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Ottoman Greece, Independence and the World Wars

An artist's impression of the Battle of Lepanto (from National Maritime Museum)
By the start of the 1500s, much of mainland Greece and its islands were under Ottoman control, with the notable exceptions of Cyprus and Crete which were under the control of Venice (these two islands would later be conquered in 1571 and 1670 respectively). While most Greeks residing in Constantinople (the Ottoman capital) enjoyed a prosperous living, the majority of Greeks in mainland Greece were poor. This was a result of heavy taxation and an inefficient serfdom system.

In Constantinople, the Sultan recognized the Greek Orthodox Church to be the sole representative of Christians in the empire, Orthodox or not (this is evident when the Greeks were given preference over other sects in the custodianship of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, as highlighted in an old post). Despite the Ottomans having a policy of no forced-conversions, many Christians and others converted for tax benefits.

Greeks generally had a negative feeling towards their Ottoman occupiers, participating in most wars against them. This has been notably seen in the naval Battle of Lepanto in 1571, as well as many revolts in the Great Turkish War of Europe in the late 17th century. These rebellions were quelled violently.

Greek Independence:

Greek independence movements emerged at the start of the 19th century (1814), most notably was the secret-organization Filiki Eteria , which had the main goal of achieving Greek independence and expelling the Ottomans from Greece. The Greek War of Independence kicked off on the 6th of March, 1821, initially as a revolt occurring in the Wallachia region (in present-day Romania). This revolt was successfully repressed by the Ottomans.
The flag of Filiki Eteria

News of the suppression reached Greeks in the Peloponnese (a peninsula in Southern Greece) and enraged them. On the 17th of March, 1821, Greeks in the region started rebelling. Within a month, the whole peninsula was in open revolt. Simultaneous revolts occurred in Macedonia, Crete and Central Greece, though each of these revolts were suppressed. The Ottomans, called upon Egypt (which was effectively a vassal state of the Ottomans) for aid.

In return for territorial gain, an Egyptian army was deployed to the Peloponnese in February 1825 and had immediate success: by the end of 1825, most of the Peloponnese was under Egyptian control, and the city of Missolonghi—put under siege by the Turks since April 1825—fell in April 1826. The Egyptians had succeeded in suppressing most of the revolt in the Peloponnese and Athens had been retaken.

After years of consulting with each other and intense negotiations, the European powers (Russia, France and the United Kingdom) agreed to intervene by deploying their navy to the Greek peninsula. This allied fleet clashed with the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet , resulting in the destruction of the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet. With French troops, the Greeks drove the Turks out of the Peloponnese and central Greece by 1828.

"Freedom or Death"

By 1832, the war was over via the Treaty of Constantinople (1832) and the Kingdom of Greece was established, the first Greek state since the pre-Byzantine era. It would seem appropriate that its national anthem would later be titled "Freedom or Death".

The slow but steady growth of Greece to the modern day

The rivalry between the Ottomans and Greeks did not end just yet. The Greeks were united, in their determination to liberate the Greek-speaking provinces of the Ottoman Empire. Especially in Crete, a prolonged revolt in 1866–1869 had raised nationalist fervour. When war broke out between Russia and the Ottomans in 1877, Greek popular sentiment rallied to Russia's side, but Greece was too poor, and too concerned of British intervention, to officially enter the war. Nevertheless, in 1881, Thessaly and small parts of Epirus were ceded to Greece as part of the Treaty of Berlin, while frustrating Greek hopes of receiving Crete.

Greeks in Crete continued to stage regular revolts, and in 1897, the Greek government under Theodoros Deligiannis, bowing to popular pressure, declared war on the Ottomans. In the ensuing Greco-Turkish War of 1897 the badly trained and equipped Greek army was defeated by the Ottomans. Through the intervention of the Great Powers however, Greece lost only a little territory along the border to Turkey, while Crete was established as an autonomous state under Prince George of Greece.

As a result of the Balkan War, Greece's overall territory once again increased.

World Wars:

 On the eve of WWI, the Greek government was divided between the pro-German King Constantine and the pro-Britain Prime Minister Venizelos. The division was so serious that there were two de facto governments, the King's government was based in Athens while the Prime Minister's was in Thessaloniki. In 1917, the two governments united and Greece would later enter the war on the side of the Triple Entente (the British-French-Russian side). Greece's old enemy , the Ottoman empire, was on the Central Powers' (Germany) side. Once again, the two rivals clashed.

Territorial changes as stated in the Treaty of Sevres

After the war ended, the Ottoman Empire was forced to sign the Treaty of Sèvres (text here) which effectively partitioned the empire between the victorious Allies. Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and much of the Ottoman heartland of Anatolia was to be carved up by the British, Greeks, French and Armenians. The Turkish public was outraged and, under the leadership of WWI Turkish veteran Mustafa Kemal, fought a series of wars called the Turkish War of Independence. One of these wars was the Greco-Turkish War that lasted from 1919 to 1922.

The war was disastrous for the Greeks, with Greek losses amounting to almost 20,000 dead as well as over 100,000 casualties. The war ended with Greece returning to pre-war boundaries and leading both sides to exchange populations (Greeks in Turkey to Greece and vice versa). A testament to this change was that the population of Greeks in Istanbul dropped from 300,000 in 1900, to just over 3,000 currently. Over 1.5 million Greek refugees arrived in Greece.

In 1924, the monarchy was abolished via a referendum and a Second Hellenic Republic was proclaimed. Though, a decade later, the monarchy was restored once again in 1935. A coup occurred in 1936 which installed fascist elements into the government. Though it was primarily fascist, Greece was still friendly to the Allied powers and not aligned with the Axis.

German war flag being raised in Athens
On 28 October 1940 Fascist Italy demanded the surrender of Greece, but the Greek government refused. As a result, the Greco-Italian War followed and effectively saw Greece enter WWII on the side of the Allies.

Greece repelled Italian forces into Albania, giving the Allies their first victory over Axis forces on land. The country would eventually fall to urgently dispatched German forces during the Battle of Greece (Wikipedia covers it extensively here). The German occupiers nevertheless met serious challenges from the Greek Resistance. Over 100,000 civilians died from starvation during the winter of 1941–42, and the great majority of Greek Jews were deported to Nazi extermination camps By the time the war was over, over 400,000 Greeks perished (the vast majority being civilians).

After the war was over, a power vacuum emerged. The Communist party (backed by Yugoslavia, Albania and Bulgaria) wanted to rule over Greece but they were met with opposition from the 'democratic government' (backed by UK and USA). A brutal three-year civil war occurred between 1946 to 1949. Greece was one of the first theaters of the Cold War.

This distrust and tension between the two sides lasted for more than three decades and caused political polarisation. In 1965, after the Greek King dismissed the government, a coup deposed the King and ushered in a military junta. The brutal suppression of the Athens Polytechnic uprising on 17 November 1973 sent shock-waves through the regime, and a counter-coup occurred. On 20 July 1974, as Turkey invaded the island of Cyprus, the military junta regime collapsed.
Present-day Cyprus. Nicosia remains the only divided capital in the world

 On 14 August 1974 Greek forces withdrew from the integrated military structure of NATO in protest at the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus .The first multiparty elections since 1964 were held on the first anniversary of the Polytechnic uprising. A democratic and republican constitution was promulgated on 11 June 1975 following a referendum which chose to not restore the monarchy.

Relations with neighbouring Turkey improved when successive earthquakes hit both nations in 1999,ushering in greater cooperation and leading to the lifting of the Greek veto against Turkey's bid for EU membership. In 1981, Greece joined the European Communities (a precursor to the European Union) and an economic boom followed.

Poster's comment:
That concludes the post. I felt that a country, with such a rich history, should have more positive news. I honestly wish for the best for Greece. I hope that you, dear reader, would appreciate what Greece has been through throughout its most turbulent years and I am confident, that one day, Greece will rise up again.


  1. Great article! Always wondered why Greece and Turkey had problems.


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