The Religious Dimension of 'Popular Proto-Nationalism' in Modern Greece

by Ryan Preston

E. J. Hobsbawm, in his Nations and Nationalism Since 1780, criticizes theorists who place undue emphasis on the formation of nationalism "from above" and thinks it impossible to understand completely the emergence of nationalism without also attending to the "assumptions, hopes, needs, longings and interests of ordinary people" (1990: 10). In an effort to redress this neglect, Hobsbawm dedicates a chapter to examining the various forces at play at the popular level, prior to the inception of an identifiable nationalism. He terms this stage "popular protonationalism" and notes that the sentiments embodied in it are often those manipulated by nationalists when attempting to curry popular devotion to the incipient nation. Being in agreement with Hobsbawm that any serious attempt to understand the emergence of nationalism requires consideration "from below," as well as "from above, " I would like to examine the rise of nationalism in Greece by considering its popular roots. For the purposes of this paper, I will confine the examination of such popular protonationalism to the religious sphere, demonstrating along the way how various sentiments, symbols, and images relating to Eastern Orthodoxy became particularly effective vehicles of an emerging nineteenth-century Greek nationalism.

It is necessary to explore some of the ways that Greek ethnicity became inextricably wedded to Orthodoxy, thereby accelerating the onset of a fullfledged Greek nationalism. By going back in time to the days before the outbreak of the retrospectively termed "Greek War of Independence," we should be able to discern some of the protonational forces at work and then to discover how these forces gradually became appropriated and incorporated into a national ideology.

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the people of the Byzantine Empire were organized by the victorious Ottoman empire into distinct groups called millets (a Turkish term meaning "nations"). This system of classification was based on religious faith, rather than ethnicity or language. Thus, Jews, Catholics, and Orthodox Christians were divided into separate and identifiable groups, a practice -- consistent with Islamic law-- designed to facilitate greater administrative expediency (Frazee 1977: 129).

In further keeping with the traditional character of Muslim territorial expansion, each millet was granted a certain amount of autonomy, which the Caliph promised to respect in return for demonstrations of loyalty and a promise not to rebel (Clogg 1992: 11). The basis of this autonomy was concretely realized through the appointment of a leader and arbiter for each millet. Thus, the Patriarch of Constantinople naturally became the leader of the Orthodox community.

Since the Orthodox millet over time proved itself to be relatively faithful to the Ottoman Empire, new privileges were rapidly granted. The church was permitted to accumulate capital and assumed almost absolute control over its subjects. It also enjoyed unprecedented administrative control, which had the effect of transforming it into a veritable theocracy (Clogg 1992: 11; Kokosalakis 1987: 229).

What should be obvious from these historical developments is that Greek identity (and the identity of most other ethnic groups under Ottoman rule) was largely based on Orthodoxy. And while this form of identity was already present prior to the Ottoman conquest, it became even more pronounced after the "divide and rule" policy of the Ottomans was implemented. Previous differences in faith were now underscored. Further, Orthodoxy became a greater referent of identity when Protestant and Roman Catholic groups attempted to proselytize the region, generating widespread xenophobia and insularity within the Orthodox community (Campbell and Sherrard 1968: 192).

Orthodoxy, therefore, became increasingly inseparable from the collective identity of the various ethnic groups situated within the Orthodox millet. Such sequestration did not, however, mean that the millet was ruled mercilessly. Rather, the Greek community enjoyed more extensive privileges than any other ethnic group, in part because the Patriarch of Constantinople was himself Greek (Makrides 1991: 284). With this in mind, then, how can we account for the empirewide revolts which began in the eighteenth century, and eventually lead to the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire and, almost immediately thereafter, to the establishment of individual nation-states?

As several writers have cogently argued, the revolution was in fact not a nationalist uprising, in spite of repeated claims to the contrary. As has already been implied, there existed no collective consciousness at this time that could be termed "national," at least not in the usual sense of an identifiable group of people, with common interests, all striving for a similar goal or outcome. Instead, the outbreak of revolution, as Chirot and Barkey posit, was precipitated by the gradual administrative disintegration of the empire, a usual consequence of agrarian expansion (1983: 3839). Such restive figures as klefts, or bandits, contrary to restricting their revolt to Turks (a common misconception which later lead to their being called the first Greek nationalists), attacked anyone (including other Greeks) whom they considered a threat to their own economic stability (Clogg 1992: 15). In short, the further the empire expanded, and the more its subjects became dissatisfied with the standard of living, the more regular the revolts became. Indeed, the series of revolts that eventually resulted in the extrication from the Ottoman yoke were not isolated incidents. Rather, intermittent uprisings of this kind can be traced back to as early as the sixteenth century (Clogg 1992: 15; Woodhouse 1952: viii).

If the revolutionary effort was initially propelled by economic interests, it became, by the nineteenth century, buttressed within an ideological framework as well. The now wealthy merchant class of the population, influenced by the western practice of free trade and individualism, considered the Ottoman system economically stagnant. Almost simultaneously, ideas stemming from the French Revolution slowly filtered into the subject population by various groups of intellectuals residing in such places as Smyrna and Odessa. It was these intellectuals who would later became the first Greek nationalists (Chirot and Barkey 1983: 42).

Thus far, it is clear that the revolution in the beginning was not nationally based, for only later did it assume the trappings of a national ideology. But how did the notion of nationality take root deeply enough to effect a popular effort toward achieving independence? Clogg, after all, contends that the nationalist agenda of the diaspora intellectuals did not resonate at the popular level. In spite of the fact that the majority of literary publications went from being religious to markedly "secular" by the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, secular and philosophical ideas had little or no effect, and were often met with fierce resistance (Clogg 1980: 11516; 131).

It might seem natural to turn to the religious sector, then, to determine popular impetus for revolution. But if we examine the sentiments of some of the higher clergy at this time, we hear arguments, often not exhorting their subjects to repel Ottoman rule, but rather to remain obedient to a divinely established order. One of the more radical of these convictions comes from the Patriarch of Jerusalem in 1798:

Our Lord . . . raised out of nothing this powerful Empire of the Ottomans in the place of our Roman [Byzantine] Empire which had begun, in certain ways, to deviate from the beliefs of the Orthodox faith, and He raised up the Empire of the Ottomans higher than any other Kingdom so as to show without doubt that it came about by Divine Will . . . (in Clogg 1992: 13)

Thus the most common explanation the clergy gave for this stance was a theological one, namely, that the Orthodox population, due to inveterate moral turpitude, was to be ruled over by a foreign power until God determined that collective expiation had been achieved. But more basic than this providential explanation was an ecclesiastical anxiety about surrendering power over its subjects (Herzfeld 1986: 128). Hence, in many quarters of the Orthodox millet, particularly in its upper echelons, there was no real desire either to mount, or to join, an uprising. Yet, as Hobsbawm realizes, the "official ideologies of states and movements are not guides to what it is in the minds of even the most loyal citizens and supporters" (1990: 11). In other words, there were other feelings in the air: the sentiments, motives and reactions of the Greeks of the Orthodox millet were hardly uniform. Thus, it appears necessary to look elsewhere for influences at the popular level.

The fact that Orthodoxy at this time was the primary mode of identification among Greeks was instrumental in the formation of a wave of collective enthusiasm for the revolution. One of the ways that the Orthodox faith played a profound role in this process was through the imagery of Constantinople.

Woodhouse states that Constantinople, after its fall, remained as important a prospect to the collective imagination of the Greeks as Jerusalem was for the Jews (1952: 11). Even if this comparison is a bit strained, there does seem to have been a sense of loyalty to Eastern Christendom and, if not an active drive, a sentimentality regarding its reestablishment under the umbrella of Constantinople. Frazee goes so far as to say that the war that the majority of the people were fighting was a holy one in defense of Christianity (1977: 128). What, then, might have incited this reaction?

Clogg and others contend that the collective Greek mindset was forged by various prophecies and oracles in wide circulation at the time. Having been written between 1279 and 1555 in such places as Sicily and Italy, these prophecies, as exemplified by those attributed to Leo the Wise in the late eighteenth century, predicted the fall and repossession of the Holy City, and thus, at times, generated intense messianic fervor.

Herzfeld mentions how these prophecies were "especially ambiguous symbols, liable to diverse interpretation according to the ideological convictions of the interpreter" (1986: 132). This supports Hobsbawm's thesis that popular sentiments cannot be accurately measured in relation to more elite sectors of the population. To many of the clergy, some of these prophecies did indeed reinforce the idea that Orthodoxy was fated to endure hardship and servitude. But many of those prophecies predicting the repossession of Constantinople also "exercised a considerable influence upon the popular imagination, especially as the new national consciousness began to take hold" (Clogg 1980: 129).

That the restoration of Eastern Christendom would be achieved through divine intercession is key in understanding how such prophecies functioned as protonational symbols. The everyday Greek Orthodox Christian, never forgetting the messianic undertones of the prophetic material, nevertheless thought that the fall of the Ottoman Empire would only come about by dint of divine orchestration. Indeed, there is scant evidence that such a transformation would be effected by the people themselves (Clogg 1992: 17). But when certain sectors of the population, namely the aforementioned merchant classes and bandits of the mountainside erupted into revolt, the remainder of the Greek population might very well have interpreted this as a signal from the heavens calling for a collective mission to save Christendom. Moreover, as Dakin notes, that many of the exhortations to restore Christian rule to Constantinople came from Russia was not surprising. Expatriate Greeks residing there saw first-hand the great war of 176874 between Russia and the Ottomans, which contributed to the sense that the apocalyptic time had arrived (Dakin 1977: 23). If this were not enough, the time of the war neatly corresponded with one of Leo the Wise's most influential prophecies: that the restoration of the Holy City would occur 320 years after its fall, making 1773 the year of providential intercession and subsequent liberation (Clogg 1992: 20). It should be added that even when one of these prophecies failed to materialize (as was the case in 1773), there is no indication that the messianic expectations lost their poignancy (1990: 21).

Further, in spite of a popular strain of anticlericalism which was directed toward the more venal of the clergy, there is little evidence of a general antiOrthodox attitude. On the contrary, the phanariots and other higherups in the clergy were often anathema to the masses precisely on account of their subservient attitude toward Ottoman rule and, by implication, their refusal to defend Christendom when the time was ripe (Clogg 1992: 23). It was the monastic community that assumed the helm of the revolutionary cause by leading many of the first revolts, something that resulted in a general increase in the reputation of the church as a whole. Subsequent claims were even made that monastic participation in the fight for independence had been instrumental in the outcome (Kokosalakis 1987: 231; Makrides 1991: 285).

What all of this means, of course, is that there was (and still is) an extremely powerful force at work at the popular level, which, if either consciously manipulated or accidentally induced, could result in collective mobilization and involvement. This was Christian past, which, though often hazy and imperfectly remembered, was certainly never forgotten. In fact, the more distant specific events surrounding the fall of Constantinople were, the more ornamented they became with common motifs. Herzfeld explains that

what was of interest, to judge from the extant corpus of such songs [about Constantinople], was the generic image of a Christian island falling to the infidel Turks. Once the events in question were outside living memory, they were gradually absorbed into a set of generalities (1986: 63).

Besides manifesting in folk songs, the theme of Muslim vs. Orthodox Christian vying for the right to rule Constantinople was embodied in the church liturgy itself (Dakin 1977: 23). That Greek ethnicity gradually became indissolubly linked to Orthodoxy was of profound importance to the formation of Greek nationalism but, as Hobsbawm recognizes, was not enough by itself to explain the mobilization of the masses in a collective enterprise. In addition, it was necessary for the motifs of conquest and oppression to have been preserved through a medium of some sort. As Hobsbawm says, with regard to the Serbian case,

There is no reason to deny proto-national feelings to pre-nineteenth century Serbs, not because they were Orthodox as against neighbouring Catholics and Muslims, this would not have distinguished them from Bulgars [or Greeks, for that matter]but because the memory of the old kingdom defeated by the Turks was preserved in song and heroic story, and, perhaps more to the point, in the daily liturgy of the Serbian church ... (1990: 75-76).

All of this protonational imagery, then, helps explain the development of popular loyalty toward the defense of Constantinople. It was only a short step from here that led to the transference of this allegiance from Orthodoxy in general to Greek Orthodoxy in particular. In consequence, Greece, as was the case of Russia, became popularly transformed into "Holy Greece" (Hobsbawm 1990: 50). After these protonational motifs became "individualized" in the form of a unified Greek nation, thanks, in part, to the influence of the various diaspora Greek nationalists, they seemed virtually impossible to expunge from collective Greek identity. The new "imagined community" (Anderson: 1983) became interwoven with the mythological structure of the Christian tradition, causing everything unrelated to it, in both time and space, to be considered second-rate at best, profane at worst.

What I have attempted in this paper is to show how religion and nationality in modern Greece are exceedingly difficult to disentangle. This intimate association was a gradual process that began with the separation of peoples under Ottoman rule into millets based on religious faith and continued (subsequent to the instillation of a national consciousness) when the allegiance to Eastern Christendom became particularized and irrevocably charged with a Greek character. Despite years of painstaking attempts by Greek nationalists to supplant Orthodoxy as the primary source of identity with a more globally respectable Hellenistic identity (extending back to the Classical Athens of Plato and Aristotle), the hold of the Orthodox church on the masses has been strong and has shown resilience even during times of high anticlerical sentiments. The reason for this, as I have argued throughout, is that Greek nationalism today, as always, is undergirded by a firm foundation of powerful, religiously charged, protonational symbols. If Greek nationalism, therefore, is to be understood at all, these symbols must be given adequate attention

Ryan Preston is a graduate student in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University.

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