Greece and the English: British Diplomacy and the Kings of Greece is the title of a rather short book by the Greek historian Panagiotis Dimitrakis recently published by Tauris Academic Studies as number 39 in their “International Library of Historical Studies”.
Although he summarises the early history of the Greek monarchy, the author deals mainly with the last three kings – Georgios II, Pavlos I and Konstantinos II – and their diplomatic relationships with Britain, which was of great importance to them. Britain initially believed that the monarchy was a force for stability in Greece, but Dimitrakis argues that the Greek royals “never considered themselves wholly Greek, failed to understand their subjects, and on many occasions would lament the latter’s mentality and attitudes” and that this was one of the causes for the troubles they landed themselves in, leading to their downfall.
It began already with Georgios I, who, in the author’s word, “interfered in politics, backed selected party leaders, appointing them premiers or ministers, and generally caused enough controversy to make any royal thoroughly unpopular”. His assassination in 1913 was followed by the First World War, the abdication of Konstantinos I (which Britain and France had pressed for) in favour of his second son Alexandros, the latter’s sudden death, Konstantinos’s return and second abdication and the enthronement and deposal of his eldest son Georgios II – all this in only eleven years.
The British still had faith in Georgios II when he returned to the Greek throne in 1935, viewing the monarchy as something which would “help to keep the country free of communist or socialist influence”. But the King soon landed himself in more trouble by implicitly supporting Ioannis Metaxas’s coup in August 1936, which established a dictatorship. The King’s support for Metaxas “undermined his legitimacy, and within a few years the ghost of the dictatorship would come to haunt the king and the royal family”.
The Second World War again found Georgios II in exile, heavily dependent on British support for his return to Greece. Yet he behaved in such a way that he managed to lose most of his friends and supporters in Britain; in the end Churchill was nearly alone in not deserting his cause. Churchill’s aide John Colville wrote that it “would be hard to find two worse advertisements for hereditary monarchy than George of Greece and Peter of Yugoslavia”. The American journalist C. L. Sulzberger found him “an amiable idiot without any feelings for Greece, its people or for politics”. Incredibly, King Georgios in 1941 asked Britian’s Foreign Minister Anthony Eden to intervene against Greek exiles in Egypt who he thought behaved disrespectfully towards the monarchy. “To put it simply, George wanted the British authorities to support him against Greek subjects who might have different ideas about the crown and the post-liberation Greek constitution”, the author sums up.
The issue of the King’s return to Greece after liberation was a long drawn-out struggle; the British eventually managed to persuade him to wait until after a referendum had made clear if he were wanted or not. He returned in the autumn of 1946 and died suddenly on 1 April 1947, to be succeeded by his younger brother Pavlos.
The chapter about his reign is tellingly titled “King Paul and Queen Frederica”. The new king and his wife, described as “an indiscreet, intrigue-loving ‘political animal’”, continued their predecessors’ exercise in unconstitutional monarchy. They had, in Dimitrakis’s words, “a tendency to speak openly to a degree unprecedented among heads of state. They wanted foreign leaders to understand that they were not just constitutional monarchs, but that they exerted considerable influence on foreign and domestic policy”. Particularly the Queen “made clear their intention to discuss Greek politics with foreign leaders without always consulting the government”. Queen Frederika had her private “back-channels” to several foreign leaders, which caused controversies when discovered by the Greek government.
“Taking into consideration the turbulence of Greek politics in the post-war era and her [Frederika’s] strong character, it was just a matter of time before she would cause the controversy that led to the resignation of the prime minister and thus to a constitutional crisis”, Dimitrakis states. About the King’s actions, the author writes: “Paul could not understand a very simple proposition: the head of state cannot ‘hate’ an elected Prime Minister and attacking [sic] him in public”.
This was a policy continued by Pavlos’s son, Konstantinos II, who succeeded to the throne in 1964, aged 23 and under strong influence of his mother. In the author’s word the young King “strongly believed in the prerogatives of the crown and in its ‘right’ to intervene in politics”. As we know, the difficult political situation in Greece in the 1960s ended with the colonels’ coup in April 1967. The author argues that the King “could have denied them the legitimacy they sought” and that his handling of the coup lost him the chance to “project [...] the image of the modern monarch whose role is to safeguard democracy”.
The American ambassador Robin Hooper summed up: “When King Constantine, young, inexperienced, and with few disinterested and competent advisers, succeeded to the throne [...] he was drawn into political manoeuvring to an extent quite inconsistent with the role of a constitutional monarch as it is envisaged in Western Europe; and while he should be given credit for his efforts, he must share a measure of responsibility for the political situation which led to the coup d’etat of 21 April 1967”.
Eight months after the colonels’ coup the King attempted a counter-coup which failed and which drove him into exile. Six years later he was deposed and in 1974 the Greek monarchy was abolished by a referendum. In 1976 the British ambassador in Athens revealed to a representative of the Greek government a royalist plot against the government which was not the ex-King’s initiative, but in which he was deemed to be implicated by not having discouraged it. This affair led Prime Minister James Callaghan to tell the ex-King not to take part in such conspiracies while he was resident in Britain.
While the British government with the passing of the years had come to look at the Greek royals with increasingly critical eyes, the British royal family strove to maintain cordial relations with their Greek counterparts – Queen Elizabeth II, herself married to a Greek prince, even consented to act as an intermediary between the King of the Hellenes and British and American leaders. Not all of their royal relatives were willing to do so. When King Konstantinos was deposed in June 1973, Queen Anne-Marie asked her mother to obtain information on foreign leaders’ attitudes during a meeting of NATO’s foreign secretaries in Copenhagen. That Queen Ingrid did not do so disappointed her daughter and son-in-law, who unlike Queen Ingrid did not know the limits of a constitutional monarchy.
Panagiotis Dimitrakis’s book is first and foremost a political history of the Greek monarchy and its diplomatic relations with Britain. This, and the author’s critical approach, makes it a refreshing contrast to more person-oriented and perhaps overly sympathetic works by authors such as Bo Bramsen or John Van der Kiste. The book seems to be based on meticulous research and is, as such, a solid historical work. But it seems quite one-sided, which makes one wonder if the author would be willing to say anything positive about the Greek kings and their work.
There are also some occasions when the author hints at stories he seems unwilling to elaborate on and which makes one wonder about their substance. He writes that Georgios II returned to Greece in 1935 “after a manipulated referendum had decided that the monarchy was to be restored”, but does not provide further details or state what he bases such a claim on. And there are some cryptic remarks, such as “there had always been a rumour – never confirmed – that Papagos had a blood connection with the royal family”, which is also left hanging, giving it the character of gossip not belonging in such a book. It is also quite obvious that the author is not a native English speaker and unfortunately the publisher has not done their job when it comes to ensuring the quality of the language and grammar in the book.