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8 April 2022

How the Greek revolution made the modern world

The 1821 uprising against the Ottomans won staunch support from Europe’s liberals. The precedent it set for intervention still echoes in debates over Ukraine.

By Nick Burns

Is Ukraine the new Greece? The wave of pro-Ukrainian sentiment unleashed over past weeks by Russia’s invasion, manifesting not just in economic and financial sanctions undertaken by governments, but also in the blue-and-yellow flags draped in businesses and Twitter bios, calls to mind a similar phenomenon from almost exactly two centuries ago, as Greek rebels rose up against Ottoman rule in the 1820s. Foreign support for the Greek uprising has served ever since as the blueprint for campaigns in favour of intervention abroad, argues British historian Mark Mazower in his sweeping new history, The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe. Could today’s discourse around Ukraine still be following a pattern set in the early 19th century?

In question then, as now, was the fate of a territory at the periphery of Europe with regard to a declining but still imposing power straddling Europe and Asia. As Ottoman forces clashed with Greek rebels for years after the outbreak of revolution in 1821, European liberal opinion was impressed by the Greeks’ pluckiness in resisting a much larger force on their home territory – and horrified by reports of Ottoman atrocities. The Greek cause suited Romantic ideas then in vogue in Europe, enticing many “philhellenes”, as supporters of Greece were called, including Lord Byron, to join the struggle. There was real bravery on display by Greeks throughout the revolution – but there were darker tendencies at play, too, and many philhellenes, encountering shocking brutality on both sides, quickly lost the simple sense of moral clarity they had set out with.

Ukraine achieved its independence after a referendum was held in 1991 as the Soviet Union collapsed. In 19th-century Greece, however, there was neither the infrastructure nor the appetite on the part of Ottoman rulers to hold a vote. Greece’s journey to independence began instead with a popular uprising – planned by a secret organisation called the Friendly Society, which drew its ideas from the French Revolution and harboured a vision of restoring the grandeur of ancient Greece. But the uprising soon spiralled out of the society’s control as Greeks took matters into their own hands.

[See also: Russia’s war with the West, by Daniel Beer]

For most of the Greek people, largely made up of illiterate peasants, revolt against the Ottomans did not reflect hopes for an independent national state – something that one would have struggled to explain to them – but rather a chance to “make the romeïko”. The romeïko, in popular conception, was an event with eschatological religious connotations that involved throwing off the Ottoman yoke and taking back Constantinople, reinstating not Athenian democracy but the Byzantine Empire.

Part of what is so remarkable about the Greek revolt is how it managed to fuse popular Orthodoxy and the vanguard Hellenism of the Friendly Society into a syncretic popular nationalism – the first of a kind that would soon sweep the world. As the revolution went on, Greeks began crying “Ellas anesti” (“Greece is risen”) – a twist on the Orthodox Easter refrain of “Christos anesti” (“Christ is risen”). After hoped-for Russian support failed to materialise and the prospect of taking back Constantinople faded away, popular sentiment remained in favour of revolt, the goal of which slowly transformed from romeïko to independence.

But borrowing from traditional religion to guarantee mass support meant raising the spectre of inter-confessional violence. Rigas Velestinlis, a fascinating early figure of Greek nationalism killed by the Ottomans in 1798, had claimed the mantle of the ancient Greek legacy for all the inhabitants of Greece, whether ethnic Greeks or Albanians, Christians or Muslims. For Velestinlis, they ought to be united in resistance to the Ottomans. The uprising itself was less broad-minded. Greeks slaughtered Muslims in 1821 during the fall of Tripolitsa (now Tripoli), the Ottoman capital of the Peloponnese (the mountainous southern peninsula in what is now Greece), revolting European philhellenes who saw the bodies of women and children abandoned in the streets.

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The killings horrified the bulk of the Christian population of the city that had lived together with Muslims for as long as they could remember. They were motivated in part, Mazower argues, by a desire on the part of Greek rebels to raise the stakes of the revolution. Once Muslim blood had been shed, the Ottomans would have revenge on the whole Christian population – giving previously uncommitted Christians a reason to make the revolt a success. And collective punishment did come, in successive waves of bloodshed ordered and approved by the Sultan and his commanders.

At the outbreak of revolution in 1821, the Ottomans hanged and mutilated the body of the 84-year-old Orthodox patriarch – who had been doing his best to dissuade the Greeks from revolution. Mazower estimates that, during an infamous massacre on the island of Chios in 1822, the Ottomans killed 25,000 Greeks and sold another 45,000 into slavery, of a pre-revolutionary population of 100,000. The island’s population never recovered, and today is half that number. There were massacres too in Naoussa and Aivalik, and on Samothraki and Psara, from which the Ottomans carried away 500 heads and 1,200 ears.

[See also: My family and the forgotten massacre of Chios, by Richard Calvocoressi]

The Ottoman Empire was ailing by the early 19th century, but it was still one of the most powerful states in the world, and the Greeks’ ability to resist it on their own for so long was accordingly breathtaking. Not only was most of the populace illiterate, but the territory that later became the Greek state was so astonishingly undeveloped that there were no roads in the Peloponnese. Messages were carried on horseback, on narrow mountain paths difficult even for horses to navigate, or more often by messenger boy. And the Greeks made do throughout the entire course of the war without a “unifying personality” in the mould of Napoleon or Washington – or a clear political leader like Zelensky. Instead, Mazower’s narrative is a bewildering array of multisyllabic names like Kapodistrias, Kolokotronis, Kountouriotis and Karaiskakis.

Yet disorganisation, bad and dispersed leadership, narrow-mindedness and clashing regional and class interests hamstrung the Greek cause from the outset. Plans to launch the revolt in spring 1821 were thrown into chaos when the rash leader of the Friendly Society, the Danubian prince Alexandros Ypsilantis, launched a premature and quickly suppressed uprising in far-off Moldavia – an abortive first chapter of the revolution that is left out of most official histories. When the revolution reached the Peloponnese, the Ottomans were swept away in a week as spontaneous, simultaneous uprisings detonated across the peninsula. The Greeks were beyond the control of the Ottomans, but also of the revolution’s leadership itself.

Peloponnesian landowners tried to keep their privileges over a peasantry that began to see their rule as equivalent to that of the Turks; regional warlords wanted to preserve their arrangements with the Ottomans; the mercantile elite of the shipping islands wanted to protect commerce. Greeks complained of endless, meaningless pronouncements by a feeble revolutionary government – a veritable “diarrhoea of ministers”, as one of them frankly put it.

No one could agree on how to spend the money that started to come in from a loan organised in London. The Ottomans reorganised, conquering the town of Missolonghi – where Byron had died in 1824 – in a long and dramatic siege that drew the attention of Europe, during which a Egyptian army was despatched to lay waste to the Peloponnese and bring the restive Greeks to heel. The Greeks held out for six-and-a-half years, until the autumn of 1827, when the patience of the long-suffering Greek peasantry was finally beginning to wear out. Then, in a stunning deus ex machina for the Greeks, the Ottoman fleet was wiped out by an Anglo-Russo-French coalition in a single battle at Navarino – and Greek independence became a fait accompli.

Support from the great powers did not come from nowhere. Even as liberal sections of civil society across Europe promoted the cause of independence, governments remained leery of intervening in the conflict, which could provoke a general war or upset the balance of power after the post-Napoleonic settlement. The eventual intervention was the result of a sustained campaign of public pressure waged by intellectuals, politicians and activists, as well as, Mazower argues, fears about unrest in Europe if the Ottomans were not prevented from crushing the Greek rebels. During an age of conservative dominance in Europe, support for Greek independence provided an outlet for liberal sentiment and an opportunity for cultural figures to exert a new form of influence over foreign policy. Rossini composed an opera, The Siege of Corinth, in support of the Greeks; Eugène Delacroix painted pictures of the siege at Missolonghi and the massacre on Chios. Conservatives got in on the fun, too: Romantic reactionary Chateaubriand wrote a hit pamphlet defending Greek independence from a right-wing point of view, which helped turn France away from its previous pro-Ottoman position.

[See also: War at the end of history, by Adam Tooze]

In London, a newly erected system of loans to sovereign powers helped guarantee Greek and Latin American independence – yet its successors would later radically constrict the freedom of precisely these countries, as the conditions of multilateral loans became a powerful tool to wield over sovereign leaders in debtor countries. American humanitarian aid for the Greeks was a training ground for habits of administration and a cast of mind that have since been expanded across the globe with the rise of the US to the status of world hegemon. A precedent for “intervention” in other countries’ affairs, outlined in France’s invasion of Spain in 1823, was firmly established, with far-reaching consequences still felt in debates now over Ukraine.

The Greek Revolution’s half-chronological, half-thematic organisation is justified by the several levels on which the book must operate – explaining the shifting currents of support for the Greeks in Europe, intrigues in the Ottoman world, politicking among Greek leaders and the fighting itself. But it also makes an already dizzying set of characters and events seem even more confusing, as battles and sieges are narrated several times over. Mazower’s treatment of the revolution, in the works for over a decade and published to coincide with its 200th anniversary, surely takes its place as the authoritative single-volume account in English, but it feels slightly unfinished in places – the index, for example, is often off by a couple pages. Is it possible that, like the revolution which is its subject, a long gestation and pre-planned schedule did not wholly prevent the author’s great salvo from detonating prematurely?

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