Dress Rehearsals

Misha Glenny

  • Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood: Passages to Nation hood in Greek Macedonia, 1870-1990 by Anastasia Karakasidou
    Chicago, 264 pp, $38.00, June 1997, ISBN 0 226 42493 6

Eighteen months ago Cambridge University Press shocked the publishing and academic worlds by pulling Anastasia Karakasidou’s book from their list. They claimed that publication could endanger the security of their associates in Greece, not to mention the house’s commercial interests there. A Greek anthropologist working in the United States, Karakasidou had been the target of a campaign waged in the Greek media by nationalists who claimed that her work on issues of identity in Aegean Macedonia was heretical and even treacherous. These imbecilic claims were made at the height of the hysteria, encouraged by members of the Greek Government, which greeted the creation of an independent Macedonian state in the wake of Yugoslavia’s collapse.

Cambridge explained that their decision was made on the advice of the British Embassy in Athens. They also referred to earlier attacks against foreign nationals by the leftwing terrorist organisation, November 17. Contemporary Greek terrorism, however, has nothing to do with the Macedonian Question, as a little further investigation would have revealed. The nationwide campaign against Skopje, as the Greeks preferred to call what is now known as Fyrom (the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), involved much rhetorical nonsense and, on two occasions, the imposition of a self-defeating trade embargo, but comparatively little violence. The anti-Macedonian campaign was a sick affair, for which Greece has rightly paid a heavy price. But by the time of CUP’s change of heart, the campaign was over. CUP were more justified in arguing that their commercial interests might have been damaged by publishing Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood. When the nationalist agitation was at its fiercest in 1992 and 1993, a disc-jockey persuaded a fair number of Greeks to stop buying Danish bacon for several weeks because of the Danish Government’s perceived hostility to the Greek position on Fyrom. And, as we all know, the book is a commodity invested with no more mystique than slaughtered swine. CUP felt duty-bound to protect its investors from the emotions of capricious Greek academics and students.

Saved from obscurity by the University of Chicago Press, Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood will almost certainly enjoy a wider readership as a result of the scandal. And yah-boo-sucks to Cambridge because this is an excellent book. Karakasidou’s meticulous unpicking of Greek identity in 20th-century Macedonia will be as welcome as daylight to a vampire to those of her compatriots who insist on the exclusivity of Hellenic claims to the region. But that is not her aim, merely an important by-product. Although she concentrates on Hellenism in Macedonia, the implications for national myth-makers in Bulgaria, Fyrom and Serbia are crystal clear. The Greeks are not Karakasidou’s target. Instead, she performs a rigorous and compelling examination of the formation of modern national consciousness in Macedonia.

Like many problems in the Balkans, the Macedonian Question was first raised in earnest in 1878 at the Congress of Berlin. Its origins lay a little further back, in the decision taken by the Ottoman authorities in 1870 to establish the Bulgarian Exarchate Church in opposition to the Greek-dominated Patriarchate. The good news for students of modern Macedonia is that they can consign almost everything that happened before 1870 to the dustbin. The bad news is that Macedonia has packed in more history over the last hundred and twenty years than most territories do in a millennium.

Macedonia was and is the crossroads of the Balkan peninsula. To travel from Central Europe to the Aegean port of Salonika or from the Adriatic to Istanbul, the trader or soldier would always pass through Macedonia to avoid traversing the Balkan mountains. Despite his studied contempt for all matters Balkan, even Bismarck, the puppeteer at the Berlin Congress, conceded Macedonia’s vital strategic location. ‘Those who control the valley of the River Vardar,’ he observed, ‘are the masters of the Balkans.’ Since the Second World War, improvements in communications have lessened, but not erased, the region’s strategic significance.

At the time of the Congress of Berlin, Macedonia’s four largest populations were Slavs, Greeks, Albanians and Turks, although its main port, Salonika, was dominated by some 50,000 Sephardic Jews – and by their language, Ladino. There were many other communities besides these, however: notably the Aromano Vlachs, originally nomadic shepherds whose language is akin to Romanian, and the largest concentration of Roma, or Gypsies, on the Balkan peninsula. Ethnic communities were sometimes divided among themselves by religion. There were both Greek Orthodox and Muslim Albanians, for example, not to mention several pockets of Muslim Slavs. The Jews and Greeks dominated trade in the region and the Greeks enjoyed the most advanced cultural and educational institutions. In many parts of central and western Macedonia, a Slav, a Greek, a Vlach, a Turkish and an Albanian village would nestle against each other in docile harmony. Macedonia was Europe’s most enduring and complex multicultural region.

The decisions made by the Berlin Congress represented a profound shift in the attitude of the Great Powers to the ailing Ottoman Empire. In the past when there was a crisis in the East, the Powers had collaborated to preserve the Empire and encourage internal reform. At Berlin, they concluded that it was beyond salvation (it is debatable whether or not they were right), and agreed instead to dismember it. Macedonia was the one great European holding left to the Sultan in 1878 after the imperialist cartographers had finished their work. Most politicians inside and outside the Balkans, however, assumed that at some point in the near future, the Ottoman Empire would lose it. It was the most strategically significant part of the Balkans and so the question – in what seemed to be the likely event of Balkanisation – was, who would gain control of it? A.J.P. Taylor gave a pithy assessment of the Congress of Berlin in The Struggle for Mastery in Europe: ‘Macedonia and Bosnia, the two great achievements of the Congress, both contained the seeds of future disaster. The Macedonian Question haunted European diplomacy for a generation and then caused the Balkan war of 1912. Bosnia first provoked the crisis of 1908 and then exploded the world war in 1914, a war which brought down the Habsburg monarchy.’ Writing in 1954, when most Balkan issues had closed down for the duration of the Cold War, Taylor could be forgiven for not realising that both the Bosnian and the Macedonian Questions remained unanswered. But with the collapse of Communism in 1989, the durability of the errors committed at Berlin soon became apparent in the former Yugoslavia. The Dayton Agreement of November 1995 was the latest attempt by the Great Powers to fix the botched job carried out by Bismarck, Disraeli and Co. at Berlin. In principle, Dayton was as rushed and cack-handed as Berlin – it will hold for the time being, but the pipes are already beginning to leak again.

Although, in this latest round, the Macedonian Question has not re-opened wounds on anything like the Bosnian scale, the territory still contains great potential for violence. Yet the nature of the problem has changed a great deal since the last time it mattered – during the Second World War – and it is barely recognisable from what it was ninety years ago, when it consumed more column inches in the Times than any other single foreign policy issue (despite the fact that the British had relatively few commercial interests in Macedonia). The Great Powers were fixated by Macedonia in the first decade of this century because that is where Austro-Russian rivalry was at its most intense, and so, by extension, where an even greater struggle was being stoked: that between Germany and Great Britain, for which Austro-Russian rivalry was to some extent only a metaphor. In that sense, Bosnia was a secondary battleground. The immediate crisis of Sarajevo in 1914 had been sparked in 1908 by events in Macedonia. Macedonia was the big one.

After the Berlin Congress, the competing expansionist claims of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia created the complex engine of the Macedonian Struggle, as the events of the first decade of this century are known; in turn, the Great Powers, especially Austria-Hungary and Russia, provided the fuel: the source of the appalling violence visited on the inhabitants of Macedonia was external. It did not flow from irredentist desires on the part of the various Macedonian communities to wrench the region from the Ottoman orbit and attach it to one of the three surrounding ‘mother ships’. Anastasia Karakasidou quotes an observer at the turn of the century: ‘Mácedonia is racked by political intrigue without, and within by turbulent, ambitious, mischief-making factions, which are neither of the people, nor voice their legitimate aspirations. It is the saddest part of Macedonia’s unhappy lot that its worst enemies are those whose professions of friendship are loudest.’

The consequences for the Macedonian peasantry were dire. At the height of the Struggle, from 1900 to 1906, no village was safe from the Bulgarian/Slav comitadjii, the Greek andartes or, later, the Serb cete. These bands, comprising between ten and fifteen men armed with rifles and pistols, would target a particular village, having first carried out some intelligence work to ascertain whether it was Patriarchate or Exarchist, whether it was linguistically mixed, whether the local school was Bulgarian or Greek, or indeed whether there were two schools. On entering the village, the captain would seek out the priest and the head villager. The guerrillas were an intimidating sight – mostly unshaven but with ostentatious, lovingly waxed moustaches, their torsos criss-crossed with bandoliers, rifles slung behind their shoulders, revolvers and knives hung loosely from their belts. If the villagers proved accommodating, the guerrillas would desist from looting or violence, although they expected to receive provisions as a matter of course. The well-defined hierarchy of village life meant that if the guerrillas secured a public pronouncement in support of their cause from either the priest or the head villager or both, the remaining villagers would fall into line.

The guerrillas, notably the various factions of the largely Slav Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO), were also, of course, sworn enemies of the Ottoman authorities. Their provocative attacks on landowners and garrisons often led to massive retaliation – not against the guerrillas, who faded into the mountains or across the borders to Bulgaria and Greece, but against the villages. After the Ilinden Uprising of 1903, inspired by the VRMO, 60,000 villagers were forced to flee as the Ottoman Army and its notorious irregulars, the ba i-b’z’ks, razed everything in sight. Photographic evidence from this campaign shows villages more comprehensively destroyed than many of the Bosnian settlements targeted by Bosnian Serb and Croat artillery in the most recent Balkan war.

Attaching herself to a small township, Assiros, just north-east of Thessaloniki, Karakasidou has used a mixture of oral reminiscences and archival work to reconstruct the way in which immigrants from Greece in the 1880s slowly and peacefully penetrated the economic and social fabric of this small part of Macedonia. Both wittingly and unwittingly, willingly and reluctantly, traders and small-scale landowners became the agents of Greek nationalism at a time of rapid economic change. The commercial possibilities offered by Greek, the great language of trade in the Ottoman Empire, drew many Slav-speakers and Vlachs into the cultural orbit of Hellenism, with the result that Greek nationalism did not have to rely exclusively on the proselytising role of teachers, priests and guerrillas, who were the sole instruments of consciousness-raising among the Slavic population elsewhere. She shows very convincingly that relations between the various Macedonian communities were, until the turn of the century, defined by all sorts of markers other than nationalism. By the end of the Second Balkan War in 1913, however, when Greek forces occupied Assiros, the complicated relationships of economic exchange, inter-marriage and linguistic fusion had been virtually obliterated and replaced by a crude and vicious nationalism. Aggressive nationalism required only a little more than a decade to grip Macedonia by the throat. Yet it had been virtually unknown before then.

Attempts by historians to account for the decisive role played by external forces and Great Power politics in this period have been patchy – which in part explains why research on Macedonian history now appears to be dominated by anthropologists. Two years ago, Loring Danforth, an Australian anthropologist, published The Macedonian Conflict: Ethnic Nationalism in a Transnational World, a fascinating account, drawing on perceptions of the Macedonian conflict among émigré communities. One of the most illuminating studies is ‘Of Meanings and Memories: The National Imagination in Macedonia’, an unpublished doctoral thesis by a young British anthropologist, Keith Brown, which examines the Ilinden Uprising. Brown’s work goes a long way towards tracing the evolution of (Slav) Macedonian national mythology in much the same way that Karakasidou reveals the broad outlines of late 19th and early 20th-century Greek history. In all three works, the grip on conventional history is admirably firm, and one is spared the sinking feeling which the inexperienced explorer usually has on reaching the swamp of anthropological discourse.

The first carve-up of Macedonia in 1913 was by no means the end of the story. The new states controlling the territory (Serbia and Greece divided most of it, while Bulgaria, the defeated power in the Second Balkan War, received a small chunk) lost no time in reinforcing the new national identity that would now pertain in each of the coopted parts. Not surprisingly, this involved isolating the newly-identified ‘other’ – that is, whoever was unable or unwilling to assimilate, or was simply unwanted. Greece and Bulgaria quickly discovered that each had plenty of the other and so indulged in a bout of ‘population exchange’. It was a relatively polite dress rehearsal for what is still the worst example of ‘population exchange’ or ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the Balkans – the transfer of almost one and a half million Christians from Turkey to Greece, and almost half a million Muslims from Greece to Turkey in 1923, after the Greco-Turkish war of 1922. Again, the ‘Great Exchange’ was part of a settlement negotiated by the Great Powers. Karakasidou quotes the historian Richard Clogg: ‘although the exchange of populations necessarily occasioned a great deal of human misery, it did ensure that Greece itself became an ethnically homogeneous society ... The result was that Greece was transformed into a country virtually without minority problems, by Balkan standards at least.’

This is the logic which has been followed in the Balkans ever since. For the rest of this century multiculturalism, the noble preserve of both the Ottoman and Habsburg Empires, has been fighting a losing battle against the convenience of national homogeneity. Yugoslavia was a valiant, if flawed, alternative. Its death was probably the final farewell to the old Empires, which were stubborn and arbitrarily brutal, but which, contrary to popular imagination, allowed peoples of different faiths and races to live together. Strangely, the most multicultural state left in the Balkans is Serbia, with its substantial Albanian, Hungarian, Roma and Muslim minorities. But it is the weakest Balkan state, Fyrom, which now faces the Berlin Congress’s most pressing legacy. Today’s Macedonian Question pits the rights and aspirations of the Macedonians, a people who did not exist in the modern sense at the time of the Congress, against the rights and aspirations of one of the peninsula’s oldest communities. The Albanians are the only large minority in Fryom but they are growing in number and they are unhappy. The question of war and peace in the southern Balkans ultimately depends on whether these two peoples (or perhaps more realistically, their two political élites) can come to an understanding on the need to cohabit.