How the Greek Revolution of 1821 Led to the Global System of Nation-States

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By Alan Mikhail

1821 and the Making of Modern Europe
By Mark Mazower

Historians love anniversaries, especially centenaries. Leaning on the calendar to argue for the relevance of something they know well, scholars usually get only one chance to write about a centenary. But seductive as it is, the anniversary book can often misconstrue the complicated mess of a life, a place, an intricate history.

If anyone can navigate these potential pitfalls, it is the Columbia historian Mark Mazower, who began his career as a historian of Greece and the Balkans and has since ventured far beyond to write increasingly ambitious and truly seminal works on the history of the United Nations and the idea of internationalism. His latest book, “The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe,” represents the perfect union of these two poles of his career — a largely internationalist history of what is often seen as a local event.

“Not so much a single war as a set of interconnected regional conflicts,” Mazower writes, the Greek Revolution (or the Greek War of Independence, as many Greeks prefer it) began in the conversations of learned societies and among a clandestine network of Greek religious revolutionaries known as the Filiki Etaireia (Friendly Society). Together they spawned an armed conflict that eventually won autonomy for pockets of territory from the centuries-old Ottoman Empire. With a pulsating narrative — dizzying for some perhaps, not enough for others — Mazower’s book sends us scrambling up mountain ascents, slogging down into the valleys and paddling onto craggy island coasts as Greeks of all stripes, mercenaries and commoners, nuns and priests, fought for “freedom or death” against a depleted Ottoman Army. After six years, in 1827, the Battle of Navarino assured a Greek victory. The intricacies Mazower presents are gripping, the details compelling and harrowing: hungry townspeople frying dogs in olive oil; the meaning of the mustache in revolutionary aesthetics; the existence of a mosque in the Parthenon.

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    Mazower devotes significant attention as well to the often lofty meanings others invested in the Greek struggle, in particular the crucial idea of the post-Napoleonic nation-state. The French writer Louise Belloc described “Bonaparte and the Greeks” as the 19th century’s twin heroes, each in their own way cementing the territorial state as the ultimate repository for the sovereign rights of ethno-linguistic nations. Tapping into the traditional adoration of ancient Greece, philhellenic Europeans argued for the classicism of the revolutionary goals of independence and the emerging international order. Support for the Greeks became a way to raise questions about some of the pressing moral and political issues of the day: humanitarian intervention, slavery and abolition, the concept of Europe, the relationship between land and capitalism, population resettlement and the place of the press in a free society. Mazower productively plucks from the outpouring of writing about the Greeks and their fight — from European and American newspapers to the weightier texts of writers like Alexandre Dumas, the Shelleys and, of course, Lord Byron.

    This thick book is a long journey, rich with social history and the luminaries of the age. It is hard to imagine it being surpassed any time soon as the definitive English-language account of the Greek Revolution.

    Still, it leaves much unsaid. Offering a history of the Greek Revolution without a deep accounting of the Ottoman imperial system — its role in producing the revolution and its reactions to it — is a significant omission (and never mind the fact that many Greeks remained in the Ottoman Empire after Greek independence). In Mazower’s story, as in so many others of the Greek Revolution, the Ottoman Turks appear one-dimensional, presented mostly as perpetrators. To be sure, Mazower is attentive enough to occasionally show them as victims too. But along with the Greeks, Albanians, Arabs, Serbs and many others, the Turks were major creators of a system that produced centuries of intercultural coexistence. Violence, discrimination and oppression were no doubt part of that history, but so were exchange, synthesis and peace. Mazower acknowledges this, but perfunctorily.

    In the end, “The Greek Revolution” causes us to think more deeply about the role of the nation-state in a global context. This history of the revolution aims to be, in Mazower’s words, “inclusionary not exclusionary.” As he relates it from a pandemic-ravaged New York terrorized by fear and death, he watched a “remarkably resilient” and seemingly socially cohesive Greece enforce a lockdown at the same time that the United States fumbled. Against threats of polarization and social fragmentation, a national collective of trusting citizens proved able to confront contemporary challenges, as it had a debt crisis over a decade ago and an empire two centuries before.

    In the face of migration, financial collapse, right-wing populism and now the pandemic, many argue that the nation-state, whatever its failings and limitations, remains our best formula for international order. But if it has succeeded in overcoming some divisions, it has also created new ones. In the case of contemporary Greece, the nation excises much of its Ottoman and Muslim past and generally views Islam negatively, whether in the form of Turkey or Afghan refugees.

    The Greek Revolution arose at the very moment of the nation-state’s initial articulation and validated it over any other political form, especially empire. It inspired William Lloyd Garrison and Alexander Pushkin to write about it then and has led one of the world’s foremost historians to write about it today. Anniversaries aside, this book spurs us to think critically about the concomitant births of Greece and the nation-state. In so doing, it encourages us to ask serious questions of both.

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