Mark Mazower is one of my favorite writers on modern history, and I have long been curious about the Greek Revolution of the 1820s. So when I discovered that Mazower had recently (2020) written a book about the revolution I bought an audio copy and immediately began listening. Since I have had some fieldwork lately and other reasons to do a lot of driving, I finished it quickly. I loved it.
Modern Greece has a claim to being the first ethnic, national state to free itself from a multi-national empire, the forerunner of Poland, Serbia, Hungary, and all the rest. This gives its story a resonance beyond the rather small confines of the Greek lands. It also saw the rise of other parts of the modern order, including the humanitarian NGO and the humanitarian military intervention. The story is crazy, full of twists, turns, and improbable events, besides destruction and bloodshed of diverse kinds, from bandit raids to the last great Napoleonic naval battle.
In 1820 the Greek lands were part of the Ottoman Empire, a vast, multi-ethnic state. Greeks lived across the empire; there were large Greek-speaking communities in Egypt, Syria, Cyprus, coastal Asia Minor, and even in the imperial capital of Istanbul. Many Greeks also lived in southern Russia, an area conquered by the Tsars from the Ottomans in the 1700s; in fact the conspiratorial organization that launched the revolution, the Filiki Eteria, was founded in Odessa. But the Greeks were a large majority of the people in the islands of the Aegean Sea and in much of what is now mainland Greece, especially the Peloponnese.
The Eteria was founded by intellectuals who believed in the people, democracy, human rights, the whole program of the political enlightenment. They were able to launch their revolt because many Greeks hated the Turks and hated being ruled by Muslims. The revolution's first leaders soon discovered, though, that most Greeks were not liberals. Greek communities were dominated by landed magnates and wealthy shipowners who were doing pretty well under the Ottoman system and were not interested in surrendering their power to some theoretical Greek nation. Meanwhile most Greek fighting men served local warlords who were also an established part of the Ottoman system, and whose usual methods included constantly negotiating with all sides of any conflict and switching to the one that seemed to be winning. They also assumed that they would pay their men largely out of booty. It was not a promising situation for the founding of a modern nation-state, and indeed it took seven years of warfare and eventual foreign intervention to secure the Greek nation.
Consider just one story: the siege of Tripolitsa, Ottoman capital of the Peloponnese. Early in the war the town was surrounded and loosely besieged by Greek bands, each led by its own Kapitan, with nobody in overall command. The soldiers saw no reason to go within musket range of the town, they just camped in the surrounding hills and intercepted supply trains. This would eventually have starved the town into submission. Except that some soldiers were selling food to the people inside, often the very food they had seized from supply trains, demanding ever higher prices as the siege dragged on. Half the soldiers in the town were Albanians, and they cut a deal with some of the Kapitans to leave unmolested, waving goodbye to the people they were supposed to protect and heading home. Meanwhile the wealthy people in the town reached out to various Kapitans to negotiate ransom deals for their families. As this went on the ordinary soldiers realized that if they waited for all of the rich townsfolk and Ottoman officials to cut ransom deals, there would be nothing left for them to loot when the town fell. So they grew impatient, and frequent fights broken out among them. Eventually some soldiers went down to the walls, saying they had food to sell; once they had been lifted onto the walls they killed the people who had pulled them up and opened the gates. Soldiers rushed in and began killing, raping and looting. Seeing what was happening the Kapitans rushed in to find the rich folks they had promised to ransom, and the rich folks desperately sought to make contact with the right Kapitan before the other soldiers killed and robbed them. Eventually most of the Ottoman notables and rich merchants were ransomed and sent on their way, but hundreds of ordinary people were slaughtered. The soldiers also sought out and killed one particularly hated Ottoman judge and also the town's leading Orthodox cleric, who was considered a sellout and a traitor. One third of the booty was supposed to be reserved for the national treasury, but somehow the government got nothing.
If you are curious how a nation emerged from such anarchic barbarism, read Mazower. He is a terrific writer and the story is amazing. One thing about Mazower's writing: he is a master of the concluding sentence. Every chapter ends with a crisp, perfect sentence that sums up the story so far and alludes to what is to come. Plus, you never read what sounds like a conclusion only to have more and more words follow on.
The Greek Revolution was part of the story of modern nationalism. Its leaders believed that the world was divided into Peoples, and that each People should have its own Nation where it would rule itself. Ideally it would rule itself democratically, but if not, at least the dictators wouldn't be foreigners. The problem with applying this thinking to the Greece of 1820 was that there were a lot of non-Greeks in the Greek lands. Mainly these were Albanians and Turks, but there were others. What would happen to the non-Greeks in the Greek nation? Essentially, they could either leave or die. Some were offered a choice, but mostly the choice was made for them. It should be said that this happened during a bitter war with many atrocities on both sides, and also that Turks had been massacring Greeks for centuries. But many European volunteers who came to fight for Greece were shocked by the casual killing of Muslims and the sacking and burning of mosques, and some went home believing the whole thing had been a terrible mistake.
I am thinking about this, of course, because of all the issues surrounding ethnicity and nationhood in our own time. In the 21st century some of us have decided that democracy is a secondary matter compared to the just treatment of people with every possible identity. The story of liberal Nations, of Peoples ruling themselves, of the development of Constitutions and Democracy, no longer seems compelling to many of us. In our time American history is not about a People learning to rule themselves, but the creation of a People by slaughtering Indians and enslaving Africans. Many of us think it is downright wicked to praise the adoption of a Constitution that endorsed slavery and promoted a war of conquest across the continent. Some Americans now think the Revolution was a mistake and the US should have remained part of the British Empire.
Thinking about the Greek Revolution may shed a little light on this. First, while rulers like Ottoman sultans and Austrian emperors did generally try to be just to all their subjects, at least as they saw it, they failed. By our standards the government of all those empires was corrupt, cruel, capricious and not very effective. A certain level of ethnic conflict was the norm, including not just bloody riots and bandit raids but battles and sieges. To stay in power emperors had to make deals with local elites, lending them soldiers to put down unruly peasants. Collective punishment was the rule; when the sultan or emperor thought there was too much banditry in some region, or too much resistance to tax collection, he would send an army to burn, loot and murder at random until his subjects saw the error of their ways. To Europeans of the 1820s, the only way out of this ancient system was the nation state. Only a People forming a Nation with a Constitution and the Rule of Law could put an end to government by pogroms, armed expeditions, and corrupt deals that always sold out the weak.
I suspect they were right. I suspect that there was no way to reform the multi-ethnic empires into modern states. I suspect that the route of the nation state was the only way forward into our world of representative government, rights, laws, dignity, and safety. Which means that the sacrifice of minority rights, the mass ethnic cleansing of populations, and the militant excesses of nationalism were a necessary step toward our world. Certainly, as I said, nobody in the nineteenth century saw any other real alternative.
Consider what happened to the Armenians, who were not able to escape from Turkish rule and establish their own state. Or the Kurds. Or the Jews.
I have noticed that none of the people who think the US should have remained part of the British Empire think that African nations should have remained part of the British Empire. People can hold these contradictory views, I think, because they are obsessed with race, but anyway I can't see why independence for Nigeria and independence for the United States are such different causes, and it is certainly not true that African independence has led to respect for minority rights. But if Africa is ever to become a place where minority rights are respected and political conflict is handled mostly by peaceful elections, it will happen through the nation state.
The most famous European to join the Greek cause was Lord Byron. Byron had already spent time in the Ottoman lands, and he was not at all shocked by the behavior of Greek soldiers. They were, he understood, part of a system that taught men to act like that. The only way to change their behavior was to change the world they lived in. Byron thought that independence, the creation of a nation, was the first step toward raising people who do not think it is normal to immediately slaughter the families of soldiers you defeat. I do not know if that is true; we had World War II, after all. But people like Byron knew the world of those empires better than we ever can, and they thought the empires were an evil that had to be eliminated before a better form of human life could emerge. I read every day now that this is the problem with Russia, that it is still an empire of the old form, with all the horrors that implies.
Every sort of state, every form of society, has its own sins and its own injustices. The Greek Revolution was part of the process by which much of the world left behind the age of vast, multi-ethnic empires for the age of nation states. Obviously that did not solve all of our problems, but I think to imagine that the change made things worse is a mistake.