Cairo Moments: The Greek government-in-exile, the monarchy, and the British influence

When Nazi Germany invaded mainland Greece in April 1941, the Greek King Georg II formed a government that first departed to Crete. As the Germans were occupying Crete, the government fled to Egypt in May 1941. Cairo was the city in which the Greek government-in-exile pitched their first camp outside the country. Due to tensions over the presence of the King and his cabinet, the government-in-exile was forced to travel on to London in September 1941. The armed forces and the Minister of Defence remained in Egypt. The cabinet and the King stayed in London until the Spring of 1943 but eventually returned to Cairo because of unrest within the armed forces in the Middle East.

During the time the Greek government-in-exile officially resided in London, the representatives’ eyes were mainly focussed on what was happening in Cairo. The fact that Cairo remained the centre of attention is also reflected in the literature on the government-in-exile, which considers the events in London as secondary.[1] The focus on Cairo earned the Greek government-in-exile the name Ελληνική Εξόριστη Κυβέρνηση Μέσης Ανατολής, which translates into the “Greek exile government of the Middle East”. It was also referred to as the “Cairo government”. Yet, despite of the long distance they had to bridge, the Greek government-in-exile maintained very close ties to London, and to British government institutions, respectively. However, within the community of European exiles in London the representatives of the Greek government-in-exile stayed among themselves and played a rather inconspicuous role. On that account, the following text will shed light on a few ‘Cairo Moments’ that determined the situation of the Greek government-in-exile in Cairo and London as well as the progress of events that led to the Greek Civil War.

After having repulsed the Italian invasion in the winter of 1940 for several months, the country eventually got run over and occupied by Nazi Germany in April 1941, which, together with Bulgaria, came to help the poorly organised Italian army. Earlier in the same year, Greek dictator Ioannis Metaxas who had been appointed by the Greek King George II in 1936 had died. The British historian Mark Mazower characterises the conservative Metaxas regime as totalitarian but not as fascist.[2] Metaxas declared martial law and introduced totalitarian phenomena such as efficient secret police, fascist symbolism, and a national youth organisation. Unlike Nazi Germany or fascist Italy, however, Metaxas never had any mass support. Because of the authoritarian style of rule, Metaxas and the King who had appointed the former to office became very unpopular among the population. Needless to mention that many officials of the Metaxas regime collaborated with the Germans.

King George II with Royal Air Force officers in the Western Desert of Egypt during his visit to a Greek fighter station. Copyright: © Imperial War Museum (CM 2758)

The reasons for King George’s unpopularity not only lay in his appointment of Metaxas and the subsequent approval of the latter’s suspension of the constitution.[3] The factor that the Greek King did not have “one drop of Greek blood in his veins” further exacerbated underlying tensions among the Greek population.[4] Additionally, he was often depicted as a self-centred, indifferent, and not very charismatic head of state. But nowhere in Greece was his popularity as low as it was on Crete, which at that time was a strongly republican island. Crete was the birthplace of Eleftherios Venizelos, who to this day is considered a “founding father” of the modern and republican Greek state. After Metaxas’ successor, overwhelmed by the looming occupation, had committed suicide two days before the government fled the mainland, George II, before the flight to the island, was forced to choose the next prime minister based on his own disputed status on Crete.

Prime minister of the Greek government-in-exile Emmanouil Tsouderos before 1940. AnonymUnknown author / Public domain

Thus, he appointed Emmanouil Tsouderos, a Cretan state banker with a republican past. However, Tsouderos remained politically ambiguous and with little impact throughout his tenure as prime minister, which held up until April 1944, some months before the Greek governments’ return to Athens in October of the same year. Despite the appointment of Tsouderos, the new cabinet was not well received at their arrival on the island, because the rest of the initial exile government still was composed of members of the old Metaxas regime. Some of these ministers resigned from their positions after few days. However, it took until May 1942 for the government to rid itself of Metaxist members. Which, again, did not mean that the government-in-exile was predominantly antimonarchist and republican. The Tsouderos cabinet disposed of the old fascistic remains but still worked towards the return of the King by a majority and ultimately restored the monarchy in Greece. Although openly antimonarchical politicians, such as the minister of defence in Cairo Panagiotis Kanellopoulos, were added to the Greek government-in-exile, they never really saw a chance in making substantial changes to the general aim of the King’s return.

To understand the history of the Greek government-in-exile the role of British authorities is crucial. One major objective in British policy towards Greece was to entrench and preserve the King’s power and by that their own power over Greece over time, including the post-war period. The King was considered key to British influence over Greece, despite of his unpopularity and the abandonment of the constitution. Because he had spent twelve years of his exile there and maintained a personal friendship with Winston Churchill, King George II of Greece had strong ties to the United Kingdom. The Tsouderos cabinet was always of secondary importance to the British Foreign Office. However, it was the British influence that first caused Metaxists to remain in office only to make them resign soon after. At first, some of them were confidants of the British government, only to become a liability in the effort of the British to sway the Greek popular opinion. As the Greek historian Procopis Papastratis’ study on British Policy Towards Greece during the Second World War shows the Cairo government’s agency was very restrained. The British Foreign Office had the last say. For instance, the Greek diaspora in Egypt, the armed forces, and the minister of defence Panagiotis Kanellopoulos were pushing towards the democratisation of the government, but pivotal for the decision was what Churchill or the Foreign Office decided.

Another key topic that the British authorities as well as the government-in-exile had to come to terms with was the constitutional question. As exile republicans and the emerging leftist resistance in the country but also the left-leaning armed forces of the Middle East were gaining momentum, the question of a plebiscite to decide the future of the monarchy was putting pressure upon the Cairo government. They wanted the King to stay exiled until after the war, when a referendum could be held determining the state of the monarchy. This matter turned out to be the key issue for the government-in-exile and for the continuation of the conflict between republican, conservative, and communist forces during the Greek Civil War, which already started with battles during the occupation in 1943 and lasted until 1949.

In Egypt, the King encountered similar problems as in Crete. The big Greek diaspora in Cairo and especially in Alexandria was powerful, wealthy, and educated. They sympathised with a Venizelist republicanism. This problem was aggravated by the Egyptian prime minister’s fear of an invasion by the German Africa corps due to the presence of the pro-British Greeks. Therefore, the Greeks’ stay was initially only tolerated for a short amount of time. Therefore, the Greek government-in-exile – apart from the armed forces and the responsible minister Kanellopoulos – after a brief stay of one month in the middle east was pressured to first sail to Pretoria and from there to London. The situation for the Greeks in Egypt cooled down again, so that the army could stay and that the King and the ministers could return in spring 1943.

The German historian Heinz A. Richter points out that the power over Greece during the country’s occupation in the Second World War was divided into four centres[5]: London and Cairo, where the ‘regular’ government found itself, as well as Athens, where a collaborationist government was installed. The last centre of power in Greece was in the mountains of Central Greece where republican, nationalist and mainly communist resistance groups under the lead of the EAM (National Liberation Front) were on the rise. Effectively, the influence of the ‘mountain government’ reached far beyond the mountains. For instance, they held a secret public election in 1944, in which around 1,5 million of Greeks participated. These newly formed partisan groups held one big advantage over the collaborationists and the government-in-exile: they had wide-ranging popular support among the Greek population, which can be considered a substantial novelty in Greek politics.

In the Winter of 1941/1942, occupied Greece reached the peak of a dreadful famine that to some degree was caused, respectively, was not brought to a halt by the British. Together with the Allied forces Great Britain had declared a blockade on occupied Greece, which already before the war had been dependent on the import of food supplies. The inability of the exile government to pressure the British authorities to provide food relief to Greece, combined with the fact that at that point it was mainly set in London, hence very far from its people, did not help its acceptance by the general population.[6] The split in power and the uncertainty concerning the responsibilities between the EAM and its military branch, the ELAS (Greek People’s Liberation Army), and the British-backed monarchy were a major reason for the ensuing bloody civil war.

The Cairo government was not unaffected by the rise of EAM. Republicans in the government, the Greek diaspora in Egypt, as well as EAM supporters in the armed forces were pushing towards a coalition government including the leftist resistance in the country. However, the Greek government-in-exile refused those co-operative attempts and instead insisted on the return of the King, which again was highly contested by republicans and leftists. This eventually led to unrest and mutinies within the army and the naval forces, which by some means reflected the popular Greek opinion more than the politicians of the exile government.[7] The turmoil finally culminated in two events: the resignation of minister of defence Kanellopoulos who tried to mediate between republicans in the army and royalists in the exile government in March 1943, and the big naval mutiny of Alexandria in April of 1944. These first unrests within the army were the reason why King George II, prime minister Tsouderos, and other ministers were forced to return from London to Cairo in the spring of 1943. In April 1944, Emmanouil Tsouderos resigned from his post as prime minister in the wake of unrest.

People of Athens celebrating the liberation in October 1944 © Greek Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Diplomatic and Historical Archive

Few months later, after the German troops had withdrawn from Greece, the Greek government-in-exile returned without holding a plebiscite about the constitutional future of the country. At this point the royalists in the exile government who had spent years disposing of authoritarian elements in Greek politics and had been supported by elements of the British army joined forces with the authoritarian collaborators and the republicans to fight their mutual enemy – the leftists from the EAM. The royalists and the republicans within no time performed an ideological U-turn to preserve their power, the former by forming a coalition with the Metaxists and collaborators and the latter by endorsing the King. For all these parties the reinforcement of the King appeared as a necessity to fight a looming communist revolution. From the perspective of the “Cairo government” and the British government, the goal of preserving the king’s power was achieved, even if it meant the outbreak of civil war.

[1] The following books are recommended for further reading on the subject: Fleischer, Hagen: Im Kreuzschatten der Mächte. Griechenland 1941-1944, Frankfurt am Main 1986; Papastratis, Procopis: British Policy Towards Greece During the Second World War. 1941-1944, Cambridge 1984; Richter, Heinz A.: Griechland zwischen Revolution und Konterrevolution (1936-1946), Frankfurt am Main 1973; Clogg, Richard: The Greek Government-in-Exile 1941-4, in: The International History Review 1.3, 1979, pp. 376-398; Δίβανη, Λενα: Η πολιτική των εξόριστων κυβερνήσεων 1941-1944, Αθήνα 1991.

[2] Mark Mazower, Inside Hitler’s Greece. The Experience of Occupation, 1941-1944, pp. 13-14.

[3] Clogg 1979, p. 379.

[4] Papastratis 1984, p. 8.

[5] Richter, 1973, pp. 117-119.

[6] Papastratis 1984, pp. 114-118.

[7] Jones, Mark C.: Misunderstood and Forgotten. The Greek Naval Mutiny of April 1944, in: Journal of Modern Greek Studies 20/2, 2002, pp. 367-397.

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