Πάλι με χρόνια με καιρούς, πάλι δικά μας θα ‘ναι!
“Once more, as years and time go by, once more they shall be ours.”
Ever since the Ottoman Turks had conquered Constantinople in 1453, Greeks had yearned for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. When that independence came in 1832, it was only a fraction of ethnic Greeks that became free. Only southern Greece was part of the newly independent Kingdom of Greece, while the vast majority still lived under Ottoman rule. The mission to rescue them would consume Greece for the next century.
The term Megali Idea (Μεγάλη Ιδέα) first appeared in 1844, when Greek Prime Minister Ioannis Kolettis described Greece as “any land associated with Greek history or the Greek race.” This Megali Idea (or “Great Idea” in English) would dominate Greek politics until the 1920s. The goal was to recover the irredentist Greek populations still inside the Ottoman Empire and also to restore the Byzantine Empire, the last great “Greek” polity.
To Constantinople, Not Athens
Although Western European interest in ancient Greece helped shift the attention of the Greeks to their ancient roots, most Greeks identified more closely with the Byzantine Empire than the Greece of Athens, Sparta, and Alexander. The primary identifier of the Greeks was their Orthodox Christian religion. Religion, not race, was the major form of identity in the Ottoman Empire, which undoubtedly influenced Greeks during the 400 years of Ottoman rule. In addition, the term Greek had negative pagan connotations in previous centuries. When Constantinople fell to the Turks, most Greeks still thought of themselves as Romans, since the Byzantine Empire was, in their eyes, a direct continuation of the Roman Empire. For example, when Greek political thinker Rigas Feraios thought of a Pan-Balkan federation in the late 18th century, he had the Byzantine Empire in his mind. The capital of the federation was to be Constantinople.
When most Balkan nations were achieving their independence in the 19th century, they were thinking about their great medieval empires. While the Serbs and Bulgarians could only really look back to one period of history, Greeks had two options: classical Greece and Byzantium. Not only was Byzantium closer in time and memory, Byzantines also had more in common with 19th century Greeks than the ancients did. They spoke a more familiar type of Greek and they were Christian. The glittering capital of the Byzantine Empire had been Constantinople, which was still under Ottoman rule and was also the Ottoman capital.
Constantinople had inspired countless individuals from across the globe; travelers’ tales are replete with the golden domes of the city, the stunning palaces, and the throng of people. Although it had faded under the late Byzantines, it was a thriving world capital again under the Ottomans. In comparison, Athens was a provincial backwater, which it had effectively been since late Roman times. Greeks looked towards the world capital with which they identified, not a dusty village with millennia old ruins. Guided partially by the interest of the European Great Powers that had helped Greece gain its independence, Athens was chosen as the new Greek capital in 1832. But the greatest aim of the Megali Idea was the recapture of the true Greek capital, Constantinople. As Kolettis had put it, “Constantinople is the great capital, the dream and hope of all Greeks.”
A Century of Progress
Greece’s expansion was slow, but steady. Its first territorial acquisition after independence was when Britain handed over the Ionian Islands to the new Greek king, George of Denmark, in 1864. When George I (r. 1863-1913) had been crowned in 1863, his title exuded the Megali Idea. Unlike his predecessor, King Otto (r. 1832-1862), his title was not King of Greece, but rather King of the Hellenes. In declaring that he was king of all Greeks, not just the Kingdom of Greece, Greece sent a message to the world.
In the aftermath of negotiations at the Treaty of Berlin (1878), the Ottomans handed the region of Thessaly over to Greece in 1881. Greeks still inside the Ottoman Empire were becoming restless and starting to rebel, notably in Crete. When Crete rebelled in 1897, the Greeks sent military assistance. The Turkish army marched to the border and routed the Greek army. Greece was forced to give up some territory along the border and pay a large indemnity. Crete, however, was partially freed: the Great Powers, hoping to solve the Cretan Question, made Crete an autonomous unit inside the Ottoman Empire, guaranteed by an international military force and the appointment of King George as High Commissioner of the Cretan State.
After the Greek military defeat in the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, the Greeks regrouped. Eleftherios Venizelos, a native Cretan, became the Greek prime minister in 1910. He was a leading proponent of the Megali Idea and probably also the most influential Greek politician of the 20th century. He allied Greece with other Balkan states against the Ottomans, and he reaped the rewards when the Balkan League crushed the Ottoman Empire in the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). Epirus, most of the Aegean islands, and Macedonia were reconquered by Greece, including the major city of Thessaloniki. Crete was also formally annexed.
But King George was assassinated while visiting the newly captured Thessaloniki in 1913 and his son, Constantine took the throne. Constantine I (r. 1913-1917) was also known as Constantine XII, the successor to the final Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos. He was the Megali Idea personified. When World War I erupted the next year, Greece initially stayed neutral. Constantine was pro-German, however, while Venizelos was pro-Allies. Their disagreement split the nation in the National Schism. Venizelos was dismissed, but set up his own government in northern Greece with Allied support. The pressure forced Constantine from power and Venizelos emerged on top. Greece joined the Allies and the Thessaloniki front proved vital for breaking the Central Powers in the Balkans.
The Dream Shatters
Greece’s entry into World War I paid off. Greece received Western Thrace from Bulgaria and in the Treaty of Sevres received Eastern Thrace and Ionia, in Anatolia, from the defeated Ottomans. These territories almost went to the very gates of Constantinople. Venizelos began the Asia Minor Campaign, a push to conquer Greek areas of Asia Minor. Greek forces landed in the Ionian city of Smyrna, a major port with a large Greek population, and subsequent offensives were successful in establishing Greek control over the western and northwestern parts of Anatolia.
The rise of Turkish nationalists under Mustafa Kemal presented a new problem, as the Turkish nationalists wouldn’t accept the terms of the Treaty of Sevres. Greek forces were mostly successful, however, until the Greek government changed in late 1920. King Alexander (r. 1917-1920) died without an heir and Constantine (r. 1920-1922) returned. Venizelos was defeated in the 1920 elections and fell from power. The subsequent purge of Venizelos supporters from the army in Asia Minor undermined the effectiveness of the army. In addition, Greek forces were already horribly overextended. The Turks under Kemal started to defeat Greek forces and push them back. The Battle of Sakarya (1921) halted the Greek advance for good.
A stalemate ensued for the next year, during which time the war became increasingly unpopular in Greece, some Greek forces were withdrawn, and the Turks received financial backing from Soviet Russia. When the Turks launched a counter-attack in 1922, it was a swift mop-up operation. The Greek army was decimated at the Battle of Dumlupınar, fleeing Greek soldiers were captured or cut down, and Turkish forces marched on Smyrna. While both Greek soldiers and local Greeks fled to the docks, the Turkish soldiers burned the city.
With their dreams of a restored Byzantium up in flames, the Greeks, along with the rest of the Allies, signed a new treaty, the Treaty of Lausanne, with the Turks in 1923. They returned Eastern Thrace, Ionia, and the rest of their short-lived Anatolian conquests to Turkey. As part of the treaty, Greece and Turkey exchanged populations: over a million Greeks were removed from Turkey and sent to Greece while 400,000 Muslims from Greece were sent to Turkey. With most of the Greek population removed from Turkey (with the exception of Constantinople), Greece’s Megali Idea claims to irredentist Greeks were shattered.
The Megali Idea died a hard death on the burning docks of Smyrna and in the meeting rooms in Lausanne. The New York Times’ article covering the story had the headline “Only Ruins Left in Smyrna.” Ruins were also all that was left of the Megali Idea. It did occasionally rear its head again in the 20th century. The dictatorship of Ioannis Metaxas (1936-1941) proclaimed itself the Third Hellenic Civilization and even conquered parts of Albania during the Greek counter offensive against Mussolini before being pushed back by German forces. Greek-Turkish fighting over Cyprus and the question of Enosis (union) with Greece was a burning issue from the 1950s. But when the ruling Greek military junta tried to force Enosis in 1974, the Turkish army invaded and crushed the Greek forces. The junta fell from power in Greece shortly after.
Today, the Megali Idea seems distant. It was an extreme expression of nationalism which sought the resurrection of Greek glory in the form of the Byzantine Empire. But while it effectively died in 1923, the desire to reclaim lost glory could still come back. The ultranationalist far right Greek political party Golden Dawn has said that Istanbul will be Greek. Cyprus has been in ever more intense negotiations for its reunification; Greek ideas of irredentism could rear their head if this reunification and withdrawal of Turkish forces took place.
The Megali Idea, as an expression of extreme nationalism and irredentism, was a dangerous force whose effects account for a significant part of Greek-Turkish animosity. While the desire to restore a now largely forgotten empire could in some cases even be considered noble, the forces it unleashed weigh more strongly on modern life and politics than the Byzantine Empire or its memory. But in its own way, the Byzantine Empire made one last mark on world history through the Megali Idea. The memory of the medieval empire and the irredentist desire to restore it changed foreign relations and the world.