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How the Greek Revolution of 1821 Led to the Global System of Nation-States

This thick book is a long journey, rich with social history and the luminaries of the age. It is hard to imagine it being surpassed any time soon as the definitive English-language account of the Greek Revolution.

Still, it leaves much unsaid. Offering a history of the Greek Revolution without a deep accounting of the Ottoman imperial system — its role in producing the revolution and its reactions to it — is a significant omission (and never mind the fact that many Greeks remained in the Ottoman Empire after Greek independence). In Mazower’s story, as in so many others of the Greek Revolution, the Ottoman Turks appear one-dimensional, presented mostly as perpetrators. To be sure, Mazower is attentive enough to occasionally show them as victims too. But along with the Greeks, Albanians, Arabs, Serbs and many others, the Turks were major creators of a system that produced centuries of intercultural coexistence. Violence, discrimination and oppression were no doubt part of that history, but so were exchange, synthesis and peace. Mazower acknowledges this, but perfunctorily.

In the end, “The Greek Revolution” causes us to think more deeply about the role of the nation-state in a global context. This history of the revolution aims to be, in Mazower’s words, “inclusionary not exclusionary.” As he relates it from a pandemic-ravaged New York terrorized by fear and death, he watched a “remarkably resilient” and seemingly socially cohesive Greece enforce a lockdown at the same time that the United States fumbled. Against threats of polarization and social fragmentation, a national collective of trusting citizens proved able to confront contemporary challenges, as it had a debt crisis over a decade ago and an empire two centuries before.

In the face of migration, financial collapse, right-wing populism and now the pandemic, many argue that the nation-state, whatever its failings and limitations, remains our best formula for international order. But if it has succeeded in overcoming some divisions, it has also created new ones. In the case of contemporary Greece, the nation excises much of its Ottoman and Muslim past and generally views Islam negatively, whether in the form of Turkey or Afghan refugees.

The Greek Revolution arose at the very moment of the nation-state’s initial articulation and validated it over any other political form, especially empire. It inspired William Lloyd Garrison and Alexander Pushkin to write about it then and has led one of the world’s foremost historians to write about it today. Anniversaries aside, this book spurs us to think critically about the concomitant births of Greece and the nation-state. In so doing, it encourages us to ask serious questions of both.

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