A Personal View of Eleftherios Venizelos from 1902 until 1933 as Recorded in Nikos Kazantzakis’s Selected Letters

Peter Bien
We obviously know a great deal about Eleftherios Venizelos (1864–1936), partially owing to the prize-winning study of his early life by Lily Macrakis. But I wonder if many biographies of him record the very personal type of reaction that is revealed in a number of Nikos Kazantzakis’s selected letters. Having recently prepared an edition of these letters (which here are quoted with some omissions and editorial manipulations), I am in a position to demonstrate Kazantzakis’s reactions, which veer back and forth from negative to positive, often resting temporarily in a “middling” position.
The very first mention comes in a letter of December 18, 1902. Kazantzakis, nineteen years old, is in Athens attending law school, and is writing to a high school friend who is still in Crete. His view is entirely negative. “Shame on the blood that adorns those famous crags of ours,” Kazantzakis fulminates. “Venizelos’s megalomania and egotism, the personal passion and humility of the others, will destroy Crete.” The background is of course the arrival in 1898 of Prince George of Greece (1869–1957), the second son of King George I, as High Commissioner of Crete, which had been declared an autonomous state under the suzerainty of the Ottoman sultan. Venizelos served Prince George as his minister of justice from 1899 to 1901; however, disagreeing with him over the question of whether Crete should be united with Greece, he was dismissed and then assumed leadership of those advocating such union (enosis). In this he was opposed by Andonios Michelidakis (1843–1923), who had fought in the risings of 1866 and 1878, had headed various revolutionary committees, and was president of the Cretan legislature in 1901 and also in 1903, when Kazantzakis wrote again, this time playfully and at considerable length, about going to see the aged Theodoros Deligiannis (1826–1905), then prime minister of Greece (he was assassinated in 1905 by a professional gambler in revenge for measures taken by the government against gambling houses). In this letter, dated February 7, 1903, we find Kazantzakis in a “middling” position regarding Venizelos and the whole question of enosis. “I was sitting in a café eating my sweet,” he begins:
… when suddenly Fanourakis arrives and grabs my hand. ‘Come on, get up!’ he shouts at me. ‘Let’s go to see Deligiannis. All the students for Venizelos are there.’ ‘But I don’t support Venizelos.’ ‘You want me to go by myself?’ ‘OK, I’ll go—for fun.’ So off I go. We get there and see about twenty Cretans, -akis this, -akis that. We bang our walking sticks on the ground. What’s the Old Man of the Morea [i.e., Deligiannis] going to do? A geezer, an aged nincompoop. He was on his feet when we came. The Old Man listened without moving. You can guess what they must have been saying to him: ‘There aren’t two views; everyone wants union with Greece.’ ‘Gentlemen,’ replies the Old Man, ‘are you all from Crete?’ ‘You bet we are!’ ‘I’ve been asked by Mr. Venizelos to study this question, but I always notice something missing. Why doesn’t Mr. Venizelos declare officially that he renounces his idea?’ We left. What a disappointment! Deligiannis came out publicly and clearly against Venizelos. It was decided to keep this visit secret. Thus I tell you all this under two conditions: (a) that you don’t say a single word about politicians in your letters, allowing only me to write impartially, since I don’t belong to any political party; (b) that what I’m writing you remains confidential. What goes on with politics in Crete today! How dismal that situation is, my friend! I fear for Crete. I’m neither for Venizelos nor for Michelidakis. And I weep because of the audacious egotism of the one and the small-mindedness of the others. What a shame, my friend, what a shame that so much blood ornaments our fatherland!
As is well known, all this led to the Therisos Revolution of March 10 [Old Style] / March 23 [New Style], 1905, declaring enosis accomplished. It was led by Venizelos in opposition to Prince George, who resigned in July 1906 owing to Venizelos’s success. Three weeks after the Revolution, Kazantzakis was in Iraklio writing to a friend in Voriem:
I passed by the City Hall and the prefecture headquarters. The Greek flag was waving. So far no one has dared to lower it. You should see how joyfully it plays with the breeze and sweetly kisses the invisible shadows that will descend without fail from the heavenly Cretan Pantheon in order to worship the flag. When Polemarkhakis raised it at prefecture headquarters, he was weeping like a child. Georgiadis took leave of his senses. He told me yesterday evening that he kept clutching his head and banging it against a wall to keep from losing it! [1]
The letter continues sarcastically about Prince George, who much later, thanks to his marriage in 1907 to Princess Maria Bonaparte (1882–1962), was of great help to Kazantzakis in countering opposition in Greece to his novel The Last Temptation. But that was very far in the future for the twenty-two-year-old writing in the heady aftermath of Therisos. “Everyone here worries,” Kazantzakis tells his friend in Vori.
What will [the Cretan] parliament do? Well, Michelidakis’s motion was voted 32 to 25. The Greek government responds at once, ‘Declare Union.’ Union is declared the next day. As for the prince—his Royal Highness, that still-blossoming rod, the ‘Messianic Angel of God’s Great Will’—he was in a nice fix because he had announced officially in advance that he intended ‘to comply with parliament’s decision, whatsoever it may be.’ That poor devil: how could he ever have wished for what was destined to happen to him! Letters from Venizelos came tonight. Things are going very well, he says. He hopes—is almost certain—that Union will take place. Even if Union does not take place, we’ll still be pleased that the Therisos Revolution occurred. Tonight, as soon as the Therisos people finish, we’ll begin to drink against those who opposed Therisos: ‘Manoli, treat us tonight for that wretch Michelidakis, so we can drink against his health. Let him see!’ Long live the Revolution!
Union did of course take place, but not officially until ordained after the first Balkan War by the Second Meeting of the London Peace Conference, in May 1913. Meanwhile Venizelos, in Athens since 1910 as prime minister of Greece, supported Greece’s involvement as an ally of Bulgaria in this war against the Ottoman Empire. Kazantzakis, having completed his university training and also his post-graduate studies in Paris, was back in Athens in 1912, eager to take part in the war after Greece’s entry in mid-October 1912. Two weeks later, he wrote to his sister Eleni in Crete:
Venizelos told me that there is no more need for partisan bands. Consequently, since it is impossible for me to depart as a partisan, I’ll leave for the Thessaloniki army, perhaps tomorrow evening. I’ll write you without fail before I go. You shouldn’t be at all worried; it’s shameful for me to remain as I am, working in the security of the Ministry of War. There’s no danger that a European war, etc. will break out. Everything will go well. What Venizelos has just done is great, a miracle. This traitor has doubled the size of Greece, giving her Epirus, Macedonia, Crete, the islands. His name will be immortal. Without a doubt he is the greatest statesman in the world today. And we are fortunate that we have been deemed worthy of viewing these miracles in our day. I am going to try to accompany the Greek troops that will be advancing to join forces with the Bulgarians. Maybe we’ll enter Constantinople. No one knows yet.
He left for Thessaloniki on November 7th. But the war, at least in its first phase, ended just a month later with victory for Greece and its allies; thus on December 6th Kazantzakis sent another letter to Eleni:
It’s now more than ten days since I wrote you, hurriedly relating my troubles. Journeys, marches, repeated fatigue, nights without sleep—and the upshot: here I am in Athens again, in Venizelos’s private office. Now that Venizelos has gone to London [for the peace conference], our duties have decreased somewhat and consequently I’m beginning to find time to write you. A few days ago I was drowning in work. Venizelos called me back precipitously in order to answer the letters and telegrams he receives—his correspondence. Nevertheless, despite all the labor I am fortunately entirely well, and fatter.
We skip now to 1915 and a big surprise: Venizelos’s resignation as prime minister. The problem was the first world war, in which Greece was still neutral, with King Constantine (1868–1923) arguing for continued neutrality whereas Venizelos felt that Greece should enter the war allied with the Triple Entente—United Kingdom, France, and Russia—against the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria. Venizelos was forced by the king to resign; however, when he won the elections of June 1915 he was restored as prime minister in August of that year but was made to resign again in October. Kazantzakis wrote to his sister Eleni on February 26, 1915, after the first resignation:
Things have taken a bad turn; Venizelos has fallen. You cannot imagine my chagrin. With him, all the people who were in power—and were my friends—have also fallen. Now everyone is unknown to me, and hostile. But this is nothing. I feel sorry for Greece because only Venizelos is worthy of governing it. Soon, at the beginning of May [actually June], there will be elections, and I hope that Venizelos will be returned again. Many friends of mine will stand for parliament, and I too would be willing because it [would be] an opportunity for me to fight in parliament now that Venizelos has such need of friends. So be it. I’ve made you dizzy with politics. I plan to take my desired trip very shortly. But Venizelos’s fall has been worrying me, and I have postponed the trip a little.
Here begins Kazantzakis’s hate-love relationship to Greece and his desire somehow to establish himself elsewhere, preferably not in Europe. He had spent time in Switzerland close to his friend Yannis Stavridakis (1891–1919), the Greek counsel in Geneva, but he then wanted to go further east. On November 1, 1918 he asked Stavridakis if he would intervene with Venizelos to get Kazantzakis appointed “somewhere in the East with the title of consul: in Beirut, Jerusalem, or still further away, but always in the East. It’s a psychological necessity that I have, because either here or in Athens I will die from the boredom of inaction...” This never happened. What did happen, however, was Kazantzakis’s appointment to head a team to rescue Greeks who were being persecuted in the Caucasus region of newly Bolshevik Russia. Having accomplished this, he then went to Versailles to report to Venizelos, who was there to help negotiate the peace treaty ending the First World War. On the boat returning from the Caucasus, Kazantzakis wrote to Stavridakis on 15/28 August 1919 that he had heard that Venizelos “had enthusiastically accepted arming the Greeks, but that a report calling this solution impracticable has kept him from deciding.” He noted as well that he had “the memorandum on the entire refugee question ready for Venizelos.”
Having arrived in Paris, he remembered his life there as a student and added, “The coquettes wonderfully gorgeous, like images of Astarte, like the Acropolis’s Caryatids, brightly colored, bejeweled, totally sexy.” He discovered that Venizelos was gone, conferring in the countryside with Lloyd George.” But Venizelos returned three days later. “I managed to see him almost the same day,” Kazantzakis reports:
Very tired, his mind focused entirely on the Bulgarian treaty, on Thrace. ‘You see me tired.’ (At first I sat opposite him and looked at him without speaking.) ‘I’ve grown very tired. I know that you have come concerning a very important matter, and I’ll listen to you with complete attention.’ I spoke to him in a gentle voice, quietly, simply, with numbers, using short sentences. I was entirely at ease and master of the subject. Sometimes he interrupted me. ‘Why? Why that? How do you know?’ I kept answering him immediately, with abundant argumentation. It lasted more than an hour. He agreed to everything—but: ‘I am unable to make a decision. I am extremely tired.’
He instructed Kazantzakis to consult with Chrysanthos Philippidis (1881–1949), the Metropolitan of Trebizond.
In subsequent letters to Stavridakis, Kazantzakis reveals his allegiance to Chrysanthos owing to the latter’s anti-Venizelist position. This is probably the first clear indication of Kazantzakis’s dislike for his fellow Cretan. In addition, Kazantzakis was a great admirer of Ion Dragoumis (1878–1920), another anti-Venizelist, who was assassinated by pro-Venizelists on July 31/August 13, 1920, the day following a failed attempt to assassinate Venizelos in Paris. In October 1922, following the “Asia Minor Disaster” that befell the Greeks after their invading army’s defeat by the Turks, Kazantzakis reveals in a letter to his first wife, Galatea Alexiou (1886–1962), his distaste for Venizelos:
I still don’t know if this revolution [the coup led by Colonel Nikolaos Plastiras (1883–1953) on September 13/26, following the Asia Minor catastrophe] is the common people’s need ‘from below.’ Or is it perhaps once again the concern of certain people that expresses itself via the masses? In any case, it is a light: a pale glow of the huge conflagration to come—ours! I beg of you, please write me in detail not about the events but about the common people’s psychology. If Venizelos comes, will he be welcomed with shouts of joy by the same persons who expelled him? So be it! But is there perhaps some profounder change? Could hunger, blood, and shame have ploughed the people’s soul a little? There’s a great need. Above all, because Venizelos will come and will need to be countered it’s important that everyone in Greece doesn’t become a bootlicker all over again. We will be Greece’s free voice.
Relative stability did not return to Greek politics until Venizelos’s four years as premier from July 1928 to May 1932. The basic problem following the Asia Minor Disaster was that of republic versus monarchy; this led to numerous short-lived governments. King George II was forced to go abroad on a “leave of absence” and the monarchy was abolished by plebiscite in April 1924 during Alexandros Papanastasiou’s premiership. But instability continued. In June 1925 General Pangalos effected a coup that led to his dictatorship until General Kondylis and Colonel Napoleon Zervas effected another coup in August 1926. Kazantzakis’s general reaction was one of disgust. Returning to Athens from Italy in October 1926, he wrote to Eleni Samiou (1903–2004), who was to become his second wife, “Greece did not give me any pleasure. The people strike me as stunted, ugly, drowning in petty politics. They discuss Venizelos eternally in the streets; on the walls are election platforms and the wretched mugs of the candidates.” But Kazantzakis’s own situation was not improved with Venizelos back in power, as we see from his letter of
January 4, 1930 to his friend and disciple Pandelis Prevelakis (1909–1986):
I wrote Papandreou [George Papandreou (1888–1968), minister of education in Venizelos’s government, a bosom friend of Kazantzakis’s] about the other plan we had regarding the Institute of Intellectual Collaboration. It depends on Maris [Yeorgios Maris (1882–1949), MP from Iraklio from 1915 onward and cabinet minister in various governments], who is a friend of mine, and on the Foreign Ministry, which considers me a Bolshevik, and naturally on the pantopatronus [the protector of all—namely Venizelos], who has a mysterious antipathy toward me. Didn't Saridakis's nephew keep saying that I was ‘the disgrace of Greece?’ Good God, why? Sometimes when I get up from my horrendous work after twelve and fifteen hours a day and observe my life for a split second, I say that a ‘saint’ could never have lived differently. A saint, or better, a hermit, and still better, a Stylite. But Venizelos doesn't understand anything, not even Thucydides [Venizelos had translated Thucydides], and if he's told that I want to be placed in the Institute as the representative of the Greek intelligentsia, he will utter hysterical screams. Of course Venizelos is everything. I wonder if he still feels his former antipathy toward me. I have no idea. But if he wishes it, our entire fate will be settled.
Needless to say, Kazantakis was never granted this position.
Kazantzakis’s final mention of Venizelos in his selected letters comes on 8 June 1933. It shows him maintaining his antipathy yet at the same time evidencing a modicum of his former respect. Although Venizelos’s republican government from 1928 to 1932 fostered a period of stability, the world-wide depression after the 1929 crash forced him to default on Greece’s national debt in 1932, whereupon he fell from office and was replaced by a monarchist coalition led by Panagis Tsaldaris (1868–1936), although he served again as prime minister, briefly, from 16 January until 6 March, 1933. “Of course you must know,” Kazantzakis writes to Eleni Samiou:
… that the royalists attempted to kill Venizelos on Kifisias Avenue, between Marousi and Athens. Two cars filled with assassins pursued his car for five kilometers and shot at him with revolvers, rifles, and machine-guns. Venizelos wasn’t hit. Four bullets struck his wife, but she’s not in danger. One of his Cretan bodyguards was killed; the automobile was riddled. People are in turmoil, Crete is boiling. I, who am so opposed to Venizelos, feel how revolting and shameful it is for them to pursue him like a beast traqué [a hunted animal]—this old man who doubled the size of Greece—and to shoot him with machine-gun bullets! Those Greeks are brutes. The situation here in Greece is horrible; the fatherland is headed for the abyss. I’m disgusted, furious. Surely there must be two Greeces. Their soldering together still has not happened and perhaps will not happen quickly. They are two immensely different souls, not that one is good and the other bad, but rather that the one is bad and the other worse. It’s terribly sad to see with what stupidity, passion, and malice the one Greece attacks the other.
The remainder of Venizelos’s life served, alas, to justify Kazantzakis’s bitter pessimism. After failing in an attempted coup, he fled to exile in France. The monarchy was restored in 1935. Venizelos died in exile in 1936 and his body was taken by ship directly to Crete, avoiding Athens so as not to cause an uproar there. Similarly, when Kazantzakis’s body was returned to Athens in 1957, authorities would not allow it to lie in state; thus it was carried immediately to his birthplace, Iraklio, where he was interred with honor. Now both of these remarkable Cretans are appreciated not only on their native island but also in the rest of Greece. Finally!


[ back ] 1. Heracles Polemarkhakis was a fellow student with Kazantzakis in high school, who accompanied Kazantzakis to the Caucasus in 1919. Emmanuel Georgiadis, a childhood friend, became president of the Iraklio Chamber of Commerce. He was executed by the Germans in June 1942 together with his two brothers.