Consequences of the 1935 coup

ADMIRAL MEZEVIRIS

Consequences of the March 1, 1935, coup

(source: G. Mezeviris  Vice- Admiral R.H.N.,
"Four decades in the Service of the R.H.N", Athens 1971)

 

In spite the fact that the physical damages of the 1935 coup were not so serious, the moral consequences for the Hellenic Navy were immeasurable and it was necessary to take tough measures to put an end to the endless series of coups…

 

Gregory Mezeviris narrates:

 

“Although I personally condemn the involvement of the military in coups d’état, for some of the previous serious coups one can find plausible explanations.

 

However, a coup against a Government that had been elected by the free will of the people just two years before, for which not even the argument of external dangers could be advanced, constituted a completely unreasonable abolition of our people’s freedom.  The argument concerning the Republic being in danger was groundless, because the idiosyncrasy of the political party in power was not suitable for violent overthrow of the regime and many of its politicians truly believed to the existing Republican system.  In addition, with the structure the armed forces had in that period they would hardly drift in subversive actions, even in if royalist officers happened to head several units.  This was at least the opinion I had formed before the outbreak of the coup, as far as the mentality of the vast majority of the officers of the Navy is concerned. 

 

A lesson had also to be given to those that the Government had chosen to entrust with keeping order in the Navy and had done nothing, or had even facilitated the mutineers to prevail.

 

The suppression of the mutiny was followed by the formation of Extraordinary Court-Martial tribunals in front of which were referred to be tried the mutineers and those who hadn’t executed their duty after its eruption and had been characterized as accessories of the former. 

 

In the Navy, the civil judge that carried-out the interrogations and participated at the trial as second Commissioner (ie. Prosecutor) decided to refer to the Extraordinary Court-Martial 230, out of which 102 were officers.  From those, only 140 were present; the others had escaped abroad and were going to be tried in absentia.  Among those referred to be tried were the Commander in Chief of the Fleet and of the Naval Base of Salamis and the Commander of the destroyers.

 

Government Commissioner in the Extraordinary Court-Martial

 

Rear Admiral D. Economou, the Chief of Staff of the Hellenic Navy, was named President of the Extraordinary Court-Martial for the mutineers of the Navy.  He informed me that I was going to be named first Government Commissioner and asked me whether I would accept my nomination.  This proposal put me at a very difficult position.  I was no political fanatic and recognized that many of the mutineers had been involved in good faith because, having grown-up in the middle of coups, they had formed the impression that coups were a kind of routine in the Navy and the best way to express their complaints.  The leaders of the mutiny had always shown to me their appreciation and treated me with due respect, except in cases were they included me in general measures on grounds of political expediency.  Many of those that took part in the mutiny had served under my orders with exceptional eagerness and real devotion, while with others I had old friendly ties.  On the other hand, I considered that this calamity had gone too far and for the supreme interest of our Country the Law had to be applied relentlessly.

 1935, Captain Gr.Mezeviris Government Commissioner

A Captain had to assume that uncharitable duty and, since I was chose, considered that I had no right to refuse. Unfortunately, in the tough military profession they are moments were we have to listen to the voice of our duty and repress any other sentiment!  Of course, if I could then imagine the events that followed 6 months later and caused to me a serious problem of conscience, I would have hesitated much more before accepting this position and would have anyway changed certain parts of my summation.  

 

The trial lasted from April 15 to May 11, 1935 and the sessions lasted till the night hours.  Many incidents took place during the trial between the Government Commissioners and the lawyers, especially of the accessories, and because many of them were distinguished members of the Athens Bar it was not easy to confront them.

1935, Captain Gr. Mezeviris Government Commissioner at the Court-Martial

 

The summation

 

The big psychic ordeal for me was the day of my summation. Although the fate of the accused depends on the judges’ vote, the Government Commissioner who accuses ex-cathedra his colleagues and requests very heavy sanctions gives the impression of an inhuman and cruel person, lacking of any sentiment of solidarity for his colleagues.

 

My summation lasted more than 1 hour. I initially referred to the history of the preparation of the coup, to the events that took place after it erupted and to the later actions of the mutineers and especially castigated the surrender of a submarine to a foreign Power. [The submarine “KATSONIS” was surrendered to the Italians in the island of Patmos, see: “The coup of March 1,1935 -Civil war ].  I refuted decisively the view that the Republican regime was in danger.  I accepted that the motives for the coup were not the same for all and that among the mutineers were many that could offer important services to our Country, if they had not been affected by the miasma of politics. At the same time I mentioned that for some the motives are to be found at a lower level, as in the case that turned up by a seized letter sent by an officer tried in abstentia to his wife in which he was writing: “I risked everything, I dreamed lifting you up to a high position, but the Almighty didn’t help us, I lost the game”.  I especially stressed the participation in great numbers of non-commissioned officers, even of sailors, that I attributed to the leniency shown to lower level cadres in similar cases in the past.  Anticipating a probable argument of the defense, I reminded that today’s non-commissioned officers were sufficiently educated to distinguish whether the execution of an order is mandatory when it contravenes penal law.  It is worth noting that from the lower level cadres had been referred only those that had developed active action and those that because of their position had been characterized as accessories.  I reminded the sad measures that our services had to implement to confront the coups in gestation, continuously ordering the ships to be on alert and installing special security to shadow those serving in the Naval Base of Salamis, transformed to fortress for self-defense against those who undermine public order! 

1935, Captain Gr. Mezeviris Government Commissioner

 

I dealt extensively with the other side of this mater, referring to those that hold positions of trust and are responsible for the security of the Services, especially those high in the hierarchy.  I maintained that they had no advance knowledge of the coup but at the same time refuted the argument that their actions were aiming at avoiding bloodshed and slowing down developments because, in the contrary, they had contributed to a faster domination of the mutineers. For contrast, I mentioned the example of the 3 destroyer commanders that till the end retained control of their ships, although they had received opposite orders.

 

On the basis of what I had exposed, I characterized as chiefs and leaders of the mutiny the naval chiefs of the coup, those who took over command of the ships, those who exercised violence against their superiors and in general those who deployed intensive revolutionary action.  Those were 22 in total - out of which only one Lieutenant and one non-commissioned officer were present- and for those the Military Penal Code provided for the death penalty.  For the rest, including the accessories, I requested penalties ranging from life imprisonment to one year terms. I relied on the Court’s judgment for 17, because of doubts, and asked acquittal for 15 - of which 7 were officers- against which had not been raised indications of guilt.  Finally, I appealed to the naval judges asking their judgment to become a lesson towards all directions for anyone who goes against the Laws of our Nation.

 

I ended my summation with my voice trembling from emotion.  I received many congratulations, even from some defense lawyers.  I would have been much happier if these congratulations had been given to me under less tragic circumstances relating to some other kind of my professional action!

 

The second Commissioner made his summation after me, was much stricter in his judgment for the accessories and more lenient concerning the responsibilities of the principals and thus considerably limited the number of those that he characterized as leaders and didn’t include in those the 2 present. The defense took advantage of our disagreement to ask for the leniency of the Court-Martial.  In my rejoinder I maintained that the difference observed between the proposals of the two Commissioners was natural because I presented the purely military point of view, the one that doesn’t allow anything but the rigorous application of the Laws, while my colleague limited his intervention to the political and social aspect of the case. I added that I didn’t consider this difference of opinion unfortunate because that way the Court, by taking into account the two diverging opinions and combining them will succeed even better to serve the high notion of Justice.

 

After the end of my summation, my mission in respect to the trial had ended and had the right to recover my human feelings.  I was aware that in our country life imprisonment penalties in political trials usually meant a few months imprisonment.  I also imagined that it was possible that before long the really able among the mutineers would join again the ranks of the Navy – eventually at the benefit of the Navy – having gained the sour experience that the use of illegal actions was not the best method of career advancement.  I was however very preoccupied with the non-execution of the death penalty for the two condemned that were present.  Because the execution of the Court- Martial decisions was fast, the ground had to be prepared.  I thus reported to the Minister of the Navy and explained that I was obliged to ask a death penalty for them, since they were among the leaders of the mutiny, but that I considered their execution unfair since the chief leaders of the mutiny had escaped abroad.  In addition we had to recognize that they stayed to be tried, while they could have also escaped abroad.  The Minister agreed right away with my point of view and asked me to let him know immediately, if the decision was a death penalty, to take care of the grant of pardon.

 

The verdict

 

The Court-Martial retired to deliberate the morning of May 10, 1935, and returned to session after 17 hours at 3 o’clock in the morning of the next day to read its verdict.  These were interminable hours of real agony not only for the interested parties and their lawyers but also for everyone assisting at the trial, including the Commissioners that were not participating in the deliberations.  As was natural, the fate of the two that risked the death penalty was in the minds of us all.  When the military judges returned in the courtroom we realized from their paleness that the death spectrum was hovering above us.  Indeed, instead of the 22 death penalties I have asked, 33 death penalties were inflicted including for the two present, for which however the Court requested the granting of pardon. For all the others my proposals had been more or less retained.  The sad procedure of the reading in my presence of the penalties to the accused in prison followed.  I assured the two condemned to death that their penalty will not be executed.

 

At around 6 o’clock in the morning I left for Athens, called the Minister of the Navy, met him at the Ministry and went directly from there to the Prime Minister’s home. The Prime Minister congratulated me for my summation and amusingly added that he was not aware that I had such forensic skills. I then asked him to give his agreement for the granting of parole for the two condemned to death, repeating the arguments presented to the Minister.  I caught a sight of relief on the face of the kind Prime Minister.  He recommended that we meet with the Minister of Justice, with whom he would also communicate by phone.  The later presented initially objections, because a few days before a death penalty verdict concerning two retired Generals issued by another Court-Martial had been executed. Finally he was persuaded. Towards noon of that same day the Decree granting parole was signed by the President of the Republic.

 

Thus the irreparable had been avoided but the sad duties of the Government Commissioner had not yet come to an end.  The heavier than simple jail penalties were coupled with military cashiering. To make an example the competent authorities had decided to strictly apply the relative dispositions of the Military Regulations. The cashiering took place at the training stadium of the Naval Base of Salamis in front of arrayed officers and crews of all the services.  My position obliged me to be present as witness of this scene and confirm the application of the provisions of the Law.

 

I wish to my colleagues of the future not to have to execute such duties in their career!

Let them have in mind the misfortune of the 1935 mutineers, if ever politicians will try to tempt them to illegal actions.

 

This was the end of the most serious drama that ever happened in the Hellenic Navy.  The eruption of World War II allowed most of the mutineers that had been sent away from the Navy to serve again our Country with zeal.  Some of them had even the opportunity to show all their psychic and professional abilities.

 

The sanctions were not limited to the penalties that also resulted to the removal from the ranks of the condemned. A purge of officers and non-commissioned officers that remained followed.  It initially concerned very few officers who couldn’t be characterized as accessories but had not behaved as they should. Then the purge was extended to include some other officers, especially the more seniors, who had no involvement with the coup. Those among them that were close to the opposite political party were put to retirement, while the rest were placed in special permanence in positions of secondary importance and were thus obliged to resign after a short time.  Among those thus removed were Captains that were senior to the Flotilla Commander who had been promoted by absolute choice to Rear-Admiral after the suppression of the mutiny.  The Navy List was arranged in such a way that the members of the Supreme Naval Council were all officers considered absolutely loyal the political situation of that period.

 

The purge of the non-commissioned officers took a much larger scale and was done on both a political and a quality basis. Many were dismissed that had not actively been involved in the coup but were considered as sharing the same ideology with the mutineers.  The application of a common measure for both categories – the political opponents and those quality-wise unsuitable- had as a result, after the liberation, many that had been removed as professionally unfit to appear as victims of political purges requesting retroactive re-establishment.

 

The purges were followed by massive promotions to cover the openings created, with unnecessary speed in my opinion. The result was that the positions of superior officers were covered but so many junior cadres were missing that the operation of the services became very problematic.  A wrong impression was also given that these promotions were the reward for they loyalty of those that had not participated in the coup.

 

Coups that fail leave deep traces. One of the most unpleasant results was that the Navy was deprived of many able cadres; the other was that the most hard-core of the opposite camp took absolute control of the situation.

 

The 1935 coup opened a deep wound that healed after the passage of many years…”