Memoirs are a special category of historical sources. They move between memory and the desire of historicisation and compose an image of the past that is inextricably bound up with the subject’s experience. Unlike diaries, which resemble a dialogue with the self, memoirs are written in order to be read, to communicate memory. For this reason, their value as historical sources have often been questioned, mainly on the grounds that they were a priori subjective. The fear that the narrator idealises his role or that sympathies and antagonisms intrude into the narrative are objections that were systematically raised with regard to the use of memoirs – even as late as the last quarter of the 20th century. Moreover, to this day, memoirs, particularly in the sphere of what we conventionally call public history and more specifically in school history education, are often referred to as indirect historical sources and as fascinating readings that bring a particular historical period to life – but not as historical sources.
Nevertheless, historiography is gradually reassessing the importance of memoirs as traces of the past, in a broader framework where new questions about the past are posed, the field of interest and methodologies are renewed, and the conceptualisation of what a source is reapproached. The shift towards subjectivity, the interest in people’s everyday lives, in emotions and relationships and in testimony (as a way of constructing the self and in its intertwinement with historical action) are just a few of the issues that have encouraged the rethinking of the importance of memoirs in historical research.
In the context of the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution, the Hellenic Parliament Foundation for Parliamentarism and Democracy organised a conference in March 2019 that focused on memoirs and their historical use. Its proceedings were published a year later, under the title “1821 and Memoirs: Historical use and historiographical knowledge”, edited by Dimitris Dimitropoulos, Vangelis Karamanolakis, Niki Maronitis and Pantelis Boukalas. The conference’s papers, by distinguished and young historians of the Greek Revolution, as well as the round table on the relationship between testimony and history, which closed the proceedings, illuminated the multiple ways in which memoirs can enrich historical understanding, and contributed to the understanding of the significance that memoirs have acquired in collective memory.
Alexis Politis’ contribution illuminates the reception of Makriyannis’ memoirs and how they excite the imagination and engage in conversation with the social demands of the 20th century. Christos Loukos illuminates how Kasomoulis’ memoirs can be read in a new light, enriching our knowledge of the revolution, with questions that have not yet been systematically addressed by historiography. Dionysis Tzakis also deals with the memoirs of Kasomoulis, along the same lines with Loukos, focusing, however, on “armatolism” and the way that oral testimonies contribute to understanding the anthropogeography of the revolution. Thanos Angelides analyses Spyridon Trikoupis’ speeches to highlight the worldview of the revolution in its birth. Nikos Rotzokos re-reads the memoirs of the Peloponnesian fighters of the revolution to explore how regional identities were shaped and to highlight their modern, political, character and the way they complement national identity. Panagiotis Stathis is also concerned with identities, focusing on memoirs of the Souliots and exploring how they constitute and condense a series of stereotypes that were gradually inscribed in the body of the heroic memory of the revolution. Pantelis Boukalas engages with a different form of memory, that which passes through folk songs, or rather through the songs that the fighters created echoing their experience, based on older songs by genuinely anonymous authors. Vangelis Sarafis focuses on the Pissas Manuscripts and their importance for understanding the history of the regular army from an officer’s perspective. Eleftheria Zei re-reads the memoirs of Kallinikos Kritovoulides, highlighting their central importance for understanding the history of 1821 in Crete, with the internal rivalries between the revolutionaries on the island, the role of the Muslim community and the politicisation that took place during the revolution. Dimitris Dimitropoulos reads through the memoirs of Alexios Koutsalexis the story of the refugees during the 1821 Revolution, tracing the materiality and the difficulties of their movement. Panagiotis Michailaris analyses the editions and reissues of the memoirs of Paleon Patron Germanos and highlights the concerns related to the use of memoirs in historical research. Ada Dialla opens the discussion on how memoirs can shed light on the revolution as an international event by analysing the memoirs of the Russian Decembrists and, through them, the international networks of movement and exchange of ideas. In the same line, the contribution of Francesco Scalora, who deals with the memoirs of Italian exiles and patriots in revolutionary Greece and traces the place in the geography of memory of the Greek Revolution as a hub for the formation of a liberal European identity. Finally, the text by Sophia Laiou and Marinos Sarigiannis focuses on Ottoman memoirs, illuminating the Ottoman perspective of the revolution, both in terms of strategic choices and, more importantly, in terms of attitudes, behaviours and emotions.
The volume closes with a round table discussion entitled “Testimony and the past: Rethinking experience”. Vangelis Karamanolakis set the initial questions regarding the relationship between testimonies and memoirs in the 1821 Revolution, the role of the intermediary in memoirs and the historiographical usefulness of memoirs. These questions were addressed by Fragiski Ampatzopoulou, who highlighted the way in which the shift to testimony radically changed the way the individual is perceived as a narrator-contributor of history; Gerasimos Stephanatos, who spoke about testimony, trauma and historical truth from a psychoanalytical perspective; Kostas Yannakopoulos, who focused on the issue of silences and the denial of testimony, and Dimitra Lambropoulou, who focused on the social role and the dialogical nature of testimonies, as well as the way in which testimonies, especially oral testimonies, are exploited by history.
The volume is an important contribution to the discussion taking place concerning the commemoration of the bicentenary of the Greek Revolution: On the one hand, it systematically approaches memoirs as a historical source that has not been fully exploited and thus opens the spectrum of research questions regarding the revolution; on the other, this opening is made on the basis of the theoretical discussion of the relationship between memory, testimony and history on the one hand, as well as between public and academic uses and conceptualisations of the past, on the other.
Aimilia (Emilia) Salvanou. post-doc researcher DUTH