The year 2021 was meant to be special for Greece: an opportunity to celebrate the bicentenary of the outbreak of the Greek War of Independence in 1821, which led to the birth of modern Greece. It was also supposed to be an occasion to mark the country’s slow and painful, yet also real and tangible, emergence from a vicious and protracted economic crisis that had brought it to its knees. The festivities were to be orchestrated by Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskalaki, the woman who single-handedly brought the Olympic Games to Athens in 2004 and ran them successfully, to general acclaim. Alas, it was not to be. The coronavirus thwarted Greece’s grand plans.
This unfortunate intervention might have been a blessing in disguise – and not because national celebrations belong to the past. As long as nation-states continue to exist, they will naturally want to commemorate these milestones. In the case of Greece, the bicentenary of the country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire is indeed a special occasion. After all, the Greek Revolution, as the War of Independence is known in Greece, marked the birth of the first new nation-state to emerge from the multinational empires that dominated Europe in the 19th century and the only Greek nation-state that has ever existed. There might have been Greek city-states in antiquity and Greek empires and kingdoms during the Middle Ages, but the Greek nation-state is a thoroughly modern creation.
Why, then, a blessing in disguise? For one thing, the centenary celebrations, in 1921, preceded by just a year one of the greatest calamities suffered by the country: Greece’s defeat by Turkey in Asia Minor, which led to the forcible displacement of about 1.5 million Anatolian Greeks from their homes. Superstitious I am not, but this is not the best precedent. Furthermore, these celebrations always risk sliding into kitschy folklore territory. And there is considerable folklore surrounding the Greek Revolution, as every Greek knows all too well from their days at school and the annual festivities marking it, with their endless cast of mustachioed characters wearing flowing fustanellas, the traditional kilt-like garment that was worn by many of the fighters.
Obviously, elementary schools traffic in grossly simplified history, but the result can be counterproductive. I still can’t escape the feeling of deadly ennui brought about by these school festivities. But that’s not all. A bigger problem with national histories is their inclination to tell the story exclusively from the perspective of its outcome: they project motivations and intentions backwards in a way that erases nuance and distorts the past to fit the present.
The alternative requires unearthing and grappling with a messy web of astonishing complexity, which is why academic history, which involves close attention to detail and all too often requires jargon, fails as public history. So how are we to extract a compelling story out of this morass? This is precisely Mark Mazower’s greatest skill. Although best known for his ‘global history’ oeuvre, notably Dark Continent (1998) and Hitler’s Empire (2008), Mazower excels when he turns to Greece, whether in his early Inside Hitler’s Greece (1993), Salonica, City of Ghosts (2004) or now The Greek Revolution, an instant classic if ever there was one.
But how does he do it so well? I sense three key elements. The first consists of his Stakhanovite capacity to mine an enormous, if exceedingly narrow and often antiquarian, body of Greek scholarship. He is thus able to muster a great deal of material and use it to turn the Greek Revolution from a simplistic, two-dimensional story into a vast colourful fresco populated by a cast of characters that is astonishing in its diversity. The emphasis is obviously on the Greeks, but who were the Greeks back then in the first place? The reader encounters Etairists, revolutionary activists pushing the most radical ideas of the time, living (while also constantly travelling) mostly in Russia and central Europe; Phanariots, highly placed Greek bureaucrats and princes governing Christian Ottoman lands on the Danube, many of whom switched allegiances to Russia as the Ottoman Empire declined; Orthodox clergy in all shapes and forms, from true renaissance men to reactionary fundamentalists; intellectuals closely linked to the leading lights of liberalism in America and Britain; cunning and double-dealing local notables in the Peloponnese with extensive clans and private armies; wealthy Aegean shipowners, often indistinguishable from pirates; and all sorts of warlords and chieftains, including outlaws (klefts) and semi-independent militiamen (armatoles) on the payroll of various pashas, constantly scheming and backstabbing. And that’s not to mention the bulk of the ‘people’, illiterate peasants who suffered the most during the war and had little understanding of either local or high politics, but without whom the revolution would have been impossible. And as is usually the case, the revolution forged a people out of this heterogeneous cast, or at least from those who survived this violent ordeal.
There is also an equally diverse set of non-Greek characters: Ottoman generals (surprisingly often of Georgian origin), Egyptian counterinsurgents trained by French veterans of the Napoleonic armies, Albanian warlords, foreign fighters flocking to the Greek cause from all over Europe and various adventure-seekers, including the most famous of all, Lord Byron, an influencer avant la lettre, whose death in an obscure and pestilential corner of western Greece galvanised European public opinion.
How to build a story out of this unbelievable mosaic? Here comes the second element in Mazower’s skill set: he delivers all the vibrant and pulsating details, yet never gets overwhelmed by them. Writing with absolute command, poise and assurance, he tells the fascinating story of an essentially failed insurgency that ended up an improbable triumph thanks to an unbelievable series of twists and turns – the kind of totally improbable success that once achieved appears natural and preordained.
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Although a highly skilled narrator, Mazower is no mere storyteller. His tale hides a subtle yet sharp and insightful sociological interpretation of these events. Essentially, the Greek uprising embodied the start of a momentous global shift: the transformation of Europe into a system of nation-states. Going deeper, we can also see how tradition clashed with modernity, and how a new synthesis emerged out of it. There is also an interesting duality here: on the one hand, we witness the incredible spread of nationalism, an ideology that captivated the hearts and minds of the most progressive people of the time; on the other, we observe the rise of internationalist humanitarianism. After all, the Greek Revolution succeeded to a great extent thanks to the first international humanitarian intervention in modern European history.
I am tempted to say that there is an even bolder story hiding in there. Reading The Greek Revolution, I couldn’t stop thinking that modern Greece is, in a way, a kind of trailblazer for the postcolonial world. The Greek Revolution offers a very early glimpse of a trajectory that came to the fore after the end of the Second World War, when new states emerged out of the European colonial empires. Yet the imperial overlord against whom the Greeks revolted was not a European empire but a Muslim one. This raises a tantalising question: what if the predicament facing postcolonial states – the mixture of noble intentions and sordid realities, lofty pronouncements and disappointing realities – is less closely tied to the West than is commonly thought? What if it were instead an instance of the vexing and complicated clash between tradition and modernity that Mark Mazower depicts in such a compelling way?