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Military History of Macedonia

August 3, 2005

Military History of Macedonia

By Dr. Vance Stojcev

Skopje Military Academy (2004), 2 volume box set; 775 pages, 115 full-color maps and 13 appendices, ISBN: 9989-134-05-7

In this interview/review by Christopher Deliso, emeritus member of the Macedonian Military Academy Dr. Vance Stojcev discusses his career as a military historian in the former Yugoslavia and in modern-day Macedonia, as well as his detailed and controversial tome, Military History of Macedonia, and what went into the research for it. There are many unusual details that emerge for the first time in this eye-opening article.

Contents and Format

Military History of Macedonia is a two-volume hardcover box set, containing almost 800 pages of text and 15 full-color maps.According to the author, this format made the book very expensive to produce, and to ship. However, we believe that it is worth it, because the book contains detailed discussions of very obscure and patchily-known events of Balkan history, which can only be found in dusty and distant archives or, in hundreds of cases, from sources that had never been published previously. Needless to say, none of these are in English.

The book is divided into twelve chapters, which cover the period from ancient Macedonia (Philip II, Alexander the Great) up through the Second World War. This massive undertaking, says the author, is a result of two decades of research.

Dr. Stojcev was in the Yugoslav military for 20 years, and became a colonel. For much of that time he was working in Belgrade, in the military archive there, and his predictably shocking experiences with research under Communist conditions are recounted below.

Some Flaws

As could be expected with a book translated into English from another language, there are certain flaws in spelling and grammar; however these do not pose any difficulty in comprehension. Stylistically, there is also a certain repetitiveness and simplicity of style which again does not present a problem, but is rather typical of Macedonian writers in general.

The colorful maps provided are a useful asset to the book, though in some cases the lines referring to directions of troop movements can be a bit hard to follow.

In short, the reader should not expect a “scholarly” book according to the Western model, but that may be just as well; after all, the pretentiousness and subtle presuppositions one often encounters in the latter tend toward deception. With Military History of Macedonia, what you see is what you get- a formidable collection of data pertaining to some of the least-known events in European military history.

Disgruntled Denouncers from Abroad

As could be expected, Dr. Stojcev’s book has been denounced by both Bulgarians and Greeks, who accused him of ’stealing’ their history. He speaks of receiving angry emails from the latter, and of the near-impossibility of conducting primary research on Macedonian history in these neighboring states, lest it disrupt their own national narratives.

The author believes that part of the reason Macedonian historians have been left in the dust is that the Greeks and Bulgarians have had the advantage of a much longer experience of statehood, bringing with it certain organizational and institutional advantages. Since the 19th century, official funds have been lavished on research and collection of archival material by both governments.

Yet even today, Macedonia continues to lag behind, and this represents one of the main problems for researchers as well as for the country’s feeble attempts to promote itself abroad. Indeed, the author laments, “we have no state military archive. Our information is scattered in all different archives of other states.”

The Bulgarians especially have had the advantage, Dr. Stojcev maintains, of theft: “…in every war the Bulgarians have invaded, they have formed a special commission for historians to find and take all important documents, archaeological pieces, etc.,” he says. “For example, [they took] the crown of the Ohrid archbishopric, the gravestone of Tsar Tsamoil, a lot of flags from the Ilinden Uprising in 1903, and one from the 1876 Radovci Uprising.”

“A lot of documents from local military leaders that had been saved in home collection, the Bulgarians took them. Everything which they found with Serbian or Macedonian characteristics that they could they destroyed.”

Macedonian researchers frequently state that Bulgaria keeps a close eye on documents that might instill controversy, as does Greece. Has Dr. Stojcev experienced anything in this regard?

“I have not been to the Bulgarian archive,” he says, “but my colleagues had and have had bad experiences there. They won’t give you access.”

“Everything they asked to see about Macedonia, they were not told that it didn’t exist – even though you could point to books where Bulgarian authors had referred to it!”

When asked for specific examples of such “hot” material, Dr. Stojcev referred to “…over 100 letters by [revolutionary leader] Goce Delcev, where he speaks about the Macedonian people. I didn’t see them, but [they appear] in the memoirs of other fighters who were together with him.”

Of course, since all Balkan history-writing is complicated by excessive nationalism and apparent contradictions, these issues are bound to occur. Goce Delcev, for example, referred to himself on some occasions as a Bulgarian. The author’s comment on this – “he had to say he was a Bulgarian because he was a student in the Bulgarian military academy” – reflects the fundamental argument that modern-day Macedonians have forwarded, that theirs was a people whose national identity was always sacrificed depending on the state in which they lived, or the influence under which they came, because they were divided and powerless compared to the Ottomans and neighboring successor states.

For an example of this ethnic versatility, Dr. Stojcev speaks of one Macedonian turn-of-the-century educator, Krste Misirkov, who started out as a Bulgarian while studying in a Thessaloniki gymnasium, became a Serb while in Belgrade, and when in Odessa was even called a Russian!

But in the end, says the author, “he wrote the most beautiful book about the independence of Macedonia in the Macedonian language in 1903.”

As far as Greece is concerned, the author says that he had “no chance to work on these things, but I have cooperation with Macedonian historians from Greece.” Besides, because Greeks and Serbs are in good relations, he is aware of Greek scholarship via Serbian translations.

But as for primary sources, Dr. Stojcev says, “my colleagues tell me it is very difficult to find material about Macedonia in Greek archives, if you are interested in the Macedonian point of view.”

Strengths in Specificity

However, it is not necessary to be a Macedonian nationalist, or even to share the author’s belief in a Macedonian national narrative, to enjoy this book. And specifically because it covers the best-known period of Macedonian history, the opening chapters on ancient Macedonia are by no means the most important; after all, detailed discussions of the campaigns of Philip II and Alexander have long existed in myriad languages. So there’s nothing new to say there.

Where the book becomes exceptional, however, is rather in its coverage of military uprisings and related events from the period of Ottoman domination through the Second World War. This coverage takes up the latter six chapters of the work- some 560 pages.

In documenting the major and minor military events to have transpired on Macedonian soil during these centuries, Stojcev sets them in the context of larger events and phenomena that shaped the Balkans: the creation of the Ottoman Janissaries, the Haiduk anti-Ottoman rebel movement, the 17th century Austro-Ottoman war, the Congress of Berlin, the Ilinden Uprising, the Balkan Wars, etc. Although the book might have included slightly more detailed description, a certain depth of reader knowledge is presupposed; in any case, the scope of the book would have made it impossible to be more detailed.

That said, where the book excels is in its detailed descriptions of obscure uprisings, for which little or nothing is usually said by the historians. Such is the Mariovo-Prilep Rebellion of 1564-65, apparently started because of Ottoman taxation demands and “…most probably very bloody, because two villages were burned. Today we are still searching for their grounds” (p. 135).

The author is also very well informed regarding organizational structures of rebel cells, committees and militia formations. He discusses everyone from well-known leaders of the Ilinden Uprising to secret agents at work in turn-of-the-century Salonica. A real strength of the book is in specifically naming participants in various uprisings and the villages from which they came, something which would also presumably benefit genealogists and people looking into their family histories.

A Surprising Wealth of Sources

While the majority of the 20,000 documents Dr. Stojcev consulted were gleaned from various Macedonian archives, the Belgrade military archive, and other Bulgarian, French, German and Turkish sources, about 300 others were previously unpublished and even unknown. The author thus does a very important service in bringing to light these forgotten documents testifying to centuries of military history in Macedonia.

Since Dr. Stojcev worked for 20 years in Belgrade, he has many interesting stories regarding working conditions for historians under Communism. According to him, the Yugoslav authorities, seeking to check nationalist trends, suppressed and limited access to certain periods for researchers:

“In 1987-88, I specifically requested to research the Balkan Wars. But because Macedonia did not exist yet as a state, I was not allowed to.

It was forbidden to research in those archives. Only military institutions could research there during Yugoslav times. For all civilian researchers special clearance was required. I worked in the Belgrade Military History Institute, and they allowed me to work only on World War II history, because this was when the modern Macedonian state as a part of Yugoslavia was formed.”

In other words, there was officially no such thing as Macedonian history until 1944: “no one could speak of Macedonia and then in obviously controlled and limited context. Then it was simply Communist history. Now, the last 10 years we have had to start from the beginning.”

According to Dr. Stojcev, “only Serbians were allowed to write about the material we had on the Balkan Wars and World War I.” At the time, he was the only Macedonian researcher at the institute. He could read these texts, but not write about them. “Still, many remained secret,” he recalls.

But the intrepid researcher did find a way to see that certain rare and vital documents emerged to the light of day. During the Balkan Wars, he says, Macedonian soldiers under Serbian command would write letters to their loved ones from the field, and the commanders were supposed to send them. However, for different reasons they often weren’t sent, and the commanders held on to them personally.

Fast forward to the late 1980’s when, chiefly for financial reasons, the descendents of those commanders sold some of these letters (or donated them) to the Serbian military archive. These are letters that reveal intimate details of soldiers’ lives in the campaign, their thoughts for their families, and their sense of Macedonian self-identification. Although these (like the other pre-WWII documents) were meant to be forgotten, Stojcev was appeal to make copies of 20-30 of these letters- a very unique and interesting find which he uses in the book.

After the selective looting by Bulgarian and other occupation forces over the years, the remaining bulk of the Macedonian military archives were removed after WWII and taken to Belgrade and Sarajevo. While everything brought to the former remains there, unfortunately part of the materials brought to Sarajevo were destroyed in the fighting of the 1990’s.

A State Military Archive?

So why haven’t the documents come home, 15 years after Macedonia’s independence? “They don’t give them to us because in order to take them, Macedonia is supposed to have a military archive, but doesn’t.”

According to the author, this is something that the Ministry of Defense must initiate and fund. “I raised the issue 3 or 4 times since 2000,” Dr. Stojcev says. “When [now Prime Minister Vlade] Buckovski was minister of defense, he said, ‘OK’ and signed the order. But when he left, they stopped the procedure, because of the usual excuse – ‘no money.’”

Considering the level of alleged patriotism exhibited by many in the Macedonian political arena and diaspora, Dr. Stojcev finds this disinterest mildly ironic. After all, he says, “here is a book with a lot of new information, and it could be helpful regarding the name issue [with Greece].” However, while the MoD did provide some money toward costs, Dr. Stojcev had to fund the initial production himself, because the government claimed it didn’t have money. “Here we have Greece using all its lobbying and money against us,” he laments, “and they aren’t using this resource in our own defense!”

Re-discovering the War of 2001?

So what does Macedonia’s foremost military historian think of the mysterious war of 2001, about which so many questions still remain?

“I am working on it,” says Dr. Stojcev. However, he concedes that it is very difficult to find documents, “because the people who were involved are still alive,” and because the former enemy [the Albanian NLA] is now the government coalition partner. If you start asking too many questions, either as a journalist or a historian, “they can easily stop you,” he says – referring not just to the Albanians.

However, it is possible that the future will see new revelations. There are many generals who wrote their memoirs about the war, says Dr. Stojcev, and some would even like to publish them- “but they are afraid.”

So, will we ever know the truth about this vexing quasi-civil war? Dr. Stojcev is optimistic. “Yes, maybe not next year, or in 5 years, but maybe in 10 or 20 years,” he says.

Conclusion: a Stimulating Read

In conclusion, no matter what use you wish to make of it, or what ideological or national sentiments you may have, we recommend Military History of Macedonia for its sheer amount of rare data and little-known events, all told in a straightforward and detailed manner. At 800 pages, the book is probably too long for anyone to read cover-to-cover, but selectively dipping into it to learn about specific periods and events makes for an engrossing and rewarding experience.

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