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The Original Monster Abroad

The Greek Revolution of 1821 was similar to today’s war in Ukraine.

First Cemetery of Athens
A man visits the 1st cemetery of Athens, Greece on November 29, 2022. (Photo by Costas Baltas/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe, Mark Mazower, Penguin Books, 608 pages.

Despite fading from public attention, humanitarian intervention shaped post-Cold War international relations in ways that continue today. It began in Somalia with military assistance to famine relief in 1993 and expanded during the Yugoslavian wars of devolution. A U.S.-led NATO campaign against Serbia in 1999 after its crackdown on Kosovar separatists marked a highpoint. British prime minister Tony Blair evoked the tear-stained faces of refugees and heart-rending tales of cruelty in a Chicago address that year to make a larger case for humanitarian intervention. Samantha Power later framed a responsibility to protect populations against genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other human rights violations, which the United Nations recognized in 2005.

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These developments prompted a search for historical precedents with Princeton academic Gary Bass in 2008 describing the Greek Revolution of the 1820s as the first case where activists mobilized public opinion to push liberal states into humanitarian war. Ironically, George Kennan’s attack on bombing Serbia over Kosovo had cited John Quincy Adams’s opposition to the United States becoming involved with Greece. Kennan used Adams’s famous July 4, 1821, speech calling America a well-wisher to the freedom of all but defender only of its own and warning against going abroad seeking monsters to destroy to argue for restraint as a general principle for American foreign policy. As a touchstone in the debate over humanitarian intervention, the Greek Revolution deserves a second look.

Mark Mazower sets aside the romantic story of national liberation to present a complex struggle on its own terms in The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe. Greece only emerged as a national state after the conflict swept away institutions and governing principles that operated under Ottoman rule. Its core regions had long diminished with more Greeks living in Asia Minor than the peninsula. Athens, the great city of antiquity that later became a modern capital, had fallen into decay as a rural backwater. Mountains and islands reinforced the persistence of distinctive local and regional cultures lacking much sense of national belonging. Albanians, Serbs, Romanians, and others lived within the Greek peninsula, often switching sides as their self-interest pointed. Indeed, Mazower rightly insists that the revolution “was not really a two-way Greco-Turkish struggle at all.” 

The Enlightenment republicanism behind revolutionary movements of the day had scant appeal among most Greeks who identified themselves in religious terms. What they called the Romeïko would overthrow the Ottoman Sultan and restore Constantinople to Christendom in a revival of medieval Byzantium. Russia’s tsar or European kings would be the instruments of their deliverance. Mazower highlights the tension between Alexander Ipsilantis, a Greek officer in Russian service from the Ottoman capital’s Phanariot elite who led the original conspiracy, and ordinary villagers or peasants who envisioned the Romeïko. Landowners and other elites remained suspicious as many of them enjoyed considerable autonomy under the sultan. Revolution risked their privileges for an uncertain future. Rumors from early 1821, however, made the uprising “a self-fulfilling prophecy.” Ipsilantis may have been the face of Greek nationalism abroad—a city in Michigan is named after him—but the rank and file in Greece had a very different view.

The revolution began in March with an uprising in the Danubian Principalities where Phanariot nobles had ruled in the sultan’s name. Proximity to Russia made it a base for conspirators, but the region had few Greeks. The Filiki Etaireia or friendly society behind the plot had also proselytized throughout the wider Greek world spreading revolt despite Ipsilantis’ defeat. The Romeïko seemed at hand even without effective central leadership. Unfortunately for those hoping for its success, the Greeks lacked the military capacity to defend communities and hold territory. Many of them turned to klefts or bandits along with Napoleonic veterans and foreign volunteers. A brutal, protracted struggle ensued for nearly a decade as neither Greeks nor sultan could bring it to a close.

Far from aiding rebels, Russia’s Tsar Alexander and Austria’s Prince Metternich “saw the guiding hand of a secret international revolutionary organization.” The Congress System after Waterloo intervened against such movements, not to help them. Britain, France, and Austria also feared that weakening the Ottoman Empire would upset the balance of power by favoring Russian interests. Any change, those governments thought, would be for the worse.

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Mazower highlights how fear drove bloodshed as Muslims were outnumbered and Greeks anticipated reprisals. Ottoman policy deployed collective punishment against revolts by massacring inhabitants and enslaving women and children. Hanging the Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople showed what Greeks could expect. Memory of reprisals following an earlier revolt also resonated. Vengeance, Mazower points out, fueled “casual ferocity in ordinary Greeks” and the prospect of collective death encouraged national unity to harden resistance. He describes coexistence between Christians and Muslims in Greece as impossible amidst the escalating cycles of violence that could not suppress resistance and reimpose Turkish rule. Indeed, the Ottoman state’s inability to end the revolution exposed its own weakness and decay. The longer resistance continued, the worse its position looked. 

Alexandros Mavrokordatos, another Phanariot Greek exile based in Italy, recognized the revolution would have to reach beyond its instigators to succeed. That meant forming a national government as an institutional embodiment of its aims. Various local elites and bandit chieftains could not provide a unifying force. A revolutionary movement supported from abroad would be the alternative, and he gave the rebellion a politics that made sense to foreigners. Romeïko gave way to Hellas, evoking the legacy of antiquity that struck a chord among classically educated Westerners fixated on Athens and Sparta. Lord Byron most famously joined the cause, but many more across Europe and North America sent money and pressured their own governments to act. British foreign secretary George Canning went against a growing tide by arguing that these were not the Greeks of Pericles and Epaminondas. 

Unable to crush the Greeks with his own forces, the sultan called on Mohammed Ali, who governed Egypt in his name. Ali, an Albanian, had modernized Egypt with French advisors to make it his own base. His recent victories in Arabia over the precursors to the later Saudi regime provided a model with a fleet as the means of sending troops from Egypt. This step raised the stakes at a point when the struggle had already disrupted stability in the eastern Mediterranean. Staying out of the problem became harder and harder for European states, especially with the prospect of massacre and enslavement across the Morea. The sack of Missolonghi in 1826 especially galvanized foreign sympathy by showing, as Mazower writes, “an entire society prepared to die for the sake of freedom.”

Foreign sentiment began to shift behind the Greeks at a point where the situation became a growing problem for major powers. Rossini’s opera Le Siège de Corinthe became a sensation in Paris along with Eugène Delacroix’s dramatic painting Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi. Support for Greece became more than a liberal or radical cause as advocates framed it as a struggle between civilization and barbarism. Classical antiquity’s position in public culture across Europe and North America widened the appeal. Even pragmatists like Canning began preferring intervention over allowing the continuance of a war whose savagery now destabilized the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean. With the status quo unavailable and Ottoman victory with Egyptian help morally unacceptable, European powers saw reason to act. Greek weakness, ironically, had become an advantage.

Britain, France, and Russia sent fleets to mediate between hostile parties in 1827 and a treaty signed in London that year proposed Greek autonomy under Turkish rule. Enforcing those provisions seemed difficult with Greeks divided and Egyptian forces moving to create shifting facts on the ground. The British commander Sir Edward Codrington led the combined naval force with hopes of intimidating the latter into compliance, but resistance brought the last great naval action in the age of sail at Navarino Bay where they wiped out the enemy fleet. Destroying the Egyptian fleet made further efforts against Greeks on land impossible. Ali secured hereditary rule over Egypt and Sudan, leaving the sultan nothing besides humiliation. Declaring war against Russia brought the Ottoman Empire only another defeat.

Greece won independence rather than mere autonomy, but only part of it fell under the new government. Peacekeepers, especially French troops, mapped the Peloponnese and laid the start for infrastructure projects. Count Ioannis Capodistrias, the Greek exile who earlier had served as Russian foreign minister and stood apart from local factions, headed the new government. He imposed a centralizing program with foreign backing as the leading powers sought a king. Old elites and revolutionary conspirators alike gained little from the monarchy under a Bavarian prince. Redeeming other parts of Greece outside the realm from Ottoman rule became an ongoing project, but one pursued by a national movement that emerged from the revolution instead of the groups that had started it. Making its people into Greeks would be the work of decades.

The Greek Revolution, as Mazower argues, made for a new kind of politics with international reach and romantic aspirations, but those were consequences more than causes. His account highlights the importance of local conditions and how contingent factors shaped events. Instead of an unfolding story of liberation, conflict destroyed whatever equilibrium operated to create a wider pattern of instability. Only foreign intervention brought order and the new balance proved anything but stable. Ironically, the prospect of outside help encouraged revolt against steep odds. Revolutionary conspirators looked to Russian aid. So did ordinary Greeks dreaming of Romeïko. The moral hazard involved seems to escape those looking back on the story as a noble cause. Rather than keeping peace and protecting vulnerable populations, humanitarian intervention and a presumed responsibility to protect risks stirring disorder. Kennan, like Adams, saw further than his critics.

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