Downfall of King Constantine

[New York Times Current History, July 1917]

The long diplomatic struggle between King Constantine of Greece and the Entente Allies culminated on June 12 in the abdication of that monarch. He was at once succeeded by his second son, Prince Alexander, as King of the Hellenes.

The opposition of the Entente Allies to Constantine was based upon the allegation that he was not only pro-German in his sympathies, but that he repeatedly tried to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Central Powers. The ex-King, on the other hand, declared that his sole aim was to preserve Greek neutrality and to spare his people from the horrors and miseries of war.

Early in June the Entente Allies had arrived at the conclusion that the time for decisive action had arrived. M. Jonnart, a former Foreign Minister and now a member of the French Senate, was appointed High Commissioner to represent France, Great Britain, and Russia, the three protecting powers of Greece. After visiting Saloniki, the Allies' headquarters and seat of the Provisional Government headed by M. Venizelos, M. Jonnart proceeded to Athens and, on June 11 placed before the Greek Premier, Alexander Zaimis, the demands of the allied governments.

The abdication of King Constantine was insisted upon, and the Crown Prince George was also ruled out on the ground that he shared his father's pro-German leanings. The second son, Prince Alexander, was indicated as acceptable. Alexander, who is only 24 years old, is amenable to the ideas of the protecting powers in regard to the part which Greece should play in the war. M. Jonnart informed the Premier that troops had been placed at his disposal, but that they would not be landed until the King had given his answer.

Premier Zaimis, in his reply to M. Jonnart, said that he recognized the disinterestedness of the protecting powers, whose sole object was to reconstitute the unity of Greece under the Constitution, and that a decision would be taken by the King after consulting with the Crown Council, composed of former Premiers. On the morning of June 12 Premier Zaimis communicated King Constantine's decision in the following letter to M. Jonnart:

The Minister and High Commissioner of France, Great Britain, and Russia:

Having demanded by your note of yesterday the abdication of his Majesty, King Constantine, and the nomination of his successor, the undersigned, Premier and Foreign Minister, has the honor to inform your Excellency that his Majesty the King, ever solicitous for the interests of Greece, has decided to leave the country with the Prince Royal, and nominates Prince Alexander as his successor.

The deposed monarch's proclamation announcing his abdication, which was posted throughout the streets of Athens, reads:

Obeying the necessity of fulfilling my duty toward Greece, I am departing from my beloved country with the heir to the throne and am leaving my son Alexander my crown. I beg you to accept my decision with calm, as the slightest incident may lead to a great catastrophe.

Before King Constantine's decision was announced, many Greeks, loyal to the Crown, gathered for the protection of the sovereign. On the evening of June 11 2,000 reservists formed a cordon around the palace in his defense, if that should be necessary, and a delegation headed by Naval Commander Mavromichaelis was received by Constantine and pledged the devotion of the army and the people to his cause. The King's only reply was an appeal that they should remain calm. All efforts of agitators to start a manifestation failed, and the army officers announced their intention to obey the order of the Government to take no part in any demonstrations and to maintain peace.

The announcement of King Constantine's abdication made in the British House of Commons by Andrew Bonar Law, Chancellor of the Exchequer, was received with cheers, but a less favorable reception was given his statement that Prince Alexander had succeeded his father. The Chancellor said that Alexander had taken the oath as King of Greece. "We hope," added the Chancellor, "that this change may make for the restoration of the Constitutional Government of that country. Mr. Bonar Law was asked by Arthur Lynch, member for West Clare: "What does the Government expect to gain by the abdication of the King when it is perpetuating the same abuses under another name?

"Mr. Bonar Law replied: "What we hope to gain is a Constitutional Government representing the whole of Greece." John Gordon Swift MacNeill, member for South Donegal, asked if in fact permission had been given to Constantine to abdicate and if, in regard to the fact that he had practically been expelled from the throne, he should be allowed to nominate his successor. The Chancellor replied that it would not be in the public interest to give any more information at present, but that Mr. MacNeill was wrong in saying that his successor had been nominated by Constantine."

Premier Ribot, addressing the French Chamber of Deputies on June 14, said conditions in Greece had become intolerable; that the attitude of Constantine had nullified the Constitution of Greece and amply justified the protecting powers in intervening in such manner as to secure the indispensable unity of the country. "Greece," said M. Ribot, "was divided into two hostile camps, one hostile to the Allies and the other supporting them courageously with Eleutherios Venizelos bearing aloft the real flag of Greece." Great applause greeted the mention of the name of M. Venizelos. M. Ribot then proceeded to explain to the Chamber the advantages which would arise from the new regime in Greece.

Military measures by the Allies were taken simultaneously with M. Jonnart's action at Athens. French and British troops were landed in Thessaly and Corinth, the French. War Office announcement on the subject being:

The troops charged with control of the harvests in Thessaly have penetrated that province without difficulty as far as the region of Elassona.

The ex-King and all the members of his family, except the new King, left Athens on June 13, embarking at the Piraeus on a British warship. One of Constantine's private secretaries had previously arrived at Lugano, in Switzerland, to look for a large villa suitable for the exiled royalties. Prince von Billow, the former German Imperial Chancellor, and several other German diplomatists are staying at Lugano.

A telegram from Berlin on June 15 stated that Emperor William had sent the following message (not confirmed) to one of the Greek diplomatic representatives abroad for transmission to former King Constantine:

I have heard with wrath of the infamous outrage committed by our common enemies upon you and upon your dynasty. I assure you that your deprivation can be only temporary. The mailed fist of Germany, with further aid from Almighty God, will restore you to your throne, of which no man by right can rob you. The armies of Germany and Germany's allies will wreak vengeance on those who have dared so insolently to lay their criminal hands on you. We hope to welcome you in Germany at the earliest opportunity. A thousand cordial greetings from your WILLIAM.

M. Jonnart, the High Commissioner who brought about the abdication of King Constantine, published on June 16 the following proclamation to the Greek people:

France, Great Britain, and Russia desire the independence, greatness, and prosperity of Greece. They intend to defend the brave little land they have liberated against the united efforts of the Turks, Bulgarians, and Germans. They are here to checkmate the manoeuvres of the hereditary enemies of the kingdom. They will put an end to the repeated violations of the Constitution, of treaties, and the deplorable intrigues which led up to the massacre of soldiers of the Allies.

Yesterday Berlin was in command of Athens and was gradually leading the people under the yoke of the Bulgarians and Germans. We resolved to re-establish the constitutional rights and unity of Greece. The protecting powers, therefore, demanded the abdication of the King. They have no intention of tampering with the constitutional prerogatives; they have other aims, namely, to as sure the regular and constitutional progress of the country, to which the late King George, of glorious memory, had always been scrupulously faithful, but which King Constantine had ceased to respect.

Hellenes, the hour of reconciliation has arrived. Your destinies are closely associated with those of the protecting powers, your ideals are the same as theirs, your hopes are identical. We appeal to your good sense and patriotism.

Today the blockade is raised. Any reprisal against Greeks, to whatever party they belong, will be pitilessly repressed. No breach of the peace will be tolerated. The liberty and prosperity of every one will be safeguarded. This is a new era of peace and labor which is opening before you. Know that, respectful of the national sovereignty, the protecting powers have no intention of forcing upon the Greek people general mobilization.

Long live Greece, united and free!

Following the ex-King's departure from Athens, Entente troops were landed at Piraeus and Castella. Some of the troops occupied the heights near Phalerum Bay, while others marched to Athens. The landing at Piraeus was effected in perfect order. At the suggestion of Premier Zaimis, the Greek superior officer was placed at the disposal of General Sarrail to facilitate the housing of the troops. Senator Jonnart said that they would remain ashore pending their return to resume the struggle against "Greece's traditional foes." He also informed Premier Zaimis that when the war was over and order which the Allies would exact had been re-established, Constantine would be permitted to resume his throne if such was the will of the Greek people.

The entrance of the United States into the war, it was stated on high authority in London, had a direct and important influence in bringing about the solution of the Greek difficulty. American influence was characterized by the authority in question as a fresh breeze of democracy sweeping out the corners where the autocracies which disregard the claims of their peoples have been sheltering.

Plans for dealing with the situation which King Constantine provoked first began to assume definite shape at the British, French, and Italian conference held in Savoy, when Premier Lloyd George and Paul Painlevé, the French War Minister, found themselves in entire agreement, and the Italian representative was seen to be nearly of the same mind. The execution of the details of the plan was placed in the hands of the French, of course in full collaboration with their allies, and Senator Jonnart was selected to take on the work with whatever support might be necessary from General Sarrail and the Admiral commanding the allied fleets in Greek waters.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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