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The Day Greece Chose the Aegean Islands Over Northern Epirus

Greece Aegean Northern Epirus
The Greeks of Northern Epirus declared independence in Gjirokastër (Argyrokastro) on March 1, 1914. Public Domain

On February 13, 1914, Greece signed an international agreement that sealed the fate of Hellenes of Northern Epirus and the Aegean islands. Greece abandoned its claims to Epirus in exchange for dozens of islands in the Aegean.

On February 1, 1914, the then-big powers of Europe sent a note to the Greek government. These powers traditionally included Great Britain, France, Russia, and other powerful states such as the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Italy.

According to the note, Athens had to abandon its claims in Northern Epirus, which was about to become part of the newly established state of Albania, or Greece would not obtain sovereignty over the dozens of islands of the Aegean Sea.

This momentous yet widely unknown day was when Greece was shaped in the way we know it up to this very day. The Greek administration of Eleftherios Venizelos, knowing the strategic importance of the Aegean islands, had to make a painful yet necessary compromise if Greece was to expand its territory and influence in the broader Mediterranean Sea region.

Thus, following the note that Athens received, Venizelos decided it was in the country’s vital interest to withdraw its claim over the historic region of Northern Epirus in order to obtain the islands.

According to this consequential note, Greece would legally obtain the islands of the Aegean Sea with the exception of three: Imbros, Tenedos, and Castellorizo.

Castellorizo remained under Turkish control for a year but was then occupied by the French. However, Northern Epirus would remain outside of its motherland, forming a new province within the new state of Albania.

Northern Epirus to Albania, Aegean Islands to Greece

Greece Aegean Northern Epirus
A poster celebrating the liberation of the island of Lesvos. Public Domain

Following the painful yet important decision of Venizelos, Greece was about to officially become the power that controlled the vast majority of the Aegean area. This led to the Florence Protocol of February 13, 1914, which marked the Albanian borders, leaving Northern Epirus as part of its territory.

The Greeks of Northern Epirus never accepted this outcome, and a few weeks later declared their independence, something that was never officially recognized. The countries that agreed to the Florence Protocol were guaranteed that the Greeks of Northern Epirus would be protected and permitted freedom of religion, culture, and language. However, when the Greek army left, these terms were not followed.

Up until then, the Aegean islands, which had been liberated by the Greek navy between 1912 and 1913, were de-facto occupied by Greece, but no official treaty had recognized Greece’s sovereignty over them.

With the note of February 1, 1914, Greece was tempted to receive the official recognition of its sovereignty over all these islands, provided that it ceased making any territorial claims over Northern Epirus.

Of course, WWI soon broke out, and the Ottoman Empire continued to deny that the Aegean islands were now Greek. This led to a peculiar situation whereby Greece occupied most of the Aegean islands, yet they weren’t officially recognized as part of the Greek state.

This continued up until 1923, when the Treaty of Lausanne finally granted the islands of the Aegean once and for all to Greece. The Dodecanese, which were given to Italy, and Imbros and Tenedos, which were largely ethnically Greek and left under Turkish control, were not placed under Greek sovereignty.

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