1936-1940 - The Metaxas Era
The world financial crisis of 1930 and 1931 initiated a period of political chaos in Greece. The national economy was now based on export of luxury agricultural goods such as tobacco, olive oil, and raisins--commodities whose international demand fell sharply during the hard times of the Great Depression. Payments from Greeks overseas dropped at the same time. Having lost most of its foreignexchange sources, Greece experienced difficulties in servicing its large foreign debt in the early 1930s.
Because Venizelos did not address the economic dilemma effectively, his fragile political coalition began to unravel. Unable to maintain control, Venizelos relinquished power in mid1932 . Elections that fall divided power almost equally between the Liberals and the Populists, and the latter failed to form a viable government. Chaos and military purges resulted from this deadlock, and Plastiras attempted a military coup in 1933. After the failed coup and an unsuccessful attempt to assassinate Venizelos, the bitterness of the old disputes rose to the surface of public life. In 1935 the failure of another coup, in which Venizelos was directly implicated, completely destroyed his public image. Discredited, Venizelos retired to Paris, where he died in 1936.
The Populists clearly won the parliamentary election of 1935, aided by the Venizelists' decision to boycott the vote in protest at the imposition of martial law. The unstable Populist government soon toppled, however, and in October a rump parliament declared the restoration of the monarchy and rigged a plebiscite in which 97 percent of votes called for the return of King George to the throne. When he returned to Greece in November 1935, George attempted to repair the National Schism by pardoning all participants in the Venizelist coup of 1935.
The National Schism continued to divide Greek politics and society in the mid-1930s. King George chose General Metaxas to head a new government in 1936, and Metaxas's dictatorial regime finally restored public order. The cost was an extended period of one-party government and repression of human rights that set the stage for more bitter political divisiveness after World War II.
The elections of January 1936, which the Populists hoped would finally legitimize their position, instead brought another deadlock between the Populists and the Liberals. This time, however, the political balance was even more precarious because the fifteen votes won by the Communist Party (Kommunistikon Komma Ellados--KKE) gave it the power to swing ballots in parliament.
In this atmosphere, General Ioannis Metaxas emerged as a political force. Metaxas, always a foe of Venizelos and a participant in several coup attempts, had been a minor character on the extreme right of the Greek political spectrum in the 1920s. During that time he had cultivated a close relationship with the royal house. After his return to the throne in 1935, King George searched frantically for an anticommunist political leader strong enough to bind together a working coalition and control the leftist factions but not strong enough to lead a coup against the throne. The search led the king first to appoint Metaxas minister of war and then prime minister, whereupon Metaxas immediately pressured parliament into a five-month adjournment.
In May 1936, labor unrest and massive strikes cast doubt on the government's ability to maintain public order. Metaxas used the opportunity to declare a state of emergency, dissolve parliament for an indefinite period, and suspend human rights articles of the constitution. These actions, conducted in August, made Metaxas dictator of Greece. He modeled his regime on the fascist governments of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini. Political parties and trade unions were abolished, strikes became illegal, political opponents were arrested, and press censorship prevailed. Metaxas sought to reduce labor unrest by raising wages and improving working conditions in industry and by raising agricultural prices and absorbing farmers' debts. By 1938 per capita income had increased drastically, and unemployment was dropping. Metaxas dismantled the old patronage system based on royalist and Venizelist party loyalties. Ironically, by sweeping away political parties the rightist dictatorship created a political vacuum in which the constituency of the Greek leftists, especially the communists, grew larger.
Metaxas's "Third Hellenic Civilization" (the first being ancient Greece and the second the Byzantine Empire) lacked the broad base of popular support enjoyed by the dictatorships of Hitler and Mussolini--Greek fascism was not a mass movement, nor was it based on a coherent ideology or racist dogma. In general, the Greek public neither supported nor actively resisted the authoritarian paternalism of Metaxas.
In extolling the virtues of self-sacrifice for the public good, Metaxas sought to reshape the national character. He established a variety of national organizations such as the National Youth Movement to foster those virtues in Greek citizens. For the working classes, he instituted a coherent program of public works and drainage projects, set wage rates, regulated hours of labor, guaranteed the five-day work week, and passed other measures aimed at making the workplace safer. The bureaucracy and the military were revamped and streamlined.
The price of such a program was deprivation of freedom. The secret police became all powerful; communists and other leftists were subjected to especially brutal repression. Over 30,000 persons were arrested and incarcerated or exiled on political grounds, and torture was routinely used to extract confessions or accusations that others had acted against the state. A new form of the National Schism, now left versus right, was being created as the old one lapsed.
The main dilemma for the Metaxas regime was foreign policy. Metaxas saw his fellow dictators in Germany and Italy as natural allies, and Germany made major advances into Greek markets in the late 1930s. But Greece's national security remained closely tied to Britain, whose fleet remained a dominant force in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, as Italian policy developed in the 1930s, Mussolini's plans for a "new Rome" obviously conflicted with Greek ambitions to control the Aegean and the Dodecanese Islands and exert influence in Albania. Italian expansionism in the region placed Metaxas and Mussolini on a collision course. As war approached in Europe, Metaxas found it increasingly hard to walk the fine line between the Allies and the Axis powers.
Mussolini's persistent provocations settled the issue. In October 1940, Italy demanded that Greece allow Italian occupation of strategic locations on Greek soil. Although Metaxas's resounding refusal plunged Greece into war, it also significantly improved Greece's national self-esteem.
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