Born in Ithaca, Metaxas was a career soldier, first seeing action in 1897 fighting the Turkish army in the Thessalian campaign. Following studies in Germany, he returned to join the General Staff and was part of the modernizing process of the Greek Army before the Balkan Wars (1912-1913). He was made Chief of the Greek General Staff in 1913 and was promoted to General.
Ioannis Metaxas with his parents.
A staunch monarchist, he supported Constantine I and opposed Greek entry into WW I. Eleftherios Venizelos, the prime minister, resigned over the refusal to aid the Dardanelles campaign and used the war as the major issue in the elections. When Venizelos won the March 1915 elections he mobilised the army but was dismissed by the king. In June 1917, with Allied support and 60,000 Cretan soldiers, the king was deposed and Venizelos empowered, declaring war on June 29, 1917.
Metaxas followed the king into exile, neither returning until 1920. When the monarchy was displaced in 1922 Metaxas moved into politics and founded the Freethinkers' Party in 1923.
After a disputed plebisite George II, son of Constantine I, returned to take the throne in 1935. The elections of 1936 produced a deadlock between Panagis Tsaldaris and Themistoklis Sophoulis. The political situation was further polarized by the gains made by the Communist Party of Greece (KKE). Disliking the Communists and fearing a coup, George II appointed Metaxas, then minister of war, to be interim prime minister and the appointment was confirmed by the Greek parliament.
Widespread industrial unrest in May allowed Metaxas to declare a state of emergency. He suspended the parliament indefinitely and suspended various articles of the constitution. By August 4, 1936 Metaxas was effectively dictator. Patterning his regime on other authoritarian European governments (most notably Mussolini's fascist regime), Metaxas banned political parties, arrested communists, criminalized strikes and introduced widespread censorship of the media.
The Metaxas government promoted various popular measures, such as the 8-hour working day and mandatory improvements to the working conditions of workers, established the Greek social security fund (IKA) still the biggest social security institution in Greece and improved the country's defences. For rural areas agricultural prices were raised and farm debts were taken on by the government. Despite these efforts the Greek people generally moved towards the political left, but without actively opposing Metaxas.
In foreign policy Metaxas had a clear pro-British stance. He saw in the Mediterranean the British as a natural ally and their fleet was a major force while the expansionist goals of Mussolini were clearly threatening to Greece. The policy of Metaxas to keep Greece out of WWII was decisively broken by the blunt demands of Mussolini in October 1940. He demanded occupation rights to strategic Greek sites and was met with a curt reply by Metaxas "then we shall have war", which was encapsulated in Greek popular feeling in the single word "No". Italy invaded Greece from Albania on October 28.
Thanks to preparations and an inspired defence the Greeks were able to mount a successful defense and counter offensive, forcing the Italians back into Albania and occupying large parts of Northern Epirus (Southern Albania). Metaxas died in Athens on January 29 of a phlegmon of the pharynx which subsequently led to uncurable toxaemia. At the time it was speculated that he was poisoned by the British. He was succeeded by Alexandros Korizis. After Metaxas' death, the Germans had a hard time facing the fortifications constructed by Metaxas in Northern Greece named Metaxas Line.
To this day, Metaxas remains a controversial figure in Greek history. He is reviled by some for his dictatorial state, and admired by others for his popular policies, patriotism, defiance to aggression, and he is associated with the military victory of the Greeks against Italy.
Metaxas in front of the Parliament, Nazi greetings by working groups and the National Youth Organization
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