Byron and Greek History. A Reply to Marion Sarafis

Emmanuel Sarides

This reply to Marion Sarafis’ review of Byron’s Letters and Journals, HWJ 13, raises fascinating questions not only about the history of the Greek state, but about the reassuring and suffocating teleologies which steal into most histories of nations everywhere. Sarafis will respond in HWJ 16.

Byron and Greek History. A Reply to Marion Sarafis by Emmanuel Sarides

The conventional view of Greek history – including that of Marion Sarafis – is a fine example of the pre-occupations and methods of progressive liberal culture. It runs something like this: the Greeks constitute a nation, whose continuous story can be traced back from Homer and classical antiquity through the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Empire. After 500 years of oppression by the Turks this nation is supposed finally to have staged a revival at the beginning of the 19th century, to have taken up arms. and – with the help of West European philhellenes who were inspired by the Greeks’ love of liberty and the help too of their not entirely altruistic states – to have driven their oppressors from the country and to have gained their freedom in the creation of a sovereign state. Their struggle, however, so the story goes on, was then betrayed by the powers which had backed their struggle – they forced a king upon the Greeks, who, together with later reactionary governments of various kinds bear the responsibility for everything that has gone wrong since 1821.

This interpretation is seriously defective. First, it concentrates exclusively upon the territory which makes up present-day Greece, ignores economic factors and underplays the role of the (then) great powers. Second, it postulates the continuous existence for over two millenia of a Greek nation, which ts portrayed as bearer of the revolution and creator of the new state. In reality, however, the Greek state was the product of the economically and politically determined, world-wide expansion of the great European powers in the 18th and early 19th centuries: in the period before the revolution, the Greek nation was.a fiction which served solely to legitimize the intervention of the great powers in European Turkey. 1

The transformation of the map of South East Europe in the 19th century has to be seen in the context of the beginnings of the modern world system with the first colonial conquests, above all those of Britain and France. For the newly created states were in no way autonomous entities, but were politically, economically, ideologically, and culturally dependent formations, integrated as new links in the pre-existing chain of colonial possessions where they served as markets for manufactured goods and for exported services, and as military bases. These new countries of which Greece was just one, were thus, at the moment of their creation, robbed of the possibility of developimg their indigenous socio-economic systems, and drawn into a world system in which.they have since then had the role only of satisfying the various needs of those states which made them ‘independent’.

Once Britain and France had conquered India and Indo-China, and Russia had extended its hold over parts of central Asia and the Caucasus, the West European powers required good communications with the East, and it seemed essential that the Russian Empire should acquire naval access to the Mediterranean. All these routes led across the Ottoman Empire. Control over parts of this huge territory offered each of the three great powers not only an extension of their existing colonies and spheres of influence but also a barrier against further expansion on the part of the respective rival powers.

The Ottoman Empire was well suited to the strategy of divide-and-rule which had been fashioned before in India – it was multi-lingual, multinational, contained many different religious groupings; its economy was stagnant and its system of administration was highly decentralized. Bands of mercenaries, originally used by the Ottomans to suppress local uprisings and now living from the plunder of villages and military camps, could be hired and deployed by Britain and France for the latters’ own purposes – especially for waging a long war of attrition against the Porte. The ambitions of the Sultan’s regional administrators to gain their autonomy could first be encouraged, and then, when like Ali Pasha of Janina they threatened to become too strong, they could be embroiled in struggles with the mercenary bands and with the Porte. The Russian Empire, which had much in common with the Orthodox Christian population under Turkish rule, relied for its influence upon the Orthodox Patriarchate in Istanbul – in accordance with Ottoman administrative practice, the Church had large political and social functions and thus exercised a great influence upon all Orthodox Christians. Tensions arose between Christians and Moslems, and there were confused military conflicts between the forces of the Sultan, the mercenaries, and the regional administrators; these tensions and conflicts reached from the Balkans to the Arabian Peninsula.

They resulted in the weakening of central authority and the slow slide of the Ottoman provinces into anarchy and chaos, which in turn enabled the European powers to start on the second stage of their plans ~ the partition of the Turkish Empire.

Ideology played an important role in the implementation of these plans. Napoleon’s aims for France were the establishment of ‘natural’ frontiers – an expansion of the state to its optimal size. To this end, so-called sister-republics were to be set up – the Batavian, Neapolitan, Illyrian, Hellenic republics. etc. The military defeat of the Napoleonic Empire put an end to these particular schemes, but the idea of a Greek ‘sister-republic’ – that is, of a dependent state formation ~ did not die. It was later taken up by Bntish and French policy-makers, since it fitted well into their plans for the Balkans. The increase in Russian influence in the Balkans after 1815 was one reason for this development. Russian leaders were talking of re-creating the Byzantine Empire, an idea which had a strong appeal to the Christian population of the Balkan Peninsula. Only the propagation of a similarly attractive alternative conception like the renaissance of classical Greece could offer an effective ideological counter to the growth of Russian influence. The intellectual climate in Western Europe was very favourable to such a project – the nostalgic re-discovery of classical Greek literature in the later 18th century, the general tendency ‘to seek with one’s soul the land of the Greeks’ (Goethe), and of course Byron’s glorification of the Greek cause.

Before discussing the insurrection of 1821 in detail, it is necessary to demolish the view that a Greek nation constituted the historical actor in these events. In saying this, I do not want to demean the fact that the population did indeed make many sacrifices in the insurrections against their Turkish rulers. But it is absurd – even disastrous to the Greek search for historical identity – to maintain that they fought for a Greek nation in the hellenistic sense, because these people possessed no common identity reaching back into classical antiquity. The progeny of the ancient Greeks had all but disappeared – wiped out by plague and other epidemics, conquered by Slav peoples who pushed forward to the furthest edges of the Peloponnese and settled the land, also by Albanian peoples who took over several mainland regions and islands (especially Athens and Attica), and replaced by various alien groups who were imported over the centuries for military reasons by the Byzantine and then the Ottoman Emperors. Thus, in the early 19th century, the people on the territory of what was to become the Greece of today were multi-ethnic, multi-lingual and multi-religious, bearing the name Greeks by virtue of being the forefathers of us Greeks today,2 but not by virtue of being the progeny of the Hellenes, the ancient Greeks.

It is true that there was a Greek language – it had survived as the language of the Orthodox Church, but everything else. was in the mind of the European philhellenes and of a small Greek intelligentsia, on which they exercised a strong influence. The actual capacity of the romantic philhellene writers to influence great-power politics in the Balkans was small – a reading of Goethe, Schiller, Byron sends us quickly back to the changing trade patterns and to the (in the first instance) improvised strategies of the colonial powers. However, the writers did perform one task for the expansion of their states which the politicians themselves could never have achieved; their engagement on behalf of the supposed descendants of the revered classical Greeks created a strong sympathy in Western Europe for the heroic struggle of the Hellenic people against their barbarian oppressor, and this legitimacy upon the interventionist policies of Britain and France in the Ottoman Empire. They also helped to create an urgently needed history of Greece,3 which, building upon the fiction of continuity from classical times, conferred legitimacy upon the new dependent state.

At first, the various activities of the philhellenes on behalf of their Greece tended to be illegal and to stand in a certain opposition to, or tension with, official government policies. However, in the second decade of the 19th century, things changed decisively in this respect: the political establishment, already flexible enough to integrate such cultural movements into politics. had no difficulty in subordinating the enthusiasm for the Greek cause to its own purpose of partitioning the Turkish Empire. In practice the efforts of all groups achieved the same end, which however had been defined from the beginning by the politicians: the creation of a colonial state called Greece.

Unfortunately, the activities of the first philhellenes in the Balkans themselves and in Asia Minor tended to meet the same goal too. These men, sons of wealthy families, had studied in Paris and other West European cities and had been confronted there with the ideas of classical Greece, and with the notion of a struggle of the Hellenes for liberty and independence. They were in close contact with-the western philhellenes and enjoyed the direct or indirect support of the British and French governments; they succeeded in person, or through the mediation of middle-men and secret societies, in enlightening the surprised people of the Balkans about their hellenic origins (this, by means of generously financed newspapers, pamphlets and theatrical productions). and in encouraging them to revolt against Ottoman rule. In Paris the Greek Korais, in a French Institute of Oriental studies, laid the foundations of the language which is spoken in Greece today; in the Balkans schools were set up with financial help out of various European countries, in which this language and ancient Greek history were taught. Decades after a Greek history had been constructed by West European historians, K. Paparrigopulos published his History of the Greek Nation, which is in parts a detailed compilation of the work of Zinkeisen, Hoff and other German writers. and which still today furnishes the basic historical grounds for the existence of the Greek state.4

In the light of these facts, it 1s somewhat less than surprising that the Greek revolution did not begin within the boundaries of the contemporary Greek state, but broke out on 8 March 1821 in what is now Rumania. Rumania was robbed of the honour of becoming the proud legatee of classical antiquity only because the Great powers could not agree on such a compromise; Ottoman troops were concentrated there and were able to suppress this insurrection with some speed. Once the Southern Balkans were denuded of Turkish troops and Britain and France had agreed on a compromise there, a second uprising began in the Peloponnese on 25 March 1821 – it is this rising which is celebrated as the Greek revolution. In the subsequent military actions, in which units of British, French and German philhellenes took part (sometimes their role was merely decorative). Britain and France succeeded in having the Peloponnese liberated in their own precise sense, and in installing a puppet government which was an agent of their interests. It should be noted that the first political parties in this new Greece were called after their protectors: the English Party and the French Party. A third, the Russian Party, soon lost all influence under the heavy pressure of the first two and more or less disappeared: the Tsar’s Greek Minister, Count Capo d’Istria, fell victim to an assassination plot which had its roots in France, ey after he was nominated as Governor of Greece.

Byron himself did not live to see this Greece. Worn out by his difficult relations with the devious and power-hungry bands of mercenaries, drained by {possibly psychosomatic) illnesses, he, like many who shared his sense of mission, died for a Greece, which he had, as he once wrote, tried to awaken ‘from the sleep of death’ (Giaur). The classical Greece of which he had dreamed had not been resurrected – rather a homunculus had been born, something that might have escaped from the cabinet of a Dr. Mabuse.5 His dream constitutes a heavy mortgage for us Greeks of today: the ‘spirit of pure Hellenism’, in the name of which the colonial regime created by Britain and France openly or indirectly hellenized its subjects, has robbed them of centuries of their history and imposed upon them an ideology which, like a procrustean bed, continually annihilates every possibility of establishing a truly empancipatory collective identity. By the same token, Greece is deprived of the basis for any independent political, economic and cultural development, and is condemned to an exotic marginal existence as an attraction for tourists, who gaze upon the ruins of the ancient temples with a mixture of admiration and pity.

Byron’s successors, contemporary philhellene experts on Greece whose outlook is by now pure archaism, still today have a major influence (in which they are assisted by benighted groups of the native intelligentsia) upon contemporary Greek political, ideological and cultural affairs. Hero worship and its attendant demagoguery have insinuated themselves into Greek life in modern garb, and distort every progressive initiative (if they do not actually suffocate them at birth). Nothing against international solidarity, but such philhellenes ought to be struggling to realize their ideal of freedom in their own countries and let Greece develop a consciousness of her true history, which would be a first step in the struggle towards independence.

1. I agree with Tom Nairn who has stressed that modern nation states stand in a dialectical relationship to the specific form of their capitalism on the one hand, and to the developing capitalist world market on the other.

2. When historians speak of Greeks at that time, they mean the adherents of the Orthodox church. In the early 20th century the religious ties to the specific churches were to become the criterion for defining Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars, etc. in the Balkans.

3. Among the early works of this kind on the history of Greece are: E. Quinet, De la Gréce moderne et de ses rapports avec l’antiquité, Paris 1830; J. W. Zinkeisen, Geschichte Griechenlands vom Anfange geschichtlicher Kunde bis auf unsere Tage, Leipzig, 1832; G. A. Finlay, A History of Greece, 7 vols., London 1844-52.

4. K. Paparrigopulos, Jstoria tu elliniku ethnus, 5 vols., Athens 1865-74, last reprinted 1955-57. I have developed this critique at length in my book, Zum Verhältnis von Befreiungsbewegungen und Imperialismus, dargestellt am Beispiel der Entstehungsbedingungen der griechischen Nation, Frankfurt a.M. 1980.

5. Marx called the invention of the constitutional kingdom of Greece a ‘political phantom’. Eric Hobsbawm describes the new Greek state as ‘one of those miserable caricatures of the western ideal, which was soon to appear also in Latin America’.

No. 15, Spring, 1983 of History Workshop on JSTOR
Byron and Greek History.
A Reply to Marion Sarafis · (pp. 126130). Emmanuel Sarides

Emmanuel Sarides  16. August 2018
Rubrik: Geschichte

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