Greece and the Great Idea

The modern Greek State emerged from the Ottoman Empire in the late 1820s after years of bitter warfare. In the decades that followed a visionary policy known as 'The Great Idea' took hold. Its origins are explained in 'Katsehamos and the Great Idea':

'The state the Greeks won in their War of Independence was the state the great powers of Europe conceded, not the one most Greeks wanted. Its population was less than a million and its territory was limited to Central Greece, the Peloponissos, Euboea and the Cyclades Islands. After a brief period of republican government the great powers decided that Greece should have a king. However, when the crown was offered to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg - later King of the Belgians - he rejected it, saying that Greece could never be happy while its borders excluded the Greeks of Crete, Epirus and Thessaly: "I am afraid that the hidden interest which caused this separation to be determined will augur no good to the new State." Leopold saw that the impulse to liberate the "unredeemed Greeks" and the territories they lived in would be a serious distraction. But even Leopold did not appreciate the grandeur of the vision that would become known as the Megali Idea, the Great Idea. The Greek politician John Kolettis defined it in a speech in the National Assembly in 1844:

"The Kingdom of Greece is not Greece, it is merely a part, the smallest, poorest part of Greece. The Greek is not only he who inhabits the Kingdom, but also he who inhabits Ioannina or Salonika or Serres or Adrianopolis or Constantinople or Trebizond or Crete or Samos or any other region belonging to Greek history or the Greek race ... There are two great centres of Hellenism. Athens is the capital of the Kingdom. Constantinople is the great capital, the City, the dream and hope of all Greeks."

Greeks looked to the classical past, the reminders of which were all around them, but for most this was an intellectual attachment. What moved the Greek soul was the vision of Byzantium or the Eastern Roman Empire, To Romeiko, which had lived in the national imagination through the 400 years of the Tourkokratia. At the centre of the dream was the return to Constantinople - once known to the Greeks simply as I Polis, The City - and the great church of Aghia Sophia standing at its centre. Many believed that the first responsibility of the new Greek State was to make the dream real again.'

For many years Greece was too weak to go to war for its Great Idea. The annexation of most of Thessaly in 1881 was the result of diplomacy. By the early 20th Century the situation had changed. Greece was prosperous and enjoyed strong leadership under a new Prime Minister, Eleftherios Venizelos.

The decade from 1912 to 1922 saw a generation of Greece's young men consumed in wars in the name of the Great Idea. In the First Balkan War, against Turkey in 1912, Greece won much of Macedonia, Western Thrace, Epirus, Crete and many Aegean islands, nearly doubling its territory and population. In the Second Balkan War in 1913 Greece successfully defended these gains against Bulgaria. In the First World War Greece at first sought neutrality but later joined the Allies and fought Bulgaria and the Central Powers in the expectation of gains in Asia Minor after the War. Finally, in the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-22 Greece sent an army across the Aegean to secure the territory around Smyrna assigned to her by the great powers, but instead met defeat, catastrophe and the end of the Great Idea.

In its final phase the pursuit of the Great Idea left Greece exhausted by wars and suffering great economic hardship and political turmoil. Many Greeks were forced to emigrate. Some went to Australia where they found work and supported their families by sending money home. Among them were the three men from Kythera who would later build the Roxy Theatre at Bingara.

 

Venizelos map of Greece under the Great Idea

1920 map of a 'Great Greece' straddling the Aegean Sea
— National Historical Museum of Athens'

 

Learn more about these books by Peter Prineas

Katsehamos and the Great Idea

 

Britain's Greek Islands

 

Wild Places