Exit Venizélos; enter a dictator
Tsaldáris, though no extremist himself, brought several extreme royalists into his government. One was Gen. Geórgios Kondýlis, a former republican (and the leader of the coup that displaced Pángalos in 1926), whose impatience with government’s inability to get things done had driven him far to the right. Another was Ioánnis Metaxás, the general (and lifelong rightist) who had had to leave the country when his own coup failed in 1923. Like most military figures who got involved in Greek politics, they were strongly intolerant of opposition, and outraged that a Venizelist senate had the power to inhibit the actions of their royalist government.
Venizélos, now leading the opposition in the Chamber of Deputies, did and said nothing to cool them down. Royalist and Venezelist newspapers were, as usual, mutually and shrilly antagonistic. There were fistfights in the halls of parliament.
Venizélos continued in opposition for another year, rejecting a couple of attempts on Tsaldáris’ part to work out a compromise. He may have been unsure of being able to keep his party together if he agreed, or he may have been too caught up in the spirit of political combat. One historian (who judges this stage of Venizélos' career rather harshly) suggests that “he had come to believe that he was indispensable to Greece” [Ioánnis Koliópoulos, in Venizélos: The Trials of Statesmanship, by several authors].
In October, 1934, Venizélos gave up the contest and retired to Chaniá.
The Tsaldáris government, though it continued the foreign policy Venizélos had established, began a gradual move toward restoration of the monarchy. In 1934, Greece signed the Balkan Pact, a resolution on the part of Greece, Turkey, Yugoslavia, and Romania to support one another in defense against aggression. But the agreement contained qualifications that made it less than fully effective, and Bulgaria (still disputing the borders) and Albania (still contending with Greece over northern Epirus) stayed out of it. With both Italy and Germany becoming ever more aggressive, most Greeks felt insecure, and Woodhouse considers that this insecurity was their decisive factor in the decision to restore the monarchy in 1935.
As restoration came to seem inevitable, some republican generals, led (as often before, including March, 1933) by the perennial firebrand Nikólaos Plastíras, organized yet one more coup attempt, and persuaded Venizélos to stifle his usual good sense and lend his name to it. General Kondýlis, the government’s Minister of War, suppressed the coup in short order. Venizélos and Plastíras fled the country, and were condemned to death in absentia. Venizélos was never to return; he died in Paris after a stroke in March, 1936.
That plebiscite produced a majority of 97% for restoration of the monarchy. This side would certainly have won, but the extent of its victory is suspect. The army was involved, and the ballot was anything but secret: according to Time magazine (quoted in a Wikipedia article): “one could drop into the ballot box a blue vote for George II and please General George Kondylis... or one could cast a red ballot for the Republic and get roughed up.”
The king’s return unfortunately failed to produce any measurable improvement in the political atmosphere of Greece. An election was held, but it produced a nearly deadlocked parliament unable to agree on any significant action. The balance of power between the Liberal and the Populist sides was held by 15 Communists, no lovers of monarchy, but just as certainly no friends of democracy.
It seemed probably only a matter of time before one or another of Greece’s stronger leaders would again seize dictatorial power to combat the danger. By a strange coincidence, however, a number of leading figures died in rapid succession within a few months: Venizélos, Kondýlis, Tsaldáris, Demertzís. By a process of elimination, General Metaxás found himself promoted from Deputy Prime Minister to the premiership in April, 1936, although he had only six followers in parliament. [C. M. Woodhouse]
The uproar went on over the summer, and the communists called a nationwide general strike for August 5. The leaders of the Liberal and Populist parties went to the king and offered to create a unity government if he would recall the parliament. A coalition of the two largest parties would have commanded a huge majority, but King George, choosing to share Metaxás’ belief that the nation was fighting for its life against the forces of Bolshevism, declined to cooperate. Instead, he endorsed the prime minister’s decrees declaring a state of emergency, suspending constitutional guarantees of personal liberty, and dissolving parliament with no date set for new elections.
Notwithstanding his respect for German military power, Metaxás’ heart belonged to Greece—at least, to the Greece he thought he was bringing back to life, where peasants and workers were content with their lot, and a virtuous people listened and danced to folk music in thoroughly traditional style—a custom he endeavored to encourage by censoring the “disreputable” lyrics of rebétika and other urban music that was played in Middle Eastern modes and associated with low life, poverty, and the refugees of 1923.
On the good side, Metaxás shared none of the anti-Semitism that characterized so many of Europe’s right-wing dictatorships at the time. His government in fact repealed some anti-Semitic laws that previous governments had put on the books. He was also intelligently realistic in preparing for the war he knew would be coming soon. When Italy attacked Greece in 1940, the Greek military was better prepared for defense than any other European country had been. (Czechoslovakia might have been equally well prepared, but its defenses were concentrated in territory that France and Britain handed over to Hitler at the infamous Munich Conference.)
In spite of his respect for German military power, Metaxás would certainly have resisted just as fiercely when the Wehrmacht invaded the following spring. But he died in January, with the Greek army bogged down in Albania and the country’s military capacity strained almost to its limit. To be realistic, it’s unlikely that Metaxás’ presence would have made the outcome very different.