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Massacres and Machinations Continue: 1905 through to the Bitter End

March 31, 2006


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

This depressing outlook was shared by other international observers. A couple months after Captain Nandrup’s final report was issued, the atrocities were still occurring. One was cited by Henry Noel Brailsford, the leader of the British aid mission to Macedonia, and a foreign correspondent for The Manchester Guardian and other publications. He had spent time on assignment in the Balkans in the 1890’s. His 1905 book Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future recounts his experiences in Macedonia during the insurgency and the implementation of the reforms. Brailsford described the Ottoman Turkish attack on Kuklish in 1905 thus:

“a typical outrage occurred in February, 1905, at the Bulgarian village of Kuklish, where, according to the report of a Russian gendarmerie captain, 64 houses out of 105 were burned, 38 unarmed peasants killed, including two women and a baby, five persons wounded, and eleven women violated. The whole place was pillaged, and the officers made no attempt to check the savagery of their men. It is worthy of note that the “reformed’ gendarmes who were present behaved exactly like the unregenerate soldiery.” Zervi, Mogila, Konopnitsa, and other Macedonian towns were similarly attacked during the spring and summer of 1905 by the “reformed” gendarmerie.

On May 23, 1905, the arrest of Romanian or Vlach school inspectors by the Turks and the assault on the Romanian consulate on the orders of the vali of Ioannina provoked a diplomatic crisis. This led to the creation of a separate Vlach nationality or “millet” in Macedonia, with its own official language schools and churches. Ottoman Turkey was divided into millets, or communities based on religious affiliation who were autonomous with their own religious leaders and own laws and customs and language. The Turkish government supported this splintering of groups in Macedonia because it divided the Christian populations even further and pitted the Christians against each other.

Brailsford again gave the following on-the-spot, eyewitness evaluation of the reforms:

“the Mürzsteg programme aimed at something more than the improvement of the Turkish administrative machinery. It has done a very little in this direction, and when it is complete it may do more. Its chief aim, however, was to bring some measure of appeasement, to restore order, to re-establish confidence, to repair devastation, and, in a word, to remove the motives for rebellion. Here it has failed, and the failure is so conspicuous that it has actually aggravated the normal anarchy.

The Macedonians were encouraged to hope; the loss of their hope has deepened their despair and increased their recklessness. The reforms left the Turks supreme in all administrative matters. They used their liberty to resort to all the old devices of repression and provocation. They still seemed to contemplate an eventual war with Bulgaria, and to make a pretext, they tried to drive the Bulgarians to desperate courses. They were for ever mobilising their troops, calling out the reserves, and accumulating armaments. The troops lived on the peasants and drained the exchequer. Mutinies were frequent and discipline was lax. Under the plea of searching for arms they harried the villages and carried on their perquisitions, with the usual accompaniments of rapine and brutality.”

The bottom line, for the British observer, was that life for Macedonian civilians had not been qualitatively improved after two years of reforms:

“as in 1903, the migratory Macedonian labourers who annually visit Constantinople in search of work were confined to their villages and forbidden to travel. A curfew ordinance was enforced, which renders any peasant abroad after sundown liable to be summarily shot. Half the refugees from the Adrianople region have been unable to return, and their lands were occupied by Moslem ‘squatters.'”

Austria-Hungary Moves on Kosovo

After objecting to other powers’ actions further south, Austria sought to extend its own sphere of influence northwards in 1906 by sending its officers to the northern cazas of Gnjilane in Kosovo and to the Presevo Valley in southern Serbia. In March 1907, Austria received permission from Hilmi Pasha to send an Austrian officer, Captain Franz Schmidt to Presevo. But the Serbian and Albanian civilian populations opposed the deployment of Schmidt. The Turks sent Shemsi Pasha, the commander of the Turkish 18th division to Kosovska Mitrovica to establish order. On April 18, Schmidt was recalled to Skopje. By the end of the year, however, these two cazas would be attached to the Austrian sector.

Meanwhile, the effect of excluding Kosovo from the reforms was bearing fruit, as the province’s beleaguered Serbian population came under the combined fire of Turkish and Albanian Muslims. Because of the exclusion, the latter could act with impunity. As in Macedonia, a cheta militia movement had sprang up among the Christians to provide some form of self-defense.

However, by summer 1907, tensions had significantly increased and Serbian traveling companies were frequently being waylaid. “The discovery of komitadjis [among the Serbian population] vexed the ethnic Albanians who feared the expansion of chetnik action and the inclusion of Kosovo and Metohia in the reform action,” writes Serbian historian Dusan Batakovic. “Feuding Albanian tribes immediately expressed solidarity… An assembly was held in the large mosque of Prizren; the ethnic Albanians of Ljuma demanded the extermination of Serbs. [Vice-consul] Milan Rakic discovered the demands of the people in Ljuma: “…for the assembly to determine the day when all ethnic Albanians would rise in arms and carry out a general massacre of Serbs. The reason stated by the people of Ljuma for the extermination of Serbs was that peace among the ethnic Albanians was impossible as long as there were Serbs in these regions, since the Serbs were always complaining to foreigners, bringing about bidats – reforms – with their complaints, and recently, they had started to infiltrate companies from Serbia.'”

However, the Serbs were not able to attract the same attention to their captivity as had the Macedonians, though this was not through a lack of effort. Rather, all entreaties and official complaints fell on the deaf ears of the Austro-Hungarians, who sought to suppress any potential challenge from Serbia.

Today, long after the demise of the Hapsburg dynasty and its grandiose dreams, the failure to include Kosovo in the reform scheme has shown itself to have had a retarding influence on development in the area. Events do not emerge from a vacuum, after all. The problems that the Great Powers did not want to face in 1906 simmered until finally exploding almost a century later. Now, in 2006, the diplomatic descendants of the Great Powers are being overwhelmed by the results of their ancestors’ selective inattention.

Swallowed Up by Larger Events, the Mürzsteg Programme Fizzles Out

By early 1908, it was clear that the reforms programme was not working as had been planned. This resulted in a sea change in, among others, British foreign policy towards Macedonia. In March of that year the Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, proposed autonomy for Macedonia as a way to resolve the crisis.

On June 9-10, 1908, two weeks after the Ottomans put down a Greek revolt on the island of Samos, Edward VII and Russian Tsar Nicholas II met “cordially” at Reval/Tallin to discuss plans for installing a mostly European administration in Macedonia under an Ottoman governor to be approved by the Great Powers. Germany and the dissident Ottoman Young Turk movement, the Committee for Unity and Progress (CUP) rejected the proposal.

The Young Turk movement was fed both by pro-Western, pro-reforming inclinations, but paradoxically also by resentment of Western interventionism in Ottoman lands, specifically Crete and Macedonia. While the British and Russians were contemplating the idea of an independent Macedonia, however, the Young Turks were making urgent plans for an armed revolt that would render the sultan powerless to give away the territory. CUP agitators relocated from Paris to Thessaloniki, allied with disillusioned military officers and indigenous propagandists, especially Turks and Albanians.

Any dreams of an independent Macedonia were abruptly vanquished, however, early the next month, when the Young Turk revolution began. The Great Powers had found a way out of the quagmire, without having to do another thing. Not surprisingly, this revolt too emerged from Macedonia, among disaffected soldiers in the Ottoman 3rd Army Corps stationed in Resen, west of Bitola.

On July 3, Young Turk sympathizers in the army under command of Major Ahmed Niyazi decamped from Resen, “leaving behind a demand for the restoration of the constitution. The sultan’s attempt to suppress this uprising failed, and rebellion spread rapidly.”

The reformists issued a proclamation which spelled out their liberalizing goals. Like Nikola Karev five years before, they promised equality and freedom to all citizens, regardless of nationality or religion. The strong sense of an Ottoman identity which the Young Turks called for, however, ran counter to the prevailing trend towards nationalism among the different groups. The rule of theocratic oppression was coming to an end, but a new and even more volatile age was beginning.

From Thessaloniki, CUP President Enver Bey declared the restoration of the 1876 constitution, and “the second and third army corps threatened to march on Constantinople if the sultan refused to obey the proclamation. On the 24th the sultan yielded, and issued an irade, restoring the constitution of 1876, and ordering the election of a chamber of deputies.” A limited purge followed, with some of the “more unpopular” Hamidian officials assassinated, like former spy chief Fehim Pasha. On August 6, 1908, Young Turk sympathizer Kiamil Pasha was appointed grand vizier to the sultan.

The Great Powers tried to accommodate themselves to the new situation. On July 27, they withdrew their peacekeeping force from Crete, the other European “project” at the time. They had failed to resolve the situation there as well. The provisional government of the island, which was autonomous but not yet free, soon swore allegiance to the Greek king and thus raised tensions with the Ottomans, who sought to keep it from uniting with Greece.

The Dual Monarchy Raises the Stakes

The victory of the Young Turks meant the end for all intents and purposes of the status quo that the Great Powers had with such frantic inaction sought to maintain throughout their weak intervention in Macedonia. The new Turkish regime was, after all, calling for much of the same reforms that the Europeans had, and more seriously for the Powers, could they pacify the population and keep the empire united, the Young Turks might pose a renewed threat to European hegemonic ambitions. The potential threat seemed most serious to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

On October 7, 1908, the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph thereby took the step of annexing Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was not a surprise; Russian and other diplomats had been expecting it since the summer. According to Vienna, the Young Turk revolution had made the annexation “necessary.” It was allegedly justified by the fateful 1878 Treaty of Berlin. The Austrians were in fact pushing a reckless “back to the future” strategy. The immediate result was a damaging trade boycott in protest from Constantinople and a dramatic increase of tensions with Serbia, which prepared to defend itself from the ambitious Austrians.

At the same time Bulgaria, liberated in fact but not by law with the Berlin treaty, took the opportunity to declare its own full independence. While the Ottomans protested, they were in no position to take military action and instead decided to sue for compensation in both cases.

Thus on April 6, 1909, the Ottoman parliament approved of the Austrian offer to buy Bosnia for 2,200,000 pounds, as well as to pull out of the sandzak of Novi Pazar. Thirteen days later, the Turks recognized the independence of Bulgaria in exchange for more fiscal compensation. The following month a summer-long revolt against the Turks, the most serious yet, erupted in Albania.

The political drama unfolding in Constantinople and its side effects left the Great Powers gaping. The fate of sorry Macedonia remained in suspended animation as events began to speed up. The Young Turk revolution, plagued by intrigue, assassinations, leadership shake-ups and counter-revolts, raised fears that the new government would be more volatile than the last and its fire, more random. It was an unsettling thought. Russia, confronted with the Austrian provocation in Bosnia, lost its nerve to stand up for the Serbs, when Germany warned that it would back Austria in any war that would ensue from the disagreement. The Great War was arriving fast, and almost a decade of shared intervention in the Balkans had sped it up.

On September 1, 1909, the ambassadors of the Great Powers decided unanimously to recall the Civil Agents from Macedonia and to abrogate the financial commission set up after the naval intervention of December 1904. On the 13th of the month, the international commission of finance held its final meeting. The Mürzsteg Reform Programme in Macedonia was over.

In a fitting irony, “its members were reappointed to a higher finance board for the whole empire, under the presidency of [Ottoman Finance Minister] Djavid Bey.” Other staff from the French, British, and Italian contingents were also rehired under private contracts to reorganize the gendarmerie in all of Ottoman Turkey. This cynical move showed the utter absurdity of the reforms.

Conclusion: The Failure of the Mürzsteg Plan to Stabilize Macedonia

The Mürzsteg Reforms achieved very little in Macedonia. They were stalling tactics that only made the Balkan powder keg more volatile and explosive. The international intervention only made matters worse, demonstrating the abject and tragic failure of international intervention. The Balkans Wars would follow in 1912-1913 and World War I, the Great War, would follow in 1914.

According to historian Arthur May, the Mürzsteg Reforms “remained a dead letter.” There was no judicial reform in Macedonia. While the Mürzsteg plan granted a measure of local autonomy to Monastir, Skopje, and Salonika, Macedonian Christians continued to be denied even basic civil and human rights in the Turkish courts. Turkey refused to allow international monitors or officials to participate in the judiciary in Macedonia. Turkey was supported in this by foreign chancelleries. Rival comitadji guerrillas continued to infiltrate and to gain control and to seize territory in Macedonia

According to May, “not very much, in a word, was accomplished in bettering the wretched lot of the Macedonians.” In 1907, the British foreign office sought to coerce Turkey to make significant reforms in Macedonia and to break the deadlock. Austria and Russia, however, opposed the new reform initiative, stating that the time was “singularly inopportune for advancing fresh proposals.” Austria considered the possibility of sending in an international force into Macedonia that would exclude Britain but ultimately rejected it. May argued: “Only force, as a matter of fact, could compel the Turk to rectify evils in Macedonia, and that the powers were unwilling to apply.” Pro-Ottoman Germany argued that applying force in Macedonia would result in instability and would encourage insurgencies in the other parts of Ottoman Turkey.

The enactment of the reforms did not bring any positive change to Macedonia. The reforms did not “receive practically any real application.” The only parts of the reforms that were applied were those for the reorganization of the gendarmerie. According to French military attache Dupont in Constantinople, this was done only because the Turks wanted above all to avoid direct Great Power intervention in Macedonia.

The main problem of the reforms, therefore, was that there were no enforcement mechanisms to compel the Turks to act. French representatives recommended that “urgent measures” be taken but Turkish Inspector Hilmi Pasha ignored them. And while the enforcement was feeble in areas covered by the reform plan, it was utterly non-existent in the Albanian-populated areas kept off-limits thanks to the patronage of Vienna. And so at best, the Turks would receive a gentle chiding over atrocities committed in the former areas, while those carried out in the latter areas were not considered.

But by no means do these failings mean that the endemic problems of the region were the fault of the would-be reformers. Turkish cunning created a policy in Macedonia that pitted the different Christian national and ethnic groups against each other. Extending favors and promises to a corrupt Christian leadership, primarily the religious one, at the Porte helped ensure that significant interested parties would support the outdated regime.

Brailsford analyzed this divisive policy as follows:

“with the evident intention of fomenting the feud between Greeks and Bulgarians, Hilmi Pasha has handed over a large number of Bulgarian village churches to the Greek faction. But the worst feature of all is the complicated racial strife, a sort of furtive civil war, which devastates the country. The Turks watch this internecine contest, not merely with tolerance, but with satisfaction. The rayahs are at war among themselves, and the master may fold his arms. But the real responsibility lies with the Government, which connives at the vendetta and seeks to profit by it. The Turks, despite their vast armaments, have proved once more their total incapacity to maintain even an outward semblance of order.”

Brailsford further adduced that the reason for the failure of the Mürzsteg reforms was “largely because it attempted to reform Macedonia without reckoning with the Macedonians.” According to this observer, the reform scheme “was an advertisement to all the world that the Near Eastern Question was open at last. It bore on its surface the marks of transition.”

In a sentence that seems uncannily similar to that facing the Balkans today in Kosovo, the English writer eulogized Mürzsteg as follows:

“no one could imagine it to be final, and no one could suppose that, having recognised the impossibility of Turkish rule, the Powers would ultimately shrink from drawing the logical conclusion. It announced to every race in the Balkans that the end was approaching, and inevitably it accentuated their latent rivalries and hostilities.”

The Mürzsteg Reform Programme failed because it was not so much concerned about the people in Macedonia as it was about advancing the national self-interests and geo-political and geo-strategic agendas of the Great Powers who carried it out. As has remained the case today, the peoples of Macedonia were merely pawns in a greater game.

Moreover, the Great Powers were never able to resolve the inherent contradiction and conflict between international intervention and sovereignty. One precluded the other.

In the end, the international intervention in Macedonia from 1902-1909 was essentially a stalling tactic, a smokescreen, a harmful ruse that revealed the absurdity and futility of all interventions. For history has shown that every intervention addresses the superficial symptoms, and not the inherent causes, of conflict. The Mürzsteg reforms only put off and delayed a final resolution of the conflict, making Macedonia more unstable and volatile, and ensuring that the conflict, when it did come, would be cataclysmic.

Now, one hundred years on, today’s Great Powers seem to think that they have survived the worst of it, and that their innovations in intervention will lead to unending peace and prosperity for the Balkans. But in light of the maxim that those who don’t learn from their historical mistakes are bound to repeat them, it is deeply concerning that the institutional memory regarding intervention in the Balkans seems limited to the last 15 years.

For while no one today talks about or even remembers the tremendous pain, suffering and chaos experienced in the Macedonia of a century ago, many of today’s most vexing unresolved issues lead directly back to the decisions made by Western interventionists at that time. Their descendents would be well served by studying their mistakes, rather than compounding them.

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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