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Was 1821 a Greek Revolution or a War of Independence?

Professor Mazower on War of Independence
“The Reception of Lord Byron at Missolonghi,” by Theodoros Vryzakis. Public Domain

The Greek War of Independence was the subject an online lecture co-hosted by the Consulate General of Greece in Boston and College Year in Athens last Spring.

Under the auspices of the Embassy of Greece in Washington, the world-renowned historian Mark Mazower, Professor of History at Columbia University and other prominent speakers gave a comprehensive account of the events that led to the creation of modern Greece.

Titled “Reflections on 1821- A discussion with Mark Mazower,” the webinar was in celebration of the bicentennial of the Greek War of Independence.

CYA was founded in Boston many decades ago to promote Greece as an academic destination.

Professor Mazower, along with Nicolas Prevelakis, Assistant Director of Curricular Development, Center for Hellenic Studies at Harvard University, explored how the understanding of the Greek uprising has been changed by recent scholarship.

Greek War of Independence revolution inspired other peoples

The fascinating webinar touched upon questions related to national identity, religion, ethnicity, sovereignty, and underlined the international significance of the Greek Revolution and its role in the emergence of nation-states.

The Hon. Alexandra Papadopoulou, offered the introductory remarks, stating that Mazower’s research was instrumental in explicating why the different Balkan states took such different paths to nationhood after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.

The Greek Revolution of 1821 undoubtedly served to inspire other peoples of the region in their own quest for freedom and independence, she stated. History must be analyzed constantly, she added, and every time that happens, “we must draw lessons from our past.”

This “cardinal event in Greek history,” she said, still shapes our views of the modern Greek state today.

Mazower, who has written extensively in the past about the Balkans and the Nazi occupation of Greece, is the Ira D. Wallach Professor of History at Columbia University.

His book titled “The Greek Revolution of 1821 and the Making of Modern Greece,” was published last year by Penguin.

The war of Independence lasted for many years

The most salient attribute of the Greek people is “endurance,” Mazower said in beginning his lecture, and it is being exhibited even now, in 2020-2021, as the country experiences the global coronavirus pandemic, offering him the opportunity to see that part of the Greek character through the ages.

This trait of being able to survive — despite almost overwhelming oppression and difficulty — was seen during the Revolution and is just as true today, he says.

Mazower noted that the Revolution went on much longer than anyone expected — longer than the Sultan, of course, or any European diplomats, expected. Perhaps, he added, “Even longer than many of the heroes of the Revolution expected.”

“The real clue to understanding the significance of 1821,” he declared, was the realization that it was “a question of endurance.”

“A true Revolution, not just a War of Independence”

The title of his upcoming book went through permutations, he explained, with the author having to explain why the Greek War of Independence was not “only” that, but was truly a revolution.

What happened in 1821, as he explained, was not a war because it was not “a conflict of two organized sides that had a clear beginning; and at least one of the sides, the Greek, was clearly disorganized. And in fact the whole problem of organization was the fundamental problem of the Revolution — next to survival.”

There was no “war” because there was no Greek state at the time and the entire insurrection was designed to create a new state.

“Revolution was, firstly, a term that was employed at the time, Mazower says, and it was indeed objectively a revolution as we understand it today.

“The society that came out of the conflict as of 1830 was in all fundamental respects utterly different from the society that had existed in 1820,” he declared.

And this is not just in the religious sphere, the historian added, stating that it also meant “the introduction of capitalism, the new system of law, and new kinds of cities” that sprang up. “It amounted to the introduction of a new European state. It was a revolution,” Mazower averred.

Competing visions of revolution

Still, the historian mused about exactly what the term “revolution” really meant to the average villager of the time, perhaps one living north of Nafpaktos; what would that concept have meant for him?

The first printed Greek newspapers came about during the Revolution, he related, because a number of the revolutionary leaders brought printing presses to Greece at that time.

Such tools for the dissemination of ideas had been completely unknown in the country until that time.

Broadsheets whipped up revolutionary ardor

Before the first printed newspapers, handwritten broadsheets had circulated by the Filiki Eteria — just as they had during the American Revolution, by the Sons of Liberty.

Some of them, Mazower admitted, contained “fake news,” which was “designed to whip up sentiments in favor of the insurgency.”

However, even though the broadsides did not openly use the word “revolution,” at least one of them had declared that it was time to “Make the Romeiko,” to fulfill a millenarian prophecy that the Sultan would be chased out of Greece by the Christians.

So at the start it really wasn’t a revolution in the strict sense, for a lot of these Greeks, Mazower explained. It was for the fulfillment of this prophecy.

Some fought for religion, others for Greek nationalism

If we go back to that period, Preventis noted, there must have been competing visions, competing goals, for these men about what they wanted to achieve.

Mazower explained that to the best of his knowledge none of the leaders of the Revolution ever articulated any specific territorial goals for the insurrection.

It seems obvious to us today that that would have been an objective in any insurrection today, Mazower says, to get control of land “up to a certain river,” etc. But that was not the case for the Greek revolutionaries.

Ypsilantis told his supporters “All of Greece has risen” during the Spring of 1821; “which for them” Mazower said, “included all the Balkans, even beyond the Danube River. Their vision of a pan-Balkan revolution was highly charged with a vision of Orthodoxy.”

“Competing visions” of a new Greece

Rigas Feraios’ vision of the revolution was, Mazower says, “Genuinely ecumenical, more in line with the Enlightenment. So there were competing visions” of the goals of the uprising.

For the powerful magnates of the time, it meant that they still wanted to reign over the peasants living on their lands — without having to answer to the Sultan. So the revolution had very different goals, depending on the individuals.

Peasants, for their part, wanted “not to have the landowners on their back,” Mazower explained. But in Central Greece, especially in the Morea – it was a clear-cut religious conflict between Christians against Muslims.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, a “language of the national state, of revolution, emerged at that time,” Mazower states. The establishment of the provisional administration in 1822 led to the issuing of many decrees, most of them meaningless, with no power.

Greek language led to Greece’s modern identity

But they were important, Mazower says, “because written in a sort of “new political language. And all throughout the monitions and the Greek islands the people were learning to speak this language of revolution, of independence and sovereignty.”

Both the Greek language — and hence the Greek people themselves — emerged triumphant in the use of the language in all of the documents of the Revolution.

The phrase “Ellinikotita” spread throughout the land at that time. The word, once used to refer to ancient Greeks and their paganism, it was now transformed into meaning the modern Greeks and the modern Greek state.

There was, Mazower said, a “sweeping change over the decade where the use of ‘Ellinikotita’ was normalized throughout the country.”

Europeans’ love for Ancient Greece used by Revolutionaries

Explaining the role other countries played in contributing to the Greek cause, the professor added that “It’s extraordinary how countries manage to cooperate with one another despite totally misunderstanding one another.”

One way this played out was that since the Greek revolutionaries knew from the start that there was no way they could prevail over the Sultan if they were to fight for independence all by themselves.

They needed the support of European diplomats and powers. And the way to that was through swaying European public opinion.

“The revolutionaries understood that many academics in Europe had a love affair with Ancient Greece. This was exploited from the moment that Mavromichalis marched into Kalamata in 1821”, Mazower said, prompting many Europeans to be fueled with love for the Greek people.

Although the reality of Ottoman-controlled Greece was quite different than the milieu of Ancient Greece, the sympathy for what Greece had once been led to the full support of philhellenes for the Greek Revolution.

As Mazower says, “The mark of a civilized person is to sympathize with the suffering of others elsewhere.”

War of Independence led to the triumph of nationalism

Although there was little sympathy in France because of the ravages of the French Revolution, public opinion eventually swung in their direction after the long endurance of the Greeks, transforming the national order.

This was, Mazower stated, the very first time that the great powers of England, France and Russia had been forced deal with the concept of nationalism.

So in that sense the Greeks had already won, he stated. They had avoided defeat and hung on long enough to see this sea change that had only happened as a result of their fight.

It was long enough for their triumph to serve as an inspirations for the Italians, Poles and Hungarians who also were to soon begin to fight for their freedom.

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