Greek Independence: These One Hundred Years
"Our life will have the noblest end which is vouchsafed to man" – Plato
One hundred years ago the Mighty of the earth recognized the birth of a new State in a corner of Europe long since enveloped in the twilight of the Gods, long since brooding in its own Dark Ages, while the enlightened Occident was conquering new worlds beyond the seas, was opening new horizons of liberty and was catching glimpses of new splendor in realms of fact and fancy. The recognition came after the handful of people left in that corner of Europe had gone through the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" for seven wearisome years -- years of uncompromising ferocity, pre-Mosaic in the ruthlessness with which it exacted an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It came as the consummation of a war at the outbreak of which past and present united in one thrilling call to learned minds and romantic hearts of the favored West to see in the insurgents the champions of a "glory that was," in one irresistible attraction for titled heads and gallant warriors to the manner born, that they should offer to this cause not only their gold or their sword, but even their chivalrous life.
A Pygmy people, making a sorry spectacle in the held at best, but well provided with men of stout heart and steady nerve, fought against an oriental Cyclops for their right to live. The successful end of the deadly grapple did not come until they had found it necessary to hold three different national conventions, which had to be supplemented by two ignominious civil outbreaks, waged amidst smouldering ruins and common foes dancing a ghastly dance of vengeance all around them. And all this after victories with which these brave men had renewed their ebbing spirit year after year and in addition to dire disasters that had sent the most valiant to their death, leaving the ever-thinning numbers of the survivors to their despair. Nay, this was not sufficient. Slow-moving diplomatic officialdom in a slow-moving age had to be stirred out of its aloofness to ignore them no longer. Protocol upon protocol was ineffectually signed, but more than that was needed: fleet upon fleet had to be moved. The stubborn struggle went so far that it compelled Europe to take some action or to be shaken from her very foundations and it was so destructive that it prompted young America, far distant in that day, to hasten in her characteristic manner to the relief of the victims.
Since then scholars have attempted to find the causes of the movement, to define its results and to make clear its significance. All agree that the force which wrested that recognition of the new Stale from official Europe was a new factor in politics as well as a new phenomenon in history. Other revolutions had previously taken place, much more extended in area and much more important for the participants and for the nations affected by them. But the American Revolution was directed against administrative imposition, and the French Revolution against a wealthy oligarchy, apart from the fact that both of these uprisings were made against fellow countrymen, and generally speaking, of one and the same religious faith.
The Greek Revolution was of an entirely new order. A generation had scarcely passed since France had been thrown into the Reign of Terror, when, in a world governed according to the political theories of the stronger and taking no account whatsoever of smaller peoples' spirations, the much talked of principle of nationality suddenly burst forth upon the unsuspecting from an unsuspected part of the continent. For the first time this principle proved so insistent that it could not be isolated as had been done in other cases, because the Greek people refused to have their fight for life and liberty end in anything except in their independence; and this claim found sympathetic hearing from the Scandinavian countries to Sicily and from St. Petersburg to Washington. It was an invincible claim for the primordial rights of a part of humanity to its life first and foremost, a plea for the faith and honor of its sons and daughters, a defense of what is worthwhile in human nature and human existence. Whatever the definition of this illusive thing which we call nationality may be, whatever the learning displayed in histories or diplomatic archives or a thousand treatises concerned with it, whatever the opinions of friends or foes of the people in question, this one hit of undeniable truth remains, that when men are caught in an impetus for something nobler than what they are, they cannot be kept from attaining it, even if it cost them the last measure of devotion. One can not but be impressed by this truth in thinking through the fight of modern Greece for her independence and the one hundred years of her freedom, partial and imperfect as that freedom was until recently and still is for a small part of her people.
After the fashion of the times, though the movement could not be isolated, it was restricted most conscientiously to the creation of a little insignificant State, too weak to be of any account either as an adversary or as a tool in the hands of some ambitious power, too poor in arable lands to raise the larger part of her food supplies, too humiliated to do anything save to accept the present, as it was at that time, and to work for the future. And that her people did. With the financial aid of the Powers and with the generous moral support of their friends they entered upon their independent life.
Grateful they have ever been to these Powers and grateful they ever will be, no matter to what temporary rashness harassing reverses may bring them. When, however, the "divide and govern " policy of the Romans was inaugurated in the Near East one hundred years ago, to be carried out only in part, since more diplomatic dividing of rival policies was done than anything else, the most typical of nineteenth century political games was played there at the expense of that little insignificant country and of the misgoverned thousands beyond her narrow confines. Thus started that mischievous process of trial and error – errors committed by her or by her friends, trials sustained by herself alone.
Every decade was marked by some gain in domestic progress, a university founded or a museum built, a railroad opened or a canal completed, but every decade also brought a fresh thwarting of the efforts made by this people to alter the unnatural territorial and racial situation in which they fretted and chafed for three generations. If each generation did see the boundaries of the State extended a little, each also witnessed a naval exhibition designed to discipline that State's behavior but at the same time needlessly humiliating both its government and its people. And all three of these generations were born and brought up to manhood while Crete's long drama of no less than fourteen rebellions was still being acted.
Thus Greece had her full share of nineteenth-century experiences and of the distracting political troubles of a human world. Many a lesson did she draw from them. Many an opportunity did she find in them too for her people's natural sense of humor to be given its much needed relief by sons of hers endowed with a witty slant on things. That inborn good cheer and buoyancy of spirit which had been found even in the grim days of the Revolution, -- some lad whistling on the mountain side as he was gathering snails or roots for his meager meal, some maiden singing under a humble roof, some indispensable holiday dance held in the lull of hostilities, the smile of hope on faces made wan by need more than by care -- all this inner goodness of mere living grew with the people once again to balance the serious side of life in that century, to provide the gaiety so much desired and so well enjoyed by people decked out in pompous clothing, addressed in pompous language, and moving in a pompously upholstered society.
The dominant note struck by nearly all of those who have judged or misjudged the Greek people in the last one hundred years is their character. After the inspired paeans and dithy rambs sung in the early years of their Revolution, there came uninspired pamphlets and libels, unmerited by this people most of the time, unworthy of their authors all the time. Scholarship and superficial observation seemed to be one and the same thing in tracing certain traits of this character back to ancestors of hallowed memory, or to the four centuries of foreign domination, or to an inevitable something, peculiar to this people and hopelessly ineradicable. Time and again the press or the living word echoed what is not so original after all, since an Egyptian priest with some of George Bernard Shaw's disposition in him had long ago said it to a Greek of the classical times who was "abroad" in that antique realm of the Pharaohs for a tour of culture: "Mere children, talkative and vain! " If we must seek precedents in antiquity for the weak points in this people, we may as well go to Homer, the "spring and origin of all things" and note that the Iliad, that first account of Greek character, starts with "Wrath." Nowadays we say "factiousness." Butin all fairness we must not slop here. There is the other side, too. Homer's Odyssey begins with " Man." If we must sing of the "wrath destructive." we are duty bound to "tell of the MAN " as well: and so forth down through antiquity ad infinitum. This sort of polemic treatise, however, is out of fashion in our day, and deservedly so, because it is fruitless. The recent and present life of this people both as individuals and as a nation tells its own truth for those that have ears to hear.
The recognition of their independence is significant enough for historical reasons. But the deeper meaning of their Revolution and of their century’s growth is lost in such general terms as patriotism, heroism and glory, which have not for us the sense they had up to the close of the World War. It has even been remarked that what is patriotism in the West is called jingoism when the Near East is concerned. Such is the relativity of our human virtues! If we interpret history for ourselves so that it may stir our imagination and quicken our hearts instead of remaining a mere narrative record of scholarly interest, we cannot but see that a people which was a loose confederation of self-governing cities when it bowed to Roman sway, a people which was the foundation of a medieval feudal system of emperors, despots, lords and vassals when it bowed to Ottoman might, rose after its belated Dark Ages in a new form, called commonly a nation, but. what is far more important, in a new spirit, a united creative energy. Ties of blood, of language, of faith, traits and customs, are only phases of that unifying dynamic swing upward.
Nor is this enough. The organization and activity of the Philike Hetairia proves that this spirit could be subjected to centralized discipline as no popular force in this people’s history had ever been till then. It is true that the goal of this society, the restoration of the Byzantine Empire, was not attained, because the society itself had overestimated the efficacy of national impulse and moral courage in bringing back a medieval regime that had gone its way long before. But the society succeeded in a moral victory of the greatest moment in the development of the Greek character. It had concentrated in its hands the discipline of the better elements of the people and it had given a definite direction to their energies. That holy ardor did not die away after the War of Independence. It kept renewing itself for one hundred years, making and unmaking the nation's welfare, according as the energy was properly or improperly applied.
As long as it was well directed it secured for t Greece benefits of invaluable worth, achievements of private enterprise and munificence, schools, institutions and even naval units. But whenever that ardor made itself felt as a mere impulse, it caused what is too well known to be mentioned here. And yet, handicaps were only temporary, the creative spirit went on, collecting and preserving relics of past splendor, instructing the people, nourishing their imagination with a new poetry and a fresh literature, both worthy of the appreciation which they have received in Europe and America. This same creative spirit has urged a considerable number of the Greek people to seek their fortune or their education in distant lands and then present to their country a part of the benefits which their vigorous effort is securing for them, so that generations to come may have better chances of success without being obliged to leave her sacred soil. What can this singular devotion to her and her welfare be, if it is not the mighty power of human character bent upon one steadfast purpose? Be her needs material or spiritual, they are not regarded as dreams but they are met by her sons with a calculating practicality and with cheerful promptness. And the exertion which in the nineteenth century was uselessly made in unpractical directions, such as excessive erudition at the expense of understanding, may be excused as having been motivated by an undue emphasis, from outside as well as from within, on hollow culture instead of pithy knowledge.
The century that is beginning for Greece is already presenting judgment where prejudice was rife; exaggerated patriotism is giving way to political virtue; administrative incompetence is being replaced by maturity. After these one hundred years that we have spent in being schooled under the eyes of critics sometimes favorable, but oftentimes caustic, we have come to understand that in our life, both as a nation and as individuals, "a small thing or a word has shown our character better than disastrous battles or magnificent array of war" as Plutarch has put it. Would that the modern press could appreciate the damage done when "a small thing or a word" is sensationally broadcast to the four corners of the world about a small country fighting its own fight of progress in an entangled milieu of a thousand conflicting half-truths and untruths! Would that no irony, not even of the veiled kind, were shown by writers of articles about her in authentic books of reference! Would that the inaccuracy of such judgments as are still pronounced upon her by competent authorities were enough to prevent these judgments from appearing in print! The claim that hers is an island civilization ever trying to get a foothold on the mainland and ever being thwarted is not admissible. Nor is there any significant irony in the principle that her neighbors across the Aegean have taken to themselves, namely, that neither race nor tradition makes a country a people's own, but a common life lived in that country by that people as a whole, both national and economic. This common life is precisely characteristic of the Greek people, and more than that, this people is on a higher plane of civilization with a creative spirit as its distinctive potentiality. What better proof of this fact can be found than the prompt, energetic way in which the former producers of Asia Minor and Thrace have since 1924 become pioneers on a new agricultural and industrial frontier and have given the entire nation an invigorating breath of fresh life? Macedonia is already becoming what a singularly clear-sighted prophet said of her fifty years ago, the cornerstone of united Greece and the guarantee of her future prosperity.
With typically keen appreciation of her altered conditions Greece yields to the verdict of the League of Nations and pays heavy sums to her neighbors for the sake of peace without, while she attends to vocational education and material improvements within. The recent past already belongs to beneficial oblivion. The remote past receives its due homage at fit times. The Greek people accept the eulogies of their friends from other lands for a "glory that was," but they also introduce these friends to the achievements of the present and to the aspirations for the future of Greece. They receive visitors with hospitality and they respond to their good will. They are as truly human as any other people. All classes of this humanity of ours are found among them, in all walks of life. Blessed is he who approaches them with the feeling of the old gentleman of ancient comedy: "I am a man; nothing human is foreign to me!" And if they appear to be not quite so close to the liberty, reason and beauty of old, let them be regarded with a measure of a certain "sweet reasonableness," as Matthew Arnold expressed it. Let it lie remembered that even in that golden age these three were slow in coming, and when they did come, liberty was attained first, beauty followed, but reason came last. To blend these into one harmony is the ever-receding ideal of this world of ours. Whether the large nations or the small ones shall do the most for the realization of this ideal, we all have a part in it. We are all of one humanity, dreaming of better things, working for them daily longer than we dream, living an ever-achieving, ever-moving life and getting our creative spirit from what the greatest poet of modern Greece calls a "LIFE IMMOVABLE."
© Order of AHEPA