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Political and cultural Philhellenism

  • Historical background and contextGreekPhilhellenic
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  • Author:
    Maufroy, Sandrine
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    In the narrow sense, “Philhellenism” (friendship with the Greeks) refers to the international movement of solidarity with the Greek struggle for independence, in the 1820s, from Ottoman domination. It was the acme of a long-standing, transnational trend, characterized by multiple cultural and political transfers, to link admiration for Ancient Greece with political and humanitarian friendship for the present-day country. The specificity of the Greek case lies in the great importance attributed to the Ancient Greeks in the development of Western civilization; as a consequence, modern Greeks shared in the prestige of the Ancients, from whom they were considered to have descended, and their cause was felt to concern Europe as a whole.

    In the second half of the 18th century, the interest in the life, the “character” and the aspirations of the modern Greeks increased among West-Europeans. Travellers who went to the Ottoman Empire (for trade, diplomatic or military concerns, scholarly research or religious reasons) described, among the regions and social groups they encountered, the dynamism of Greek sailors and tradesmen and the diplomatic presence of Phanariots (Greek aristocrats from the Phanar quarter of Constantinople); also the presence of Greek students at French, German and Italian universities contributed to the development of contacts between Europeans and Greeks who lived in the Ottoman Empire or belonged to the “Greek diaspora”. In the Mémoire sur l’état actuel de la civilisation dans la Grèce (written in 1803 for the Société des observateurs de l’homme), Adamantios Koraīs attempted to arouse the interest of his French colleagues for the Greek cause. Koraīs himself was to become the most influential of those Greek intellectuals who, inspired by Enlightenment ideals, began to prepare from abroad the “regeneration” of Greece and to win solidarity for the Greek cause. Such efforts had some success, as the example of the Classical scholar Karl Benedikt Hase shows: as early as 1801, he met Greek students at the University of Jena and, having begun to learn their language, he set off to fight for the liberty of the Peloponnese (but did not get further than Paris). In the first decade of the 19th century, debates between Philhellenes and their critics, such as the discussion opposing Koraīs, Cornelius de Pauw and other (French and German) intellectuals, began to take place on a European scale.

    In 1813 and 1814, two societies were founded; both were named Filomousos Etaireia (“Society of friends of the Muses”). While the Filiki Etaireia (“Friendly society”), founded later in 1814 in Odessa and linked to Carbonarism and Freemasonry, aimed at the political independence of Greece through the means of armed struggle, the Philomuse Societies sought the liberation of the Greeks through education and cultural regeneration. The members of the first one, established in Athens, were not only Greek notables, but also travellers from England and France, whose subscription to the Society went to buy schoolbooks and contributed to the education of young Athenians. It found a continuation in 1824, when Leicester Stanhope funded a Lancastrian school, established another school to teach Classical Greek and founded the first “museum” of Greece with antiquities hauled up to the Acropolis by Turkish prisoners. The other Philomuse Society was founded in Vienna by the Phanariot serving as Russia’s Foreign Minister, Iōannīs Kapodistrias. It had the aim of editing the works of Classical authors, sustaining poor students and uncovering antiquities. It was placed under the auspices of Tsar Alexander I and recruited members among European intellectuals and politicians, also during the Congress of Vienna. The capital of the Habsburg Monarchy was an important meeting point for Greeks and Philhellenes. Other significant places were Paris, Leipzig, Munich, Trieste, London, and the Ionian Islands.

    The outbreak of the Revolution against the Ottoman Empire in March 1821 aroused intense interest all over Europe, as well as in the United States. Some contemporaries stressed also that all social classes were involved in the Philhellenic movement. In the first months of the war, Alexander Ypsilantis, who began the revolution in Moldavia and Wallachia but was soon defeated, and other leaders issued proclamations and manifestos addressed to the European nations and the United States. Their hope to win the support of at least one great power was very soon dashed, but the news of the uprising led to a flood of appeals, pamphlets, poems and other writings intended to convince people and governments to help the Greeks. Scenes of the war and portraits of Greek heroes and renowned Philhellenes were represented on paintings, engravings, decorative and household objects, which were sold for the benefit of the Greek cause and became fashionable. Encouraged by overly optimistic news coverage, European volunteers sailed for Greece to join the regiment founded by Demetrios Ypsilanti, who had been appointed by the Filiki Etaireia to lead the revolt, and the French officer Baleste. Intellectuals, especially in Germany, conceived projects to organize a Philhellene legion. Philhellenic committees were founded in the German states as early as 1821, later in other countries; they organized fundraising events, coordinated the transport of volunteers and of supplies and weaponry, helped Greek refugees and contributed to the education of young Greeks. In the course of the war, they went to constitute a hierarchic network of European committees (mainly in Great Britain, France, Switzerland, the German confederation), the Parisian and Genevan ones being at the top of a pyramidal structure led de facto by the banker Jean Gabriel Eynard.

    In the years 1821-23 the Philhellenes tried out several forms of action, without properly-organized objectives. The first fundraising appeals had limited success except in Switzerland and south-west Germany, where the population felt particularly concerned, the authorities were more tolerant and there was a concrete idea for the utilization of the collected money: supporting the volunteers who sailed for Greece. Numerous local committees sprang up. Stuttgart, Darmstadt and Zurich saw foundations in August, September and November 1821, which built up a network of correspondents and supporters coordinating and financing the journey of volunteers to Marseille and Greece, and giving aid to 162 Greek refugees waiting for permission to return to Greece. In 1822, these committees organized the departure of a “German Legion” of 149 men and provided them with arms. However, in 1823 the French authorities forbade the passage of volunteers to Marseille, and reports from Greece threw doubt on this type of engagement. In Russia, A.N. Golitsyn raised funds; in England, a Committee of the Society of Friends for the relief of the distressed Greeks was founded in London in January 1823. While its members were a small group of Quakers, it managed to raise funds outside London, in wide circles of the population. In France, the Comité en faveur des Grecs réfugiés en France was founded in March 1823 within the framework of the Société de la Morale chrétienne; almost half the members were noblemen. It collaborated with the Swiss committees and asked the French government to let Greek refugees pass through France. This first French committee, too, declined after 1823. All in all, the significance of this first Philhellenic wave was very limited.

    In the period 1823-25, the political dimension became clearer. A London Greek Committee, founded in February 1823, canvassed the social and political elite and recruited many members of parliament, all of them belonging to the Whig Opposition. They had also contacts with members of the government, in particular with the Foreign Minister George Canning. The activity of the committee was led by a small group of members, among them John Bowring, Leicester Stanhope and Lord Byron. It was really efficient only in the first half of 1823 and ceased actually to exist in 1824. Its first goal was to organize a wide network of committees, but only six of these came into being. In contrast to the Quaker committee, which provided humanitarian aid, the London Greek Committee concentrated on trying to influence the course of the war and the political situation in Greece, mainly by issuing a loan. Besides that, they sent an “expedition”, and Stanhope offered printing presses to the Greeks. Byron’s mission to Greece and his death in Missolonghi in 1824 found a formidable response in international public opinion and galvanized literary and artistic Philhellenism, but the indiscriminate support for mutually inimical insurgent factions contributed to tensions, almost to the point of civil war. In the United States, a Committee of the Greek fund of the City of New York was founded at the end of 1823; its funds were ostensibly earmarked for humanitarian relief, but also used for military support. In France, the Comité philhellénique de Paris was founded at the beginning of 1825 in response to Greek demands for a loan. Although no such loan materialized, the committee remained operative until 1829; its members, from the upper classes and mainly from the liberal opposition, ensured tacit government approval for their activities, which were embroiled in political intrigues in both France and Greece. In South Germany and Switzerland, the committees also became involved in politics, albeit principally at local level.

    From the beginning of 1825, the military situation in Greece changed drastically. The successes of the Egyptian army of Ibrahim Pasha, the dramatic siege of Missolonghi (April 1825-April 1826), the rumour that Ibrahim Pasha wanted to exterminate the entire Greek population, and the appeals of the Greeks led to the acme of the Philhellenic movement and to a progressive change of attitude on the part of the Powers. New committees were founded, especially in Geneva, Munich, and The Hague, spawning yet other committees and fresh fundraising campaigns. A first wave was triggered by two appeals published by the Comité de Genève en faveur des Grecs in April 1826, lasting until the end of the following summer. A second wave began in November 1826 when Eynard, the founder and leader of the Geneva committee, proposed to organize a system of voluntary weekly donations, to which all classes of the society, including the poorest, would subscribe. This phase lasted until the middle of 1827 and elicited a broad response. Philhellenism became a “social event” in which several literary and artistic genres, as well as arts and crafts and fashion, were involved. It was particularly widespread in France, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the German states, centred around Paris and Geneva. The committees of these cities gave the main impulses to the other ones and were the central clearing-houses for the funds raised elsewhere. The funds were employed for military support (in particular for the preparation of the fleet led by the Admiral Cochrane that went to Greece in February 1827), and for humanitarian aid. For this purpose, Eynard instituted a supervising commission within Greece. Compared with earlier phases of the Philhellenic movement, the years 1826-27 are characterized by an increased geographical and social extension, a wider palette of activities and a certain relaxation of the movement’s oppositional character. However, its political dimension did not totally disappear. The suspicion of Metternich can explain the lack of Philhellenic agitation in the Habsburg Monarchy and in Italy. Among the German governments, Bavaria, under Ludwig I’s rule, was exceptional: it officially supported the movement and sent a military expedition to Greece.

    During these years, the attitude of the Powers progressively changed. In July 1827, the United Kingdom, Russia and France signed the Treaty of London, which called for an end to hostilities and declared that Greece should be separated from Turkey, with autonomy but as a tributary dependency under Ottoman suzerainty. The Ottoman Empire refused these conditions. In October 1827, the three European powers destroyed the combined Turkish and Egyptian fleets in the bay of Navarino, which allowed the President chosen by the Greek National Assembly of Trezene, Kapodistrias, to move to the capital Navplion and take charge of the country (January 1828). After the Turkish-Russian war of 1828-29, the Ottoman Empire recognized Greek independence. The Battle of Navarino marked a decisive turning point, not only in the course of the war, but also in the Philhellenic movement. Philhellenism was adopted into the domestic and foreign policy of the Powers, whose representatives met repeatedly between 1827 and 1832 to deliberate over the status of Greece. They decided that Greece should become an independent state, defined its boundaries, and, after Kapodistrias’s assassination, appointed the son of Ludwig I of Bavaria, Otto, as the country’s first king. The Philhellenic committees concentrated on separate humanitarian projects but had the wind taken out of their sails. Prominent Philhellenes like Eynard and Friedrich Thiersch continued to write and act for the Greek cause, but met with diminishing response. All the same, Philhellenic reflexes re-merged during later crises such as the Cretan Revolt (1866-69) and the Greek-Turkish War of 1897.

    Even so, Philhellenism went against the doctrine of the obedience due to princes, as laid down in the European Restoration system. Reactionary conservatives like Metternich considered Philhellenism a demagogic conspiracy and a dangerous return to the doctrine of popular sovereignty. The Prussian government, which had first tolerated literary manifestations of sympathy for the Greeks, began to repress the movement as soon as its political nature became clear and whipped most of the other German governments into line. Russia, the third member of the Holy Alliance, followed this line.

    Philhellenes accordingly sought to prove that the Greek movement of liberation had nothing to do with other nationalist or revolutionary movements, and often emphasized the non-Christian religion and the barbaric nature of the Ottoman Turks. The goal of Greeks and Philhellenes was purely restorative and regenerative, to restore an ancient nationality in its rights and to bring the modern-day Greeks back to the state of civility of their Classical ancestors. This formula could appeal to people from very different political backgrounds, although grassroots support tended to be anti-autocratic and liberal; as Jean Dimakis points out, it was perhaps the first time public opinion was mobilized transnationally by a foreign issue.

    While most of the members of Philhellenic committees were motivated by general moral and humane tenets, Philhellenic propaganda in word and image was largely based on anachronistic imaginary and often misguided or misleading representations of Greece and the Orient. The name of Greece was associated with the idealized age of Pericles, whereas the Ottoman Empire evoked an Oriental despotism, so that in Philhellenic writings and paintings, the Greeks were represented as heroes and martyrs, and the Turks as pitiless barbarians. That both parties largely shared the same strategies and tactics was generally overlooked so that volunteers who came to Greece in the belief they would join a regular army, and take part to battles resembling those of the Napoleonic wars, were sorely disappointed when they encountered the reality of guerrilla warfare. Some survivors expressed their disillusion in their memoirs, but these were often disbelieved and criticized for betraying the Greek cause.

    The rhetoric of Philhellenism informed the official discourse on Greek national identity propagated by the Greek national state, which adopted the idea of continuity between ancient and modern Greece and, having integrated the Byzantine period in its conception of history, developed the Megali Idea (Great Idea) to unite all Greeks in a state expanding to include all territories once dominated by the Byzantine Empire.

    Philhellenic writings also echoed and reinforced the national ideals of other European countries. In English pamphlets, the idea that Great Britain should help the Greeks in their struggle was often associated with the idea that, being the victor of Waterloo and the most powerful state in the world, Great Britain was the most powerful champion against tyranny in Europe. In the United States, the belief in the superiority of the American political system as being the world’s only really democratic one led to a missionary sense to teach the Greeks about liberty. In France, some pamphleteers urged their fellow-citizens to forget their political differences, and to revive the glory of the great Napoleonic battles of the Pyramids, Marengo, and Austerlitz by joining their forces to support the Greeks. German poets recalled their own anti-Napoleonic liberation wars of the years 1813-15 in their Philhellenic songs (Bruderlied, in: Lyra und Schwerdt: Sammlung von Kriegs- und Freiheits-Gesängen der heiligen Schaar, Reutlingen 1821), and played on the presumed affinity between the (Ancient) Greeks and the Germans, a commonplace that had emerged in the wake of Neoclassicism and was used to claim German cultural specificity and superiority upon the French as equated with the Romans. By supporting the cause of the Greeks, not only Germans, but also Italians and Poles gained concrete experience that prepared them for their own struggle for national liberty and unity. Appeals to national pride, adapted to each particular case, played a significant part in the argumentation of the Greeks and the Philhellenes: each nation was challenged in turn not to be outdone by other nations in supporting the cause of Humanity, Civilization, Christianity and Liberty. In this rhetorical uniformity, the Philhellenic discourse proved to be a suitable vehicle for the transnational spread of nationalist pathos.

    At the same time, the cause of Greece was presented as the cause of Europe. Philhellenism contributed to fix firmly the representation of a civilized, progressive Europe, whose unity was rooted in the twin heritage of Classical Antiquity and Christianity, in contradistinction to a Muslim, barbaric and unchanging Orient. In this view (which influenced the historical outlook of men like Guizot and Buckle, and which sometimes also embraced the United States as a stakeholder in the Western inheritance of Christianity and Antiquity), the notions of culture and civilization were linked with those of history, Enlightenment, and progress in several fields (intellectual life, sciences and techniques, trade and the economy, politics), but also with Christian morality; all of this fusing into a European self-image. The development of Philhellenism and its recuperation by the Great Powers contributed to the process of integrating Greece, a land on the frontier between Orient and Occident, into Europe and the Western World conceived as a single whole.

    Word Count: 2958

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    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Maufroy, Sandrine, 2020. "Political and cultural Philhellenism", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 16-07-2020, consulted 19-10-2021.