Dimitris Stamatopoulos: “The Revolution as an attempt to make Greece a part of European culture”
Dimitris Stamatopoulos (Δημήτρης Σταματόπουλος) is Professor in Balkan and Late Ottoman History at the University of Macedonia, Thessaloniki. Member of the Institutes for Advanced Studies at Princeton (2010-11) and at the University of Freiburg (2017-18), visiting professor in the École des hautes études en sciences sociales (Paris), Princeton University and the Institute of European History of the University of Mainz. Stamatopoulos is the author of many books and articles on the history of the Orthodox Christian populations in the Ottoman Empire, among them:
Dimitris Stamatopoulos, Imagined Empires: tracing imperial nationalism in Eastern and Southeastern Europe (18th-20th c.), Budapest – New York: Central European University Press 2021
Dimitris Stamatopoulos, Byzantium after the Nation: The Problem of Continuity in Balkan Historiographies, Budapest: Central European University Press 2021
Dimitris Stamatopoulos (ed.), European Revolutions and the Ottoman Balkans, Nationalism, Violence and Empire in the Long Nineteenth Century, London: I.B. Tauris 2019
Δημήτρης Α. Σταματόπουλος (επιμ.), Πόλεμος και Επανάσταση στα Οθωμανικά Βαλκάνια (18ος-20ός αι.), Θεσσαλονίκη: Επίκεντρο 2019
Dimitris Stamatopoulos (ed.), Balkan Nationalism(s) and the Ottoman Empire, vol. I–III, Istanbul: Isis Press 2015
Interviewed by Anna Alexandrova
What is the key reference point for the Greek national identity? Is it in Antiquity? Is there a connection in the Greek public consciousness to Ancient Greece, and, if yes – what is it? How does it show itself? Do the contemporary Greek intellectuals feel that their country is, despite currently not being a major political player, has a special place in the European culture as the birthplace of the Western civilization? How pronounced are the traces of the culture of Antiquity in contemporary culture, given that it developed inevitably against a backdrop of Antiquity?
Undoubtedly, the contemporary Greek national identity is based on a privileged relationship with the Greek antiquity. This privileged relationship is, of course, based in turn on linguistic continuity with Ancient Greece (although there have often been regressions as to whether the colloquial language is a “natural continuation” or a “decline” of the ancient language) and, above all, on the especially important role played by the reference to the Greek antiquity in what we call “western modernity”: both during the Renaissance and Humanism, and during the age of the Wars of Religion the followers of Luther well-versed in Greek culture, such as Ph. Melanchthon, or the most important representatives of the European Enlightenment tended to appeal often to the experience of the Athenian democracy as a cultural phenomenon, and its influence decisively determined the transition from the authoritarian states to contemporary bourgeois democracies of the West. The Greek antiquity was consolidated in the European mind long before the foundation of the new Greek state in the 19th century. However, this comparison with the ancientscaused not only a surge in “philhellenic” attitudes, but also negative comparisons between the ancients and the contemporaries: in fact, the contemporary Greek consciousness is a constant regression to this dichotomy of acceptance / rejection by the West, and responds accordingly to either pro-Western or anti-Western terms.
One of the most influential figures of Ancient Greek history was Alexander the Great. It would be nearly impossible while talking about memory to avoid mentioning the recent crisis concerning the naming of Northern Macedonia. In particular, Greece objected to Macedonian demands for renaming due to the fact that it may have led to historical falsification. On the same grounds – and under direct influence of Greek authorities – the monument in Macedonia Square in Scopje is called “Warrior on a Horse”, even though it is obviously implied to be Alexander. To what extent was the controversy a purely political one and how much of it was a social conflict in Greece? How traumatic was the Prespa agreement for the Greek public?
Paradoxical as it may sound, the answer to this question is directly related to the first one. Indeed, many representatives of the Modern Greek Enlightenment had a rejectionist attitude towards the possibility of accepting the Macedonians as a part of the Modern Greek nation history. But these Greek Enlightenment thinkers simply repeated the arguments of the “democratic” Demosthenes, who called Philip a “barbarian”, not because he did not consider him a Greek but because Philip was a monarch (just like the Persian king). They expressed their anti-monarchy and anti-despotical sentiments rather than formulated a theory of who the Macedonians really were. This “weakness” of Greek historiography was corrected by Constantine Paparrigopoulos in the 19th century, claiming that the Battle of Chaeronea inaugurated the era of Macedonian Hellenism, so the Macedonians were of course Greeks. However, the multi-ethnic nature of Macedonia at that time allowed similar Macedonian discourses from both the Bulgarian and Serbian national movements. In fact, the Slavophones of Macedonia and Thrace became the object of conflicting claims of both Bulgarians and Serbs, and the latter coined the term Macedonian Slavs (Slaves de Madecoine) to detach this population from the influence of the Bulgarians who “claimed” them due to linguistic proximity. The issue of locality, however, quickly became associated with the myth of autochthony. Just as the Bulgarians had invented (in one of their numerous national mythologies) an origin from the ancient Thracians, in a similar way the Slavo-Macedonians (e.g, in the case of Georgi Pulevski) constructed a mythical origin from Alexander the Great although it was very clear to everyone as early as the 19th century that the Slavs came to the Balkans 1000 years after Alexander the Great. The Greeks came into contact with this national mythology only after 1990 and it was very difficult for them to manage it for two reasons: firstly because the average person of the “global village” would see as logical that the ancient Macedonians were something different from the South Greeks after they fought with each other. Of course, the historians of antiquity remind us that the same was true for other city-states or even that the language of the Macedonian elite was a variation of the Doric dialect, but you can’t teach this lesson in the ordinary world, especially if it is occupied by the widespread Western fantasy that identifies Ancient Greece with Ancient Athens and therefore with the democratic regime. And secondly: in addition to being a matter of transnational relations, the Macedonian question was also an internal problem of the three states we mentioned, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, which divided Macedonia in 1913. The Slavophones of these countries were tossing and turning between a pure national (Bulgarian or Serbian) and a new hybrid (Macedonian) identity. Their ethnogenesis was in progress. However, it was completed during the Second World War when Tito included the autonomous Macedonian Republic in the Yugoslav state. The Slavophones of Greek Macedonia faced a dilemma exacerbated by the experience of the Civil War unfolding in Greece at the time as to whether they should cross the border, what happened to thousands of them – many became political refugees in other countries of the Eastern Block, or even in Australia or Canada. However, the Greek state largely cleared its northern regions, solving this minority problem by indirect violence (the direct one was against the communist guerrillas), by not allowing them to return and claim property. Therefore, the Macedonian question was not just about the name of a neighboring country, but it was reminiscent of all this traumatic experience of the minority refugees that became more painful because it healed the deep wounds of the civil war, when a large part of these Slavo-Macedonians sided with the Greek Communists while another significant one was identified with the Bulgarian militia Ohrana.
What is the place of the Byzantine Empire and its cultural and political legacy in contemporary Greek public consciousness? Is the Μεγάλη Ιδέα still “alive”? Do the Greeks consider Istanbul/Constantinople a Greek city? What was, in particular, the reaction to the decision by Erdogan to convert the Hagia Sofia into a mosque?
Byzantium officially entered the great narrative of the Greek national continuity in the «History» by Constantine Paparrigopoulos (1860-74). Of course, in the 19th century there was a great debate about whether this Roman state (the Second Rome was a continuation of the First Rome) had been Hellenized. Most historians agreed on this as well as many foreign Byzantine scholars. However, we must say that for the common people Hagia Sophia has always been much more important than the ruins of the Parthenon. The Parthenon and the classical past began to be considered important when the Greeks began to learn and to be influenced by discussions about the Classicism in the West. On the contrary, the ordinary Greek who identified himself with the Orthodox Christian faith was convinced that the Hagia Sophia was his main reference symbol. It is very interesting that the revolutionary plans of the Greeks, of Rigas Velestinlis and the members of the Filiki Eteria, included the uprising in Constantinople itself. Something similar the Ottomans also feared from March 1821, because of which for about 6 months they slaughtered, expelled and exterminated the Greek population. Of course, all this changed in the 19th and mainly in the 20th century, when the Megali Idea ended with the Asia Minor Catastrophe in 1922. Then we have a drastic shift of the Greek fantasy from the Hagia Sophia to the Parthenon. That is why we can say that surely Erdogan’s move provoked emotions of wide masses of the Greek population, however many of them would also see the status of the museum as a form of indirect slavery.
What was the impact of the Ottoman rule on the Greek national identity? Is the inevitable mutual influence between the cultures put into question, are there any attempts to “silence” or ignore the experience of the Ottoman rule?
There was a lot of discussions about what was “Ottoman” or “Byzantine”, “Balkan” or “Greek” in the era of Ottoman rule. Surely in all Balkan historiographies (and consequently in Greek one as well) the Ottoman domination is considered the main cause of the great economic and cultural backwardness of their peoples relative to the developments in the West. And that certainly reflected a negative Orientalist approach. But it will be replaced by a positive Orientalist approach as early as the 1990s, when Ottoman studies in Greece also flourished: the Ottoman Empire was an ideal example of multicultural coexistence. Today we know that neither is true: the Ottoman Empire was a multinational and not just a Turkish empire, but it did not cease to reproduce a basic distinction between its populations, Muslim and non-Muslim. The former were first-class citizens, while the latter were second-class ones. The Ottomans made several attempts to overcome this during a prolonged period of reforms, but without success. Although this discussion is limited to historiographical circles, wider population slowly begins to accept it as well.
2021 marks the 200-year anniversary of the Greek revolution. This event is often seen as the point of emergence of an independent Greek state – including in official state ideology. How often is it referenced today? During the financial crisis of 2010s, for example, an opinion was often expressed that the Memoranda developed by the “troika” of creditors infringe on the national sovereignty. Did such ideas influence the perception of the Revolution of 1821?
There were many readings of the Greek Revolution since the 19th century. The approach that emphasizes the issue of national independence was introduced mainly by the Marxist theoretical tradition of the 20th century. Today, however, the liberal approach seems to prevail (and it is related to the fact of the acceptance of the memoranda) emphasizing the Revolution as an attempt to make Greece a part of European culture. In this way the discussion about the Revolution is in line with the discussion about the degree of independence that a state of the European Union can have.
Russia has contributed somewhat to the cause of Greek independence, and throughout at least the XIX century the relations between the countries were generally friendly and quite close. Is Russia still seen by the public in general as a friendly country?
I think yes, because of the shared religion, but mainly because of the constant wars that Russia waged with the Ottoman Empire, the positive role it had played in Greece’s independence movement. Of course, anti-Russian circles always emphasized the fact that Russia, both during the Orlov revolt (1770) and the Revolution of 1821, decisively refused to help Greeks in their struggle against the Ottomans: there was an argument that Russia wanted to use the Greek factor as a tool, but in its own interests. When, with the advent of Panslavism at the end of the 19th century, Greek nationalists saw Russia identifying with their great rivals, the Bulgarians, the relations certainly deteriorated and this left a great negative heritage that showed itself during the Cold War of the 20th century: of course according to the camp that a Greek belonged to, this heritage could be read either positively (communists) or negatively (liberals).
Is Ioannis Kapodistrias seen as a Greek or a Russian? What about Olga Constantinovna of Russia?
He is considered as a pro-Russian Greek. Olga – as a Russian philhellene.
Speaking about political figures of the XIX-XX centuries, whose political legacy is most often referenced today? Are there any “icons” for the contemporary Greek political elites?
Of course personalities such as Kolokotronis, Kapodistrias, Mavrokordatos from the time of the Revolution, Charilaos Trikoupis and Eleftherios Venizelos from the period of the state formation, Konstantinos Karamanlis and Andreas Papandreou in the 20th century.
Is the fact that Greece was in the sphere of influence of other global powers for the most of the last two centuries a “pressure point” for the collective consciousness? There is a notable example here that touches on both the Antiquity and the XIX century history, and still remains important today – the problem of reclaiming the Parthenon sculptures from the British. In June 2020 the Greek Minister of Culture and Sports Lina Mendoni claimed: “Now is the right time for the British Museum to prove that it does not represent a 19th-century colonial museum organization, but adapts to international requirements and to the codes of ethics now concerning the return of stolen or smuggled cultural goods”. Is the XIX century history seen as the history of a state dependent on the Great Powers? And how does it impact the national consciousness, are there any lingering mistrust towards the key international players today?
Not only in the 19th, but also in the 20th century: both the National Schism (1915-1917) and the Civil War (1944-1949) are considered as periods of direct intervention of the Great Powers, both of the West and Russia, in the internal political life of Greece. However, Greece never became a colony: it was a dependent , like the other Balkan states. But it never became a pure protectorate.
What is the place of the Greco-Turkish War of 1919–1922 – Μικρασιατική καταστροφή – in contemporary Greek historic memory? Is it seen as an event on the same scale as the fall of Constantinople or WWII?
The Asia Minor Catastrophe was certainly the end of the Megali Idea. On the other hand, as I suggested above, it is the most important moment of the formation of the modern Greek state. The state ceases to have as its main goal the expansion and therefore the military expenditures. It bases the development of its industry on the 1.2 million refugees coming from Asia Minor. It also uses a large number of refugees for ethnic homogenisation of Macedonia and Thrace. The Asia Minor Сatastrophe comes after the Treaty of Lausanne. And it is the most important moment in the history of the state.
During the financial crisis, the Greek politicians have compared the current situation with the WWII period, numerous times. An image of a specific enemy emerged almost inevitably – Germany, which played a huge role in the development of the financial assistance program. How “durable” was this image, re-emergent in recent decades? Was the tension relieved after the “Memoranda Era” was over? Does the image of Turk as an enemy become less pronounced because of the re-emergence of the WWII-era trauma and associated images?
The disasters of World War II were very much alive even in my generation that did not experience the war. Especially with Germany what could not be tolerated is how the country that lost the warcan determine your life. This changed over the years but I think the Greeks do not have a stable attitude towards it, perhaps because they understand the degree of economic dependence on Germany.
What had more impact on the Greek public consciousness – WWII itself or the Civil War following it? Are those two conflicts merged in public memory, or are they seen separately?
One is undoubtedly considered to be a continuation of the other.
How do the Greeks today see the Black Colonels regime? Are the perceptions of older generations (who witnessed it first-hand) and the younger people similar? Is there any nostalgia in memories and evaluations? Did the collective perception of the junta change during the financial crisis?
In Greece since the time of the civil war there has always been a large part of the population that identified itself with the far right ideas: sometimes it was hegemonic (1949-1974) and sometimes marginal (1974 – present). But it does not mean that the far right did not exist. Golden Dawn voters (and this has eluded many scholars) are often the children and grandchildren of the collaborationists.
Coming back to the recent financial and economic crisis. Will the events of 2010s remain in national memory as a formative event? What is the dominant narrative and the general attitude towards the crisis today, several years after its end?
This discussion is frozen: we see the deficit but we do not see the debt. The debt has bound three generations of Greeks but the Greek standard of living is still much higher than in many former Eastern Bloc countries. This contradiction is explained by the fact that there was a long period of “black wealth” that affected large social strata in Greece. However, if this prosperity makes us silent, another great crisis like the one of 2009-12 will most likely bring the big problem – the debt – back.
Which “world” do the Greeks today feel more connected to – the European one, or the specific reality of the Balkans? Do they feel their Balkan identity, or are the European cultural landmarks more important to them? Do “Slavic” Balkans and Greece belong to different cultural spaces? How does this correlate with the shared experience of the Ottoman rule? Is the Orthodox Church still the uniting force for the Balkans today?
I would say that a long time has passed since the Greeks were characterized as proud Balkanians. The European identity has certainly prevailed, although not always in a positive way.
Can “Greek” be equated with “Orthodox”? The Church in Greece is not separated from the state. Is there any public discussion of this issue, or does a popular consensus exist?
The position of the Church is not as powerful as it is believed to be, however the orthodox identity is strong precisely because it was used as a tool for the construction of the national identity. Of course we are talking about a national orthodoxy as it happens in most orthodox countries, including Russia.
 The agreement between Greece and the former Yugoslav Republic of Makedonia, signed on June 12, 2018, ending the dispute about the naming of the current Republic of North Macedonia.
 At the Battle of Chaeronea (338 BC), the Macedonian king Philip II defeated the united army of Greek city-states.
 As a result of the First Balkan war.
 Turkey, having signed the Treaty of Sevres in 1920, subsequently resisted the conditions imposed by victorious powers. Under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk it secured their revision at the Lausanne Conference. As a result, Greece lost its rights to any territory in Asia Minor.