Constantine, the former and last king of Greece, has died aged 82

Constantine, the former and last king of Greece, has died aged 82

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ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Constantine, the former and last king of Greece who won an Olympic gold medal before becoming embroiled in his country’s volatile politics in the 1960s as king and spending decades in exile, has died. He was 82.

Doctors at the private Hygeia Hospital in Athens confirmed to The Associated Press that Constantine died late Tuesday after treatment in an intensive care unit, but had no further details pending an official announcement.

When he ascended the throne as Constantine II in 1964 at the age of 23, the young monarch, who had already achieved fame as an Olympic gold medalist in sailing, was extremely popular. By the following year, he had squandered much of this support by actively participating in the machinations that brought down the elected Central Union government of Prime Minister George Papandreou.

The episode, which included the defection from the ruling party of several legislators, still widely known in Greece as the “apostasy”, destabilized the constitutional order and led to a military coup in 1967. Constantine eventually fell out with the military rulers and was forced into exile .

The dictatorship abolished the monarchy in 1973, while a referendum following the restoration of democracy in 1974 dashed any hopes Constantine had of ever reigning again.

Reduced in the following decades to only fleeting visits to Greece, each time causing a political and media firestorm, he managed to re-establish himself in his native country in the waning years, when opposition to his presence was no longer a sign of vigilant republicanism. With minimal nostalgia for the monarchy in Greece, Constantine became a relatively uncontroversial figure.

Constantine was born on 2 June 1940 in Athens to Prince Paul, younger brother of King George II and heir presumptive to the throne, and Princess Frederica of Hanover. His older sister Sofia is the wife of former Spanish King Juan Carlos I. Greek-born Prince Philip, the late Duke of Edinburgh and husband of the late Queen Elizabeth II, was an uncle.

The family, which ruled in Greece from 1863 except for the 12-year republican interlude between 1922-1935, descended from Prince Christian, later Christian IX of Denmark, of the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg branch of Denmark ruling family.

Before Constantine’s first birthday, the royal family was forced to flee Greece during the German invasion of World War II, moving to Alexandria in Egypt, South Africa, and back to Alexandria. King George II returned to Greece in 1946 after a disputed referendum, but died a few months later, making Constantine King Paul I’s successor.

Constantine was educated at a boarding school and then attended three military academies as well as courses at the Athens Law School in preparation for his future role. He also competes in various sports, including sailing and karate, in which he holds a black belt.

In 1960, aged 20, he and two other Greek sailors won a gold medal in the Dragon class – no longer an Olympic class – at the Rome Olympics. While still a prince, Constantine was elected to the International Olympic Committee and became an honorary life member in 1974.

King Paul I died of cancer on 6 March 1964 and Constantine succeeded him, weeks after the Center Union party triumphed over the Conservatives with 53% of the vote.

Prime Minister George Papandreou and Constantine initially had a very close relationship, but these soon soured over Constantine’s insistence that control of the armed forces was the monarch’s prerogative.

As many officers toyed with the idea of ​​dictatorship and viewed any non-conservative government as soft on communism, Papandreou wanted to control the Ministry of Defense and eventually asked to be appointed Minister of Defense. After a heated exchange of letters with Constantine, Papandreou resigned in July 1965.

Constantine’s insistence on appointing a government made up of centrist defectors, which won a narrow parliamentary majority on the third attempt, was extremely unpopular. Many believed he was manipulated by his scheming mother, the dowager Queen Frederica.

“The people don’t want you, take your mother and go!” became the slogan of the protests that shook Greece in the summer of 1965.

Eventually Constantine made something of a truce with Papandreou and, with his consent, appointed a government of technocrats and then a conservative-led government to hold elections in May 1967.

But with polls strongly favoring the Center Union and Papandreou’s leftist son Andreas gaining popularity, Constantine and his courtiers feared reprisals and, with the help of high-ranking officers, prepared a coup.

However, a group of lower officers, led by colonels, prepared their own coup and, informed of Constantine’s plans by a mole, proclaimed a dictatorship on April 21, 1967.

Constantine was surprised and his feelings towards the new rulers were evident in the official photo of the new government. He pretended to go along with them while preparing a counter-coup with the help of the troops in northern Greece and the navy loyal to him.

On December 13, 1967, Constantine and his family flew to the northern city of Kavala with the intention of marching towards Thessaloniki and setting up a government there. The counter-coup, poorly managed and infiltrated, collapsed and Constantine was forced to flee to Rome the next day. He would never return as the reigning king.

The junta appointed a regent and, after a failed Navy counter-coup in May 1973, abolished the monarchy on 1 June 1973. A plebiscite in July, widely believed to have been rigged, confirmed the decision.

When the dictatorship collapsed in July 1974, Constantine was eager to return to Greece, but was advised against it by veteran politician Constantine Karamanlis, who had returned from exile to head a civilian government. Karamanlis, who also headed the government between 1955-63, was a conservative but clashed with the court over what he saw as excessive interference in politics.

After his triumphant victory in the November elections, Karamanlis called for a plebiscite on the monarchy in 1974. Constantine was not allowed in the country to campaign, but the result was unequivocal and widely accepted: 69.2% voted in favor of a republic.

Soon after, Karamanlis said the nation had rid itself of a cancerous tumor. Constantine said the day after the referendum that “national unity must take precedence… I wish with all my heart that developments justify the result of yesterday’s vote.”

Until his last days, Constantine, while accepting that Greece was now a republic, continued to refer to himself as King of Greece and his children as princes and princesses, even though Greece no longer recognized titles of nobility.

For most of his years in exile he lived in the suburb of Hampstead Garden, London, and is believed to have been particularly close to his second cousin Charles, Prince of Wales and now King Charles III.

Although it took Constantine 14 years to briefly return to his country to bury his mother Queen Frederica in 1981, he increased his visits after that and since 2010 has settled there. There were lingering disputes: in 1994, the then socialist government stripped him of his nationality and expropriated what remained of the royal family’s property. Constantine sued the European Court of Human Rights and was awarded 12 million euros in 2002, a fraction of the 500 million he sought.

He is survived by his wife, the former Princess Anne-Marie of Denmark, youngest sister of Queen Margrethe II; five children, Alexia, Pavlos, Nikolaos, Theodora and Philippos; and nine grandchildren. ___ Derek Gatopoulos in Athens contributed.

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