[Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] SUITORS AND SUPPLIANTS


Greater Hellas and the Overseas Greeks

December 4, 1918

Even at this early stage of the diplomatic battle I have been drawn into the circle in which Venizelos, the Greek Premier, exercises his fascinating and, as many think, his dangerous influence. Last week he came to the Colonel, ostensibly to place before him some documents, very illuminating he thought, as to the actual conditions within the Reich. I was called in to test the translations and found that many of them were misleading. Sighing, the Greek leader said:

'"When you were studying at Heidelberg and Bonn, I was hiding from the Turkish zaptieh in the mountain caves of my native Crete. For months I never saw a book. What chance had I to study and to learn. What a handicap this is to my country."

I consoled the great man by insisting that his years of guerilla warfare in the mountains had resulted in the reunion of Crete with Old Greece and that now "he was on the eve of achieving Greater Hellas, the dream of his people for centuries."

[Eleutherios Venizelos, whose political fortunes rose and fell with sensational rapidity, bitterly opposed the pro- Bulgarian, pro-German sympathies of King Constantine. When that monarch was ousted in 1917, Venizelos formed a ministry and led Greece into the war on the Allied side. One of the most popular delegates to the Conference, he survived exile, death sentence, wars, and revolutions to die in 1936 still a controversial figure.]

When this was out of the way, the charming old buccaneer put his arm on my shoulder and said: "Alas, none of my staff knows German and I have come across an important volume in that language by a Herr Oppenheim. Some years ago he traveled in Asia Minor and he enumerates the purely Greek villages that he found there. His work is that of an impartial scientist and his researches were made to ascertain the truth, not for propaganda purposes. And now every night when my daily task is done with the aid of a French-German dictionary I dig out the facts which his travels have brought to light. Would you be so kind as to come to my apartment this evening and check up on the accuracy of the translations I am making under these difficult circumstances?"

I went to his hotel in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe that night, and indeed the two following nights also found me busily engaged there. We extracted from the volume everything that was comforting to the Greek cause. We followed Oppenheim from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and along this path of empire his trail was dotted with the ruins of imperial cities which once were great and of vigorous Hellenic settlements that gave promise of a glorious renaissance. The Greek statesman was profuse in his thanks for my assistance but, as a matter of fact, the obligation, if any, was on my side. A few days later the resulting report, setting forth the extent and numbers of the Greek colonies in the disputed territory, was filed with the Supreme Council. In his compilation I thought that Venizelos stressed the Greek talking points and left out some information that was not helpful to his cause. But that was to be expected, and I have no doubt the members of the Council discounted it.

The charming Venizelos is greatly distressed at the present situation. He has most certainly the good will of all who know him, but is that really helpful? He enjoys the sympathy and the esteem of all the delegates and all the plenipotentiaries, but also they fear him because of his well-known and incontestable charm. Perhaps we shall all have to change our measure of success. Is charm as potent in securing results as nuisance values? This is the thought that is evidently uppermost in the mind of the great Greek as today he surveys the progress that has been made toward a Greater Rumania and the meager harvest that has been realized down to the present by himself and the advocates of a Greater Hellas. When the uncouth and beetle-browed Bratianu comes barging in, the plenipotentiaries seem to think that no price is too great to pay to get rid of the fellow. But when Venizelos comes in they say, "I must be very careful. This fellow can conjure a bird out of a tree." And so they harden their hearts and turn a deaf ear to his pleas. In this instance at least nuisance value apparently does outweigh charm.

January 22, 1919

Venizelos has had a series of long talks with the Colonel during the past week. He is evidently greatly perturbed over the outlook which seems to me, and evidently to him also, rather nebulous. He is convinced that Wilson will not accept for America a mandate for Constantinople and the control of the Straits that has been offered. Of course, he was never an outspoken advocate of this arrangement, although he did riot openly oppose it. He was evidently convinced that, if accepted, in a short time Washington would tire of this responsibility and withdraw after things had settled down, and then Greater Greece would emerge. Now he thinks that the President has been won over to another plan, one far from favorable to Greek aspirations, and that this plan will shortly be submitted to the Supreme Council. He would like to have it reshaped ("reformed" he calls it) before it reaches this stage.

Last evening, at the suggestion of the Colonel, Frazier had Venizelos and myself to dine at his charming apartment on the Avenue du Bois. The nerves of the Greek Prime Minister are evidently worn to a frazzle, and we did not get away until long after midnight. While greatly condensed, I think these notes which I made on my return to the Crillon do justice to his plea, although they are not always given in his words.

"Flesh and blood, not even Greek flesh and blood, can stand further delay in the approach toward a settlement of our problems," he said. "For six months now we have had two hundred and fifty thousand men mobilized and in the field at the request, I might even say at the order, of the Allies. This has cost us millions upon millions of drachmas which we haven't got, which we have borrowed and shall have to repay. Mobilized, yes; but mobilized for what? We are not told. 'Wait and see, whisper the members of the Supreme Council but of course quite unofficially. Apparently we are not mobilized to take over Constantinople, although that has been our dream for centuries, or even for a large slice of Thrace. Lloyd George points significantly to Smyrna and the fat lands around it where there is such a large purely Greek population. 'There a great future awaits you, he insists, but within the hour he is urging Italy to jump in there on our right flank, and you can't help concluding that he has earmarked Adalia and the rich near-by districts for the Italians.

"`What are we mobilized for?' I inquire, and he answers jovially: 'Have a little patience. You will learn very soon. Be assured the Council is not neglecting your problems. I can wait, but it is quite clear that the Greek treasury can't stand the strain, nor, as a matter of fact, can our soldiers. Last September the morale of our men was excellent. They were eager to fight and to go anywhere, but now they want to go home, to get away from the stinking camps."

Then his great grievance came out. We could not answer it because it deals with an alleged proposal of President Wilson about which House has not been informed and of which we know nothing. Venizelos has what he regards as reliable information to the effect that as a substitute to the American mandate he, Wilson, is proposing an international state or administration for Turkey in Europe.

"This plan, if carried out," he maintained, "would take away from us over 700,000 Greeks, that is, at least 28,000 in western Thrace, 306,000 in eastern Thrace and about 360,000 in the vilayet of Constantinople. It is probably true that in this territory there are about 700,000 Turks. This I admit is a problem, but the way to meet it is not by placing this great number of our people under non-Greek sovereignty right next door to Greece. The result would be constant agitation and I fear civil war.

"There are in Greece, in Thrace, and in Asia Minor about seven and a half million Greeks," he continued, "but if this plan, which they ascribe to Wilson, is approved by the Supreme Council, at least a million of our people, whom we thought to `redeem,' would have to live outside of our boundaries and under an alien administration. This should not be done. How can it be done? In its original form the proposal of an international administration to cope with the problem of Constantinople had a simple and limited objective which was to guarantee the freedom of the Straits for all time and against all comers. As at first proposed, the Enos-Media line was to be the frontier with Europe, but in its expanded form it takes away from us nearly a million of our people and the resulting international stare could never prosper. Indeed, it seems to me to be designed to keep alive the racial conflicts which we had hoped with the coming of peace would subside if not wholly disappear."

M. Politis, the Greek Minister to France and a delegate to the Conference, came to the Crillon this morning and lie certainly crossed the t's and dotted the i's of the Venizelos talk, he read and left with House an informal memo to the following effect:

Unless the project now under discussion is rejected by the Supreme Council in a few days, the Greek government will file a formal protest. I beg to remind you that M. Venizelos brought our country into the war spontaneously without making any conditions. He simply rallied Greece to the side of justice. Since the Armistice he has listened to the counsels of the Allies and complied with all their demands at times against his better judgment. Since Armistice Day he has mobilized three new divisions, making twelve divisions under arms. As requested, he has in this way held himself in readiness to carry out the instructions of the Conference, either in Smyrna or more recently, with due regard to the menace of Bulgaria, in Thrace. It must be clear that this proposal [the changed frontier with Turkey in Europe], ascribed unjustly we believe to President Wilson, if approved, would place Greece and the present government in a most unenvialile position, although its deserts are certainly greater than those of my of the other countries of Southeastern Europe who have been so greatly favored, particularly Rumania. Unlike the situation in many of the districts granted to the Bucharest government, the lands which we should have, and are apparently in danger of losing, are occupied by Greek populations.

In conclusion Politis said: "What I am about to say is not authorized by M. Venizelos, but it is so important that I think you will pardon my indiscretion - if it is one. If this plan is approved, the first result would be the fall of the present government in Athens and die return to power of King Constantine and the pro-Germans. Fven now these people are saying that we have failed to secure the benefits we fought for and were fully justified in demanding."

[1922. On the first of September following, the Supreme Council rejected the plan, described it as one contained in Mr. Wilson s letter for "reasons ethnographic, political, and moral," and requested Mr. Polk to draw the President's attention "to the desirability of seeking a solution to this question more in harmony with the general bases of the peace, one less unfavorable to Greece, and one more proper to avoid future incidents in the Balkans." This was one of the least happy of the President's interventions; fortunately the results were not as lasting as his abandonment of the Austrians in the South Tyrol. ]

House had a long conference on the following day with the President and placed the information contained in these memoranda before him. He came back still rather uncertain that the plan which the Greeks opposed could be ascribed to Wilson. The President's memory on the subject was apparently not quite clear.

February 10, 1919

M. Coromilas, the No. 3 Greek delegate, came in today and "after compliments" made an open attack on my table of the languages spoken in that salad of wild tribes which is the Macedonia of today. He objected to my "mother tongue" definition as to the ethnic factors in this land of Babel and yet that is, as far as I can see, the only yardstick we have to rely on.

"The situation is not as simple as you present it," he objected. "For instance, you leave out the Bulgaro-phone Greeks (Bulgar-speaking Greeks) - and yet they are an important factor in the complicated situation. They are of straight Attic descent and the land is full of them; but to pacify their ferocious Slav neighbors, and so that they may be understood in their daily life and pursuits, they have gotten into the habit of speaking Bulgarian and many of them have lost all knowledge of their mother tongue. What are you going to do about that?"

I did not commit myself, but I did tell him of an incident that occurred years ago when I was engaged in my early linguistic studies on the Vardar. I was walking along the noisy river with Spiridon Gopsevich. the apostle of Pan-Serbism in these parts. We met a poor peasant staggering along the path under a load of wood for his cabin fire. Thinking to do a little spot of propaganda, Gopsevich said: "My good man, what is your nationality?" "Ia sam Bougarin" (I am a Bulgarian), the thoughtless fellow answered. Gopsevich was nettled and blazed out: "My poor fellow! you are mistaken. By the very words that come from your mouth I can see that you are a Serb." I left them to argue it out and went on my bewildered way.

"That Gopsevich was just one of those common garden liars that were sent out by Belgrade to complicate the situation," commented Coromilas, who from long service in Chicago spoke good American.

"Perhaps, perhaps," I answered, "but he was not the only one."

If truth is to be found in Macedonia, it is at the bottom of a very, very deep well. Certainly I never plumbed it.

March 8, 1919

Three of the strangest looking men wandered into my office yesterday morning. Their dark mysterious faces and their stealthy tread excited the suspicions of our guardian sailors, but soon they produced a letter from Venizelos which authenticated their mission. The Greek Premier said they were the properly accredited representatives of the Overseas Greeks, as yet "unredeemed," of the Euxine Pontus (better known in the western world as the Black Sea). But on closer inspection of the letter from the Cretan mountaineer and guerilla fighter, who in the last ten years has developed into the smoothest of diplomats, it appeared that it was couched in more reserved terms than was usual in his writings.

"Down to the present," he said, "our Council of State has not decided to include the colonies or settlements which these gentlemen so worthily represent in the picture of Greater Hellas which we are about to present to the Conference. Yet these, our noble kinsmen, are in great need of supplies, indeed of even the bare necessities of life, and I am writing in the knowledge that their unfortunate plight will excite sympathy in America, from where alone help can come."

House told me to take them to the Food Administration; it was a walk of several parasangs, but I enjoyed every foot of it. We talked about the misnamed Anabasis and it was as fresh in their minds as the retreat from Mons in mine.

Hoover[19] received us with his most ferocious glare. They were all of a tremble, and my knees, too, were knocking together. In a quavering voice one of them told their story in a sort of bastard Italian, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean, and I passed it on to Hoover as best I could. He told how all navigation on the Black Sea had been arrested by the war conditions, and so no longer could their usual foodstuffs reach them from South Russia; and how outside Trehizond Anatolian bandits were lurking so that the peasants in the interior, the few who had any, did not dare to bring their produce to town. With what seemed a contemptuous smile, Hoover listened and then, just as I thought he was going to have us all thrown out through the open window by the side of his desk, he said: "Tell 'em I will feed them. They must be here tomorrow - sharp at nine - and we will work out the details."

For five minutes the Pontus Greeks confounded themselves in salaams and genuflections, but Hoover paid no further attention to them. He had lit another cigar and with sheafs of telegrams in his hand he was immersed in other tales of woe.

The delegation was so jubilantly excited that I did not dare to leave them alone in the mazes of traffic outside. I walked them another parasang or two to a boulevard café and ordered drinks which I hoped would prove soothing. Several of their countrymen who were lurking in the background joined us and all burst our in paeans of victory. They agreed that Mr. Hoover was the greatest man who had lived since Alexander and that I was evidently a favorite son of Hermes. I wanted to hear something about the war as viewed from their distant standpoint and also about their relations with Mother Hellas, and they were not at all loath to enlighten me.

"We, too, helped not a little in winning the war," one asserted. "Of course, our war chariots of the Homeric days were the fore-runners of the tanks."

Soon they were telling me the story of the fate of their nation, alas, for so many centuries submerged by the unspeakable Turks.

"We represent the oldest overseas Greek colony in the world, several centuries older than Marseilles; of course, to us the French port is a mere parvenu," they insisted. "Our noble city of Trebizond [on the Black Sea], the Attic atmosphere of which none of the barbarian hordes has been able to destroy, should really be called Xenophonopolis. Now this is why: When Xenophon brought his men back from the Persian campaign with Cyrus and once again they were all cheered by the sight of the Pontus, 'Here, he said, 'I want to found a great city a home for the overseas Greeks, a bulwark of Hellenism against the barbarians on the dark shores of the Great Sea. At first the plan was warmly applauded; with trained oxen the confines of the city that was to be were being drawn when -ah! that was terrible, I should not tell it" -

But I insisted, and at last the sad tale came out.

"There had slipped into that noble band of Greeks an unreliable soothsayer, a despicable sorcerer. We recall his name to cover at with infamy, and if you will allow me I will now expectorate. (All three delegates spat in unison.) his name was Silanus of Arcadia. He had cozened up to Cyrus and extracted much money from him and he did not care about founding a noble city, a bulwark of civilization; he wanted to return home and `revel' with his money. So he told the hoplites that Xenophon was deceiving them, that he had no thought of building for them homes; no, he was planning to lead them back into the deserts of Asia from which they had so recently and so narrowly escaped. And that sorcerer was a cunning man. Every time he consulted them, the entrails told the same story. They said, "Go home. So the great plan was defeated, or rather postponed for several generations, and Xenophon returned to Sparta where, though broken-hearted over the failure of his project, he had a good time hunting and raising dogs and writing histories."

Stories of the founding of cities almost always start controversy, and this story of how Trebizond was or was not founded is no exception to the rule. One of the delegates would not admit that when the Ten Thousand reached the sea the shore where the noble city now stands was a lonely strand.

"It was not like that," he insisted. "Ours has been a noble city, a Greek colony since the dawn of history, long, long before Troy. It is recorded in our archives that when the Ten Thousand arrived they were escorted by the City Elders to the Shrine of Hercules and there they made appropriate sacrifices to the conductor who had led them, not unscathed, but still safely, through many dangers, to the dancing sea."

Quite an argument now arose, but I brought it to a conclusion by the statement that by going back to Xenophon their claims would hive priority over all other colonial adventurers. It would most certainly suffice.

A few hours later Venizelos came back and thanked us warmly for bridging over the gap between Hoover and the Euxine Pontus.

"But I have told them that I cannot claim the south shore of the Black Sea, as my hands are quite full with Thrace and Anatolia. I told them to 'go home, make all the money you can, and send it back to the mother country. If you do that, we shall always cherish you' - and they went away well pleased." Then, as an afterthought, the Greek Premier said: "Often it seems to me wiser, and certainly more helpful, to have commercial marts rather than political colonies beyond the seas. But for the contributions that came from them in a steady stream we never could have faced the financial strain of this cruel and most costly war. It was our merchants in Cairo and Constantinople, in Liverpool and in Norfolk, Virginia, who kept us afloat."

March 12, 1919

As is now only too evident, it was unwise of me to communicate to my colleagues of Colonel House's "family" the flattering tributes that were showered upon me by the grateful delegates from the Euxine Pontus. They had hailed me as "Stephen, garland-crowned son of Hermes," and, of course, it was after all no mean feat to secure food from Mr. Hoover, or at least the promise of it, in twenty-four hours. I was also, I think, deserving of praise in squelching the plan of the delegates, which they developed as I regaled them with drinks at Weber's, to re-establish the long defunct empire of Mithradates. With liquor on the table and food in sight, they were hard to hold back. No, I told them, the atmosphere of the conference was unfavorable to the founding of empires, and at last they agreed. But I fear they will take up the matter at a more auspicious moment.

My envious colleagues have been looking up Hermes from whom, according to the Pontus Greeks, I stem, and while the classical dictionaries admit that he was a personage of great charm, and the tutelar saint of early diplomatists, the protector of travelers, of heralds and interpreters, they also reveal that in some respects he was a rather unscrupulous fellow. For instance, they relate that, while yet an infant, Hermes stole fifty head of cattle from his brother Apollo, hid them away in a cave, and then calmly returned to finish his nap in his cradle!

Hearing the uproar in his "family," the Colonel barged into the controversy. He, too, looked into the classical dictionary and doquently took my part. "Great Zeus approved of this juvenile exploit," was his decision, "and while admittedly there was in some unfriendly quarters unfavorable gossip, still Hermes was the patron saint of those who were 'strong of voice and retentive of memory.' In our family, that means Bonsai." So my persecutors were silenced and slunk away. But I have learned my lesson. Should in the future compliments be bestowed, in my experience a rare occurrence, I may gloat over them - but only in private.

Not the most important, but certainly the most acute, of the Greek problems is how to settle the boundaries with Albania. Both are roving people, like most of the Balkan tribes. There are certainly many thousand Albanians in northwestern Greece, and there are many sons of the Eagle in Italy, and indeed nearer home in New England. And, worse luck, there are many thousand Greeks within the boundaries of Albania as established at the Conference of London. Another complication which adds fuel to the discussion: there are many important men in both Italy and Greece who boast of their Albanian ancestry. Undoubtedly the problem could be solved by an exchange of population and some slight frontier changes, but no one will accept either the one or the other. The Greeks will not yield a village or an inch of territory, and my friend, Essad Pasha, says the plan infringes on the Law of the Mountains and contravenes the Code of Lex, which he says has been honored by his people since the days of Moses, the Lawgiver.

If possible, even more acute is the clash of the Albanians with the Yugoslavs in the Kossovo district, where on the Field of the Blackbirds the Cross fell before the Green Banners and the Serbs became the serfs of the Ottoman Turks. Certainly the Albanians, with great arrogance, are encroaching on this territory, as I described their activities after my visit in 1892, and it is only in the last few years that the long down-trodden Serbs have had the courage to complain and at last to oppose the unwelcome intruders. This region was undeniably a part of the great Serbian Empire in the thirteenth century. Should it be restored to Belgrade now? Should California and New Mexico be restored to Spain or to Mexico? I don't know. I fancy a statute of limitations will have to be established. Of one thing I am certain: in both cases the restoration would require the employment of large military forces. All would be well if friendly relations could be established between the disputants, but unfortunately all the experts say this is impossible; on this point at least they are in full agreement.

 [Table of Contents] [Previous] [Next] [HMK Home] SUITORS AND SUPPLIANTS