Liberal and Historicist Views of the Greek War of Independence

The European Contribution Towards the Formation of the Greek National Narrative

republished from

Ioannis Koubourlis


Let me begin with a few words concerning the title and subject of this paper. My focus will be on writers for whom the study of the Greek War of Independence is part of a wider reflection on the Greek national past; therefore their texts are not just event-centred approaches of 1821.

This basically concerns the philhellene historians who would subsequently be recognized by the representatives of Greek national historiography as the ones who paved the way for the writing of a “genuine Greek national history” – a history which would be, as the Greek historians desired it to be, the “history of the Greek nation from ancient to modern times”. There are a number of names included in the list of the pioneers of Greek national history, but the names which stand out the most are those of the liberal Irishman James Emerson (1804-1869), the German historicist Johann Wilhelm Zinkeisen (1803-1863) and the Scottish liberal historicist George Finlay (1799-1875). They authored all-encompassing histories of the Greek national past.

Let me also say a few words concerning the terms liberalism and historicism: one term refers to a political-ideological concern on the Greek Revolution; the other refers to a more scholarly concern. Naturally, there have been many cases where both co-existed; nevertheless, even in cases like these, one can still see that one determines the other.

We have only recently started to distinguish between historism and historicism in English bibliography. In my paper, I am referring to the classical German Historismus of the early 19th century which, during the Greek revolution, influenced a large number of European scholars.

As far as liberalism is concerned, the relevant bibliography states that the liberalism of the 1820s (thus including philhellene liberalism) is not identical with the liberalism of the 18th century. Liberals of the Restoration period are not only afraid of the despotism inflicted by the rulers; they also fear extremism to which leads the love for freedom (the fear of a new Terreur). One might say that, at least compared to older, these are more modest liberals, and I am not just referring to the British who are known for their institution-focused liberalism; I am also referring to the French, many of whom come from the ranks of the doctrinaires. Both wish for the control of power to be constitutionally recognized and, most importantly, they demand for boundaries to be placed on monarchical arbitrariness.

It’s not then surprising that liberal voices shouting out for the Greek cause after the beginning of the 1821 Revolution are not concerned with fundamental human rights so much, but are more specifically concerned with the Greeks’ right to regain the freedom which they lost in 1453 (and not, perhaps surprisingly for someone who doesn’t know the era well, in 146 BC), to “seek revenge”, as they used to say, for the enslavement of their ancestors. In this case, my opinion is that this doesn’t only concern respect towards the needs and choices of the rebelled Greeks; nor that even the most liberal European thinkers realise that it doesn’t suit the Greek Revolution to identify with carbonarism. It’s not only the aforementioned that makes scholars of the period insist that Greeks do not have a claim on an ex-nihilo state based on human rights (something which would go along the lines of the logic of the social contract theory) .

It’s also the fact that the main objective of European Liberalism is now the control of monarchical arbitrariness under the auspices of law obeying states, and the Ottoman Empire is considered by far the most arbitrary state. As is the fact that even liberal scholars of the era are now familiar with the historicist sense of historical continuity and more or less consciously use the same term, Greeks, whether they refer to the glorious Ancients, the obscurantist and decadent Byzantines or the Modern Greeks.

In other words, the term Greeks is no longer a value judgment, so to speak; being Greek stops being something which one either deserves or doesn’t deserve to be, as it was during the Enlightenment years, and starts having a purely historical, ethnological if you like, dimension. And even though many intellectuals of the period are not ready yet to fully accept the consequences brought on by historicism and thus de-ideologize the historical past (de-ideologize of course, as was understood by the historicists themselves), they are, for instance, ready to start looking for the “bright exceptions” of the Middle Ages. Constantine Palaeologus will be such an exception. His self sacrifice is portrayed by contemporary writers as the element that legitimizes the Modern Greeks’ right for revenge.

It’s characteristic for liberal philhellenes, when they try to interpret 1821, to exploit the perceptions of the French traveller and diplomat Choiseul-Gouffier, a non liberal scholar, a supporter of enlightened despotism, who was to become the most endearing reference for philhellene writers, regardless of ideological origin: from the day Constantinople fell, the Greeks are the people that never ceased to resist their Ottoman conquerors. Some of the liberal philhellenes, with Finlay being the most important, would go as far as to make a historical generalization concerning this position by stating that: the Greeks are the people who have always resisted their conquerors, from the time of the Romans (or, according to others, the ancient Macedonians) to the present day. It is evident from this that the term Greek continues to be something of a value judgment, as it was during the Enlightenment, but the new element of the 1820s – of historicist inspiration – is the attempt to recognize the Greeks’ insubordination as an “eminently national characteristic”.

The main issue that pre-occupied the pro-Hellenic literature concerning 1821 was: what were the factors that contributed to the national awakening of the Greeks and to the outbreak of the Revolution? Of course, the debate focused very quickly on two couples: commerce and education on one hand, as well as religion and the Greek Church on the other.

There seems to be a universal agreement among writers of the era for the coupling of commerce and education, which was considered as the most crucial factor towards the national awakening of the Greeks. However political differences seem to matter here. For liberals, about a decade before their rise to political power in Great Britain, trade and education creates a real tandem, which works towards liberating a people (even though historical generalizations are not as open as they would later become – in the logic of Georges Grote for example, who would reveal ancient Athens as the timeless standard of liberalism).

For the more conservative on the other hand, this was more about the relationship that the Greeks developed with civilized western Europe (clearly commercial at the beginning, and then cultural). This is what allowed them to be a step ahead of the “retarded” Ottomans and want to find their own place in the European system of balance.

The emphasis placed on matters of balance between states highlights 19th century historicism which was influenced by Ranke. An element which sets Zinkeisen (a Ranke’s protégé) apart from the wave of philhellenic historiography between 1821-1832 is the attempt to integrate the Greek Revolution in an analysis of the developments that were taking place at the time, not only on a European but also on a global level.

In attempting to substantiate the view that the Revolution of 1821 was bad timing for the Greeks, Zinkeisen explains the role played by developments in the New World, particularly the independence of the United States from Great Britain; according to him, these developments explain why, initially, Greek Independence was not favoured by the Great Powers. In any case, the use of the concept of a “European system of balance between states” by Zinkeisen is effective in his attempt to understand the implications relations between the Ottoman Empire and the Great Powers had, both during the initial phase of the Ottomans’ expansion in Europe and in the role which the Great Powers eventually played in the recognition of the Greeks’ right to obtain their own independent state.

It’s not then surprising that Zinkeisen is able to understand even the way which relations between the Greeks and the Ottomans evolved through the logic of the EuropeanStaatensystem. This basically implies that even historical phenomena such as the rapprochement between Greeks and Russians, as well as the initially successful attempts of the Ottomans to exploit local, personal or other divisions among leading groups of Greek populations cannot be understood on their own, that is without considering the position of the Greeks and Ottomans within the “European system of balance”. In this way of thinking, Zinkeisen’s final conclusion arises almost effortlessly and concerns a distinction to be made between a purely local and an international or European phase of the Greek issue.

The other important matter which pre-occupied the philhellene writers was the part which religion and the Orthodox church had to play in the preservation of Greek national identity – and, consequently, in the national awakening of the Greeks. Even the most liberal writers could not deny the fact that the difference between Greeks and Ottomans was religious above all.

Nevertheless, almost all philhellene writers agree with Abel Francois Villemain – a spokesman for French liberalism of the Restoration – who wrote, essentially following Choiseul-Gouffier, that Ottoman conquest didn’t just unify the Greeks on a political level but it also made any sort of assimilation of Greeks and Ottomans impossible due to the religious distinction which existed between conquered and conqueror. For reasons that Villemain did not analyze, but which would later be studied by those particularly inspired by his writings, the Orthodox Church was for the Greeks, according to philhellenes authors, “a kind of political and religious government”, an actual Staat im Staate as Maurer would later write, and its history since then identifies with the history of the Greek people.

There are two important factors here. On one hand, the liberal heirs of the Enlightenment tend to distinguish between obscurantist and ultra-obscurantist religions; Islam is thus considered as one of the main factors of cultural backwardness, decline and, of course, a representation of the despotic character of the Ottoman empire. This, however, is not the case with other writers such as the historicist Zinkeisen and, later on Maurer, who prefer to view the whole matter as an issue of cultural antithesis between the West and the East (or, according to others, Europe and Asia). On the other hand, the British liberal philhellenes often proved to be militant representatives of protestant beliefs and, despite their critical attitude towards the Orthodox clergy, the usual was to face the Eastern church as it was less authoritarian than the Catholic – since the Eastern church was conciliar and generally closer, in terms of institutional organization, to early Christian communities.

The most typical representative of this trend was Emerson. According to the Irish Baptist writer, the survival of the Greek nation after Ottoman conquest was because of the stiff resistance of the otherwise corrupt Orthodox clergy against papal claims on the eve of the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Prior to this, it was responsible for the survival of the language and writings of the ancient Greeks, which would have been completely “forgotten” if “the language, customs and traditions” of the West had been imposed on their descendants. This in fact would have been a particularly painful development not only for Greece but for the whole of Europe, as it would have left the papal Latin West with sovereignty over everything.

Emerson’s perceptions would have been passed on by Finlay, another representative of British Liberalism. However, Finlay’s law studies at the University of Gottingen made him study all of this through German historicism. Indeed, Finlay concludes that the historical continuity of the Greeks was founded not only on language and religion but mainly on ancient political institutions that carried language and religion from generation to generation. Therefore he comprehends the Greeks’ present as well as their rebellion against the Ottoman empire in reference to the origins and peculiarities of their national institutions. The Greeks’ freedom, according to Finlay’s perception, produces but also requires «peculiar [what the German historicists called “eigentümlich”] national (political) institutions», it has, that is, positive content, and is not simply attributed to their legendary tendency for insubordination which all philhellene scholars have spoken of since Choiseul-Gouffier. Finlay even recognizes this Greek national peculiarity in the very same synodical organization of the Eastern Church.

In other words, Finlay not only produces a perception of the historical continuity of the Greek nation but also provides a consistent narrative to justify this continuity: the Greeks survived historically, their language and religion also survived historically, and they withstood the Ottoman conquest, precisely because the Greeks have always had a tendency to form institutions of autonomy and self-government (such institutions were the communities of the Ottoman period) at all levels of social life, no matter how tough their submission was.

Finally, I would like to return to the point from which I began for a last minute clarification: philhellene writers of the period 1821-1832 not only paved the way for the writing of a “genuine Greek national history” but essentially, and through different paths, actually founded the very premise of the historical continuity of the Greek nation from ancient to modern times. What Greek nationalist writers would have done at a later stage would be to de-politicize, so to speak, this historical continuity, so that the final narrative could not only include the insubordination of the Greeks to the occupiers themselves but also the so called timeless ability to “hellenize” the people they would come into contact with (either by conquering them or by being conquered by them).





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