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King George the Second: An Enigmatic Figure in Modern Greek History

September 1, 2006


By Ioannis Michaletos in Athens

King George II assumed the throne of Greece in 1922. He ruled for only two years, but was later reinstated from 1935-1947. He was born in 1890 in the Royal residence of Tatoi in Athens, son of King Konstantinos I and Queen Sophia. The king died as the Greek head of state on April 1, 1947 in the then-Royal Palaces in Athens. Although George II was involved with the most trying and turbulent events of modern Greek history, his life and legacy are still relatively little known.

From King-in-Waiting to King in Exile

The young heir to the throne was educated at the Evelpides military academy and pursued higher military studies in the German Military Academy. At that time it was ordinary for the Royal Families in Europe to have their male members educated only in military schools and quite often they took part in wars, as was the case with George II. In 1913 during the Greek-Bulgarian War (the Second Balkan War) he served as a captain on the front lines, and accompanied his victorious father-Konstantinos I– who was the King of Greece, and so, commander of the Greek forces. Soon after, in 1914, young George was enjoying the hospitality of the British royal family, with which he cultivated strong bonds until his last days.

The alliances and potential alliances for the Greeks in the First World War caused a widening gap between the parliamentary government of Venizelos, who was eager to join forces with the Entente, and the VS, the royal family, who preferred neutrality and had strong affiliations with the Germans. The Greek royal family itself, of course, had German origins. It is also interesting to note that George’s mother Queen Sophia was the Kaiser’s sister. Like his father, George received military training in Germany.

The result of the Greek divide ultimately led to victory for Venizelos and the expulsion of the royal family in 1917. During his three-year exile abroad, George became engaged to the Romanian Princess Elisabeth and firmly clung to his royal credentials; he also used the period to expand his European high society network.

In 1920, just a few months after the signing of the short-lived Sevres Treaty that gave Greece control in Asia Minor, Venizelos spectacularly lost the elections and the royal family managed after a referendum to return to Greece. George subsequently married Elizabeth in 1921, whilst his sister Helena married the heir of the Romanian throne, Charles- thus cementing the good relations between their two states. Moreover, George II took part in the fateful Asia Minor military expedition and was made a colonel, responsible for drafting strategy for the troops upfront.

The expedition of the Greek Army in Anatolia resulted in catastrophe; after early gains, an overextension of forces resulted from entering too deep into the Anatolian landmass. This left the Greek army vulnerable and it was finally driven back to the sea by the resurgent Turkish nationalist forces led by Kemal Ataturk.

The dismaying news created a chaotic situation in Athens. A coup d’etat led by Greek officers resulted in the resignation of George’s father, and the elevation of George to the throne on September 27, 1922. During his short two-year residence as head of state, the young sovereign had to deal with the increasing unpopularity of the royal family as an institution in Greek society. He also witnessed the execution of six members of the Greek government charged with being responsible for the disastrous Anatolian campaign. Some of them were close allies of his; nevertheless, George II did not help them, preferring to stay on the sidelines.

George II as King and the Second Exile

In October 1923, after the Lausanne Treaty that created a new Mediterranean order and permanent boundaries, an attempt was made to overthrow the leaders of the 1922 revolution by several right-wing officers, including Metaxas, the would-be Prime Minister of Greece from 1936-1941. Even though George was not involved, he was easily accused of being the culprit, and was forced to leave Greece in December 1923. As could be expected, he went to Romania. In April 1924, the Hellenic Republic was proclaimed and George lost all rights to the Greek throne.

The second period of exile for the Greek king had strong implications that would influence Greek politics for years to come. First of all, George II divorced his Romanian wife and moved to Britain, where he took up residence in the storied Brown’s Hotel of London. During his stay in London from 1929-1935, George became an adherent of the British way of life and cultivated further his important relations with the English aristocracy, something that would play a major role in his future come-back in Greek public affairs.

Moreover, the exiled monarch traveled abroad regularly throughout the Greek Diaspora, in order to extract support. He managed to build a stern persona, an image as some sort of a firm and wise ruler capable of uniting a Greece so often characterized by fractiousness, instability and corruption. The marriage between his cousin, Princess Marina with the Duke of Kent further increased George’s popularity in Britain. During this time it is highly likely that the king-in-exile managed to win British support through skillfully managing his royal family relations.

The opportunity George was looking for appeared in 1935. An unsuccessful coup d’etat by Greek officers led by Colonel Plastiras changed the political climate in Greece, swinging the balance in favor of the monarchy. Meanwhile, the still mighty British Empire, fearing the expansion of the Italian and German powers, wanted to appoint a staunch supporter in one of the most important geo-strategic regions, the Balkans.

Thus, in November 1935 a referendum for the reinstatement of King George passed by a resounding 97 percent. This overwhelming approval initiated his second return to his country of birth. The reinstated king was able to have real popular support because the short-lived Greek Republic (1924-1936) was not successful. It collapsed in chaos leaving serious unresolved issues to be dealt with, such as social inequality, failures in foreign policy and general public disappointment and apathy.

Even though George II was not generally in favor of dictatorship, the unresolved political tensions in Greece, simultaneous with a growing militarization in Europe, proved to be decisive factors in that direction. On August 4, 1936, George signed a government paper that declared a state of emergency in Greece; in essence, a dictatorship was being established. It was led by the Prime Minister, Ioannis Metaxas, a longtime military officer well known for his monarchist sentiments.

Despite the fact that Metaxas was also in favor of the Germans, this fondness did not play a significant role in the actual governance of the state. The Greek army was almost completely loyal to the monarchy, and Metaxas was above all an officer loyal to his king.

The period from 1936-1940 was also characterized by an anti-Communist frenzy, fueled by concerns over the rising power of the then-Greek Communist Party. Furthermore, increased attention was paid towards forming efficient military forces and generally towards securing the nation’s defense in a time of grave omens. The infamous defensive lines of Metaxas were built on the Greek-Bulgarian frontier, as well as on numerous airfields and maritime stations across Greece.

When the Italian Army attacked Greece on October 28, 1940, the defiant Greeks were able to claim the first great victory that the Allied forces had won against the Axis since the beginning of the war. It increased the prestige of George II, who was very active in monitoring the progress of the military campaign against Italy. He also pressed the English in sending help to Greece, managing to redirect large British forces from the major front of North Africa, so vital to the British due to their interests in the Suez Canal.

On April 6, 1941 Greece denied access to German troops, and a much tougher campaign started. The Greek army, after several weeks of intense fighting, was defeated and German troops occupied Athens on April 27. At that time the king was determined to continue the resistance, despite lingering pro-German sentiment amongst the Greek political class. He formed a government under Emmanouel Tsouderos (a former opponent of the king’s), who also happened to be from the island of Crete- the place of the latest epic battle between the Greeks and the Germans.

On April 23, 1941, George II and his government left Athens and went to Crete to continue the fight. After fierce skirmishes known collectively as “The Battle of Crete” German paratroopers occupied Crete and George, along with most of his cabinet, narrowly escaped to Egypt and British protection. From that time onwards, London and Cairo were to play host to the Greek government-in-exile. Meanwhile, King George toured the world- including Great Britain, South Africa, Canada and the USA, trying to win support for Greece from the Allied governments and their peoples. He also declared the end of dictatorship and tried to compromise with his former political opponents.

The occupation by Germany brought major societal changes to the country. Greece saw the emergence of a renewed Communist Party and strong antimonarchist forces. When Greece was liberated in October 1944, the king didn’t return, due to the growing anti-monarchist popular sentiment- even though he did retain from abroad his royal status.

In December 1944, the first round of confrontations between the Greek government and the Communists broke out in Athens. The one-month struggle between them signaled just the prelude to a three-year civil war that raged from 1946-1949.

The political strife in Greece resulted in a virtual British occupation of the country. Fearing Soviet expansion and the Communist rise, the Allied powers sought to aid through all means necessary the government in the fight against the rebels. George’s final return was not accomplished until September 1946, and he lived only until April 1, 1947. During that short period of time, King George II experienced the beginning of the Greek Civil War, the enacting of the Truman Doctrine – the formal announcement of the Cold War – and the liberation of the Dodecanese after a generation of Italian occupation.

George II: His Importance and Legacy

George II was a king who lived throughout, and in some periods ruled over, some of the most important events in modern Greek history. In fact, he shaped them in ways that are still being felt in Greek life today. His pro-British stance led Greece to the Allies in WWII, resulting in a devastating German occupation- but an eventual victory in being firmly allied on the “right side’ of history in the world’s greatest-ever conflict.

This alliance was cemented, sometimes brutally, by the civil war that followed WWII. Yet George’s decisiveness against the Communist threat kept Greece firmly in the Western camp- a result that was clearly beneficial of the country, as history has borne out.

On the other hand, the king’s support for dictatorship helped keep alive a violent political climate in Greece, and the association of military power with politics condoned under George II was a recurrent phenomenon that haunted the nation again during the disastrous Colonel’s Regime of 1967, which led up to the Turkish invasion of Cyprus.

As a person, George II was a reserved, aloof character who never became truly popular, as his father and his grandfather (George I) had been. George II was more of a statesman, disinterested in the trappings of everyday life. George would be the only modern royal not to leave an heir, and his successor was King Paul, his younger brother.

To understand the broader international image and impact of a man who lived and traveled for such lengthy periods abroad, historians will have to examine more intensively George’s role in helping the Allies win the war, and his deep connections to the British royal family, which invested enough political capital to have George installed on the Greek throne thrice in less than a generation. It is more than certain that a thorough survey will someday unveil many more interesting facts and dimensions of the life and career of King George II, as both a man and a monarch.

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