The Greek Monarchy in Retrospect

By Nash, Michael | Contemporary Review, September 1994 | Go to article overview

The Greek Monarchy in Retrospect

Nash, Michael, Contemporary Review

AN expert on royal security wrote in 1910: 'A royal crown may sometimes seem heavy, even under the radiant skies of Greece'. The convoluted and sometimes violent history of the modern Greek monarchy has been further explored in a new book, just published by John van der Kiste, King of the Hellenes. What seems to emerge from this and other studies, and indeed from the present dilemma of the former King over his nationality and possessions, are certain common threads. These run through the history of the restored Greek state from its re-emergence in 1827. It was only of course in name, in geography and in folk memory, that the Greece of 1827 bore any resemblance to the ancient classical state, or even to the Byzantine state finally extinguished in 1453. This perhaps is one of its fundamental flaws and the cause of much psychosis and schizophrenia in modern Greek thinking. Too much water had flowed under the bridge; the Greek persona had become clouded and changed by the long centuries of Ottoman occupation and Western European ambition. How could it be otherwise? Was Britain the same after four centuries of Roman occupation?

The second thread is then that of foreign domination and manipulation. Greece may not have been occupied since 1827, (except by the Germans during World War II), but the ever present interference of foreign powers remains. Greece was too small, too underdeveloped, too dependent for it to be otherwise. This naturally has bred resentment, xenophobia and suspicion, mostly and naturally towards Turkey, as the successor of the old Ottoman masters. The neurosis remains even during the 1994 presidency of the European Union, when despite this prestigious occupancy it has been threatened with being taken to the European Court. It remains volatile, unstable and capricious. It is not surprising therefore that this attitude should be turned upon its own politicians and especially upon its own heads of state. Certain states retain a very close involvement with Greece: Britain, France and Russia pre-eminently, closely followed by Germany and to a lesser extent Italy. Having thrown off the Ottoman yoke, it was the Great Powers, France, Britain and Russia, who, by the London Protocol of 1830, recognized the independence of Greece, and expected a 'Sovereign independent Prince' to be chosen as King of Greece.

A favourite candidate was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg, the widower of the heiress to the British throne, Princess Charlotte. But his father-in-law. George IV, was appalled by the offer of the Greek crown to 'the suave, calculating Marquis Peu-a-Peu', as he called him. 'How could the government be such fools as to think he could be of any use?' Leopold withdrew, and later accepted the crown of the newly created state of Belgium, in a way a greater risk even than Greece. It was, as modern Belgians admit, 'an artificial construct', and perhaps bound to dissolve into new forms in the end, like Yugoslavia. This of course simply compounds the interference and manipulation of the Great Powers over the little ones during the nineteenth century and beyond. Newly created crowns were hawked round the courts of Europe and not only to princes, but sometimes to 'gentlemen' and even those without titles. This was not new: one has only to think of a Hanoverian prince coming to Britain in 1714, or a French prince to Spain at the same time. But in the nineteenth century it almost became a mania: new crowns for Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, Belgium, Spain and later Albania, Yugoslavia and attempts in Portugal and Croatia. King-making was part of policy, and it is instructive to remember that in 1814 when Napoleon abdicated for the first time, 'with the exception of Switzerland, there was only one Republic in the world, while among the States of Europe, England was the only one really constitutionally governed'.

Thus king-making came together with empire-building in 1830, for Britain had, since 1814 (and in practical terms before that) control of a string of Greek islands, the Ionian islands, which had been erected into an experimental republic -- unusual for Britain! …

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