Friday, June 11, 2010

93rd anniversary of King Constantine I's first abdication

On June 11, 1917, King Constantine I of the Hellenes went into exile in Switzerland. Constantine I had been in a precarious situation since the outbreak of World War I three years earlier. Despite close family and political ties to both the Allies and the Central Powers, Constantine had no desire to drag Greece into the war, especially since his kingdom had just concluded the victorious though costly Balkan Wars.

Both belligerents of the war were particularly insistent that Constantine allow Greece to join on their respective sides. The Allied Powers, made up of Britain, Russia and France, argued that Greece owed her very existence to them; indeed, it was the Great Powers that had established an independent Greece following its war of independence from Turkey, and in particular they were instrumental in placing Constantine's late father, King George I, on the Greek throne.

The Central Powers, dominated by the German Empire, felt Constantine also owed his loyalty to their cause. The Greek king attended military school in Germany, and, most glaringly, his wife Sophie was the Kaiser's younger sister. Though Constantine had expressed his admiration for the German military machine and its organized style of government, he had little personal affection for the Kaiser (the Kaiser had mercilessly bullied and threatened Sophie when she announced her intention to become Greek Orthodox shortly after marrying Constantine).

King Constantine's international standing took a beating as the war progressed. When the Germans attacked Serbia, Greece's decision to remain neutral instead of aiding their fellow Orthodox neighbors was viewed as cowardly by the rest of Europe. The Greek prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, defied his monarch by openly campaigning for Greece to join the Allies; this schism between crown and government left Greece's political situation in turmoil.

Though the Germans have often been portrayed as ruthless, it was the Allies that were particularly brutal in their treatment of Greece and its royal family. All across Europe, newspapers published defaming stories of King Constantine and Queen Sophie - they reported that the queen had a direct telephone line in her sitting room to her brother, Kaiser Wilhelm (similar stories plagued Sophie's cousin, Empress Alexandra of Russia, who was also perceived as vehemently pro-German during the war). In 1915, Constantine fell seriously ill from pneumonia and had to have some of his ribs surgically removed; gossip-mongers viciously reported that Constantine had actually been stabbed in a fit of rage by his wife during an argument where she fumed about his unwillingness to join the Germans. These stories were deeply painful for the royal family to bear, but they were mere sticks and stones compared to what happened in July of 1916.

In the early morning hours of July 14, 1916, the woods surrounding the royal family's private estate at Tatoi erupted into flames. The royal family were notified by a servant, and the household frantically rushed to escape. Several servants and members of the household were burned alive, and the royal family themselves barely escaped with their lives. Queen Sophie, in particular, had to run for nearly two miles on foot with her four-year-old daughter, Princess Katherine, cradled in her arms. It was later discovered that the fire was the result of arsonists, and that the Greek royal family's situation was quickly becoming more dangerous.

On December 1, 1916, a scuffle between Greek soldiers and occupying French and British forces escalated into a full-on shelling of Athens. The royal family were forced to hide in the wine cellars of the Royal Palace while bombs and shells flew across the city.

Finally, in early 1917, French and British ships weighed anchor in Athens harbor and set Greece under a blockade. By June, it was clear that there was no other solution- the Allies would lift the blockade only if Constantine stepped down from the throne and left Greece. His eldest son, Crown Prince George (later King George II) could not be his successor because he too had been educated by the German army, so Constantine's second son Alexander took his father's place.

King Constantine, Queen Sophie, all their children except the new king Alexander, and Constantine's brothers and their families boarded a ship in Athens harbor, surrounded by hysterical Greeks begging their king not to leave. They returned to Greece just three years later, when King Alexander suddenly died of blood poisoning from a monkey bite. However, Greece's defeat in the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922 cost Constantine his crown, and he went into exile for the second and last time in September 1922.

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