Revisiting the Greek War of Independence While Ukraine Fights for Its Own
Mark Mazower, The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe (Penguin Press, 2021)
Imagine a poor nation on the edge of Europe. Its people, Orthodox Christians, have an ancient history, but scant experience of sovereignty and self-rule. It has until recently been a vassal state — the western marchland — of a large, authoritarian empire. The country is riven by regional divisions. Its traditional elites are factious, fractious, corrupt, and self-dealing. Some of them remain loyal, or at any rate beholden, to the old empire — which is much wealthier, has a much larger army, and has just invaded to reassert control.
As the invaders besiege and lay waste to cities, many residents take flight. Their sheer number creates a massive refugee crisis. The invading army has a sizable numerical advantage, but it proves to be poorly led and provisioned. As a result, it struggles to translate its superiority into a clear victory. But neither can the defenders hope to win outright. They are simply too few and too poorly armed and financed to do more than hold out.
Both sides invite outside help, hoping to tilt the balance. The empire calls upon the military assistance of an obstreperous, technically subject but in practice semi-autonomous province on its southern border. The young nation seeks aid from the other great powers of its day, countries with which it asserts ideological affinity. Alas, the moment is not propitious. The period’s great liberal power is sympathetic, but loath to risk war. The largest power on the continent is hesitant to sever its historically close economic ties with the invader. A few volunteer fighters trickle in, while some financial assistance and weapons deliveries are arranged. But great powers decline to intervene directly. The fighting and misery drag on.
This, of course, is a summary of the present Russo-Ukrainian war. But it also describes the Greek War of Independence, fought from 1821 to 1827. Many commentators have described the current war as a transformative moment that will reshape European political realities. As Mark Mazower shows in his masterful new account, it was the Greek revolution that helped create these realities in the first place.
Mazower’s contention is that, in the course of fighting for freedom from the Ottoman Empire, the Greeks wrought a revolution not only for themselves, but also — by galvanizing international public opinion and bringing it to bear, for the first time, on interstate affairs — in the practice of modern politics, diplomacy, and war. The many resonances between Mazower’s account and today’s news make his case all the more convincing.
History does not offer pat lessons — but sometimes it presents analogies that help us think through the challenges of our day. Mazower’s history of the Greek revolution shows how a localized but highly evocative war can end up shaping its wider historical moment by seizing the world’s attention and drawing in outside powers. Reading it in dialogue with the present invites us to imagine the possible outcomes of creeping Western intervention and growing Ukrainian cohesion occasioned by the current war.
A Brutal and Transformative Conflict
The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe is bound to stand as the definitive English-language account of these events and their reception. Its narrative is lucid, comprehensive, judicious, and harrowing. If it indulges in rare moments of sentimentality — as one might expect in a book commissioned to mark the revolution’s bicentennial — these flights of feeling are more than excused by its unsparing account of the war’s horrors. Mazower depicts, in diverse details, the immediate descent of both sides into wholesale slaughter. From the revolution’s first engagement in the small Danubian port of Galati, the Greeks made a habit of massacring not just enemy combatants but also Muslim civilians. “There was a widespread sense that it was time for their former masters to learn their place,” Mazower writes. When they took the stronghold of Tripolitsa, “the robbery, butchery and looting went on for three days.” Similar fates awaited Kalavryta, Navarino, Corinth, and Athens. “I became disgusted with the Greek cause,” one of its own leaders wrote, “because we were a lot of cannibals.”
The Ottomans were no better. “The furious sultan … toyed with the idea of having all the Greeks of the empire put to death,” Mazower writes. Advisors dissuaded him from that genocidal course, but he still had Greeks occupying senior ministerial and clerical posts — including Patriarch Gregorios V — hanged. In an address to the empire’s Muslims, he also issued what amounted to an open invitation to slaughter. Constantinople, Edirne, Smyrna, Salonica, Ayvalik — all witnessed massacres. The worst was on Chios, where 30,000 Ottoman irregulars “roamed unchecked for nearly two weeks,” killing, plundering, and looting “with the blessing of the Ottoman governor.” The island’s population has never, to this day, recovered.
“The violence of the official Ottoman reaction shocked European diplomats deeply,” Mazower writes. “It began a slow and ultimately fatal erosion of the Sultan’s legitimacy in the judgment of European political opinion.” The Greeks’ depredations received far less attention. Foreign observers on the ground were consistently appalled by what they witnessed but tended to refrain from publicizing their experience so as not to harm the cause to which they’d grown attached. (Here the parallel with the Ukrainian case breaks down a bit, as the culpability of both sides is hardly equivalent.)
In both the Ukrainian and the Greek cases, Western audiences were won over by the efforts of a savvy leader who framed his people’s plight in ways they could appreciate. Alexandros Mavrokordatos, the first president of Greece’s provisional government, was an urbane, Western-educated man, reputedly conversant in 10 languages and steeped in the Enlightenment. He did not believe that Greece could achieve independence on its own. Anxious to secure the support and intervention of outside powers — like Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky today — he took pains to present his country’s struggle in a sympathetic light and tailored his appeals to his audience. Just as Zelensky has played upon German guilt over Nazi atrocities in Ukraine and memories of the Berlin wall while invoking 9/11 and Martin Luther King in an address to the American Congress, Mavrokordatos appealed to the conservative powers of his day in terms of Christian unity and the liberal ones by citing “Western political theory, systems and abstract principles.” This being the era in which Lord Elgin acquired his marbles and museums across Europe began to exhibit Greek antiquities, he also made sure to capitalize on Europe’s newfound obsession with the classical past.
In the conservative political climate of the early 1820s, when after the Congress of Vienna the great powers were fixated on maintaining stability and forestalling revolution, these appeals found even less traction in the capitals of Europe than Zelensky’s have today. But in the realm of arts and culture, it was an age not of reaction, but of Romanticism. Among first intellectuals and then a wider public, the Greek cause caught fire. Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote a lyrical drama about the uprising, Hellas, which he dedicated to Mavrokordatos, a personal friend. Eugène Delacroix exhibited Scene of the Massacre at Chios to rave reviews (Stendhal praised it as “Shakespearean”). Giaochino Rossini wrote an opera, The Siege of Corinth, which was ostensibly historical, but clearly an allegory for current events. And of course Lord Byron — the world’s first modern celebrity — travelled to Greece to fight, only to die from fever in Missolonghi. The news of his demise captured the world’s attention and placed the revolution — for which he was celebrated as a martyr — at the center of public debate. “The surge in Europe’s sympathy for the Greek cause was one of the most remarkable political and cultural phenomena of the post-Napoleonic era,” Mazower argues. Philhellenism became “a cultural force uniting very diverse swathes of European society,” indeed created “something we might term a European liberal conscience.”
Again, one cannot help but be struck by similarities with the present. Our age may not measure up — at least yet — in the aesthetic quality of its engagé output, but one detects a similar phenomenon afoot, with the likes of Bono writing a poem about Ukraine for Nancy Pelosi, and Arnold Schwarzenegger recording a speech appealing to Russians’ conscience. Whereas bien pensants of the Bourbon Restoration produced an “outpouring of odes, cantatas, laments, and elegies,” the concerned observers of today vent on Twitter, Telegram, and TikTok. The war in Ukraine, like the Greek revolution before it, has become a worldwide cause célèbre — eclipsing other tragedies in the process. Just as Europeans of the Romantic era paid lesser heed to revolutions in South America that “lacked the historical and cultural allure of the Hellenic ideal,” so are Western peoples today accused of giving short and prejudicial shrift to tragedies beyond Europe that elicit less frisson than the recrudescence of their old foe.
In time, all this poesy and protest began to reshape politics, inspiring — for the first time, Mazower argues — a new kind of mass mobilization oriented toward practical assistance. The philosopher of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and his enthusiastic acolytes seized upon the Greek cause as an opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of their ideology and penned “a torrent of … texts, translations and what would today be called policy recommendations.” From this perspective, Mazower notes, “the Benthamites were … forerunners of those late twentieth-century technocrats who fanned out across the globe … advising governments how to manage their people’s affairs.” The London Greek Committee, established with the Benthamites’ assistance, provided two loans by floating bonds (with “positively misleading” prospectuses that amounted to “puffery”) in the City of London’s new sovereign debt market. Similar philhellenic organizations sprang up in France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and elsewhere. Their collective efforts helped keep the Greek cause going — and its provisional government afloat — during the most trying years of the war. Helpful, too, were new organizations set up to assist refugees and traumatized non-combatants — a sphere in which “the most decisive and concrete response” came from “a relative newcomer to European affairs: America.” This activity, Mazower argues, marked “the beginning of a modern phenomenon — a policy of organized international relief, one that would be closely identified with America’s projection of its power and values abroad for the next two centuries.”
The Question of Intervention
But what should America and its allies do beyond providing relief and assistance? The question of military intervention was just as controversial in the Greek case as it is today. After years of war and piles of dispatches detailing Ottoman atrocities, “support for intervention on the side of the Greeks was growing across the political spectrum,” Mazower writes, “bringing together radicals calling for republicanism, liberals demanding constitutions, and [conservative] voices … demanding solidarity with Christians threatened by non-European despots.” The tipping point came when an Egyptian army, which had intervened on the sultan’s behalf, captured Missolonghi — the erstwhile seat of Greece’s provisional government, famous as the site of Byron’s demise — and slaughtered and enslaved its inhabitants. Public outrage at these events “was a decisive factor in the fundamental transformation of European diplomacy that now took place,” according to Mazower. “In the face of Greek stubbornness and valor, the cabinets of Europe were being forced by popular pressure to accept that they could not acquiesce in what appeared to be ‘the inevitable destruction of an entire nation.’”
America, not to mention NATO, enjoys no such unanimity at the moment. Proponents like Rory Stewart and opponents like Stephen Wertheim both pronounced the era of intervention over when America withdrew from Afghanistan. Whether they are right remains to be seen; Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is testing their assertion. Interventionists see the war as a golden opportunity to restate their case, and their profile is rising. But thus far non-interventionists are carrying the debate. President Biden has refused to entertain the idea of committing forces, instead imposing economic sanctions — a modern contrivance to which Mazower’s study does not speak.
The tide of opinion may well turn, as the war in Ukraine is in its early days. The destruction of Mariupol may not have been a tipping point, à la the fall of Missolonghi, but public opinion has had mere weeks to awaken and make itself felt — and there are signs that this war may turn into one of grinding attrition. Recent news of massacres in Bucha has led to calls for sterner action. Were Russia to employ chemical weapons or continue executing civilians, public pressure for military intervention might well swell. The most commonly suggested next step is imposing a no-fly zone — and here the history of the Greek War of Independence is indeed instructive.
When the great powers finally decided to intervene on behalf of the nascent Greek state, they sent a joint fleet to deter the Ottomans from “continuing to wage war … by measures short of hostilities.” This, Mazower writes, “was the ultimate diplomatic fudge,” designed to provide “some kind of credible threat” while avoiding direct conflict. Call it a no-sail zone. In the end, it didn’t work. The allied powers ended up having to fight, and sink, the whole Ottoman fleet. “Policies of deterrence necessarily involve wishful thinking,” Mazower notes dryly.
The great powers’ intervention may have made Greek independence possible — but it also set in motion a train of events that roiled the entire region. Outraged by interference in his empire’s internal affairs, the Ottoman sultan abnegated the Akkerman Convention, which had settled affairs in the Danubian principalities where the Greek revolution began. This led to the Russo-Turkish War of 1828–9, “the first major hostilities on the continent since the defeat of Napoleon.” French forces, which had been mobilized to ensure the Egyptians’ withdrawal from Greece, stayed on “for what we would now call peacekeeping duties.” They soon found an outlet for their new “crusading spirit” in “the bloody conquest of Algeria, which ended three centuries of Ottoman rule there as well.” And the Egyptians themselves, seeing the sultan’s weakness, invaded Anatolia to press for recognition of their own de facto independence.
It would be facile to suggest that a no-fly zone in Ukraine is bound to set off a similar cavalcade of conflicts. But the likelihood of it leading to direct conflict with Russia is high, which could prove ruinous in and of itself. Whatever happens, the war in Ukraine seems likely to define our era as the revolution in Greece defined its own.
An Emerging Nation
If Ukraine manages to emerge from the current war with its sovereignty and independence intact, it is likely to do so with a firmer and more workable — because more civic — national identity than it has thus far managed to conjure. Russia’s gross exaggeration and exploitation of Ukraine’s internal divisions notwithstanding, it is fair to say that Kyiv has thus far commanded a factious land. Oligarchs and the clans of competing interests over which they preside have been the prime political movers. Nationalism of the blood-and-soil-and-language sort has been a minority project: one ill-suited to a country with a rich, cosmopolitan past and a Jewish comedian-cum-world-beloved-mensch as its wartime leader. A capacious, forward-looking, non-compulsory collective identity has proved elusive. But war and displacement have a way of uniting people through the tangible and shared experience of suffering — as Mazower’s history shows. When their war began, the peoples of the peninsula we now call Greece spoke many tongues and had diverse identities derived from faith and locality. By the time it ended, they had “a new vision of political community,” one based on “the wartime refugee experience” and the social recombinations it imposed. How ironic it will be if, by attempting to bomb it back into the imperial fold, Vladimir Putin turns out to be the abusive father of the first truly integrated Ukrainian nation.
Marc Edward Hoffman is a writer who has lived in Istanbul for the past thirteen years. He has written about Turkey, Russia, and other countries in the region for a range of publications. He is currently working on a political and economic history of the Turkish Republic.
Image: Episode from the Greek War of Independence, Eugene Delacroix (Creative Commons 4.0)