Greek War of Independence

Greek War of Independence
Greek War of Independence

The Ottoman Empire had ruled all of Greece, with the exception of the Ionian Islands, since its conquest of the Byzantine Empire over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries.

But in the 18th and 19th centuries, as revolutionary nationalism grew across Europe (due, in part, to the influence of the French Revolution) and the power of the Ottoman Empire declined, Greek nationalism began to assert itself and drew support from western European “philhellenes.”

By that time, the desire for independence was common among Greeks of all classes, whose Hellenism, or sense of Greek nationality, had long been supported by the Greek Orthodox Church, by the survival of the Greek language, and by the administrative arrangements of the Ottoman Empire.

In Odessa (a port on the Black Sea now in Ukraine) in 1814, Athanasios Tsakalof, Emmanuel Xanthos, and Nikolaos Skoufas founded a Greek Independence Party, called Philiki Etairia (Friendly Society). The founders recruited merchants and rich expatriates abroad, as well as military leaders, priests, and intellectuals.

The fall of Napoleon I in 1815 released many military adventurers from whom the Greeks could learn the art of contemporary warfare. Vienna, Great Britain, and the United States were havens of refuge and planning for Greek émigrés.

The obvious candidate to lead the Philiki Etairia was Ioannis Kapodistrias. In 1808 he was invited to St. Petersburg and in 1815 he was appointed by Czar Alexander i as foreign minister of Russia. The message of the society spread quickly and branches opened throughout Greece. Members met in secret and came from all spheres of life.

The leaders held the firm belief that armed force was the only effective means of liberation from the Ottoman Empire and made generous monetary contributions to the freedom fighters. With the support of Greek exile communities and covert assistance from Russia, they prepared for a rebellion.

Only a suitable opportunity of revolt was needed, and this was provided by the rebellion of Ali Pasha against Sultan Mahmud II. While the Turks were preoccupied with this threat, the Greeks rose to war.

The start of the uprising can be set as March 6, 1821, when Alexandros Ypsilanti, the leader of the Etairists, crossed the Prut River into Turkish-held Moldavia with a small force of troops, or on March 23, when rebels took control of Kalamata in the Peloponnese peninsula. Regardless, on March 25, 1821, Bishop Germanos raised the Greek flag as the banner of revolt at the monastery of Aghia Lavra in the Peloponnese.

The ensuing revolution went through three phases: local successes in 1821–25, the crisis caused by the Egyptian intervention on behalf of the Ottoman Empire in 1826–28, and a period of overwhelming European intervention on behalf of the Greeks ending in Turkish recognition of Greek independence in 1832.

From the beginning, the revolution had great momentum. Simultaneous risings took place across the Peloponnese, central Greece, including Macedonia, and the islands of Crete and Cyprus. Fighting broke out throughout the Peloponnese, with freedom fighters laying siege to the most strategic Turkish garrisons and razing the homes of thousands of Turks.

The worst atrocity occurred in Tripolitsa (today Tripolis), where 12,000 Turkish inhabitants were massacred. The Turks retaliated with massacres in Asia Minor, most notoriously on the island of Chios, where more than 25,000 civilians were killed.

The fighting escalated throughout the mainland and many islands. Using the element of surprise, and aided by Ottoman inefficiency, the Greeks succeeded in taking control of vast areas. Within a year the Greeks had captured the Peloponnese, Athens, and Thebes.

In January 1822 the rebels declared the independence of Greece. The Turks attempted three times between 1822 and 1824 to invade the Peloponnese but were unable to take the area back from the victorious Greeks.

The Ottomans, however, soon recovered and retaliated violently. The retribution drew sympathy for the Greek cause in western Europe, although the British and French governments suspected that the uprising was a Russian plot to seize Greece from the Ottomans.

The Greeks were unable to establish a coherent government and soon fell to fighting among themselves. They lacked unity of objectives and strategy, and the objectives of the different classes and regions were too disparate to be reconciled.

In 1822 two Greek governments existed, and by 1824 open civil war prevailed in Greece. In 1823 civil war broke out between the guerrilla leader Theodoros Kolokotronis and Georgios Kountouriotis, who was head of the government that had been formed in January 1822.

After a second civil war in 1824, Kountouriotis was firmly established as leader. These internal rivalries prevented the Greeks from extending their control and from firmly consolidating their position in the Peloponnese.

Egypt’s Response

Fighting between Greeks and Ottomans continued until 1825, when the sultan asked for help from his most powerful vassal, Egypt. Egypt was then ruled by Muhammad Ali Pasha, who had built up a large army and new naval fleet. The Egyptian force, under the command of Ali’s son Ibrahim, quickly gained control of the seas and Aegean Islands.

With the support of Egyptian sea power, the Ottoman forces successfully invaded the Peloponnese. They recaptured the town of Athens in August 1826, and the Acropolis, symbol of Greece’s former greatness, fell to the Turks in June 1827.

The Western powers were reluctant to intervene, fearing the consequences of creating a power vacuum in southeastern Europe, where the Turks still controlled much territory. In Europe, however, the revolt aroused widespread sympathy.

Greece was viewed as the cradle of Western civilization, and it was lauded by romanticism. The sight of a Christian nation attempting to cast off the rule of a Muslim empire also appealed to the European public.

Help did come from the philhellenes— aristocratic young men, recipients of a classical education, who saw themselves as the inheritors of a glorious civilization, willing to fight to liberate its oppressed descendants.

Philhellenes included Percy Bysshe Shelley, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, Victor Hugo, and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Byron spent time in Greece but died from fever in 1824. Byron’s death did even more to augment European sympathy for the Greek cause.

European Intervention

The Greek cause was saved by the intervention of the European powers. Favoring the formation of an autonomous Greek state, they offered to mediate between the Turks and the Greeks in 1826 and 1827.

When the Turks refused, a combined Russian, French, and British fleet destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet in the Bay of Navarino in October 1827. This was the decisive moment in the war, although the British admiral Codrington ruined his career because he had not been ordered to achieve such a victory.

Although the Battle of Navarino severely crippled the Ottoman forces and made the independence of Greece practically certain, another two years passed before the fighting ended and nearly five before the new state took shape. In October 1828 the French landed troops in the Peloponnese to stop the Ottomans.

Under French protection, the Greeks were able to form a new government. In April 1827 Kapodistrias was elected as provisional president of Greece by the third National Assembly. The Greeks then advanced to seize as much territory as possible, including the ancient cities of Athens and Thebes.

Again the Western powers intervened, and Ottoman sultan Mahmud II even proclaimed a holy war. Russia sent troops into the Balkans and engaged the Ottoman army in another Russian-Turkish war in 1828–29.

Fighting continued until 1829, when, with Russian troops at the gates of Constantinople, the sultan accepted Greek independence by the Treaty of Adrianople, or Edirne, in 1829.

In 1830 the Greeks still had in mind a future ruler who would remain the sultan’s vassal. The treaty of Adrianople made this impossible, and in February 1830, the throne of Greece was offered to Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg.

In 1832, however, the 17-year-old Bavarian prince Otto from the House of Wittelsbach accepted the Greek throne and became King Otho of the newly independent state. Neither the boundaries nor the constitution of the new Greek state were yet settled, and the state at the time was much smaller than in the present day.