The flame of the Greek war of liberation

The Greek War of Independence broke out in March 1821 and was to lead to the establishment of a modern Greek state and the end to four centuries of Ottoman rule. It was a long, bitter struggle, which seemed to hang in the balance before foreign powers swayed the outcome in favor of the Greeks. David Brewer’s «Flame of Freedom: The Greek War of Independence: 1821-1833» (London, John Murray, 2001) is the first up-to-date account in English for the general reader since C.M. Woodhouse’s classic of 1952. In «The Flame of Freedom,» we see the ground being prepared by the Philiki Etairia, set up in 1814 in Odessa by three expatriates whom Brewer describes as «a hatter, a bankrupt and a recent ex-student: an improbable triumvirate to launch a national movement.» The book ends with the arrival of the young King Otto in 1833. It is a lively account, full of the detail, characters, diplomacy and scenes of battle that saw freedom spring from chaos and dejection. It also presents the seeds of many of the woes that would bedevil the young country. Below are excerpts from an interview with Brewer. Was Greek independence inexorable or did it hang by a thread at any point? I think it would have had to have come eventually. But perhaps not for many years, perhaps even decades later. But the Greek cause did indeed hang by a thread, particularly in the summer of 1827. Ibrahim had invaded the Peloponnese and was virtual master of it. Mesolongi had fallen to the Turks and the Greek garrison on the Athens Acropolis had surrendered. Navarino was still some months in the future. At almost any point in the two years following Ibrahim’s invasion in 1825, I think the cause could have been lost. And although it was allied intervention at Navarino that finally secured Greek independence, Navarino would not have been possible without Greek persistence in maintaining the struggle throughout those dark and perilous times. Did the Greeks win or did the Turks lose Greece? There were certainly many weaknesses in the Ottoman system of warfare. Rival pashas would bring separate contingents in a combined force but would never fully cooperate. The expedition of Dramali [in 1822] is a good example of this. The Ottoman Empire had its other problems. It had wars in other parts of its empire and its currency was in steep decline throughout this period, reflecting the empire’s fundamental weakness. The piastre, in fact, lost three quarters of its international value in a couple of decades. However, in spite of those weaknesses, the Egyptian element of the Ottoman forces could well have defeated the Greeks. The Egyptian forces had much more unified command under Ibrahim Pasha and they had the benefit of French military advisers and French building of warships. So the Egyptians were far more in touch with developments in Western Europe than the Ottoman Empire, this having been stimulated by Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt, which brought home to the Egyptians that they had much to learn from Western Europe. It seems that the Ottoman Empire was very much cut off from developments in Western Europe in the centuries preceding the War of Independence and, indeed, as an Islamic state was deeply distrustful of Europe’s Christian and rational approach to society’s development. Looking at Metternich and Wellington (who succeeded Canning) one wonders whether the Turks should have been that distrustful. Yes, yes, yes. They could have, perhaps, used to more effect their potential alliance with conservatives such as Metternich and Wellington, who took the view that rebellion always had to be suppressed, irrespective of the causes that had given rise to it. What were Ottoman ambassadors doing in Western Europe at the time? Turkish embassies were established in London (1793), Vienna (1794), Berlin (1795) and Paris (1796). The ambassadors themselves were Muslim – and often hated the West – but their dragomans and senior officials were usually Phanariot Greeks. (Theodoros) Negris, for example, was on his way to Paris as Ottoman representative there when he heard the news of the war and immediately went to Greece. Only the Paris Embassy seems to have continued functioning, no doubt because of Ottoman need for French military advisers. You note that there were atrocities against civilians on both sides. But did the international outrage at Turkish atrocities not play a significant role in the Ottomans’ defeat in Greece? I believe it did play a role. It was the destruction on Chios that was the most flagrant example of Turkish atrocities and it was immortalized by Delacroix in his painting of the massacres of Chios. Interestingly, it seems that Delacroix began that painting as a picture of the plague and put in a few details to transform it into a picture of Chios. He also said that he had painted the picture to draw attention to himself because Chios was in the news… By the time he came to paint his picture of the ruins of Mesolongi, painted in 1827, the picture was very specifically Greek and I feel it shows a real understanding of the Greek cause and sympathy with it. There were, of course, atrocities, even if not so extreme as that on Chios, committed by the Greeks. For example: civilians killed at Tripolis in 1821, prisoners at Mesolongi killed in cold blood before the exodus. These were unpalatable facts to Philhellenes at the time and have remained unpalatable and a sensitive issue to many Greeks today. My own feeling is that one must acknowledge the truth of what happened, of actions done by whichever side and that to idealize one side and demonize the other is seriously to distort history. Do you feel there is such a distortion of history in Greece? I think that there has been until recently such a distortion. A Greek lady was telling me recently that she had been taught about the Greek War of Independence three times during her education and each time the message was that you must learn to hate the Turks. It is a great pity if that attitude persists. Is the War of Independence idealized to a point of distortion in Greece? I believe that things are changing. If one reads Greek acounts up until, say, the 1960s or ’70s you will find many examples of that distortion. I believe that more recent work is more free from it. Were the seeds of later trouble sown – or seen – in this struggle? I think that must be true. There was the continuing economic problem in Greece because the loans could not be repaid and even the interest could not be paid and relations soured between Greece and Britain for 50 years until Gennadios negotiated the loans down to a manageable level. A further problem with roots in the War of Independence is the «Megali Idea.» There was a natural feeling after the war that all Greeks should become part of the new Greek state, which meant an attempt to take Constantinople and, in a sense, re-establish the Byzantine Empire. This led to the disastrous Ionian expedition of 1921-1922. Regarding the hanging of Patriarch Gregorios V in 1821, you suggest that this was the result of a power struggle at the Sultan’s court. People have claimed that he was secretly involved in the preparations for the War of Independence but I can’t believe that, given his uncompromising denunciation of Ypsilantis and indeed of any Greek rebel. I think it was due to the Sultan giving a free hand to the newly installed hawks in his inner circle, replacing the previous doves, and that this was a demonstration by the hawks that they would stop at nothing to prevent Greece’s independence. You also present new readings of the end of the siege of Mesolongi and how the battle at Navarino took place. In your research, what is your understanding of the common people? My overwhelming impression of the Greek people of today is of their overwhelming generosity, hospitality and panache – levendia, I think, is the word. It is contact, meeting with Greeks in all walks of life over many years, that I feel has given my book its soul. And I am deeply grateful to all those Greeks who have been so good to me. I sometimes imagine when I meet Greeks, especially in the remoter areas, that I am actually meeting one of their heroic predecessors from the War of Independence. What role did the Greek language and the Orthodox religion play during the Turkish occupation? I think the role of both was absolutely crucial. Greek religion was one element in the continuing sense of Greek identity, preserved by the Church, though paradoxically it was the Church leaders who denounced independence when it came. The language was also crucial, I believe, as a link to the ancient Greeks and their great achievements. Interestingly, the Turks did nothing to suppress either Greek religion or the Greek language. And, in that sense, were more tolerant than one might have supposed. There is a continuing belief that Greek language and religion could only be taught in secret, hence «Fegaraki mou lambro» [the beginning of the children’s song about going to church at night to study]. In fact, this seems to be a myth. There was no need for secrecy, but children would have been working in the fields all day and the church and the pappas would have been the natural classroom and teacher.