How Did the Megali Idea Shape Greece Until the Balkan Wars?

“Megali Idea” was an ideology that dominated Greek political and public discourse and foreign policy until 1922.

Jan 26, 2024By Ioannis Papadimitriou, MA Turkish Studies, BA History

megali idea shape greece balkan wars


The termination of Ottoman rule in the Balkans was a long and bloody process. After Greece gained its independence, other Balkan states followed. However, the recently independent states were not ethnically homogeneous. In almost every state, an ideology emerged proposing that all ethnic communities belonging to the nation but residing outside national boundaries should be incorporated. The ambition to expand over neighboring states’ territories, amplified by the fact that national identities in the region had not yet fully crystallized, caused a strained situation. In Greece, this irredentist ideal, known as the “Megali Idea” (“Great Idea”), was steadily pursued until 1922.


The Birth of Greek Irredentism & Megali Idea

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The gradual implementation of the “Megali Idea”. Source: Wikimedia Commons


When the Greek Kingdom achieved independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1831, there were massive and homogeneous Greek communities still outside the states’ boundaries. An ideology aiming at the eventual incorporation of these communities and the respective territories was formulated and first heard in the Greek parliament by the middle of the 19th century. With few exceptions, the “Megali Idea” was loudly adopted by most political parties and whole-heartedly supported by the public opinion, both within the free state and abroad. The Greeks outside Greece were much fiercer supporters of the national ambition. They put it forward in their claims for independence and joining the homeland, with a notable example provided by the several Cretan rebellions against Ottoman rule. However, not all “Greek” communities had clearly formulated national identities. In Macedonia, for example, the people perceived themselves in more nuanced terms, such as “Greek-speaking” rather than just “Greek”.


Driven by the Megali Idea, the area of the Greek state began to expand after intensive diplomatic, political, and military efforts. After the defeat of the Ottomans in the Turkish-Russian War of 1877-1878, Greece was granted the region of Thessaly and the district of Arta in Epirus, still inhabited by large Muslim communities. The island of Crete continued to be hotly contested between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the situation in Macedonia also fueled tensions between Greece and Bulgaria, who started competing for control over the region as the official Ottoman rule weakened. The turbulent situation did not go unnoticed by European powers that started competing for influence over the newly independent states.


The War of 1897

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The Battle of Farsala by Georgios Roilos, 1897-1903. Source: National Gallery, Athens


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Tense relations between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, often sparked by the ongoing unrest in Crete, culminated in the short War of 1897, in which Greece experienced a humiliating defeat. It was the first time that the Megali Idea directly led to actual conflict. The Turkish Army, numerically and qualitatively superior, swiftly advanced as far south as Lamia, successively winning the battles of Farsala, Velestino, and Domokos. A similarly successful advance in Epirus eventually forced the Greek government to seek an armistice. The defeat was primarily the result of the Greek Army being outdated and archaic with regard to equipment, organization, and training, not aligning with its lofty, irredentist motivation. Interestingly, due to the Megali Idea, Greek public opinion was overall supportive of the war. But the bitter outcome made it absolutely clear that the need to modernize the state structure and institutions (notably the army) had become imperative.


Thanks to the intervention of the Great Powers, territorial losses were avoided, and Crete was granted a degree of autonomy. Reparations, however, had to be paid, and by 1898 the country defaulted and came under international economic control.


Moreover, the shame of the defeat, unbearable to younger army officers, uncovered a hitherto smoldering discontent against the high command and its choices. The commander-in-chief was Crown Prince Constantine, whose military studies, experience, and competence were bluntly doubted. The qualities of several army leaders, who owed their rank and posts mostly — if not exclusively — to royal favor, were also questioned. The Crown’s interference was projected as the primary reason behind the defeat. The need to assimilate European expertise in army organization also became evident. The Ottoman Army, after all, was already under the supervision of a German military mission.


The Macedonian Struggle

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The former Greek consulate in Ottoman-ruled Thessaloniki, now the Museum for the Macedonian Struggle. It was the main base for the organization and coordination of the Greek efforts during the Macedonian Struggle. Source: Wikimedia Commons


The defeat of 1897 proved to be a temporary stall. Still, it showed that the Greek Army was not ready for large-scale confrontations. Nor were the state politics or finances stable enough to support the irredentist expansion. The Ottomans also faced serious internal issues, with civil unrest spreading and control over some provinces growing thin. Moreover, a new problem had now arisen, namely the race for control over the multiethnic region of Macedonia. A gradual antagonism, primarily between Greece and Bulgaria, emerged in their effort to affiliate the populations, which had been divided based primarily on faith (Millet system). Hence, affiliation with a certain state was often experienced as arbitrarily imposed from above. With Greece reluctant to be openly involved in another war, the struggle with Bulgaria took the form of guerilla warfare. Greek bands (Makedonomachoi) clashed with the Bulgarian ones (Komitadjis) as well as Ottoman authorities.


The very nature of the struggle makes it hard to precisely define it in terms of places and dates. It is also difficult to assess the degree of official Greek interference. Support was granted secretly via institutions and societies, mostly based in Thessaloniki, the region’s administrative center. The force involved in the field comprised of irregulars and volunteers, usually led by Greek officers. The gradual and systematic implementation of the Megali Idea laid the ground for a better organized military endeavor in the future, in line with the formation of strong national identities by the locals.


However, there was an unforeseen consequence. The spread of nationalism was followed by inter-communal tensions, a situation made worse by the blurring of the line between civilians and irregular fighters. This was but a prelude to much more vicious attacks against civilians, something that drew European attention. The intensity of the clash started to fade when the Young Turks took over in 1908.


The “Goudi Movement”

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The 14th of September 1909, lithograph. Source: National Historical Museum


Understandably, the basic tool for implementing the Megali Idea was the army. Trained to believe in the ideal and alarmed by the defeat of 1897, many army officers sought reforms. Further disappointed over a period of political instability, they grouped together into the “Stratiotikos Syndesmos” (“Military League”) secret organization. The organization openly propagated its demands in August 1909. They demanded the modernization of the army by limiting royal interference (seen as a threat) and propagated a renewal in the political scene. As the list of demands widened in the quest for general social reform, the movement gathered public support. This “revolution” had to be addressed.


That year, 1909, was the first time in Greek history that the officer corps interfered in politics. But the group of — mostly young, lower, and middle rank — officers did not seek to seize power. They chose Venizelos, a hero of the Cretan revolutions but still largely unknown in Athens, to represent them and advocate their demands once negotiations with the government stalled. Most of the demands were met, and the revolution went almost bloodless. After the success of the movement, Venizelos and his newly formed Liberal Party won the majority in the late 1910 elections and proceeded with implementing the much-awaited reforms. In that sense, Goudi was a kind of revival or, better yet, the point that marked the modernization of the state. However, ruptures within society began to appear.


Origins of the Greek National Schism 

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The Greek Headquarters at Hadji Beylik, detail depicting Prince Constantine and Premier Venizelos, 1913. Source: War Museum, Athens


Until 1909, King George I and Constantine had ostensibly tried to push their agenda into the Greek Parliament and the army, even without public or political support. Since the Goudi Movement openly challenged that, the ensuing conflict was inevitable. In contrast, Venizelos’s success was based precisely on the fact that he promoted the majority’s interests. He also believed in the Megali Idea. Venizelos’ cabinet implemented numerous reforms, including a revision of the constitution and the speeding up of previous initiatives for the army’s modernization. Stratiotikos Syndesmos demanded the removal of Constantine from the post of commander-in-chief, reminding that he had established an exclusive mentality of clientelism. Venizelos carefully tried to restrict the crown’s influence on the army or at least counterbalance it by assigning officers sharing his political views to key posts. This way, he did not question the monarchy and avoided a direct confrontation with the court.


Still, not everyone saw Venizelos’ rapid modernization favorably. The “urban majority” supported him, but others felt threatened (although to what extent the reforms should be perceived in the context of a class struggle has been questioned). The Antivenizelists turned to the older parties and — in the case of opposing officers — to Prince Constantine, as their ranks and posts were often dependent on court favor. The dominant stature of Venizelos urged his political opponents to seek cooperation; since one of the few unifying factors in their loose alliance was the — often unconditional — loyalty to the throne, all anti-Liberal political formations (and their supporters) gradually came to be collectively known as “Royalists” (merging into a single party in 1915). Thus, a “dichotomy” in Greek politics had already begun to take shape. Many supporters of either side started becoming fanatical. The younger “rebellious” officers began to fratricide, too, motivated not only by patriotism but personal interest as well. They too lacked a single and clear unifying ideology and aspiration.


Preparations for War 

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Battleship Averof, now a naval museum. Source: Greek City Times


Thus, since 1909, two influential decision-makers started competing for control over the Greek political scene. Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos and Prince Constantine, who was soon reinstated as the commander-in-chief, had even greater authority than the Minister of the Military. With both leaders being quite charismatic, tensions were bound to arise. Contested topics, for example, were foreign policy, often centered on the Cretan issue and army organization. However, despite some initial such arguments, both leaders, as well as the political bodies they headed (Liberal and Royalist), managed to push disagreements aside and cooperate (an important step being the reinstation of Constantine by Venizelos himself). Likewise, the Royal Army Staff was reformed, and certain Royalist staff officers, discharged due to political reasons in 1909, were restored. A French military mission was invited, and the equipment and organization of the force were modernized.  Battleship Averof, commissioned in 1908, was framed by newly commissioned smaller ships (including a submarine), making the Greek navy dominant in the Aegean. The Greek forces also acquired their first aircrafts.


The reforms in the army had indeed swift and remarkable results. The achievement was hailed by both sides since both propagated the Megali Idea, even if different approaches to the ideal began to be heard (often linked to a supporter of a specific side). Most agreed however that, with a strengthened army, the time was right for territorial expansion. Venizelos now demonstrated his diplomatic skills too. Not only did he loosen restrictions on the court (in order to pacify internal dissent in the face of the upcoming war) but he also managed to join a coalition of Balkan states, driven by their own irredentist ideals, against the common enemy, the Ottoman Empire. Likewise, Venizelos had also tried to court Britain, contrary to the Royalist Germanophile stance. In 1911, Venizelos won again a landslide electoral victory and finally managed to pacify both the army and the political scene.


The First Balkan War (1912-1913)

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The Surrender of Thessaloniki at Topsin, Lithograph by K. Haupt. Source: Historical and Ethnological Society of Greece


The weakness of the Ottoman Empire became further evident when Austria annexed Bosnia (1908) and Italy Libya (1911). With Russian guidance, Bulgaria allied with Serbia in March 1912. Venizelos, sensing opportunity, joined the coalition with Montenegro following shortly after. The disorganized empire was caught off-guard, and the European powers did not take serious steps to prevent a war. The demands of the Balkan States on the empire were outrageous, and it responded by declaring war. The war effectively hid the disagreements and antagonism between neighboring states. Defeating the Ottomans was the common priority. Greece deployed a small yet dependable army, more important being the contribution of her navy. After victories in Sarantaporo and Grevena, the army was faced with a dilemma: either to move north to Manastrir and link with the allied forces or to liberate Thessaloniki.


This was the first serious argument between Constantine and Venizelos, with the Prince ordered to proceed to Thessaloniki against his own judgment. There was another victory at Yannitsa, and the city of Thessaloniki — much-contested between Bulgarians and Greeks — was captured by the latter. To the north, the borders with Serbia and Bulgaria were delineated. Unable to reinforce their last possessions in the Balkans, the Ottomans went into separate negotiations with each belligerent by late 1912. However, with Greece in particular, warfare would continue.


In January 1913, the Greek navy defeated the Ottomans in two battles and captured almost every island in the Aegean. In Epirus, Ioannina surrendered in February after a lengthy bloody siege. By March 1913, a conference in London marked the end of the war, although peace talks were far from easy. The Ottoman army tried to mount some final resistance, but it was clear that not much could be done against a Balkan coalition with a remarkable ability to cooperate on the battlefield and a boosted morale.


The Second Balkan War (1913) 

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Greek weapons and equipment from the Balkan Wars. Source: the Balkan War Museum, Thessaloniki


The gains of the war were remarkable for all Balkan allies. Greece nearly doubled its territory and population. Ottoman authority was wiped entirely off the Balkan peninsula, with the Bulgarian army having captured Edirne and reached Çatalca, the last defensive line before Istanbul. Albania was granted independence. But the war brought forward new issues. Greece and Serbia faced border disputes with Bulgaria; Greece and the Ottoman Empire quarreled over the status of certain islands. With tensions on the rise, in May 1913, Greece signed a secret defensive treaty with Serbia, one that would prove very important later, during the First World War. Despite intense diplomatic efforts, war broke out again.


Greece allied with Serbia against Bulgaria, while the Ottomans attacked and recaptured Edirne. The Bulgarians vehemently defended their positions on the Greek front but were eventually defeated in the bloody battles of Kilkis and Lachanas. The Greek army pushed through Bulgarian territory, but being on the verge of exhaustion, it was only spared from defeat due to the Romanian invasion of Bulgaria. Bulgaria, facing four enemies on four fronts, capitulated. The war might have lasted only one month (June 1913), but it was as bloody and harsh as the previous clash. The violence became particularly evident when it came to the treatment of civilians. Communities with different ethnic identities were wiped out by the armies of a different nation. Especially in the case of Muslim communities, the displacement reached such proportions that resentment would be kept alive at least for the next decade. By July 1913, negotiations began at Bucharest. This was another chance for Venizelos to demonstrate his diplomatic skills. He managed to win the islands and the much-contested region of Kavala (Eastern Macedonia). In exchange, he forfeited any claims to northern Epirus, which became part of Albania.


Results: Uneasy Peace and Ensuing Problems 

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Muhacirler, refugee Muslim populations forced to abandon their residence in the Balkans fleeing en masse to the lands of the Ottoman Empire. Source


With her armies united under a single banner, Greece emerged triumphant from the Balkan Wars. Yet, though the military effort overshadowed internal divisions, political antagonism was still active. With the Prince serving as the commander-in-chief, the victory not only absolved the court from any previous dismay but also raised Constantine’s reputation as the “invincible leader of a glorious army”. Moreover, with King George assassinated in 1913, Constantine ascended to the throne. Of course, Venizelos was still seen as the leader capable of helping the until then “insignificant” Greece cope with her shortcomings, pursue national interests, rekindle national sentiment, and grant the country diplomatic power once again. Indeed, the emergence of Venizelos coincided with an increased interest on behalf of European powers for the region. His skills in negotiating and attracting support allowed Greece to become an active and influential player in the diplomatic scene. Thus, Venizelos’ monopoly as the national hero was now threatened by Constantine. There was also now a somewhat balanced interaction: the King interfered in the political and diplomatic decision-making, but Venizelos also imposed certain directives on the army.


The political scene was not the only worrisome issue. Civilian violence in the Balkans had reached an unprecedented scale, and there were still minorities within the sovereignty of most states. The Aegean islands continued to cause tension between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, and the same was true for the region of Bulgarian-held Western Thrace, with the Greeks still having their eyes on it due to the Greek population there. The Bulgarians were likewise eager to reclaim Eastern Macedonia. More importantly, the Balkan states would soon find themselves engulfed in a much greater conflict. If it was Austria’s annexation of Bosnia that had spurred Balkan nationalism, the very same nationalism would now fire the fatal shot on the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The First World War was about to begin.

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By Ioannis PapadimitriouMA Turkish Studies, BA History Ioannis is presently pursuing an MPhil/PhD, focusing on the topic "The Greek-Turkish War of 1919-1922: Perspectives of Greek Soldiers". He is mainly interested in WWI and the subsequent period of conflicts until 1924. In previous years he also examined some aspects of Ottoman and Iranian History, namely the Safavid-Ottoman relations. He is generally interested in Military History, especially the military history of the ancient, medieval, and modern Middle and Far East.