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Two hundred and forty five bands were in the mountains. Serbian and Bulgarian comitadjis, Greek andartes, Albanians and Vlachs ... all waging a terrorist war.
- Leon Sciaky in Farewell to Salonica: Portrait of an Era.
[Goce Delčev died,] cloak flung over his left shoulder, his white fez, wrapped in a bluish scarf, pulled down and his gun slung across his left elbow.
- Mihail Chakov, who was near Delčev at the moment of his death, quoted in Robert D Kaplan, Balkan Ghosts.
I will try and tell this story coldly, calmly, dispassionately ... one must tone the horrors down, for in their nakedness, they are unprintable...
- A G Hales reporting about the Illinden Uprising in the London Daily News, 21 October 1903.
The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization directs its eyes neither to the West, nor to the East, nor to anywhere else; it relies primarily on its own powers, does not turn into anybody's weapon, and will not allow anybody to use its name and prestige for personal and other purposes. It has demonstrated till now and will prove in the future that it establishes its activities on the interests and works for the ideals of struggling Macedonia and the Bulgarian race.
- Todor Alexandrov, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) leader from 1911 to 1924.
The Treaty of Berlin killed Peter Lazov. A Turkish soldier first gouged his eyes out, some say with a spoon, others insist it was a knife. As the scream-imbued blood trickled down his face, the Turk's sword cut off both his ears and the entirety of his nose. Thus maimed and in debilitating agony, he was left to die for a few days. When he failed to do so, the Turks disembowelled him and decapitated the writhing rump.
The Ottomans unwillingly granted independence to Bulgaria in the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano, following a terminal defeat at the hands of a wrathful Russian army. The newly re-invented nation incorporated a huge swathe of Macedonia, but did not include Thessaloníki and the Chalcidice Peninsula. Another treaty followed, in Berlin, restoring the "balance" by returning Macedonia to Turkish rule. Turkey obligingly accepted a "one country, two systems" approach by agreeing to a Christian administration of the region and permitting education in foreign languages, by foreign powers, in foreign-run and owned schools.
They then set about a typical infandous Ottoman orgy of shredded entrails, gang raped corpses of young girls and maiming and decapitation.
The horrors this time transcended anything before. In Ohrid, they buried people in pigsty mud for "not paying taxes." Joined by Turks who escaped the advancing Russian armies in North Bulgaria and by Bosnian Muslims, who fled the pincer movement of the forces of Austro-Hungary, they embarked on the faithful recreation of a Bosch-like hell. Feeble attempts at resistance, actually self defence, such as the one organized by Bishop Natanail, ended with the ever escalating ferocity of the occupiers.
A collaboration emerged between the Church and the less than holy members of society. Natanail himself provided Četis (guerrilla bands) with weapons and supplies. In October 1878, an uprising took place in Kresna that was, with some difficulty, duly suppressed by the Turks. It was not the first one, having been preceded by the Razlovci uprising in 1876, but it was better organized and more explicit in its goals.
Battleground of the Balkans
But no one - with the exception of the Turks - was content with the situation, and even they were paranoid and anxious. The flip-flop policies of the Great Powers turned Macedonia into the focus of shattered national aspirations grounded in some historical precedent of at least three nations: the Greeks, the Bulgarians, and the Serbs. Each invoked ethnicity and history and all conjured up the apparition of the defunct Treaty of San Stefano.
Serbia colluded with the Habsburgs in a deal that saw Bosnia go to the latter in return for a free hand in Macedonia to the former. The wily Austro-Hungarians regarded the Serbs as cannon fodder in the war of attrition against the Russians and the Turks. In 1885, Bulgaria was at last united, both north and formerly Turkish-occupied south, under the Kremlin's pressure. The Turks then switched sides and allied with the Serbs against the spectre of a Greater Bulgaria.
Again, the battleground was Macedonia and its Bulgarian-leaning and, to many, pure Bulgarian, inhabitants. Further confusion awaited. In 1897, following the Crete uprising against Ottoman rule and in favour of Greek enosis (unification), Turkey encouraged King Ferdinand to help the Serbs fight the Greeks, plotting to prevent Bulgaria from joining its Greek enemy.
Thus, the Balkan kaleidoscope of shifting loyalties, alliances and everlasting friendship was tilted more savagely than before by the paranoia and whims of nationalism gone berserk.
In this world of self-reflecting looking glasses, this bedlam of geopolitics, this seamless and fluid universe devoid of any certainty but that of void, an anomie inside an abnormality, a Macedonian identity began to emerge, however tentative and merely cultural at first.
Voivode Gorgija Pulevski published a poem, "Macedonian Fairy," in 1878, and the Young Macedonian Literary Society was established in 1891 and the next year began publishing Loza, its journal.
Later, Krste Misirkov, Dimitrija Čupovski, the Vardar Society and the Macedonian Club in Belgrade founded the Macedonian Scholarly-Literary Society in Russia in 1902. Their "Macedonian National Program" demanded a recognition of a Macedonian nation with its own language and culture. They stopped short of insisting on an independent state, settling instead for autonomy and an independent church.
Misirkov went on to publish his seminal work, "On Macedonian Matters," a scathing critique of the numbing and off-handed mind games to which Macedonia was subjected by the big powers, in 1903 in Sofia. Misirkov believed in culture as an identity preserving force, and the purveyors and conveyors of culture were the teachers.
As Dame Rebecca West wrote in her eternal Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1940):
So the teacher in Yugoslavia is often a hero and fanatic as well as a servant of the mind; but as they walked along the Belgrade streets it could easily be seen that none of them had quite enough to eat or warm enough clothing or handsome lodgings or all the books they needed
Goce Delčev was a teacher. He was born in 1872 in Kukush, as the Bulgarians called the town, north of Thessaloníki (Salonica, Solun, Saloniki). In contrast to his convictions later in life, there is no doubt about his cultural background: it was Bulgarian to the core.
He studied at a Bulgarian gymnasium in Saloniki, and furthered his education at a military academy in Sofia. A school teacher and a guerrilla fighter he operated in both capacities in the areas that are today North-Central Greece, Southwest Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. He felt equally comfortable in all three regions.
On a spring day in May 1903, he was shot to death by the Turks in Banitsa, then a Bulgarian village, today a Greek one.
The death of this sad but steely eyed, heavily moustached youth was sufficient to ignite the Illinden uprising three months later on the feast of Saint Illiya (Sveti Ilija), when peasants sold their sacrificial bulls, the fruits of months of labour and bought guns with the proceeds.
It started rather innocuously in Western Macedonia, the hotbed of ethnic unrest. Telegraph wires were cut, some tax registers incinerated. In this, The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) collaborated with the pro-Bulgarian organization Vzhovits. In Kruševo a republic was proclaimed, replete with "Rules of the Macedonian Uprising Committee" (aka the "Constitution of the Uprising").
This document dealt with the liberation of Macedonia and the establishment of a Macedonian state. A special chapter was dedicated to foreign affairs and neighbourly relationships. It was heart-achingly naive and lasted 10 bloody days before it was crushed by 2000 trained soldiers and horse bound artillery. The 1200 outnumbered rebels surrendered, although forty of them kissed each other goodbye and blew their brains out.
The usual raping and blood thick massacres ensued.
By Turkish records, these ill-planned and irresponsible moments of glory and freedom cost the lives of 4694 civilians and 994 "terrorists." The rape of 3000 women was not documented. In Northwest Macedonia, an adolescent girl was raped by 50 soldiers and murdered afterwards. In another village, they cut off a girl's arm to secure her bracelets.
The more one is exposed to these atrocities, the more one is prone to subscribe to the view that the Ottoman Empire, its halting and half-hearted efforts at reform notwithstanding, was the single most important agent of retardation and putrid stagnation in its colonies, a stifling influence of traumatic proportions, the cause of mass mental sickness amongst its subjects.
As is usually the case in the bloodied geopolitical sandbox known as the Balkans, an international peacekeeping force intervened. Yet it was - again, habitually - too little, too late.
What made Delčev, or rather his death, the trigger of such an outpouring of emotions was the IMRO (VMRO in Macedonian and Bulgarian). The Illinden uprising was the funeral for a man who represented the hope of a nation. It was the ululating grieving of a collective deprived of vengeance or recourse, the aspasmodic breath taken in the most suffocating of environments.
This is not to say that IMRO was monolithic or that Delčev was an Apostle, as some of his hagiographers would have him. It was not and he was far from it. But he and his two comrades, Jane Sandanski and Damyan Gruev, had a vision. They had a dream.
Dream gone wrong
The IMRO is the story of a dream turned nightmare, of the absolute corruption of absolute power and of the dangers of inviting the fox to fight the wolf.
The original "Macedonian Revolutionary Organization" (MRO) was established in Sofia. The distinction between being a Macedonian and being a Macedonian-Bulgarian was not sharp, to use a polite understatement. The Bulgarians "proper" regarded the Macedonians as second class, primitive and uncultured Bulgarian relatives who inhabit a part of Bulgaria to the east.
The Macedonians themselves were divided. Some wished to be incorporated into Bulgaria, the civilized and advanced society and culture. Others wanted an independent state, although they, too, believed that the salvation of such an entity -both demographic and financial- lay abroad, with the diaspora and benevolent foreign powers.
A third group (and Delčev was, for a time, among them) wanted a federation of all Balkan states with an equal standing for a Macedonian polity - that is, autonomy. The original MRO opted for the Bulgarian option and restricted its aims to the liberation and immediate annexation of what they solemnly considered to be a Turkish-occupied Bulgarian territory.
IMRO is born
To distinguish themselves from this MRO, the six founders of the Macedonian version -all members of the intelligentsia- added the word "Internal" to their name. Thus they became, in November 1893, the IMRO.
A measure of the disputatiousness of all matters Balkan can be found in the widely and wildly differing versions of the circumstances surrounding the establishment of the IMRO. Some say it was established in Thessaloníki (this is the official version, thus supporting its "Macedonian"-ness) while others, like Robert Kaplan, say it was in Štip and the Encyclopaedia Britannica claims it was in Resen (Resana).
Let it be clear: this author harbours no sympathy towards the Ottoman Empire. The IMRO was fighting for lofty ideals (Balkan federation) and worthy goals (liberation from asphyxiating Turkish rule). But to many outside observers (with the exception of journalists like John Sonixen or John Smith), the IMRO was indistinguishable in its methods of operation from the general landscape of mayhem, crime, disintegration of the social fabric, collapse of authority, social anomie, terror and banditry.
As Steven Soward writes in his 1996 Twenty Five Lectures on Modern History: The Balkans in an Age of Nationalism:
Meanwhile, the Tanzimat reforms remained unfulfilled under Abdul Hamid's reactionary regime. How effective had all these reforms been by the turn of the century? How bad was life for Christian peasants in the Balkans? In a 1904 book called Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future, H N Brailsford, an English relief worker, describes lawless conditions in Macedonia, the central Balkan district between Greece, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria. In the areas Brailsford knew, the authorities had little power. He writes:
An Albanian went by night into a Bulgarian village and fired into the house of a man whom he regarded as an enemy. ... The prefect ... endeavored to arrest the murderer, but [his Albanian] village took up his cause, and the gendarmes returned empty-handed. The prefect ... marched upon the offending village at the head of three hundred regular troops. ... The village did not resist, but it still refused to give evidence against the guilty man. The prefect returned to Ochrida [sic] with forty or fifty prisoners, kept them in gaol for three or four days, and then released them all. ... To punish a simple outbreak of private passion in which no political element was involved [the prefect] had to mobilize the whole armed force of his district, and even then he failed.
Robbers and brigands operated with impunity: "Riding one day upon the high-road..., I came upon a brigand seated on a boulder... in the middle of the road, smoking his cigarette, with his rifle across his knees, and calmly levying tribute from all the passers-by."
Extortionists, not police, were in control: "A wise village... [has] its own resident brigands.... They are known as rural guards. They are necessary because the Christian population is absolutely unarmed and defenceless. To a certain extent they guarantee the village against robbers from outside, and in return they carry on a licensed and modified robbery of their own."
Self-defense by Orthodox peasants was dangerous: "The Government makes its presence felt... when a 'flying column' saunters out to hunt an elusive rebel band, or... to punish some flagrant act of defiance. ... The village may have... resented the violence of the tax-collector ... [or] harboured an armed band of insurgents...; or... killed a neighbouring civilian Turk who had assaulted some girl of the place.... At the very least all the men who can be caught will be mercilessly beaten, at the worst the village will be burned and some of its inhabitants massacred."
It was not surprising that peasants hated their rulers. "One enters some hovel... something... stirs or groans in the gloomiest corner on the floor beneath a filthy blanket. Is it fever, one asks, or smallpox? ... the answer comes..., 'He is ill with fear.'... Looking back... , a procession of ruined minds comes before the memory - an old priest lying beside a burning house speechless with terror...; a woman who had barked like a dog since the day her village was burned; a maiden who became an imbecile because her mother buried her in a hole under the floor to save her from the soldiers;... children who flee in terror at the sight of a stranger, crying 'Turks! Turks!' These are the human wreckage of the hurricane which usurps the functions of a Government."
Four things are worth noting in Brailsford's account as we consider the prospects for a reform solution to Balkan problems. First, revolutionary politics was not the foremost issue for the Christian population: nationalism addressed the immediate problems in their daily lives only indirectly, by promising a potential better state.
Second, loyalties were still local and based on the family and the village, not on abstract national allegiances. If criminal abuses ended, the Ottoman state might yet have invented an Ottoman "nationalism" to compete with Serbian, Greek, Romanian, or Bulgarian nationalism.
Third, villagers did not cry out for new government departments or services, but only for relief from corruption and crime. The creation of new national institutions was not necessary, only the reform of existing institutions.
Fourth, and on the other hand, mistrust and violence between the two sides was habitual. So many decades of reform had failed by this time. The situation was so hopeless and extreme that few people on either side can have thought of reform as a realistic option.
Funding by crime
During the 1890s, IMRO's main sources of income were voluntary (and later less voluntary) taxation of the rural population, bank robberies, train robberies (which won handsome world media coverage) and kidnapping for ransom (like the kidnapping of the American Protestant missionary Ellen Stone - quite a mysterious affair).
The IMRO developed along predictable lines into an authoritarian and secretive organization - a necessity if it was to fight the Turks effectively. It had its own tribunals which exercised often fatal authority over civilians who were deemed collaborators with the Turkish enemy. It must be emphasized that this was not unusual or unique at that time, but rather was the modus operandi of all militarily organized ideological and political groups.
Taking everything into account, the IMRO was fighting a just war against an abhorrent enemy.
Moreover its war was, to some extent, effective and resulted in reforms imposed on the Sublime Port (the Turkish authorities) by the Great Powers of the day. In addition to the peacekeeping force that replaced the local gendarmerie, reforms were also enacted in education, religious rights and tolerance, construction, farm policy and other areas. In fact, the intractable and resource-consuming Macedonian question led directly to the reform of Turkey itself by the Macedonian-born officer Atatürk (born Mustafa Kemal). It also facilitated the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire thus, ironically, leading to the independence of almost everyone except its originators.
Neglected war heroes
The radicalization of IMRO and its transformation into the infamous organization as which it has come to be known began after the Second Balkan war (1913) and accelerated after the First World War (1918). It was then that disillusionment with Big Power politics replaced the naive trust in the inevitable triumph of a just claim.
Despite having contributed no less, if not more, than any other nation to the re-distribution of the Ottoman Empire, the Macedonians were never worse-off politically. Cynicism, hypocrisy, off-handedness, ignorance, vile interests, and ulterior motives all conspired to transform the IMRO from a goal-orientated association into a power hungry monstrosity.
In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece, once bitter foes, formed the Balkan League and, on the thin pretext of an Albanian uprising, confronted an even more bitter enemy: the Ottoman Empire. This brotherhood, strained by the Treaty of London (May 1913), promptly deteriorated into internecine warfare over the spoils of a successful campaign that centered on the Macedonian issue.
By the conclusion of the campaign, the Serbs, Greeks, Montenegrins and Romanians had sufficiently subdued Bulgaria to force it to sign a treaty in Bucharest in August 1913. Under its terms, "Aegean Macedonia" went to Greece and "Vardar Macedonia," today's Republic of Macedonia, went to Serbia. The smaller "Pirin Macedonia" remained Bulgarian.
The Bulgarian gamble in World War I went well for a while, as it occupied all three parts of Macedonia, but it was not to last. The ensuing defeat and dismemberment of its allies led to a redefinition of even "Pirin Macedonia" so as to minimize Bulgaria's share, while Vardar Macedonia became part of a new Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (later renamed Yugoslavia).
Playing with populations
These political Lego games led to enormous population shifts - the politically correct term for refugees brutally deprived of their land and livelihood. All of them were enshrined in solemn treaties. The Treaty of Lausanne (1923) led to the expulsion of 375,000 Turks from Aegean Macedonia, while 640,000 Greek refugees from Turkey replaced them.
Each of the actual occupiers and each of the potential ones opened its own schools to indoctrinate the future generations of the populace and, in this manner, conflicts erupted over ecclesiastical matters and the construction of railways and railway stations.
Guerrilla fighters soon realized that being pawns on this mad hatter's chessboard could be a profitable vocation. The transformation from freedom fighters into mercenaries with no agenda was swift - and pecuniary considerations bred even more terror and terrorists where before there had been none.
In the meantime, Serbia enacted land reform legislation in "Vardar Macedonia," which amounted to the confiscation of arable land by thousands of the Greek refugees from Turkey. Much of the land thus "re-distributed" was owned by Turkish absentees, now refugees themselves, but a lot of land was simply impounded from its rightful, very much present and very Macedonian, owners. The Serb authorities coerced the population to speak the Serbian language, changed Macedonian names to Serb ones in brutally executed campaigns and imposed a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy upon the suffering multitudes.
IMRO never gave up its proclaimed goal to liberate both occupied parts of Macedonia, the Aegean and Vardar ones, but as time passed and as the nature of its organization and operation evolved, the perfunctoriness of its proclamations became more and more evident. The old idealists - the intellectuals and ideologues, the Goce Delčev-types were - removed, died in battle, or left this mutation of their dream.
As the process of mutation continued, the IMRO's skull and crossed bones insignia linked it firmly to the Italian Balckshirts and the Nazi brown ones. The IMRO developed into a fascist, opium-trading organization, hiring out the services of its skilled assassins (for USD 20 a contract), and recruited members from among the Macedonian population in the slums of Sofia.
Finally, the IMRO openly collaborated with the Mussolini's Fascists, who also supported them financially; with the Ustaša, who were in turn similarly supported by Italy; and with the Nazis under Ivan Mihailov, who became the nominal "Quisling" ruler of Vardar Macedonia.
It was an IMRO man, "Vlado the Chauffeur," who murdered King Alexander of Yugoslavia in 1934.
Throughout this period, the IMRO continued to pursue its original agenda. IMRO terrorists murdered staff and pupils in Yugoslav schools in Aegean Macedonia, killing 1000 people between 1924 and 1934. Tourists of the period described the Yugoslav-Bulgarian frontier as the most fortified in Europe with "entanglements, block houses, redoubts and searchlight posts."
Throughout the twenties and the thirties, the IMRO maintained a presence in Europe, publishing propaganda incessantly and explaining its position eloquently, though not very convincingly. It was not very well liked by either Bulgarians or Macedonians, who became increasingly agitated and exhausted by the extortion of ever increasing taxes and the seemingly endless violence.
Power by violence
But the IMRO was, in this period, a force to reckon with: organized, disciplined and lethal. Its influence grew by the day and more than one contemporary described it as a "state within a state" as, in Bulgaria, it collaborated with Todor Alexandrov in the overthrow and murder of Prime Minister Alexandur Stamboliyski in June 1923 and assisted in the appointment of a right-wing government headed by Alexandur Tsankov.
Stamboliyski had tried to appease Yugoslavia and, in the process, sacrificed inconvenient elements such as the IMRO as expediently as he could. In the process, he made too many powerful enemies too fast: the army, by cutting their inflated budget; the nationalists, by officially abandoning the goal of military expansion; the professional officers, by making them redundant; the Great Powers, by making them redundant as well; and the opposition, by winning the elections handsomely despite all the above.
By signing the Treaty of Niš, allowing Serb forces the right of hot pursuit within Bulgarian territory, Stamboliyski in effect signed his own death warrant. The IMRO teamed up with the Military League, an organization of disgruntled active duty and reserve officers and, with the tacit blessing of Tsar Boris and the formation of the National Alliance (later renamed the Democratic Alliance), they did away with the hated man.
Following the murder, the IMRO was given full control of the region of Petrić, which it used as a launching pad for hit and run attacks against Yugoslavia with the full, though clandestine, support of the Bulgarian Ministry of War and Fascist Italy.
From Pirin, they attacked Greece as well. These were exactly the kind of international tensions the murdered Bulgarian Prime Minister had been keen to terminate and the IMRO no less keen to foster. Meanwhile, Alexandrov came to an end typical of many a Bulgarian politician, as he was assassinated only a year after the coup d'état.
The decade that followed did not smile upon the IMRO, as it fragmented and its shreds fought each other, Chicago-style, in the streets of Sofia. By 1934, the IMRO was a full-fledged extortionist mafia organization, running protection rackets "protecting" small shop-owners against other gangs and "insuring" merchants against their own violence. Hotels in Sofia always had free rooms for the IMRO, while the tobacco industry paid the IMRO more than a million British pounds of that time in six years of "taxation." Robberies and assassinations were daily occurrences, as were street shoot-outs and outright confiscation of goods.
The IMRO had no support left anywhere.
In 1934, together with other parties, it was disbanded by Colonel Kimron Georgiev, the new Prime Minister of Bulgaria and a senior figure in the Zveno association of disgruntled citizenry. His rule was brief - it ended the next year - but the IMRO never recovered, bringing about its own demise. Colonel Velčev, the perpetrator of the coup, was swept to power on a promise to end all terrorist activities - a promise he kept.
The modern Republic of Macedonia is today ruled by a party called VMRO-DPMNE. It is one of a few political parties to carry this name but is by far the biggest and weightiest of them. Founded on the vision and ideals of Goce Delčev, it has distanced itself from the "Terrorist-IMRO."
Delčev's portrait today adorns every office in both Macedonia and Bulgaria and he is the closest to a saint a secular regime can have. In 1923, the Greeks transferred his bones to Bulgaria and Stalin, in a last effort to placate Tito, ordered Bulgaria to transfer them to Macedonia.
Even in his death he knew no peace.
Today, though, Delčev's well travelled bones have at last found a final resting place in the tranquil inner yard of the Church of Sveti Spas (Saint Saviour), marked by a marble slab bearing a simple inscription with his name under a tree - in a Macedonia that now belongs to the Macedonians.
Sam Vaknin, 22 May 2000
The Union of Death:
This article is part of the Union of Death debate
The author is General Manager of Capital Markets Institute Ltd, a consultancy firm with operations in Macedonia and Russia. He is an Economic Advisor to the Government of Macedonia.
DISCLAIMER: The views presented in this article represent only the personal opinions and judgements of the author.
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