Macedonia in 1903

THE EVENTS OF 1903 IN MACEDONIA  (As presented in European Diplomatic Correspondence) with an Introduction by Basil C. Gounaris 

Edited and Annotated by: Angelos A. Chotzidis, Basil C. Gounaris, Anna A. Panayotopoulou)

On 21July14 August 1903, the British Consul in Monastir, James McGregor, wrote to the British Consul General in Thessaloniki, Robert W. Graves, to notify him that two days earlier, on the eve of the feast of the Prophet Elijah (Ilinden), the starting signal had been given for a revolt against the Turks.' The rebels' first acts had been to blow up parts of the Thessaloniki-Monastir railway line and to pull down the telegraph poles, obviously with the intention of taking the Ottoman army by surprise and thus gaining valuable time in which to consolidate the revolt.  

The komitadjis' bomb attacks on the night of 2-3 August 1903 (new style) came as little surprise to either the Christians or the Moslems. Macedonia had been in a state of unremitting revolutionary ferment for many months, and everyone had grown used to the idea that a new revolt was afoot. Besides, Macedonia had a long tradition of such uprisings. In the eighty-five years which preceded the Ilinden Uprising at least eight revolts had been planned in Macedonia and six of them had taken place. All had come to the same sorry end.  

It is not difficult to trace the roots of Macedonia's insurrectional activity. They lay both in the kleftic tradition, which had arisen out of the Ottoman administration's inability to control the mountainous areas of the Balkan Peninsula, and in the dysfun­ctional institution of the armatoles, which the Turks had set up as a counterforce to the klefts.2 Hard-bitten, uncompromising men, both klefts and armatoles were ready for any kind of warlike venture, alongside the oppressed Christians or wherever there was any prospect of rich plunder.  

The klefts of Macedonia performed valorous deeds galore in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most famously in connection with the revolutionary excitement generated on the Greek peninsula by the Russo-Turkish Wars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Some of these exploits, indeed, became widely known and were immortalized in folksongs;3 and the derring-do of the klefts and armatoles in Macedonia unquestionably reached its peak in the Greek War of Independence of 1821.  

Macedonia was mobilised in two stages: a revolt broke out on the Halkidiki peninsula in the spring and summer of 1821, while western Macedonia rose up at the end of February 1822. The tragic details of those times are recorded in Turkish documents. Though the revolutionaries in Macedonia were in constant touch with both the "Filiki Etaireia" (a major secret Greek revolutionary association) and the chieftains of southern Greece, it was impossible, under the circumstances of the time, properly to co-ordinate the scattered and irregular military forces in the north with those in the south. The Macedonians' revolutionary fervour was no less ardent than that of their kinsmen in the Peloponnese, the islands, or Roumeli; but neither popular support nor the virtues of the klefts and armatoles themselves could outweigh their Ottoman adversaries' considerable strategic advantages.4  

Kassandra was devastated in October 1821' and Naoussa fell in April 1822,6 thus sealing the failure of the revolt and obliterating hopes of liberation from the Ottoman yoke. The events had shown, however, that the Greek-, Slavonic-, Vlach-, and Albanian- speaking chieftains and rebels of Macedonia were ready to make common cause and even give up their lives to serve the national liberation movement which had broken out in the southern and insular regions of the Greek peninsula. Many chieftains simply went south and continued their military activities there.7

The birth of the modern Greek state was undoubtedly a landmark event for Macedonian revolutionary activity. Two developments between 1830 and 1878 are of particular importance for an understanding of the course of events. Irredentism, in the form of the "Great Idea" (which essentially sought to reconstruct the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople), became the central axis of Greece's foreign policy. And the new national centre, Athens, consequently shouldered the difficult task of planning future revolts. For obvious reasons, however, the implantation of a national ideology in the unredeemed provinces (particularly the rural areas) and in the Hellenic state was a two-speed process. Some fifty years were to pass before Greece managed to launch its educational campaign, and that half century created an irreplaceable void which seriously hampered subsequent developments.

From 1830 to 1850, the Hellenic state continued to take a lively interest in the question of Macedonian liberation, urged and spurred on by the refugees from Macedonia who had settled in southern Greece. The planned uprisings rarely materialised, however. Communication was established between Athens and locals in Macedonia, secret societies were formed, the guerrilla bands were re-armed; but neither these achievements nor the ardent efforts of such individuals as Tsamis Karatasos (the son of a prominent family of armatoles from Macedonia) enabled the spasmodic revolts of this period to break down the restrictive barriers raised by habitually negative diplomatic attitudes.8

The sole exception to this rule -that revolts in Macedonia must fizzle out before they had even caught fire- was the uprising of 1854, which was directly connected with the events of the Crimean War. Though the omens were unpropitious this particular revolt spread to Pieria, Halkidiki, and south-west Macedonia, thanks to the active efforts of the local armatole families. But Greece's pro-Russian stance, coupled with dissuasive intervention by the Great Powers, effectively thwarted the whole effort once again. Despite the fleeting enthusiasm and revolutionary elation which pervaded Macedonian territory for a few weeks, the armed forces eventually backed down. Memories of the massacres of 1821-2 were still fresh in people's minds and their faith in the Great Powers' omnipotence was so strong as to make even the boldest visionaries think twice. Those who finally did take up arms confirmed by their death the suspicion that, thirty years on, the Turks were still prepared to carry out the same ruthless reprisals as of yore.9

The insurrections continued, but in the 1 860s it became clear that not only was Greece incapable of realizing its grandiose "Great Idea", but it was no longer the only nation embracing an irredentist ideology. Russian interest was now focusing on the slavophone Christian populations in the Balkans, and Panslavist agents were not long in arriving on Macedonian soil. A fervent desire for liberation from Ottoman rule combined with the fascination Russia held for the unredeemed populations enabled the propagandists to exploit local discord and gradually to drive a wedge between the hitherto dominant Greek Orthodox tradition and some of the Slavonic-speaking natives of Macedonia who had not yet come into contact with Greek national education. As a result, Bulgarian nationalism had gained a firm foothold in Macedonia by the 1870s, and it first manifested itself when the autonomous Bulgarian Church, the Exarchate, distanced itself from the Ecumenical Patriarch ate.

All the same, the revolutionary initiatives were still in the hands of the Greeks, who regarded the outbreak of a new Russo-Turkish War in April 1877 as an opportunity for another uprising. But after months of preparation by private national societies, early in 1878, at the crucial moment, the Greek government faltered, uncertain that the venture was really necessary, despite the objective danger that the whole of Macedonia might be swallowed up by the newly established Bulgarian state under the Treaty of San Stefano. The Greek indecision and the Russo-Turkish armistice prejudiced the fate of the revolt, which broke out in Pieria in the middle of February.11 The original nucleus under Captain Kosinas Doumbiotis was rapidly flanked by large numbers of local chieftains and guerrillas, and the flame of rebellion travelled as far as western Macedonia. The unrest continued until November 1878.12 In the autumn of that year a serious Bulgarian uprising broke out in north-eastern Macedonia, in the districts of Kresna and Razlog. But the decisions of the Berlin Congress left little room for either the traditional Greek irredentist circles or Macedonia's later claimants, the Bulgarians, to prevail in Macedonia by force.

The sources indicate that Macedonia, particularly the western part, continued to simmer throughout the 1 880s and remained in constant touch with revolutionary circles in Athens.'4 However, the purges carried out in the Turkish army, the economic crisis which struck the Hellenic Kingdom in the early ·90s, and the strengthening of the principality of Bulgaria caused the revolutionary center gradually to shift away from

Athens to Sofia. The revolutionary committees that were established there consisted chiefly of slavophone émigrés from Macedonia, who were gradually becoming integrated into the Bulgarian national state. So the Bulgarian aspiration of southward expansion had now found its most appropriate vehicles: the committees now had members, contact with Macedonia, and the significant possibility of applying pressure on the Bulgarian government.

The committees' revolutionary inclinations became evident shortly afterwards, in 1895, when they made concerted efforts to foment an uprising in the neighboring north-eastern districts of Macedonia. Though the revolt received minimal support from the local population and was crushed by the re-organized Turkish army, its after-effects caused greater unrest in the Balkans than the short-lived operations themselves. Within a year, alarmed by the turn of events, a Greek patriotic organization known as the "Ethniki Etairia" (National Society)15 was in its turn dispatching organized forces of émigrés from Macedonia back to their homeland. These efforts were no more successful than the Bulgarians'; and when they were repeated in 1897, far from escalating into a more generalized insurrectional movement in Macedonia, they merely precipitated the outbreak of the Greco-Turkish War, with its disastrous consequences for Greece.16

The events of 1895-7 showed once again the limited possibilities of success for rebellion in Macedonia. A review of the reasons why all the nineteenth-century uprisings failed reveals that the principle causes were the negative international political situation, which sought to maintain Ottoman territorial 4ntegrity, the lack of infrastructure to support a revolution, and bad strategic planning, which treated the revolts either as small-scale strategically diversions or as fitful local military operations. Last, but by no means least of the reasons for failure, particularly in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, was the ideological unread ness of the population in Macedonia. For broad strategically reasons, Halkidiki, Olympus, and the mountainous regions of western Macedonia were traditional breeding grounds for uprisings. But the systematic exploitation of human and financial resources in the context of a self-consuming, extremely conservative, and fragile economy, after decades of revolutionary turmoil and reprisals, gradually eroded much of the population's revolutionary fervor, despite the profound roots of Greek education in Macedonia17 and the hasty, though vigorous, educational efforts of the Bulgarians.'5

As was only to be expected, Greece's defeat in 1897 left the way open for further Bulgarian initiatives. The Greeks' misfortunes and the Bulgarians' initial setbacks in previous years had been valuable lessons to the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (I.M.R.O.), the major proponent of Bulgaro-Macedonian irredentism, which had undertaken the ambitious task of liberating Macedonia in 1893.19 I.M.R.O. enjoyed complete freedom of initiative and action, and within a decade it had made considerable strides in terms of revolutionary infrastructure. It had built up an efficient and relatively watertight network of collaborators. It had acquired, more by force than by persuasion, funds and material stocks, chiefly in the form of the weapons and munitions vital for a forthcoming revolt Lastly, and most importantly, it had taken great care to inculcate the appropriate revolutionary ideology, a blend of Russian Panslavism, Bulgarian irredentism, and socialist promises of redistribution of land and statutory limitation of debts.25 It is important to note that I.M.R.O. was never by way of being a Macedonian nationalist organization, for its activities were directed from the start towards the Bulgarian population. This purely Bulgarian aspect was officially blurred only with the drafting in 1902 of the organization's new charter, which was addressed to all the oppressed inhabitants of Macedonia and Thrace, whose liberation and independence it proclaimed.21 Although archival sources attest that I.M.R.O.'s ideology scarcely touched the rural population of Macedonia, one can reasonably argue that, irrespective of their national preferences, the latter were by no means indifferent to the idea of liberation from the Turks, despite their very real fear of the reprisals to which failure would instantly lead. Bitter experience had taught them just how harsh these could be. All the same, with systematic preparation and above all with the proper pressures and approaches, I.M.R.O. could expect to gain at least the passive support of some of the population, who traditionally abhorred the Moslems and particularly tax collectors of every stripe.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, I.M.R.O.'s advantages were maximized by the exceptionally favorable diplomatic climate. The policy of maintaining Ottoman territorial integrity had now given way to systematic efforts by the Powers to infiltrate and to wield influence. In this context, a deliberate escalation of the social unrest in Macedonia, allied with the region's serious economic problems, would give the Powers greater opportunities to intervene on humanitarian grounds.22 As far as I.M.R.O. and Bulgarian aspirations were concerned, it was clear that a widespread bid for liberation, the resultant turmoil, and judicious sensitization of European public opinion (in the context of European intervention, which had been an official policy since 1902) would accelerate the process of amputating both Macedonia and Thrace from the Ottoman Empire. Though it is questionable how far all I.M.R.O. '5 collaborators shared the same ideas about where this would all ultimately lead, there can be no doubt that an independent, or even semi-independent, or self-governing Macedonia and Thrace would be an attractive lure to Austro-Hungary, Russia, and above all Bulgaria; for they were all seeking ways of extending their influence southwards, and Bulgaria, indeed, was keen to expand its borders. Modern scholars should not forget that the Verhovist Committee, the official agent of Bulgaria's irredentist policy in Macedonia, was also deeply involved in the preparations for the uprising.23

It was in this climate that the 1903 rebellion, the Ilinden Uprising, broke out, the last revolt to take place in Turkish-occupied Macedonia. It should be regarded more as a (non-unanimous) political decision by the Bulgaro-Macedonian committees than as a genuine military action with specific strategic aims. If, as a military operation, it met with the expected failure, as a political option it yielded a number of benefits, though more in the long term than in the short. Ultimately, it was only the Macedonian Struggle,2~ the internal strife within the committees, and particularly the turn the Balkan Wars took which directly prevented either I.M.R.O. or Bulgaria from taking full advantage of the extremely favorable impact of Ilinden in Europe.24

All the same, Ilinden itself and all the contemporary literature relating to it made the Slav views on Macedonia known to the international community at the beginning of the century, an investment which brought considerable returns. By judicious use of the historical sources,2~ Bulgaria continued to present Ilinden as a unanimous bid for unification by all the Bulgarians of Macedonian descent.27 During the inter-war years, the Communist Internationals also followed I.M.R.O.'s socialistic line, with numerous variations. and after the War the torch was handed over to federal Yugoslavia's "Socialist Republic of Macedonia". As far as the federal republic and the state which has lately succeeded it are concerned, Ilinden was a genuine bid for liberation by the "Macedonian nation", akin to the national movements of the other Balkan peoples. Needless to say, it is a ploy which was considered essential in order to lend credence to

the separate ethnic identity of this brand new democratic state. Countless contemporary records and other documents published in Skopje attempt to support the idea.25

The documents published in this book are intended to present adequate historical evidence of the real nature of the Ilinden Uprising and to increase speculation on the subject by proffering the views of contemporary international observers. As the disinterested reader will discover, these views bear little resemblance to the current interpretations, the political desires, and the present-day ideologie of the modern Balkan nation states.29 The documents concerned comprise the correspondence of the British, French, Austrian, and American consuls and vice-consuls of the vilayets of Thessaloniki and Monastir with their countries' embassies in Constantinople, and in some cases with their Foreign Ministries. The official correspondence is accompanied by attached documents, letters from various people, memoranda, and translated extracts from newspapers and other contemporary publications, which support what the diplomats say. The officials naturally use the terminology which was current at the beginning of the century: for instance, all the Slavonic-speakers in Macedonia are indiscriminately referred to as "Bulgarians", while the various demographic groups are described sometimes as "races" and sometimes as "nations". All the same, despite the problems caused by the incompatibility between this terminology and the views of modern social scientists, there can be absolutely no doubt that the uprising was of an exclusively political nature and that the Bulgarian government liberally fostered it.

It was considered advisable to precede the texts with a catalogue of the data relating to each document and a very brief synopsis of its content, to make the material more accessible to the reader. The seventy documents are published in chronological order, so that the course of events is easy to follow. The footnotes give only as much information as was thought necessary for a full understanding of the documents' contents, together with a few brief biographical and bibliographical data. Spelling has not been changed. Limited changes have been made to the punctuation, as also to certain personal and place names, which would now be impossible to identify if transliterated directly into Greek.   The original documents are on microfilm in the research centre of the Museum of the Macedonian Struggle in Thessaloniki, 23 Proxenou Koromila st., GR - 546 22 Thessaloniki, Greece.  Tel: 229.778                 B.C.G