Ion Dragoumis ΙΩΑΝΝΗΣ ΔΡΑΥΟΥΜΗΣ
Born 1878 Died 1920
Section 5, Number 270
Irredentism is any political or popular movement that seeks to claim/reclaim and occupy a land that the movement's members consider to be a "lost" (or "unredeemed") territory from their nation's past.
Charismatic and handsome, Ion Dragoumis was a diplomat, thinker, writer, and ardent nationalist. During the 21 years of his adult life, Ion was involved in 4 wars, one undeclared war, and a bitter government schism which caused him to be sent into exile and ultimately led to his death at the age of 42. His love affairs with Penelope Delta and Marika Kotopouli, both Greek cultural icons today, are the stuff of high romance; the part he played in the ‘Macedonian Struggle’ became the stuff of legend; his untimely death in 1920 was as ironic as it was tragic.
His story offers an opportunity to explore the logic behind and progress of Greek territorial expansion, and to better understand the background of the Macedonian issue in the context of someone who was intimately involved in the struggle.
Ion Dragoumis and the Great Idea
Dragoumis is remembered today as one of leading figures of Greek irredentism, a proponent of the ‘Great Idea’ first espoused in parliament by Ioannis Kolettis in the 1840s and which became Greek government policy thereafter. The idea was to reclaim Greek lands which had been lost to the Ottomans in order to bring all of the lost Greek populations back into an enlarged Greek state. The exact size was a matter for debate but the broad idea was to reassert to some extent the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and this, for most Greek irredentists, included The Aegean Islands, Crete, Cyprus, Constantinople, and the coast of Asia Minor.
It would be untrue to say that there was no opposition to the Great Idea inside Greece or on the part of Greeks living outside of the new country’s boundaries. There were many shades of commitment; some even felt that Greeks were reasonably well off just as they were. But for the vast majority of Greeks, it was just that – a great idea.
The Big Powers
The success of Greek expansion into Ottoman territory was never down to Greek effort alone. The European powers (England, France, and Russia) also had their eye on the faltering Ottoman Empire during the 19th century and they sought to ensure that whatever happened in the Balkans would suit their own geopolitical aims. One huge problem for Greek politicians was the fact that these aims were constantly shifting. Greece could only accomplish its goals at any given time, if a Big Power decided not to interfere.
The ‘ace’ for Greek irredentists, as opposed to budding irredentists in the other emerging Balkan nations, was the debt Europeans acknowledged to ancient Greece and the fact that Greece had already become an independent kingdom in 1832 whereas other ethnic groups in the Balkans were still struggling for freedom and ethnic cohesion.
The extent of Greek of territory in 1830 is in light brown
Greece did well after independence. It gained the Ionian Islands in 1864, then Thessaly and parts of Epirus in 1881:
Parts belonging to Greece by 1881 in purple with additions in lighter purple
This was the situation vis a vis the Great Idea around the time that Ion Dragoumis was born.
Dragoumis ‘pater’ and his young family
Ion (short for Ioannis) was born in Athens in 1878, the fifth son of prominent lawyer Stephanos Dragoumis. The Dragoumis family roots were in Vogatsiko in western Macedonia, then still part of the Ottoman Empire. They naturally wanted to change that. Ion studied law at the University of Athens and, at the age of 19, volunteered to fight in the 30 day Greco-Turkish War, a war fought to bring about the inclusion of Crete into the Greek state. It ended in a humiliating setback for Greece, a defeat that affected an entire generation of Greek young men. The reparations paid to the Ottomans were so severe and that the Greek economy was placed under the supervision of an International Financial Commission set up by France, Russia, and England. This, (and earlier interferences) solidified Ion’s feeling that Europe and its institutions had very little to offer Greece except interference. An anti-European thread would become a leitmotif in Dragoumis’ writing.
Macedonia: the Lead-up to the ‘Macedonian Struggle’
With Crete lost to them in 1897, all eyes turned to Macedonia, the Ottoman region north of Greece’s 1881 border. Greece was concerned because Bulgaria also had its eye on Macedonia (as did the Serbs, but they were considered the lesser threat). Both Bulgaria and Greece began sending agents into Macedonia in an attempt to bolster existing loyalties and to win over others in the population as a prelude to annexation when the expected demise of the faltering Ottoman Empire occurred.
Statistics vary because this history is a very contentious one. Some say that Macedonia then had a population of Greek speakers numbering about 49 percent; others place that figure much higher. Suffice it to say that Ottoman Macedonia was particularly diverse. (1)
The Ottoman Empire identified non-Muslims by religion, not race. As long as the Ottomans held control and their millet system of identification remained in place, ethnic diversity had not been an issue for Orthodox communities. However, the wave of nationalism sweeping Europe and the Balkans in the 19th century was changing all that. Even worse from the Greek perspective, Orthodox homogeneity had come under attack when the Bulgarians, with Ottoman consent, formed an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1872 to counter what they perceived as a pro-Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Constantinople. (Greece had declared its own an independent or “autocephalos” Church in 1833, but had re-established close ties with the Patriarchate in 1852) Suddenly the Orthodox populations in Macedonia were being supported and/or encouraged to declare loyalty to one national church or the other and, by extension, to one country or the other.
19th century Macedonia with a map of today’s Balkan countries superimposed upon it. It is easy to see the potential for conflict…
It was against this backdrop that Ion, at 24, became a member of the Greek diplomatic corps. In 1902 he was stationed in Monasteri, then a large Macedonian diplomatic center under the Ottomans. From there he worked tirelessly in concert with others including his very influential father and his brother-in-law, Pavlos Melas, to organize the Greeks in Macedonia as a bulwark against increasing Bulgarian influence. Melas and Dragoumis were founding members of the Hellenic Macedonian Committee, formed in 1903 to co-ordinate the Greek effort.
Ion and Pavlos Melas
1903 saw Dragoumis in many posts: Serres, Pyrgos and Philippopolis in 1904, then in Alexandropolis (then known as Dedeağaç) and Alexandria in Egypt. Note that all of these posts were inside Ottoman territory and, in all of them, Dragoumis was working to further Greek irredentist interests.
In many ways, this was a surreal period.
And it became very personal. His brother-in-law, Pavlos Melas, an officer in the regular Greek army, had shed his uniform to join Greek armed irregulars inside Macedonia in an attempt to counter similarly armed bands pouring in from Bulgaria. It was 1904. Melas was killed by an Ottoman sniper and instantly became a hero in the mold of the Greek freedom fighters of the War of Independence a hundred years earlier. The name of Pavlos Melas, ‘proto-martyr’, became a rallying cry in Greece for the Macedonian cause. (2)
In 1907 Dragoumis became a secretary at the Greek Embassy in Constantinople. There he continued his efforts, this time under a body called “the Constantinople Organization” which he had founded along with Athanasios Souliotis- Nikolaidis who had, himself, fought during the Macedonian struggle.
Athanasios Souliotis Nikolaidis
Then, something unexpected occurred.
The Young Turk Rebellion of 1908
The Young Turks rebelled against the Sultan in 1908 forcing him to agree to constitutional rule. This opened up the possibility that the Ottoman Empire, or some kind of entity that included the Balkans and Turkey, might just survive as a viable constitutional state with equality for all.
It put a stop to the Macedonian struggle while all sides waited on events…
An Eastern Federation?
The lull gave Dragoumis breathing space to consider new possibilities and to envision the Great Idea in a different context. While never opposed to the physical expansion of the Greek state to encompass the entirety of the Greek ‘nation’, he saw that as only a first step. The second was the creation of a just society in any territory acquired, one imbued with the ‘Hellenic Spirit’ (a term which, for him, encompassed all things good in a civilization and was, in itself, a civilizing force). (3) At least theoretically, he envisioned the possibility of some kind of multi-ethnic federation in the Balkans.(4)
These goals were more positive than the goals which had been paramount during the Macedonian struggle. This was an idea that encouraged some form of co-existence and recognized that, no matter how borders shifted, there would be minorities. (The idea of population exchanges was still in the future.)
Firmly attached to any speculation was Dragoumis’ conviction that the Greek ‘nation’ would lead any such federation because of its cultural superiority. This belief in Hellenic cultural superiority seems almost racist today. But its saving grace as a concept was his belief that all ethnic nationalities, under the proper guidance of the Hellenic spirit, would themselves become Hellenes.
His thoughts during this period were very much influenced by Athanasios Souliotis- Nikolaidis who, during his active participation in the armed Macedonian struggle, had seen firsthand the downside of narrow nationalism.
Then History kicked in once again…
The Balkan Wars of 1912-13
By 1912, the hiatus was over and the Balkans once again split into nationalistic factions, each seeking some sort of territorial advantage and each forming alliances to further those goals. In the First Balkan War, the so called Balkan Alliance (backed by Russia) consisting of Bulgaria, Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro fought the Ottomans for the freedom of Macedonia. The Ottomans lost after 6 months and a peace treaty was signed in London. Ottoman Macedonia was divided amongst the Serbs, the Greeks and the Bulgarians. The Second Balkan War was initiated by Bulgarians unhappy with their share. They were defeated in short order and lost even more of ‘their’ piece of Macedonia; Greece and Serbia gained a little more.
Greece had again gained significant territory (including Crete) by this time and few in the country saw any reason why further expansion was not possible
In 1915, Dragoumis left the diplomatic corps to enter politics. He became an independent member of parliament representing Florina an area in Macedonia which was now Greek.
The National Schism and Dragoumis’ Exile
Then came the First World War pitting France, England and Russia (the Entente) against the Central Powers: Germany, Austria-Hungary and Italy. Bulgaria and Turkey calculated that the central powers would win and joined them
In Greece the war precipitated an internal crisis. The king was related to the Kaiser and was pro-German. He did not want to join the Entente; Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos, a man who had, himself, fought long and hard to realize the Great Idea, did. He believed (rightly as it turned out) that the Entente would win and had been given assurances by them that if Greece entered the war on the side of the Entente, her territorial ambitions in Asia Minor would be seen to. When the king continued to refuse to enter the war, Venizelos went north and formed a separate government in Thessaloniki. Eventually, Venizelos prevailed and the King agreed to go into exile in 1917 leaving his son in his place. Dragoumis was sent into exile by the Venizelists, not because he was against the Entente (he wasn’t), and certainly not because he was against Greek expansion, but because he had chosen the royalist side. Feelings between royalists and Venizelists ran very high during this period and for years afterwards.
Eleftherios Venizelos in 1920
When his exile ended in 1919, Dragoumis fought politically and in writing for the reinstatement of King Constantine and the political defeat of prime minister Venizelos who was then in Paris negotiating on Greece’s behalf. Venizelos always did well in such negotiations. He was a man whom European power brokers liked and understood. His proposed military push into Asia Minor was something they could countenance… as long as it did not interfere with their own plans.
If any European power brokers ever actually read the proposals sent to the Paris Peace Conference by Dragoumis and Nikolaidis’ they would likely have dismissed them.
Ironically, it was Venizelos’ success with European power brokers that Dragoumis did not trust. He wanted something better for Greece than it becoming a carbon copy of a European state. For some time, he had not been convinced that the Greek state under the ‘authoritarian’ and ‘dictatorial’ (his words) leadership of Elefterios Venizelos was itself ‘ Hellenic’ enough for the task of implementing his emerging vision of the Great Idea! In an effort to emphasize their philosophical differences, he took to calling Venizelos ‘Helladic’ rather than ‘Hellenic’ in his articles…
Dragoumis did not live to see the return of the exiled King or the defeat of Venizelos in the elections of November 1920 because, when word (erroneously) arrived in Greece on August 13th 1920, that Venizelos had been assassinated in Paris, his followers went on a rampage in Athens attacking newspaper offices and any other institutions that they regarded as anti-Venizelist. Dragoumis drove into Athens from Kifissia that night, apparently to ensure the safety of an article that was due to be published the next day condemning the assault on Venizelos. He was stopped by a rag-tag pro Venizelist militia, recognized, and summarily shot dead near the Hilton Hotel.
This memorial has been placed where he was shot. It is on Vas. Sophias and Moni Petraki Streets. The short poem is by Costis Palamas
He did not survive to see the disastrous results of the Greek military push into Asia Minor or the catastrophic destruction of Smyna in 1922. Perhaps that was a blessing. Venizelos himself was in exile when the disastrous military push deep into Asia Minor occurred. Maybe that was a blessing too considering that the leaders who were in place during the Smyrna debacle were court-martialed in Greece and shot by firing squad.
Who Had the Better Idea?
In spite of the obvious brilliance and success of Elefterios Venizelos’ realpolitik, there is something attractive about Dragoumis’ vision for all that it was utopian, quixotic, sometimes contradictory, and not fully formed. It dared to envision an entity in the Balkans without the misery of population exchanges and one with the potential of ethnic harmony. Moreover, an ‘Eastern Entity’ of some sort might have been able to deal with the Big Powers on a more equal footing instead of what happened: small national entities remaining clients, victims, or pawns.
Would it have worked?
Dragoumis failed to see that his belief in Hellenic cultural superiority was never a ‘given’ from the point of view of other ethnic groups within the Ottoman Empire, groups which were, all the while, in the process of developing a few ‘Great Ideas’ of their own. And, of course, it was doomed to failure when it became apparent that the Turks, Bulgarians, and Serbs were as entranced as Venizelos by the idea of an ethnically homogeneous national state.
The Death of the Great Idea?
According to most historians, the Great Idea went up in flames along with Smyrna. But it has left a legacy of sparks - unfulfilled nationalist desires on all sides. (5) These sparks are fanned whenever certain issues (like the name Macedonia) arise. Political solutions or military solutions never satisfy everyone.
What was Ion Dragoumis Really Like?
Ion Dragoumis was not a systematic thinker. His admirers cover this by calling him a ‘romantic nationalist’ (as opposed to?) Perhaps it was his artistic temperament – or just that, during the time he lived, events happened far too quickly to be absorbed into a coherent theory.
The story of his two great loves, Marika Kotopouli and Penelope Delta, have been of constant interest over the years in the Greek press and even in theatre productions. It was a great temptation to write about that because his relationship with writer Penelope Delta is fascinating. They met in Alexandria and the ‘affair’ ended quickly because she was married and not in a class or era when divorce was allowed. But her loyalty to him speaks to his personal charisma. She never forgot him and would subsequently write him one of the most beautiful love letters in any language (6). She supported his cause in Macedonia in her famous novel The Mysteries of the Marsh. And, although he had been with Marika Kotopouli for years before his murder in 1920, Penelope Delta wore black from that day forward until the day the Germans invaded Greece in 1941 and she committed suicide.
A young Penelope with Ion
Romantically overgrown. Surprising for the grave of such a prominent family
(1) Hence the name macédoine denoting a dish with multiple ingredients. Even using the word Macedonia as an area is a mine field. The term was used in Ancient Greece, of course, as well as in Roman times, and in Byzantine times but did not always denote the same exact territory. The Ottomans rarely used the name. It regained popularity again in the 19th century – and the debate rages on. A good way to begin an investigation of the name and what it denotes might be https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Macedonia_(region). Any effort, no matter how fair-minded, to discuss its exact boundaries will raise someone’s hackles.
(2) Pavlos Melas had been buried immediately in Ottoman held territory. An effort to disinter him and bring his body to friendly territory, was interrupted by an Ottoman attack, so his own side decapitated him and took his head so that the Turks would not recognize him as a regular Greek army officer. The saga of the many burials of Pavlos Melas can be read at: www.thessnews.gr/article/97126/thesshistory-oi-treis-tafes-tou-paylou-mela
(3) The ‘Hellenic Spirit’ as a concept was first coined by Souliotis-Nikolaidis but both used it. It was a combination of ancient Greek values, Christian values, and very much in line with the kind of Hellenic identity suggested by Constantinos Paparigopoulos in his history. See http://athensfirstcemeteryinenglish.blogspot.com/2018/02/constantinos-paparrigopoulos.html
(4) This idea was not new. It had been discussed in Paris in 1894 by Greek socialist P Argyriades (p. 322 of the PANAYOTOPOULOS article.) The exact nature of this entity envisioned by Souliotis and Dragoumis was never spelled out. Who could belong and who would be left out changed. It was a theory in progress.
(5) For an extreme form of Greek irredentism, try: http://www.byzantiumnovum.org/ At its best it has a section on Byzantine cooking!
(6) See : https://www.lifo.gr/team/athens/59039 It is in Greek.
Sources (among others…)
1. A.J.PANAYOTOPOULOS THEGREAT IDEA AND THE VISION OF EASTERN FEDERATION apopo of the views of Dragoumis and Souliotis-Nicolaidis. This follows the views of both men from 1908 until 1922.
2. The Politics of Self-Determination, remaking Territories and national identities in Europe by Volker Prott, Oxford University Press