1821 was possibly the most inopportune time to begin a war for independence in Europe. A few years prior, Napoleon was crushed, and the European powers inaugurated a revived conservative status quo in the Congress of Vienna that endeavoured to prevent any further upsets to the continent’s power balance. No more shocks and a good dose of conservative rule. Then came the Greeks declaring independence.
Alone, the Greeks did not have the necessary martial strength or unity in the 1820s to establish themselves against the might of the Ottoman Empire. Great civilian sacrifice and initial military successes against Ottoman forces helped attain European attention to the Balkans. But, as Ioannis Stefanidis corroborates, few leaders in Greece had any understanding of the conservative consensus Europe had imposed on itself and what it meant for them. Those who did were learned statesmen and diplomats, with a background in powerful Ottoman or European circles. It was these leaders who were the secret to the formation of an independent Greek state.
Statesmen such as Alexandros Mavrokordatos and the esteemed Ioannis Capodistrias sought to establish support for the Greek cause from the big three powers: Britain, France, and Russia, playing their uneasy relationships off of one another. Britain wanted to frustrate Russian desires for an Ottoman war in order to prevent disruption to routes to India. Russia wished to expand Balkan influence and consolidate territorial gains, and France hoped to limit both as much as possible. Greek diplomatic policy served to exacerbate this mutual paranoia and establish a zero-sum battle for influence over the nascent uprising that would secure growing benefits for the Greek project.
Accordingly, the work of Capodistrias et al. nurtured a competitive environment between powers with no actual geopolitical interest to help Greece. This reveals that the limited Russo-Ottoman war of 1828 had no Greek pretext whatsoever. Similarly, British embarrassment for their role in the battle of Navarino and the damage to their “friendly [Ottoman] power” indicates that both these states belatedly grasped the value of a capable Ottoman Empire installing each other’s ambitions – not a Greece that induced a power vacuum which required filling. Too little too late, as the aforementioned battle of Navarino was “a point of no return for the [interventionist] Greek policy of the three powers” (Stefanidis), and guaranteed Greek independence. Therefore, the Greek war can be regarded as a great diplomatic coup in post-1815 global politics.
Contemporary remembrance of 1821 focuses on the great fight of a reawakened nation in wartime. Yet this other great story of the independence effort, its tactful manipulation of Europe’s political powerhouses, is also worth remembering not only nationally, but globally, as a blueprint that would inspire many more in their efforts for independence for decades to come.