The Macedonian Question - Origin and Development, 1878-1941
Dimiter Minchev


Although the territories of the Exarchate were divided into several parts, the latter continued to exist in Constantinople, nevertheless the Greek and the Ottoman authorities strongly insisted that it go to Sofia. The Exarchate appeared to be the unifying board for all the Bulgarians. One of the most important functions of the Exarchate was the organization of the education. In the new Bulgarian country there existed a state which cared about the education, but in the Empire this was not the principle. In 1900 the Exarchate had in Macedonia and Thrace 942 schools. (Its a common thing for some authors, when writing about the first and second world wars mention how the Bulgarian army is changing the existing at that moment Serbian schools with Bulgarians. The thing which is very important in this case, and the truth which apparently is saved, is that the Bulgarian army was not “changing” the schools, but only renewing the existing ones, created by the Exarchate and supported by the Bulgarian population in territories, where the Bulgarian state power was far to exist.)

All those schools existed and educated already several generations of literate Bulgarians. A Bulgarian intelligentsia was formed: most of them were teachers, because in the backward Ottoman Empire together with the unemployment among the intelligentsia was also the unwillingness of the Powers to accept Bulgarians as officers in the administrative services. A teacher, a priest and an officer of the Bulgarian army were mostly common occupations for a Bulgarian born in Macedonia and Thrace at those times. That is why there is no wonder that the revolutionary organizations that appeared, were mostly dominated by those professions: the so called “Internal” - by the teachers, and the “Supreme” - by the officers.

The bad economic and social situation of the Bulgarian population in Thrace and Macedonia was the reason that the revolutionaries here, as well as those in Bulgaria never stopped thinking about the ways of liberation and unification. But the direct reason for the creating of the first and mightiest revolutionary organization was the advance of the so called Serbian propaganda. Being the Bulgarian nation in Macedonia was the strongest, this time the Ottoman authorities did not defend it. They helped the Serbians and the Greeks. But if the Greek influence had roots and traditions, and there were Greeks in the region, it was not the case with the Serbians. They had to create Serbs artificially. And they did it. With the help of the Ottoman powers they opened schools in Macedonia although the population protested. Few studied in these schools but nevertheless the Serbian idea slowly began making her own way. And very important was for the future developments the work of the Serbian diplomat and scientist Stoyan Novakovich. According to him: “The Bulgarian idea, as it is well known to everybody, has thrown deep roots in Macedonia. That’s why I think that it is almost impossible to waver it entirely, contradicting to it only the Serbian one. I’m afraid that this latter idea wouldn’t be successful as a clear and bare contradicting for suppressing the Bulgarian idea, that is why the Serbian idea needs an ally, who would be resolutely against the Bulgarism, and it should have to be the one, who would possess the elements to attract the peoples and its feelings, dividing them from the Bulgarism. Such an ally I see in the macedonism, or at least in some support of the Macedonian dialects and the Macedonian originality.”

 In order to efficiently oppose the Serbian nationalistic propaganda, the latter being pretty aggressive by the end of the 19th C., Bulgarian intellectuals in Macedonia established an organization. In 1903 they gathered in Solun (the Bulgarian name of Thessaloniki) and after a detailed analysis of the heavy socio-economic, political and ecclesiastical situation of the Bulgarian population in the two districts - Thrace and Macedonia, made the decision to organize the population into a “Bulgarian Macedono-Odrin’s Revolutionary Committees”. Later the organization was renamed to “Secret Macedono-Odrin’s Revolutionary Organization”, with the ambition to appear on the scene as an international organization, uniting the population of different nations, living in the two districts. In 1905 this same organization was renamed to “Internal Macedonia-Odrin’s Revolutionary Organization” in order to differ from the organization of the Macedono-Odrin’s emigrants in Bulgaria, called “Supreme Macedono-Odrin’s Committee”. The main idea of the latter was waging struggle for a direct unification with Bulgaria, while IMARO’S task was more thoughtful and precised into stages: first liberation and acquiring some kind of autonomy, and then - unification with Bulgaria.

Of a greater importance for the future developments is IMARO. It succeeded very soon to organize all the population into a disciplined organization. On the head very soon emerged a noble successor of Vassil Levski - the Bulgarian revolutionary leader from before the Liberation. His name was Gotse Delchev (1872-1903). He was born in Koukoush (today in Greek Macedonia - Kilkis, at that time it was a pure Bulgarian town). After studiing the classes in his native town, he went to study in the Bulgarian gymnasium in Solun. His greatest will at that time was to become an officer in the Bulgarian army, as well as it was the case with many boys from Macedonia and Thrace. Thus they hoped to help the liberation of their home countries. A month before his graduation he was expelled from the military school for his socialist ideas. Socialist ideas at that time were a fashion among the younger people, but they were forbidden in the military school. Gotse Delchev found in his native town already the founded organization, and started working with all his nature for the just cause.

 But if Gotse Delchev was not successful in becoming an officer of the Bulgarian army, many other young people, born in Macedonia succeeded. In the army they formed the so called “Secret Brotherhoods”, whose mission was to render assistance to the revolutionary organizations in training the cheekiness, in stealing armament and so on. Some of these officers were high ranking men from the army - colonels and generals; there were even defense ministers and prime ministers born in Macedonia, Thrace and Dobroudja.

 Macedono-Thracians emigrants in Bulgaria were a great number. They formed in 1995 the so called “Macedono-Odrin’s Organization”, on the head of which was “Macedono-Odrin’s Supreme Committee”. It’s official declaration was also a struggle for autonomy of Macedonia and Thrace. At the same time, being impatient and nervous, like all the emigrants are, impatient for the liberty to come sooner, and strongly convinced that it would come only with the help of the Bulgarian army, they directed their efforts in activities for involving the country into war with the Ottoman Empire. As a rule most of the leaders were with stronger connections with the rulers of the country, than it was the case with the “Internals”, and they often coordinated their activities with the Government. That is why they often had to suffer accusations for not being faithful to the Macedono-Thracian cause in moments when the interests of the latter differed from the interests of the Bulgarian Government, although such cases were not so many.

 The idea of the “Supremes” to involve Bulgaria in liberation of Macedonia differed from the idea of the “Internals” to prepare the population for a mass revolt. That is why they insisted on an urgent preparation of an uprising. Several months after the formation of the Supreme Committee, the latter formed several detachments out of Bulgarian emigrants, revolutionaries, soldiers and officers from the army, almost all of them born in Macedonia and Thrace. Four detachments succeeded in entering Macedonia and only one - Thrace. Combat activities against the Ottoman army took place, and the result was not a great one: instead reforms, the leaders of IMORO dr.Hristo Tatarchev, Damyan Grouev and Hristo Matov and many others who were at that time in prison, were amnestied.

 After the Uprising the professors of the Sofia University Miletich, Georgov and Naoumov worked a proposal for a project, which they sent to Count Lamsdorf - Foreign Minister of Russia. They appealed for Autonomous Macedonia, having in mind uniting the three parts of the district, which were dispersed among the three villayets. They wanted also that Thrace should be given autonomy too.  The involvment of professors born in Macedonia in the struggle means that although mistakes were made, as a strategy the revolutionary struggle did not have an alternative. Nevertheless the later events, as well as some documents show that in Russia at that time must have been strong opposition against the pro-Bulgarian trend in the Macedono-Thracian struggle. Working in the secret archives of Ferdinand I found a note of one of his secret agents, who reveals that according to his observance the Mayor of Harmanli Kunin was supposed to be belonging to Russian secret police, and his mission was to follow the activities of the Macedono-Thracians. In his job he was supported by the pro-Russian Minister for Internal Affaires Ljudskanov.

 The suppression of the Uprising sharpened the contradictions between the two revolutionary organizations and among their different wings. Noone agreed to retreat from his positions. There was a contradiction between the two ways of liberating Macedonia and Thrace: permanent revolution aiming at involving Bulgaria into a war with the Ottoman Empire, a way, which might lead and in fact led to genocide over the population by the Ottomans and thus fueling the aspirations of the neighboring Greece and Serbia towards the two districts; or - separate, autonomous way of developing the two districts until they gain energy enough to declare unification with Bulgaria ( this case was of course clear to the Greeks and the Serbs, that is why they strongly opposed autonomy). So that the end of 1902 and the beginning of 1903 was a time for live discussions, sometimes in a sharp tone between the supporters of the two theories. Anyway, having in mind the provocative character of the behavior of the “Supremes”, who declared that in the Autumn of 1903 they would again declare an uprising, the IMORO leaders took a decision at the Solun Congress held January 2-4, 1903, to declare a “Total, Strategic Uprising”, having in mind mobilizing all its units. Further this strategy was changed into participation of only strengthened chetas, while the population had to continue its peaceful occupations in order to divert atrocities from the Turkish army.

 The tension arose not only from the relations between the two revolutionary organizations. A group of students from the Plovdiv (second largest city in the Principality), born in Macedonia and Thrace, being under the influence of the Anarchism, prepared terrorist activities. They intended to make their terrorist activities after the uprising, but since the Ottoman authorities started arrests, they took a decision to act. In the beginning of April 1903 they bombed Bank Ottoman in Tsarigrad, the French ship “Guadalkivir” and some other objects. When saying terrorist activities, one must not imagine the terrorism in the contemporary sense of the word. The anarchists were self-sacrificed. They did everything possible in order not to allow a single innocent victim. The only victim on the very place were only they. Of course the Turkish revenge over the Bulgarian population in Tsarigrad and Solun was awful. But the Bulgarian population suffered after every activities of the revolutionaries. If there were no revolutionaries acting at a given place, the Bulgarian population suffered again. Whatever was done or not done in the unhappy Macedonia, was bad, wrote Mercia McDermott, a British historian, an author of works over the Macedono-Thracian question.

 In the middle of April in the village of Smilevo was held the regional congress of the Bitolja revolutionary district. It was of a great significance, because this was the district, which was best prepared for the insurrection, and here in fact was where it developed most actively. The congress analyzed the situation and took important decisions about the waging of the uprising. Supreme Staff was elected: Dame Grouev, captain Boris Sarafov and Anastas Lozanchev. The date for the uprising was precised: July 20. The congress of the Odrin’s district was held in the end of June. Supreme command consists also from three persons: Mihail Gerdjikov, captain Stamat Ikonomov and Lazar Madjarov. The night 5/6 August had to mark the beginning of the activities. The Supreme Staff of the Syar revolutionary district, headed by General Tsonchev himself, decided to declare the insurrection in the district at September 14, 1903. The other two districts were not active enough to be mentioned here.

 In all the three districts military were incorporated in the Supreme Staffs. This shows that a process of unification of the different wings of revolutionaries was going on. After the April Congress of the Bitoya District Leadership, the Supreme Commettee Leadership with General Tsonchev on top sent an appeal towards the Bulgarian officers, saying: “Among the Bulgarian officers there are hundreds of Macedonians and Thracians, who are called by the Fatherland. Its mandatory for them that they first enter the struggle, which is waged for the Liberation of our Motherland.”  The active participation of more than 50 officers from the Bulgarian army, born in Macedonia and Thrace in the Uprising is a factor of a great significance for the professional leadership. At the same time Bulgarian Government was constantly accused by the Powers for supporting the movement, and it had often to declare its neutrality, although it was not easy to be neutral. War Minister General Paprikov resigned for not being able to stop leaving the officers from the Army and their participation in the Insurrection, as well as the supply of the insurgents with armament from the army stores.

 The main reason for the different dates precised by the three districts is the intention of the strategists to prolong the duration of the insurrection. Thus they expected to create the necessary conditions for Bulgaria to enter in the diplomatic and military arena. The example of the April Uprising in Bulgaria of 1876, when Europe was impressed by the Turkish attrocities and allowed Russia to attack the Ottoman Empire, inspired the strategists. And besides that the expectation that Bulgaria, Russia and Europe would help them if only they show the will to help themselves, was great and it gave them a great push ahead.According to a document from the secret archives of the King, it happened to be enough that when the King simply went in April 1903 abroad for his own matters, it gave pretext for rumours that his trip was in connection with some activity before France and Russia for improving the situation in Macedonia and Thrace.

 On July 20, 1903 was declared the most powerful Bulgarian Uprising after the April one, which remained in the history with the name “Ilinden-Preobrazhenje Uprising”. An approximate, although not an entire picture about the scale of the grand struggle which enflamed in the 1903 Summer in European Turkey could be made by the datas, which were announced a year later in the MEMOIR of IMORO. According to them 26 500 insurgents from Macedonia and Thrace, organized in different formations have waged 239 combats against the Turkish army, which had mobilized in the two districts more than 350 000 men. About 6000 are estimated the dead from the Turkish army - more than the men, killed in the Turko-Greek War in 1897. From the side of the insurgents 1000 men were killed. Being respected by a strong resistance, and being incapable to overcome the insurrectionary army, the Turkish troops revenge to the defenceless population. More than 200 villages were put on fire, nearly 5000 women, children and oldmen were killed, more than 3000 girls and women forced, about 70 000 were left homeless. And if there could be any doubt about the above numbers, there is no doubt when the registers show that above 30 000 people left their homes and settled in Bulgaria.

 In the Hoover Institution I found a letter from the Bulgarian Defence Minister General Paprikov to Prince Ferdinand. He analysed a talk that he had had with one of the prominent and most intelligent Macedonian revolutionary Boris Saraphov, one of the leaders of the Uprising. Saraphov was a bright Bulgarian officer of the army. Explaining the heavy situation of the Macedonian population Saraphov tried to explain that the problem is not only the physical and material suffering. The problem was also connected with the preserving the Bulgarian character of the district. Thousands of people left for Bulgaria and America, the Serbians were moving forward to form an organization, which had to help the Macedonian population.  The purpose of Saraphov was of course to activate the Bulgarian politicians to eventually declare war on Turkey; this was what Saraphov did other times too. What is new in this document is that for the first time in the course of the Uprising the Serbians already appear to have understood that their anti-Bulgarian policy in Macedonia would not give fruits - so better try to help them in some way. This is in some way a development of Stoyan Novakovich’s idea for creting a Macedonian nation. And the development of this idea would be observed later in the WW2.

 One of the problems often mentioned and studied is to what extent Bulgaria has helped the revolutionaries with armament. Its a big question which is impossible to be discussed here. Here is worth only mentioning that in a secret note an agent of the Tsar Ferdinand allowed himself to write to the Tsar shortly: ‘It is necessary to be bought rifles either from Roumania or from England and to send them in Macedonia.”

 To what extent the assistance from Bulgaria was expected, shows a letter to Ferdinand, where was said that when in April the Tsar travelled abroad for his own affairs, this was a reason for rumours that he was gone for some talks with French and Russian representatives about the reforms - for enlarging them.

 The Ilinden-Preobrazjenje Uprising is often compared with the April Uprising 1876. In a couple of its peculiarities - ideas, traditions, strategies, tactics, leadership, plans, division in revolutionary districts and more, it could be really called a second edition of the April one. It is named by the historians “a second highest top in the Bulgarian revolutionary struggle against the Ottoman Oppression”. The Ilinden-Preobrazhensko Uprising was suppressed with mass attrocities like the April one. But what was different, was the uncomfortable political situation. It did not lead to a liberation, the foreign oppression remained.

 Here is worth mentioning the attitude of neighbouring Serbia during the Uprising. A strong supporter of the idea of division of Macedonia, Serbia simply expected a war between Bulgaria and Turkey to enter in the Skopje district.  Belgrade’s policy directed to exploiting the difficulties of Bulgaria in 1885 and 1903 was continued later in 1913. The position of Serbia was very important for Bulgaria, which remembered 1885. A secret telegram from the Deputy Chief of the General Staff general Radko Dimitrieev sais: “The Rumanians expect that we engage in a struggle with Turkey, and they will attack us.”

 Nevertheless the pressure of the Macedonian intelligence was great. A meeting of Professors and teachers of Macedonian and Thracian origin gathered in the University and decided to cover with meetings all the country with protests for the passive policy of the Government, pushing it towards war with the Ottoman Empire. The massive prtests they planned should even have the implication that the Government should leave the power to a more resolute one.  Together with this a delegation was sent to the Prime-Minister to talk with him.  At the same time to what extent the Uprising had moved Europe and the Ottoman Empire, could be found out in the rumour that was spread among the foreign representatives and Turkish rulers that in Spring 1904 a new Uprising was expected, this time Bulgaria would declare war on Turkey.

 As a modest result of the Uprising the Great Powers granted to Austria-Hungary and Russia the initiative for reforms in the two districts. These two countries were recognized to be “mostly interested powers” in the matters of the Ottoman Empire. But the Sublime Port tried to again escape foreign intervention. In fact her activities were directed towards diminishing the unfavorable results and impressions from the Uprising. Russian Emperor Nikolay II, together with his foreign minister Count Lamsdorf met with the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz-Joseph and his foreign minister Count Goluhovski in Murzshteg, September 1903. One of their mostly significant decision was to reform the Turkish police and Gendarmerie

 The reform action  had to be organized by foreign officers, on the head with a General. Italian, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German officers five years tried to do their best, but in vain. The things changed only when the Turkish people and intelligentsia took the matters in their hands and started their heavy road towards changing the Ottoman Empire into a modern Turkish state. This road was not always hand by hand with the Bulgarian interests, but anyway it changed the basis of the further relations between the two nations. In 1908 the Young Turkish Revolution took place, the whole revolutionary army came from the mountains and the forests. The sentimental and good-natured Bulgarian revolutionaries, tired from the endless struggle embraced and kissed their enemies from the yesterday. Total excitement reigned all over the Empire. When the Sultan grasped the Power again in a counter coup d’etat, a revolutionary detachment participated in the executive operation in Tsarigrad.

 But the history has always been parsimonious towards the oppressed Bulgarians from Macedonia and Thrace. Two years of liberty were too much. The Young Turks were good patriots for their country, and they really did for it more than all the Great Powers in their attemps to preserve the Ottoman Empire. But their interests contradicted with the interests of the Bulgarian population. The struggle escalated, and the Balkan nations were involved in 1912-1913 into heavy wars, which continued in 1914-1918 during the First World War.

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