The significance of the 1821 Revolution for Greece and the world

The significance of the 1821 Revolution for Greece and the world

The Greek Revolution of the 1820s was the first liberal-national movement to succeed in the Old World of Europe – after the United States, more or less at the same time as the similar liberation movements in South America (between 1811 and 1825), and before every one of the new nation-states that would soon become the norm throughout Europe. The ideological groundwork had been laid, mostly by thinkers writing in French and German, during the century before. Greeks didn’t invent the nation-state. But it was in Greece and by Greeks that the experiment was first put into practice in Europe. 

The French Revolution, which began in 1789, would more famously transform the political life of the continent, perhaps of the world, in the long run. But after the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and after the Congress of Vienna had established an international order for the whole European continent in 1815, it looked very much as though the clock had been turned back to before 1789. It was the revolution in Greece, which broke out in the spring of 1821, that began to change all that. The outcome of the Greek Revolution was the pivotal point on which the whole geopolitical map of Europe tilted, away from the 18th-century model of multiethnic, autocratically ruled empires and towards the 20th-century model of the self-determination of nation-states.

The key date and the key event have often been overlooked or downplayed, even in histories of the Greek Revolution. The decisive moment came on February 3, 1830. It happened not on the battlefield or even in Greece at all, but in a dry conclave of dignitaries held at the British Foreign Office in Whitehall. On that day the foreign ministers of Great Britain, France and Russia signed a document known as the “London protocol.” It declared, for the first time: “Greece will form an independent State, and will enjoy all those rights – political, administrative, and commercial – attached to complete independence.” Greece (or “Hellas”/Ellada in Greek) was born at that moment and took its place on the political map of Europe. The revolution wasn’t yet over – because it would take another two years for all the details to be worked out, including frontiers and the system of government. But that date in February 1830 marks the turning point.

After that, the list of new European states, created on the same model, is a long one: Belgium in 1831, Germany and Italy in 1871, Serbia, Romania and Montenegro in 1878, Bulgaria in 1908, Ireland in 1922, Turkey in 1923, to say nothing of the broader redrawing of the map of the continent in the wake of the two world wars and the Cold War of the 20th century.

The simple fact of this achievement has been missed by historians of Europe, or of the world, because their focus has always been on the bigger players further north and west: France, Germany, Italy. For quite different reasons, this aspect of the Greek Revolution has not, so far as I know, been properly recognized by Greek historians either. According to the well-established historical narrative, that was consolidated by Spyridon Zambelios and Konstantinos Paparrigopoulos in the 1850s and 1860s, but goes back to the time of the Revolution, Greece was different. Greece was a special case. Historians call this approach ‘exceptionalism.” Exceptionalism isn’t unique to Greece and Greeks. Far from it, that’s the thing about exceptionalism – actually, everybody does it. The Greeks, so the story goes, had formed a nation since ancient times; the struggles of the 1820s had been about restoring that nation to its former, rightful condition – at the time and often since, Greek independence would regularly be described as the “revival,” “regeneration,” or even “resurrection” of the ancient Hellenic civilization.

But the truth is that it wasn’t a restoration at all. The Greek nation-state that we know and love today, and was created out of the Revolution of the 1820s, is like nothing that had ever existed previously, in the 3,500-year history of the Greeks, as we know it through records preserved in their language. The ancients, with their fixation on the “autonomy” of self-governing, mostly small city-states, never managed to make that leap. The Byzantine state, for all its fabled wealth, power and geographical reach, was something else again, and certainly never chose to define itself as “Hellas” or its people as “Hellenes,” as Greeks have done since 1821. The nation-state that became a reality during the 1820s and 1830s was every bit as much of a novelty for Greeks, even if you accept the argument of Greek exceptionalism, as it was for the rest of the European continent at the time.

What made the Greek Revolution truly exceptional was that from the very start, it was never a matter for Greeks alone. In the very first declaration of independence, issued by Alexandros Ypsilantis at Jassy in Moldavia on February 24 / March 8, 1821, under the headline “Fight for Faith and Fatherland,” the call went out to the “enlightened peoples of Europe,” who, “full of gratitude for the benefits bequeathed by our Ancestors to themselves, eagerly await the liberty of the Hellenes.” A month later, in Kalamata, the leader of the Maniates, Petrobey Mavromichalis, addressed this appeal, which was published in several languages:

“We invoke therefore the aid of all the civilized nations of Europe, that we may the more promptly attain to the goal of a just and sacred enterprise, reconquer our rights, and regenerate our unfortunate people.”

The revolution ultimately succeeded, after great sacrifices, because the wisest and most far-sighted of the Greek leaders during the 1820s saw the advantages of internationalizing their struggle. In this way, and through astute Greek diplomacy, the three great maritime powers of the day, Great Britain, France and Russia, became drawn into a conflict in which none of the three could afford to allow an advantage to either of the others. When the three powers agreed in the spring of 1827 to send a joint naval taskforce into the Aegean, charged with enforcing a truce between the Greek revolutionaries and the Ottoman forces ranged against them, it was no surprise that the Greeks welcomed this sign of military intervention, while the Ottomans repudiated it. The unintended consequence was the Battle of Navarino, which took place on October 8/20 that year. The combined Ottoman and Egyptian fleets were all but destroyed by the guns of the British, French and Russian warships. It was a supreme victory for Greek diplomacy – since very few Greeks even had to take part, and very few Greek lives were lost. 

From that day, the success of the Greek Revolution was assured. But of course this came at a cost: The eventual settlement had been taken out of Greek hands. It was now up to the three Great Powers to find a resolution. And so that protocol came to be signed in London, on February 3, 1830. The powers had already decided that the new state must be a monarchy, not a republic as its provisional constitution had declared. Prince Otto, the second son of the philhellene King Ludwig I of Bavaria, was named as its first king. Frontiers for the kingdom were determined at the same time. These included only the southern half of mainland Greece as it is today, and those islands closest to it in the Aegean. Neither the Greeks nor the Ottomans had any say in these decisions.

At the time and for long afterwards, even today, many Greeks have felt sore at this outcome. What had been won fell some way short of the absolute ideal of “Liberty or Death” that so many had fought and died for. On the other hand, the revolution had begun with those appeals to the conscience of Europe. And if the outcome had little to do with conscience, and everything to do with geopolitical calculation, it also firmly integrated the newly independent state into the evolving geopolitics of the continent, and indeed of the wider world. Greece is not alone, among theoretically and legally “sovereign” states, in having so often been obliged to surrender some elements of its sovereignty in return for the security of alliances with others, or for the sake of “protection” by others that are larger and stronger. In practice, in the modern world, all independent states do this, to varying degrees. This is why “America First” and Brexit have brought such havoc, and so little of the promised gains, to their respective nations.

When the future king, Prince Otto, arrived at Nafplio aboard a British warship on January 25/ February 6, 1833, to a rapturous reception on the shore, the event marked a double first: the first Greek state in all the long history of the Greeks; and the first new nation-state to follow the example of the Americas and win recognition in the Old World of Europe.

Roderick Beaton was Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London from 1988 until his retirement in 2018. He is also the author, most recently, of “Greece: Biography of a Modern Nation” (2019) and “The Greeks: A Global History” (2021).


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