia in preparation for their attack on Gallipoli, Turkeymarker. This caused disarray in the Greek government and Venizelos took advantage of this by forcing through a parliamentary motion (with a 37 vote margin) to declare war on Bulgaria.

The dispute between the Greek Prime Minister and the King reached its height shortly after and the King invoked the Greek constitutional right that gave the monarch the right to dismiss a government unilaterally. In December 1915 Constantine forced Venizelos to resign for a second time and dissolved the Liberal-dominated parliament, calling a new election. Venizelos left Athensmarker and moved back to his native Cretemarker.

The Liberals boycotted this second election, which undermined the new Royalist government's position, as it was seen as a government directly appointed by the King, disregarding popular opinion. The tension between the 2 parties grew gradually over the course of the following year with both sides taking a more radical and divisive approach to the situation. Public opinion was not nearly as clearly divided during this period. When French and British forces landed in Salonica (as allowed by Venizelos earlier) against Constantine's wishes the Greek people supported the King's view that the Allies had violated the country's sovereignty. However, later on, when the Central Powers took control of Macedonia in May 1916, the public took similar outrage at the King's inability to defend Greek territory.

August 30, 1916, saw a coup against the Royalist government by Ethniki Amyna (Εθνική Άμυνα, National Defence), a secret pro-Venizelist military organization based in Thessalonica. The coup succeeded to the extent that a second provisional government of Greece was formed by the group in Thessalonica. With the backing of the Allies, Venizelos returned to the Greek mainland from Cretemarker to lead the new provisional government at the head of a triumvirate. Towards the end of 1916 France and Britain, after failing to persuade the royalist government to enter the war too, officially recognized the Ethniki Amyna government as the lawful government of Greece.

In retaliation against Ethniki Amyna a royalist paramilitary unit called the "Reservists" (Επίστρατοι) was formed. Led by Colonel Ioannis Metaxas (one of Constantine's closest aides and the future dictator of Greece) the group targeted Liberal and Venizelist people in Athensmarker and nearby areas, culminating in the Noemvriana, the "November events", which were ignited by an armed confrontation between Greek reservists and French marines. Ιn retaliation, the Allies instituted a naval blockade, seized the Greek fleet and demanded the partial disarmament of the royalist forces and their withdrawal to the Peloponnesemarker. The blockade lasted 106 days in total, during which time no goods were allowed to enter or leave Greek mainland ports that were under the control of the Athens government. This was to set a precedent for much of the future conflict in Greece.

1917/1918 - Greece joins the war

The Allied blockade eventually succeeded in its aim. In June 1917, after threats to bombard Athens if the King remained, Constantine left Greece leaving the Crown to his second son Alexander. Venizelos took control of the government and pledged Greek support to the Allies. In July the country officially declared war on the Central Powers. During the remaining 18 months of the war 10 divisions of the Greek army fought alongside the Allied forces against Bulgarian and German forces in Macedonia and Bulgaria. During the conflict Greek forces lost approximately 5,000 troops.


The act of entering the war and the preceding events resulted in a deep political and social division in post-World War I Greece. The country's foremost political formations, the Venizelist Liberals and the Royalists, already involved in a long and bitter rivalry over pre-war politics, reached a state of outright hatred towards each other. Both parties viewed the other's actions during the First World War as politically illegitimate and treasonous. This enmity inevitably spread throughout Greek society, creating a deep rift that contributed decisively to the Asia Minor Disaster and resulted in continued political and military unrest in the interwar years during the troubled Second Hellenic Republic. The National Schism was also one of the principal causes that led to the collapse of the Republic and the institution of the dictatorial 4th of August Regime in 1936, and the often violent conflict between "liberals" and "conservatives" continued to feature in Greek political life until the establishment of a parliamentary republic in 1974.

The division between Royalists and Venizelists even came to the United States and elsewhere with the Greek immigrants of that generation: immigrants favouring the two political camps would settle in nearby but carefully separated communities in American cities, often centred around competing Greek Orthodox parishes. In some cases, the animosity and mistrust between such parishes has survived into the 21st Century, long after the original political disagreement was forgotten.



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