As I write, it is mid-morning in Athens and fighter jets are roaring overhead. My windows rattle, the sky splinters, and out they burst, strafing the blue with lines of white. It is a celebratory deployment. Today, Greece marks 200 years since the start of the war of independence from Ottoman rule. In Syntagma (Constitution) Square, home to the Hellenic Parliament, assorted military and political bigwigs gather to celebrate. Medals gleam. The lack of crowds gives the scene an incongruous, surreal quality. Over here, the end of lockdown remains a long way off.
On TV this morning, I watched Prince Charles, who is in Athens for the occasion, stumble through a few words of Greek. Last night, he gave a speech (in English) to much acclaim. ‘As the wellspring of Western civilisation, Greece’s spirit runs through our societies and our democracies,’ he said. ‘Without her, our laws, our art, our way of life, would never have flourished as they have.’
In one sense, Charles was just mumbling the sort of platitudes he does on these sorts of occasions. But, this time, he articulated something very real. Greece (or at least its ancient iteration) is indeed the wellspring of much of our political and moral thought. But also, for many in Britain – particularly people of Charles’ generation – he articulated a view of Greece that has had a profound influence on both countries.
Philhellenism (the love of Greek culture) comes from the Greek φίλος philos ‘friend, lover’ and ἑλληνισμός hellênismos, ‘Greek’. 200 years ago, when Greeks looked to allies for their battle against the Sultan, Britain, then a world power, seemed an obvious destination. For the British, the battle between the Greeks and Ottomans was one to which they felt themselves ‘bound by every tie of religion and morals.’
The battle for Greece allowed the British to superimpose lofty and ancient ideas onto a bloody and contemporary Balkan conflict. No surprise then that it attracted scores of Britain’s most whimsical, including the poet Lord Bryon, who not only joined up to fight but sold his estate, Rochdale Manor in England, to raise money for the revolution, and ended up dying for it, succumbing to illness while campaigning.
If Byron’s contribution to the war of independence was symbolic, the same cannot be said of the Royal Navy’s. At the 1827 battle of Navarino, British forces, along with France and Russia, defeated a combined force of Ottomans and Egyptians, making a Greek victory more or less inevitable. It wasn’t solely a case of British altruism of course. London was concerned that a disintegrating Ottoman empire would be swiftly replaced with Russian dominance of the Eastern Mediterranean. Moscow had already agreed to help the Greeks (in the name of supporting their fellow Orthodox Christians against Islam) and fearing Russian dominance, London agreed a joint intervention to secure Greek freedom while still preserving, more or less, the Ottoman status quo.
If Greeks received help from abroad, they also fought ferociously in the war themselves. One of them was my ancestor Georgios Sisinis, a founding father of the modern state. Last year, I took a trip to the National Historical Museum of Greece, where in the main room his portrait hangs. Sisinis, who raised the flag of freedom at Ellis in the Peloponnese, distinguished himself in several key battles, and ended up as Speaker of the National Revolutionary Assembly.
Georgios Sisinis fought so that Greece might be free; so that it might chart its own course unmolested by great powers. Fast forward almost 200 years and once again Russia seeks to extend its power across the Balkans. Once again it meddles in Greek politics. During the financial crisis that ravaged the region throughout the last decade many feared Greece might slip from its EU orbit and crash out of the union. Several times it was made to choose, and each time, it chose the transatlantic West.
Now Greece has become a frontline state on the informational war that Russia is waging on the West. In 2018, despite facing a Russian disinformation onslaught, Athens signed the Prespa Agreement with North Macedonia, in which it dropped its objection to Skopje joining Nato and the EU. The Kremlin considers the Balkans its near abroad. It sees the prospect of Balkan states like North Macedonia joining western alliances as nothing short of political acts of war.
Britain, now free of its long EU embrace, has committed to being a guarantor of open societies. It has committed to exposing ‘the disinformation threat – especially in and around Russia’s near abroad.’ Beginning in 1821, Georgios Sisinis and many others like him partnered with the British to see off an autocratic threat and check Russian ambitions. Now, 200 years later, these threats have returned. Let us hope that old alliances will return with them, and that Greece and Britain can together face down autocracy once again.
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