An international conference at King’s College London looks into the Greek experience of nation-building in the 19th century
A visionary, Rigas Ferraios – aka Velestinlis – was behind the 1797 publication in Vienna of a constitution for a future ‘Hellenic Republic’. He paid for his ideals with his life shortly afterwards
EVERY Greek and every friend of the country knows the magic date of 1821, when the banner of revolution was raised against the empire of the Ottoman Turks, and the story of ‘Modern Greece’ is usually said to begin. What is less well known, but almost more important, is that just eleven years later, in 1832, the newly independent state of Hellas was recognised by international treaty, with the full rights of a sovereign nation. Greece was only the second of the new nation-states of modern Europe to be recognised in this way (pipped by just two years by… Belgium).
Historians of Modern Greece have not always paid sufficient attention to this fact, which places the Greek achievement of an independent nation-state, so early in the nineteenth century, in the forefront of the emergence of the modern political and intellectual movement known today as nationalism. Historians of the movement, whose origins are generally supposed to lie in the ferment of ideas that reached its peak before and after the French Revolution of 1789, may learn much from studying the Greek experience during those years. Nationalism is still a very potent force in world politics today – just think of the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, only a few years ago, or the present conflict in the Middle East. Those who try to understand the powerful appeal that the idea of the nation can have over the intellects and emotions of its members ought to interest themselves in charting, much more rigorously than has yet been done, the ferment of ideas that accompanied the birth and early years of the modern Greek state.
The year 1797 saw the publication, in Vienna, of a constitution for a future ‘Hellenic Republic’ by Rigas of Velestino (sometimes also known as Ferraios). No such state existed at the time, of course, and Rigas paid for his visionary ideals with his life shortly afterwards. But a century later, in 1896, the capital of independent Greece, Athens, was chosen by an international committee as the first venue of the newly revived Olympic Games, an event that established the greatest international sporting fixture of modern times. The achievement of nationhood had not only transformed Greece; it had also very radically changed ways of thinking, both among Greeks themselves and those who interacted with them.
How did this come about? How were the new ideas expressed and disseminated? What were the roles of philhellenes, critics and other observers outside the country? The answers to these and other related questions were sought at an international conference held on September 7-9, at King’s College London, under the auspices of the college’s Centre for Hellenic Studies, in collaboration with the Institute for Neohellenic Research, part of the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens.
Print of Rigas’ so-called Charta (map)
The theme of the conference was «The Making of Modern Greece: Nationalism, Romanticism, and the Uses of the Past (1797-1896)». It attracted over 30 speakers, from institutions in Austria, France, Italy, and Russia, as well as from Greece, the UK and the US. The focus throughout was not so much on the well-known milestones on the way to the creation of the Greek nation-state, but rather on the thought-processes that underpinned nationalism and made that achievement possible. Speakers were encouraged whenever possible to bring a comparative dimension to their work so that Greek ideas, attitudes and achievements would be considered not in isolation but in relation to comparable trends elsewhere in Europe and the region.
Under the title «Comparative Nationalism», the concluding panel included Suzanne Marchand (Louisiana State University), a specialist on romanticism and philhellenism in 19th-century Germany, and Samim Akgonul, who researches in social history at the University of Strasbourg in France, and has written on the vexed issue of relations between Greece and his native Turkey during the 20th century. Also speaking in this session was Robert Holland, of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, who has just published (with Diana Markides) ground-breaking work on successive British ‘colonial’ confrontations with Hellenism: in the Ionian Islands, in Crete and in Cyprus. Then, from the point of view of a classicist with a strong comparative interest in the way history has been written in modern and ancient times, Henrik Mouritsen, of the Department of Classics at King’s, rounded off this session by suggesting that modern Greece has been much more successful than modern Italy in mobilising a vision of the country’s classical past so as to capture the imagination and the loyalty of its citizens.
Other panels tackled such subjects as ‘Religion and Nationalism’, the juxtaposition of western European perspectives on emerging Greece with emergent Greek perspectives on their neighbours in the Balkans and Europe, and the nature and wider impact of the perennially controversial ‘Language Question’ in Greece. Archaeology, and attitudes to the progressive uncovering of a sometimes unfamiliar past, formed the backbone of two sessions. In others, speakers addressed questions of political and social developments (with particular reference to the Ionian Islands under British rule from 1815 to 1864), the role of literature in shaping the national imagination, and parallel developments in the daily press, in opera and music, in visual arts and in public architecture.
The first of two ‘keynote’ speeches was given by Paschalis Kitromilides, director of the Institute for Neohellenic Research and professor of Political Science at the University of Athens, who called for the study of Greek intellectual history to be ‘canonised’, through wider recognition by scholars in other countries dealing with comparative and theoretical issues. The second, by Anthony D Smith, applied the insights of the one of the most influential and original political scientists of the day to the specific case of Greece. A notable aspect of the conference was the interaction between distinguished experts in their respective fields (including, among others, Mark Mazower, Charles Stewart, Michael Llewellyn Smith, who was recently British ambassador to Greece, Peter Mackridge, Alexis Politis and Dimitris Tziovas) and younger scholars, now completing their doctorates or in junior academic positions, who will take the subject forward into the next generation.
So, what does the Greek experience of nation-building in the 19th century have to teach academics and policymakers in the globalised world of the 21st century? I cannot claim that our discussions in London produced any short, sharp, ‘sound-bite’ answers to the questions raised by the conference. But I do believe that, thanks to the many scholars who took part and to an excellent organising team on the ground, something worthwhile was achieved in defining the questions that future research will have to answer. In these fields of enquiry, just as in the ‘hard’ sciences, working out how to formulate your question properly can already take you a long way towards finding the answer.
* The writer is Koraes Professor of Modern Greek and Byzantine History, Language and Literature at King’s College London. He contributed this review to the Athens News
ATHENS NEWS , 22/09/2006, page: A40 Article code: C13201A401
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