Historical story

The democratic political tradition of the Greek Revolution

*Christina Koulouri is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History and Rector at Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences.

We have been waiting for 2021 since the previous years as an opportunity to revisit 1821 and appreciate the historical course of Greece until today. After all, the Greek state in which we live was created as a result of that Revolution. Publications, events, research projects, conferences, concerts and much more were planned internationally, nationally and locally. However, the unpredictability of History dictated otherwise. In a sense, something similar to 1921 is happening, when even then Greece did not celebrate the first centenary of the Greek Revolution because of the Asia Minor Campaign. It is ironic that the victorious epic of 1821 will not be commemorated, but rather the anniversary of the disaster of 1922, with all that might mean for our collective self-awareness.

The loss is significant. The Revolution of 1821 is a period of our history that has not been systematically studied, allowing the reinforcement of stereotypes and myths that are disseminated through school and public history. Because it is indeed the founding event of modern Greece, these myths and distortions affect the way we perceive subsequent historical developments and shape our self-image as a whole. I will mention only two examples, which are nevertheless linked together in shaping the dominant narrative about the ideological-political character of the Revolution. The first concerns the role of the Church and the second, the constitutional political tradition of the Revolution.

First, the role of the Church in the Revolution has been overemphasized through the confusion cultivated between religion as an element of national identity and the role of ecclesiastical institutions. Indeed, the orthodox Christian religion formed the first core of the Greek national identity, as clearly stated by the first revolutionary constitutions. And indeed there were clerics and hierarchs, representatives of both the upper and lower clergy, who were initiated into the Philiki Etairia and played a leading role in the revolutionary processes, such as Palaion Germanos and Papaflessas.

However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate and in general the Church as an institution opposed the Greek Revolution as they had opposed in previous decades the ideas of the Neo-Hellenic Enlightenment and the sermons of the French Revolution for freedom and equality. Rigas Feraios, an ardent supporter of the ideas of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, had received violent attacks from the circle of anti-Enlightenment scholars while his ideas had been condemned in 1798 by Patriarch Gregory V himself, who characterized Rigas' work New Management Policy as dangerous to the orthodox faith. The conflict between Korai and Grigoriou was more personal and violent. In 1819, and while he was only a few months on the patriarchal throne, where he had ascended for the third time, Gregory V issued an encyclical that was considered the starting point for the anti-Enlightenment campaign and ignited fierce confrontations in both camps:the Enlightenmentists, whose central figure it was Korais, and the anti-enlightenment, rallying around the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Democratic and anti-monarchist, with radical ideas about education and about the position of the Church in an independent Greek state, Korais was the ideal "enemy" for Gregory V. The excommunication of Alexandros Ypsilantis and the Greek revolutionaries by the Patriarch in 1821 strengthened the image of the Patriarch as an opponent of liberal ideas and Greek independence. It will take many decades after the establishment of the Greek state to forget the attitude of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and to restore the memory of Gregory V as the "first martyr" of the Revolution.

Secondly, the democratic character of the Constitutions of the Revolution and the political culture that was created as the revolutionary events unfolded have been downgraded, with the result that the constitutional opposition against Kapodistrias and Othon is discredited by the literature as "selfish" and empty of political ideas, so that it was only the result of local interests and factional politics of the hegemonic groups of Greek society. Although indeed the transition from the imperial Ottoman system of administration to the modern, bureaucratic nation-state had dramatic aspects, most notably the case of the maniacal family of the Mavromichalaios, the Greek fighters, although most of them were illiterate, realized almost from the start what it meant the new legality and the constitutional principle. Typical is the case of Karaiskakis, who gradually from the end of 1824 was integrated into the institutions of the national state, redefining the traditional concepts of locality and kinship so that they are now compatible with legality towards the national administration. The chance meeting of Karaiskakis-Kioutachi and the dialogue between the two military leaders on August 9, 1826 reveals that the former charioteer and bodyguard of Ali Pasha now defines himself as a member not of Ottoman legitimacy but of a new legitimacy, that of the Greek nation. Karaiskakis himself wrote about that meeting:"we said a lot, he with his idea that the Greeks are in trouble, and I with my idea that we are free".

The invocation of national sovereignty is a constant and common place of political discourse, regardless of the interests of specific political and social groups. Now no one can claim power without referring to this principle. In the Constitution of Troizena (1827) it was clearly stated that "sovereignty resides in the nation; all authority emanates from it and exists in favor of it" (art. 5). Very soon the Greeks adopted the constitutional vocabulary, the vocabulary of the representative system and the rights of the citizen. Although they undoubtedly imitated Western models (the French mainly), the cosmogony of the Revolution of 1821 created a domestic tradition of liberal institutions, quite successful but at the same time with many peculiarities that differentiated it from what was defined as the Western "norm".

The Constitution was considered an integral and constitutive element of the revolutionary process that began in 1821 and, for this very reason, runs through Greek political life since the arrival of Kapodistrias. It was a key axis of the opposition against the Governor which resulted in his assassination and the civil war that broke out soon after. Moreover, the opposition against Otho was also based on the claim of a Constitution, culminating in the Revolution of September 3, 1843. There is an opinion that for most the meaning of the "Constitution" was unknown, even though it was invoked. However, in the Greek case, as elsewhere, the Constitution does not reflect the values ​​of an already formed community but, on the contrary, contributes to its formation. A neologism introduced at the same time as independence, co-shapes views on political institutions and the state question, with a strong symbolic function for a variety of claims.

It would be interesting to follow the uses of the term and their evolution, especially after the imposition of the monarchical polity in the country, in order to establish whether it was really just, as Ragavis claimed, "a magical word that ignited the imagination of the young, beckoned the scholars , and unites the people". However, the definition given by Kolokotronis shows that probably the protagonists of the struggle for independence were, regardless of their education, aware of the political content of the term. Kolokotronis says:"Constitution would say that the literate, the well-educated should sit in one corner, despised and weak, and that I, the Vlach, and my ilk should come out in the middle." The leaders of the Greek Revolution were aware that, with the creation of the nation-state, only through the representative system would they have access to power. They were also aware that it was not enough to simply transfer Western political institutions to a Greek environment, but that these institutions would have to be adapted to Greek realities. As Makrygiannis characteristically writes:"I want a Greek Constitution, in line with the needs and needs of our country and not a constitution that the enlightened and wealthy nations of Europe have, since we have neither their wealth nor their education".

The above selective references remind us of the project of political emancipation, which coexisted in the conception of the Greek Revolution. The vocabulary of the citizen has been introduced ever since, shaping the political culture of the Greek state. However, the imposition of the monarchical polity, the dominance of libertarianism (the Great Idea) and the political power of philo-orthodoxy influenced the dominant narrative for 1821, downgrading the democratic political tradition to an "episode" and ephemeral symptom of a "backward" society.

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