The Balkan Wars and Macedonia

These two wars were fought over possession of Macedonia. Macedonia was a geographical region that had long been occupied by a mix of peoples.

Though it became aGreek kingdom for a little more than two centuries under Philip II of Macedon and his son Alexander the Great, it later fell under the Romans, slavs, Byzantines, Saracens and Bulgars, before conquest by the Ottoman Turks.

Up until the late 1800s, the name Macedonia simply referred to the region bounded by Mt. Olympus in the south, the sea port of Kavala in the east, Kastoria in thewest, and the part of former Yugoslavia that became FYROM in the north. By that time it was populated by a mix of Greeks, Bulgarians and other Slavs (with the latter two speaking a language which they called ‘Macedonian’, though closely related to Bulgarian, and believed by many to be a dialect of it rather than a separate language), along with Albanians, Turks, Serbs, Vlachs, and Jews (the latter a majority of the population in Thessaloniki).

During the 1870s, as the Ottoman empire was in its death throes and questions arose concerning the identity of future territories after its impending breakup, nationalist struggles began, with guerrilla groups of Greeks ‘andartes’, Serbian ‘chetniks’, and Bulgarian ‘comitadjis’ fighting in the mountain areas against each other. In the first of the two Balkan Wars, however , (1912) , the new nations of Serbia and Bulgaria, allied with Greece against Turkey, and in the Second Balkan War (1913) Serbia and Greece were allied against Bulgaria.

The Treaty of Bucharest (1913) gave Greece the southern part of Macedonia (the largest portion), along with part of Thrace, part of Ipiros, the northeast Aegean islands, and Crete. After WWI, during which much of Thrace and Macedonia were occupied by the Bulgarians, the Versailles peace conference gave Bulgaria a small portion of Macedonia (in the Pirin mountains), and population exchanges were carried out of Greek speakers in Bulgaria and Slavic speakers in Greece. Though some Slavic speakers remained in Greece, their proportions in relation to the larger population were much diminished by the flooding into Greece of Greek refugees from Asia Minor after the 1923 ‘Katastrofi’ (see below), who numbered in the hundreds of thousands.

nazis outDuring WW II, the Bulgarians were allied with Germany, and again occupied all of eastern Macedonia and Thrace; following defeat in that war, they withdrew and Bulgarian leaders renounced all claims that they had made on these areas, though later, during Tito’s rule of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia (part of Yugoslavia), propanganda was disseminated by some in that country suggesting Slavic affinities with the ancient kingdom of Macedonia. Matters worsened when Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, and the new independent nation of Macedonia put the ancient symbol of the Greek Macedonian kingdom on their flag, the star of Vergina.

A proper understanding of Greek fury against use of the name ‘Macedonia’ by Slavs requires full understanding of this history, especially since the large region of Macedonia and its population within Greek borders felt at risk from such long standing nationalist claims by Bulgaria, and then by Slavs within the portion of Macedonia on the other side of the border.

The reaction was, however, extreme, with some right wing elements calling for invasion, large demonstrations in Athens and Thessaloniki, and Greek ministers pressuring allies in EU capitals to refuse to recognize the name Macedonia. Failing in the latter attempt, a Greek economic boycott went into effect for several years, ending in 1995. The name settled on for the new country still included the name claimed by the Greeks , but within the larger title of Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, though many Greeks still refer to the area as ‘Ta Skopia’ (for its capital of Skopye).

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The large Slavic speaking minority remaining in Greek Macedonia and Thrace (some 40,000 as of 1997) have suffered from non-recognition of them as a minority (and as Greeks, since they also speak Greek and identify as Greeks). One very extreme example of the virulence around this issue had to do with the death threats received by the professor Anastasia Karakasidhou of Thessaloniki, for presenting research in 1994 that asserted that only around the turn of the century had Macedonia become identified as ‘Greek’, both politically and ethnically.

Her book, ‘Fields of Wheat, Hills of Blood’ had to be published in the USA, because Cambridge University Press refused, despite high acclaim from their editors. Reasons given had to do with safety of their employees in Greece, though some believe that the refusal had more to do with sale of their TEFL texts (Teaching English as a Foreign Language). Not all Greeks are so extreme, though there are communities of emigrant Greeks in Australia and other places, who carry on the theoretical battle from afar, funding groups within Greece.