The Significance of The Greek Revolution

The Revolution of 1821, with which the Greek people resumed its place on the stage of world history after an eclipse of nearly four centuries, has been recognized as an event of universal significance. For it not only liberated a comer of the Greek fatherland, thus virtually inaugurating the long process of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, but it also gave to European liberalism a tremendous impetus, the beneficent reaction of which was felt both by the nations living under foreign rule and, to a smaller extent, by the down-trodden social classes. A brief discussion of the Greek War of Independence as a liberating force outside of Greece is the purpose of this article.

From 1792 to 1815 Europe was almost continuously at war. The ideas and forces released by the French Revolution gave such a vitality and aggressiveness to the traditional foreign policy of France as to make her a more formidable menace to the rest of Europe than she had ever been under the Ancient Regime. In the masterful hands of Napoleon Bonaparte the Revolution was made to serve the cause of Empire; and when the great conqueror was finally safely lodged on the Rock of St. Helena, Europe heaved a sigh of relief. Exhausted by the long struggle, rulers and peoples longed for peace. But whereas the former wanted peace in conjunction with the restoration of the pre-Revolutionary status quo, the latter, under the spell of the magic words "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity," expected the end of the war to usher in a more equitable social and international order. But since diplomacy in those days was under the exclusive control of the rulers, the reconstruction effected by the Congress of Vienna was dictated by their interests and prejudices and completely ignored the aspirations of their subjects.

The decisions of the Congress of Vienna aimed, generally speaking:

    (a) to restore the international order destroyed by the Revolution and Napoleon, in so far as such restoration did not conflict with the interests of the victorious Powers, and;

    (b) to neutralize the corrosive acids released by the revolutionary ferment, and particularly the principle of nationality which, with the help of the military genius of France, had shaken Europe to its foundations for a quarter of a century.

In the name of the principle of legitimacy, the Bourbons were restored, more incorrigible than ever in Spain, somewhat chastened and more reasonable in France. The hopes of the German patriots, which had inspired the national uprising of 1813-1814 against Napoleonic tyranny, were sorely disappointed. Italy. after a fleeting glimpse of the goal of national freedom and integration, was delivered, divided and in fetters to the Bourbons, the Pope and Austria. An illusory and ephemeral autonomy was given to Poland. In England itself, the triumphant Tories not only resisted the faintest velleity of political and social reform but even dared to tamper with the traditional civil liberties of the English people. The nations of Europe were thus delivered to the tender mercies of reactionary governments and foreign despots. Social and international justice was sacrificed on the altar of a false legitimacy and a deceptive peace. The Congress of Vienna. in short, registered and legitimized the triumph of Counter-Revolution. Europe got rid of Napoleon only to be handed over to Metternich.

The resistance of the peoples of Western Europe to this stifling regime was pathetically weak. The subterranean activities of the Carbonari and the romantic gestures of German student societies did not constitute a serious menace against the forces of reaction. Attempts at insurrection in Piedmont and in Naples were easily suppressed with the help of Austrian bayonets and liberalism everywhere seemed sunk in the exhaustion of despair. It was at this juncture that the Greek War of Independence broke out. Though aimed directly at the Ottoman Empire, it turned out to be the first serious blow against the oppressive regime with which Europe had been saddled by the reactionary governments after the fall of Napoleon. For, by eventually compelling England, Russia and France to follow a policy diametrically opposed to that of Austria, it blunted the edge of Metternich's favorite policy of intervention against Revolution, helped to break up the Quadruple Alliance and to emasculate the more nebulous Holy Alliance and to destroy the solidarity of the rulers which amounted to a conspiracy against the liberties of their subjects.

These results were due in the first place to the unexpectedly tenacious and successful struggle of the insurgent Greeks against the terrific might of the Ottoman Empire. With the exception of France, where the Greek Revolution found immediate and almost universal favor owing to the peculiar political and psychological atmosphere of the post-Napoleonic period, all the other European Powers at first shared the anti-Greek views of Mettenich. The Austrian Chancellor regarded the Greek insurrection as an unjustifiable defiance of legitimate authority and a most reprehensible disturbance of the peace, and affected to see in it an alarming recrudescence of that revolutionary spirit to exorcise which he had labored so diligently and effectively. Under his influence even the Czar Alexander I of Russia, on whom the insurgent Greeks had pinned their hopes, condemned the insurrection, cashiered his aide de camp Alexander Ypsilantis and virtually dismissed his confidential adviser Capodistrias. But when the Congress of Verona, which had contemptuously denied a hearing to the suppliant representatives of insurgent Hellenism, received the news of the destruction of the formidable host of Mahmud Pasha Dramali. the European chancelleries realized that they were in the presence of a national movement infinitely more serious than the sporadic rebellions and conspiracies fostered by secret societies. At the same time the amazing exploits of Canaris. Miaoulis and other sea-dogs having given the Greeks virtual command of the sea, induced George Canning to reverse the policy of his predecessor Lord Castlereagh and to take the decisive step of recognizing the Greek insurgents as belligerents. Whereupon the energetic Nicholas I, who had succeeded the vacillating Alexander on the throne of Russia, fearing a one-sided intervention on the part of England, readily concurred in joint Anglo-Russian action, which was agreed upon by the protocol of April 1826. To this agreement France, Philhellenic from the beginning of the struggle, adhered with alacrity; and the intervention of the three Powers with a view to bringing about a cessation of hostilities was decided by the London Convention of July 1827. The upshot of these successive diplomatic moves was the great naval battle of Navarino, which destroyed the Turco-Egyptian armada and forced the redoubtable Ibrahim out of Greece before he could complete his task of suppressing the insurrection with fire and sword.

A second factor which forced the reactionary governments to adopt a friendlier attitude towards revolutionary Greece was the widespread popular sympathy for the Greek cause. Love of classical antiquity and interest in Christianity combined with the romantic aspirations characteristic of the age to produce Philhellenism, a movement that has a distinct place in the history not only of international politics but of European culture as well. The Greek insurrection was looked upon by the oppressed nations of Europe as a ringing challenge to reaction and became the symbol of the universal struggle of freedom against tyranny. Hence its victorious outcome at Navarino was greeted, in K. M. Bartholdy’s felicitous phrase, as “the triumph of the peoples over the monarchs." For the first time perhaps in the history of Europe public opinion was able to exert such a potent and decisive influence on the policy of the chancelleries. The Battle of Navarino was the people’s revenge on the Congress of Vienna.

Greece owes her freedom to the valorous exertions of her own children but also to the timely assistance of the outside world. This is a debt of which the Greek people have never been oblivious. But they also feel that they have at least partially repaid it by setting Europe an example of resistance to oppression at a time when such an example was sorely needed. Viewed from this angle, the Greek War of Independence is a landmark not only in the tri-millenial history of the Greek race but also in the long and checkered record of human freedom.

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