Metternich and the Greek Question 1821-29

The Austrian Foreign Minister and Chancellor, Klemens Von Metternich (1773-1859), who dominated European politics in the early 19th Century, saw revolutions as a threat to the political stability of Europe. He opposed the Greek revolt against the Turkish Ottoman Empire in 1821 along with revolts in Spain and Naples. Nonetheless, the Greek war of Independence succeeded eventually in 1829.

In early 1821, the Greek nationalist Alexandros Ypsilantis crossed the Pruth River in the Danubian Principalities (Moldavia and Wallachia), hoisting the flag of revolt against the Ottomans, who ruled over Greece from the 15th Century. He hoped that Russia would come to the aid of the Greeks, but the revolt was easily put down by the Turks.

In Austria, Metternich was surprised when the Greek revolt occurred in Peloponnesos. He wrote to Russian Tsar Alexander I that a “torch thrown between Austria and Russia” was aimed at “breaking the bonds that unite the two emperors.” They agreed on their opposition to the Greek revolt and wouldn’t involve themselves in this affair, in which the insurrectionists opposed their lawful ruler, the Ottoman Sultan. Alexander dismissed Ypsilantis from the Russian army, who then escaped into Austria, where he spent time in jail.

The hanging of the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory V, the massacres of Greeks, and the destruction of Orthodox churches horrified Tsar Alexander, who instructed Baron Stroganov, the Russian ambassador in Constantinople, to protest to the Porte (the seat of Ottoman rule). The Ottoman campaign also harmed Russian trade in the Black Sea. Metternich too was horrified by the massacres. While the Porte promised to stop the massacres, it asked for insurrectionists who had escaped into Russia to be handed over for trial. Russia declined, and this eventually led to the suspension of Russo-Ottoman diplomatic dies.

As additional reports of massacres reached St. Petersburg, the ‘hawks’ in the Russian Cabinet tried to persuade Alexander to declare war against the Turks. But Alexander wasn’t interested in going to war, nor in destroying the Ottoman Empire. Metternich too worked overtime to ensure the avoidance of a Russo-Turkish war and to persuade Alexander not to support the Greek cause. Alexander continued his opposition to the Greek insurrectionists.

The then-foreign minister of the Russian Empire and future leader of Greece, Ioannis Capodistrias, was hostile to the Ottoman Empire and wanted an independent Greek state under Russian protection, but Alexander would not agree. On his side, Metternich believed that Capodistrias was personally involved in the Greek revolt and used his influence to eventually ensure the dismissal of Capodistrias from office.

While Metternich was on good terms with Alexander, he didn’t wish to see Russian domination in the Balkans. In early 1822, Metternich met the Russian envoy, Tatishchev, to discuss the Greek issue. The latter proposed an autonomous Greece under Russian influence and giving Russia the right to place Christians of the Ottoman Empire under the protection of the Tsar. Metternich was opposed and Tatischev returned empty-handed to St. Petersburg.

Metternich meanwhile attended the 1822 Verona Congress of European powers, which focused on the Spanish and Neapolitan revolts, and he succeeded in keeping the Greek question from the discussion. Metternich’s intervention also helped to prevent two representatives of the Greek provisional government from reaching Verona.

In January 1824, a Russian memorandum proposed a meeting of European powers in St. Petersburg to seek a solution to the Greek question. The conference met between 1824-25 with no tangible results. However, the memorandum outlined “the creation of three Greek Principalities in the Peloponnesus, Eastern Rumelia and Thessaly, and Western Rumelia and a part of Epirus. Each autonomous region would have its administration and flags and their ties with the Ottoman ruler, the presence of a small Ottoman [troop garrison], and the payment of a small annual tribute.”

Metternich reacted negatively, arguing that the proposal would do nothing for the restoration of peace and would undermine the legitimate rights of the Sultan. The Greeks and Turks rejected the proposed mediation of the European powers.

In 1825, Austrian-Russian relations deteriorated further when Metternich argued that Russia had changed its policy of not becoming directly involved in the Greek question, whereas Austria’s position was consistent throughout this entire episode. In response, a violent anti-Austrian campaign was waged in St. Petersburg, and Metternich considered the possibility of war between Russia and Austria. But the death of Alexander in December 1825 meant Metternich would now have to deal with a new Tsar.

During the Greek revolt, Metternich had a staunch ally in the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereigh, a conservative who opposed revolts against lawful rulers. Both supported the use of force to crush rebellions and believed in the importance of maintaining security in Europe. But Castlereigh’s suicide shocked Metternich, who then hoped his nominated replacement, George Canning, would be like his predecessor.

But Canning proved to be the opposite. Canning and Metternich disliked each other, holding differing policy positions. Metternich supported the preservation of the Ottoman Empire whereas Canning recognized the Greeks as belligerents in 1823. While Canning wasn’t keen on the Greek revolt, his decision not to oppose the British philhellenes in the Greek struggle angered Metternich. The latter blamed Canning for encouraging the Greek blockade of the ports of Patras and Lepanto and wrote the British government expressing his displeasure over the Greek blockade.

The new Russian Tsar, Nicholas I, also opposed the Greek revolt and didn’t want war against the Ottoman Empire. Metternich was pleased that Nicholas continued the policy of his deceased brother, Alexander. But Metternich was concerned when Canning sent his envoy, Lord Wellington, to St. Petersburg to discuss the Greek question and believed Austria’s views were being ignored.

At the meeting, Nicholas saw an opportunity for cooperation with Britain over the Greek revolt. Russia and Britain agreed to intervene in Greek affairs with the intent of creating an autonomous Greek state under the Sultan’s rule and signed the Protocol of April 4, 1826, committing both to intervene between the Greeks and Turks. The protocol outlined coercive measures against the Sultan if he declined the mediation of the two powers. Russia and Britain could work jointly or separately to mediate between the belligerents.

When the French joined the Anglo-Russian camp, Metternich lost a key ally. Metternich could do nothing to intervene or persuade the Anglo-Russian-French group from using coercive measures against the Sultan. With the Sultan refusing mediation, the Anglo-Russian-French navies attacked and sank the Ottoman-Egyptian fleet on October 20, 1827 at Navarino Bay.

This action paved the way for the creation of an independent Greek state together with Russian promises under the Treaty of London signed on July 6, 1827 not to seek territories at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Nonetheless, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire the following year, resulting in the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople which ended the Russo-Ottoman conflict.

Metternich had dominated European diplomacy in the first half of the 1820s, but was sidelined during the Greek settlement. In the end, his opposition to Greek independence and the aim of preventing a Russo-Ottoman conflict came to nothing.


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