11: Greater Hellas and the Overseas Greeks
<< 10: Beetle-Browed Bratianu and the Rumanians || 12: Armenian Disaster >>
December 4, 1918
Even at this early stage of the diplomatic battle I have been drawn into the circle in
which Venizelos, the Greek Premier, exercises his fascinating and, as many think, his
dangerous influence. Last week he came to the Colonel, ostensibly to place before him some
documents, very illuminating he thought, as to the actual conditions within the Reich. I
was called in to test the translations and found that many of them were misleading.
Sighing, the Greek leader said:
`"When you were studying at Heidelberg and Bonn, I was hiding from the Turkish
zaptieh in the mountain caves of my native Crete. For months I never saw a book. What
chance had I to study and to learn. What a handicap this is to my country."
I consoled the great man by insisting that his years of guerilla warfare in the
mountains had resulted in the reunion of Crete with Old Greece and that now "he was
on the eve of achieving Greater Hellas, the dream of his people for centuries."
[Eleutherios Venizelos, whose political fortunes rose and fell with sensational
rapidity, bitterly opposed the pro- Bulgarian, pro-German sympathies of King Constantine.
When that monarch was ousted in 1917, Venizelos formed a ministry and led Greece into the
war on the Allied side. One of the most popular delegates to the Conference, he survived
exile, death sentence, wars, and revolutions to die in 1936 still a controversial figure.]
When this was out of the way, the charming old buccaneer put his arm on my shoulder and
said: "Alas, none of my staff knows German and I have come across an important volume
in that language by a Herr Oppenheim. Some years ago he traveled in Asia Minor and he
enumerates the purely Greek villages that he found there. His work is that of an impartial
scientist and his researches were made to ascertain the truth, not for propaganda
purposes. And now every night when my daily task is done with the aid of a French-German
dictionary I dig out the facts which his travels have brought to light. Would you be so
kind as to come to my apartment this evening and check up on the accuracy of the
translations I am making under these difficult circumstances?"
I went to his hotel in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe that night, and indeed the two
following nights also found me busily engaged there. We extracted from the volume
everything that was comforting to the Greek cause. We followed Oppenheim from the
Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf, and along this path of empire his trail was dotted with
the ruins of imperial cities which once were great and of vigorous Hellenic settlements
that gave promise of a glorious renaissance. The Greek statesman was profuse in his thanks
for my assistance but, as a matter of fact, the obligation, if any, was on my side. A few
days later the resulting report, setting forth the extent and numbers of the Greek
colonies in the disputed territory, was filed with the Supreme Council. In his compilation
I thought that Venizelos stressed the Greek talking points and left out some information
that was not helpful to his cause. But that was to be expected, and I have no doubt the
members of the Council discounted it.
The charming Venizelos is greatly distressed at the present situation. He has most
certainly the good will of all who know him, but is that really helpful? He enjoys the
sympathy and the esteem of all the delegates and all the plenipotentiaries, but also they
fear him because of his well-known and incontestable charm. Perhaps we shall all have to
change our measure of success. Is charm as potent in securing results as nuisance values?
This is the thought that is evidently uppermost in the mind of the great Greek as today he
surveys the progress that has been made toward a Greater Rumania and the meager harvest
that has been realized down to the present by himself and the advocates of a Greater
Hellas. When the uncouth and beetle-browed Bratianu comes barging in, the
plenipotentiaries seem to think that no price is too great to pay to get rid of the
fellow. But when Venizelos comes in they say, "I must be very careful. This fellow
can conjure a bird out of a tree." And so they harden their hearts and turn a deaf
ear to his pleas. In this instance at least nuisance value apparently does outweigh charm.
January 22, 1919
Venizelos has had a series of long talks with the Colonel during the past week. He is
evidently greatly perturbed over the outlook which seems to me, and evidently to him also,
rather nebulous. He is convinced that Wilson will not accept for America a mandate for
Constantinople and the control of the Straits that has been offered. Of course, he was
never an outspoken advocate of this arrangement, although he did riot openly oppose it. He
was evidently convinced that, if accepted, in a short time Washington would tire of this
responsibility and withdraw after things had settled down, and then Greater Greece would
emerge. Now he thinks that the President has been won over to another plan, one far from
favorable to Greek aspirations, and that this plan will shortly be submitted to the
Supreme Council. He would like to have it reshaped ("reformed" he calls it)
before it reaches this stage.
Last evening, at the suggestion of the Colonel, Frazier had Venizelos and myself to
dine at his charming apartment on the Avenue du Bois. The nerves of the Greek Prime
Minister are evidently worn to a frazzle, and we did not get away until long after
midnight. While greatly condensed, I think these notes which I made on my return to the
Crillon do justice to his plea, although they are not always given in his words.
"Flesh and blood, not even Greek flesh and blood, can stand further delay in the
approach toward a settlement of our problems," he said. "For six months now we
have had two hundred and fifty thousand men mobilized and in the field at the request, I
might even say at the order, of the Allies. This has cost us millions upon millions of
drachmas which we haven't got, which we have borrowed and shall have to repay. Mobilized,
yes; but mobilized for what? We are not told. 'Wait and see, whisper the members of the
Supreme Council but of course quite unofficially. Apparently we are not mobilized to take
over Constantinople, although that has been our dream for centuries, or even for a large
slice of Thrace. Lloyd George points significantly to Smyrna and the fat lands around it
where there is such a large purely Greek population. 'There a great future awaits you, he
insists, but within the hour he is urging Italy to jump in there on our right flank, and
you can't help concluding that he has earmarked Adalia and the rich near-by districts for
"'What are we mobilized for?' I inquire, and he answers jovially: 'Have a little
patience. You will learn very soon. Be assured the Council is not neglecting your
problems. I can wait, but it is quite clear that the Greek treasury can't stand the
strain, nor, as a matter of fact, can our soldiers. Last September the morale of our men
was excellent. They were eager to fight and to go anywhere, but now they want to go home,
to get away from the stinking camps."
Then his great grievance came out. We could not answer it because it deals with an
alleged proposal of President Wilson about which House has not been informed and of which
we know nothing. Venizelos has what he regards as reliable information to the effect that
as a substitute to the American mandate he, Wilson, is proposing an international state or
administration for Turkey in Europe.
"This plan, if carried out," he maintained, "would take away from us
over 700,000 Greeks, that is, at least 28,000 in western Thrace, 306,000 in eastern Thrace
and about 360,000 in the vilayet of Constantinople. It is probably true that in this
territory there are about 700,000 Turks. This I admit is a problem, but the way to meet it
is not by placing this great number of our people under non-Greek sovereignty right next
door to Greece. The result would be constant agitation and I fear civil war.
"There are in Greece, in Thrace, and in Asia Minor about seven and a half million
Greeks," he continued, "but if this plan, which they ascribe to Wilson, is
approved by the Supreme Council, at least a million of our people, whom we thought to
'redeem,' would have to live outside of our boundaries and under an alien administration.
This should not be done. How can it be done? In its original form the proposal of an
international administration to cope with the problem of Constantinople had a simple and
limited objective which was to guarantee the freedom of the Straits for all time and
against all comers. As at first proposed, the Enos-Media line was to be the frontier with
Europe, but in its expanded form it takes away from us nearly a million of our people and
the resulting international stare could never prosper. Indeed, it seems to me to be
designed to keep alive the racial conflicts which we had hoped with the coming of peace
would subside if not wholly disappear."
M. Politis, the Greek Minister to France and a delegate to the Conference, came to the
Crillon this morning and lie certainly crossed the t's and dotted the i's of the Venizelos
talk, he read and left with House an informal memo to the following effect:
Unless the project now under discussion is rejected by the Supreme Council in a few
days, the Greek government will file a formal protest. I beg to remind you that M.
Venizelos brought our country into the war spontaneously without making any conditions. He
simply rallied Greece to the side of justice. Since the Armistice he has listened to the
counsels of the Allies and complied with all their demands at times against his better
judgment. Since Armistice Day he has mobilized three new divisions, making twelve
divisions under arms. As requested, he has in this way held himself in readiness to carry
out the instructions of the Conference, either in Smyrna or more recently, with due regard
to the menace of Bulgaria, in Thrace. It must be clear that this proposal [the changed
frontier with Turkey in Europe], ascribed unjustly we believe to President Wilson, if
approved, would place Greece and the present government in a most unenvialile position,
although its deserts are certainly greater than those of my of the other countries of
Southeastern Europe who have been so greatly favored, particularly Rumania. Unlike the
situation in many of the districts granted to the Bucharest government, the lands which we
should have, and are apparently in danger of losing, are occupied by Greek populations.
In conclusion Politis said: "What I am about to say is not authorized by M.
Venizelos, but it is so important that I think you will pardon my indiscretion - if it is
one. If this plan is approved, the first result would be the fall of the present
government in Athens and die return to power of King Constantine and the pro-Germans. Fven
now these people are saying that we have failed to secure the benefits we fought for and
were fully justified in demanding."
[1922. On the first of September following, the Supreme Council rejected the
plan, described it as one contained in Mr. Wilson s letter for "reasons ethnographic,
political, and moral," and requested Mr. Polk to draw the President's attention
"to the desirability of seeking a solution to this question more in harmony with the
general bases of the peace, one less unfavorable to Greece, and one more proper to avoid
future incidents in the Balkans." This was one of the least happy of the President's
interventions; fortunately the results were not as lasting as his abandonment of the
Austrians in the South Tyrol. ]
House had a long conference on the following day with the President and placed the
information contained in these memoranda before him. He came back still rather uncertain
that the plan which the Greeks opposed could be ascribed to Wilson. The President's memory
on the subject was apparently not quite clear.
February 10, 1919
M. Coromilas, the No. 3 Greek delegate, came in today and "after compliments"
made an open attack on my table of the languages spoken in that salad of wild tribes which
is the Macedonia of today. He objected to my "mother tongue" definition as to
the ethnic factors in this land of Babel and yet that is, as far as I can see, the only
yardstick we have to rely on.
"The situation is not as simple as you present it," he objected. "For
instance, you leave out the Bulgaro-phone Greeks (Bulgar-speaking Greeks) - and yet they
are an important factor in the complicated situation. They are of straight Attic descent
and the land is full of them; but to pacify their ferocious Slav neighbors, and so that
they may be understood in their daily life and pursuits, they have gotten into the habit
of speaking Bulgarian and many of them have lost all knowledge of their mother tongue.
What are you going to do about that?"
I did not commit myself, but I did tell him of an incident that occurred years ago when
I was engaged in my early linguistic studies on the Vardar. I was walking along the noisy
river with Spiridon Gopsevich. the apostle of Pan-Serbism in these parts. We met a poor
peasant staggering along the path under a load of wood for his cabin fire. Thinking to do
a little spot of propaganda, Gopsevich said: "My good man, what is your
nationality?" "Ia sam Bougarin" (I am a Bulgarian), the
thoughtless fellow answered. Gopsevich was nettled and blazed out: "My poor fellow!
you are mistaken. By the very words that come from your mouth I can see that you are a
Serb." I left them to argue it out and went on my bewildered way.
"That Gopsevich was just one of those common garden liars that were sent out by
Belgrade to complicate the situation," commented Coromilas, who from long service in
Chicago spoke good American.
"Perhaps, perhaps," I answered, "but he was not the only one."
If truth is to be found in Macedonia, it is at the bottom of a very, very deep well.
Certainly I never plumbed it.
March 8, 1919
Three of the strangest looking men wandered into my office yesterday morning. Their
dark mysterious faces and their stealthy tread excited the suspicions of our guardian
sailors, but soon they produced a letter from Venizelos which authenticated their mission.
The Greek Premier said they were the properly accredited representatives of the Overseas
Greeks, as yet "unredeemed," of the Euxine Pontus (better known in the western
world as the Black Sea). But on closer inspection of the letter from the Cretan
mountaineer and guerilla fighter, who in the last ten years has developed into the
smoothest of diplomats, it appeared that it was couched in more reserved terms than was
usual in his writings.
"Down to the present," he said, "our Council of State has not decided to
include the colonies or settlements which these gentlemen so worthily represent in the
picture of Greater Hellas which we are about to present to the Conference. Yet these, our
noble kinsmen, are in great need of supplies, indeed of even the bare necessities of life,
and I am writing in the knowledge that their unfortunate plight will excite sympathy in
America, from where alone help can come."
House told me to take them to the Food Administration; it was a walk of several
parasangs, but I enjoyed every foot of it. We talked about the misnamed Anabasis and it
was as fresh in their minds as the retreat from Mons in mine.
Hoover(1) received us with his most ferocious glare.
They were all of a tremble, and my knees, too, were knocking together. In a quavering
voice one of them told their story in a sort of bastard Italian, the lingua franca
of the Mediterranean, and I passed it on to Hoover as best I could. He told how all
navigation on the Black Sea had been arrested by the war conditions, and so no longer
could their usual foodstuffs reach them from South Russia; and how outside Trehizond
Anatolian bandits were lurking so that the peasants in the interior, the few who had any,
did not dare to bring their produce to town. With what seemed a contemptuous smile, Hoover
listened and then, just as I thought he was going to have us all thrown out through the
open window by the side of his desk, he said: "Tell 'em I will feed them. They must
be here tomorrow - sharp at nine - and we will work out the details."
For five minutes the Pontus Greeks confounded themselves in salaams and genuflections,
but Hoover paid no further attention to them. He had lit another cigar and with sheafs of
telegrams in his hand he was immersed in other tales of woe.
The delegation was so jubilantly excited that I did not dare to leave them alone in the
mazes of traffic outside. I walked them another parasang or two to a boulevard café and
ordered drinks which I hoped would prove soothing. Several of their countrymen who were
lurking in the background joined us and all burst our in paeans of victory. They agreed
that Mr. Hoover was the greatest man who had lived since Alexander and that I was
evidently a favorite son of Hermes. I wanted to hear something about the war as viewed
from their distant standpoint and also about their relations with Mother Hellas, and they
were not at all loath to enlighten me.
"We, too, helped not a little in winning the war," one asserted. "Of
course, our war chariots of the Homeric days were the fore-runners of the tanks."
Soon they were telling me the story of the fate of their nation, alas, for so many
centuries submerged by the unspeakable Turks.
"We represent the oldest overseas Greek colony in the world, several centuries
older than Marseilles; of course, to us the French port is a mere parvenu," they
insisted. "Our noble city of Trebizond [on the Black Sea], the Attic atmosphere of
which none of the barbarian hordes has been able to destroy, should really be called
Xenophonopolis. Now this is why: When Xenophon brought his men back from the Persian
campaign with Cyrus and once again they were all cheered by the sight of the Pontus,
'Here, he said, 'I want to found a great city a home for the overseas Greeks, a bulwark of
Hellenism against the barbarians on the dark shores of the Great Sea. At first the plan
was warmly applauded; with trained oxen the confines of the city that was to be were being
drawn when -ah! that was terrible, I should not tell it" -
But I insisted, and at last the sad tale came out.
"There had slipped into that noble band of Greeks an unreliable soothsayer, a
despicable sorcerer. We recall his name to cover at with infamy, and if you will allow me
I will now expectorate. (All three delegates spat in unison.) his name was Silanus of
Arcadia. He had cozened up to Cyrus and extracted much money from him and he did not care
about founding a noble city, a bulwark of civilization; he wanted to return home and
'revel' with his money. So he told the hoplites that Xenophon was deceiving them, that he
had no thought of building for them homes; no, he was planning to lead them back into the
deserts of Asia from which they had so recently and so narrowly escaped. And that sorcerer
was a cunning man. Every time he consulted them, the entrails told the same story. They
said, "Go home. So the great plan was defeated, or rather postponed for several
generations, and Xenophon returned to Sparta where, though broken-hearted over the failure
of his project, he had a good time hunting and raising dogs and writing histories."
Stories of the founding of cities almost always start controversy, and this story of
how Trebizond was or was not founded is no exception to the rule. One of the delegates
would not admit that when the Ten Thousand reached the sea the shore where the noble city
now stands was a lonely strand.
"It was not like that," he insisted. "Ours has been a noble city, a
Greek colony since the dawn of history, long, long before Troy. It is recorded in our
archives that when the Ten Thousand arrived they were escorted by the City Elders to the
Shrine of Hercules and there they made appropriate sacrifices to the conductor who had led
them, not unscathed, but still safely, through many dangers, to the dancing sea."
Quite an argument now arose, but I brought it to a conclusion by the statement that by
going back to Xenophon their claims would hive priority over all other colonial
adventurers. It would most certainly suffice.
A few hours later Venizelos came back and thanked us warmly for bridging over the gap
between Hoover and the Euxine Pontus.
"But I have told them that I cannot claim the south shore of the Black Sea, as my
hands are quite full with Thrace and Anatolia. I told them to 'go home, make all the money
you can, and send it back to the mother country. If you do that, we shall always cherish
you' - and they went away well pleased." Then, as an afterthought, the Greek Premier
said: "Often it seems to me wiser, and certainly more helpful, to have commercial
marts rather than political colonies beyond the seas. But for the contributions that came
from them in a steady stream we never could have faced the financial strain of this cruel
and most costly war. It was our merchants in Cairo and Constantinople, in Liverpool and in
Norfolk, Virginia, who kept us afloat."
March 12, 1919
As is now only too evident, it was unwise of me to communicate to my colleagues of
Colonel House's "family" the flattering tributes that were showered upon me by
the grateful delegates from the Euxine Pontus. They had hailed me as "Stephen,
garland-crowned son of Hermes," and, of course, it was after all no mean feat to
secure food from Mr. Hoover, or at least the promise of it, in twenty-four hours. I was
also, I think, deserving of praise in squelching the plan of the delegates, which they
developed as I regaled them with drinks at Weber's, to re-establish the long defunct
empire of Mithradates. With liquor on the table and food in sight, they were hard to hold
back. No, I told them, the atmosphere of the conference was unfavorable to the founding of
empires, and at last they agreed. But I fear they will take up the matter at a more
My envious colleagues have been looking up Hermes from whom, according to the Pontus
Greeks, I stem, and while the classical dictionaries admit that he was a personage of
great charm, and the tutelar saint of early diplomatists, the protector of travelers, of
heralds and interpreters, they also reveal that in some respects he was a rather
unscrupulous fellow. For instance, they relate that, while yet an infant, Hermes stole
fifty head of cattle from his brother Apollo, hid them away in a cave, and then calmly
returned to finish his nap in his cradle!
Hearing the uproar in his "family," the Colonel barged into the controversy.
He, too, looked into the classical dictionary and doquently took my part. "Great Zeus
approved of this juvenile exploit," was his decision, "and while admittedly
there was in some unfriendly quarters unfavorable gossip, still Hermes was the patron
saint of those who were 'strong of voice and retentive of memory.' In our family, that
means Bonsai." So my persecutors were silenced and slunk away. But I have learned my
lesson. Should in the future compliments be bestowed, in my experience a rare occurrence,
I may gloat over them - but only in private.
Not the most important, but certainly the most acute, of the Greek problems is how to
settle the boundaries with Albania. Both are roving people, like most of the Balkan
tribes. There are certainly many thousand Albanians in northwestern Greece, and there are
many sons of the Eagle in Italy, and indeed nearer home in New England. And, worse luck,
there are many thousand Greeks within the boundaries of Albania as established at the
Conference of London. Another complication which adds fuel to the discussion: there are
many important men in both Italy and Greece who boast of their Albanian ancestry.
Undoubtedly the problem could be solved by an exchange of population and some slight
frontier changes, but no one will accept either the one or the other. The Greeks will not
yield a village or an inch of territory, and my friend, Essad Pasha, says the plan
infringes on the Law of the Mountains and contravenes the Code of Lex, which he says has
been honored by his people since the days of Moses, the Lawgiver.
If possible, even more acute is the clash of the Albanians with the Yugoslavs in the
Kossovo district, where on the Field of the Blackbirds the Cross fell before the Green
Banners and the Serbs became the serfs of the Ottoman Turks. Certainly the Albanians, with
great arrogance, are encroaching on this territory, as I described their activities after
my visit in 1892, and it is only in the last few years that the long down-trodden Serbs
have had the courage to complain and at last to oppose the unwelcome intruders. This
region was undeniably a part of the great Serbian Empire in the thirteenth century. Should
it be restored to Belgrade now? Should California and New Mexico be restored to Spain or
to Mexico? I don't know. I fancy a statute of limitations will have to be established. Of
one thing I am certain: in both cases the restoration would require the employment of
large military forces. All would be well if friendly relations could be established
between the disputants, but unfortunately all the experts say this is impossible; on this
point at least they are in full agreement.
1. Herbert Hoover was chairman of the American Relief
Administration, the 1918 counterpart to World War II's United Nations Relief and
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