Venizelos was ‘a European politician’

Cretan statesman Eleftherios Venizelos was so photogenic that there are no bad photographs of him, Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith told a recent conference on Venizelos at Deree College. Llewellyn-Smith spoke to Kathimerini about the book he is writing on Venizelos. What drew you to Venizelos? As a postgraduate student I did research on Greek involvement in Asia Minor, which naturally brought me face to face with Venizelos, whom I found a very interesting personality. Later, when I had finished my term as British ambassador in Athens, I wanted to go back to writing. I knew the subject of Venizelos would occupy me for years, and it would take me back to Greece, to Crete. I had to try and understand some of the great movements in Greek society and politics from the late 19th century to the 1930s. It was an ambitious project that I very much wanted to tackle. Why the Asia Minor campaign? Partly because of its drama. It was a great tragedy, both at the political and the human level. As for Venizelos, the event was a milestone in his career because the Asia Minor disaster forced him to revise his foreign policy and relinquish the Great Idea [of regaining territory once held by Greeks]. Do you think Venizelos was responsible? The campaign was clearly a great mistake and Venizelos bears a share of the responsibility. After the 1920 elections, his successors made serious mistakes in handling the war and diplomacy. Venizelos may have avoided such mistakes. In any case, even had he been prime minister, the operation could not have succeeded, at least to the extent that he wanted. He had grounds for wanting to start it in 1915, but it should have become obvious that the whole campaign should have been kept within certain bounds, that it was in Greece’s interest to rein in the ambitions he had for it. He should have concentrated more on eastern Thrace and not laid so much emphasis on Asia Minor. Do you think the 1922 tragedy still haunts Greeks, especially in their relations with Turkey? There is a collective memory of 1922 in Greece. The 1912-22 period was also very important for Turkey. The Turks point out that the Western powers sent Greece into Asia Minor and formulated the Sevres Treaty by which the Turks feel their country lost out. They see it in terms of «us and the West» and they see Greece as part of the West. In Greece it is widely held that Asia Minor was lost due to the West. There is some basis for that view, especially in relation to the stance of Italy. France and Italy were never keen on the Asia Minor campaign. It was inevitable that they would go over to the other side at the first opportunity and try to reinstate relations with Kemal’s Young Turks. In the end all the Western powers did so. Even the Greeks did after 1922. What is the legacy of Kemal in Turkey and Venizelos in Greece? Venizelos had a discreet, indirect influence on Greece. Kemal, by contrast, is everywhere in Turkey, even now. But Kemal also left Turkey with many problems that are still apparent today. You have said that you spent three exciting years in Greece, living in the British Embassy residence, where Venizelos once lived. I tried to keep the spirit of Venizelos alive in the house. We were given a bronze bust of Lloyd George [British prime minister 1916-22], which is in the embassy as a reminder of the close relationship between Lloyd George and Venizelos, of Greece and Britain. And Greek politics are extremely interesting. There’s always something happening. Shortly after my arrival there was the death of [Prime Minister] Andreas Papandreou. Then there was the [Abdullah] Ocalan affair [when the Kurdish Workers’ Party leader was captured in Kenya while being taken from the Greek Embassy to Nairobi airport]. We never got bored. Would you compare any contemporary Greek politicians to Venizelos? Constantine Karamanlis combined political objectives and achievements more successfully than Venizelos. After 1922 Venizelos had to revise his policy and he had a difficult time in his last government. Karamanlis had dynamic views and, like Venizelos, he was a European politician; he took Greece into Europe. Eleven years in Greece Sir Michael Llewellyn-Smith was born in 1939. He studied classics, ancient history and philosophy at Oxford. In 1970 he joined the British Diplomatic Service and spent 30 years as a diplomat. He was British ambassador to Greece from 1996 to 1999. As a student, teacher, diplomat and traveler he has spent more than 11 years in Greece. He has written four books on Greek themes: «The Great Island,» «Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor 1919-1922,» «Olympics in Athens 1896: the Invention of the Modern Olympic Games,» and «Athens: A Cultural and Literary History.» He has also written a short book about the history of the British Embassy in Athens, which was once the home of Greek statesman Eleftherios Venizelos before becoming an embassy in 1936.