A bumpy road to énosis (‘union’)
The second son of King George I, whose picture suggests that he was no intellectual heavyweight, meant well enough, but he turned in a disappointing performance as governor. Over the objections of the Cretan executive committee, he announced that he hoped to bring about the Greek annexation of Crete through his family connections with the crowned heads of Europe—it’s perhaps worth noting that the name of his family was Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg—but, as the committee had expected, the trip he took around Europe for this purpose got the people’s hopes up but came to nothing . After that he showed signs of wanting to make the autonomous Cretan State a permanent institution, proposing, for example, to build a palace. The Prince had his conservative supporters, but most Cretans expected Prince George to devote himself to the cause of énosis with Greece, not turn their island into a statelet. (The Greek word énosis, the title of this page, is based on a word meaning ‘one’—like its English translation ‘union,’ which is borrowed from Latin.)
When the Chaniot insurgency began after the riots of 1897, he had been representing Chaniá in the assembly established under the Pact of Halépa. He was first elected in 1889, just before the Ottomans suspended the Pact and began martial rule. Despite this, however, the Assembly continued to meet although it had little power, and Venizelos, 25 at the time of his election, became well known for skill and eloquence. When he joined the insurgents of 1897, they elected him leader, and he was responsible for raising the Greek flag on Akrotíri—and also, in part, for ending the bombardment, because although Kayalés’ heroism had stopped it, Venizélos’ eloquent message to the admirals, pledging defiance until the last man had fallen (and purposely leaked to the international press) had much to do with making the cease-fire permanent.
Finally, in 1905, Venizélos organized a “Revolutionary Assembly” in the mountain village of Thériso (his mother’s birthplace) which proclaimed the political union of Crete with Greece, adding that this could not be achieved under the present Cretan government. The Thériso assembly began acting as a rival government.
Ultimately it became clear to the rebels that énosis was not going to be achieved immediately, and clear to the powers that most Cretans were on Venizélos’ side. After hearing from a committee they set up to study the issue, the powers in 1906 proposed a series of measures that would make Crete fully independent of the Ottoman Empire and guarantee equal rights to Christians and Muslims. Prince George disliked this proposal, and announced his intention to resign. Although his Cretan supporters begged him to stay, the powers, having concluded that the prince's departure would do the situation more good than harm, didn't back down. His Royal Highness kept his word and departed for Athens in a huff. His father, King George I, had the right to appoint the High Commissioner’s successor, and replaced his son with a former Greek Prime Minister. A new constitution was created, to which the new High Commissioner swore allegiance, after which he went back to Greece and left Venizélos in charge, governing through a new General Assembly in which he was once again Minister of Justice, and now Minister of Foreign Affairs to boot. In the absence of an active High Commissioner, he was also the acting head of government.
In 1908 the Ottoman Empire was shaken by the revolution of the “Young Turks,” who overthrew the old order and were determined to give the state a liberal constitution. That was fine, but they were also determined to retain every square inch of Ottoman territory, putting forth the argument that, since all inhabitants regardless of religion or ethnicity would now have full and equal constitutional rights, all non-Turkish military forces and treaties or agreements protecting minorities could and should be withdrawn. For any independence-minded nation within the Ottoman border, it was clearly time to act. Bulgaria, already halfway to independence, declared it in full on October 5. Two days later, Austria-Hungary (with motives considerably less noble than the yearning for self-determination) announced that it was annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina, where the Congress of Berlin had appointed it to act as peacekeeper in 1878. Venizélos, sensing the same danger from the new Ottoman government, declared Crete united with Greece at a huge rally in Chaniá, and the General Assembly formalized this declaration on October 12. The powers couldn't bring themselves to say yes or no to this. During 1909 they finally withdrew their troops. Crete was now a de facto part of Greece, though this still wasn’t considered quite official by the rest of Europe.
The example of the Young Turks' revolution inspired many officers of the Greek army who still felt shamed by their defeat in 1897. They formed a group called the Military League, dedicated to reorganizing the army and dismissing from its ranks Crown Prince Constantine, whose performance as commander they blamed for the fiasco. Like many other Greeks, they were also aware of profound corruption in the country’s political system, and wanted the government to mend its ways. But they had no idea how to change it, and they also remained loyal to the monarchy.
Arguing with politicians, the soldiers soon found they were in over their heads. But rather than capitulate to their wily and experienced opponents, they sent delegates to Crete to talk to Venizélos. He was persuaded to serve as the Military League's political advisor, and came to Athens at the end of 1909, where he made helpful suggestions and mediated the continuing negotiations. The Military League in its enthusiasm would have made him Prime Minister, but—knowing better than to become, or appear to become, the creature of a junta—he managed instead to steer events so that the old parties lost their hold, a new election was called, and the Military League was sufficiently satisfied by this degree of progress to dissolve itself.
Venizélos didn’t run for office in the election of August, 1910, knowing that his legal right to do so was questionable. As a Cretan he was not officially a citizen of Greece. But he was nominated and elected anyway. Not only that, but his supporters, now the largest party in the parliament, elected him Prime Minister. Accepting this mandate, Venizélos immediately called new elections to strengthen it. He organized his followers into the Liberal party, essentially an importation from Crete, for it was in many ways an extension of the party he had led there (where it had been called, rather more colorfully, the Barefoot Party.)
The new party was both liberal and nationalist, for its leader was deeply devoted to the Great Idea. When it won an absolute majority, Venizélos set about the business of reform and reorganization with great energy and ability. The Greek constitution got 50 new amendments in 1911, tending generally to grant the working and middle classes a larger share of the nation’s power and prosperity. This gave them an alternative to economic migration, which had been the only choice for many. Crown Prince Constantine had been tossed out of the army command in the excitement of the 1909 coup, but Venizélos mended relations with the monarchy by having him made Army Chief of Staff. The prime minister gave the military no reason to complain, however. He invited a French mission to discuss updating the army and a British mission to do the same for the navy, and he invested liberally (as became a Liberal) in military equipment. When the Balkan Wars began in 1912, Greece was—thanks to Venizélos' efforts—equipped, prepared, and ready to do its part. Those two brief wars ended with the Turks forced almost all the way out of Europe, and as one result there was no further pretense, on anyone’s part, that Crete was anything other than a part of Greece.
Until then, Venizélos had refused to seat the representatives that his fellow Cretans had elected to the Greek parliament. The Ottomans, as he knew, would have considered this a legitimate excuse for war, and Venizélos was determined not to take this risk until the Greek military was capable of holding its own. He had done all he could to bring that condition about. He invited a French mission to help modernize the army and a British mission to do the same for the navy, and, knowing that Greece couldn’t defeat the Turks without allies, was instrumental in the formation of the Balkan League, a network of bilateral agreements that enabled four countries to collaborate against the Ottomans while setting aside their problems with each other.
The olive branch looks rather inappropriate in this context, since it was the Balkan League that started the first Balkan War in 1912, fulfilling the purpose for which it had been explicitly founded. Each member of the league issued its own declaration of war on the Ottoman empire; Greece’s declaration accompanied the announcement that it was annexing Crete. The war was a triumph for the League; the Turks were defeated everywhere, and Greeks at last felt that the disgrace of 1897 had been wiped out.
The second Balkan War was mainly a quarrel over the division of formerly Turkish territory, but the borders it established are with a few exceptions the ones that still exist. In the peace negotiations after each war, which as usual the great powers involved themselves in, Greece made major territorial gains, including a share of Macedonia that included its great seaport, Salonika, though it wasn’t allowed to keep a partially Greek-speaking area that it had captured in Northern Epirus. Austria-Hungary insisted that this be included in Albania, which must be recognized as an independent country. So Albanian independence was duly accomplished in the peace treaty—not because Austria-Hungary harbored any great affection for the Albanian people, but because it was determined to keep landlocked Serbia from gaining access to the Adriatic Sea. Italy was also pleased, having its own ambition to become the sole power in the Adriatic.
But Crete had achieved énosis at last, over nobody's objections. From this point onward (except for a while during World War II) the history of Crete coincides with the history of Greece.