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The Role of the Western Media in Prompting Intervention in Macedonia

March 19, 2006


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

One key but sometimes overlooked facet of the diplomatic meddling that led to the Mürzsteg Reforms is the role played by the Western media. Just as with the Yugoslav wars almost a century later, Western journalists and newspapers played a significant role in galvanizing public opinion against the Ottomans.

An Appetite for Atrocities

On the continent, the French newspapers Le Temps and Le Matin, as well as the Austrian newspaper Neue Freie Presse covered Macedonian events regularly, as did the London papers. To focus attention on the crisis in Macedonia, and thus to press the case for intervention, the Western media resorted to lurid descriptions of Turkish repression and demonized its leadership. Well before Slobodan Milosevic, therefore, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid was castigated as a “bloodthirsty tyrant” by a Western press that was fuelling the fires for intervention.

This style of depiction was partially the result of the media’s eternal appetite for sensational news. But it also derived to some extent from the European countries’ pro-Christian sentiment, at that time much more fervent than it is today. The Western media thus focused on the slaughter of helpless Christians by an infidel overlord. There had been, after all, plenty of precedents in “European Turkey” during the 19th century.

News reports spoke of “atrocities” and “massacres” committed in Macedonia, while they relayed the words of Bulgarian officials who accused the Turkish forces of “exterminating” the Bulgarian population, committing atrocities, torture, and murders. They also provided extensive lists of villages demolished and torched by the Turks.

Indeed, Western media reporting from Macedonia was somewhat manipulated and biased. Yet so was the information coming from the Turkish side. In 1903, the Ottomans sought to counter this harmful coverage, putting into effect a “strategy of information” aimed at improving Ottoman public relations and thus managing, to whatever extent possible, the media’s coverage of unfolding events in Macedonia.

They sought to ‘spin’ the uprising as mere acts of terrorism conducted by Bulgarian terrorists, allegedly a fringe and marginal movement with no popular support. They refused to grant Western journalists travel permits to cover the events in Macedonia, instead, presenting news handouts for journalists that presented a biased, misleading and in some cases false picture.

Yet some tentative allies such as Austria did try to placate the Porte. Agenor Goluchowski, the Austro-Hungarian Foreign Minister, stated that “speaking of extermination [of the Christians] is exaggerated.” And British Prime Minister Arthur Balfour declared, after all, that “the balance of criminality lies not with the Turks, but with the rebels” in September 1903.

The Original Embedded Journalist- in Revolution-era Macedonia

An American precursor to the “embedded journalist” concept of the early 21st century Iraq War arrived in the Balkans in 1905, in the person of one Albert Sonnichsen, a journalist and adventurer hailing from San Francisco. He ventured into the Macedonian hills with the guerrillas, often describing them as “bandits,’ and went along for the ride as they conducted their campaigns against Turkish forces, portraying a somewhat idealized image of the conflict.

For the American rogue journalist, it was also something of an adventure of self-discovery. In 1909, he published his experiences during the Macedonian insurgency in the recently republished Confessions of a Macedonian Bandit: A Californian in the Balkan Wars.

Sonnichsen was an interesting case for another reason. He seems to have been a precursor of the type of “advocacy journalists” encountered in the 1990s, a pro-intervention embedded reporter. But it was sometimes hard to tell exactly who he was advocating for. Indeed, Sonnichsen described the Macedonian insurgents in mixed terms:

“Apostol was Macedonia’s Robin Hood. For thirteen years he had followed the war trail… Apostol roamed the mountains, one of those picturesque brigands who have appeared among oppressed peoples during all the semi-barbaric periods of history, their exploits handed down in the folk songs of the peasants. Theirs was the single-ideaed creed of murder and destruction, the first instinct of primitive, illiterate men.”

One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. The insurgents and guerrilla groups in Macedonia were keen to seek Western intervention by whatever means possible. One of the most dramatic efforts occurred early on in the conflict, in 1901, when American aid worker and missionary Ellen Stone was kidnapped by men loyal to the legendary guerrilla leader Jane Sandanski of the IMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization). The kidnapping was a gamble meant to focus international attention on Macedonia- and it worked.

The media flocked to the story, which has been retold in the modern age in a book depicting the “Miss Stone Affair” dramatically as “America’s first hostage crisis.” This depiction certainly has more truth to it than the argument of historian Mark Mazower, who claims that “Ellen Stone was, in fact, the first American victim of twentieth-century terrorism.” It might more accurately be said that the “crisis” – from which the clever missionary emerged unscathed, a celebrity and actually more sympathetic to the Macedonian cause – was an early example of media spectacle.

Considering the acknowledged ambiguity and loaded modern conception of the word “terrorist,” it is odd that Mazower would characterize the Stone affair as he does. But contemporary descriptions of the Macedonian insurgency by various interested parties did run the full gamut of terms, from terrorism to criminality to a national “liberation” and independence movement for human and civil rights.

Indeed, considering that Ms. Stone came out of the experience more favorable to the Macedonians than before her kidnapping, it seems again that media spectacle and image management had more to do with things than modern kidnapping of America’s, which is seldom conducted anymore to elicit sympathy for the captors – nor even for money, which Sandanski’s guerrillas were seeking also.

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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