Thumbing through the photos in Athens of the Belle Epoch by Yiannis Spandonis, I was struck by the pictures of the young officers of the era. They stand firm, exude pride, confidence and a dashing presence that has been lost among the technocrats and managers of the present day Greek armed forces. The class of 1896 of the Greek Military Academy, newly housed in an imposing neoclassical building erected through the generosity of the great national benefactor, George Averof, was typical of that era. Among the graduates of that class was Nikolaos Kontogouris, a founder of the Military Alliance that brought Venizelos to power, he later fought and was subsequently killed in the Balkan Wars in 1912, Alexander Mazarkis participated in all Greek wars from 1897 to 1930. He became an advisor to Venizelos , and president of the Academy. Euthimios Tsimikalkis was one of the heroes of the 2nd Balkan War while leading a division on the Macedonian front. Leandros Lakon, was one of the great romantic poets of the era, Athanasios Souliotis, was a Greek secret agent in Macedonia and Constantinople and founder of the Society of Constantinople which envisaged brotherhood between Turks and Greeks and a Balkan federation. Haralambos Tseroulis took part in the struggle for Epirus, the Asia Minor campaign and the Evros campaign where Greek forces stopped Ataturk's armies from pushing the Greek border back to Melouna.
These were a different breed of men. Hardened in the crucible of crisis and change, they loved their country and were willing to sacrifice everything for its sake. Perhaps such men still exist, however, I doubt seriously that their modern counterparts, vetted by their political masters to be team players, are of the same caliber. One of the distinguished graduates of the Military Academy was Pavlos Melas. He was a hero and ethnomartyr of the Struggle for Macedonia. His story and that of his generation is an example for all present day Greeks.
Melas was born in 1870 in Marseilles, France. He was the scion of two great families. His mother, Helen was the daughter of a Cefalonian trader from Odessa and his father came from the Melladon family of Epirus, with roots in Constantinople. The family moved to Athens in 1874 where Pavlos grew up. His family had long been committed to the idea of uniting Greeks under one flag. Pavlos grew up in an atmosphere of political tumult as the young Greek state began to expand its borders in order to redeem the millions of Greeks under foreign rule. After attending the Military Academy, he graduated in 1891, and was assigned to the field artillery. He later participated in the debacle of the Greco-Turkish War 0f 1897. This experience defined his generation and was to be the catalyst for its rebirth.
The path towards national integration during the nineteenth century proved particularly difficult because the limited economic and military forces of the Greek state could not meet the disproportionate challenges of its changing governments. Moreover, conditional sovereignty that had been imposed on Greece by foreign powers further undermined the already shaky nature of successive Greek governments. By 1893 the state was bankrupt and its humiliation heightened by the defeat in the War of 1897 when Greece actually lost territory to the Turks. It became obvious that the Greek nation-state was not able to fulfill the task it had set for itself, namely the liberation of ethnic Greeks living in the Ottoman empire. During the first decade of the twentieth century, the nation collapsed into a severe economic, political and, most importantly, an identity crisis. The state had lost its credibility as the main representative of the nation. It was no longer trusted as a reliable administrator of its own affairs. The situation deteriorated further as a result of the uprisings in Crete, which increased the strain on the relationships between Greece and the Ottoman Empire. The period between 1904 and 1908 was marked by the armed conflict between Greek and Bulgarian bands for supremacy in Ottoman Macedonia. This key struggle played an important part in revitalizing the Greek national identity to the extent that it focused the Nation as never before on national priorities and brought Greeks together in a common effort.
In 1878, Bulgaria became an independent principality under the sovereignty of the Sultan and wanted to create with the support of the Russians, one great Balkan state. This state was to include Thrace and Macedonia, both of which had been historically Greek territories, and whose populations were predominantly speakers of the Greek language. In 1902 the Bulgarian government created a number of different rebel organizations which were given the collective name of “Macedonian Revolutionary Committee." The committee armed a number of fighters which in turn descended into Macedonia. In the beginning, they used psychological warfare and propaganda to achieve their goals. Shortly thereafter they resorted to terror. Villages notables were murdered, including priests and schoolmasters. Schoolhouses were burned and entire villages destroyed. All these steps were designed to eradicate the Greek population from Macedonia. The Bulgarian "commitadjis" active in Macedonia in 1903 amounted to 90 units, a force of approximately 3000 men. The extreme danger of this situation placed the Greeks in a quandry: either to capitulate or to react, meeting force with force. The Greeks rose to the occasion as they had done so at other critical junctures in their history and resolved to defend themselves. The need for organization and defense became the first order of business for the residents of Macedonia. Community leaders including priests, schoolmasters, doctors, merchants and landowners, mobilized with Churches and schools becoming the focal points of their efforts. The movement manifested itself both in free Greece and in the Greek communities of Europe with the organization of Panhellenic societies and associations that worked hard to awaken both the Greek world and influence public opinion in Europe.
The principal players in the movement, which sprung originally from the heart of Macedonia, were two men sensitive to the anxiety of the Greeks: the Metropolitan of Kastoria, Germanos Karavargelis and the secretary of the Greek consulate in Monastir Ion Dragumis. While Dragoumis went to work on the organization of the movement by encouraging and setting up committees, Germanos Karavangelis, taking advantage of the disputes between rival Bulgarian revolutionary groups, put together the first bands of Greek irregulars, composed of local inhabitants. The Greek bands of guerrilla fighters were reinforced by volunteers from Crete and other parts of the Greek world, and eventually, undercover Greek Army officers. After the war of 1897 the Greek government maintained what was essentially a policy of nonintervention in Macedonian affairs for fear that this would provoke a misunderstanding with Turkey. In 1904, four officers including Melas were dispatched to western Macedonia. Their mission was to assess the situation and recommend a course of action. On the 13th of October 1904, after having been betrayed by one of the Bulgarians, Pavlos Melas was surrounded by a Turkish detachment in the village of Statista and killed. Mela’s death shook the whole nation and incited many officers to lead armed bands into Macedonia. For many Greeks, the Macedonian issue was seen as a test of the nation and they felt their duty to respond.
For four years, Greeks fought a guerrilla war under severe weather conditions. They roamed the mountains and villages, inflicting heavy casualties on the Bulgarian bands and agents, and indeed sometimes on the Turks. Gradually they established supremacy, evident from the ever-reduced scale of enemy operations, and prepared the region for its subsequent annexation after victory in the Balkan Wars in 1913. During the Macedonian struggle they lost some 640 fighting men and agents (a figure which excludes the numerous victims, including women and children, who, though not officially in the Greek organization, lost their lives in the conflict.
The following passage written by Ion Dragoumis, a nationalist intellectual and diplomat, during his service as a consular officer in Macedonia, expresses eloquently the influence that the ‘Macedonian struggle’ had on Greek national consciousness:
You have to know that if we hurry to save Macedonia, Macedonia will save us. She will save us from the dirt in which we roll, from the mediocrity and the dead spirit, from the shameful sleep, she will free us. If we hurry to save Macedonia, we will be saved!
Dragoumis believed the struggle against the Bulgarian and Ottoman Others was the means to ‘awaken’ the national consciousness and save the nation from the Eastern military and political threat and the Western corrupted mores. Under the pressure of the Bulgarian threat in Macedonia, Greece had to revise its foreign policy priorities and thus opted for a strategy of co-operation with the Ottoman empire. The contradiction between the compromising attitude and weakness of the independent Greek kingdom and the nationalist fervor inspired by the Macedonian question and the struggle of Cretans for “enosis” led some intellectuals to propose the idea of the stateless nation as an alternative to the nation-state emphasizing thus the ethnic and cultural component of the nation and downplaying its territorial unity. Ion Dragoumis and Athanasios Souliotes were the two main advocates of this idea.
Victory in the struggle was a result of superior military and administrative organization, the intrinsic strength of Hellenism in Macedonia, the laissez faire policy on the part of the Turks, and the divisions in the Bulgarian Macedonian movement, with its confused and conflicting aims and its strange mixture of sheer terrorism, social revolution and religious propaganda. The Greek officers in Macedonia maintained a degree of discipline which was lacking among the Bulgarians. Although they fought with much brutality and removed known enemies with merciless efficiency, they were also cognizant of the need to win "hearts and minds."
The national crisis was concluded in 1909 with the military coup of Goudi. The coup was enacted by the Military League, it involved a sizable proportion of the Athens garrison and, even though it originated from professional grievances among Army officers, it imposed on the government a number of non-military reforms. In effect, the Army rose against the corrupt and inefficient political class, under the pressure of the specific domestic and foreign policy circumstances . As a matter of fact, the coup may be seen as the turning point from national crisis to revival. It marked the beginning of a new period for Greece, during which, under the leadership of Eleftherios Venizelos, and by a combination of both military and diplomatic actions, Greece managed to achieve a large part of its nationalist aspirations. During the election of August 1912, Venizelos and his Liberal party won almost 300 out of 364 seats in parliament. The new government’s agenda included both domestic socio-economic reform and the aggressive pursuit of the Great Idea. Unfortunately, the unity of the period was short-lived and Greece was wracked by division as competing factions supported different sides in World War I. During this period, the view of the nation-without-state was abandoned, not only because the Greek state acquired new strength and prepared to fight for the liberation of unredeemed Greeks, but also because of the forced Ottomanization policy inaugurated by the Young Turks, despite their initial promises of equality for all ethnic or religious groups living in the former empire.
Nowadays the Macedonian issue is alive and well and still troublesome. After the breakup of former Yugoslavia, a hybrid nation of Albanians and Slavs was created. This nation decided to call itself Macedonia, thus laying claim to the entire region including Greek territory. Since it had no substantial history to speak of, it seeks to acquire portions of Greek history and claim them as its own. Americans and Europeans scoff at the controversy over a mere name. Then again they understand very little about the sacrifices made by generations of Greeks during the Macedonian struggle.
More information about the Macedonian Issue can be found here.