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Otto, King of the Hellenes, 1833-1862

Otto of Wittgenstein, king of Greece (1815-1867), was the second son of Ludwig I, king of Bavaria, and his wife Teresa of Saxe-Altenburg. He was born at Salzburg on the 1st of June 1815, and was educated at Munich.

The Third National Assembly in Trezina (1827) chose the Corfiot Count Ioannis Kapodistrias, a charismatic and internationally respected personality, as governor of the Greek Republic. He was assassinated in September 1831, and the civil conflict that followed came to an end only when the "Three Protective Powers" (Great Britain, France and Russia) selected and imposed a young German prince as King of Greece. In 1832 Otto was chosen by the conference of London to occupy the newly-erected throne of Greece.

The institution of an absolute Monarchy instead of a Republic was the price Greeks had to pay for their inability to accept compromises. It was at the same time the guarantee offered to the conservative powers of the Holy Alliance that Greece would not prove an example to the peoples of Restoration Europe. But the Monarchy was also the key institution through which the protective powers, and especially Great Britain, exercised their influence upon the Greek government and interfered in national politics. As a result, the dynasties and their entourages identified themselves with the agents that curtailed smooth institutional development.

Frederic Thiersch, originally the preceptor of Prince Otho, and distinguished by his great classical attainments, went to Greece in 1831 to study on the spot the country and its inhabitants. Such was the confidence which M. Thiersch's character inspired in Greece, that he was selected by the residents and the admirals of the three powers, to act as a mediator between the two parties contending in arms, when neither of them would listen to the representatives of the alliance. The work of M. Thiersch was one of the most remarkable of the times.

The King of Bavaria concluded a treaty of alliance between Bavaria and Greece on the 1st November 1832. He engaged to send 3500 Bavarian troops to support his son's throne, and relieve the French army of occupation. This subsidiary force was paid from the proceeds of the Allied loan; for Bavaria had neither the resources, nor, to speak the truth, the generosity of France. King Ludwig took care that his son should expend large sums of Greek money in Bavaria without any advantage to Greece.

The creation of the monarchy was not followed by all the success which so many sanguine Philhellenes expected. There was a complete failure in the Greek monarchy, but the Greek people had as much as any other people, sunk for many hundreds of years in most abject slavery, would have done in the same period. The Greek monarchy, according to its critics, was a "miserable blunder of diplomacy which cut off from Greece the provinces of Thessaly, and Epirus, and Macedonia, the cradle of the Hellenic race - which imposed upon the poorest part of the country and the most devastated by civil war a monarchy, a civil list, an army and navy, a diplomatic corps, and all the paraphernalia of a great and powerful monarchy - which saddled them with a loan of 2,000,000 sterling, of which not more than 20,000 was spent on objects beneficial to Greece. It was not surprising that all this should break down, and that Greece, unable to bear these burdens, should have lost all hope of paying its debts, and should have become the battle-ground of intrigue among the three guaranteeing Powers."

On the 6th of February 1833 King Otto landed at Nauplia, then the capital of independent Greece. The people welcomed the king as their saviour from anarchy. Even the members of the government, the military chiefs, and the high officials, who had been devouring the resources of the country, hailed the king's arrival with pleasure; for they felt that they could no longer extort any profit from the starving population. Otto, who was not yet eighteen, was accompanied by a council of regency composed of Bavarians under the presidency of Count Josef Ludwig von Armansperg (1787-1853), who as minister of finance in Bavaria had succeeded in restoring the credit of the state at the cost of his popularity.

King Otto's reign traditionally is divided into two segments, the first from 1832 until 1844 and the second from 1844 until Otto's abdication in 1862. The reign of Otto included the installation of a wide variety of Western institutions, many of which were ill-suited to Greek society and political tradition. The factionalism of the revolutionary period continued and eroded the king's authority. Corruption flourished, and Otto finally was deposed by a combination of popular rebellion and coups.

Formidable problems faced Otto and the three regents appointed in 1833 to assist him. The agricultural infrastructure on which the economy was based lay in ruins. At least two-thirds of the olive trees, vineyards, and flour mills had been destroyed, and only about 10 percent of Greece's sheep and goat flocks remained. Many villages were devastated, as were several of the most important commercial centers. Destitute and displaced, the rural populace looked to their new king for relief. Several groups that had supported the war for independence now demanded compensation. The military leaders who had led and financed the war wanted land, power, and pay for their men. Shipowners demanded indemnity for their substantial losses in naval battles. The soldiers who had fought the war wanted regular pay, land, or both. The peasants wanted land. Satisfying all these claims was impossible.

Greece's persistent fiscal crises were exacerbated by the fact that the fertile agricultural areas of Thessaly and Macedonia, the major ports of Thessaloniki and Smyrna, and the island of Crete remained outside the kingdom. In spite of the expertise and connections that the Greeks of the diaspora brought with them as they migrated to the new kingdom, manufacturing and trade remained underdeveloped. The only feasible internal source of revenue was a tax on agriculture, the growth of which was most fundamental to the country's prosperity. Thus, land and loans given to peasants to expand cultivation were soon reclaimed in the form of taxes. The government borrowed repeatedly from Greeks abroad, from foreign banks, and from other European states, incurring formidable debts and establishing a pattern that has endured throughout the modern epoch.

The task of governing a semi-barbarous people, but recently emancipated, divided into bitter factions, and filled with an exaggerated sense of their national destiny, would in no case have been easy; it was not facilitated by the bureaucratic methods introduced by the regents. Though Armansperg and his colleagues did a good deal to introduce system and order into the infant state, they contrived to make themselves hated by the Greeks, and with sufficient reason. That the regency refused to respond to the demand for a constitution was perhaps natural, for the experience of constitutional experiments in emancipated Greece had not been encouraging. The result was perpetual unrest.

In spite of such obstacles, Greece revived from the devastation of eleven years of war. Athens, the new capital, added a royal palace and mansions to house the political elite who flocked there. Resettlement in the countryside allowed agricultural production to rebound. The merchant marine recovered from its wartime losses, Greek merchants once again handled much of the seagoing freight of the Mediterranean, and ports such as Siros, in the Cyclades, and Patras, on the northwest Peloponnesus, began to flourish once again.

Political stability proved elusive in the first phase of Otto's rule. In imposing Western models, Otto and his advisers showed little sensitivity to indigenous traditions of politics, law, and education. The political system established in 1834 preserved the social schisms that existed during the war and promoted new ones. The kingdom was divided administratively into ten prefectures, fifty-nine subprefectures, and 468 counties. The leaders at all three levels were appointed by the king. Only a small oligarchy, the tzakia, had a role in this process at the county level. Such absolute power alienated the Greeks who had fought the war in the name of republicanism. The regency was divided into a French and a Russian party, and distracted by personal quarrels, which led in 1834 to the recall by King Louis of G. L. von Maurer and Karl von Abel, who had been in bitter opposition to Armansperg. Soon afterwards the Mainotes were in open revolt, and the money obtained from foreign loans had to be spent in organizing a force to preserve order. On the ist of June 1835 Otto came of age, but, on the advice of his father and under pressure of Great Britain and of the house of Rothschild, who all believed that a capable finance minister was the supreme need of Greece, he retained Armansperg as chancellor of state. The wisdom of this course was more than doubtful; for the expenses of government, of which the conversion of Athens into a dignified capital was not the least, exceeded the resources of the exchequer, and the state was only saved from bankruptcy by the continual intervention of the powers. Armed bands were reorganized to further the political aims of their wartime leaders, and violent uprisings occurred annually between 1835 and 1842.

Otto's Roman Catholicism added further fuel to the political fire. In 1833 the patriarch of Constantinople established an autocephalous Orthodox Church of the Kingdom of Greece with Otto at its head. He, however, showed no inclination toward conversion. The Greeks were more heavily taxed than under Turkish rule; they had exchanged government by the sword, which they understood, for government by official regulations, which they hated; they had escaped from the sovereignty of the Mussulman to fall under that of a devout Catholic, to them a heretic. Otto was well intentioned, honest and inspired with a genuine affection for his adopted country; but it needed more than mere amiable qualities to reconcile the Greeks to his rule.

In 1837 Otto visited Germany and married the beautiful and talented Princess Amalie of Oldenburg. The union was unfruitful, and the new queen made herself unpopular by interfering in the government. Meanwhile, at the instance of the Swiss Philhellene Eynard, Armansperg had been dismissed by the king immediately on his return, but a Greek minister was not put in his place, and the granting of a constitution was still postponed. The attempts of Otto to conciliate Greek sentiment by efforts to enlarge the frontiers of his kingdom, e.g. by the suggested acquisition of Crete in 1841, failed of their object and only succeeded in embroiling him with the powers.

His power rested wholly on Bavarian bayonets; and when, in 1843, the last of the German troops were withdrawn, he was forced by the outbreak of a revolutionary movement in Athens to grant a constitution and to appoint a ministry of native Greeks.

The second period of Otto's rule began in March 1844, when in the aftermath of the military coup, Otto convened a national assembly to draft a constitution. When the assembly finished its work that spring, a new system of government was established. Otto would henceforth rule as a constitutional monarch. A bicameral legislature would be elected by all property-holding males over twenty-five. In theory Greece became one of the most democratic states in Europe. Otto, however, retained the power to appoint and dismiss government ministers, to dissolve parliament, to veto legislation, and issue executive decrees.

With the grant of the constitution Otto's troubles increased. The Greek parliament, like its predecessors during the War of Liberation, was the battleground of factions divided, not by national issues, but by their adherence to one or other of the great powers who made Greece the arena of their rivalry for the control of the Mediterranean. Otto thought to counteract the effects of political corruption and incompetence by overriding the constitution to which he had sworn. The attempt would have been perilous even for a strong man, a native ruler and an Orthodox believer; and Otto was none of these. His prestige, moreover, suffered from the "Pacifico incident" in 1850, when Palmerston caused the British fleet to blockade the Peiraeus, to exact reparation for injustice done to a Levantine Jew who happened also to be a British subject.

Instead of promoting political parties, parliamentary democracy spawned a new factionalism based on the patronage of prominent individuals. The politics of personality was exemplified by the career of Ioannis Kolettis, who was appointed prime minister under the new system in 1844. Kolettis managed parliament and achieved a virtual monopoly of administrative power by use of lavish bribes, intimidation, and a keen sensitivity to public opinion.

Kolettis also originated the Megali Idea (Great Idea), the concept that Greeks must be reunited by annexing Ottoman territory adjacent to the republic. Otto's inability to fulfill the Megali Idea was a major cause of his downfall. Irredentism was the single idea that united the disparate factions and regions of Greece following independence. The Megali Idea influenced all of Greek foreign policy through the nineteenth century. As early as the late 1830s, Greek insurgent movements were active in Thessaly, Macedonia, and Epirus, and by 1848 Greece and the Porte were on the brink of war over raids by Greek privateers into Ottoman territory.

The Crimean War appeared to offer an opportunity for Greece to gain major territorial concessions from the sultan. Expecting that Russia would defeat the Ottoman Empire in this war, Otto sent Greek troops to occupy Ottoman territory in adjacent Thessaly and Epirus under the pretext of protecting Balkan Christians. However, Britain and France intervened on the side of the Porte, and in 1854 British and French occupation of the port of Piraeus forced Otto to relinquish his "Christian cause" -- a humiliation that drastically curtailed his power. For the ill-advised intervention in the Crimean War, which led to a second occupation of the Peiraeus, Otto was not responsible; his consent had been given under protest as a concession to popular clamour. His position in Greece was, however, becoming untenable. In 1861 a radical university student, Drusios, attempted to assassinate Queen Amalia, and was hailed by the populace as a modern Harmodios. In October 1862 the troops in Acarnania under General Theodore Srivas declared for the king's deposition; those in Athens followed suit; a provisional government was set up and summoned a national convention. This military revolt was only partially suppressed. The king and queen, who were at sea, took refuge on a British war-ship, and returned to Bavaria, where they were lodged by King Louis in the palace of the former bishops of Bamberg.

Finally, in another bloodless coup later that year, Otto was forced to abdicate the throne. On the 26th of July 1867, Otto died. He had become strangely persuaded that he held the throne of Greece by divine right; and, though he made no effort to regain it, he refused to acknowledge the validity of the election of Prince George of Denmark.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:59:12 ZULU