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Examining the contribution of Venizelos, a gifted yet controversial statesman, to modern Greece

Seventy years after his death, Eleftherios Venizelos remains the most influential politician in the history of modern Greece. The Cretan-born lawyer died in a Paris hotel on March 18, 1936, in self-exile and just a few months shy of turning 72. He had helped transform Greece in the 20th century through a combination of prudence, prescience and power during his four decades in politics, but he died deeply troubled about the fate of his country. Though his policies are considered visionary today, Venizelos was a divisive figure during his lifetime, provoking both love and hate from Greeks, said Sir Michael Llewellyn Smith, an esteemed historian and former British ambassador to Greece who is researching a full-length biography on the Greek statesman. «He was a great man who was seen as a hero by some and a devil by others,» said Llewellyn Smith, who is a Visiting Fellow this spring at the British School in Athens. «I am interested in this tension and have been interested in exploring his personality and his place in history for many years.» The Venizelos biography is at least four years away from completion, Llewellyn Smith said. But the book is expected to be a welcome addition to scholarship on the Greek statesman, says an official at the National Research Foundation Eleftherios K. Venizelos in Hania, Crete. Only a couple of Venizelos biographies are in the library of the five-year-old foundation, says Hara Apostolaki, the foundation’s librarian. She points to the 1942 book «Venizelos: Patriot, Statesman, Revolutionary» by Doros Alastos as the most complete biography so far. «The foundation has several books examining Venizelos’s policies, but only some portions of his life are illuminated in these books,» she said. The five-year-old institute is hoping to produce its own full-length biography in the future. Meanwhile, next month the foundation will publish a 70-page synopsis in English of Venizelos’s life, mainly targeted to the scores of monthly visitors to the institute, Apostolaki said. (A Greek version will follow later in the summer.) This weekend, the foundation will host two days of events spotlighted with speeches about Venizelos. Llewellyn Smith is one of the featured speakers. The Oxford-educated scholar first considered the traditions of Crete – where Venizelos is honored as a favorite son – in a 1965 book. More than 30 years later, in the touted 1998 book «Ionian Vision: Greece in Asia Minor,» he explored the origins of Venizelos’s «Ionian Vision» and its connections to an Anglo-Greek entente in the eastern Mediterranean as part of the study on Greece’s Great Idea to incorporate Greeks around the Aegean basin into the country’s boundaries. Venizelos emerged on the political scene at a critical time for Modern Greece. Born near Hania and educated at the University of Athens, the young Cretan spent his early years as a politician trying to free Crete from Ottoman rule. But he first made his mark in 1897, during the Akrotiri uprising against the Ottomans in Crete. A new man emerges At the time, many of the Greek state’s intellectuals were seeking a leader – «o anthropos» – to lead the country out of its disarray. Greece’s disastrous 1897 territorial war against Turkey had exposed the country’s inadequate military and convoluted politics. One of the writers watching the developments was Dimitrios Vikelas, a bestselling novelist and a key organizer of the 1896 Olympics. Llewellyn Smith discovered Vikelas while the British historian was researching and writing his 2004 book «Olympics in Athens 1896: The Invention of the Modern Olympic Games.» Vikelas offered astute observations and analyses in a detailed diary he kept during the war. Vikelas’s musings – and the underlying call for a new man to lead Greece out of crisis – were explored in Llewellyn Smith’s Thursday speech, sponsored by the British School at Athens and held at a lecture hall in the nearby American School of Classical Studies in the central Athens neighborhood of Kolonaki. Former Prime Minister Tzannis Tzannetakis and current British Ambassador to Greece Simon Gass also attended the public event. Vikelas described troubling scenes from 1897 – disorganized colonels who didn’t know where their armies were, hungry and frightened peasants from Thessaly fleeing with ox wagons full of their possessions before the Ottoman army arrived, Llewellyn Smith said, quoting from the diary. Vikelas rightly noted that the country needed to abandon its old political guard and their ways and embrace new policies to become a viable modern country. «The war was fought because Greek public opinion had lost touch with the realities of the balance of power and forgotten the gap between Greece’s ambitions and her resources,» Llewellyn Smith said in the speech, referring to Vikelas’s call for new leadership. «The defects in the Greek armed forces which led to defeat were caused partly by lack of equipment and training and partly by the fatal combination of a professional army and groups of volunteers not answering to military discipline. This seems fairly obvious in retrospect, but at the time it was obscured by a tremendous effort of the national imagination, which pictured these freedom fighters, in the tradition of the war of independence, as capable of taking on and defeating the Turkish army.» Vikelas and Venizelos did not meet, but the writer noted the politician favorably in his diary. Vikelas died in 1908, two years before Venizelos and his Komma Fileleftheron (Liberal Party) entered political center stage. On October 2, 1910, Venizelos formed a government and started to reorganize the economic, political and national affairs of Greece. «Here was ‘the man’ – o anthropos – who was to set about the tasks Vikelas identified in 1897 as necessary for Greece, and who succeeded in transforming the structures of Greek government and society and the face and territory of Greece, learning the lessons of 1897,» Llewellyn Smith said.