Ioannis Metaxas was the Greek Prime Minister from 1936 to 1941 and made famous for rejecting the demands made by Italy to occupy Greece during World War II.
History looks at him as a general and dictator, but that may not necessarily give the whole picture.
For the first four months of his stint as prime minister, he did govern Greece with the constitution in mind.
Eventually, he abandoned the constitution and formed the 4th of August Regime.
Military Career of Ioannis Metaxa
Before Metaxas was a politician, he had a successful career in the military.
A career soldier, he entered the Scholi Evelpidon, the Greek Military Academy, at an early age where he displayed a talent for soldiering and strategy, graduating at the top of his class in 1889.
His abilities as a young field officer in the brief and disastrous Greco-Turkish war of 1897 impressed his Commander-in-Chief, Crown Prince Constantine (later King Constantine I) enough to suggest that he attend a higher military academy.
He went to the German Kriegsakademie in Berlin.
Back in Greece, he served again in the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, in which he was assistant chief of the general staff.
Thanks to his distinguished service, Metaxas rose in the army hierarchy and became chief of staff, but was exiled in 1917 to Italy and other prominent figures of Constantine I’s government because he was considered pro-German.
Greece instead joined the Allies in World War I.
He returned in 1920 and became prominent as a royalist politician during the turbulent Second Hellenic Republic (1924-1935).
After the monarchy was re-established in Greece, Metaxas became premier in April 1936.
Arguing that unending Communist protests were putting the country’s law and order in peril, he dissolved the Parliament with the support of King George the II.
He established an authoritarian regime with fascist leanings on August 4th, 1936.
Hence the name of his regime.
Metaxas’ political career did not start very well.
As a politician with royalist leanings, it took him several years to gain momentum.
He eventually worked his way into the Minister of War position of the Greek government.
In 1935, however, he received his real political break. King George II appointed him as the Interim Prime Minister of Greece and the Greek Parliament approved it.
His term began on April 13, 1936. After he became Prime Minister, he began to act on the king’s approval to disband parliament.
On August 4, 1936, Metaxas was faced with a political challenge because the industrial workforce was in a state of extreme unrest.
In response to this, Metaxas’ grandiose vision was to lay down the foundations for a so-called ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’, which was to be an heir of two glorious episodes of Greek history: ancient Greece and the Greek empire of Byzantium in the Middle Ages.
Whatever his intentions, what he actually created was more a Greek version of Fascist Italy.
In only five years he implemented hundreds of social, industrial, administrative and economic reforms.
He appeased unrest in the working class by
- establishing holidays with full pay,
- maternity leave,
- a five-day and 40-hour workweek,
- the 8-hours workday,
- stricter work safety standards,
- introduction of a minimum wage,
- mandatory paid leaves,
- banned child labour,
- established Sunday as a rest day, and
- building child care centres, among other initiatives.
He also set up Greece’s first social security system, the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA), which provides most Greeks with their medical coverage and pensions.
Metaxas also ignited great infrastructure works – telecommunications, railways, hospitals, roads, land and drainage projects – causing the industrial and agricultural sectors to boom.
He did so while defusing the tumultuous political situation, although with the use of brute force and with harsh, undemocratic measures.
Having managed to stabilize the economy, he engaged himself in an intensive diplomatic activity with foreign countries, especially those in the vicinity.
As a curiosity and a remarkable trait of his personality, Metaxas, despite being regarded as a conservative, favoured demotiki, the folkish dialect of the Greek language.
To breed a new generation of Greeks moulded to create his ideal ‘Third Hellenic Civilization’, he created in November 1936 the EON, the National Youth Organization, conceived as a “national political aristocracy”.
His feats were many, but Metaxas is remembered today chiefly for his reply to Mussolini’s request to allow the Italian army to cross Greece at the beginning of World War II, thus maintaining Greece’s strict policy neutrality.
The Italian ambassador to Greece, Grazzi, had visited Metaxas in the middle of the night of October 28, 1940, and handed him Mussolini’s ultimatum.
The Italian Duce demanded his troops to occupy Greece throughout the war, claiming that such positions would ensure Italy’s safety against any British incursion.
If he refused to do so, Italy would attack Greece.
Metaxas response, expressing the wish and the spirit of the Greek people, was simple and worthy of the one Leonidas, the Spartan King, gave the Persians 2,500 years earlier: “MOLWN LAVE” (Greek for “COME AND GET IT”).
It was also worthy of the one Konstantinos Palaiologos, the last Byzantine emperor of Constantinople gave the Ottoman Turks when asked to surrender the city 600 years earlier: “LATE NA THN PARETAI” (Greek for “COME AND TAKE HER”).
The Metaxas Regime was in power until May of 1941, which is when he died.
To say that Metaxas is a controversial figure in Greek history is an understatement.
Ioannis Metaxas is one of the most recognisable figures in Greek history.