How to organize a revolution


This might seem strange to some readers, but the 1821 Greek Revolution was one of the hardest of the time to organize and perhaps had to overcome the most difficult hurdles of all.

Not every Greek was ready or willing to revolt. Some thought that they had much more to lose than what they stood to win. Hesitancy, indecisiveness and even denial were witnessed in many regions, even those that would later play a leading role in the Greek War of Independence. Those who hesitated, however, were no less “patriots” than the rest. They usually had very good reasons – for example, they may have felt vulnerable living close to powerful Ottoman centers of power. This is true of Chios and many areas of Macedonia. The inhabitants of Chios didn’t hesitate because they lived in a privileged situation of prosperity and relative autonomy, but mainly because they were aware that they were in no position to defend their island. This was the case for many other islands, especially those of the Dodecanese and the northern Aegean. Even on Samos there was a small group of powerful local magnates who tried to deter any uprising. Rather than defending their privileges, their main motive was the obvious geographic reality. Samos is only 1.5 kilometers from the coast of Asia Minor. The successful defense of the island from naval invasions from the Ottoman and Egyptian fleet, especially in the summer of 1824, is one of the many great achievements of the locals and the Greek fleet. What is more striking – what should astound us and is worth studying – is not the hesitancy or denial but the choice to take part in the Greek Revolution of those who lived in dangerous regions like Samos, the island of Psara, Halkidiki, Evia and Crete.

Such hurdles are encountered in all revolutions, like others similar to those faced by the Greek revolutionaries, mainly a shortage of basic necessities (weapons, supplies, trained troops, alliances) for a long war against a powerful empire. Revolutions have more or less always faced these issues, and still do. The Greeks, however, also had a number of advantages, like the demographic composition of the regions in which the revolution took hold or the support of a large number of economically powerful Greeks who gave everything they could muster – from Panagiotis Sekeris to Lazaros Kountouriotis and the primates, traders and even the loan sharks of the Morea.

The greatest challenge was something else entirely and purely a matter of organization. I do not believe I am wrong to claim that the most important hurdle was the unprecedented fragmentation and geographical distribution of the Greek diaspora. Greeks were not concentrated in a clearly defined territory, like the Serbs, Poles or even the Italians. They lived spread out over the Balkans, Asia Minor, the islands of the Aegean and the Ionian, on Cyprus, in the Middle East, in Moldova. But also, in communities in Russia, Central Europe, ports in the Mediterranean, in Italy – communities that were in direct contact with the Greeks of the Ottoman Empire. At the time of the Greek uprising, British newspapers were in no doubt over the identity of those revolting but found it hard to pin down an exact number. On April 28, 1821, an extensive article on the composition of the Balkan population published in the Scotsman stated: “All the people of the Balkans are concentrated in specific regions of the Ottoman Empire, except for the Greeks. They are found all over the Empire. If concentrated, they will greatly outnumber all other Christian nationalities put together.”

One could roughly say, even though it would be wrong, that the problem was the many different identities held by the prospective Greeks, who often did not even speak proper Greek. After all, this was one of the reasons that influential Greeks of the time (Ioannis Kapodistrias, Adamantios Korais, Bishop Ignatius, Alexandros Mavrokordatos) considered the conditions premature. The Greeks had to first learn how to be Greeks, descendants of glorious ancestors. The few thousand traders, the intellectuals and the generally well-traveled and educated were not enough to organize a national revolution and a subsequent sustainable Greek state. An elite had to be formed, which would awaken a national consciousness and lay the groundwork. This approach was misguided then and remains misguided today. The Greeks had a strong common identity and an elite ready to guide them.

All of them, with almost no exceptions, were Orthodox Christians and spoke a version of Greek either as their native or second language. But even if they did not know Greek (or spoke a “stuttering” version of Greek, as put by Konstantina Zanou, assistant professor at Columbia University), Orthodoxy was enough. It was the ticket to being Greek, entry to this new Greek nation, and of course the revolution, as long as they chose to join it. Even during the bleakest times of the civil war, no person from the Morea doubted the Greek identity of someone from Souli or Hydra, despite the latter identifying with the vision of a uniform, centralized nation-state.

The elites were more than ready to organize, finance, lead and become patrons to the cause. In fact, the dominant vision was that of the weaker economically and socially but culturally and ideologically all-powerful Western-looking elite of liberal intellectuals. An elite that constructed a public sphere, fully controlled it, defined the language of the revolution, chose the institutional foundations and imposed its own framework (liberal so thus truly a national revolution) which the more traditionalist society fully embraced, even if it did so awkwardly.

So why do we consider the issue of organization so important if the two most important preconditions were fulfilled? Because even these were not enough to overcome the largest hurdle, geography. Geography and the technology of communication did not help the revolution, especially in an era where, as characteristically put by Theodoros Kolokotronis, “there were people getting together who did not know people who lived an hour away from their village. They thought of Zante as we now think of the furthest point on the map. America today seems to us as Zante did to them; they said in Frangia.” Kolokotronis added: “It was nothing else but the revolution that connected all Greeks.”

Still, it was not through an abstract revolution, but through the work of a group of people who succeeded even before the outbreak of the revolution. The mid-level and upper-level members of the Filiki Etairia (Society of Friends), who truly achieved a great feat, are the midwives of history. For the first time, they united Greeks in a huge conspiratorial network of unprecedented scale, a collective effort that exceeded personal strategies, localism and closed horizons. It even neutralized the instinct of self-preservation.

However, whereas we know of the actions of the leaders of the Filiki Etairia, the decisive choices and the basic planning, the journeys of many important figures remain unknown. Like Christoforos Perraivos, the young associate of the poet Rigas Feraios, who would become the Etairia’s most efficient member, successfully taking on the hardest missions. Or Ioannis Paparrigopoulos, the “double agent,” as Spyridon Trikoupis called him. But even less exciting cases, like the trader Panagiotis Arvalis, Bishop Isaiah of Salona, and Kapodistrias’ seneschal, Konstantinos Kantiotis. We shall return to these people and the wider network of the Filiki Etairia.

Aristides Hatzis is professor of the philosophy of law and the theory of institutions at the University of Athens and director of research at the Markos Dragoumis Center for Liberal Studies (KEFiM). The article series examining the liberal, democratic and modern aspects of the 1821 Revolution is part of KEFiM’s educational program titled, “Greece 2021: 200 years since the Liberal Revolution.”