In London, in June 1948 during the royal visit, Queen Frederica of Greece lunched with Winston Churchill. The discussion at the table turned into a serious deliberation. No doubt he was annoyed – he was unaccustomed to a queen who discussed politics. He argued that arrested communist fighters in Greece –the civil war had entered the third year- should not be executed. The queen disagreed. Churchill, irritated, insisted that executions would be ‘bad propaganda’ for Greece. She was cold, defiant and hit back: ‘There are two countries in the world which are simply terrible at propaganda. One is yours, Mr. Churchill, and the other is mine’. Surprisingly, Frederica turned the discussion to espionage, claiming that in ‘only two countries in the world’ espionage was unsuccessful, in Japan and in Greece; in Japan none speak, while in Greece all speak and ‘it is impossible not to find out everything’.
The paradox of espionage in Greece was addressed by Captain Compton Mackenzie the British spymasters in Athens from 1915 to 1917. The city of the Acropolis had its own rules of espionage, different from Moscow, London and Paris:
‘...in a city of the size of Athens it would be impossible to achieve secrecy by the usual means of keeping oneself hidden or pretending to be something one was not. Such methods in Athens would be the methods of the ostrich who thinks himself hidden when he buries his own head. I made up my mind to create a focus of publicity, and under cover of that publicity hope to achieve a measure of secrecy.’
Spymasters had to understand that Greeks were impossible to handle as spies; Greeks could not be manipulated; in contrast they could manipulate the foreign spymasters. A British military intelligence report warned:
‘The Greeks have a national vanity which is difficult for an Englishman to grasp and it influences all their actions, military as well as political. Military reverses and political “incidents” never shake for long the confidence of the average Greek in his general superiority to the rest of mankind.’
There was a certain magic in Athens with the elegant neoclassical buildings, statues on their roofs, the avenues with the sparse motor traffic and the rich parks. Tranquil elegance is pervasive in the paintings of the era. As war raged in Europe in 1914-1917, idyllic Athens turned into a battleground of secret war between British, French and German intelligence and their respective Greek supporters, from petty informers, thugs and ruffians to members of the government, the royal court, industrialists and arms dealers. Intrigue, rumour and propaganda were a daily routine for politicians, the politicized-military, the press and the members of foreign legations.
Spymasters at the Acropolis reveals the activities of spymasters, spies and their secret sources and their methods; the narrative focuses on who was the secret source and what he/she had been telling his/her masters during a period of near-civil war in Greece. Research discloses the successes and failures of secret intelligence in rumour-ridden Athens where many informers and secret agents were doing it for the money- the highest bidder. Money was a key resource for espionage in Athens. Pro-Entente or pro-Central Powers feelings influenced only the supporters of Prime Minister Venizelos or King Constantine and his loyal prime ministers, politicians and their party base and constituents. For swindlers and ruffians trying to profit out of war and the fear of British intelligence towards German and Ottoman Turkish plans and vice versa, taking advantage of the ever-growing spies’ market was too easy to miss.
British spymasters always complained to London SIS headquarters that they had not enough money to spend while, ostensibly, their German and French counterpart spymasters had abundant resources for theirs plots – real and imagined. In the cast of characters was added an international arms dealer, Sir Basil Zaharoff, a man who cut lucrative and shadowy deals in Greece and the Ottoman Empire before the war and intrigued to bring Venizelos to power.
Rumour haunted ambitious, arrogant, amateurish, short-tempered spymasters. Spreading rumours was the pleasure of the scoundrels who sought to benefit as much as possible. They knew that rumours in time of a protracted politico-military crisis like the National Schism could be turned into a valuable commodity; too many buyers available: British, German, French, Austrians, Italians, Turks, Bulgarians and Russians ready to pay for them.
The book unearths the attitudes, reports and activities of the major players of the espionage game in Greece: Captain Compton Mackenzie- the always sarcastic novelist-turned-spy; the defiant Captain George Hill reporting from Salonica and the front- soon to be dispatched to plot against Bolshevik revolutionaries in Russia; the obsessive with brute force and false intelligence Commander Maximilien Henri de Roquefeuil, the French spymaster; the always exaggerating Jean Guillemin,, the head of the French legation and a loyal supporter of Roquefeuil; Baron von Shenck the German propagandist turned arch-villain by false rumour; and, Hoffman the artillery reserve officer who as an elusive spymaster gained the admiration of Mackenzie.
Captain Compton Mackenzie
In Athens all spymasters experienced the labyrinth of false intelligence, rumour and fear as well as of the excitement that yet another ploy in diplomacy or in their secret war could bring decisive success and serve their own causes. All characters never hid their antagonism and animosity for their counterparts- animosity was more evident among their allies: the antagonism of British and French intelligence officers who jumped into policy recommendations based on inaccurate and alarmist reporting.
About the Author
James Henderson devotes his time in archives and, feels books on intelligence and secret services have to be intelligence products inspiring readers to search for themselves further.