1821: the significance of the Greek revolution

The 1821 revolution saw the creation of the Greek national state and the emergence of a strong Greek sense of national identity. Professor Vrasidas Karalis explores the political and historical significance of the revolution of 1821 and its relevance to our contemporary times.

When the Greek Revolution broke out in the early months of 1821, it brought with it the revival of an idea that seemed to have gone astray after the French Revolution.

The Revolutionaries themselves stated in their declaration of independence that they were fighting for liberty, equal rights and human emancipation.
“We are fighting against tyranny, despotism, and the darkness of slavery,” they declared.

A few months later, in their first constitution, the French revolutionaries abolished social distinctions and redistributed wealth, gave equal rights to poor and rich alike, established a functional system of distinct authorities and declared that reason and freedom go hand in hand. A slave cannot be a thinking human being, they proclaimed.

It was indeed a momentous event after the undisputed victory of the conservatives against Napoleon and the consolidation of the political status quo in Europe with the Council of Vienna in 1815.

No change in borders nor any change in the political regimes throughout Europe was the decision taken by the nobles and the diplomats of the all great dynasties of the period.

Even the Russian Tsar insisted that there should be no change in the political map. Paradoxically, this included Russia’s major enemy, the declining Ottoman Empire, which secured its shrinking borders and its sovereignty over its subject nations.

So when the Greek Revolution broke out, the conservative European alliance found its very authority questioned and challenged.

When the Greeks declared their independence they gained the hostility of the established European powers and the admiration of the common people.

Most historians insist that the Greek Revolution was a nationalist movement for the establishment of a Greek nation-state. In reality it was a grass root movement for human rights and freedom, a vertical movement that united most social classes under a common goal.

Indeed this was a revolution of the common people against despotism and the oppression of an autocratic ruler who could not understand the changes that were happening around him.
Most historians insist that the Greek Revolution was a nationalist movement for the establishment of a Greek nation-state.
In reality it was a grass root movement for human rights and freedom, a vertical movement that united most social classes under a common goal: the establishment of a public sphere in which human beings could interact with equal rights, dignity, justice and solidarity.

It is interesting to remember that public opinion was immediately favourable to the revolution, and the press, so heavily censored, could not hide its deep admiration for the confused news emerging from the region.

Indeed other historians have presented the revolution as being organised by the middle class merchants for the Greek Diaspora, who had formed secret societies, on the model of the Masonic lodges.

Yet all these societies disappeared the first day of the revolution; we have no information about them after the day the Greeks emancipated themselves from the role of the enslaved nation.

Others have insisted on romantic philhellenism that permeated the post-Enlightenment Europe; yet these were contributing factors, not the fundamental reasons.
The first declaration by Alexandros Ypsilanti stated “Fight for Faith and Motherland! The time has come, O Hellenes.

Long ago the people of Europe, fighting for their own rights and liberties, invited us to imitation … The enlightened peoples of Europe are occupied in restoring the same well-being, and, full of gratitude for the benefactions of our forefathers towards them, desire the liberation of Greece.”

It was a wake-up call; Greeks were not simply fighting for faith and motherland but for their rights and liberties; indeed these ideas coexisted in the mind and the various trends amongst them and later caused enormous trouble and disunity.

After so many centuries of enslaved existence, freedom was an unfeasible dream for those who grew up in conditions of repression and fear.

The father of Greek nationalism, Adamantios Koraes, from his diasporic position in Paris, sent his own edition of Aristotle’s Politics to the revolutionaries with a long letter recommending a program of social reforms and the introduction of a system of checks and balances in order to regain, as he stated, “our human nature”.

He suggested that our humanity was in its expression a political issue, a question that had to be resolved through dialogue and negotiations.

It is obvious that the Greek revolution was a great promise in an era of conservative rule and diminished expectations.

It was not simply a nationalistic movement; it was predominantly a political and social uprising which disruptuted the domination of autocracy and totalitarianism.

It renewed the great promises of the American and French revolutions, and brought their ideas for the first time into Eastern Europe and the Balkans, accelerating thus the process of fragmenting the surviving medieval empires by introducing the ideas of self-determination and self-government.

Like any other revolution however the Greek revolution remained incomplete. It established an independent state which in its function undermined and finally abolished the promises of the revolution.

Most revolutionaries were imprisoned, or died in utter poverty. The Revolution itself became a national myth, de-politised and de-radicalised, with racialist undertones and quasi-religious character.

Today we can critically revisit the legacy of the early days and years of the revolution; we honour the visionary projects and empowering ideas; we admire the courage and the self-negation of the individuals; and yet feel rather sad with what followed.

But the legacy remains declaring again and again that the struggle for human freedom, dignity and justice never ends and we have to carry it on from generation and generation and win again and again what the great people of the past have struggled to achieve for us.