Geographical Macedonia - History - The Birth of Nationalism and Of Macedonian Identities

The Birth of Nationalism and Of Macedonian Identities

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Over the centuries Macedonia had become a multicultural region. The historical references mention Greeks, Bulgarians, Turks, Albanian, Gypsies, Jews and Vlachs. From the Middle Ages to 20th century the Slav-speaking population in Macedonia was identified mostly as Bulgarian or Greek and occasionally as Serbian. During the period of Bulgarian National Revival many Bulgarians from these regions supported the struggle for creation of Bulgarian cultural educational and religious institutions, including Bulgarian Exarchate. Eventually, in the 20th century, 'Bulgarians' came to be understood as synonymous with 'Macedonian Slavs' and, eventually, 'ethnic Macedonians'. Krste Misirkov, a philologist and publicist, mostly known for his work "On the Macedonian Matters" (1903), heralded by Macedonians as one of the "founders of the Macedonian nation", stated:

Some will ask why I speak of breaking away from the Bulgarians when in the past we have even called ourselves Bulgarians and when it is generally accepted that unification creates strength, and not separation. And, anyway, what sort of new Macedonian nation can this be when we and our fathers and grandfathers and great-grandfathers have always been called Bulgarians?

The restricted borders of the modern Greek state at its inception in 1830 disappointed the inhabitants of northern Greece (Epirus and Macedonia). Addressing these concerns in 1844, the Greek Prime Minister Kolettis addressed the constitutional assembly in Athens that "the kingdom of Greece is not Greece; it is only a part, the smallest and poorest, of Greece. The Greek is not only he who inhabits the kingdom, but also he who lives in Ioannina, or Thessaloniki, or Serres, or Odrin" . He mentions cities and islands that were under Ottoman possession as composing the Great Idea (Greek: Μεγάλη Ιδέα) which meant the reconstruction of the classical Greek world or the revival of the Byzantine Empire. The important idea here is that for Greece, Macedonia was a region with large Greek populations expecting annexation to the new Greek state. At this time, the region which today is the Republic of Macedonia was known as the "fief (vilayet) of Skopje".

The 1878 Congress of Berlin changed the Balkan map again. The treaty restored Macedonia and Thrace to the Ottoman Empire. Serbia, Romania and Montenegro were granted full independence, and some territorial expansion at the expense of the Ottoman Empire. Russia would maintain military advisors in Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia until May 1879. Austria-Hungary was permitted to occupy Bosnia, Herzegovina and the Sanjak of Novi Pazar. The Congress of Berlin also forced Bulgaria, newly given autonomy by the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, to return over half of its newly gained territory to the Ottoman Empire. This included Macedonia, a large part of which was given to Bulgaria, due to Russian pressure and the presence of significant numbers of Bulgarians and adherents to the Bulgarian Exarchate. The territorial losses dissatisfied Bulgaria; this fuelled the ambitions of many Bulgarian politicians for the following seventy years, who wanted to review the treaty – by peaceful or military means and to reunite all lands which they claimed had a Bulgarian majority. Besides, Serbia was now interested in the Macedonian lands, until then only Greece was Bulgaria's main contender, which after the addition of Thessaly to Greece in (1881) was bordering Macedonia. Thus, the Berlin Congress renewed the struggle for Turkey in Europe, including the so-called Macedonia region, rather than setting up a permanent regime. In the following years, all of the neighboring states struggled over Turkey in Europe; they were only kept at bay by their own restraints, the Ottoman Army and the territorial ambitions of the Great Powers in the region.

Serbian policy had a distinct anti-Bulgarian flavor, attempting to prevent the Bulgarian influencing the inhabitants of Macedonia. On the other hand, Bulgaria was using the power of its religious institutions (Bulgarian Exarchate established in 1870) to promote its language and make more people identify with Bulgaria. Greece, in addition, was in an advantageous position for protecting its interests through the influence of Patriarchate of Constantinople which traditionally sponsored Greek-language and Greek-culture schools also in villages with few Greeks. This put the Patriarchate in dispute with the Exarchate, which established schools with Bulgarian education. Indeed, belonging to one or another institution could define a person's national identity. Simply, if a person supported the Patriarchate they were regarded as Greek, whereas if they supported the Exarchate they were regarded as Bulgarian. Locally, however, villagers were not always able to express freely their association with one or the other institution as there were numerous armed groups trying to defend and/or expand the territory of each. Some were locally recruited and self-organized while others were sent and armed by the protecting states.

The aim of the adversaries, however, was not primarily to extend their influence over Macedonia but merely to prevent Macedonia succumbing to the influence of the other. This often violent attempt to persuade the people that they belonged to one ethnic group or another pushed some people to reject both. The severe pressure on the peaceful peasants of Macedonia worked against the plans of the Serbians and Bulgarians to make them adopt their ethnic idea and eventually a social divide became apparent. The British Ambassador in Belgrade in 1927 said: "At present the unfortunate Macedonian peasant is between the hammer and the anvil. One day 'comitadjis' come to his house and demand under threat lodging, food and money and the next day the gendarm hales him off to prison for having given them; the Macedonian is really a peaceable, fairly industrious agriculturist and if the (Serbian) government give him adequate protection, education, freedom from malaria and decent communications, there seems no reason why he should not become just as Serbian in sentiment as he was Bulgarian 10 years ago". As a result of this game of tug-of-war, the development of a distinct Macedonian national identity was impeded and delayed. Moreover, when the imperialistic plans of the surrounding states made possible the division of Macedonia, some Macedonian intellectuals such as Misirkov mentioned the necessity of creating a Macedonian national identity which would distinguish the Macedonian Slavs from Bulgarians, Serbians or Greeks.

Baptizing Macedonian Slavs as Serbian or Bulgarian aimed therefore to justify these countries' territorial claims over Macedonia. The Greek side, with the assistance of the Patriarchate that was responsible for the schools, could more easily maintain control, because they were spreading Greek identity. For the very same reason the Bulgarians, when preparing the Exarchate's government (1871) included Macedonians in the assembly as "brothers" to prevent any ethnic diversification. On the other hand, the Serbs, unable to establish Serbian-speaking schools, used propaganda. Their main concern was to prevent the Slavic-speaking Macedonians from acquiring Bulgarian identity through concentrating on the myth of the ancient origins of the Macedonians and simultaneously by the classification of Bulgarians as Tatars and not as Slavs, emphasizing their 'Macedonian' characteristics as an intermediate stage between Serbs and Bulgarians. To sum up the Serbian propaganda attempted to inspire the Macedonians with a separate ethnic identity to diminish the Bulgarian influence. This choice was the 'Macedonian ethnicity'. The Bulgarians never accepted an ethnic diversity from the Slav Macedonians, giving geographic meaning to the term. In 1893 they established the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) aiming to confront the Serbian and Greek action in Macedonia. VMRO hoped to answer the Macedonian question through a revolutionary movement, and so they instigated the Ilinden Uprising (1903) to release some Ottoman territory. Bulgaria used this to internationalize the Macedonian question. Ilinden changed Greece's stance which decided to take Para-military action. In order to protect the Greek Macedonians and Greek interests, Greece sent officers to train guerrillas and organize militias (Macedonian Struggle), known as makedonomahi (Macedonian fighters), essentially to fight the Bulgarians. After that it was obvious that the Macedonian Question could be answered only with a war.

The rise of the Albanian and the Turkish nationalism after 1908, however, prompted Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria to bury their differences with regard to Macedonia and to form a joint coalition against the Ottoman Empire in 1912. Disregarding public opinion in Bulgaria, which was in support of the establishment of an autonomous Macedonian province under a Christian governor, the Bulgarian government entered a pre-war treaty with Serbia which divided the region into two parts. The part of Macedonia west and north of the line of partition was contested by both Serbia and Bulgaria and was subject to the arbitration of the Russian Tsar after the war. Serbia formally renounced any claims to the part of Macedonia south and east of the line, which was declared to be within the Bulgarian sphere of interest. The pre-treaty between Greece and Bulgaria, however, did not include any agreement on the division of the conquered territories – evidently both countries hoped to occupy as much territory as possible having their sights primarily set on Thessaloniki.

In the First Balkan War, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro occupied almost all Ottoman-held territories in Europe. Bulgaria bore the brunt of the war fighting on the Thracian front against the main Ottoman forces. Both her war expenditures and casualties in the First Balkan War were higher than those of Serbia, Greece and Montenegro combined. Macedonia itself was occupied by Greek, Serbian and Bulgarian forces. The Ottoman Empire in the Treaty of London in May 1913 assigned the whole of Macedonia to the Balkan League, without, specifying the division of the region, to promote problems between the allies. Dissatisfied with the creation of an autonomous Albanian state, which denied her access to the Adriatic, Serbia asked for the suspension of the pre-war division treaty and demanded from Bulgaria greater territorial concessions in Macedonia. Later in May the same year, Greece and Serbia signed a secret treaty in Thessaloniki stipulating the division of Macedonia according to the existing lines of control. Both Serbia and Greece, as well as Bulgaria, started to prepare for a final war of partition.

In June 1913, Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand, without consulting the government, and without any declaration of war, ordered Bulgarian troops to attack the Greek and Serbian troops in Macedonia, initiating the Second Balkan War. The Bulgarian army was in full retreat in all fronts. The Serbian army chose to stop its operations when achieved all its territorial goals and only then the Bulgarian army took a breath. During the last two days the Bulgarians managed to achieve a defensive victory against the advancing Greek army in the Kresna Gorge. However at the same time the Romanian army crossed the undefended northern border and easily advanced towards Sofia. Romania interfered in the war, in order to satisfy its territorial claims against Bulgaria. The Ottoman Empire also interfered, easily reassuming control of Eastern Thrace with Edirne. The Second Balkan War, also known as Inter-Ally War, left Bulgaria only with the Struma valley and a small part of Thrace with minor ports at the Aegean sea. Vardar Macedonia was incorporated into Serbia and thereafter referred to as South Serbia. Southern (Aegean) Macedonia was incorporated into Greece and thereafter was referred to as northern Greece. The region suffered heavily during the Second Balkan War. During its advance at the end of June, the Greek army set fire to the Bulgarian quarter of the town of Kilkis and over 160 villages around Kilkis and Serres driving some 50,000 refugees into Bulgaria proper. The Bulgarian army retaliated by burning the Greek quarter of Serres and by arming Muslims from the region of Drama which led to a massacre of Greek civilians.

In September 1915, the Greek government authorized the landing of the troops in Thessaloniki. In 1916 the pro-German King of Greece agreed with the Germans to allow military forces of the Central Powers to enter Greek Macedonia to attack Bulgarian forces in Thessaloniki. As a result, Bulgarian troops occupied the eastern part of Greek Macedonia, including the port of Kavala. The region was, however, restored to Greece following the victory of the Allies in 1918. After the destruction of the Greek Army in Asia Minor in 1922 Greece and Turkey exchanged most of Macedonia's Turkish minority and the Greek inhabitants of Thrace and Anatolia, as a result of which Aegean Macedonia experienced a large addition to its population and became overwhelmingly Greek in ethnic composition. Serbian-ruled Macedonia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later the Kingdom of Yugoslavia) in 1918. Yugoslav Macedonia was subsequently subjected to an intense process of "Serbianization" during the 1920s and 1930s.

During World War II the boundaries of the region shifted yet again. When the German forces occupied the area, most of Yugoslav Macedonia and part of Aegean Macedonia were transferred for administration to Bulgaria. During the Bulgarian administration of Eastern Greek Macedonia, some 100,000 Bulgarian refugees from the region were resettled there and perhaps as many Greeks were deported or fled to Greece. Western Aegean Macedonia was occupied by Italy, with the western parts of Yugoslav Macedonia being annexed to Italian-occupied Albania. The remainder of Greek Macedonia (including all of the coast) was occupied by Nazi Germany. One of the worst episodes of the Holocaust happened here when 60,000 Jews from Thessaloniki were deported to extermination camps in occupied Poland. Only a few thousand survived.

Macedonia was liberated in 1944, when the Red Army's advance in the Balkan Peninsula forced the German forces to retreat. The pre-war borders were restored under U.S. and British pressure because the Bulgarian government was insisting to keep its military units on Greek soil. The Bulgarian Macedonia returned fairly rapidly to normality, but the Bulgarian patriots in Yugoslav Macedonia underwent a process of ethnic cleansing by the Belgrade authorities, and Greek Macedonia was ravaged by the Greek Civil War, which broke out in December 1944 and did not end until October 1949.

After this civil war, a large number of former ELAS fighters who took refuge in communist Bulgaria and Yugoslavia and described themselves as "ethnic Macedonians" were prohibited from reestablishing to their former estates by the Greek authorities. Most of them were accused in Greece for crimes committed during the period of the German occupation.

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