The most prominent Greek statesman was a realist and a visionary, intelligent, flexible and daring, possessing an impressive personal charm.
He was born in Ottoman ruled Crete in 1864. During his childhood years his family fled to Greece in consequence of his father's involvement in the Cretan insurrection of 1886. Following his graduation from the Law Faculty of Athens University he worked as a lawyer in Chania but soon he entered politics as a member of the liberal party of the island.
His political and leadership qualities were revealed during the revolutioin of 1897. During the period of Cretan State (1898-1912) Venizelos was actively involved in the drafting of the Cretan Constitution. He quallered with the High Commissioner Prince George on account of his liberal principles, he resorted to an armed rising at Therisso (1905) and secured the replacement of Prince George by the Greek politician Alexandros Zaimis. During his subsequent efforts for the unification of Crete with Greece Venizelos kept a skillful balance between daring and moderation.
In 1910 he put an end to his role as a politician in Crete and moved to mainland Greece, where he became Prime Minister and founded the "Liberal Party". He was the moving spirit in the political and economic progress of Greece and in the victorious outcome of the Balkan Wars (1912-13). During World War I he clashed with the Crown and, at the expense of the National Schism (1915-1917) he imposed his pro-Entente policy. Greece was rewarded for her contribution to the war by being given the High Commissionership of Smyrna (1919). In the vital elections of November 1920 Venizelos was defeated and he withdrew from politics to return after the Asia Minor disaster of 1922. With two of his radical initiatives (1923) - the mandatory exchange of Greek and Turkish populations and the Treaty of Lausanne which defined the boundaries between Greece and Turkey - he changed the orientation of Greek policy and laid the foundations for peaceful development.
His last term of office as Prime Minister (1928-1932) was a period of stability and creativity. His major achievement was the signature of the pact of friendship between Greek and Turkey (1930). The end of his career was marked by the attempt against his life (June 1933) and the failed venizelist coup of March 1935. He went into self-exile in Paris where he died on the 18th March 1936.
His roots and his family
Eleftherios Venizelos was born in 1864 in Mournies, a small flower-bedecked village outside Chania in Crete.
This was two years before the Great Cretan Insurrection and the holocaust at Arkadi in the years 1866-69 and, as Nikos Kazanzakis writes, "by being born a Cretan at a decisive moment when Crete was struggling to be free, he sensed from his early childhood that there is something in the world more precious than life and sweeter than happiness - freedom".
His family instilled in him the spirit and significance of Cretan family tradition. Eleftherios was brought up with the wisdom of his learned merchant father Kyriakos and was nurtured with the milk of his Therisso mother Styliani Ploumidaki. And, of course, Crete herself formed him with her history and struggles, her constant eruptive activity and patriotism, her energy and circumspection.
It was the Chania plain and Souda harbour, Malaxa, Chrisopigi, Mournies where he saw the first light of day, the Church of Saint Eleftherios where he was baptised Eleftherios...
It was the high snow-covered White Mountains, the heroic village of Therisso, the root from which his mother sprang and the place of his first rebellion....
And it was the town of Chania, the place of his life, the town rebuilt by the Venetians on the ruins of ancient Kydonia, where the Genoans and the Byzantines left their mark and which was later laid waste by the Germans...
It was, however, also the monasteries and the churches with their faded old icons which recall the glory of Cretan painting. And also the humble building of the Greek Primary School which Eleftherios attended as a small boy.
And it was the Old Town within the Venetian walls, Topana where his father's house was located and where he spent his childhood years and dreamt his youthful dreams. There is where he got to know his first wife Maria, where he spent the years of his marriage and where the tragic death of his wife was to leave its indelible mark on him... Up in "Kastelli", the administrative centre and location of the Courts, where he first worked as a lawyer and attorney... And then his house in the "distant suburb" of Chalepa without even a "carriage road" to connect it to Chania...
It was a time when, although Cretan civilisation remained wounded through the evils provoked by the occupying power, Erotokritos and the mountain songs were ever on the lips of the Cretans and the Orthodox tradition was flourishing.
The women of Crete continued to give birth, to observe their folk traditions, to weave on their looms and decorate their houses and to suckle their children on the spirit and significance of good housekeeping and honesty, just as did the Therisso mother of Venizelos.
His father had his roots in Mistra by Sparta. One of his forebears had moved to the island of Kythera and the father of Kyriakos came to Chania. Three of Kyriakos' brothers had been sacrificed in the revolution of 1821. Perhaps a Spartan forebear with memories of Mistra and the last of the Palaiologans lived within him.
And perhaps it is to this comixture that he owed the "Dorian manner, the unbending will but also the ingenuity of the temperament of the young man".
Young Venizelos experienced in his daily life the weight of the Turkish occupation and the dire Ottoman oppression. He experienced also the psychology of his revolutionary compatriots.
Tomadakis asserts that, "had he been born in any other area of the free Kingdom of Greece, he would not have understood either the Turks or the European supporters of the integrity of the Ottoman Empire in the way in which he understood them under the shadow of the Cretan mountains and in the small diplomatic arena of Chalepa...".
From Mournies to Chalepa
Eleftherios was the fifth child of his family. He had three older sisters, Maria, Eleni and Ekaterini, an older brother, Agathoklis, and a younger sister Evanthia. During the revolution in 1866 the family was obliged to abandon the house in Mournies and move to the island of Syros. They returned to Chania about 1872 when the revolutionaries were accorded an amnesty. His father Kyriakos was a merchant. He had a glass-ware shop within the walls of the old town at what is today number 7 Halidon Street. Since living in Mournies outside the walls of the town during the period of Turkish rule created difficulties, he also had a house in Topana near to his shop in the same street, at number 56 Halidon Street.
Later Kyriakos Venizelos acquired the piece of land and house in the "distant suburb" of Chalepa without even a "carriage road" to connect it to Chania. In Chalepa the climate was better. This, after all was the preferred suburb for the most distimguished among the "citizens of the capital". Chalepa, too, was the area where the General Consulates of the Great Powers were concentrated which were later to constitute the "great diplomatic school which educated Eleftherios Venizelos".
In 1876 Kyriakos bought a piece of land (approximately 2200 square metres) in Chalepa and in 1877 began to build his house. The construction of the house was completed about 1880 and the family then took up permanent residence there in what is today the well-known villa of the Venizelos family. The house in Chalepa was from the beginning built as a two-story villa. It had ancillary areas on the ground floor and the large reception room on the upper floor where today there are the south-facing bedrooms. Access to the upper floor was via an internal wooden staircase, just as today, but there was also an outside entrance to the upper floor which was approached directly from the garden via a double stone-built stairway. The large garden surrounding the house and the vineyard were planted at that time. And later this garden with its paved pathways, its flowers, its roses, the fruit trees, the vineyard and the olive trees, which the father did not live to enjoy, was the great love of his son who took personal scholastic care for it even from his exile. The whole piece of land was protected by a high wooded fence.
Eleftherios' father Kyriakos did not live long in the house. He did not enjoy it. He died in 1883 in Mournies where he, too, had seen the first light of day.
As a young boy, Eleftherios had taken the first steps of his elementary education in Syros up until 1872 or 1873. From the time his family returned to Chania, however, he attended the Greek School of Chania at Maidani in Chalepa, next to the church of St. Nicholas, and it was from here that he received his school certificate in 1874. Thereafter he attended Secondary School for two years (1877-79) at the Antoniadi School in Athens as a boarding pupil, and he spent his final year of secondary education at a school in Ermoupolis in Syros from which he received his Leaving Certificate in 1880.In 1881 he enrolled at the Law School of Athens University.
He stayed with a group of Cretan students in Harilaou Trikoupi Street, then known as Pinakoton Street and the following year he moved to a house in Omirou Street where he stayed for approximately five years, that is, for the entire duration of his studies, up until January 1887.
At the time of his father's death he interrupted his studies and came back to his father's glass-ware shop to work and support his family financially. He returned to Athens in 1885, however, determined to take his degree. And two years later in 1887 he came to Chania as a qualified lawyer.
The Cretan Years
Venizelos began to work in Chania in 1887. He lived in the Chalepa house along with his family for which he had assumed responsibility. He worked as a lawyer and journalist and in 1889 he was for the first time elected a Member of Parliament. At the same time he became co-editor of the local newspaper "White Mountains" (Lefka Ori) for which he also wrote.
In December 1891 he married his adored Maria Katelouzou, daughter of Eleftherios Katelouzos. The marriage took place in the mansion of the Katelouzou family in Topana - at what is today number 68 Theotokopoulou Street. The newly-weds lived in the upper floor of the Chalepa house, while Venizelos' mother and his brother and sisters lived on the ground floor.
It was there that they dreamt their youthful dreams and enjoyed the happy moments of their marriage, and there, also, that their two children were born, Kyriakos in 1892 and Sofoklis in 1894. Their married life, however, was short and marked by misfortune. Maria died of post partural fever in November 1894 after the birth of their second child, Sophocles. Her death left a deep mark on Venizelos and the sign of his mourning, his charateristic beard and moustache, remained with him for the rest of his life.
To this tragic misfortune which left his children orphans and suddenly extinguished his romantic dreams of a life with his beloved Maria is attributed the frequent deep sighs and melancholy of this giant of a man. His soul was engulfed with profound grief and pain. Day by day he was to be found sitting on a stool with a book in his hand next to Maria's grave in the cemetery by the church of Saint Foteini. This state continued for more than a year to the extent that everyone started to worry about his health. When he became aware of the danger threatening him, however, he reacted with resolution.
His obligations towards his family and the pressing needs of the struggle for the freedom of his country distracted him somewhat from his anguish and forced him to re-enter the fray with greater determination, but without ever taking from him that deep sigh and tragic grievance which would often escape from his lips: "Oh, my God! ...Why?"
He quickly became the major protagonist and moving spirit in all the historical landmarks of the Cretan history of his time and in the Independent Cretan State. He fought on all fronts, as a revolutionary, as a lawyer, as a politician, as a diplomat and as a journalist. He played a leading role in the Akrotiri Revolution of 1897, in the establishment of the Cretan State in 1899 and in the Therisso Rebellion of 1905. He is educated continually in the "Great School of Crete"! "Crete", as N. Tomadakis affirms, "was the great school, the great diplomatic school, the great dress rehearsal... Souda Bay and the Akrotiri... constituted the general rehearsal for the handling of the national questions (1910-1920)".
In the period from 1887 until the eve of the Therisso Rebellion of 1905 he worked as a lawyer and journalist. He had his law office in the centre of the Old Town, in what is today Kanevaro Street, opposite the house of his lawyer friend Athanasios Bloum, and from the year 1901 he published his newspaper "Herald" (Kirix) from offices in present-day Halidon Street.
He would go back and forwards from Chalepa to Chania and to the Courts in a vis-a-vis, using the time he was sitting in the carriage to study foreign languages. This knowledge of languages was to be essential in his dealings with the representatives of the Great Powers.
At the same time as he was involved in the numerous important political events of the period, he was also facing many serious family problems. The atmosphere in the house in Chalepa was heavy. The shadow of tragic death hung everywhere. Following the death of his father and his wife, he lost his mother Styliani and his "unfortunate" brother Agathoklis. Both died from a flu epidemic on the island of Milos where they had taken refuge during the Cretan Revolution of 1897. Venizelos had sent his children, his mother and his brother and sisters there and asked the husband of his sister Eleni, Andreas Nostrakis, who came from Milos, "to undertake the task of looking after his family as a personal loan to him".
The tragic state of his family, for which he was now the sole provider, forced him to consider leaving the house in Chalepa. Moreover, he was further burdened by serious financial problems which led him to take the decision to leave the house in Chalepa so that it could be rented. With the income from the rent he could gradually pay off the debts he had accumulated, particularly the mortgage of 2,000 score francs which he taken out on the family house in order to cover the costs of the Therisso Revolution. Otherwise he would lose the house.
Thus in 1906 he is forced to leave Chalepa. He rented at Topana half of a three-storey building at the corner of the two streets Moschon and Theofanous and this he used as a dwelling house and political office. He moved books and furniture and lived there.
Evanthia, his younger sister took over the task of looking after the house, while his two children stayed as boarding pupils at the "Korai" Lyceum in Heraklion. He was to stay in this house until 1910. At the same time he opened his new law office at 52 Eisodion Street.
Eleftherios Venizelos lived in Chania for 46 years up to 1910. In Chania he grew up, fell in love and mourned loss. He was taught the value of freedom. "The fact that he realised his own and our dreams is something he owes to that element in the Cretan character where theory becomes practice".
In 1910 the whole of Crete dispatched him to Athens to assume responsibility for the fate of the nation. This man with his brilliant personality and bright darting eyes, with "his delicate features and his bitter-sweet enigmatic smile", became master of the political life of the country. He lived with triumphs and successes, tempests and divisions up until 1920 when, following his defeat in the elections in November of that year, he left for Paris in a self-imposed exile.
In September 1921, twenty seven years after the death of his first wife Maria, he married in Highgate in London an exceedingly wealthy woman called Elena Skylitsi and settled down in Paris in a flat at 22 rue Beanjon. He was to live there until 1927 when he returned to Chania and renovated his beloved house in Chalepa. In 1928 politics won him once again. In 1930 he acquired a house in Athens at the corner of the streets Loukianou and Vasilissis Sofias. Today it provides the residence for the British Ambassador.
In 1935 the March 1st Movement finds him in Chania and from Chania he leaves once again into self-imposed exile in Paris. A year later, in 1936, on the 18th March, in the flat at 22 rue Beanjon, the "light of the Great man went out". The destroyer "Admiral Koundouriotis" brought him directly from Brindisi to Chania without even making a stop at Athens.
The earth which received him was the Akrotiri, where it "guards him as an exceptional combination of action and contemplation, of Cretan vitality and courage, of Odyssean artfulness and Greek intelligence".