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The best books on The Age of Revolution

recommended by Paschalis Kitromilides

The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary by Constantinos Tsoukalas & Paschalis Kitromilides


The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary
by Constantinos Tsoukalas & Paschalis Kitromilides


The American Revolution of 1776 and the French Revolution of 1789 upended the political order on both sides of the Atlantic. The battle of Waterloo in 1815 did not bring things to a close. Revolutionary activity continued in Europe and Latin America with varying degrees of success right through to 1848. Here political scientist Paschalis Kitromilides, Professor Emeritus at the University of Athens, discusses the various forces that drove the 'age of revolution.'

Interview by Benedict King

The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary by Constantinos Tsoukalas & Paschalis Kitromilides


The Greek Revolution: A Critical Dictionary
by Constantinos Tsoukalas & Paschalis Kitromilides


Before we get to the books, could you give us an overview of what ‘the age of revolution’ was and what characterized it? Could you also give us a sense of how views of it have changed—I imagine about 50 years ago there were plenty of books with Marxist interpretations being very prominent, but that that’s changed somewhat?

The idea of ‘the age of revolution’ is connected with the title of one book, my first choice, The Age of Revolution by Eric Hobsbawm.

The original formulation was provided by the great American historian, R. R. Palmer, who taught at Yale. He was interested in world history in the 1950s and 60s. He wrote an influential book called The Age of the Democratic Revolution, which tried to connect the American and French revolutions. Before Palmer the conventional historiographical view was that the American Revolution was a political revolution and the French Revolution primarily a social revolution which changed society in France and in Europe. Palmer tried to say that there was a continuum, that they were both revolutions against the aristocracy. That proved quite an influential approach and was interpreted at the time as a way of reclaiming the revolutionary character of the American Revolution. The subtext was that this approach did not concede the revolutionary origins of the modern state only to the Soviets. There was a similar argument at about the same time, voiced by Hannah Arendt, the great American Jewish political philosopher, who also stated that the American Revolution was a real revolution, not just a change in the form of government.

So this was an influential version of a new historiography which was motivated by the wish to write international history, not focused on one country, but to see processes which connected many societies. It was conceived as a ‘Western Atlantic revolution’. All these revolutions were happening around the Atlantic. Palmer had worked with and been inspired by a very important French historian, Jacques Godechot, who is now forgotten outside France. But I always remember him and like to recall his contribution because his was the original idea that the French Revolution was not an exclusively French event, that it was rather part of a series of events and upheavals that influenced the whole of Europe, and the whole world. This form of international history was later criticized as bringing into academic history the ideological priorities of the Cold War.

Hobsbawm then published his book, which acknowledged Palmer’s work, but didn’t give it its due. The book is Hobsbawm’s most important work. He coined the term ‘the age of revolution’. In his perspective, in a larger timeframe of 1789-1848, it was no longer just a revolt against the aristocracy. The others—Palmer and Godechot—ended in 1800, more or less. Hobsbawm saw the revolution beginning in France, but then extending over the whole of Europe, becoming really revolutionary when a new actor entered the scene, the working class. So, then, it’s not the bourgeoisie claiming its rights against the aristocracy, but the industrial proletariat which enters the scene, pushing for more radical reform and claiming their social rights.

“In Nations and Nationalism, he predicted the end of nationalism, but exactly the opposite happened”

But I think the most important contribution in this book is that it acknowledges the importance of nationalism as well. Hobsbawm reflected critically a great deal on nationalism. He wanted nationalism to disappear really. His last book, Nations and Nationalism, was published in 1989, at about the time of the changes in Eastern Europe. In that book, he predicted the end of nationalism, but exactly the opposite happened. In the earlier book, he makes nationalism a very important factor in political change in Europe, in the age of revolutions. It brought changes in regimes and the introduction of accountable government. That was also Palmer’s emphasis. Nationalism was a truly revolutionary force of modernity, which brought to the fore the claims of subject nationalities and whole societies against absolutism. And finally, the claims of the working class, the industrial proletariat, actively contributed to change in European politics in the second half of the 19th century. This is how the actual age of revolution was shaped. Hobsbawm’s contribution was decisive in establishing nationalism as an object of historical research. Since the 1990s, for obvious political reasons, nationalism has grown into a veritable industry of academic writing, with very unequal products from the point of view of quality. An important recent book, which tries to put things right in this field, is Siniša Malešević, Grounded Nationalisms (2019).

After the end of the Cold War, the idea of the age of revolution was slightly pushed aside. But, recently, it has been revived with a new book, The Age of Revolutions in Global Context by David Armitage and Sanjay Subrahmanyam. They’re both historians in American universities, who look beyond Europe and try to see what is happening in the rest of the world in that period. All in all, I think it’s a very fertile field of research and now, with the work we are trying to do with the anniversary of the Greek Revolution, I think the whole discussion on the age of revolution is being revived.

Has Hobsbawm’s theory that the great difference in the revolutions of 1848, compared to those of the late 18th century and the 1820s and 1830s was the emergence of the working class as a revolutionary force held up? Or have people begun to question that as well, over the past few decades?

Labour history and working class history are an important part of social history. But the truth is that these strong, well established areas of historical research are not ‘fashionable’. Other subjects have been put at the forefront of research. In America, there is a strong focus on race and black history. Gender is another area of focus. All of this, in a way, overshadows the earlier focus on working-class history and labour movements.

Let’s go on to the next book you’ve chosen about the age of revolution which is Jacques Droz’s Europe Between the Revolutions 1815-1848. This covers the period after the Bourbon restoration in France in 1815 up to the 1848 revolutions. But there were a lot of revolutions between those two dates.

There were indeed many other revolutions. He’s talking about that period from the end of the French Revolution in 1815, with the defeat of the Napoleonic Empire, and 1848, which was called the ‘Spring of European peoples’. The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 was a term taken from the Spring of European peoples in 1848. No one has really acknowledged the origin of this term.

This is an important book because it is by an author who made his name mostly as a historian of anti-fascism in the interwar period. He’s a well established name in French scholarship, now forgotten in the English-speaking world. This book is very interesting because, again, he has a basic conceptualization of a struggle between the bourgeoisie and the working class. This is the framework. He takes the story up to the revolution of 1830 in France, which saw the overthrow of the legitimate line of the Bourbons and the establishment of the citizen-king, Louis-Philippe, who was himself overthrown in 1848. But 1830 was important because it saw the accession of two new states in Europe, Greece and Belgium. 1830 was not only about France.

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What I find most interesting in this book is that Droz devotes a considerable part of the narrative to a subject that historians often don’t really take very seriously—church history. He talks about how the churches in Europe—the Roman Catholic Church primarily, but also the Protestant churches, the Anglican Church in Britain, the other evangelical churches and so forth—tried to respond to the challenge of reform. I learned a great deal from just reading those chapters on the church.

Pius IX, the new Pope, elected in 1846, was not exactly a liberal, but he understood that the church had to come to terms with and respond to the need for reform in European society. Droz is good on the struggle over reform within the Catholic Church during this period. Of course, finally, all the reform attempts failed and we had to wait until the middle of the 20th century, and the Second Vatican Council, for the Roman Catholic Church to modernize.

But there was the acknowledgment that society was changing, and that the church must take initiatives not to lag behind the process of change in European society, if it was to maintain its influence. Droz is very good on that and also on the spiritual renewal within the churches, both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, that came from reflecting on the need for change. That’s why this book is on my list.

Does he talk about Greece in that context? Greece was arguably the most important revolution between 1815 and 1848, but Greece was not an industrial society and the Orthodox Church was very influential. Was the Orthodox Church committed to the revolution in Greece or was that a complicated issue?

Droz discusses the Greek Revolution as an international problem but he does not refer to the Orthodox Church. The question of the church is a very complicated issue and is becoming polemical again, in the lead up to the anniversary. I recently saw an announcement by the Orthodox Church of Cyprus that the church was in the foreground of resistance to Ottoman rule and of the revolution. It’s not as simple as that. The church was the major institution left after the destruction of the Eastern Roman Empire, around which the Orthodox people in the broad area of southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean cohered. The church worked primarily to sustain the faith, to help the people survive under conditions of conquest, and so forth, but didn’t have a national agenda. Its agenda was the preservation of the faith.

There have been many debates around this, but they are fruitless. The work of the church is to cultivate the faith, not to work for political revolution. But the church feels a little embarrassed on that account. So they try to explain how they contributed to the revolution. And, of course, they did contribute, but in their own domain of competence. I think the whole debate is beside the point. What happens in 1821 is that many individual clergymen, prelates, members of the hierarchy, especially in the revolutionary territories, down south in the Peloponnese, the islands and so forth, participated actively. They fought, and many of them died, fighting against the invasion of the Egyptian armies in the Peloponnese in 1825.

“The ‘Arab Spring’ of 2011 was a term taken from the Spring of European peoples in 1848”

In Constantinople itself, the Patriarch, who had disowned the revolution, was executed by the Turks along with a number of other senior prelates. The same happened to the Archbishop of the Autocephalous Church of Cyprus, Kyprianos, and the whole hierarchy in Cyprus. The same happened in Crete and in many other places. So the church offered its own hecatomb to the revolution. The Church did not plan the revolution, originally, but they were held responsible by the Ottoman authorities for the disobedience and the disloyalty of the people and that, of course, gave a national aura to the church. Later, in elaborating a new national ideology, the church became part of the new understanding of what had happened.

Now, coming back to the two other points, yes, the Greek Revolution started in 1821, and continued until about 1830 or 1832. The Acropolis in Athens was in the hands of an Ottoman garrison until the year 1833. So we can say the war of independence lasted for more than ten years. The main reason for the initial success of the revolution was that the main body of the Ottoman armies was caught up in northwestern Greece, trying to put down the revolt of Ali Pasha, who wanted to create his own state, independent from the Sultan. The Ottoman government was mostly preoccupied with that, which gave the Greeks some leeway to revolt. Then the Ottoman armies came down in 1822 into the Peloponnese, but they were defeated by the Greeks. This allowed the revolution to survive and spread, although there was a civil war, as tends to happen in most revolutions, in 1824-1825.

Later, the great powers—Britain, France and Russia—to secure their own interests, intervened and decided to bring some kind of pacification. On the 20th of October 1827, at the naval battle of Navarino, their navies destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet, setting in process the liberation of Greece. That was the military aspect. The effect of this was to keep the revolution going. The revolutions that had started in Italy in 1820-1821 had been crushed by the Austrians, so the flame of revolution seemed to be extinguishing in Europe. But the Greeks were determined not to give up until they got their independence. There was international support for Greece from Europe and the United States and, so, with the international Philhellenic movement putting pressure on governments, especially in Britain and France, the revolution managed to survive and act as a kind of new hope for liberal revolutionaries everywhere in Europe, that something could happen for their countries, too.

Your next book is the Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution, edited by Mona Ozouf and Francois Furet. Why have you chosen this one?

There is an autobiographical dimension to this. Back in 1989, I was a very young professor at the University of Athens, and I was invited to participate in the events in France on the bicentennial of the French Revolution. There was a big world congress at the Sorbonne at which I spoke. There were two dictionaries published on that occasion. One of them was the Critical Dictionary of the French Revolution. It is not an exhaustive dictionary, but a series of essays, which develop a critical perspective on the major controversies related to the history of the French Revolution. It was very important for me and for my own work, and I even wrote a book entitled, The French Revolution in south-eastern Europe, in which I tried to take some of those concepts and ideas and apply them to what was happening in Greece and the Balkans. I always wished we could have something like that book covering the Greek Revolution.

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Back in 2017 the president of the Hellenic Culture Foundation, my colleague at the university, Constantine Tsoukalas, asked me what I thought the Foundation might do to commemorate the bicentennial of the outbreak of the Greek Revolution. I said, let’s try to do a Critical Dictionary like the French one. Tsoukalas supported the idea enthusiastically and we began working on the project back in 2017. We managed to get together a group of about 40 contributors and the work was accepted by Harvard University Press and it was published officially on 25th  of March 2021, exactly on the bicentennial of the Greek Revolution. It is a volume of 800 pages very nicely produced and illustrated.

And does it have a particular take in terms of its approach to the revolution or is it deliberately structured to avoid having an interpretive line?

The whole philosophy has been to be pluralist. For my dictionary I tried to get all the Greek universities involved, not just the University of Athens, and to get all the foreign specialists who could contribute to be in it. My instruction to all contributors was to take the conventional view in their particular subject, and then ask whether it could be confirmed, or should be revised. That’s the idea of the critical dictionary. It is not there to serve any ideological purpose or orthodoxy, but it tries to be pluralist and inclusive. I don’t think that there is a major issue or subject,which is absent. We don’t have individual entries on people or on particular events, but the various protagonists of the revolution are discussed in broadly focused chapters such as diplomats, military leaders, civilian leaders, clergymen, and so on, and we have a chapter, which is one of the longest in the book, on women—what happened to women and what women did in the revolution.

Let’s move on to Jeremy Jennings’s Revolution and the Republic: A History of Political Thought in France since the Eighteenth Century. Why have you chosen this one?

It’s a new history of French political thought. And it brings the story to the present. I like it because it talks about how the wish for a republican form of government is voiced in French political thought. It describes how this wish endures through all the vicissitudes of the revolutionary age, and survives as a claim of political legitimacy, vindicated eventually with the advent of the Third Republic. He discusses all the major political thinkers who created continental European liberalism in the 19th century. It is very useful for understanding the intellectual and ideological currents in the age of revolutions and the early part of the book focuses on that.

Finally, our last book on the age of revolution is Jonathan Israel’s The Enlightenment That Failed. This is the recently published volume four in Israel’s massive history of the Enlightenment. Why have you chosen this one?

Jonathan Israel is a great scholar.  His work is daunting for us all because he knows so much and has written so much. It’s hard to come to terms with so much material. I use it mostly as an encyclopaedia of the Enlightenment.

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I think it’s a very important work, one of the major milestones in the history of Enlightenment scholarship. I would place Israel alongside Ernst Cassirer, who came first, then Peter Gay in the 1960s with his Enlightenment: an Interpretation (2 vols), then Jonathan Israel in the first 20 years of the 21st century, with his four massive volumes. He puts forward the idea of the ‘radical enlightenment’ as essentially being a critique of religion that begins with Spinoza and runs throughout the Enlightenment. Israel claims that the critique of religion, the Spinozist approach, is combined with political republicanism. He argues that this remains underground for most of the 18th century, but it comes to the foreground in the debates leading up to the French Revolution. He explains that the idea is again persecuted during the age of revolution, and that although it revives from time to time, the radical enlightenment eventually fails—hence the title of the fourth volume.

But, of course, the Enlightenment shaped European politics and culture. The radical component, which goes back to Spinoza, was espoused by many thinkers, and even revolutionary movements, to some extent, including, Israel argues, Simon Bolivar in Latin America. But it finally failed—it didn’t shape the eventual political outcomes.

Interview by Benedict King

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Paschalis Kitromilides

Paschalis Kitromilides

Paschalis Kitromilides is author of numerous books, including Enlightenment and Revolution: The Making of Modern Greece. He is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Athens and a member of the Academy of Athens. He is the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Award from the European Society for the History of Political Thought.