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Transformations of liberal philhellenism in mid-nineteenth century Greece: A diplomat takes a stance



Transformations of liberal philhellenism in mid-nineteenth century Greece: A diplomat takes a stance


5 February 2021


"The diplomat and amateur painter Benjamin Mary was the first Belgian chargé d’affaires at Athens (1839–1844). His appointment emphasised the similarities between the two newly established states that were the outcome of liberal national movements. It points thus to a critical moment of European history: the conjunction between revolution, state formation and national politics. Mary explored this conjunction in both his diplomatic reports and his sketches, using a philhellenic vocabulary of political liberalism and ethnographic romanticism. What is particularly striking in Mary’s philhellenism, though, is that it was void of any reference to Greek antiquity; for Mary, the event that had constituted the Greeks as a nation and legitimised the formation of an independent state was the Greek Revolution. He not only interpreted Greek political action, especially the constitutional movement of 1843, through the lens of the revolution, but he also considered the latter as a decisive moment in the unfolding of European liberalism. Mary was critical of the status of protection that defined Greece’s position as an independent state, and particularly of the contradictions of British policy, which he identified in the support of the constitutional movement, on the one hand, and, on the other, in the claims of dominance over Greece in accordance with British imperialism and colonialism. Influenced perhaps as well by an ongoing neurotic ailment, Mary abandoned the Belgian diplomatic axiom of neutrality and shifted from the position of a diplomat to that of an activist. His philhellenism, coupled with his liberal engagement, triggered further by the role of the British in Austria’s effort to suppress the Italian national movement, culminated in his violent denouncement of British policies in Greece and Europe during a meeting with the British ambassador at Athens. Mary made known the episode to a wider public, thus breaking the rules of high politics and turning him into an “apostate” that cost him his position and social status. This paper analyses Mary’s Greek experience with the aim to explore the transformations of philhellenism in the liberal thought and action of the mid-nineteenth century. The paper is primarily based on Mary’s unpublished reports from the archive of the Belgian Ministry of Foreign affairs in Brussels and on the correspondence of the British embassy at Athens, additionally also on Mary’s sketches, in which he depicted known and unknown men and women, among them several fighters of the revolution."

(Slightly modified abstract from the Initiative 1821-2021 website)

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