Book review: “The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe” by Mark Mazower

I took a historical meander this week with The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe by Mark Mazower. The book occupies a period in time that — at least for me — draws a complete blank. In high school history courses, you hear some of the goings-on in Europe right up until 1776 (or maybe 1812). But then Europe may as well fall off the map until World War I. I remember being astonished that Beethoven was a contemporary of John Adams. I had no idea how the Europe kings and queens connected to the Europe of today. This book isn’t necessarily a cure-all on that front, but it definitely claims a lot: Greece was the start of the making of modern Europe?

I have actually read a few books that touch on the story of Greece at least a little bit. A read a history of the Orthodox Church a few years ago that shed some light on the religious background of Greece. I read a history of the world from the perspective of Islam in Destiny Disrupted. As Greece spent several centuries as a part of the Ottoman Empire, that’s kind of an important detail in why Greece is what it is today. And Greece played a role in one of my favorite shows on Netflix these days, The Crown. Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth’s husband, is from the Greek royal family, and that plays into some of the events of the show.

Mazower started writing the book on the Greek revolution back during the Greek financial crisis. I wasn’t totally aware of world events at the time, but I do remember Greece showing up in the news quite regularly. Greece was bankrupt, and Europe was having to bail them out. There were talks of austerity, whatever that meant. Mazower tells how he was asked to write a history of the revolution:

The wider role of and responsibilities of the historian in telling this story were brought home to me when the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis established a committee to oversee the impending bicentennial of the revolution and shape its commemoration. A government spokesman talked about using the celebrations to help restore pride in the country, encouraging Greeks to reconnect with their national identity… worryingly, conservatives in France had been going on for years about the need for a new national narrative that would restore pride in the country and its past, and in the French case this had turned into a kind of right-wing rationale for exclusion and excision. Historians mostly see themselves as a profession dedicated to dispelling nationalist myths, not propping them up. So when I was asked to join the committee, my initial reaction was to hesitate. But then I thought again: was it unreasonable– given the divisions that had opened up in Greece as a result of the years of austerity– to try to figure out what might bring people together in an understanding of the past that was inclusionary not exclusionary? Was that not better than acquiescing in the kind of political polarization that had torn Greece apart in the past?

I really liked these thoughtful reflections on the responsibility of history and how it relates to nationalistic movements. It sounded so very similar to issues surrounding how we tell history in the United States. It is interesting to learn how nationalism surfaces in other countries, and can perhaps help us learn about our own wave of nationalistic fervor.

So. Did I even know there was a revolution in Greece in 1821? It certainly wasn’t on my radar until I saw the book at the library. For whatever reason it is really trending right now. I had to quickly finish the book in three weeks, as someone else had it on hold! I wanted to summarize a few of the interesting tidbits I learned, as well as how Greece can be claimed to have made modern Europe:

  • After both the French and American revolutions, Europe went through a deeply conservative phase. The monarchs of the age saw the signs of the times, and they didn’t want any more republics or revolutions. So they teamed up in what is known as the Holy Alliance– the Holy Roman Empire, Russia, the Ottoman Empire and now-restored Bourbon France wanted to make sure they maintained the status quo.
  • When a small secret society of Greeks called the Etaira started rumors of a rebellion in Greece, the leaders of Europe were very much against it– even if they were fellow Christians.
  • The Greek revolution was in many ways haphazard because their were so many different interests, classes, and groups involved. It started with a small group of middle class workers and merchants who were down on hard times. Then there were intellectual Greeks living abroad, idealists, who wanted to form a republic based off the notions of liberalism of the day. There were the landed class who wanted to make sure they maintained power in the new government, there were captains and sailors turned pirates taking advantage of the chaos of the revolution, and there were local chiefs and soldiers, kapetans, who hated the idea of ceding control to a centralized government.
  • While the world leaders in Europe were very must against revolutions, the same couldn’t be said of all Europeans. Young adventurers, students and the like who supported the Greek cause were known as philhellenes. They signed up to fight for Greece. Their romantic visions of battle were usually quickly squelched when they found of the Greeks didn’t think much of them, and often ended up robbed and beaten by the time they got there.
  • The real turning point was when Lord Byron, the closest thing to a celebrity in those days, took up the Greek cause. He actually sailed to Greece to find out how they could best support on the ground, given the revolution was very much divided into factions. He ended up dying of illness in Greece, and his death ended up galvanizing popular opinion in Europe.
  • The Greek Revolution was one of the first international events driven by public opinion. Before the war, it was kings and emperors who drove world events. But now public opinion mattered a great deal. World spread in newspapers. Associations for the Greek cause were formed. And money was raised in large amounts. This was something the European aristocracy could no longer ignore.
  • The Holy Alliance eventually came around to realizing the best policy was the support the Greeks with some level of autonomy. What that actually would look like was still to be defined– a semi-autonomous region of the Ottoman Empire? The only thing off the table completely was a republic. Definitely don’t want that. Once the revolution had gone on for several years, it looked like there were only two options: let the Ottoman Empire keep massacring and enslaving Greeks, or intervene to help create the most beneficial outcome for Europe.
  • The turning point of the war ended up being quite sudden and unexpected. Britain, Russia, and France sent out a combined navy force to interrupt the Ottoman advance, but not to fight. They were to negotiate an end, but had the discretion if something came up. Well, the leader of the British, Lord Codrington, found the Ottoman’s weren’t going to just stop. So he pulled up his fleet right next to the Ottoman navy. Someone fired a few shots, and all hell broke loose. It ended up with nearly the entire Ottoman fleet destroyed. The Ottomans could no longer carry on.
  • Europe wasn’t going to let Greece just determine their own form of government. The terms of independence were a European-style monarchy. And it had to be a member of the existing network of European royalty. So a 17-year-old German prince who had nothing to do with Greece– couldn’t even speak Greek– ended up becoming the first king of Greece.

I only pointed out what I found to be the most interesting points of the narrative, but the whole thing is worth the read.

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