The merciless diplomacy of the Asia Minor Issue
By Theodosius Karvounarakis *
One of the greatest trials for modern Hellenism was the Asia Minor Campaign and Catastrophe. However, the events that we officially remember every September are not just another record of our historical experience, but they are still of great and constant interest to the public. A complex and critical aspect of the search is the international political situation
of the time and the diplomatic manipulations that determined the developments. The protagonist here is the role of the Great Powers, which limited the Hellenic State’s framework of action.
France, Italy, and Britain (the United States, despite its initial intention to play a role in the region, quickly withdrew), the victors of World War I, showed great interest for the fate of the disintegrating, defeated Ottoman Empire. Each sought to protect existing interests and expand its influence.
The Italians saw the Greeks as rivals in their own territorial claims. . The French were also dissatisfied with the presence of the Greeks in the former empire, because they considered them agents of the British, with whom they had conflicting interests. The French and Italians sought to negotiate with Mustafa Kemal, the leader of the reborn, threatening Turkish nationalism, to the detriment of the Greeks.
The British welcomed the expansion of the Greek influence, which would facilitate, without depletion of its own resources, the control of the Dardanelles and the protection of communications with India through the Suez.
The limits of British support, however, appeared when the French and Italians invoked, as a change of the then-current facts, the defeat of Venizelos in the elections of 1920 and the return of Constantine in December of the same year to demand a review of Greek gains from the Treaty of Sevres. For more than a year and a half, the British supported the Greek positions, but avoided radical actions that would provoke the French (their main rivals) or force them to unilaterally undertake the material support of the Greeks.
The main priority of the British was a good working relationship with the French to deal with the defeated Germany and the wider post-war situation in Europe, which posed many risks of serious complications. The fate of the Ottoman Empire was of secondary importance to British interests. “Compared to Germany, Russia is inferior, compared to Russia, Turkey is insignificant,” said Winston Churchill, then Secretary of Defense. Britain was also exhausted by the war and had neither the resources nor the will to engage in a new war adventure to effectively support Greece.
Finally, Prime Minister Lloyd George, a friend of Venizelos and a philhellene, had his hands tied. As a head of a coalition government, he faced objections from members of the Cabinet who doubted the ability of the Greeks to win, noted the resurgence of Turkish nationalism and the Kemal-Bolshevik conciliation, and argued that British interests were served best by approaching the Turkish leader.
Thus, the British diplomatically supported the Greeks, giving them the opportunity to continue their effort, but without helping them materially themselves or preventing the French and Italians from helping Kemal. In this way, they extended the Greek presence in Asia Minor, which was useful as a bargaining chip in their contacts with Kemal, for his acceptance of some form of peace. Essentially, then, without an absolute position in favor of one side or the other, they waited for things to unravel. The proposal by a competent expert of the Foreign Office to honestly explain the situation to the Greeks was not accepted.
Of course, the Greek government is not without responsibilities. The negative attitude of France and Italy was obvious, as well as the reluctance of the British to provide substantial help. Venizelos’ successors could be blamed for a lack of political courage, although the room for political maneuver in the nationalistically overburdened Greece of the time was awfully limited.
Perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Asia Minor affair began in encouraging terms, with seemingly good international circumstances. Venizelos relied on these and proceeded with his daring venture. In the process, however, things changed, turning Greek leaders into pawns of a merciless fate.
* Theodosis Karvounarakis is Professor of Diplomatic History at the University of Macedonia
THE CHRONICLE OF THE DEMARCATION OF THE BORDERS OF ALBANIA AND THE MURDER OF THE MEMBERS OF THE ITALIAN DELEGATION IN AUGUST 1923
The territories of present-day Albania have been a place of invasion of various tribes from antiquity to the present day. During the 15 th century, the Turks occupied the area, which became part of the Ottoman Empire along with the rest of the Balkan Peninsula. During the first centuries of Ottoman rule, there were few signs of the existence of an Albanian national consciousness among the inhabitants of the region. In fact, it is an indisputable fact that Albanian nationalism was created (or otherwise aroused) many years after the outbreak of revolutions by the rest of the people of the Balkans.
The first indications are in a memorandum-application of residents of 55 mainly Muslim villages and towns, with which they asked King Otto I of Greece to unite with his country. There is more data on the period after the Treaty of San Stefano, which was signed in February 1878. According to the provisions of this treaty, the territories of present-day Albania and Kosovo were annexed by Bulgaria, Montenegro and Serbia. This caused the mobilization of Albanian nationalists, who advocated the creation of an autonomous Albania within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. Soon, various organizations were created (“Albanian League”, “League of Prizren”, etc.) to achieve the above goal. Significant members of these organizations came into contact with extreme Albanians living in Italy and the United States in order to raise a considerable amount of money.
The Ottoman administration mobilized to suppress this movement and took strict measures, which, however, did not prevent the outbreak of the uprisings of 1910 and 1911. Then, the Neo-Turks, although initially pursuing a strictly repressive policy, changed their attitude and made significant concessions to the Albanians, most importantly the territorial clarification of the region, in the summer of 1912. From now on, Albania was considered the area that belonged to the vilayets of Skodra and Ioannina as well as large parts of the vilayets of Kosovo and Monastiri. This decision dissolved the until then confusion, effectively terminating any plans for a Greek-Albanian state, in the form of a copy of the Dual Monarchy supported by certain Greek and Albanian circles (e.g. the “Greek-Albanian Union” of 1899). The extreme Albanians now had a specific geographical area, to which they would adapt their plans for autonomy, while the Greeks saw the inclusion in Albania of areas with a purely Greek population or with a clear majority of the Greek element.
A few months later, the peoples of the Balkans declared war on the Ottoman Gate. The Albanians were the only Balkan people to side with the Sultan. Their position became very difficult, especially since the victories of the Allied Balkan forces followed one after the other. Realizing the urgency of the situation, some extremist Albanian leaders (including Ismail Kemal) rushed to Istanbul, Vienna and Bucharest for diplomatic support. At the same time, Italian-Albanian intellectuals revolted in Rome, urging the Italian government to openly side with extremist Albanian circles. Italian diplomacy mainly and Austrian diplomacy secondarily offered their support to these circles and Ismail Kemal proceeded to the proclamation of the independence of Albania in Vlorë on 28 November 1912. A few weeks later, Rome and Vienna signed an agreement committing themselves to creating an independent Albania (31/12/1912). In this newly formed state, these two countries agreed to maintain equal spheres of influence. It is noteworthy that the reactions of the third member of the alliance, namely Germany and personally of Kaiser William II, were completely ignored. Later, this agreement was ratified by a treaty, signed in Rome (8/5/1913).
The fighting, however, continued. In February 1913, the Greek army, under the leadership of the Crown Prince Constantine, occupied Ioannina and advanced north, causing the wrath of Italian diplomacy. In March of the same year, the Montenegrins occupied Skodra, defying the “suggestions” to the contrary from the Great Powers. The latter had already openly intervened in the matter through negotiations, which were already taking place in London. There, Italian and Austrian diplomacy managed to secure the consent of the other delegations for the creation of an independent Albanian state. The Treaty of London (30/5/1993) provided that this state would be guaranteed by the Great Powers and ruled by a commonly accepted ruler (the German Prince William of Wied was selected on 29 July 1913). It was also decided to appoint an international commission of financial control, to send Dutch officers to maintain order and, most importantly, to set up an international commission to demarcate the borders of the new state. The Greek government submitted a request for a referendum to clarify the opinion of the residents of the area but this was rejected. The aforementioned international commission worked in a climate of intense controversy among its members in northern Albania until 12 December 1913. Its work was never resumed under this composition, as the following summer the First World War broke out.
Albania’s northern borders were broadly defined by the Conference of the Ambassadors in November 1913. The demarcation of the southern borders, however, presented much greater difficulties, as the Greek Army had already liberated (“occupied” for the Albanians) most of northern Epirus, an area that both Vienna and especially Rome were pressuring to cede to Albania in order to render the latter a viable state. The Greek government, which was struggling to secure the newly acquired territories in Macedonia as well as the Aegean islands, was forced to verbally concede to these pressures. King Constantine I, however, refused to consent to the concession of Greek territories, to the liberation of which he had personally contributed. After painstaking negotiations, it was decided to extend to Albania the coastal area up to the bay of Ftelia (with the island of Sazan) and the region of Korytsa along with the southern and western shores of Lake Ohrid. On this basis, the Florence Protocol was finally signed, which adjudicated in Albania, among others, Korytsa and Argyrokastro. In Athens, a riot broke out and King Constantine threatened to abdicate to lead the northern Epirus struggle, while Eleftherios Venizelos threatened to resign as prime minister if the king insisted on pursuing a policy other than that of the official government. The foundations of the ensuing sharp disagreement between them, which led to the “national schism”, had been laid.
Eventually, the people of Northern Epirus revolted and succeeded in liberating their territories, without the support of the official Greek state. The divided Albanian political leadership (as early as December 12 1913 a second Albanian government had been formed by Essad Pasha in Durres) in the face of military defeat came to some form of compromise with the Northern Epirotes, signing the Corfu Protocol in May, 1914. According to the provisions of this protocol, the people of Northern Epirus would enjoy many privileges, which would ensure the Greek character of the region. The Greekness of the northern Epirus was explicitly stated and a special administrative organization of the provinces of Korytsa and Argyrokastro was provided. In essence, a wide autonomy of the region was established, but within the borders of the Albanian state. This was the most serious reason which made the representatives of the Northern Epirotes completely unwilling to sign the aforementioned protocol. Eventually, under intense pressure from the Greek government and personally from Prime Minister Venizelos, a majority of representatives were persuaded to sign the protocol, the terms of which were never implemented in practice by the Albanian state.
A few weeks later, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, Franz Ferdinand, and his wife, Princess Sophia, were assassinated by Serb terrorists in Sarajevo. The Balkans were once again emerging as Europe’s powder keg, only this time the explosion took on a global dimension. Soon, the newly formed Albanian state descended into the vortex of anarchy and its newly arrived king left it in a hurry (3/9/1914), never to return. During the “Great War”, more or less troops from seven (7) countries, i.e. from Greece, Italy, Serbia, Montenegro, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and France in order of arrival were deployed in the territory of the Albanian state.
In November 1918, World War I ended and the Entente forces, which had troops in the area (France and Italy), decided to keep their troops until the “Albanian issue” was finally settled. In early 1919, the Provisional Albanian Government addressed the Peace Conference, requesting that the outstanding issue of the demarcation of Albania’s borders be resolved. It is noteworthy that the biggest problems were located in the southern part of the country, which the international commission had not visited and whose status was governed by the general provisions of the Florence Protocol. They simply drew a line from the sea (southwest) to the inland (northeast). In Paris, however, the delegations of the victors were trying to settle many and equally serious outstanding issues, primarily bridging the differences between the Great Powers. Therefore, the “Albanian” matter came second. In addition, there was widespread controversy even over the unity of Albania, whose division between Greece, Italy and Serbia was avoided only after the intervention of the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson.
In May 1920, a few days apart, two important events occurred. First, the United States Senate unanimously decided to cede northern Epirus to Greece (Resolution 324, 5/17/1920). Then, Greece and Albania signed the Kapestitsa Pact (28/5/1920), the provisions of which provided that Korytsa would fall into the hands of the Albanians. The latter promised once again to respect the rights of the people of Northern Epirus and therefore the Greek Army would not advance in the area, although it had secured the permission of the French and Italians. The extremist Albanians directed their subsequent efforts against the Italians, whose troops occupied large areas of the rest of the country. The united Albanian guerrilla groups managed to expel the Italians from all Albanian territories (except the island of Sazan ) by 20 August 1920. This withdrawal hurt the prestige of the Italian Army, it did not prevent however the Italian government from offering its full support to the Albanian government for the latter’s admission to the League of Nations (LoN), six months later (οn 17/12/1920). This was a great diplomatic success for the Albanians, because it happened despite the expressed opposition of Greece, the newly formed kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (later Yugoslavia), and France which had placed Yugoslavia under it’s “protection”.
Very soon, the Albanian government took advantage of its participation in the Central Committee, filing a lawsuit against Greece and Yugoslavia, whose troops “continued to illegally occupy parts of Albanian territory.” The situation rapidly deteriorated and British diplomacy intervened to ease the crisis. London drafted a memorandum with the agreement of Paris and Rome, according to which the solution of the problem of the Albanian borders was proposed by the Conference of the Ambassadors.The latter rushed to intervene, recognizing both Albanian independence and Italy’s “special interest” in ensuring this independence. In addition, it appointed an international commission to demarcate Albania’s borders in loco in accordance with the provisions of the Florence Protocol. It is noteworthy that Albania had signed a declaration for the protection of national minorities a month earlier (on 2/10/1921). In other words, it was bound by its signature in three different texts. Today, everyone knows how much Albania valued this signature. Italian General Enrico Tellini was appointed head of the international commission, which consisted of British and French officers, with representatives from Albania, Greece and Yugoslavia. The Greek delegation was multi-membered and Lieutenant Colonel Dimos Notis Botsaris was appointed as its chairman. The composition of the international commission caused reactions in both Belgrade and Athens, where the government was skeptical of the Italian General’s initiative for the Italians to undertake the demarcation of the Greek-Albanian border and the British and French to undertake the demarcation of the Albanian-Yugoslav border.
The commission began its work in Paris and Florence before arriving in the region in March 1922. The actual work of the committee lasted from September to December 1922 (when the work was interrupted due to the winter). The members of the committee went again to the Greek-Albanian border in April 1923 and the work began on 1 May of that year. Korytsa was designated as the seat of the Commission on the proposal of the Italian General. The Albanians made ambitious efforts in the field of hospitality. At the same time, however, they took harsh repressive measures against the people of Northern Epirus. They also demanded the replacement of a member of the Greek delegation, due to his North Epirus origin, a request which was accepted by General Tellini.
The latter’s actions seemed to be favorable to Albanian views from the beginning. This was clearly confirmed by the criteria he chose to determine whether a village belonged to Greece or Albania. These were many, of secondary importance and certainly not inviolable, as they did not include the will of the inhabitants themselves, whose point of view was rarely sought. The climate was “energized” even more by the initial decisions of the Italian General, with which he adjudicated three villages to Albania. The people of Northern Epirus were outraged and the Greek government expressed its intense discomfort. In addition, his decisions provoked the repression of the Greek press, which in turn provoked the reaction of the Italian General. The situation tended to turn into a vicious circle and that is why the government of Athens “recommended” to the press, which was under censorship, to lower the tones of criticism towards the Italian General.
This “submissiveness” of the Greek side was obviously misinterpreted by General Tellini, who, with a new decision, awarded the ports of Pagani and Ftelia opposite Corfu to Albania. Lieutenant Colonel Botsaris advised the Greek government to organize a general uprising of the people of Northern Epirus, a possibility which was ruled out by the Greek leaders. The Greek reaction consisted in filing an appeal to the LoN, requesting the amendment of the latter decision to accept the Florence Protocol as the basis for the demarcation of the border. The request of the Greek Government was rejected. At that time, Lieutenant Colonel Botsaris withdrew from the work of the committee, stating that he refused to consent to the concession of Greek territories to a foreign state.
At the same time, protests began in the wider region as clashes between Italians and Serbs erupted in Gorizia, with Montenegrins outraged by the adjudication of “their” territories to Albanians, obstructing the commission’s work, while Albanian gangs raided the Epirus area, causing extensive features in the Greek press. Finally, on 12 August, Greek soldiers destroyed a border marker placed by the Albanians. That incident was the culmination of the crisis to follow an apparent normalization of the situation with the return of Lieutenant Colonel Botsaris to the work of the committee. In fact, on26 August, the Italian General invited the members of the two delegations to celebrate his birthday together. The celebration was held in an unusually “warm” atmosphere and nothing predicted the upcoming events.
The following morning, the delegations left from Ioannina (where the headquarters of the committee had been moved) to conduct an autopsy in the disputed area earlier than usual. Another paradoxical event is that on that day, the Albanian vehicle left first, the Greek vehicle second and the Italian representatives’ vehicle last. The latter was also the fastest and soon reached the Greek delegation’s old Ford, which had stopped due to mechanical failure. The Greek driver refused the help offered by the Italians and repaired the damage himself after a while. The Italian Lancia sped up and continued its course.
At the 54th km, tree trunks were placed vertically on the road after the passage of the Albanian representatives’ vehicle. The Italian driver braked in time and stopped the car, whose passengers were now a relatively easy, almost immobile target for the perpetrators. The latter had been waiting to ambush for a long time and had chosen the location carefully. As soon as the Italian Lancia stopped, its occupants received a barrage of gunfire. The aptness of the perpetrators was proverbial, as most of the victims succumbed to their injuries inside or near the car. General Tellini was the only one who managed to get out of the vehicle and walk a few meters, although injured. The perpetrators, however, caught him and executed him, giving him the coup de grace. They did the same for the other victims, a fact that demonstrates the objective of the perpetrators. Recent research has revealed a number of new facts, which reverse much of the information known to date, as even the number of perpetrators is disputed. This article will not go into detail but will only list the names of the unfortunate victims (General Enrico Tellini, Lieutenant Mario Bonaccini, Major Corti, Farnetti, the driver, and former Lesvoviki mayor, Athanasios Gaziris).
A little while later, the vehicle of the Greek delegation arrived, the members of which saw the abominable spectacle. Lieutenant Colonel Botsaris conducted a rough autopsy and hurried to inform the adjacent Greek outposts. The announcement of the tragic news shocked Athens. The Greek government sent the best police officers to the area as soon as possible. The latter, although they used every appropriate means, failed to present a legally sound and substantiated version of the name or even the nationality of the perpetrators.
The Italian government did not even wait for the conclusion of the Greek investigators and, holding Greece responsible for the crime committed on its territory, issued an ultimatum to the internationally isolated (after the execution of the Six) government of Athens, after only a few days. The latter proceeded to its partial acceptance. Nevertheless, before the decision was made, Rome had sent a strong naval squadron to occupy Corfu. Its commander bombarded and occupied the open city of Corfu. Greece entered the vortex of an international crisis, the impact of which reached as far as Australia…
Ioannis S. Papafloratos
Doctor, University of Athens