The stuff of great leaders

About a year ago, Kathimerini opened a debate about the tragic events of 1919 and 1922 in a bid to shed some light on the contentious acts that resulted in the expulsion of Greeks from Asia Minor. The debate has been passionate even among our editors. It’s easy to accuse Eleftherios Venizelos of going after the vision of a greater Greece after following the ambiguous order from the great powers to send troops to Smyrna. However, the idea of a greater Greece was a pragmatic aspiration at the time, as the disintegration of Ottoman Turkey had brought tectonic changes to the region. Venizelos was a realistic politician with an ability to read the balance of power, as was shown during the Balkan Wars. As far as diplomacy was concerned, he was a real player. Reading Margaret MacMillan’s book on the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, I felt proud a real statesman represented Greece at a real historical moment, like Constantine Karamanlis would do later in the European Economic Community talks. Venizelos saw a chance in Paris and seized it. It was a wager with no guarantee of success, but it did make Greece an international player. Lincoln used to say that leaders must be ahead of their people but not out of sight. That’s exactly what happened to Venizelos when he took the fatal decision of calling a worn-down people to vote. Had he stayed in power, he probably would have handled the great powers more effectively. Of course, this will always remain one of the big ifs of history. Possibly he would have swapped Smyrna for Eastern Thrace or he might have just negotiated a special status for the coastal city. Either way, the rise of Turkish nationalism left no hope for the future of Hellenism on what is now Turkish territory. Venizelos was the best man to handle the aftermath of the disaster. He negotiated the favorable Lausanne Treaty and insisted on Turkish withdrawal from Crete and Macedonia. He also tried to turn the page in bilateral ties. He combined patriotism, courage and pragmatism. A combination that has never failed Greece.