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Another Lesson from 1821

By on April 11, 2015
Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis

Once again this year I listened as my daughter’s Greek School here in the Northside of Chicago extolled the bravery and the unity of the “Heroes of 1821.” While my wife and son, knowing just a wee bit more of the actual history of this epic struggle, heard my slight sigh at the numerous platitudes, I kept my composure as the poems and the “parla” eventually dissolved into a fantastic set of dances. Thankfully.

It is not that I do not honor the heroism of that generation, among whom were my Hydriot ancestors (as well as some others who were a bit more “complicated” in their background, see NEO magazine April 2014). It is, rather, that the Revolution was hardly the coordinated uprising described in the history books, and much of the gains of 1821-22 were squandered by the Greeks’ love of political infighting, corruption, and financial scandals. Does this sound at all familiar or contemporary? It should.

The inability to put a national cause before personal profit and ego resulted in what might have been a pan-Hellenic, or even pan-Balkan uprising ended up as a a basically Peloponesian, Rumeliot, and island affair, after revolts in Crete, Macedonia, Chios, Epirus, and elsewhere were crushed. Only Samos in the extreme east of the Aegean held off all comers. In Rumeli, certain islands, and the Peloponnesus the revolution was almost extinguished by the French trained Egyptian army and navy of Ibrahim Pasha, as the Turks called in their vassals to finish the job they could not. From the jaws of victory, defeat loomed.

Only intervention saved Greece, some of it by design, but the actual battle that birthed Greece, the Battle of Navarino, was in fact by accident. Shots fired at or by a blockaded Turco-Egyptian fleet at or by the squadrons of the British, French, and Russian fleets ended in a rout of the former by the latter. Now independence would come, delivered by foreign powers, and under their, not our, terms. Does any of this sound at all familiar, or contemporary?

Theodoros Vryzakis, (Oil painting, 1852)

Theodoros Vryzakis, (Oil painting, 1852)

But wait, it goes further. Just as we could not finish the job of liberating Greece without foreign intervention, we could not, it seems, govern Greece without foreign intervention either. Count Ioannis Capodistrias, a Corfu nobleman with a government resume no Greek (and few Europeans) could match, spent a few years at the helm of Greece, working for no pay in an attempt to cobble some order out of the chaos that was the war-stricken country, including curbing the rule of local Greek notables who sought to replace the Turkish pashas with themselves. One of these put a bullet in his stomach, and he expired on the cobbled streets of Nauplion, the lovely town chosen to be Greece’s capital. As Greece descended once more into chaos, the foreign powers had to-you guessed it-intervene and create a Kingdom of Greece, with a foreign king. This foreign intervention (either invited or “invited” by events) occurred many times over the course of the next nearly two centuries.

That is just the political side of the equation. Greece’s financial woes and debt requirements, which began with the first loan to the Greek government in the early 1820s, continued throughout Greece’s history. Often the financial and political would coincide, and the creditor governments would come calling with gunboats, occupying the customs houses of Greek ports until their debts were satisfied (and you thought “The Troika,” sorry, “The Institutions,” were bad). It might have been excusable that a largely illiterate, rough band of rebels would lack governing or civic skills, but have we really evolved much since then?

The Heroes of 1821, like those of the American Revolution, to which we Greek Americans love to draw rather stretched parallels, were great and flawed individuals. Their efforts gave us the Greek state, but among their flaws were a fractiousness that led to them seeking, requiring, and relying upon, foreign assistance, either for survival or solvency. Over the course of nearly two hundred years of independence, most of their successors have shown a tendency to some of the same vices, and sometimes, rather seldom actually, some of the same virtues. Often the intervention we despise is the one we bring upon ourselves, either indirectly or directly. Not a theme for a school program, perhaps, but one that should be in the back of our minds, as adults.

We had a Greek Revolution, but have we had a Greek EVOLUTION?

About Alexander Billinis

Alexander Billinis is a writer and lawyer in Chicago, Illinois. He and his family returned to the US after nearly a decade in Greece, the UK, and Serbia. He writes prolifically on Balkan topics. His books, The Eagle has Two Faces: Journeys through Byzantine Europe, and Hidden Mosaics: An Aegean Tale, are available from Amazon.com.