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THE WAR OF GREEK INDEPENDENCE AT 200: HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVES

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BOOK REVIEW

The Greek Revolution

A Critical Dictionary Edited by Paschalis M. Kitromilides and Constantinos Tsoukalas

770 pp. The Belknap Press, Harvard University Press. 2021- ISBN 9780674987432

The uprising that started in the Peloponnese in March 1821 and nine years later resulted in the establishment of a free Greek state is the most pivotal event in the history of the nation. Greek tenacity, incredible sacrifices, philhellenic fervour, Ottoman atrocities and, finally, foreign intervention resulted in the miracle of Greek independence in the face of incredible odds.

It was the first new nation to be created in 19th century Europe. It happened despite the initial and fervent opposition of the European powers who found it unwelcome and highly disturbing. For the Greeks it is part history, part mythology and the creator of the modern nation. Historical facts mixed with legends and myths over 200 years define the Greek nation, the patriotism of its people and to a large extent the Greek character.

Paschalis Kitromilides and Constantinos Tsoukalas, the editors of The Greek Revolution, have undertaken to provide extensive information on a broad range of topics pertaining to the war of independence. They wanted the topics that are covered by the writers to examine their subjects and make room for the reader to “use the topics covered as a foundation and entry into the event.” They want to give us reliable information and critical evaluation in an easily accessible dictionary form.

The editors are both professors emeriti of the University of Athens, Kitromilides of Political Science and Tsoukalas of Sociology. They have engaged the services of 39 scholars in various fields to write essays on the topics that the editors chose, and the hefty tome contains detailed information about unexpected topics that can usually be found in a book that has adopted the form of a dictionary. As such this is not a narrative history of The Greek War of Independence but a gold mine of information about some obvious and some unexpected subjects.

Space will not permit me to comment even on a reasonable number let alone all of the essays. The book covers the fundamentals of a revolution: warfare, politics, civil war, diplomacy and eventually independence. It begins with the the situation in the Balkans, the Greeks of the Diaspora and the homeland, all within the the world of the Ottoman Empire.

Some essays are less comprehensible to the general reader than others. Professor Vaso Seirinidou’s essay on Communities begins as follows: “The Greek Revolution established new contexts for the historical study of the experience of Greeks within structures of communities.” She gives two approaches to the historiographic view of communities which would be of interest to specialists and then tells us that her “essay offers a critical approach to this historiographic “antinomy” by examining various versions of the phenomenon.” Her essay would do well in a peer-reviewed academic journal, but it is hard to follow in a book like The Greek Revolution.

We are led through the Forms of Resistance of the occupied Greeks and the organization of Secret Societies especially the famous and indispensable Philiki Etaireia (The Society of Friends) which played a pivotal role in the organization of the uprising.

In Events and Places, the authors examine in alphabetical order the occurrences in 15 areas from the Aegean Islands to Asia Minor, Cyprus, Macedonia, Missolonghi Navarino, Rumeli and Samos. Katerina Galani and Gelina Harlaftis inform us that the Aegean and Ionian Seas islands contributed about six hundred vessels to the war effort. They correct a number of misconceptions or omissions about the contribution of the islands in areas like finance, organization and commercial and economic damage to the Ottomans. A good, narrative story of successes and setbacks on the seas.

In some places like Athens, Cyprus and Macedonia relatively little happens as compared to the dramatic events in Chios, Morea, Navarino and Rumeli. Robert Holland puts the great naval battle of Navarino in its international and diplomatic context. The British, French and Russian navies under Admiral Codrington destroyed a large Turkish-Egyptian navy under questionable authority. The Admiral was in fact disciplined but in the event the battle quickened and almost guaranteed the creation of an independent Greek state.

The second half of the book zeroes in on topics that are glanced at in general histories but not necessarily with the focus used in this book. They also include essays about the Persons involved, including Clergy, Civilian Leaders, Diplomats, Intellectuals, Military Leaders and Women.  

Phokion Kotzageorgis, Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary History, Folklore, and Social Anthropology at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki tries to give a balanced view of the involvement of the clergy in the war. He points out that Patriarch Gregory V’s excommunication of Alexandros Ypsilantis and his vicious encyclical against the rebels at the start of the uprising had more to do with solicitude for the Greeks of Constantinople than fidelity to the Sultan.

Stavros Th.? Anestidis of the Centre for Asia Minor Studies, in his essay on events in Constantinople takes a similar view. He suggests that the Patriarch had to deal with an “unrelenting blackmail. The lives of hundreds of thousands of Greek citizens were at imminent risk” in Constantinople. He states that the Patriarch feared that he “might jeopardize the very survival of the Christian population.”

Kotzageorgis praises Archbishop Germanos of Old Patras for his diplomatic ability but adds the “beyond whatever truth or fiction is concealed behind the doxology on the blessing of the revolutionaries’ weapons by Germanos in the Aghia Lavra monastery at Kalavryta, on March 25, 2821….[he] ….was an energetic member of the prelate clergy.” Is that supposed to mean that there is or there may be truth in the tradition that Germanos was at Aghia Lavra on March 25? I thought that the legend, indeed myth, that the revolution started on March 25, 1821 has no basis in fact. It is a myth that the church still promotes insisting that the War of Independence began on an important religious holiday and that it was a united effort of clergy and laity,

Kotzageorgis sets out the two diametrically opposed views. First, that the church was opposed to the revolution and it was dragged into it. Second, the church “wholeheartedly participated in the struggle or even played a leading role.” He tries to steer a middle, more nuanced role but I doubt that he will convince people to change sides on the argument.

Professor Lucien Frary of Rider University engages in the subject in his essay on The Orthodox Church. He argues that the Orthodox Church “was not the spearhead of a precocious national project.” No doubt religion was an essential element in Greek society and it “was at the core of the tragic cycle of retaliation and reprisal that characterized the War of Independence.” In the Peloponnese, according to Frary, the Greek insurrection erupted under the leadership of the Orthodox hierarchy. Then he adds that on the feast of the Annunciation, “Archbishop Germanos raised a banner with the cross on it at the Monastery of Agia Lavra and led a group of armed rebels to Patras, singing psalms and promising salvation to those who fall in battle against the Muslims.”       

He cites George Finlay’s A History of Greece, vol 4, page 145 and Charles Frazee’s The Orthodox Church and Independent Greece, to support his assertion. The reference to Finlay is wrong but one can find it in volume 6. Finlay states that the opinion that the revolution was proclaimed at Aghia Lavra is not correct. He writes of the legend of the start of the revolution that has been assumed to be historical. It clearly is not and I have no idea why Frary relies for support from an author who holds the opposite view. I have not been able to check the reference to Frazee.  

The publication of The Greek Revolution coincides with the 200th anniversary of the spontaneous uprising in the Peloponnese in March of 1821. The celebration of the anniversary was planned for years and numerous books have been published in Greece and elsewhere to mark the occasion. The coronavirus pandemic threw a huge monkey wrench in(to?) the preparations, but it did not go unnoticed. All parades and celebratory events were cancelled except for one in Athens. It was a stunning event televised around the world.

The blue and white colours of Greece could be seen around the world and Greeks everywhere looked with pride at the international bow to the motherland.  The Greek Revolution has two chapters on previous anniversaries with a glance at the 200th. The chapters were written before the 2021 anniversary but also before the current pandemic ruined everything. Anniversaries are statements about the the people’s view of the past and are a reflection of the national psyche of the present. Patriotism is a fundamental element of almost all Greeks and even more acutely felt in Greeks of the Diaspora. For that reason  I shall comment extensively on the essays about Anniversaries.

Professor Gonda Van Steen, the Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature and the Director of the Centre for Hellenic Studies at King’s College London, has a fascinating chapter on Anniversaries and writes about the 50th, 100th and 150th anniversaries of the breakout of the Revolution. Each observance was significantly different from the others and says a great deal about the state of the Greek nation at the time.

March 25th was adopted as the date of the commencement of the revolution in 1838 to coincide with an event that never happened (the imaginary start of the revolution at Kalavryta with Archbishop Germanos) and the religious holiday of The Annunciation of the Virgin Mary. She quotes Professor Thomas Gallant as expressing the ideology of the 1871 jubilee as “the wedding of Orthodoxy to the Revolution.”

She writes that statues were erected of Rhigas Feraios Patriarch Gregory V and Adamantios Koraes representing a fusion of antiquity, Byzantinism and the modern era. The Patriarch condemned and excommunicated the revolutionaries in the strongest language, but it was not enough for the Turks who hanged him anyway. Fifty years after the event the Greek nation went into partnership with the church and recognized its nation-building even if it meant relying on some unhistorical events.

In 1871, Van Steen tells us, the new nation espoused the patriotic and expansionist ambition of the Great Idea (Megali Idea) and a people who were heirs of the continuation of classical and Byzantine civilization.

The 100th anniversary in 1921 took place as the occupation of Smyrna by Greece began to unravel. It was a muted affair, according to Van Steen, but Eleftherios Venizelos, who had instigated the Asia Minor adventure, turned the anniversary into “the Venizelist production of the leader’s personal triumph” that “marked the public euphoria about the Greeks’ military, territorial and diplomatic gains.” Venizelos had been voted out of office in November 1920.

In March 1921 the result of the Asia Minor war was unknown and hopes were high that there would be glorious victories and the regaining of land in Turkey including Constantinople. The big celebrations were therefore postponed to 1930, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Geek nation. By then what became known as the Asia Minor Catastrophe had occurred, Greece was humiliated, refugees had flooded the country and the patriotic ambitions of the Great Idea were dead and buried.

The 150th anniversary in 1971 was celebrated during the military dictatorship of the junta (1967-1974). It was a “celebration” of Greece’s military power with great emphasis on patriotism, as usual, but the key element was sacrifice for the motherland, war on communists and communism and a perversion of history to suit junta’s ideology. It all depended on how history was taught and viewed. The junta and its view of Greek history had its detractors, but it also had supporters in all walks of Greek life.

In the final chapter, Symbolic Commemorations and Cultural Affiliations, Professor Tsoukalas takes a synoptic view of The Greek War of Independence in its political and cultural aspects in early 19th century Europe and projects them to the then upcoming 200th anniversary. He notes that Greece is enduring through an unprecedent deep crisis and “its future is hanging by a thin thread” and, he states, historical circumstances are conspiring to deprive Greeks of celebrating the 200th anniversary. He is referring to the economic crisis of the last ten years and attaches no blame on Greece. It is a European affair. True but within the European affair Greece gained the status in the acronym PIGS which is made up of the initials of the worst-run European countries.  The financial crisis may have been exacerbated by currents beyond its control, but the huge loans incurred by successive Greek governments were hardly the fault of others.

Be that as it may Tsoukalas casts a long-range view of the political and cultural context of the revolution and expresses the hope that for Greece the crisis may prove to be cathartic. He sees a moral debt to Greece by Europe not just for the classical past but for the significant contribution to 19th century experience through the revolution and the cultural effects of Philhellenism. It is a grand vision but then came the coronavirus, Covid-19 and the devastating pandemic. Tsoukalas’s vision is worth pursuing and The Greek Revolution provides information, controversy, and enough food for thought to sustain us for a long time. But, unfortunately, for most of us, not until the next big anniversary. But we will be here for the 201st   and will catch up on what we did not do for the 200th.