Monday, 21 February 2011

Spinning myth back into history

David Brewer ends his narrative of the Ottoman occupation of Greece with a word of warning against over-sanitising history: “If all Greek nationalist bias against Turks is to be removed, Turks cannot be blamed for anything, even if they are clearly responsible for it. History with false judgments is replaced with history containing no judgments at all.”

Brewer hits upon the central dilemma of historiography. If we don’t have an opinion about past events, knowing them is pointless; but we cannot come to know them until we put our opinions aside.

The question of how history should be taught arises particularly in the long and violent relationship between Greeks and Turks. Brewer’s warning is a reaction to a recent attempt by the Greek curriculum to over-purge a sixth form textbook of gory detail. But such political correctness runs a risk of doing exactly what it is trying to overcome – the mythologizing of history through the purging of facts.

In Greece, The Hidden Centuries, Brewer exemplifies how history should be taught. He neither sanitises nor takes an overall standpoint on what he knows well to be a highly controversial era. The almost four century-long tourkokratia, or Turkish domination, is the darkest period in Greek history, because the loss of Constantinople and its possessions in 1453 definitively ended the Greek-dominated Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium, which had stood for over a millennium. In retrospect, it also ended a 2,000-year period in which Greeks wrote many of history’s headlines, and ushered in an era of stagnation and decline from which they are, in many ways, still trying to recover.

Brewer’s concise, sane and independent assessment is an achievement on its own, but a further contribution is to connect Greek events to the wider political, economic and ideological shifts that swept the European scene. The book really comes to life in the telling of events that took place on Greek soil with international importance.

I owe a word of disclosure. As Editor-in-chief of the Athens News, Greece’s English-language newspaper, in 2004 I published a series of essays by Brewer entitled The Tourkokratia – Was it Really That Bad?, which formed the original attempt at this book. Brewer’s thesis was that if one viewed Greek tribulations against a European backdrop, they were on balance neither greater nor lesser. Yes, Greeks went from holders of the Byzantine Empire to tributary subjects; yes, they had to give up young boys to the janissary corps; but they were spared the denominational Christian hatreds that tore through the continent as well as the Napoleonic wars, and they enjoyed complete freedom of worship. Those judgments are largely effaced in the final product, which sticks to a journalistic concept of the facts with little overt editorialising.
The bulk of The Hidden Centuries follows the period from May 1453, when the Ottoman conqueror Mehmed Ali II took Constantinople, to March 1821, when the Greek War of Independence broke out in the Peloponnese, devoting two final chapters to the war itself.

Constantinople’s great opponent was initially Venice, which held Cyprus, Crete and the central cluster of Aegean islands, the Cyclades. These were the remnants of a Venetian conquest of Constantinople 250 years before that of the Turks, followed by a brief resurgence of Byzantium. Brewer describes in detail how Venice and Ottoman Constantinople faced each other across the Aegean. The dilemma facing ordinary Greeks was whether they wanted to be ruled by Catholics or Muslims.

The distance of Venice from its possessions and its inability to face the Ottomans alone ultimately led to the loss of its possessions. The Turks took the Cyclades in 1538, Cyprus in 1571 and Crete a century later. Venice was ejected from its fortresses in the Peloponnese, but as Brewer notes, it was not the only loser. Genoa lost Chios to the sultan in the 16th century. The Order of the Knights of St. John lost Rhodes and moved to Malta.

The Venetians did score one remarkable naval victory, to which Brewer devotes a chapter. The Battle of Lepanto three weeks after the fall of Cyprus did not change the broader course of history, but it did wipe out the Turkish fleet – 200 out of 251 Turkish ships were captured or destroyed – and although the grand vizier ensured that they were rebuilt within a mere seven months, the entire Turkish fleet never put out to sea again.

The Venetians had one last hurrah. In 1683 they mounted an alliance with Austria and the Papal States to take back the Peloponnese. Though initially successful, they were repulsed definitively by 1715 and never followed up on their Greek ambitions again. For two generations, the Ottoman Empire would enjoy unrivalled control over Greece.

The Turks’ next serious challenger would be Russia under Catherine the Great, who authorised the Orlov brothers, Alexis and Theodore, to lead a revolt in Greece. Russia was already at war with Turkey in Romania and the Crimea. Brewer’s broad historical perspective makes evident that Catherine seems to have thought that a Greek front might divide Turkish forces. It was an unlikely method of securing access to the Mediterranean, and she seems to have treated it as such. The 19 ships she sent in the first wave of the expedition were so shoddy that only nine arrived, while the second and third waves left too late to do any good. Catherine thus fielded only 600 men, and dampened Greek enthusiasm by demanding an oath of allegiance to Russia.

The Orlov rebellion ended in disaster, with Russia leaving thousands of followers to their fate in Turkish hands. Brewer describes in details how the sultan authorised Albanian brigands to mete out punishment on recalcitrant areas. They exacted a revenge of plunder and murder for fully nine years before Turkish troops were sent in to eliminate them. The relief of the Greeks is amply illustrated by the fact that “at the eastern gate of Tripolis, a pyramid of Albanian heads was set up, held together by mortar.”

Since Greece was mired in poverty, fear, maladministration and lack of education, it is perhaps hardly surprising that the money and planning necessary for a successful revolution eventually came from Diaspora Greeks. The Philike Etaireia, or Association of Friends, was founded in Odessa by three penniless young professionals, who sought out the revolution’s leaders in Alexandros Ypsilantis, an officer in the Russian artillery, and Alexandros Mavrokordatos, a westernising Greek.
Brewer does not dwell on the cynicism with which the viability of the new Greek state was undermined because that is the scope of an earlier book, The Flame of Freedom. But he does devote a dense chapter to how, after three years of military success, traditional Greek vices caught up with the revolution. Two loans raised in London (in 1824-5) were largely squandered on parasites and hangers on Factionalism turned to civil war between the naval forces under the Hydriot captains and land forces under the legendary Theodoros Kolokotronis, who briefly established separate national governments. In the end the Greeks were only saved by foreign intervention. The combined naval forces of Britain, France and Russia defeated the Turkish fleet at the Battle of Navarino in 1827, only a few miles north of the battle of Lepanto 250 years earlier.

Although Brewer does not draw parallels with the present, how much of modern Greece is recognisable in his narrative of Ottoman Greece is mind-boggling and forms a large part of the value of his book to the student of Greek society. That Greece’s present indebtedness to banks and stockholders around the world began with its very inception and was due to poor money management and a weak political centre is only the most obvious of these. Greek society’s tendency to brittleness is another. A century after independence the nation would again be split between rival governments, this time a Royalist one versus a reformist one under the great Liberal statesman Eleftherios Venizelos, and a second civil war between national forces and communists would ensue in 1946-49. This lack of national tensile strength goes back to the weakness of early central authority. So do Greece’s faith in organic authority as opposed to statutory office and euergetism as opposed to redistributed wealth. The favour-seeking the Greek economy is now famous for follows inevitably in a society that did not fully establish the authority of its elected or appointed officials.

Diplomats, clerics, antiquarians and naturalists who witnessed the country in its darkest hour came away with disheartening accounts of the contrast between the greatness of its past and its degenerate state under the Ottomans. These accounts, accompanied by two centuries of classical scholarship that saw Greece from a northern European point of view, have contributed to the modern Greek inferiority complex. The Greeks’ determination to win and successfully host the 2004 Olympics stemmed from nothing more than a desire to provide evidence of their patrilineage.

Under the last four decades of Ottoman rule Greeks re-discovered their propensity for shipping and ship-building, when Russia’s growing power enabled them to fly the Russian flag and trade freely across the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The Napoleonic Wars added to profit margins as the Greeks ran British blockades with great success. The next great explosion in Greek shipping would not occur until the United States sold its mass-produced Liberty Ships for the price of scrap metal after World War Two.

The saddest revelations, however, come in connection with the state of education and intellectual development. The Greeks never adopted the value system of inalienable individual freedoms that accompanied the Enlightenment in Western Europe, partly because they were shut out of it and partly because their outlook was determined by their purist Orthodox faith. That faith was governed by a church that had come to abhor scientific or literary education and whose stewards, as travellers to Greece witness, were rarely literate.

“All the Greeks... are in such an amazing state of ignorance that there is not a single city in the entire country that has a university and not a trace of pleasure in learning the arts and sciences,” wrote the French naturalist Pierre Belon in 1553. His trip to Mount Athos, then home to some 6,000 monks, left him with the impression that “one can scarcely find in each monastery two or three who know how to read and write.”

The church has since changed little. Notwithstanding an educated and capable minority, it is often used as a repository for those family members who are less competitive in the labour market. Now as then, its monasteries are often dens of embezzlement and intrigue, as revealed most recently in the Vatopaidi scandal, still under investigation in the Greek parliament. Now, as then, the Greek Orthodox Church spends but a fraction of its resources on community work and none on higher education, continuing to believe in faith without works.

Greece cannot easily extricate its sense of nationhood from religion. The Church of Greece is an autocephalous national church, stemming from its disobedience to patriarchal policy against the revolution of 1821; hence the religious designation Greek Orthodox as opposed to just Orthodox. Union of church and state continues to be enshrined in the first three articles of the Greek constitution in defiance of European Union rules and Enlightenment values. Nor can many individual Greeks easily accept a secular identity. The socialist government caused clerical and congregational uproar in 2001, when it removed religious affiliation from identity cards.

The Diaspora was key in sparking, organising and maintaining the revolution, yet Greeks of the time refused to recognise it. A similar distrust continues between Greece and its far-flung communities to this day. In its efforts to attract Diaspora investment, the Greek government must overcome a mountain of bureaucracy designed to fleece outsiders. Now, as in 1821, a critical mass of new blood, badly needed to bring about rapid as opposed to generational change, still seems to frighten as much as inspire Greeks. Progressive politicians have periodically floated the idea of an overseas postal ballot (most recently in 2007), but parliament’s nerve ultimately fails it because most deputies are insecure about their ability to appeal to a bilingual audience.

Brewer does not fall into the trap of blaming the Greeks for their own troubles. He casts light on the Ottoman government’s inability to train a civil service, meaning that policies which looked perfectly good on paper were poorly delivered, or not at all. An aspect of this institutional ineptitude was the encroaching inability to collect taxes, resulting in a privatisation of the practice to unscrupulous local masters. And the practice of forcible conscription of Greek boys was so unpopular that even the Turks abandoned it.

While Brewer’s narrative pegs itself on events of international importance it remains strong, but is intermittently weakened by thematic chapters on farming, island life, piracy and administrative structures, which are of mixed success. To make interesting reading out of everyday life a historian depends entirely on good sources, and Brewer does not have the knowledge of Arabic-scripted Turkish to delve into the Ottoman archive, the supreme source for the Mediaeval Greek economy, that is only now opening up to researchers. Another criticism of The Hidden Centuries is that more detail on military tactics and technology between the great powers would have been appreciated, because it was largely the neglect of technology that undermined Ottoman hegemony. For instance, the Venetians introduced a massive, new kind of warship at the Battle of Lepanto, the Galleasses, which was a key to success. It would be interesting to know why size was effective against the Turks whereas it had been a liability for the Spanish Armada only a few decades earlier. The Orlov brothers failed to take the Turkish citadel of Koroni, because “bombardment from the ships was ineffective” and mines were met with counter-mines. The details of these tactics and devices would have added spice. The publishers have also failed to edit out small errors in numbers. The ascent of Suleyman the Magnificent is at one point dated at 1520, and later at 1522. Cypriot independence is dated both to 1959 and 1960.
But the book scores high marks for its scope, its international frame of reference and its objectivity. In Greece, The Hidden Centuries, Brewer has demonstrated that he is not simply a Philhellene; he is the best sort of Philhellene, seeing the Greeks exactly for what they are and not despising or condescending to them, but regarding them as the product of their circumstances. In this he stands firmly in the tradition of Byron, whose knowledge of Greece and Albania from an extended stay in 1809 immunised him against the crushing disillusionment suffered by continental Philhellenes in the first year of the revolution.

The clash of European and Greek cultures that emasculated the Philhellenic movement as an effective military force, and Byron’s attempts to redeem it, form the core of William St Clair’s classic account of the Greek War of Independence, That Greece Might Still Be Free, recently reissued by OpenBooks, which usefully also provides a searchable online text of its publications. The 1972 accountsees the revolution in terms of the dichotomy between Europeanised Greeks and Philhellenes, who sought the regeneration of Classical Greece, and the newly liberated Greeks, who were unconscious of cultural continuity and served feudal captains intent on carving Greece up into autonomous fiefdoms. The priority of these captains was to plunder Turkish forts, expand the payroll of their private armies and consolidate their political base. They tolerated a purely symbolic national government created by the Diaspora Greeks in hopes that it would raise European money and arms, and actively discouraged the national regiment which, starved of any of the spoils of war, never exceeded a couple of hundred men.

The captains did not seem to realise that central political and military authority would be needed quickly to repulse the inevitable Turkish counter-attack. Initial successes against two Turkish armies sent to crush the rebellion in the Peloponnese in 1822 seemed to confirm the captains’ view. By 1824, however, the revolution would be in serious trouble.
St Clair minces no words in his description of the atrocities committed by both sides. The Greeks were bent on revenge and spared no civilians, as was the case in Navarino, which surrendered in August 1821 on assurances of safe passage: “When the gates were opened the Greeks rushed in and the whole population of between 2,000 and 3,000 were killed with the exception of about 160 who managed to escape. Some of the Turks were left to starve on an uninhabited island in the harbour. A Greek priest who was a witness described the scene as the Turkish women were stripped and searched to see if they were concealing any valuables. Naked women plunged into the sea and were shot in the water. Children of three and four were thrown in to drown, and babies were taken from their mothers and beaten against the rocks.”

The Turks reciprocated in kind. Greek populations in Constantinople and Ottoman domains were arrested in their houses, mutilated and executed in their hundreds. Their women and children were sold as slaves. The entire Greek mercantile quarter of Constantinople was left to the mercy of a killing and burning mob. The suppression of the revolution on Chios in 1822 was particularly violent. Thousands of Turkish irregulars were imported from the mainland to exact a revenge the imperial army evidently did not want to record. Almost overnight, Chios was unpeopled. The men were put to death. Of a total peacetime population of just over 100,000, 41,000 mainly women and boys were exported for sale as sex slaves. “The recalcitrant and the inconsolable were killed off as being of no commercial value and their bodies left to rot in the streets or by the water’s edge in the usual Turkish way with their severed heads between their legs, to be devoured in time by scavenging dogs.”

Unlike Brewer, who fosters objectivity by keeping his readers’ minds largely free of passion, St Clair induces agnosticism through a form of tragic catharsis. European illusions, Turkish barbarity and Greek vainglory and short-sightedness all created a catastrophe for civilian populations across the Ottoman Empire. The dilemma of how such singularly violent history should be taught to the young and impressionable mind remains. Brewer and St Clair teach faith in facts. In this war of independence of the heart and mind, Greek and Turkish textbooks should follow the Philhellenes.

This article appears edited in the current edition of the Times Literary Supplement.


  1. Thank you. I'll look into Brewer as soon as I finish with Kai Bird's Crossing Mandelbaum Gate. Painful as real history is, it also is helpful. Once one has learned (and Americans who grew up in the 1950s have learned reality quite slowly) that there are no white and black hats as in Western films, realizing how the tragedies fit together seems to be the only helpful state of mind available.

  2. An excellent article John - congratulations!


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