How do anniversaries affect the way in which we think about a historical event? National anniversaries are not only manifestations of public history – occasions for solemnities, commemorative ceremonies, parades and all kinds of celebrations. Anniversaries often produce new understandings of the past, inviting us to think afresh about established narratives, to expand, reframe, enrich or even challenge them. Anniversaries often produce history. One such contribution to renewing and reframing the way we think about the Greek Revolution is the Hellenic Archival Society’s publication 21 stories for 1821, published under the auspices of the Greece 2021 Committee in 2021, to mark the bicentenary of the revolution.
The logic on which the book is based is interesting in itself: starting from historical documents relating to the period of the Greek Revolution, historians, archivists and philologists – people who have close and daily contact with the archives – compose texts that move between traces of the past and historical imagination. Elli Droulia-Mitrakou deals with the fate of prisoners of war, especially those who were still young, starting from an incident of captivity that was discussed by the Greek Parliament in 1827. Ourania Papadopoulou and Evi Kapoli also deal with the way young people experienced the revolution, focusing on the lives of children who were conscripted from the young age of 13 years old. Their story is based on the biographical note of a child who, after his demobilisation, was enrolled at the Central School of Aegina in 1830. Dimitris Dimitropoulos and Theodora Alexopoulou deal with the importance of piracy during the revolution in their respective texts. The siege of Messolonghi and the anguish over the fate of the besieged is the theme developed by Giorgos Tsaknias, Amalia Pappa and Eleni Theodoropoulou in their respective texts. Dina Adamopoulou deals with the fate of prisoners of war, telling a story based on an incident that happened in Hydra in 1825. Anna Koulikourdi brings to light episodes from the internal tensions within the revolution. In her two other contributions to the volume, Koulikourdi focuses on the lives of women and their everyday life – a topic that is also addressed by Amalia Papa and Theodora Alexopoulou in her second contribution to the volume. The emotional charge of writing war memoirs, how the experience is transformed into a text, was of interest to Kostas Andriotis and Nikos Andriotis. Monasteries and monks during the revolution occupy Anita Prassa and Maria Dimitriadou in their texts, respectively. Eleni Theodoropoulou deals with letters and schools during the revolution. In her second contribution to the volume, she deals with the issue of refugees and their treatment during the revolution. Finally, Konstantinos Thanasakis deals with the issue of foreigners who arrived in revolutionary Greece and how the revolution appeared in their eyes.
The edited volume is, among others, an exercise in public history. First of all, the reading flows smoothly and it piques the reader’s interest. The contributions are in the form of short stories, each of which, through the adventures of its heroes, helps the reader explore everyday life during the revolution. It is not only the personal stories, however, that are important. Each of the stories becomes a window for the reader to get a sense of what it meant to live in the time of great visions and hopes, but also of the great upheavals and insecurity created by the revolutionary reality. Thus, although the stories contained in the book can be read by historians, who would find in them the meeting point between the elusiveness of the evidence and their fragmentary nature, on the one hand, and the cultivation of the historical imagination, on the other, they are not addressed to them alone. Instead, they are addressed to a much wider readership. The book is written in a way that does not require specialised knowledge of the period or the events to follow the stories. All it requires familiarity with what is considered “common knowledge” about the Greek Revolution, part of Greek historical culture. In this respect, the book is situated at the point where existing historical culture meets the materials of its transformation – bits and pieces of the past and its representation that are small and fragmented, with strong emotional overtones, but also relevant to the anxieties and questions of the present.
The great contribution of this volume to the discussion of 1821 on the occasion of the bicentenary is that it gives flesh and bones and brings into the field of experience what is usually presented in an abstract way by archival documents or historical texts oriented solely towards accuracy. In other words, they are an exercise in balancing between historical accuracy and the sense of what the past must have felt like. What did it mean for a mother to lose her child in hostilities? How did the revolution affect the family balance? Who were considered refugees and when and what dynamics developed between them and the locals? What did the revolution mean for the children who grew up while it was taking place? What was the materiality of the economics of the revolution – what did it mean for the people who managed it? These are just a few of the questions that the authors of the book are concerned with. They deal with them through the lens of the micro-histories that archival evidence provides, while allowing their historical imagination to enrich them without distorting them, to give them the conciseness and tangibility required to inscribe them in collective memory.
21 Stories of 1821 is an excellent example of how to make and how to communicate public history – in a responsible way, faithful to the traces of the past, but at the same time in a way that is meaningful for the present. That is, in a way that answers contemporary questions about the past – in this case, questions about history from below, the history of the many and the anonymous, the one that has not yet found its place in the official narrative of the Greek Revolution. It is still a narrative about the past that is made up of bits and pieces and works kaleidoscopically. The book does not provide a unified narrative – but its stories allow us to get a sense of what reality was like during the revolutionary period. They allow us to see the cracks and discontinuities, the uncertainties of the people who were active during this period, how not only were they the ones who were protagonists in the revolutionary event, but also how the event itself shaped them through its dynamics. And this is a fundamental contribution to the way we think about the past, not in the abstract way, but in relation to human agency, its difficult decisions, its contradictions and the visions, disappointments and hopes that are its driving force.
Aimilia (Emilia) Salvanou, post-doc researcher DUTH