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That Greece Might Still Be Free

William St Clair

14 Secrets of State

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1Next to the General Post Office in Lombard Street in the City of London was a suite of offices with an inconspicuous door into Abchurch Lane. It consisted of three rooms, in one of which the fires and candles were never allowed to go out. The staff lived on the premises and, apart from them, only the Postmaster General himself had the right of entry. In these rooms a variety of highly specialized skills were exercised – letter-opening, sealengraving, wax-mixing, deciphering – skills which had been developed and passed on from generation to generation.

2This was the place where the diplomatic mail was intercepted. So skilfully was it done that His Majesty’s Ministers often had the opportunity of reading deciphered diplomatic messages – the ’Long Packets’ – even before the originals reached their destination. The recipients usually remained entirely ignorant that the seals had been broken and reset. The most difficult part of the operation was the deciphering but this had been developed to a fine art by the Willes family who had pursued lucrative careers simultaneously in the Church of England and in the decipherer’s office for over a hundred years. Virtually no ciphers were safe from the men known in the Foreign Office as ’our Post Office friends’ and the abolition of diplomatic interception in 1844 led to a marked deterioration in the success of British foreign policy.

3Shortly after the outbreak of the Revolution in Greece a subsidiary intelligence centre was established in the Ionian Islands. Letters on their way from Greece to Western Europe were intercepted on their way through the quarantines in the Ionian Islands. The quarantine laws were carefully regulated to facilitate this service. At the same time the Ionian Government maintained a network of agents in Greece who regularly supplied documents and reports. Many of the letters were in code or in deliberately guarded terms, but the British authorities had little difficulty in reading and interpreting them. The danger of having communications intercepted is a constant concern of diplomacy and the main powers all had their individual systems supposedly designed to protect their security. Some also had successful intercept facilities, but the chancelleries of Europe would have been horrified if they had realized how many of their secrets were eventually finding their way to London. As far as Greek affairs were concerned, the British Government soon had the opportunity, by reason of its intelligence sources, of knowing more about Greek politics than anyone else. It knew more than the Greek Government since it was constantly discovering schemes and intrigues known only to small groups of leading Greeks. It knew more than any other European Government. It even had the material to make a judgement on the effectiveness of foreign intelligence systems, and realized, for example, from the reading of Russian and Austrian correspondence, how badly informed these two Governments were.

4However good an intelligence system, it is bound to provide incomplete information, and there is always a temptation to regard information which has been obtained in secret and at great expense as of more value than straightforward open reporting. The British Government, being presented with a tantalizing series of glimpses of innumerable apparently sinister intrigues, was inclined to see the hand of a rival government behind every fatuous philhellenic scheme. Canning, the British Foreign Secretary, was convinced that the Knights of Malta were not only acting for French interests but were paid agents of the French Foreign Office. Others saw the hand of the Russians behind the schemes to revive the Knights – a natural presumption since their headquarters were in Russia – and there was some inclination to connect them with the Friendly Society itself, details of whose activities in Russia before the Revolution were gradually coming to light. When it was established beyond reasonable doubt that the Knights were acting on behalf of France, there still remained a suspicion that they might not be part of some vast Franco-Russian package deal to settle the affairs of the Levant to the exclusion of the British.

5France was the only other country whose Government was well informed about the situation in Greece. Like the British, the French maintained agents to check on the open reports of their naval and diplomatic representatives. Although they had fewer opportunities of intercepting the mail, the French had other sources not used by the British. Throughout France and elsewhere a large secret police kept a close watch on prominent Frenchmen and foreigners. In particular they followed eagerly the activities of groups which might be hostile to the Bourbons. Disgruntled Bonapartist officers, a class from which many Philhellenes were inevitably drawn either by inclination or from force of circumstances, were so closely watched that some of them went to Greece simply to get away from the feeling of claustrophobia. The secret police charted the movements of potential opponents, allowed them to cross the frontiers if it suited the Government’s policy, penetrated their aliases and compiled huge dossiers of miscellaneous information. It was inevitable in its investigation of all possible suspicions of conspiracy that the French Government should discover a good deal about philhellenic organizations in France and their correspondence with groups in Greece.

6The French also made a systematic collection of information at the ports, and especially at Marseilles. By piecing together the different accounts of men passing through the quarantine a good deal of political information could be obtained. Like the British, the French had enough information on which to base a proper scepticism about the foreign policies of other powers and also enough to feed the wildest and most suspicious imaginations.

7Governments rarely collect intelligence simply to enjoy the sensation of being well-informed. The urge to put secret information to practical use is usually irresistible. The intricacies of the Greek situation offered great attractions for an ambitious foreign policy. It was clear that the Greeks were desperately in need of help and that this could only be supplied from Europe. If the Greeks survived as an independent state, then the country which had won influence by giving aid in the war would be well placed to dominate later. Willy-nilly therefore the great powers were drawn in. However unwilling they might be to entangle themselves in the situation, they could not afford to let their rivals steal a march.

8In 1823 practical philhellenism entered a new phase. The torch which had been carried during the first years by the German and Swiss Societies was taken up by the British and then by the French with other groups also playing important roles. But this new type of philhellenism, although in appearance simply a manifestation in new places of the familiar phenomenon, was in reality something much more complex. The secret activities and secret policies of the European governments henceforth added a new dimension.

9The primary fear of both the British and the French Governments was that an independent Greece would be drawn into the orbit of Russia, that the Greek Revolution would fulfil for the Russians their ancient wish to establish themselves in the Mediterranean. The Russians were certainly well placed to take advantage of the situation not least because they were the only foreigners whom the Greeks regarded as fellow-Christians. All Europe knew too that there was one Greek who towered above all others in ability and reputation. Count Capodistria, born in the Ionian Islands, had entered the Russian service and risen to be Foreign Minister. He was now living in Switzerland. The British and French Governments were aware of correspondence designed to put Capodistria at the head of a Greek State and, with his background, they were bound to conclude that he would favour a close connection with Russia. If Russia was to be kept out of the Mediterranean, means would have to be found to prevent the growth of Russian influence in Greece. But also, taking a longer view, the Ottoman Empire must not be too much weakened since only the Turks seemed to stand in the way of a general Russian advance in the Middle East.

10Both the British and French Governments were sufficiently well informed about events in Greece and elsewhere to realize that the Russians were not making the most of their advantages and opportunities. It became increasingly clear to both Governments that the main contenders for influence in Greece were Britain and France.

11In 1823 both Britain and France were torn by conflicting interests in their foreign policies. On the one hand, they wanted to maintain the fragile agreement among the powers to treat the Greeks as rebels, or at least to remain strictly neutral in the conflict. This consideration was high in the minds of the French since they were about to send an army into Spain to put down the liberal constitutionalists there in the name of the Concert of Europe. On the other hand, both the British and the French could see that the nationals of the other country, whatever the public statements of the Governments, were working in Greece to establish a position of influence. On the French side there was a dilemma within a dilemma since they were also pursuing a policy of building up a special position in Egypt, still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire.

12The two Governments resolved the dilemma by the classic method of pursuing all the policies at once, seizing any advantage to national interests that opportunity presented, and damning the contradictions. From 1823 onwards both Governments developed a habit of giving secret support to the philhellenic movements in their respective countries. Both based their policies on the fact that British and French people could be relied upon to lay aside their internal political differences in order to serve the national interest. But the support was not given consistently in pursuance of some well laid plan. The attitude of both Governments lurched gracelessly from one policy to another in accordance with the needs of the moment.

13The exact extent therefore to which the Governments actively supported the philhellenic movements is difficult to measure. It is certain that various doubtful operations mounted by French Philhellenes in Greece enjoyed the backing of the French Government even although these Philhellenes were bitter opponents of the French regime.

14In London too the Tory Government was in touch with the opposition who were organizing philhellenic activity. Many episodes can best be explained on the assumption that secret information was being passed to and fro. The help which the Government could provide, though severely limited by their public commitment to neutrality, was well worth cultivating. In Britain, for example, the Foreign Enlistment Act made it a crime for any British subject to join the armed forces of a foreign country. If the Act had been applied strictly there would have been many fewer Philhellenes. It was noticed, however, that the Act did not make it a crime to intend to join a foreign army and all manner of facilities were provided to allow volunteers to go to Greece when this was reckoned to be in the national interest. Byron was to spend many weeks in the Ionian Islands as a virtual guest of the British authorities before he went to Greece. Perhaps legally they should have arrested him. Furthermore, although volunteers could be allowed to go when it appeared to be in the national interest, the government could occasionally prevent individuals who seemed unsuitable from going or persuade or order others to come back if their actions in Greece were not approved of.

15A similar flexible use of government regulations could be used to control or encourage the export of arms, another aspect of foreign policy which governments neglect at their peril. Most important of all, the British Government made no attempt to prevent the flow of money to Greece. They defended this apparent breach of neutrality on the grounds that it was no business of a government to interfere in how the individual spent his money. Yet at the same time the Government co-operated actively with the British Philhellenes to prevent interests thought to be pro-French from raising money in London, passing the tip-offs they received to the Stock Exchange authorities. It was direct British Government action which frustrated the schemes of the Knights of Malta.

16The French Government for its part used much the same range of measures to advance the interests of French Philhellenes. It reopened Marseilles to allow the passage of volunteers and arms to Greece. It permitted funds to be collected in support of the Greek cause and may have secretly contributed to them. It tried to control the French Philhellenes operating in Greece as if they were direct agents of the French Government. At the same time, however, even when Egyptian forces were fighting in Greece on behalf of the Sultan, the French Government was giving aid to the Egyptians, supplying them with warships and technical assistance, allowing them to recruit trained soldiers in France, and probably doing much else in secret. The French Ambassador in Constantinople was even prepared to write letters of introduction to Mehemet Ali for disgruntled French Philhellenes who wanted a change of service.

17At the same time other governments and interest groups were similarly enmeshing themselves in the intricacies of the Greek situation, each believing that it was clever enough to extract an advantage but usually doing little more than adding to the confusion and suspicion. The American Government, in a smaller way than the French, found means of backing both the Greeks and the Turks. The scattered exiles of the revolutions in Italy attempted to keep their own cause afloat by appearing to serve the Greeks. During this new phase of philhellenism, nothing was quite as straightforward as it seemed. This is not to say that all Philhellenes were consciously agents of a particular interest. They were not. The old rallying cries that had stirred Germany in 1821 and 1822 still had their magic, especially for those who did not appreciate the wider ramifications.

18It is easy to exaggerate the effect of all this clandestine activity. Just as undue respect is often paid to secret intelligence, undue effectiveness can be attributed to secret policies. Organizations of naive idealists are particularly vulnerable to being taken over by the politically aware, but although the governments attempted to control the activities of the Philhellenes they were not always successful in doing so.

19The new factor was there all the time, and no understanding of the course of the war is possible without taking account of it. Whereas the Philhellenes of 1821 and 1822 were palpably acting for themselves whether for altruistic, selfish, or other motives, the later Philhellenes could never escape the suspicion that, consciously or unconsciously, they were part of the long arm of some sinister foreign policy.


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