Abdication, Athens, Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, Crown Prince George of Greece, Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany, King Constantine I of the Hellenes, Prime Minister Venizelos, Princess Royal, princess Sophie of Prussia, Princess Victoria of the United Kingdom., The Balkan War, The Great War, World War I
Constantine I (August 2, 1868 – January 11, 1923) was King of the Hellenes from March 18, 1913 to June 11, 1917 and from December 19, 1920 to September 27, 1922. He was commander-in-chief of the Hellenic Army during the unsuccessful Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and led the Greek forces during the successful Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, in which Greece expanded to include Thessaloniki, doubling in area and population. He succeeded to the throne of Greece on March 18, 1913, following his father’s assassination.
Constantine was born on August 2, 1868 in Athens. He was the eldest son of King George I and Queen Olga (Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna of Russia). His birth was met with an immense wave of enthusiasm: the new heir apparent to the throne was the first Greek-born member of the family.
As the ceremonial cannon on Lycabettus Hill fired the royal salute, huge crowds gathered outside the Palace shouting what they thought should rightfully be the newborn prince’s name: “Constantine”.
This was both the name of his maternal grandfather, Grand Duke Constantine Nikolaievich of Russia, and the name of the “King who would reconquer Constantinople”, the future “Constantine XII, legitimate successor to the Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos”, according to popular legend.
He was inevitably christened “Constantine” on August 12, 1868. The most prominent university professors of the time were handpicked to tutor the young Crown Prince: Ioannis Pantazidis taught him Greek literature; Vasileios Lakonas mathematics and physics; and Constantine Paparrigopoulos history, infusing the young prince with the principles of the Megali Idea.
In 1884, Constantine, Crown Prince of Greece, turned sixteen and his majority was declared by the government. He then received the title of Duke of Sparta. Soon after, Constantine completed his military training in Germany, where he spent two full years in the company of a tutor, Dr. Lüders. He served in the Prussian Guard, took lessons of riding in Hanover and studied political science at the Universities of Heidelberg and Leipzig.
Betrothal and Marriage
After a long stay in the United Kingdom celebrating her grandmother, Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, Princess Sophie of Prussia became better acquainted with Constantine in the summer of 1887.
Princess Sophia of Prussia, was a daughter of Friedrich Wilhelm, Crown Prince of Prussia, (future German Emperor Friedrich III) and Victoria, Princess Royal of the United Kingdom.
The Crown Prince of Prussia was the son of King Wilhelm I of Prussia (German Emperor Wilhelm I) and Augusta of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach. The Princess Royal was the eldest child of Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom and Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.
Queen Victoria watched their growing relationship, writing “Is there a chance of Sophie’s marrying Tino? It would be very nice for her, for he is very good”. Crown Princess Victoria also hoped that Sophie would make a good marriage, considering her the most attractive among her daughters.
During his stay at the Hohenzollern court in Berlin representing the Kingdom of Greece at the funeral of Emperor Wilhelm I in March 1888, Constantine saw Sophie again. Quickly, the two fell in love and got officially engaged on September 3, 1888. However, their relationship was viewed with suspicion by Sophie’s older brother Prince Wilhelm (future Emperor Wilhelm II) and his wife Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg.
This betrothal was not completely supported in the Greek royal family either: Queen Olga showed some reluctance to the projected union because Sophie was Lutheran and Olga would have preferred that her son marry an Orthodox Christian. Despite the difficulties, the wedding was scheduled for October 1889 in Athens.
On October 27, 1889, Crown Prince Constantine married Princess Sophie of Prussia in Athens in two religious ceremonies, one public and Orthodox and another private and Protestant. They were third cousins in descent from Emperor Paul I of Russia, and second cousins once removed through King Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia.
For the wedding Sophie’s witnesses were her brother Heinrich and her cousins Princes Albert Victor and George of Wales; for Constantine’s side, the witnesses were his brothers Princes George and Nicholas and his cousin the Tsarevich Nicholas of Russia.
The marriage (the first major international event held in Athens) was very popular among the Greeks. The names of the couple were reminiscent to the public of an old legend which suggested that when a King Constantine and a Queen Sophia ascended the Greek throne, Constantinople the Hagia Sophia would fall into Greek hands.
Crown Prince Constantine and Crown Princess Sophie had six children. All three of their sons ascended the Greek throne. Their eldest daughter Helen married Crown Prince Carol of Romania; their second daughter married the 4th Duke of Aosta; whilst their youngest child, Princess Katherine, married a British commoner.
George I was assassinated in Thessaloniki by an anarchist, Alexandros Schinas, on March 18, 1913, and Constantine succeeded to the throne. In the meantime, tensions between the Balkan allies grew, as Bulgaria claimed Greek and Serbian-occupied territory.
In May, Greece and Serbia concluded a secret defensive pact aimed at Bulgaria. On June 16, the Bulgarian army attacked their erstwhile allies, but were soon halted. King Constantine led the Greek Army in its counterattack in the battles of Kilkis-Lahanas and the Kresna Gorge.
The widely held view of Constantine I as a “German sympathizer” owes something to his marriage with Sophie of Prussia, sister of Wilhelm II, to his studies in Germany and his supposed “militaristic” beliefs and attitude.
The Great War
When World War I broke out Constantine did rebuff Emperor Wilhelm II who in late 1914 pressed him to bring Greece into the war on the side of Austria-Hungary and Germany. In their correspondence he told him that his sympathy was with Germany, but he would not join the war. Constantine then also offended the British and French by blocking popular efforts of Prime Minister Venizelos to bring Greece into the war on the side of the Allies.
Constantine’s insistence on neutrality, according to him and his supporters, was based more on his judgement that it was the best policy for Greece, rather than venal self-interest or his German dynastic connections, as he was accused of by the Venizelists.
In August 1916, a military coup broke out in Thessaloniki by Venizelist officers. There, Venizelos established a provisional revolutionary government, which created its own army and declared war on the Central Powers.
With Allied support, the revolutionary government of Venizelos gained control of half the country – significantly, most of the “New Lands” won during the Balkan Wars. This cemented the National Schism, a division of Greek society between Venizelists and anti-Venizelist monarchists, which was to have repercussions in Greek politics until past World War II.
Venizelos made a public call to the King to dismiss his “bad advisors”, to join the war as King of all Greeks and stop being a politician. The royal governments of Constantine in Athens continued to negotiate with the Allies a possible entry in the war.
During November/December 1916, the British and French landed units at Athens claiming the surrender of war materiel equivalent to what was lost at Fort Rupel as a guarantee of Greece’s neutrality. After days of tension, finally they met resistance by paramilitary (Epistratoi) and pro-royalist forces (during the Noemvriana events), that were commanded by officers Metaxas and Dousmanis.
After an armed confrontation, the Allies evacuated the capital and recognized officially the government of Venizelos in Thessaloniki. King Constantine then became the most hated person for the Allies after his brother-in-law Emperor Wilhelm II.
After the fall of the monarchy in Russia, Constantine lost his last supporter inside the Entente opposed to his removal from the throne.
In the face of Venizelist and Anglo-French pressure, King Constantine finally left the country for Switzerland on June 11, 1917; his second-born son Alexander became king in his place.
The Allied Powers were opposed to Constantine’s first born son Crown Prince George becoming king, as he had served in the German army before the war and like his father was thought to be a Germanophile.