Allied Entente, Eleftherios Venizelos, King Alexander of the Hellenes, King Constantine I of the Hellenes, King George I of the Hellenes, Sophie of Prussia, World War I
Alexander (August 1, 1893 – October 25, 1920) was King of the Hellenes from June 11, 1917 until his death three years later, at the age of 27, from the effects of a monkey bite.
Alexander was born at Tatoi Palace on August 1, 1893 the second son of Crown Prince Constantine of Greece of the House of Glücksburg and his wife Princess Sophia of Prussia.
Alexander was related to royalty throughout Europe. His father was the eldest son and heir apparent of King George I of Greece by his wife Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia; his mother was the daughter of Emperor Friedrich III of Germany and his wife Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom. His father King Constantine I was a grandson of King Christian IX of Denmark and a cousin of both King George V of the United Kingdom and Emperor Nicholas II of Russia. Sophia was the sister of German Emperor Wilhelm II and he was also a cousin of King George V through her grandmother, Queen Victoria.
Though he was very close to his younger sister, Princess Helen, Alexander was less warm towards his elder brother Crown Prince George, with whom he had little in common. While his elder brother was a serious and thoughtful child, Alexander was mischievous and extroverted; he smoked cigarettes made from blotting paper, set fire to the games room in the palace.
As his father’s second son, Alexander was third in line to the throne, after his father and elder brother, George. His education was expensive and carefully planned, but while George spent part of his military training in Germany, Alexander was educated in Greece. He joined the prestigious Hellenic Military Academy, where several of his uncles had previously studied and where he made himself known more for his mechanical skills than for his intellectual capacity. He was passionate about cars and motors, and was one of the first Greeks to acquire an automobile.
He distinguished himself in combat during the Balkan Wars of 1912–13. As a young officer, he was stationed, along with his elder brother, in the field staff of his father; and he accompanied the latter at the head of the Army of Thessaly during the capture of Thessaloniki in 1912. King George I was assassinated in Thessaloniki soon afterwards on 18 March 1913, and Alexander’s father ascended the throne as Constantine I.
Courtship of Aspasia Manos
In 1915, at a party held in Athens by court marshal Theodore Ypsilantis, Alexander became re-acquainted with one of his childhood friends, Aspasia Manos. She had just returned from education in France and Switzerland, and was reckoned as very beautiful by her acquaintances. She was the daughter of Constantine’s Master of the Horse, Colonel Petros Manos, and his wife Maria Argyropoulos.
The 21-year-old Alexander was smitten, and was so determined to seduce her that he followed her to the island of Spetses where she holidayed that year. Initially, Aspasia was resistant to his charm; although considered very handsome by his contemporaries, Alexander had a reputation as a ladies’ man from numerous past liaisons.
Despite this, he finally won her over, and the couple were engaged in secret. However, for King Constantine I, Queen Sophia and much of European society of the time, it was inconceivable for a royal prince to marry someone of a different social rank.
During World War I, King Constantine I followed a formal policy of neutrality, yet he was openly benevolent towards Germany, which was fighting alongside Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire against the Triple Entente of Russia, France and Britain.
Constantine was the brother-in-law of Emperor Wilhelm II, and had also become something of a Germanophile following his military training in Prussia. His pro-German attitude provoked a split between the monarch and the prime minister, Eleftherios Venizelos, who wanted to support the Entente in the hope of expanding Greek territory to incorporate the Greek minorities in the Ottoman Empire and the Balkans. Protected by the countries of the Entente, particularly France, in 1916 Venizelos formed a parallel government to that of the king.
Parts of Greece were occupied by the Allied Entente forces, but Constantine I refused to modify his policy and faced increasingly open opposition from the Entente and the Venizelists.
In July 1916, an arson attack ravaged Tatoi Palace and the royal family barely escaped the flames; Alexander was not injured but his mother narrowly saved Princess Katherine by carrying her through the woods for more than two kilometers. Among the palace personnel and firefighters who arrived to deal with the blaze, sixteen people were killed.
Finally on June 10, 1917, Charles Jonnart, the Entente’s High Commissioner in Greece, ordered King Constantine to give up his power. On the threat of Entente forces landing in Piraeus, the king conceded and agreed to go into self-exile, though without officially abdicating his crown.
The Allies, while determined to be rid of King Constantine, did not wish to create a Greek republic, and sought to replace the king with another member of the royal family. Crown Prince George, who was the natural heir, was ruled out by the Allies because they thought him too pro-German, like his father.
Instead, they considered installing Constantine’s brother (and Alexander’s uncle), Prince George, but he had tired of public life during his difficult tenure as High Commissioner of Crete between 1901 and 1905; above all, he sought to remain loyal to his brother, and categorically refused to take the throne. As a result, Constantine’s second son, Prince Alexander, was chosen to become the new monarch.
The dismissal of King Constantine was not unanimously supported by the Entente powers; while France and Britain did nothing to stop Jonnart’s actions, the Russian provisional government officially protested to Paris.
Petrograd demanded that Alexander should not receive the title of king but only that of regent so as to preserve the rights of the deposed sovereign and the Crown Prince. Russia’s protests were brushed aside, and Alexander ascended the Greek throne.
Alexander swore the oath of loyalty to the Greek constitution on the afternoon of June 11, 1917 in the ballroom of the Royal Palace. Apart from the Archbishop of Athens, Theocletus I, who administered the oath, only King Constantine I, Crown Prince George and the king’s prime minister, Alexandros Zaimis, attended.
There were no festivities. The 23-year-old Alexander had a broken voice and tears in his eyes as he made the solemn declaration. He knew that the Entente and the Venizelists would hold real power and that neither his father nor his brother had renounced their claims to the throne. Constantine had informed his son that he should consider himself a regent, rather than a true monarch.
In the evening, after the ceremony, the royal family decided to leave their palace in Athens for Tatoi, but city residents opposed the exile of their sovereign and crowds formed outside the palace to prevent Constantine and his family from leaving.
On June 12, the former king and his family escaped undetected from their residence by feigning departure from one gate while exiting through another. At Tatoi, Constantine again impressed upon Alexander that he held the crown in trust only. It was the last time that Alexander would be in direct contact with his family. The next day, Constantine, Sophia and all of their children except Alexander arrived at the small port of Oropos and set off into exile.
With his parents and siblings in exile, Alexander found himself isolated. The royals remained unpopular with the Venizelists, and Entente representatives advised the king’s aunts and uncles, particularly Prince Nicholas, to leave. Eventually, they all followed Constantine into exile.
Royal household staff were gradually replaced by enemies of the former king, and Alexander’s allies were either imprisoned or distanced from him. Portraits of the royal family were removed from public buildings, and Alexander’s new ministers openly called him the “son of a traitor”.