Saturday, May 7, 2022

Mark Mazower, "The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe"

The Book

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. 

Empires and Nation States

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.


David said...

This is an excellent review, and as strong an argument in favor of nationalism as I can imagine. Not surprisingly, it doesn't change my basically anti-nationalist position. I could make lots of arguments in favor of my position, but those would not respond directly to this cogent and masterfully-written essay. I would make three points, however, to respond directly.

1) I think one should be cautious about using arguments like "they lived it and knew better than we ever could, so we have to trust their judgment." For one thing, it has some aspects of what Robert Lifton called a "thought-terminating cliche." You may not intend this, but it has a quality of being aimed at shutting down discussion. For another, it's very easy to find counter-examples of people who lived it and came up with opposite arguments, without being simply corruptly self-interested. I think it may be Mazower in Dark Continent, or maybe Christopher Clark in Sleepwalkers, who cites an article in which an ex-nationalist from one of the former Habsburg lands looks back in 1946 with a certain amount of nostalgia for the old imperial cosmopolitanism (as one might well do in 1946). One may also cite Joseph Roth.

2) Many historians have argued, for a while now, that the spirit of nationalism changes in Europe in the later nineteenth century. It becomes more aggressively exclusionary, more interested in building its own empires of one sort or another (consider both the Greek "Megali Idea" and Greater Serbia), more paranoid, and in many cases, specifically more anti-semitic and racist. In this sense, the relatively idealistic and optimistic spirit of 1820s nationalism is one thing, and the grim stuff abroad in the 1890s quite another. What happened to the Armenians and the Jews in the 20th century comes out of this later nationalism, not from the old multi-ethnic empires. Mazower's Salonica: City of Ghosts emphasizes this later period, and imparts a very different view of nationalism.

3) Nationalism and empires are being debated today only partly because of the leftist arguments you cite questioning the Constitution, etc. To me, a much greater issue is the white-Christian-accented, America First nationalism of the Right. That's what frightens me when people say that nationalism isn't such a bad thing.

David said...

(Obviously John's review was not about my position or aimed at changing it. I'm just a reader here. By my position not being changed, I only mean, "for what that's worth.")

David said...

And let us all intone once again a majestic hymn calling for an edit function on Blogger.

John said...

I have the same sense that nationalism changed to something else in the 20th century; the far end of that development was fascism and the Nazis. I did say that the fact of World War II calls into question the optimistic nationalism of the 1820s.

I was just very impressed that all of those figures, from Jefferson to Byron to Kapodistrias to Chateaubriand, all felt that multi-national empires were moral disasters and national states the only solution.

David said...

It is a historically striking and important fact that all these intellectuals thought in that way. A historical analysis of the rise of nationalism would have to take them into account. This says nothing about how one should react to them morally and philosophically--that is, whether one should say their analysis of what Europe needed was right. In the latter sense, I feel quite comfortable saying they were largely wrong. To me, the European events since, say, 1870 that were driven by nationalism are absolutely worse than the crimes, admittedly many, of the old multinational empires. I can't see Srebrenica as simply an unfortunate byway on a basically sound road.

It may be that the only peace humans can have is the peace of homogenization. But if that is true, I see it as a sad and regrettable necessity, not something to cheer about.

One might add that, in the Greek revolution sense of nationalism, the US Constitution is arguably a very anti-nationalist document. It has at least come to be seen as imposing a regime that is supposed to have no ethnic identification whatever. To me that is one of its great achievements.

G. Verloren said...

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.

The views are flatly not contradictory, because the two different kinds of colonies were extraordinarily different from one another.

There is a world of difference between a society that is composed almost entirely of settlers (many or most of them originating from the overlord's nation and matching its religion and culture), and one that is composed almost entirely of indigenous peoples ruled over by a minority elite of totally foreign culture and religion (exhibiting an overwhelming degree of racism and dehumanization in the process). The British Empire had very different degrees of acceptance and respect for it's different subjects, and treated their American colonies FAR better than the ones in Africa (or elsewhere).

And that's to say nothing of the simple fact of consent - America was colonized by willing settlers, not forcibly subjugated by an outside power.

As I understand it, people argue that the American colonies ought not to have sought independence because in doing so they perpetuated extreme injustices that would have otherwise been brought to an end - most notably, the practice of slavery being extended for an entire generation after it was abolished in the British Empire, and the necessitating of a brutal civil war to bring an end to it.

Likewise, they argue that the African colonies should have sought independence because in doing so they brought about the end of extreme injustices that would have otherwise been perpetuated.

You can certainly fault such positions as being too reliant on hindsight after the fact and falsely assuming that people at the time could accurately predict the ultimate consequences of their choices - but you can't simply dismiss the opposing views as simply being contradictory or being the product of "obsession with race".

G. Verloren said...

Oh, a point I forgot to address...

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.

African independence at least achieved respect for majorityrights. The United States did not have to win majority rights for its citizens - they already were the majority.

In effect, all you've done is highlight how little the US has actually accomplished regarding securing rights for anyone at all. Neither the United States nor Nigeria have achieved respect for minority rights, but Nigeria at least managed to secure majority rights by overthrowing their minority subjugator - something the US did not do, because it did not need to do so.

G. Verloren said...

I was just very impressed that all of those figures, from Jefferson to Byron to Kapodistrias to Chateaubriand, all felt that multi-national empires were moral disasters and national states the only solution.

...except all of those figures only knew multi-ethnic societies that relied entirely upon a repressive ruling ethnicity lording over the others to function.

Nationalism absolutely makes sense when seen as an alternative to the brutality of Imperialism - if every ethnicity has its own state, then in theory there cannot be the injustice of empires built on conquest and ruling over others by force. But the reality of the world is that peoples and cultures do not exist in discrete locations without other ethnic minorities present, and you can't ever feasibly have a pure ethnic "nation". Even if you did, Nationalism offers no protection against the resurgence of Empire - larger ethnic "nations" will always be tempted to conquer and subjugate their smaller neighbors by force, unless there is some pressure not to do so.

That's where a society built on ethnic pluralism, rather than ethnic hierarchy, is superior. In a society where the law protects all ethnicities equally (and where no one ethnicity is strong enough to realistically subvert the law and forcibly establish a hierarchy), you have an effective block against Imperialism arising - even if other countries are NOT pluralistic.

But, such legally pluralistic nations didn't exist at the time of the figures you point to, and thus they quite naturally didn't conceive of the notion or its advantages.