Several disputes and debates about Greece’s borders send me back one century to 1919, when Eleftherios Venizelos addressed very similar issues in the context of the Peace Conference following the First World War. These disputes today include the land border with Turkey (at the Evros River); the demarcation of Greece’s continental shelf which is disputed by Turkey; the continuing saga of Macedonia and the plight of ethnic Greeks in southern Albania. So nothing has changed.
The principal anxiety of Venizelos’ “Memorandum Dealing with the Rights of Greece” was part of the “Megali Idea” – to reintegrate “the Greek populations of the Balkan Peninsula, of Asia Minor and the Islands.” Venizelos’ ideal solution was to extend Greek territory to embrace the ethnic Greeks of Northern Epirus and Albania, Thrace and the region of Constantinople, Asia Minor (including Smyrna), the Dodecanese and Cyprus.
Venizelos’ initiative in addressing the Peace Congress in great detail was consonant with the method employed by the “Great Powers” to establish workable boundaries between the smaller nations. He offered to bargain: Certain areas with predominantly Albanian, or Bulgarian, or Turkish populations would be surrendered (or excluded from his territorial claims) if other areas, with predominantly Greek peoples, were allocated to Greece.
The criterion for Venizelos was “a people living under an administration in harmony with its national consciousness.” It is extremely clear throughout his memorandum that his territorial bargaining was aimed at the optimum inclusion of Greeks within the Greek state. Venizelos also disclosed the promise that Greece’s entry into the First World War on the Allies’ side would be rewarded with “territorial concessions on the coast of Asia Minor.” I am reminded of the no doubt apocryphal story about this Congress, that the British prime minister, David Lloyd George, was heard to ask one of his secretaries, “Please remind me, which are we giving away, Upper Silesia or Lower Silesia?” Yet it was Lloyd George, supposedly very impressed by Venizelos, who encouraged him in the madness of what became the Anatolian Catastrophe – an ill-conceived element in the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. One can almost hear Lloyd George asking, “Which are we giving away – western Turkey or eastern Turkey?”
In his preface to Ilias Venezis’ “Aeolia,” Lawrence Durrell wrote: “The tragedy of his expulsion from Anatolia still weighs heavily upon the heart of the modern Greek, whether he is a metropolitan or an exile from the bountiful plains and wooded mountains of Asia Minor. He cannot forget it. If he is an exile he returns again and again to Anatolia in his dreams: He broods upon it as Adam and Eve must have brooded upon the Garden of Eden after the Fall.” The attempt to regain Constantinople in 1919-20 was ill-advised but one can appreciate the motivation, especially today when Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s aggression on a different front threatens the status of Hagia Sophia.
One of the military clichés of the 19th century was “Send a gunboat!” “Gunboat diplomacy,” as it was euphemistically called, was a way of warning your opponent that if a “shot across the bows” did not have the desired effect, the next thing they saw would be a fleet of warships. Today, it seems that all the European Union can do is to “urge Turkey to respect Greek (or Cypriot) sovereignty.” Sending a gunboat is against NATO rules, and shaking your finger, or even your fist, at Erdogan is like shouting into the wind.
As for Macedonia, I would draw the parallel with the northern province of Ireland, also a century ago. The province of Ulster has, historically, nine counties or prefectures. When the border was drawn between the present-day Northern Ireland and the Republic, Ulster was divided, not along ethnic grounds but on the basis of the predominance of Catholic or Protestant populations. Today, three counties of Ulster remain in the Republic while the other six constitute Northern Ireland.
After partition, the mother of Tyrone Guthrie, the great theater director, wrote to him that their ancestral home, located on that border, meant that they must reorient their thinking about where they belonged. The 50-year struggle of republican terrorists has centered on removing that border, so that all Ulster can be reintegrated into the Republic and thinking about where one belongs can be reoriented. That kind of emotional and atavistic irredentism fuels not only the agon in the hearts of Macedonians on both sides of the border but also that of ethnic Greeks in southern Albania.
Venizelos’ emphasis on ethnicity is underlined by his justification of the annexation of Asia Minor on the grounds that “the million Greeks who inhabit that region constitute the purest part of the Hellenic race.” He bluntly stated “Constantinople cannot remain under the Turkish régime.” This claim was as rampant as Erdogan’s current demand for the repossession of Greece’s eastern islands. But now the argument centers not on ethnicity but greed: lust for the oil and gas deposits that sit beneath the islands. The people don’t matter; oil is everything.
Sotiris Dimitriou’s story “May Your Name be Blessed,” depicting the aftermath of arbitrary borders between Epirus and Albania, shows us the tragedy of identity bargained against such greed. Transhumance and migration are punished by these borders. “Who you are” is determined not only by language and faith, but inextricably part of “where you are,” and these divisions on Balkan soil are examples of how identity will usually be the victim of power-broking by distant gods.
Richard Pine is director of the Durrell Library of Corfu and author of “Greece Through Irish Eyes.”