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Macedonia and the First Balkan War (Part 1)

April 15, 2004


Historian Carl Savich plunders the Balkan archive to shed new light on the military forces and strategies involved in the Macedonian theater during the First Balkan War, dusting off sources dating from that bygone time in addition to treating more modern works of scholarship. Successive installments of this exclusive four-part series will follow over the next few days.

Introduction: Origins and Background of the First Balkan War

The First Balkan War began on October 8, 1912 when Montenegro declared war on Ottoman Turkey. Ten days later, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece, the other members of the Balkan League, then followed Montenegro in declaring war against Turkey. The First Balkan War was fought to decide the fate of Macedonia, which was then part of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey in Europe.

The origins and background of the First Balkan War could be found in the 1878 Congress of Berlin and the events that followed the Treaty of Berlin. One of the major outcomes of the Treaty of Berlin was that the status of Macedonia remained unresolved; the Great Powers allowed Turkey to retain Macedonia. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, Macedonia was incorporated in Bulgaria under the Treaty of San Stefano, the peace treaty held in a suburb of Constantinople that ended the war. Britain, Austria-Hungary, and Germany feared that an enlarged Bulgarian state would unduly benefit Russia and alter the status quo in Eastern Europe. What was proposed was a new treaty, negotiated at the Congress of Berlin in 1878.

Under the Treaty of Berlin, Macedonia was retained by Turkey, resulting in a smaller and truncated Bulgarian state split into two sections. Northern Bulgaria would have autonomy within the Ottoman Empire. Southern Bulgaria, or Eastern Rumelia, would become semi-autonomous. The goal of Britain, Germany, and Austria-Hungary was to prevent the expansion of Russian influence in Eastern Europe. The way to achieve this was by preventing the emergence of an independent and united Bulgaria, Greater Bulgaria. Under the Treaty of Berlin, Bulgaria was divided into an autonomous principality north of the Balkan Mountains and a southern semi-autonomous region of Eastern Rumelia. The Treaty of Constantinople in 1881 forced Turkey to cede Thessaly and the Arta region in Epirus to Greece.

The Macedonia territorial issue, however, thus remained unresolved. Both Serbia and Bulgaria sought to annex Macedonia. In 1885, a war between Serbia and Bulgaria was fought when Bulgaria occupied and annexed Eastern Rumelia, or southern Bulgaria, which contained the second largest Bulgarian city of Plovdiv. King Milan saw this move as upsetting the Balkan balance of power so he demanded compensation to Serbia. Serbia declared war on Bulgaria and invaded on November 13, 1885. Serbian forces, however, were routed by the Bulgarian army and were driven back into Serbia. Austria-Hungary subsequently intervened and arranged negotiations to end the conflict. The Treaty of Bucharest in 1886 ended the war and endorsed and ratified the annexation of Eastern Rumelia. Three Macedonian battalions in the Bulgarian army participated in the conflict.

The territory of present-day Macedonia was under the Ottoman Turkish Empire for over five hundred years, half a millennium. During much of this period a national identity was dormant and inchoate. But with the emergence of nationalism and the independence movements in Europe, following the Serbian Revolution or Uprising of 1804 and the Bosnian Serb revolution or insurgency of 1875, nationalism emerged as the defining movement in the Balkans.

In Macedonia, five major indigenous nationalist movements emerged. A Macedonian national/ethnic/linguistic identification emerged whose slogan was “Macedonia for the Macedonians.” The Macedonians sought a separate ethnic/national/linguistic identity that was distinct from the Serbian and Bulgarian identification. The Macedonian language, culture, and political and national/ethnic identity overlapped with the Bulgarian and Serbian. Moreover, there were Serbian and Bulgarian populations in Macedonia. Serbia sought to protect this Serbian population and to maintain a Serbian linguistic, religious, cultural, and national identity in Macedonia. To further this end, Serbian schools, institutions, aid organizations, and even guerrilla groups, were set up in Macedonia.

Bulgaria sought to protect the Bulgarian population by likewise setting up competing Bulgarian schools, institutions, religious organizations, and guerrillas or paramilitary forces. A fourth movement emerged after the League of Prizren in Kosovo, a Greater or Ethnic Albania nationalist movement which sought to unite all Albanian inhabited areas in the Balkans, including western Macedonia, or Illirida, Kosovo-Metohija, or Kosova, the Presevo-Bujanovac-Medvedja area of Southern Serbia, northern Greece, or Chameria, and areas of Montenegro. A fifth nationalist movement emanated from Romania that sought to incorporate the Vlach or Romanian population of Macedonia. The five rival nationalist/ethnic/political movements in Macedonia—Macedonian, Serbian, Bulgarian, Albanian, and Romanian—were antagonistic and conflicted with each other.

The conflict between the Serbian and Bulgarian populations in Macedonia was the most acute. Both Bulgaria and Serbia sent schoolteachers, priests, bishops, and armed guerrilla groups into Macedonia. There was thus a tug of war over Macedonia between Serbia and Bulgaria as both sought territorial expansion in the region.

British writer Herbert Vivian visited Macedonia and Serbia in 1903 and reported about the crises regions of Macedonia in the chapter “Rambles in Macedonia” from his book The Servian Tragedy with Some Impressions of Macedonia. Vivian traveled to Skopje and to Tetovo and personally observed events there. Macedonia was a politically unstable region at the beginning of the twentieth century. Vivian described Macedonia as follows:

“…the French appropriately use the same word, Macedoine, for a holocaust of sodden fruit and for that Turkish province which remains the last cock-pit of Europe. As we have seen, nearly all the Powers, great and small, covet Macedonia, and there seems every probability of serious disturbances being renewed there before long.”

Macedonia had a reputation for ethnic turmoil, kidnappings, and murders. Vivian noted: “To judge by the papers, you may only visit Macedonia if you are content to carry your life in your hand.”   He described the basis for the turmoil as follows: “If the Albanians could be kept in order and Bulgarian anarchism could be suppressed, there would be no grievances in Macedonia today. The Albanians are turbulent sportsmen, engaging as individuals but intolerable as neighbours. They must be made to understand that no further nonsense will be permitted. The Porte would be quite capable of reducing them to order if they had not a powerful protector at hand.” He saw the Albanian population as the most unstable: “For the Albanians…who are the most turbulent persons in the region.”

Vivian described Skopje in 1903 as follows: “Uskub—dreamy Uskub—the capital of Old Servia and of the vilayet of Kosovo, is a far less busy, practical place, but entirely idyllic.”

By 1895, hundreds of schools were set up in Macedonia advancing Serbian, Greek, and Bulgarian claims in Macedonia organized by such groups as the Bulgarian National Committee, the Greek Association of Hellenistic Letters, and the Serbian Society of Saint Sava. Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria all had irredentist and nationalist claims to Macedonia. All three nations had guerrilla groups in Macedonia as well who fought against each other and against the Ottoman Turkish forces and police.

All three countries sought territorial expansion in Macedonian, basing their claims on ethnicity, history, culture, and geopolitical considerations. Moreover, there was an indigenous Macedonian nationalist movement that sought an autonomous “Macedonia for the Macedonians” within the Ottoman Empire. Albania and Romania had claims on Macedonia as well.

Also not to be overlooked is the fact that Macedonia had a large Turkish population, who regarded Macedonia as part of Turkey in Europe. In 1912, Macedonia was part of Turkey. If Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece were to address and resolve their rival claims to Macedonia, they first had to confront the Ottoman Empire. This is what led to the First Balkan War as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece suppressed their mutually antagonistic claims in Macedonia and united in a military alliance against Ottoman Turkey to gain control of Macedonia.

Macedonia and the Eastern Question

The First Balkan War was essentially fought over Macedonia. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece focused their political agendas on territorial expansion there. All three nations had conflicting, overlapping, and mutually exclusive claims; in addition, the indigenous Macedonian autonomy movement conflicted with the irredentist agendas of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece. What all recognized, however, was that Turkey had to be first militarily defeated before any of their goals could be realized. It was this realization that led, first, to the creation of the Balkan League, and, second, to the First Balkan War. It was the need to expel Turkey that united Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, and the Macedonian population. Nothing was possible in Macedonia as long as it was part of Ottoman Turkey. They also realized that only if they united could they defeat Turkey militarily. The major antagonists over Macedonia were Serbia and Bulgaria. If they could agree to a political and military alliance, then Greece and Montenegro could be easily induced to join the alliance. But Serbia and Bulgaria remained the essential actors in the First Balkan War. It was the Serbian-Bulgarian alliance that made military victory possible over Ottoman Turkey.

Jacob Schurman in The Balkan Wars, 1912-1913 (1914) explained how ethnicity and geography drew Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece into conflict over Macedonia:

“…what was the occasion of the war between Turkey and the Balkan States in 1912? The most general answer that can be given to that question is contained in the one word Macedonia. Geographically Macedonia lies between Greece, Servia, and Bulgaria. Ethnographically it is an extension of their races. And if, as Matthew Arnold declared, the primary impulse both of individuals and of nations is the tendency to expansion, Macedonia both in virtue of its location and its population was foreordained to be a magnet to the emancipated Christian nations of the Balkans…. Hence the Macedonian question was the quintessence of the Near Eastern Question.”

Macedonia was the central focus of the Eastern Question. Herbert Gibbons noted that “the very heart of the Eastern Question” was “the rivalry of races in Macedonia.” The Great Powers “played a game against each other, endeavoring always to use the Balkan states as pawns in their sordid strife.” What was unique about the First Balkan War was that the tables were now turned. The Balkan states had realized that the strategy the Great Powers used to keep them subservient and weak was ‘divide and conquer.’ If they could put aside their differences and unite, they could be an independent political actor, deciding their own political fate. What had allowed the Ottoman Turkish Empire to invade, defeat and occupy the Balkan states in previous centuries was the disunity and dissension among the Christian populations of the Balkans.

The Turkic peoples, on the other hand, were united and thus possessed overwhelming superiority in numbers. This allowed them to pick off and defeat each of the Balkan states one by one. What was different and unique in 1912 was that the Balkan states were united like the Turkic peoples had been earlier. All four Balkan League states were Orthodox Christian and Montenegro, Serbia, and Bulgaria were Slavic. What allowed the Balkan League to defeat the Ottoman Turkish Empire in 1912 was their unity. The Balkan League was able to muster 750,000 troops. They not only defeated the Ottoman forces militarily on the battlefields, but were poised to take Constantinople and all of Turkey itself. It was only the intervention of the Great Powers that prevented the fall of Constantinople.

Russia had originally fostered the creation of the Balkan League ostensibly as a counterweight to Austro-Hungarian influence and penetration into the Balkans. But the Balkan states were able to use the alliance to resolve the Macedonian issue and to expel the Ottoman Empire from Eastern Europe. What issue united the Balkan states? Dennis P. Hupchick in The Balkans from Constantinople to Communism explained that Macedonia was what the First Balkan War was fought over: “There was no doubt that the First Balkan War was fought primarily to decide Macedonia’s ultimate fate.” Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece were united in their determination to expel the Turkish forces from Macedonia and to resolve their territorial disputes over the region.

Philip Gibbs and Bernard Grant in Adventures of War: With Cross and Crescent (1912), noted that Macedonia was the subject of the conflict: “Macedonia, that vague and troublesome territory which for generations has been the theatre of guerrilla warfare, of vendettas, of massacres and murders between Christians and Turks, was to be the cause of quarrel. The liberation of Macedonia from Turkish rule was the watchword adopted by the rulers of the Balkan States to give righteousness to their cause, and to gain the sympathy of other Christian peoples.” Gibbs and Grant concluded that Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, and Greece had self-interested motives in Macedonia.

Part 2 of this series will appear tomorrow.


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