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E - 79 : The Power of Public Opinion - How Greece won its Independence

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

The other day, I came across a beautiful article in the Wall Street Journal "How Poetry won Independence for Greece". At the occasion of Greece's 200th birthday next year, the journalist John Psaropoulos from Athens wrote that Greece would not have gained its independence had not educated Europeans and Americans forced their governments to intervene on behalf of the Greek people.

The breaking out of besieged Missolonghi, Theodoros Vryzakis, 1855

The Greek Revolution broke out in the Peloponnese in 1821, a part of Greece which had a long tradition in opposing Ottoman rule. We visited one of these "wild" villages, Porto Kagjo, which harassed the Ottoman Navy in 1787 with its little fleet (2017, A + 8). When the revolution started, the rest of Europe was in turmoil too. Liberal movements fought in Naples, Serbia, Romania and had taken over the government of Spain. The idea of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité" was still alive even though Napoleon had passed away the same year.

Economically, the years after 1815 were challenging. The end of massive state spending, the re-opening of long closed markets and unrestricted shipping increased competition. Prices dropped. However, the lack of manpower acted as a corrective. Still, large number of officers were unemployed and unemployable - French, Italians, Belgians, Germans and Poles. New technology also changed daily life. News were now regularly published by newspapers. For the first time ever, there was a public opinion. Steamships crossed the Atlantic in 10 days instead of 2 months - news travelled much faster than 20 years earlier.

Despite the challenges of 1821, Europe was in no mood for war. The destruction and misery from Napoleonic times was still fresh in memory. Almost 1 million French soldiers were killed. A tremendous loss for a country with 20 million citizen. 1 million women would never marry and never have children. The demographic repercussion in France are still visible today. It was not much different in other parts of Europe. The conservative monarchs of Metternich's Holy Alliance ruled Europe, intervened and suppressed liberal movements with not much opposition. Austria invaded Italy, Russia withdrew its support of Christian rebels in Moldavia, France marched on Madrid in 1823. It was not looking good for Greece.

Events in the Caucasus came to the rescue and bought the Greek fighters time. The Ottoman Empire was at war with Persia in 1821 - 1823 over control of Kurdistan, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Also, the Ottomans kept substantial forces on the border to Russia which they considered a strategic rival. The little rebellion in Greece would be dealt with later - as the Turks had done so many times before.

The world had changed however. The news of the war in Greece spread quickly along maritime routes and the European newspaper covered it extensively. Everywhere in Europe support committees for the Greek cause were established, money, food and clothing collected, unemployed officer made their way to Greece to form and train a professional army, the City of London gave the young Greek Government its first loan, painters put the plight of the Greek People on canvas. Public opinion prevented the European monarchs from intervening on behalf of Turkey. Money, men and weapons thus flowed freely into Greece. The best known example is Lord Byron who adopted the Greek fight for freedom as his own. There were thousands of Europeans like him. The memory of Lord Byron survived since he wrote beautiful poetry. The contribution of others like the French Colonel Charles Fabvier or the Geneva banker Jean Gabriel Eynard have been mostly forgotten.

"Lord Byron's Oath on the Grave of Marco Botzaris" by Ludovico Lipparini, 1850

The war in Greece went back and forth between 1822 - 1824. Neither side had a decisive advantage. The Ottoman garrisons were isolated and ineffective. Regular troops often engaged in massacring civilians when they could not defeat Greek Forces.

Details of Eugène Delacroix' "Massacre of Chios", 1824

The Albanian mercenaries on Turkish payroll fought for money and plunder only and went home in winter. The Greek tribal commanders squabbled and never subordinated to a unified command thus loosing the strategic initiative.

With their fireship tactics the Greece's volunteer navy from Hydra and Spetses occasionally was able to burn a Turkish warship and thus made the resupplying of Turkish Forces in Greece challenging. However Turkish troops continued to hold many of their strongholds

The Ottoman's Albanian Governor of Egypt Muhammed Ali (1769 -m1849)

All this changed in 1825 when the Ottoman Sultan asked Muhammed Ali, his Egyptian vassal, to support him with troops. He arrived with 54 warships, a French trained army of 14'000 infantry and 2'000 cavalry and 150 cannons on the shores of Methoni. First belittled by the Greeks, the disciplined Egyptians methodically rolled up the Greeks' defensive positions. With great losses, they even took the town of Missolonghi, massacred its citizens and sold the surviving 4'000 into slavery. In 1826, the Egyptian Forces reached Athens and besieged the Acropolis. Press reports started circulating in Europe that the Ottoman Sultan had ceded the Peloponnese permanently to Egypt and would allow Muslim Farmers to settle there.

Another public outcry ensued - much stronger than the first in 1822. What started as a war for liberty became a war of religion. Now the conservative monarchs were asked to actively intervene on the side of Greece and stop "Egypt's Islamisation Plans". A joint British-French naval task force sailed in 1827 to Greece and destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian Fleet in the Bay of Navarro (we were there in 2017, A + 5).

A few months later, the French Expeditionary Corps with 15'000 soldiers arrived in the Peloponnese. The French won a few battles, fighting stopped shortly thereafter.

French General Maison meets Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian Commander in 1828 in Navarino

Four years later, the Treaty of Constantinople fixed the new borders of independent Greece and Otto of Bavaria became the country's first king. The constitution was less liberal than many people had hoped for but was to the liking of Europe's conservative monarchs. The new Greek authorities built the Greek state from top down. Few economic reforms were enacted. For many Greeks little changed with independence. They barely perceived the new nation as their state - it was imposed. Not surprisingly they retained a defiant attitude towards authority which still dominates Greek politics today. Not paying taxes is not just a bad habit, it is the consequence of a never fully embraced state.

Greece in its first borders

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