Alexandros Zaimis ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ ΖΑΙΜΙΣ
Born 1856, Athens Died 1936, Austria
One day while in the Plaza of the First Cemetery, a familiar name caught my eye:
ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ ΘΡ. Α. ΖΑΙΜΗΣ
It is a well known name to anyone who, like myself, lives in Achaia on the North Peloponnese. In Achaia the Zaimis family ruled the roost from the Ottoman period right up until the twentieth century. Based in Kalavryta and the nearby village of Kerpini, many of their family members fought in the War of Independence and the clan could boast an early prime minister.
The Zaimis family tower in Kerpini
They were big landowners – ‘archondes’ as the Greeks say. In fact, the surname 'Zaimis' was adopted by the family from the Turkish word for large feudal fiefs: Zaimets. An elderly neighbor of ours once described how, when there was work to be done in the fields around his village of Kalamia, a Zaimis would enter the local café to curtly announce, Σκάβω αύριο! ( I cultivate tomorrow ), and the men of the village would line up, hoping to be chosen to either earn a pittance or a chance to work off money they already owed to the ‘big’ boss. This system of dependence on large landowners was common in many parts of rural Greece, and persisted well into the 20th century.
As a fellow Achaian, I decided to do a little digging myself and find out more about the Zaimis buried in such a modest plot in an area of the cemetery reserved for the distinguished or the very wealthy. What I discovered got me thinking…
Alexandros Zaimis was born in 1856, studied law in Athens, then Liepzig, Paris, and Berlin. He wore an astonishing number of hats during his long career. Entering parliament in the mid 1880s as the member for Kalavryta, he took over the seat left absent by his father’s death.(1) No surprise here; politics has always been a family business in Greece. During his career, he served in several ministries, as High Commissioner to Crete, a director of the National Bank, a leader of the senate (when we had one) and 6 times as prime minister (1897, 1901, three times between 1915 and 17, and once between 1926-28). That might seem a lot but, in Greece where leaders come and go with amazing rapidity, it is not a record. Alexandros Koumoundouros, for example, was prime minister 10 times.
Zaimis as President of the Greek Republic
Alexandros Zaimis played an unusual role in the drama that is Greek history in that he was a true avis rara, a politician who navigated unscathed between two sides of the long standing political divide that characterized the Greek political scene during his 39 year career.
He started out as a moderate conservative and an independent during the heyday of the famous rivalry between liberal Harilaos Trikoupis and conservative Theodoros Deligiannis. (These two alternating prime ministers were such bitter rivals that Deligiannis once announced that if Trikoupis was for an issue, any issue, then he was automatically against it!). Zaimis did pretty well himself as prime minister during his two brief stints in 1897 and in 1901. In 1897 he managed to secure a significant loan from the Great Powers,(2) something the bankrupt country desperately needed and, during this second term, he was able to restore order in the capital after the infamous ‘gospel riots’ (3) when the educated, pro-katharevousa ruling elite rioted because the book of Mathew in the New Testament had been printed in demotic Greek, a form of the language easily understood by the ‘oi polloi’.
His talents as a mediator and a conciliator were already evident.
Eight people were killed and a Church subsequently forbade the translation of the Bible into demotic!
Zaimis as High Commissioner to Crete
1906 saw Zaimis appointed to a five year term as the High Commissioner to Crete. And therein lies a tale.
In 1906, many Cretans (including Venizelos), while happy with Crete’s autonomous status which had been granted and guaranteed by the Powers in 1898 were concerned about future Ottoman designs on the island and wanted union with the Greek kingdom rather than the existing system whereby they remained under the rule of Greece’s Prince George (a son of Greek King George 1) as High Commissioner. This was a situation they had had to tolerate since 1898 because it pleased the Great Powers’ urge to somehow preserve the balance of power in the Mediterranean. The prince, however, had become increasingly autocratic during his tenures and indicated in many ways that the status quo on the island suited him just fine; he rather liked ruling Crete as a princedom. For Venizelos, the Cretan liberal leader and great unionist, this was anathema. So, in 1906 Venizlos led a revolt (4) which lasted 8 months. At the very least he wanted any future High Commissioner to be a Greek national, and preferably a former Prime Minister.
The Powers and the Greek king needed a compromise: enter Alexandros Zaimis. Prince George was brought home by his father who then appointed Zaimis with a clear writ to sooth troubled Cretan waters.
As High Commissioner in 1906
Zaimis Moves the Plot and Then Exits on Cue
He may have been a royalist but Zaimis admired Venizelos and prophesied even then that he would prove to be the 'maker of Greece'. In fact, he worked so well with Venizelos as first minister that he allowed him to pretty much run the show in Crete while he travelled throughout Europe acting as a kind of Cretan good will ambassador. Under his gentle auspices amnesty was granted to the rebels, squabbling Cretan political factions were rendered somewhat less fractious, and a more liberal Cretan constitution came into being.
One historian has labeled him the ‘emollient Mr Zaimis’, not a term which normally applies to any Greek politician then or now.(5) It was not really intended as a compliment, but it was apt. Zaimis had a knack for knowing which way the wind was blowing and bowing in the correct direction.
In 1908 he obligingly absented himself from the island so that a group, led by Venizelos, could declare a de facto union with the Kingdom of Greece. Zaimis had to have known what was planned but his discreet absence lessened the embarrassment of his boss, King George, during the diplomatic fallout that followed .(6)
(Crete did join Greece in 1912, but that is another story.)
Venizelos around 1900
King George around 1900
Meanwhile, On the Mainland, the Emollient Mr Zaimis Becomes a Banker
In the early 1900s, the divide between liberals and conservative leaning royalists continued to plague the Greek body politic and in an ever more virulent form - with liberal-republican sentiment finally coalescing behind Cretan Eleftherios Venizelos (who, through a series of adventures and a coup had left Crete in 1910 to become prime minister of Greece) and the Conservatives who showed themselves ever ready to coalesce behind the monarchy.
Zaimis remained off stage for a number of years after his Cretan sojourn. He became a director of the National Bank in 1914, a post he would continue to hold on and off until 1920.
However, these turbulent times were so 'out of joint' that his directorship would be interrupted as he was called upon by the king to become prime minister not once but three times between 1915 and 1917.
The Lead Up to the Political Schism of 1917
The cast of characters on the political stage had changed since 1908. The scene had shifted northwards: and a lot had been happening to advance and complicate the plot: King Constantine 1 was now at the helm after his father’s unfortunate assassination in Thessaloniki in 1913. (6) As Greece’s Prime Minister, Venizelos had successfully led the country through two Balkan wars and greatly increased the area of the kingdom. These successes kept his star in the ascendant in spite of the trouble brewing at home and abroad.
Constantine 1 was remarkably like his father but with a toned down moustache
The Greek military was becoming increasingly polarized between republican minded officers who backed Venizelos and royalists who had thrown in their chances of advancement with the royals – enough of whom were officers in the army to rouse both jealousy and complaints of incompetence and royal nepotism.
Meanwhile shifting power struggles in Europe among the Powers were leading inexorably to the First World War, making it impossible for even the ‘polymechanos’ Venizelos to steer the ship of state. The German Kaiser was Constantine 1’s brother-in-law and the Greek heir apparent (another George) had been trained in the Kaiser’s army. The stated position of the king was ‘neutrality’ whereas Venizelos believed that success for farther Greek expansion into Asia minor (always his ultimate goal: to include all Greeks into the Greek state) lay in an alliance with the Entente (Britain, France, and Russia) against the central powers (Austro-Hungary and Germany with Bulgaria and Turkey ready to join in) (7)
Differences over policy between Venizelos and the king grew, with Venizelos offering his resignation on more than one occasion. Meanwhile Bulgaria was mobilizing and the king was reluctant to do the same. (Bulgaria was gearing up to join Germany and was promised Kavalla – and outlet to the Aegean - if it did). Greece had already signed a treaty to aid Serbia in case of Bulgarian aggression but the king was very reluctant to support it. Venizelos then ‘pushed the envelope’ by allowing British and French troops to land in Salonika, ostensibly to aid Serbia if needed. That was a step too far for the king. Venizelos was forced to resign on October 7, 1915 and the king chose Zaimis, a dependable royalist, as prime minister.
In office, Zaimis dutifully questioned the Greek obligation to Serbia before losing a vote of confidence and handing the reins over to Stephanos Skouloudis. Venizelos condemned Zaimis’ stand on Serbia but apparently liked him personally and did not go so far as to accuse him of duplicity. On June 16, 1916, During Skouloudis’ tenure, Bulgaria attacked Fort Rupel on Greek Territory. Skouloudis, with the king’s approval, ordered the Greek troops to surrender. This prompted the French to declare martial law in Salonika and that prompted Skouloudis to resign. Again Zaimis took over what was becoming a thankless task for three months, during which Kavalla fell to Bulgaria. The center could not hold…
At an Athenian mass rally on August 17, 1916, Venizelos, (who still had a majority in parliament), made a final attempt to persuade the king to join the entente; instead the king clamped down on Venizelists. Shortly after, on September 25, Venizelos left Athens on a French ship to lead a rival government in Thessaloniki.
Venizelos (center) with Daglis and Koundouriotis, as head of the ‘Provisional Government of National Defense”
Both governments claimed legitimacy. The entente supported Venizelos by harassing Greek shipping and by condemning the king in the press. The king was left fulminating and the Church, ever royalists, excommunicated Venizelos and his effigy (a bull’s head) was stoned in a public park in Athens.
The Bull’s head under thousands of ‘curse’ stones in the center of Athens
But, events favoured Venizelos and the entente. After a 10 month stalemate, a triumphant Venizlos was returned to Athens on a French gunship and Zaimis (prime minister yet again) immediately resigned so Venizelos could resume his old premiership without having to call elections.(8).
Before he left, Zaimis had the unenviable task of telling King Constantine that he must cede the throne – not to the heir apparent (considered too pro German), but to his younger son Alexander who was deemed more pliable (9)
A fancy inauguration for a puppet prince
Venizelos now had a biddable king, a writ to enter the war on the side of the entente, and a list of some 30 royalist enemies he wanted expelled along with the king. Zaimis was not among them. Skouloudis was tried for treason and sent to jail; Mr Zaimis was not. Apparently Venizelos thought that Zaimis, ‘meant well.’
The victory of the allies led to more Greek expansion, this time into Asia Minor. Meanwhile, Venizelos lost the elections of 1920, and the debacle that was Smyrna in 1922 ended their foothold in Asia Minor and the Great Idea of farther expansion
As so often in modern Greek history, certain principle actors keep reappearing, as seemingly indestructible as puppets in shadow theatre or a Punch and Judy show. King Constantine reappeared only to be vanquished yet again as Greece became a republic from 1924 to 1935. Venizelos rose to the premiership yet again and for 2 years worked together with Zaimis as prime minister in a coalition government in a republican parliament. Not only that, former royalist Alexandros Zaimis became President of Republican Greece from 1929 until 1935, until the pendulum swung yet again and the royalists (with their own list of Venizelists to root out) placed a king on the throne of Greece once more.
As for Zaimis, He died a year later in 1936 in Vienna where he was seeking medical treatment for his failing sight. His body was brought back to the First cemetery.
A Man for all Seasons, or Just Fifth Business? A Few Thoughts
History has not been kind to Alexandros Zaimis. Historian G.F. Abbot in Greece and the Allies 1914-22 gives him a left-handed compliment by calling him an unambitious man in a country where ambition is an endemic disease and as a man who was reluctantly called upon to adjudicate thankless tasks that he performed several times - to everybody’s temporary satisfaction.
Faint praise indeed.
It is true that among the political giants of his day, he may have been ‘fifth business’, a Prufrock to Venizelos’ Hamlet, an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress, start a scene or two, advise the prince… But he was trusted by all sides in an era when political enemies routinely suffered exile, incarceration or execution. King George 11 of Greece once famously remarked that the most important tool in the arsenal of a Greek king was a suitcase. The same could be said of Greek politicians during this era when ascendancy meant eliminating political enemies as a prelude to power and loss meant exile or worse. I suspect that if a conciliatory figure like Zaimis had not actually existed, he would have had to be invented.
He is in the ‘distinguished section’ of the First Cemetery, although his grave is now weed choked and tucked away between the more imposing monument to George Averoff (a man whose contributions to Greece were of a more tangible nature) and Athens’ archbishops with their splendid marble pillowed crowns.
(1) There was a time when I considered hereditary political careers as suspect but I have been in Greece far too long to find it at all unusual.
(2) Modern Greece has never been free of the influence of “The Powers” even if the composition of that group has altered somewhat over time. Nothing happened if they did not want it to happen.
(3) It is remarkable how many demonstrations and riots have occurred in Greece when the object was not so much ‘change’ as to preserve the status quo.
(4) At Theriso
(5) Passionate intensity has always been the preferred norm in parliamentary debates.
(6) After ruling for 50 years, King George was assassinated by an apparent nonentity while walking in Thessaloniki.
(7) The Powers again. These were the countries which held the keys to the Greek future in 1914.
(8) Venizelos would later say that he would not have won an election in 1917 if it had been held, so he felt fortunate that a formula was devised for him to ‘resume’ power. His loss in 1920, proves that he was correct.
(9) King Alexander was pretty much immured in the Palace. He did anger Venizelos by marrying a commoner and not a British princess. His rather sad few years in the throne was ended in 1920 when a pet monkey bite became septic and he died.