Champion of the European vision. Longest serving prime minister in Greek history. Founder of the Third Hellenic Republic. Any or all of these titles could be fitting for the late Constantine Karamanlis.
By the time he retired in 1995 at age 88, Karamanlis had won five parliamentary elections. He served 14 years as prime minister, 10 years as president and more than 60 years in politics altogether.
More than 20 years after the anniversary of his passing on April 23, 1998, the late leader’s legacy remains embedded in the fabric of modern Greek political history. Supporters still refer to him as the country’s “Ethnarhis,” or the “national leader.”
Karamanlis oversaw the completion of various developments in Greece during his decades in politics, particularly after World War II and the ensuing Greek Civil War. Both events left the country systematically devastated by 1949.
In December of that same year, Greece received its millionth ton of aid from U.S. President Harry Truman’s Marshall Plan. The multimillion dollar package stirred controversy with Greek leftists, who saw it as “blood money” intended to minimize communist influences. But the plan proved to be the first structured effort to stabilize Greece’s economy.
The country still remained far behind nonetheless, lacking in vital infrastructure, but Karamanlis prioritized this issue even before his first term as prime minister.
In November 1952, the government of Prime Minister Alexandros Papathogas appointed him as minister of public works, a role which he kept for nearly three years until transitioning to minister of transportation for almost another year. In that time he implemented vast plans for public works.
The projects which Karamanlis oversaw included: construction of a network of central roads; execution of substantial land reclamation works; establishment of energy units and power production; conservation and enhancement of historical monuments; promotion and development of tourism; ensuring the water supply; improvement of roads and embellishment projects in the broader Athens and Thessaloniki areas.
When Karamanlis took office as prime minister in October 1955, economic growth remained at the political forefront, and Greece’s economy would continue on an unprecedented trend of growth for more than a decade.
In his 2009 book “The Historical Dictionary of Modern Greece,” professor Dimitris Keridis summarizes what would later be called “the Greek economic miracle” during the Karamanlis years.
“Through the stewardship of Prime Minister Konstantinos Karamanlis and other Greek politicians, such as Georgios Kartalis and Spyros Markezinis, foreign aid and favorable international conditions were coupled with macroeconomic stability, a liberal regime that welcomed foreign investment, the existence of a cheap and abundant workforce, and an activist state that invested heavily in public works and industrialization. This formidable combination produced high growth rates from the 1950s onward, with the exception of the 1980s, and has helped place Greece among the rich nations of the world.”
Pro-Europeanism & EU membership
Karamanlis earned notoriety for his pro-Europeanist vision. As early as 1958 he pursued an aggressive policy toward Greece’s membership in the newly-founded European Economic Community (now incorporated into the European Union since 2009).
The national leader also sought to strengthen the National Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an initiative which he discussed during a meeting with U.S. President John F. Kennedy in April 1961.
In July 1961, his European lobbying efforts succeeded as Greece received entry into the EEC. The signing ceremony in Athens was attended by delegations from the six-member bloc of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, Luxemburg and the Netherlands, a precursor of the EU.
Exiled years & the “Metapolitefsi”
Karamanlis spent 1963-1974 living in self-imposed exile in Paris. Multiple events influenced his exit from Greece, but the most notable was the May 1963 assassination of left-wing parliamentarian Grigoris Lambrakis by right-wing extremists during a pro-peace demonstration in Thessaloniki. Karamanlis and his conservative government faced heavy criticism from opponent George Papandreou, whose Centre Union party would win the 1963 election.
Four years later on April 21, 1967, the Greek military junta seized control of the government, prompting yet another shift in leadership which would endure for seven years. Meanwhile, Karamanlis remained in self-exile.
But after the collapse of Greece’s military dictatorship on July 24, 1974, the country entered into a new phase known as the “Metapolitefsi,” or “regime change.”
Karamanlis returned to Athens on a French presidential plane lended to him by French President Valerie Giscard d’Estaing. He assumed the role of prime minister by default but immediately faced a crisis in Cyprus. Turkish forces had invaded the island on July 20, 1974 and displaced approximately 160,000 people from their homes. Officials later declared thousands dead or missing.
Shortly after his return, Karamanlis founded the political party New Democracy and implemented a systematic approach to remove appointees of the Junta from government. He then announced that democratic elections would be held in November 1974, four months after the Junta’s collapse.
Karamanlis and his newly founded party won national elections in 1974 and 1977, leaving him as prime minister through 1980.
Second PM term yields more criticism
Economic growth continued throughout Karamanlis’ second tenure as prime minister, but not as rapidly as during the first. His second term also proved more controversial, as conservative opponents criticized his government’s socialist economic policies. Such policies included the nationalization of Olympic Airways and Emporiki Bank, as well as the creation of a large public sector.
Karamanlis also received mixed praise and criticism after legalizing the Greek communist party KKE, which had been banned since the civil war. He freed all political prisoners and pardoned all political crimes against the junta. These decisions were widely seen as gestures of political inclusion and reconciliation.
Another contentious decision was his pursuit of diplomacy with Turkey after its invasion of Cyprus in 1974. Greek officials held two conferences with their Turkish counterparts in Geneva, Switzerland, but Turkey’s invasion and occupation of northern Cyprus still ensued.
Post-political life & legacy
Karamanlis retired in 1995 at the age of 88. For his long service to democracy and as a pioneer of European integration from the earliest stages of the EU, he received the 1978 Charlemagne Prize. He bequeathed his archives to the Konstantinos Karamanlis Foundation, an Athens-based non-profit organization which he founded and endowed.
The foundation remains operational and aims to cast light on post-WWII Greek history in relation to Karamanlis’ accomplishments. It also promotes the idea of a unified Europe. The foundation conserves Karamanlis’ personal archive and supports the advancement of scientific research.
In April 2018, to mark the 20th anniversary of Karamanlis’ death, Athens Voice columnist Panos Loukakos wrote an in-depth feature story (in Greek) about his lifetime of personal encounters with the late politician.
Also commemorating the anniversary, Greek media outlet News24/7 released a documentary called “The Macedonian Who Became a National Leader,” referring to him by the region of Greece in which he was born.
The film includes historical documents and narratives pertaining to Karamanlis’ personal life and political career, from his childhood in a small Turkish-occupied northern Greek village, to the “Metapolitefsi,” to his emergence as national leader.
Watch the documentary
Is The Pappas Post worth $5 a month for all of the content you read? On any given month, we publish dozens of articles that educate, inform, entertain, inspire and enrich thousands who read The Pappas Post. I’m asking those who frequent the site to chip in and help keep the quality of our content high — and free. Click here and start your monthly or annual support today. If you choose to pay (a) $5/month or more or (b) $50/year or more then you will be able to browse our site completely ad-free!