Guest Viewpoints

1821: Freedom or Death – The History and Drama of a Ceaseless Struggle

April 8, 2021
By Jeffrey Levett

1821 was a passion that did not conform to the dictates of common sense, but responded to the logic of history. There are many other noble examples. When women demanded the right to decide their own destiny Emmeline Pankhurst said in 1913, “they will have to choose between giving us freedom or giving us death.”

Boundaries shifted east and mass migration and genocide occurred as the Ottoman Empire imploded. As it weakened it received the appellation, ‘the sick man of Europe’ from Tsar Nicholas in 1853. As boundaries shrank, atrocities were perpetrated by the Ottoman Turks against the Armenians and Greeks of the Pontos and Asia Minor. What happened was a reversal of Ottoman expansion of several hundred years prior to the Turks’ advance to the gates of Vienna (1529). In 1821, the Greek War of independence got underway. After revolting against the Turks the turmoil was not over; internal strife erupted. Kolokotronis of the Morea and the fiery priest Papa Flessa stopped Ibrahim Pasha and outside help came with the Battle of Navarino, when British, Russian, and French forces destroyed the Ottoman fleet (1829) and John Capodistrias became the first Governor of Greece. Capodistrias, although chided and undermined for his Russian learning, threw body and soul into the rejuvenation of Greece: shipping, banking, a monetary system, commerce, agriculture, and the health of orphans and widows, but he was assassinated as Greece gained statehood (Nafplion, 1931).

Jonathan Peckham Miller an American philhellene provided first-hand accounts of the Greek struggle for freedom over Ottoman rule, and gave descriptions of the poverty, distress, and misery of the people. His adopted son, Lucas Miltiadis Miller, later served in the American Congress. Circa 1830, as cholera overran Europe, Greece became a state. While its health conditions were deplorable (typhus, plague, cholera, chickenpox, malaria, tuberculosis) it could not stop the overwhelming drive to freedom nor the forces of division. It would take another 100 years before Greece completely threw off the so-called Ottoman yoke and before its deplorable health status started slowly, to improve.

In 1822 the Massacre on Chios was carried out by the Ottomans against Greeks. Children under three and over 12 were slaughtered. Approximately three-quarters of the population of 120,000 were killed, enslaved or died of disease after thousands of Turkish troops put down a rebellion against Ottoman rule. Eugene Delacroix depicted the Massacre, showing to all Europeans the horrors and atrocities the Turks were responsible for on the island. Konstantinos Kanaris who had survived the massacre, returned to destroy the Turkish fleet anchored in the port of Chios where 2,000 Turks were killed.

This year 2021, Greece celebrates the 200th anniversary of the rebirth of the Nation with a sense of determination and subdued optimism but with impaired unity in this a time of COVID. While its initial response to the pandemic was largely effective, in the third wave it is fraying. There are few calls for prioritizing public health. One reference to the need for public health at the time of COVID came from Katerina Sakellaropoulou, President of Greece.

A recent program of the Council for International Relations (CFIR), focused on the Bicentennial (1821-2021). Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis noted that the aim of the first hundred years (1821-1921) was national completion and reunification of the newly constituted nation state. Not one of the distinguished participants noted the dismal health status of the Greek people then or the contribution of public health and the efforts of Capodistrias or Eleftherios Venizelos to improve it, while a recent National Recovery and Sustainability Plan aiming to reorient health services towards disease prevention and health promotion makes no mention of public health.

The celebrations 1821-2021 in Greece were inspirational, simple, and substantive, informative and exceptionally moving. Although COVID restricted, they took place in subdued splendor and in the presence of representatives of the three countries, Britain, France, and Russia, who helped the Greek cause the most. Three frigates, one from each country, anchored in the harbor of Piraeus as images of blue and whited draped the world.

The newly-renovated and expanded National Gallery of Art displays paintings representing scenes from the 1821 Greek War of Independence. The Prince of Wales, who attended the grand re-opening, said that Greece is the wellspring of Western civilization and that its spirit runs through our societies and our democracies.

The kaleidoscope of images emerging from the geographical space of Europe and the Balkan promontory between the beginning of the 19th century and 1930 is amazing: the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) which produced a brief period of French domination over much of continental Europe, uprisings and revolutions, collapsing empires, frequent wars, and the emergence of new nation states. In parallel, infectious diseases also referred to as scourges and filth diseases, raged, and international health conferences were conducted; one in Constantinople. In the early 20th century the League of Nations and International Labor Organization as well as Health committees came about.

From my vantage and virtual point again on the Hill of Lykavitos I followed the exhilarating celebrations on March 25, 2021. At sunrise a 21-gun salute sounded from above as I drank my Greek coffee. The salute was repeated twice during the day. Sometime later the flag-raising ceremony took place on the Acropolis in the presence of the President and Prime Minister of Greece. The National Anthem was sung a capella by international soprano Anastasia Zanni. The light of Athens buoyed by crisp sunshine beamed out that all’s right with the world.

Nothing could deprive the Bicentennial celebrations of their special splendor as the ‘Blue and White’ flag was unfurled on the Sacred Rock of the Acropolis, colors that spread throughout Greece and covered multiple places around the globe in honor of the anniversary. Nothing deprived it of its historical significance following on from the American and French Revolutions; its victory over tyranny, its revival of all things Greek – ours once more. President Biden spoke of the affinity between the two nations and referred to America’s celebration of its 200th anniversary, in 1976, and to the time when Axis powers marched in Europe the Greeks bravely said ‘No’ and joined the fight for universal rights in the Second World War.

From France, Macron also cited the influence of ancient Greek culture, which permeated Europe and linked it irrevocably with Greece, and noted a stronger unifying factor today, the commitment to freedom and the European adventure. In Greece the Russian Prime Minister said that when the Greek revolution was in danger, Russia and its allies Britain and France took part in the Battle of Navarino. We must not forget that victory in the struggle against the Ottoman Empire in 1829, which led to the signing of the London Protocol that signified the birth of a renewed Greek state.

Russia will soon hand over documents from its archives. They include material pertaining to Greek citizens who died in Nazi concentration camps in 1943-1944, Greeks who fought against the Germans on the fronts of World War II and were taken prisoner. Among the documents to be handed over is a report by Ioannis Kapodistrias to Tsar Nicholas I about developments in the Greek Revolution.

When I performed in the Musical, 1776, with the Oak Park Players in Illinois, my character, Senator Robert Livingston of New York, never got to sign the American Declaration of Independence feverishly penned by Thomas Jefferson who was worried about the future course of human events. Livingston was recalled home to pop a cork and celebrate a birth in the family, but in that performance I celebrated the 200th Anniversary of the American Revolution. I also participated in a program contemplating America’s third century. Today, almost half a century later I celebrate 1821 from my lockdown looking out onto an Athens, confused and shaken as the third wave of COVID chokes its hospitals. In the first wave of COVID a year earlier I penned an ode; here is an extract:

· Below and from the sadness of a forlorn bell, we hear the sadness of the world, a world that walked in beauty through the seasons till its fall, Apple blossom time will come again, another eternity will pass, olives falling to the grass, Lilacs will be gathered in the spring, when some go home again … A splash of red I see above, some poppy bed in radiant bloom, While buttercups their golden cups reach up towards the warming sun, Upon the hill; Golgotha and Lykavitos.

And from a song of Sophia Vembo: take courage Greece, do not weaken because God wants you to live and you will live.

Today in our world of dangerous inequality, existential problems, and COVID, exact and equal justice for all men and women seem just out of reach and freedom’s song falls flat, but not so with the Greek National Anthem: From the graves of our slain, Shall thy valour prevail, As we greet thee again, Hail, Liberty! Hail!

The degree of freedom is the measure of a democratic state and the crusades for freedom. In 1821 ordinary, everyday people were transformed into heroes who gave everything for the realization of freedom … the revolt of the Greeks against the power of an empire was powered by the poets who fueled the transcending of fear, subjugation, and slavery.

For these reasons, the Greece of 1821 is so important, as was demonstrated by the world’s response. Greece is celebrating its most important emblematic National celebration: 200 years since the Revolution of 1821.

Its revolutionary slogan was ‘freedom or death’. In the words of Nikos Kazantzakis and Makrigiannis, our luck as Greeks is to battle the beasts who fight to eat us, eat, eat but they cannot, for there is always the magic of the yeast. I call this rising yeast a spark. It is the spark that burns immortal in the soul of Greece; a blessed spark that defies the wise advice of logic. When the abyss is reached, it sets fire to the soul and brings about a miracle. Greece owes its life to these miracles. 1821 made the impossible, possible. The warriors of 1821 knew well the depths of the human spirit to struggle and how to struggle to arrive at the impossible. They knew that it takes much more “we than me” to make it possible.

As the Ottoman Empire collapsed, frontiers abruptly changed, population movements occurred, and power structures inverted, creating population upheavals and atrocities. It is not without reason that the Balkans ominously or not are sometimes referred to, as the “first and last Europe.” Balkan states emerged with nationalistic aspirations and thoughts of expansionism to pull their national states together. While 1821 was catalytic, another century would pass before Greece would find a route through social policy to be recognized as a modern state.

This year, 2021, Greece celebrates the 200th anniversary of the rebirth of the Nation with a sense of determination and subdued optimism but with impaired unity in this time of COVID. While its initial response to the pandemic was largely effective, now in the pandemic’s third wave it is frayed. Two hundred years ago, the Greek War of Independence was marred by disease, its triumph lost in typhus, plague, cholera, chickenpox, malaria, and tuberculosis. This year Greece, 2021, what is a glorious and inspiring Bicentennial celebration is shadowed in COVID.

Through the pen of Nikos Kazantzakis with music by Mikis Theodorakis in the most recent performance of the play, Capodistrias says:

“I am not the myth you describe. I am a simple and down to earth person, trying to lay a few solid foundations in Greece – Schooling, Justice, Virtue, and Order! These are the foundations! I came to this holy place, my child, holding a precious gift, the Alphabet! Even when the Greek revolution burst forth no credible government emerged. Instead unrest, infighting, and civil strife ran rife, civil unrest threatened, rebellions took place, which gave the Turks renewed opportunity in the Peloponnese where the Revolution started.”

As the Turks advanced the Women of Souli danced to their death with their children. As they deliberately danced towards the precipice they chose death over slavery. Missolonghi was besieged and fell twice to the Turks in 1822 and 1823. Byron died in the second siege. When overwhelmed and surrounded, the last defenders blew themselves up together with their wives and children. Eugène Delacroix, painted Greece on the Ruins of Missolonghi, which is one of the most celebrated French paintings of the 19th century. Several dozen young men from a northern village descended on Missolonghi after a long and arduous trek to help in the retreat. They did not return, and to diminish grief it was said they had married. Today, two centuries later, a commemorative and emotional song still resounds in Samarina:

“Poor children of Samarina, poor children, no longer can you fight or sing … Should I find myself in mountains close to Samarina and if your mothers, sisters, families ask me why you do not sing [they will not] learn from me that you are lost or gone from life. You are betrothed, forever wed to the black earth.”

What now Hellas? I declare: 4000 years of linguistic history and concentrated philosophical wisdom; two centuries of the modern Greek state and a moving Bicentennial (1821-2021) that grabbed the world’s attention; Greece in its 3rd Century (2021-2121); the here and now health status of the Greek people and the demographic challenge as well as freedom, life with quality and fulfillment; the rejuvenation of Hellenism; and the divine intervention of Hygiene, goddess of public health.

Jeffrey Levett received the International Gusi Peace Prize in 2019. The founding Dean of the National School of Public Health, Athens, Greece, he is now Professor Emeritus. Levett lives in Athens but considers himself a Citizen of the Earth.


In one New York Congressional district, Orthodox Christians, Hellenes, and all those who love justice and religious freedom have a rare opportunity next Tuesday, June 25 to strike a blow for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and against Turkey’s illegal military occupation of Cyprus.

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