An Anatomy of Greek Nationalism: Reconsidering the Historical Context.

September 25, 2008

By Apostolis Fotiadis

The study of Greek nationalism is confronted by a dual problem. Not only the complexities of social change in the Balkans  make it a difficult topic, but also the historical re-appropriation of it have alternated its original features several times. Consequently the students of this social, historical and political force have to study it both as the motive force and the subject matter of historical necessities. Furthermore, Greek nationalism exists at once in both conditions. It influences historical evolution and is influenced from the products of its impact. It is possibly this strong connection which reflects better than any other the ability of nationalisms to appear as self-perpetuated forces.

A very strong custom in the Modern Greek historiography is to look deep into the past for the hidden sources of national consciousness. Even in texts which carefully avoid crude and senseless nationalism the impression of continuity between present and past emerges along these lines. In the same way Apostolos Vakalopoulos in his book “The question of National Liberation” traces a first sign of national stirring back in the 13th and 14th centuries. He seems to believe that an important force, still then tamed, exists in the tortured nostalgia of individual intellectuals and their pleas towards western leaders for the liberation of the lost ‘homeland’. The authors refers to Michael Apostolis which in 1470 asks from king Frederick to restore Byzantium; to Michael Maroullos Tarhaniotes (1453/54-1500) a mercenary-poet who wanders around and spreads the word about the lost ‘homeland’; most of all to Janus Laskaris who repeatedly appealed to the rulers of the west, Pope Leo X and Pope Julius II, Charles VIII of France or Maximilian I of Germany, asking them to restore Christianity on the land taken by the Ottoman Empire.
It is not surprising that any scholars of Greek history who wanders into the past will discover countless figures of intellectuals mentioning the lost ‘homeland’. But to visualize, even to imagine, that in these references ought to exist the same essence which centuries later would be transformed into the spirit of a new nation is a weak starting point for researching the origins of the Greek Nation. Through this spectacle the majority of perennial and primordial explanations of Greek nationalism can be easily dismissed because of intellectual weaknesses and historical inconsistencies. However it is more important to understand that even Greek scholars who interpret nationalism as a product of modernity usually fail not to become the subject of their subject; they fail to detach themselves from the anachronistic tradition of national Greek historiography.
This problem and its difficulties is illustrated better in the words of Pashalis Kitromilides,

‘On this level it is necessary to try to appraise the extend to which the logic of the nation-state, which has pervaded and conditioned all modern culture in the period since the age of the French Revolution, sets our intellectual and emotional priorities and interpretative categories’

The main effect of the attitude which derives from the limitations described by Kitromilides has been the overestimation of the intellectual relationship of the Greek national identity with the inspirational forces of enlightenment. The conceptualisation of this relation as a cerebral intellectual experience was achieved through the marginalization of a significant part of the political and economic realities that brought about the birth of Greek nationalism.
The reasons for this preferential treatment are multiple and add to the complexity of the subject under study. While the appearance of Neohellenic enlightenment seems to be the result of the marriage of an infant Greek nationalism with modernity and its influences, any relevant economic and political developments which take place through the history of the Ottoman Empire during the same era are given minor attention. In fact these developments are one among the many side effects of the Empire’s attempt for modernization, in which the Greek element is less a driving force and more an object. However this reality fails to satisfy the need of Greek nationalism for total alienation and elimination of its Ottoman legacy. Even more it cannot be connected to the popular ‘orientalist’ view of Ottomanism as necessarily backward. As a result major alterations caused also by modernity like the development of a capitalist market economy; urbanization and the creation of a common simplified language have been pushed aside in favor of an official historical version which observes its relation with the west almost with religious faith.

Washing away the Ottoman legacy

This selectivity in the self-awareness of Greek nationalism is not a byproduct of a national awakening. It is a necessary process in the search for a sense of cultural superiority over any other ethnic element inside the civilisational boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Under this perspective the Greek case does not defer substantially from any other Balkan nationalism in the 19th century. According to Kitromilides the essential ideological transformations occur when Greek intellectuals, like Evgenios Voulgaris and Agapios Loverdos, come into contact with the spirit of Enlightenment and discover the dynamics of international politics.  As a result a yearning for a new life in a civil society starts being present in their writings.
In Kitromilides view the developments which complete this differentiation are three. First appears a secularization of the Greek historical consciousness through its emancipation from the traditional Providational theory of history. This is followed by a feeling of distinctiveness, which makes the Greeks aware of their position in the modern international society. Even more it gives them a clear picture of their role and the opportunities accessible by them. Finally the psychological and historical dependency of the Greeks on the big Christian powers as potent liberators comes to an end.
Kitromilides illustrates clearly the impact of enlightenment’s spiritual influences. It is true that the disappointment with the ‘Russian expectation’ and the ‘Foreign factor’ at the first half of 19th century brought a radicalization of many Greek thinkers. However, the evolution of Greek nationalism towards an aggressive and conservative character can not been explained just from the progressive impact of the Enlightenment. Very soon after the fulfillment of the first national aspiration with the successful Greek war of independence Greek nationalism will abandon any progressive or cosmopolitan tendencies. It will actually backlash towards reaction. Kitromilides describe in his article “The dialectic of intolerance” how the liberal spirit of the first years becomes the victim of conservative forces. Under this shift the very first and progressive constitution of Epidaurus, January 1st, 1822, is abandoned at the end of the war . One of the main advocates of this conservative turn was the newborn Orthodox Greek Church.
The church by becoming the motive force behind nationalism in the infant state, especially after its institutionalization in 1833, controlled and shaped in a great extent its character. Together with conservative political and intellectual forces, of which characteristic representatives have been the Prime Minister Ioannis Koletis and the mastermind of national irredentism Kostadinos Paparigopoulos, it engaged on a long project of cultural cleansing. Anything that connected the Greek national identity with its Ottoman Legacy was carefully removed.
In this way Rhigas Velestinlis’s internationalism, the heart of his New Political Constitution was ignored.  Thereafter he would only be remembered as the first martyr of the Greek nation. With the same method ‘Demotici’, the vernacular spoken by the majority of ethnic Greeks, and also understood by other ethnic elements, was violently replaced by ‘Katharevusa’, an actually dead language engineered in order to emphasize the relationship of modern with ancient Greek. Perhaps the most important alteration was the re-appropriation of the role of religion in the struggle for national liberation. As a result the role of religion was reconsidered and the church was reinstated as the spiritual leader of the revolution. This, however, was falling far from any historical truth. As Robertson and Roudometof write,

‘The religion that mattered, then, was not the religion of the Church hierarchy but rather that which existed at the level of the people, people who felt disenfranchised by the ruling classes of the empire, which included the so-called leaders of the Orthodox church.’

Along this line the excommunication of the revolution by the Patriarchate was forgotten. The new narratives insisted on the importance and the sacrifices of the church for the national cause. Stories like the ‘Hidden School’ (Krifo Sholio) became popular myths.
In general during the 30s the church consolidated its role as an all-powerful political institution. The secularization of historical consciousness as it is described from Kitromilides did not last long. Soon Providentialism would be again the dictator of Greek history together with a messianic element. The Greek Orthodox Church would retain its indisputable role of educator of the nation. For years any alternative position or criticism would be silenced. The excommunication of many important authors, like Emmanuel Roidis, Andeas Laskaratos and later on Nikos Kazatzakis, and the introduction of the prayer and religious classes into the school curriculum are just two effects of a long effort by the Church to secure its role.
From the beginning of 1840s the inventors of tradition would deploy their aggressive and xenophobic tendencies. These are easily observed in the attempts of Ioannis Koletis to narrate the origins and the destiny of the Greeks as the chosen people. The translation of this mentality into a political program would be manifested in the irredentist tendency of Greek nationalism in the second half of the 19th century and its intellectual product, the Great Idea (Megali Idea).

‘The first task has been fulfilled by our ancestors; the second is assigned to us. In the spirit of our oath and of this great idea, I have seen the delegates of the nation assembling to deliberate not simply on the fate of Greece, but on the entire Greek race… We have been led astray and away from that great idea of the fatherland which was first expressed in the song of Rhigas.’… ‘Athens, and the rest of Greece divided in the past in particular states, fell and through her downfall she has enlightened the world. Contemporary Greece, united as she is in one state, one purpose, one power, one religion, should therefore inspire great expectations in the world…’

Looking at Greek Romanticism from a socio-political perspective.

The issue of Greek romanticism is not exhausted in the story of victorious religious conservatism over the liberal cosmopolitan enlightenment. The social foundations of Greek nationalism derive directly from the socio-economic reality which characterizes the Empire during the 16th and 17th century. In her work ‘The Muslim Bonaparte’ Fleming mentions Kemal Karpat’s opinion for the rise of nationalism in the Ottoman State. According to him,

‘the Greek War of Independence, like other nationalist uprisings that punctuated the Empire’s final centuries, was not a simple expressions of religious and ethnic outcry. The Independence movements culminating in the formation of the nation-states that dot the map of today also find their roots in questions of class, social status, and economy’

As it was argued before the ethnic and religious aspects dominate the official view for the rise of Greek nationalism. However, this does not mean that the history of commerce, population movements and economic development have not been the subject of historians. Quite the contrary in Vakalopoulos’s book “The Greek Nation” all these facts are described extensively. The history of migration of ethnic Greek populations outside of the Empire, to many economical and intellectual centers of those times like Venice, Marseilles, Vienna and many other cities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia is told in detail. The reader can learn how Greek merchants from Arta, Ioannina and Avlona settled in Ancona Belgrade and Zemun (an enterport of main trade roots in Austria). The Greek entrepreneurs reach as north as to Transylvania, in cities like Sibiu, Brasov, Cluj, Arad, Alba-Iulia and Hunedoara.
The successful story of Greek Merchants will provoke and initiate a substantial progress of the Greek communities inside the Empire. As the author explains, ‘Greek migration abroad had many intellectual, economic and cultural ramifications. The expatriates’ homelands usually experienced a strong surge of economic development. After the return of a money economy at the beginning of the sixteenth century, there was a marked economic revival among the poverty stricken mountain communities of peninsular Greece.’  The prosperity of commerce in Peloponnesus, Epirus and Macedonia but also of Crete, Cyprus and the islands in the Ionian and Aegean seas is carefully explored. Place after place the author sites the spices, fruits, wine, other foodstuffs and chemicals, and any other product the cities export or import. In his narrative the sea is full of English, Dutch, French, Venetian and Armenians merchant vessels that compete rigorously against each other. Last but not least the story of major trade centers of the age, Thessaloniki, Istanbul, Alexandria and Smyrna is also there.
Vakalopoulos’s work is an outstanding achievement of ethnography. Through its pages the reader can observe the interrelations and perplexities which steadily and gradually drive the Greek ethnic element towards what Ernest Gellner has described as a ‘high culture’. Even the evolution of the modern demotic form of the Greek language depends not only of intellectual elaboration but also ‘on the active participation by Greece in the commerce between East and West.’
The only objection to Vakalopoulos’s work is that the development of social imaginaries and a common vernacular, both necessary for the growth of national consciousness, seem to take place out of their historical context. To cut a long story short the Ottoman Empire is essentially absent form his narrative. The role of social and economical structures of the Ottoman entity does not appear to influence actively but only to facilitate the social evolution of the Greek ethnic element. Kitromilides description of the methodological and theoretical problems of the study of Greek history, quoted already in this paper, illustrate clearly the weaknesses of this case.
In fact the passage to modernity and the making of a Greek Bourgeoisie goes through the Ottoman institutions and political establishment. Many ancestors of old noble families survived the end of the Byzantine Empire and were transformed to new entrepreneurs. They became traders diplomats and advisors well affiliated with the palace. Consequently they remained close to their natural environment. In this way they preserved the cosmopolitan spirit which made them the carrier of new innovative ideas and political thinking. In this process they were joined by people who had benefited from the upwards social mobility that the social organization of the Ottoman State allowed and became altogether a new proto-bourgeoisie. This mixture of old aristocrats and new upper middle class is the essence from which the national pioneers emerge, as the Phanariotes or rich members of the diaspora like the Zosimades brothers.


An explanation of how the historical re-appropriation, which dismisses the Ottoman legacy, is legitimated ought to take in account that Greek nationalism has been historically successful. It has achieved nationhood and statehood and has satisfied in a great extend its core national myth, the survival through the Ottoman occupation. In addition, the responsible institutions for its narratisation, in other words the preservation of national memory and the production of written history, have been the state and the Greek Orthodox Church. Both of them own their existence in a great extend to the force they sought to defend. This reciprocal relationship has created a very protective frame in which historical research takes place under the scrutiny of the guardians of the nation. Thus any alternative internal attempt to renegotiate the official historical version is equated with betrayal. Serious attempts to study the Greek nationalism in its proper historical context are usually the subject of sophisticated academic circles and win limited popular attention.
The case of Greek nationalism illustrates the need, first of all, for the creation of an impartial history of ideas. Only in this way the reconstruction of the real context which historical re-appropriations have mutilated for almost two centuries will be rendered possible. Otherwise the effort to understand the rise of South Eastern nationalisms will always be in vain.


  1. interesting piece
    could you please tell me if it’s been published elsewhere? I mean should I cite the blog?

  2. hi,
    its the first time this is posted or published somewhere, so cite the blog. Send me a link if you want.


  3. yes, it’s really nice and very usefull article. still not published in any other place?

  4. Dear Sir,

    Thank you for your interesting contribution regarding the intricate question of Greek nationalism. Could you please send me the exact reference of the book of Vakalopoulos you mention?

    Best wishes.

  5. […] their once glorious past) or the modern Greeks (as–you guessed it–a reminder of their once glorious past). For in these marbles and monuments we find competing narratives, for whose glorious past can they […]

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