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The National Schism (Greek: Εθνικός Διχασμός, Ethnikos Dikhasmos, sometimes called The Great Division) is a historical event involving the disagreement between King Constantine and Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos over whether Greece should enter World War I. During the war Greece was of strategic importance due to its position in the link between Europe and the Middle East and its position on the southern flank of the Central Powers.

Causes of the conflict

The conflict had much deeper roots than simply the ongoing world war. It was based on the wider ranging Balkan conflicts of previous years, especially the issue of the unification of Macedonia with Greece. [1]

1914/Early 1915 - Beginning of the conflict

As the war began the Greek authorities had to choose between neutrality and aligning themselves with the Allied forces. Outright participation in the war on the side of the Central Powers was not an option, both because of Greece's vulnerability to the British Fleet and because, from early on (October 1914), Greece's traditional enemy, the Ottoman Empire, had joined in on Germany's side. Hence, neutrality was the course favoured by most pro-German Greeks, including the senior, German-educated, leadership of the General Staff, who had great influence over the King. The situation was complicated by several other factors. King Constantine's wife Queen Sofia was the sister of the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, while Constantine himself had been educated in Germany and admired German culture. In addition, Greece had an ongoing mutual defence pact with Serbia, a member of the Allied forces, who were asking for support after they were invaded by Austria-Hungary (see Serbian Campaign (World War I)).[2]

The King's personal links gave him an obvious bias towards supporting the Central Powers. However, he believed it was in the greater interests of Greece to remain neutral - especially as long as there was no obvious victor in the war. On the other hand the Prime Minister Venizelos was in favour of joining the Allies.[2]

In January 1915, in an attempt to convince the Greeks to side with them, Britain offered Greece concessions in Asia Minor (currently part of Turkey) when the war was over, Venizelos felt this was a good deal and attempted to force a bill through the Greek parliament to join the Allies.[2] Staunch opposition by the King, Army generals and their supporters forced Venizelos to resign shortly afterwards.

1915/1916 - General elections

The resignation caused political dissension in Greece, a diplomatic battle between the King and the people forced a general election in June 1915. These elections were won by Venizelos' Liberal Party and he resumed his post as Prime Minister, however Constantine refused to ratify the appointment of the new government until August[3].

During this time the Serbian-Bulgarian conflict deepened until Bulgaria declared war on Serbia, which posed an immediate threat to the newly gained Greek province of Macedonia, including the strategically important port of Thessaloniki. Venizelos asked Constantine for permission to formalize a defense treaty with Serbia in the interests of protecting the Greek border from direct Bulgarian attack. Constantine agreed but only on the condition that Greece was actually attacked[3]. After his inability to sway Constantine to act against Bulgaria Venizelos took a new route by allowing British and French troops to land in Macedonia in preparation for their attack on Gallipoli, Turkey. This caused disarray in the Greek government and Venizelos took advantage of this by forcing through a parliamentary motion (with a 37 vote margin) to declare war on Bulgaria.

The dispute between the Greek Prime Minister and the King reached its height shortly after and the King invoked the Greek constitutional right that gave the monarch the right to dismiss a government unilaterally. In December 1915 Constantine forced Venizelos to resign for a second time and dissolved the Liberal-dominated parliament, calling a new election. Venizelos left Athens and moved back to his native Crete.[3]

The Liberals boycotted this second election, which undermined the new Royalist government's position, as it was seen as a government directly appointed by the King, disregarding popular opinion. The tension between the 2 parties grew gradually over the course of the following year with both sides taking a more radical and divisive approach to the situation. Public opinion was not nearly as clearly divided during this period. When French and British forces landed in Salonica (as allowed by Venizelos earlier) against Constantine's wishes the Greek people supported the King's view that the Allies had violated the country's sovereignty. However, later on, when the Central Powers took control of Macedonia in May 1916, the public took similar outrage at the King's inability to defend Greek territory.[4]

August 30, 1916, saw a coup against the Royalist government by Ethniki Amyna (National Defence), a secret pro-Venizelist military organization based in Thessaloniki. The coup succeeded to the extent that a second provisional government of Greece was formed by the group in Thessaloniki. With the backing of the Allies, Venizelos returned to the Greek mainland from Crete to lead the new provisional government at the head of a triumvirate. Towards the end of 1916 France and Britain, after failing to persuade the royalist government to enter the war too, officially recognised the Ethniki Amina government as the lawful government of Greece. [4]

In retaliation against Ethniki Amyna a Royalist paramilitary unit called the League of Reservists was formed. Led by Colonel Ioannis Metaxas (one of Constantine's closest aides and the future dictator of Greece) the group targeted Liberal and Venizelist people in Athens and nearby areas, culminating in the Noemvriana, the "November events", which were ignited by an armed confrontation between Greek reservists and French marines. The Allies in retaliation instituted a naval blockade, seized the Greek fleet and demanded the parial disarmament of the royalist forces and their withdrawal to the Peloponnese. The blockade lasted 106 days in total, during which time no goods were allowed to enter or leave Greek mainland ports that were under the control of the Athens government. This was to set a precedent for much of the future conflict in Greece.[4]

1917/1918 - Greece joins the war

The Allied blockade eventually succeeded in its aim. In June 1917, after threats to bombard Athens if the King remained, Constantine left Greece leaving the Crown to his second son Alexander. Venizelos took control of the government and pledged Greek support to the Allies. In July the country officially declared war on the Central Powers. During the remaining 18 months of the war 10 divisions of the Greek army fought alongside the Allied forces against Bulgarian and German forces in Macedonia and Bulgaria. During the conflict Greek forces lost approximately 5,000 troops.[5][6]


The act of entering the war and the preceding events resulted in a deep political and social division in post-World War I Greece. The country's foremost political formations, the Venizelist Liberals and the Royalists, already involved in a long and bitter rivalry over pre-war politics, reached a state of outright hate towards each other. Both parties viewed the other's actions during the First World War as politically illegitimate and treasonous. This hate inevitably spread throughout Greek society, creating a deep rift that contributed decisively to the Asia Minor Disaster and resulted in much social unrest in the interwar years. The National Schism was also one of the principal causes that led to the collapse of the Second Hellenic Republic and the institution of the 4th of August Regime in 1936, and the often violent conflict between "liberals" and "conservatives" continued to feature in Greek political life until the permanent establishment of a parliamenary republic in 1974.


  1. ^ article which covers some of the roots of this conflict, specifically the unification of Macedonia.
  2. ^ a b c article which covers the beginning of the conflict and the complex situations that affected each side's decisions
  3. ^ a b c article which covers the events of the first general election from June 1915 to the second resignation of Venizelos in December of that year
  4. ^ a b c article which covers aspects of the second general election, Macedonia issues and the events of 1916
  5. ^ article which covers the events of 1917 and Greece joining the war
  6. ^ Article covering the whole conflict which specifically mentions the 5,000 Greek deaths


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