Thursday, 16 July 2015

Book Review - The Greek war of independence by David Brewer

The Greek war of independence : the struggle for freedom from Ottoman oppression and the birth of the modern Greek nation by David Brewer

Woodstock USA: The Overlook Press, 2001                               ISBN 158567172X

There is a famous saying "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it": of course this is demonstrably false, and yet there are remarkable threads that run through history, especially the history of nations and peoples. Reading this book has been a fascinating exercise in reading what happened in Greece in the early nineteenth century, with the gloss of the current Greek crisis overlaid.

The idea of a Greek nation is almost as old as civilization itself, although Ancient Greece was not a single political entity, but rather hundreds of separate city states who all tapped into the Greek heritage even when they were fighting each other. After the Roman Empire faded away, Greece fell back into obscurity and domination by others until in the early eighteenth century the Ottoman Empire became the hegemon.

As David Brewer describes in the early section of this well-written book, the Ottomans were not close governors of many of their provinces, Greece being one of them. They collected taxes (or sold the right to collect taxes to locals) and conscripted young men into their fighting forces, but did little else for the Greeks. The local clergy were responsible to the Sultan for the behaviour of their flock, and many Greeks became functionaries in the Empire. This led to widespread distrust among Greeks and between Greek communities, as the Empire also treated each province differently; some paying lesser tax, or having more freedom than others.

Religion was also an issue: the idea of a group of Christians being ruled over by an Islamic Empire did not sit well, not only with Greeks who desired to be free, but with other nations - especially Russians - who had a strong connexion to their Orthodox brethren. This issue was used as a pretext for action by various groups for various reasons during the struggle for independence, although until fighting started the Sultan allowed his Christian subjects much freedom in the practice of their religion, even if he was the one appointing the Patriarchs and Bishops.

As with many revolutions, the spark for the Greek uprising was struck outside the country itself by expatriates, Korais and Rigas, and the members of the secret society Philiki Eteria, which was more a grouping of hopeful idealists than a true movement for revolution. This did not stop the leader of the Eteria, expatriate Alexander Ipsilantis, from launching an abortive uprising in the provinces of Moldavia and Wallachia, which failed, due to Alexander's inability to lead or communicate effectively, or garner the hoped for support from Russia, or even to make it to Greece itself.

Although Ipsilantis' revolt was a failure, it led to a further revolt by the inhabitants of the Mani in the Peloponnese, which took advantage of the lack of Turkish troops stationed there at the time (owing to the uprising of Ali Pasha in Albania), and quickly grabbed some key fortresses and the major administrative centre Tripolis. With the help of a small but sporadically effective naval campaign, and use of guerrilla tactics in the rugged Greek countryside, the various Greek bands managed to hold key pieces of territory which enabled the rebellion to take root.

Brewer deftly describes the various competing sides that became apparent as the struggle continued - the Sultan in Constantinople not always in tune with Mehmed Ali, the Khedive of Egypt, who had his own agenda, and the Greeks - forming a constantly re-arranging group of alliances and enmities which at times descended into civil war - cruelling many opportunities which led to military disaster on more than one occasion. In fact the jealousies, empire-building and feather-bedding undertaken by almost everyone involved on the Greek side makes for depressing reading - the war was won almost in spite of the Greeks.

The involvement of foreign powers was not always above reproach either. Russia ostensibly had noble motives in becoming involved in the struggle, but balanced everything against its need to remain allies with France, Britain and Austria, and its desire to gain territory at the expense of the Turks. The French were schizophrenic in their approach, wooing both Greeks and Egyptians for different reasons, so much so that they had officers on both allied and Sultanate ships during the Battle of Navarino, which was the event that finally drew the Ottomans to the conference table.

No war can be fought without money, and lots of it, and the tale of Greek finances is one that echoes down to today. The Greeks raised loans mostly in England, based on wildly fanciful notions of their capacity to repay the principal, let alone the interest. They were not helped by the rapacious activities of the banks, nor by the wastage of the money they were lent, frittered away on expenditure on "ghost" troops, ships that were never finished (or deliberately scuttled by their own side!), and other unfortunate events. These loans were never repayed, and dogged the new nation for years afterwards (a period which is beyond the scope of Brewer).

It was the English loans to Greece that brought Lord Byron into the picture, and although his activities during the war were mostly ineffectual, it was his death in Mesolonghi that caught the imagination of Europe, and led to the interventions by the Great Powers that finally gave Greece freedom. While the foundation story of the modern Greek state gives great prestige to the defenders of Mesolonghi, the routers of Dramali, and the besieged of Athens, it was the pressures in other parts of the Ottoman Empire (Egypt, the 1828 war with Russia) that led the Sultan to come to terms and agree to Greek independence.

The first Greek President, Kapodhistrias, was acclaimed by nearly all when he took charge, but was assassinated a few year later, after suffering several rebellions to his rule. Brewer deals well with the constitutional waverings of the war years, showing how noble ideas failed to work in practice, and manoeuvrings by various factions meant that none of the structures of government worked in the way that had been intended.

Overall, Brewer's book is a very good introduction to the Greek independence struggle. He sets the scene well, covers all the major battles and events, and leaves the story at the moment the King of Greece is crowned. Brewer is an Englishman (a Classics scholar at Oxford), and as such this is an English view, with perhaps more space being given to the English stories in the book than the French or Russian, although it seems mainly an even-handed coverage. The maps are basic but sufficient to orient the reader. A couple of things that may annoy are the quotations from the French that have not been translated, and the spelling of the Greek names throughout - Brewer is consistent in his spellings, but in quotations uses the spelling of the original author. This can be confusing, especially when the original author is an Englishman writing in the early 1800s; there were several occasions where the person being referred to was not obvious at first reading.

However, those quibbles aside, I can recommend this book, especially now, as many Greek traits we are seeing during their current troubles can be seen in embryo in this story.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

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