BMCR 2007.12.23

August Myhrberg and North-European Philhellenism: Building the Myth of a Hero. Papers and Monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, vol. 10

, , , The Eastern Mediterranean in the Late Antique and Early Byzantine periods. Papers and monographs of the Finnish Institute at Athens, vol. 9. Helsinki: Suomen Ateenan-instituutin säätiö, 2004. 98 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm.. ISBN 9519880631

This book is valuable principally for two reasons: first, it represents a pioneering in-depth study of philhellenism in Scandinavia and Finland, a topic that has hardly received any attention by critics so far. It does so through the reconstruction of the figure of August Myhrberg (M.), who, according to the author (hence P.), was the most important and best known philhellene of Scandinavia, but also a legendary adventurer. His travels and accomplishments were lionized in his home country to the extent of transforming M. posthumously into a figure larger than life, a symbol for the specific political agendas of the Finnish people in the 19th century, who appropriated it within a discourse about their own national and political identity and independence. The second point of interest of the book lies in its attempt to follow step by step M.’s course in Greece during and after the War of Independence, on the basis of all traceable records. Most of what is available is third person testimony since M. himself left behind very little writing in his own hand.

The book is divided into three parts of unequal length, treating respectively the definition of philhellenism as a complex ideology and the status of philhellenism in Northern Europe (Part one), the life of M., with special focus on his career in Greece during and after the War of Independence (Part two), and the connection between philhellenism and the awakening of national consciousness among the Finnish people in the 19th century (Part three). The monograph includes four sets of appendices listing the various primary sources on M. arranged by topic or provenance; a rich bibliography; and a very detailed index, of nearly 20 pages, which covers every theme pursued throughout the book.

The first part, “Context and Framework”, takes up the study of philhellenism as a complex notion of diverse components, stemming from at least three perspectives: classicism, romanticism, and religion, and examines how philhellenism emerged and developed in each one of the countries of North and Northeastern Europe, a territory for the most part virtually uncharted with respect to the reasons and motives underpinning support for the cause of Greece at this time. The chapter begins by describing the stance of the peoples of Northern Europe towards philhellenism and identifies the various motives that appealed to the different social and political groups in the different countries. Subsequently, it focuses on each of the Northern European nations separately, starting with Russia, and continuing with Sweden and, lastly, Finland, which until the early twentieth century did not enjoy national independence. P. divides philhellenism into two categories, beginning with the volunteers, individuals who actually fought in Greece, and then moving on to the sympathizers, those who contributed otherwise to the Greek cause while themselves staying away from Greece. The chapter closes with a brief introduction to M. and the construction of his legend in Finland, and, most importantly, with an introduction to P.’s own method of assessing the Philhellene M.’s legend and the various stories that make its building blocks.

The second chapter consists of a biography of M., who, as P. repeatedly remarks, was only half Finnish, his father being Swedish, and whose Finnish identity was forged after his death by Finnish nationalist ideology. This is understandably the longest chapter in the book, covering nearly 100 of the total 192 pages of main text, and appropriately bearing the title “Philhellene and Freedom Fighter”. Digging through legend and tradition, P.’s narrative takes us from M.’s early years in Sweden and his brief passage from Turku in Finland, ca. 1822, where he began law studies, which he never completed, to his decision first to join the army and then to fight for Greece, evidently for no better reason than “dissatisfaction” with his present situation in life. In so many words, M. actively embraced philhellenism because it offered him an “idealistic reason for stepping into something new, for getting away” (p. 61). M. apparently decided to become a philhellene and a fighter in the war in 1823, while staying in Marseille, where he arrived after a brief stint in Spain. On the basis of personal correspondence, among other evidence, P. concludes that in all probability M.’s decision to go to Greece was motivated by the lack of anything more exciting to do, and, not least, financial constraints.

All this information P. maps out in full detail and discusses carefully, constantly underlining the limits of a reconstruction of the chronology and facts surrounding each of M.’s steps as he moved and participated in the fighting in Greece. It is debated whether he originally landed in Messolonghi or Nauplion; he then moved to Euboea, and then to Attica and Athens, where he fought in four critical battles, and subsequently to various locations across the Aegean archipelago and Chios, until he finally returned to Nauplion in 1827. There he stayed until January 1831, serving for the last two years as the appointed commandant of the Palamidi fort in Nauplion. Ample discussion is devoted throughout to the complex interaction between M. and Charles Fabvrier, the commander of the Taktikon, the military unit of the international volunteer philhellenes fighting in the Greek War. The stalling of his career advancement following the appointment of Count Capodistria as the first governor of the newly independent Greek state, a man who favored his Russian compatriots over the rest of the European officers holding the top administrative posts in Greece, persuaded M. to seek his fortunes elsewhere. According to a French tradition, he fought in the Polish war of independence in the mid-1830s (P. repeatedly laments that hard evidence about this adventure is missing), until his return and retirement in Sweden, where he gained recognition and promotion to the rank of colonel.

Overall, this chapter is written for the most part in engaging prose, “in a freely adopted folkloristic framework” (p. 44), with the narrative following M.’s career in Greece in chronological order. Extensive excerpts from primary sources (such as personal correspondence between the protagonists of the various events in which M. was directly or indirectly involved) are reported verbatim in English translation, thus contributing significantly to keep the reader’s interest unyielding.

In the third and final chapter the author surveys the impact of M.’s accomplishments on the cause of Finnish nationalism through the nineteenth century. P. provides ample information on lesser known events in nineteenth-century Finnish history, aiming to trace step by step the transformation of M. from opportunistic individual to grand moralizing legend for the service of the national cause.

This book is engaging and enjoyable. The subject has been thoroughly researched, as is most visibly attested by the 930 footnotes which complement the 192 pages of text. Admittedly, after a first reading I was slightly disappointed at not seeing M. coming to life as a real character through the pages of P.’s study. Yet, precisely because this book is meant to be a research work of M.’s legend and not a historical biography of M. himself, careful study reveals P.’s success in highlighting the lack of hard evidence, both primary and secondary, that would pin down M.’s legendary figure, one which very early on was deliberately aggrandized for political purposes. Markedly, P.’s perspective is dutifully and correctly directed by the aphorism she read in a Finnish tabloid paper at the time she was writing the book: “when the legend becomes truth, print the legend; when the truth becomes legend, print the truth” (p. viii). In P.’s own admission, M. remained until an advanced age “a mysterious character” who “still kept his secrets”, albeit “well-connected and well-known” (p. 160); consequently, the historical assessment of his figure compares dimly to the picture that popular Finnish imagination, fed by nationalist activism and ideology, has projected as the ‘real’ M.

The only complaint that one might reasonably make about this book concerns its editing. Repetitions of phrases and even sentences occasionally occur in proximity close enough to be noted, while there are several misprints and stylistic infelicities throughout the text, which a closer proofreading would have certainly eliminated: to list only a few, p. 84 “another exercise to free Athens was was to be led. . .”; p. 134 “recieved”; p. 135 “lack of of such items”; p. 148 “the philhellene travelled to Spain in order to there fight again”, etc.