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Precursors to Mürzsteg: From the Congress of Vienna to Crete’s Liberation

March 17, 2006

Part three in a 10-part series on the Mürzsteg  Reform Programme, by Carl Savich and Christopher Deliso.

The turn of events that led to the Mürzsteg Reforms and Western intervention in Macedonia in 1902 had origins in a political conception formalized three-quarters of a century earlier.

In 1815, the Congress of Vienna had established the foundations for a “Concert of Europe,’ a grouping of the most powerful European nations, which would ideally work jointly to ensure political stability and prevent the outbreak of war. It was, in a limited form, the primitive ancestor of the European Union.

In its time, the Concert of Europe was a reaction to the excessive aspirations of Napoleon, enacted in order to ensure the peace settlement of the Congress of Vienna. Its structure depended on the “Quadruple Alliance” of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, which was expanded three years later to include the restored French monarchy. But the harmony was ephemeral, and differences of policy in dealing with and defining wars to be suppressed, especially between Britain and the Continental powers, led to the slow death of the values originally envisioned in the agreement.

Before the 1815 agreement had run its course, however, the temporary unity of Europe was harnessed for assisting in the liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire.

Intervention in Greece

This new European power bloc was put to the test by the Greek War of Independence, which began six years after its formation, triggered their intervention against the Ottoman occupiers. Considerable funds were raised in Britain for the Greek side, inspired by the widespread academic and artistic interest in classical Greece, and thus the idealized association of the ancient Hellenes with their modern heirs.

In July of 1827, the European powers agreed to impose autonomy for Greece. On 8 October, a joint Russian-British-French naval fleet under Admiral Edward Codrington attacked and destroyed the Turkish-Egyptian fleet at Navarino, on the coast of the Peloponnese.

The battle, ironically, happened by mistake; the allied fleet had only intended to make a show of force, but the Turks fired first and were almost completely annihilated. The destruction of the Ottoman fleet decisively weakened Turkey’s status as a naval power and dramatically increased the standing of Russia as a Mediterranean naval power. The maritime engagement represented a stunning body blow to Ottoman military might at a time when the far-flung empire could ill afford to lose its sea routes. Navarino was in some ways the beginning of the end, or a sign that the end was inevitable for the Ottoman Empire.

Immediately after the battle, 14,000 French expeditionary troops landed on the Peloponnese to maintain order. In February 1830, the Great Powers recognized the independence of Greece, then a fraction of its present size and with its capital not in Athens but in the Peloponnesian town of Nafplio. Yet since there were no polished diplomats among the rough-and-tumble Greek brigand bands – themselves similar in many ways to those that would emerge 70 years later in Macedonia – a king had to be imported. In 1832 thus arrived from Germany Prince Otto I, who would assume the throne of Greece.

The Cretan Struggle and the Intervention of 1897

The success of some of the Greek population to free itself of the Turkish yoke inspired other Greeks in still subjugated lands. Chief among these was Crete, the largest and richest Greek island and a strategic Mediterranean port.

Here, sporadic yet consistent revolts throughout the 19th century intensified, and as would be the case in turn-of-the-century Macedonia, Turkish massacres shocked the world and stimulated Europeans to act. The most dramatic such event occurred during the great uprising of 1866, when on November 8 the Rethymno-area monastery of Arkadi was besieged by 15,000 Turkish soldiers. The villagers huddled inside had used up all of their ammunition against the advancing Turks by the second evening. Rather than waiting to be massacred, the Cretans detonated barrels of gunpowder in storage- killing more than 600 of their own men, women and children, as well as around 1,500 Turks. The Cretans’ defiance unto death astonished the world and European criticism of Ottoman misrule grew louder. By 1896, a major insurgency against the Turkish administration finally succeeded in tipping the balance in favor of the Greeks.

As in the 1820’s, a Greek rebellion had resulted in an intervention from the major Christian powers. Through diplomatic pressure they forced the Turks to grant autonomy to Crete, which would be ruled by a local, Christian governor. So as to lessen the humiliation of the concessions, the Great Powers decreed that political functions were to be divided between Christians and Muslims according to a two-to-one ratio. In February 1897, Greek troops landed on the island. In March, the Great Powers sent an international peacekeeping force, made up of 3,000 European troops.

In a move that would exactly prefigure the Mürzsteg Programme in Macedonia, not to mention the UN/NATO partitioning of Kosovo in 1999, the Great Powers divided the island of Crete into 5 sectors, to be run by the British, French, Russians and Italians. The fifth sector was a special one to be created around the capital city of Chania in western Crete. To the Italian carabinieri was assigned the task of reorganizing the island’s Ottoman police.

In November 1898, the Turkish government withdrew its troops and administration from the island. In June of the following year, the administrative and judicial authority was handed over to the local Cretan leaders. An Admiral’s Council was set up to govern the island, which was later replaced by a Commission of Councils. The Ottoman government’s departure also convinced numerous Turkish Muslims, the minority population, to leave the island.

Although Crete had been for all intents and purposes liberated, it was not allowed to become a part of Greece, which kept a consulate alongside the other international diplomatic missions in the neighborhood of Halepa, on the seafront in Chania.

The successful Cretan uprising had been led by a dynamic and charismatic figure, Eleftherios Venizelos, who emerged from the mountains of west Crete with a motley band of tough fighters and would go on to become to the most important prime minister in the history of the Greek state, overseeing not only the eventual reunion of Crete with the motherland, but also the major territorial gains of the Balkan Wars and the tragic population exchanges of 1923.

A Final Factor: The Treaty of Berlin

One of the most important and accursed documents in the history of the modern Balkans is the 1878 Treaty of Berlin. It was meant to be a comprehensive settlement to the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78 that had resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria and, very nearly, Constantinople itself. The treaty however sharply reduced the Bulgarian territorial gains that had been promised in the Treaty of San Stefano, which had immediately preceded it.

This “revision,” along with many other elements of the treaty, would lead to seething resentment among a variety of Balkan peoples and ethnic groups for many reasons. The full story of the treaties and their impact must be told elsewhere; for current purposes, it is sufficient to note where the Treaty of Berlin would have impact on the upcoming MˆšÃ‰Â¬Âºrzsteg Reforms in Macedonia.

In several sections, the treaty overseen by the Great Powers ordered Turkey to impose reforms and restructuring in Crete and Macedonia, also referred to as “Turkey in Europe” and “Eastern Roumelia.” A commission was to be set up, and Turkey was required to give Macedonians a greater voice in the government to establish political stability. These reforms, however, seem to have been fairly open-ended.

The fact that by 1903 very little progress had been made in this regard did not mean the Great Powers had forgotten about the 25 year-old treaty. They saw the Macedonian insurgency, in its very existence, as evidence that Turkey had not carried out Article XXIII of the treaty, which called on the Ottomans to reform and create special commissions, “in which the native element shall be largely represented, to settle the details of the new laws in each province,” both in Crete and Macedonia.

However, this provision of the treaty was respected about as much as the one affirming that the Ottomans could not use discriminate against their subjects on account of their religion. By 1880, a Macedonian revolutionary proto-committee had sprung up. Their complaint was that the treaty was not being honored. It was Article XXIII that became used as the legal and diplomatic basis for the Great Powers’ intervention in Macedonia in 1903.

Partial Bibliography

Booth, John. Troubles in the Balkans. London: Hurst and Blackett, 1905.

Brailsford, Henry Noel. Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future. London: Methuen & Co., 1906.

Curtis, William Eleroy. The Turk and His Lost Provinces. Chicago: Fleming Revell Co., 1903.

Fraser, John Foster. Pictures from the Balkans. London: Cassell and Company, 1906.

Lange-Akhund, Nadine. The Macedonian Question, 1893-1908: From Western Sources. NY: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Macartney, Carlile Aylmer. The Habsburg Empire, 1790-1918. NY: Macmillan, 1969.

Mazower, Mark. Salonica, City of Ghosts: Christians, Muslims, and Jews, 1430-1950. NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.

May, Arthur J. The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1867-1914. NY: W.W. Norton, 1951.

Sakellariou, M.B., ed. Macedonia. Athens: Ekdotike Athenon S.A., 1983.

Shea, John. Macedonia and Greece: The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1997.

Sonnichsen, Albert. Confessions of a Macedonian Bandit: A Californian in the Balkan Wars. NY: Duffield & Co., 1909.

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