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The Greeks’ bitter fight for freedom

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

15 January 2022

9:00 AM

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

Allen Lane, pp.608, 30

Last year was the 200th anniversary of the outbreak of the war of Greek independence in March 1821. It has been celebrated by a flood of books and events, a particularly instructive exhibition at the Benaki Museum in Athens and this gruesome page-turner. Mark Mazower, professor of history at Columbia University and the author of many books on modern Greece, stresses the passion for freedom, exceptional stamina and heroism which helped Greeks establish an independent state between 1821 and 1830.

Greeks had long felt oppressed as subjects of the Ottoman empire. One of them called it ‘a tyranny so frightful… neither equal nor comparable to any other and so unjust’. After 1814, many even of the favoured ‘Phanariot’ Greeks, who helped run Ottoman foreign policy and the two principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in what is now Romania, joined a secret society dedicated to independence called the Philiki Etaireia, or Friendly Society. Its motto was ‘Freedom or Death’, its badge a skull and crossbones beneath a cross. One British consul observed that Ottoman power might dissolve ‘more suddenly than is generally imagined’.

The leader of the Etaireia from April 1820 was Prince Alexander Ypsilanti, an ADC of Tsar Alexander I, described as ‘a noble soul full of warmth’. Russia was a crucial support. Ypsilanti arrived in late 1820 in Odessa, the cosmopolitan Black Sea port where, Pushkin wrote, ‘everything breathes Europe’. It contained many Greeks, and the governor, a sympathetic French émigré called the Comte de Langeron, allowed this Russian city to become their training ground. On 22 February 1821 Ypsilanti crossed the Russian-Ottoman frontier at the head of a small band of troops, starting what Mazower calls ‘Europe’s first successful national revolution’ (the Dutch who revolted against Spanish rule after 1572 might contest this primacy).


Alexander I had long encouraged Greek dreams of ‘resurrection’, but through trade and education, not revolt. Having just won a titanic war against Napoleon, he had no desire for another. His foreign minister Count Capodistria, a Greek patriot from Corfu, also officially opposed the revolt. Mazower, however, writes that Capodistria warned the conspirators not to begin until Russia declared war on Turkey: in other words, he knew about what he later called their ‘disgraceful and culpable actions’. Perhaps he supported two policies at once, hedging his bets in order to serve both his Russian career and his Greek patriotism until he knew which way the Tsar would turn.

The Etaireists went ahead, claiming the Tsar’s support. But Ypsilanti’s forces were defeated and his troops dispersed; he himself disappeared for seven years into an Austrian prison. Encouraged, however, by Ypsilanti’s younger brother Dimitri, the Greeks of the Peloponnese took up the ‘flame of freedom’ — their revolt’s timing favoured by the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II’s war against Ali Pasha (whom Byron described as the mildest-mannered man that ever slit a throat). The governor of most of Albania, Ali Pasha was trying to create an Albanian state for his own dynasty, and to fight him Ottoman troops left precisely that area — the Peloponnese — where Greeks were most ready to revolt.

The Greek revolution, according to one contemporary, ‘began with lies and ended with lies and the lies are still all around us’. Death, too, was ‘all around us’. One Greek ordered all Muslims in a village to be killed and their mosque burnt — ‘otherwise… we and the nation are lost’. ‘We were a lot of cannibals,’ wrote the Peloponnese chieftain Makriyannis.

As many Greeks had warned, their revolution destroyed Greek as well as Turkish lives. An army led by Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt waged a retaliatory war of extermination in the Peloponnese in 1826-7, uprooting olive trees, burning villages, forcibly converting the people to Islam and mutilating those Greeks they did not enslave. Corinth was reduced to rubble; Nauplia was looted three times; villagers were obliged to eat grass, and ‘grisly cargoes’ of salted heads and ears were sent as trophies to the sultan. Other nations emerging from Ottoman rule such as Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania would enjoy a later, less rapid but also less lethal route to independence.

Horrified by the success of Ibrahim Pasha’s campaign, European powers finally united to help the Greek cause. At the battle of Navarino on 20 October 1827, the Ottoman and Egyptian fleets were annihilated by the combined British, French and Russian fleets. The ‘concert of Europe’ imposed as the ruler of semi-republican Greece Prince Otto of Bavaria, a younger son of the great Philhellene King Ludwig I. The first new government building in Athens would be an enormous royal palace, a triumphant symbol of European monarchy (now home of the Greek parliament), built with Bavarian money.

Compelling and disturbing, enriched by many new sources and excellent colour illustrations, and paying attention to the role of Ottomans and Albanians as well as Greeks, Mazower’s book will become the standard account of this crucial revolution.

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