The announcement last night of the death of the King of the Hellenes was not, I imagine, unexpected in that he has been in failing health for a number of years. There was whenever one saw pictures of him at royal events a sense that his potential to serve his people in his homeland was not only denied him, but being actively wasted by his enforced exile. His death is therefore a sad occasion and one which brings back memories of the events of his active reign.
His accession and marriage in 1964 and the birth of his and the Queen’s first two children were very much indicators of a youthful and attractive monarch and his consort, tied in by family connections to the other European monarchies. Then, after rising political tensions and parliamentary stalemate, came the April 1967 coup. The King’s freedom of action was doubtless limited and, like other monarchs in such circumstances, he would have been anxious to avoid bloodshed. When he did seek to overthrow the military government the following December his attempt failed and exile followed. The formal move to abolish the monarchy in the summer of 1973 came in the last year of military rule, but eas confined in the aftermath of its ending whrn, in part, those whom he expected to support him simply looked the other way. This was to be followed by long wrangles over property, passports, names and the right to visit his homeland. Like Italy the Greek republic was more actively hostile than other countries to their exiled royal house, and certainly different to attitudes in other Balkan counties since 1989.
Some of this is a legacy of the Greek Civil War after WWII, but ever since the Balkan Wats of 1912 and 1913 the Greek monarchy was at the mercy of both internal and external events it had difficulty influencing. It strikes me this in part came from two popularist nationalisms- one left leaning drawing upon the Greek War of Independence and popular rule, the other drawing upon seeking territorial gains from the declining Ottoman Empire right down to the disastrous events of 1922, and indeed the quest for Cypriot enosis. Both had a tradition of a dislike of foreign rule let alone the invasions of 1941. For a dynasty from Denmark, with Russian and German consorts asked to take the crown to heal the country’s divisions such a task was difficult. Yet the monarchy did achieve that much of the time and could represent the country to the world outside. Pushing to either extreme invited the opposite and inverse reaction. Those tensions still surface in a volatile political climate, but without the uniting force the crown could have been.
Furthermore behind those modern divisions are far older ones, the legacy of the centuries. If the newly independent Greek kingdom of 1829-30 claimed for itself an Athenian democratic and intellectual heritage ( not that Classical Athens with its slaves was a democracy in modern terms ) it was also the successor of the authoritarian and militaristic world of Sparta. Equally Greece is the heir of the Byzantine tradition of Orthodoxy in all its richness and Imperial absolutism tempered by military coups and assassinations. To some Greeks therefore he and his grandfather were not Constantine I and II, but Constantine XII and XIII. So here were, and are, deeply rooted and contradictory inheritances for the Greek people and their polity. These different strands make for no easy resolution or coherence. To quote the title of the biography of King Paul I this was “no ordinary crown”.
As with other countries and at other times monarchs and monarchies have been assailed by a populace afraid of, or in denial of their own failings and looking for someone or something else to blame, so too was the fate of King Constantine and his throne.
On a personal note I heard King Constantine speak to a meeting in the Oxford Union in the early summer of 1994. He spoke with good humour and a breadth of vision, combined with a love of his family and his country.
May he rest in peace.