The Provisional Government of Thessaloniki of 1917 and a national schism

Very few cities have the beauty, history, culture and charm of Thessaloniki. Ancient with a modern heartbeat, medieval with a forward-thinking outlook, and one of the most important locations in the Balkans and an outlet to Khalkidhiki. It is of course the capital of Macedonia, Greece; a city that was established by King Cassander in 315 BC.

What makes Thessaloniki unique is that it has endured over time. Over 2300 years of history with its soul as well as numerous monuments remaining intact. Stroll through the city and you will notice buildings from the Ottomans, Byzantine Churches, Roman and ancient finds. The people will welcome you as they always do for me. Kemal Atatürk was born here, and his home is graciously preserved by the authorities, and of course this was a haven for Jews, particularly at the time of Kemal.

During Byzantine times, the city played a role as one of the strongest in the empire. Its busy port and strong fortifications ensured that major players tried to wrestle the city. Venice, Epirus, Nicaea, Serbian, Bulgarian and Ottomans.

In 1204, after the treacherous fall of Constantinople, Thessaloniki fell to one of the Crusaders; Boniface of Montferrat. His name may as well have been Boniface the Rat, for like all the imposters of the Crusade, he duly took Greek speaking lands rather than liberate Jerusalem and the Levant.

This was not what the Pope had wanted. Fortunately, the Kingdom of Thessaloniki which claimed most of Macedonia and Thessalia, was defeated in 1224 by the Greek Despotate of Epirus. In turn, the territory of Epirus would fall under the Greek Empire of Nicaea and the restored Byzantine Empire until the Ottomans arrived.

When modern Greece was proclaimed, it did not include Thessaloniki. In 1912, during the first Balkan War, Venizelos and Bulgaria raced toward the city. The winner would be proclaimed ruler; the Turkish speaking governor surrendered Thessaloniki to the Greeks, fortuitously one day before the Bulgarian forces arrived! Once again, a Greek city was reunited with Hellenic rule.

Ominously, the King of Greece was assassinated here in March 1913, a strong pointer to the Republican attitude of the city. In 1915, the Allies maintained forces in Thessaloniki for use against Bulgaria. This became known as the Macedonian Front. At the end of the year, Austria sent an air raid on Thessaloniki. In response, officials representing Austria, Germany, Bulgaria as well as Ottoman were arrested by the Greeks. Unlike the timid way Athens behaves these days, the Greeks did not muck around in this era.

A few months later, supporters of Venizelos in the military and across Thessaloniki launched a rebellion against the monarchy. This was supported by the Allies, of course . . .. There was an outpouring of support for Venizelos; it was akin to the support he had in Crete. Outside of Attika, there was more support for a republic than a monarchy. This split in the country was to lead to the disaster and death of hundreds of thousands in the Asia Minor catastrophe. If only the monarchy had at this point been banished from Greece, the suffering in Asia Minor could have been avoided, or at least minimised. Alas, this is hindsight and there is no benefit to those who perished.

Anyway, I have digressed.

Debate in Greece raged around whether or not to enter the war. Greece had been fighting almost nonstop since 1821 and there was no reason why, with the support of the Allies, that more territory could not be gained. Especially those lands that had a majority of Greek speakers living in them, such as Thrace on the coast and Gallipoli.

The Monarchy remained neutral due to the relation of the King to the Kaiser. The stupidity of the Great Powers to install a foreigner on the Greek throne had ironically come back to bite them.

With Bulgaria making raids and attacks in Macedonia in August 1916, including capturing Greek soldiers, Venizelists found this to be an opportunity to throw off the monarchical constraints to enter the war; Venizelos explained to Greeks that he was not necessarily against the King, he was against Bulgaria, whose military had made gains in Eastern Macedonia.

A battle took place between the military forces loyal to the monarchy and those who supported Venizelos. Led by 600 fearsome soldiers from Crete, the battle resulted in government forces retreating to Athens. In their place, officers and soldiers arrived from all over Greece to partake in what they called the National Defence. Hence the parallel government was called the Provisional Government of National Defence.

Venizelos officially formed the rival government on 28 September 1916 with the support of Admiral Pavlos Koundouriotis and General Panagiotis Danglis. A number of ministries were created, including that of a foreign ministry. I should point out that the Admiral was a hero of the Balkan Wars.

On 24 November, this new government declared war against the evil Central Powers and chose the path of fighting Bulgaria. In my opinion, Venizelos chose to be diplomatic by not seeking to completely depose the monarchy. He should have chosen that path.

Thessaloniki, in addition to hosting Allied Troops was also home to representatives of the exiled Serbian government and troops as that country had come under occupation by the Central Powers.

By early October a cabinet was named by Venizelos covering a range of ministries, ranging foreign affairs to refugee resettlement. The military was strong and ready to defeat any enemy that came its way over the remainder of the war period. With formal war was declared on 24 November. This declaration could only be valid if Venizelos was truly the Prime Minister of the new entity and judging by how the people and his troops listened, he was. Venizelos was previously dismissed by King Constantine a year earlier in Athens for seeking to bring Greece into the conflict. Though Greece had many volunteers already fighting and Lemnos had played its part in the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.

The Greek entity in Thessaloniki lasted until 15 June 1917. At this point, the King was forced to abdicate by the Allies and take exile in Switzerland. His son Alexander took his place on the throne. This mistake proved costly to Greece in 1921 when the Asia Minor campaign turned against the Greeks due to the poor strategy under the monarchy. King Constantine by that stage had returned to Greece, ready to lead the Hellenes to destruction.

The apparent independent Greek entity in Thessaloniki, lasted a for few short months.

It was a tumultuous period that led Greece to a schism followed by victory in World War One. Following on was a false sense of confidence that would result in the disaster of 1922 in Asia Minor.

*Billy Cotsis is the author of From Pyrrhus to Cyprus Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, Territories, Entities & a Fiefdom

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