Nikola Gelevski: Borders, Lines of Divorce, Fronts in Macedonia before 1914

Modern historyNikola Gelevski: Borders, Lines of Divorce, Fronts in Macedonia before 1914

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An excerpt from “Borders, Lines of Divorce, Fronts in Macedonia before 1914” written by Nikola Gelevski.


An interesting American writer of Macedonian origin, Stoyan Christowe (1898-1996) – he wrote novels, short stories, reports and travelogues in English – came to America as a fourteen-year-old from the Kostur area in Aegean Macedonia. As a correspondent for several American newspapers, he stayed in the Balkans again from 1927 to 1929.

During this time he held talks with the notorious leader of the IMRO (Inner Macedonian Revolutionary Organization) Ivan Mihajlov, with Vlado Černozemski, who was later to carry out the assassination attempt on King Alexander, and the Bulgarian Tsar Boris.

In 1952 Christowe also stayed in the Balkans and visited Skopje. He was a member of the Vermont State House of Representatives (1951-1955) and the Vermont State Senate (1959-1972). The concise encyclopedia articles about him indicate that President Franklin Roosevelt was a great admirer of his autobiographical book This Is My Country (1938).

In an attempt to outline the psychological profile of the Macedonian revolutionary at the turn of the century, I have taken from Christowe’s book Heroes and Assassins (1935) some picturesque scenes from the time of the Macedonian revolutionary struggle. Although Christowe strongly idealizes the Macedonian “Komitaji”, some descriptions from his historical reports are ambiguous.

When Christowe describes the young Goce Delčev, the key symbol of the Macedonian revolutionary struggle, he lets Delčev and Dame Gruev (the ideologues of IMRO and the organization’s second man) meet for the first time in Štip, immediately after Delčev’s return to Macedonia. Both were teachers in this city.

According to Christowe, Delčev said the following to his students: “Listen up guys. Nobody who fails to jump over one of these benches at the end of the half-year will be transferred. I personally beat anyone who doesn’t strike back when they are beaten. And I’ll cut off the tongue of anyone who sniffs after their comrades and whistles at me. You too should punish anyone who you think has done something wrong.”

Christowe comments: “That was fully in line with his behavior as a student at the Bulgarian grammar school in Salonika. His class there once started a conspiracy against the teacher, but one of the students betrayed the plot. Thirteen-year-old Goce from Kukuš would rather hang than let the traitor get away with impunity. So he stabbed him in the back with a knife.”

Christowe presents us with another interesting scene that is able to capture the image of the Macedonian revolutionary at the beginning of the 20th century: Of the ten-member group of the “Salonika assassins” (who carried out a series of spectacular terrorist acts in several places in Salonika in 1903), four survived terrorist act: Pavel Šatev, Georgi Bogdanov, Marko Bošnakov and Milan Arsov.

They were sentenced to death by an extraordinary military tribunal, but Sultan Hamid reduced their sentence to life imprisonment. They spent three years in the dungeons of the fortress of the seven towers above Saloniki. Then they were chained together with 150 Macedonian political prisoners and taken to the ship to Tripoli. From Tripoli they dragged themselves 1000 kilometers through the Sahara. After weeks of torture and agony, they arrived at the Mursuk City Prison in Fezan Province.

Bošnakov and Arsov died in Mursuk. Shortly after her death in 1908, as a result of the Young Turkish Revolution, a general amnesty for political prisoners was announced. Šatev and Bogdanov were released but did not want to leave without the bodies of their comrades. However, the health authorities did not allow them to exhume her. Therefore, Šatev and Bogdanov decided to illegally dig up the bodies of their comrades themselves. They planned to take the bones with them, but according to Šatev, the bones were still covered in decaying flesh. So because they could not take the bones and it was impossible to carry away the decaying bodies, they pulled out their knives and cut off the heads of the corpses. The next morning they put the heads in tin cans full of iodoform. So they brought the heads of their comrades back through the Sahara and delivered them to their parents in Macedonia.

The third scene that I have chosen shows the two controversial IMRO leaders Todor Aleksandrov and Aleksandar Protogerov, who were embroiled in a chain of political murders and acts of violence, as they stand on the highest peak of the Pirin Mountains, the El- Tepe (“Peak of Storms”).

Christowe writes: “El-Tepe is always shrouded in fog and clouds. The ‘Peak of Storms’ is only fifteen feet lower than Musala in Bulgaria and 70 feet lower than Olympus, the highest mountain in the Balkans. The Macedonians piled boulders on the ‘Summit of Storms’, and with each new boulder the Pirin Mountains grew higher. When Aleksandrov and Protogerov reached the top, they brought boulders from lower places and added them to the pile, thus adding to the height. The two stood there like eagles at dizzying heights.”


Macedonia is a geographic area of around 67,000 km². Today this territory belongs to three states: Republic of Greece, Republic of Bulgaria and Republic of Macedonia. Much blood was shed until these states separated themselves from one another and from the Ottoman Empire, and perhaps also until more civilizational boundaries were drawn between the east and the west. So, in a certain way, Macedonia is the border.*

On the territory of Macedonia, during the period of the Ilinden Uprising (1903), the Young Turkish Revolution (1908), the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) and the First World War (1914-1918), there was practically a continuous civil war away. For example, according to data presented in the English press and Parliament in the early 20th century, around 10,000 people were killed in Macedonia between 1904 and 1908. At the session of the lower house of the British Parliament on October 26th, 1906, it was stated that 577 people had been killed in Salonika Vilayet, 481 in Vilayet Monastir (Bitola) and 188 in Vilayet Skopje in the first nine months of 1906.

The main actors in the political events in Macedonia were the young states of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria as well as the Ottoman Empire, which formally controlled the Macedonian territory. But Austria-Hungary, Russia, Germany, Italy, France and England also had a significant influence on political relations.

The hunger for territory in the young states of Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria was great. For example, for a full fifteen years (1897-1912) negotiations between Bulgaria and Serbia on the definition of their respective interests in Macedonia were conducted – with a few interruptions. Serbia consistently advocated partitioning Macedonia, while Bulgaria’s stance varied depending on its position in international relations. It moved between demands for partition and for autonomy, with the intention of taking over all of Macedonia mostly concealed behind the demand for autonomy.

The Balkan Wars broke out on October 18, 1912. They were the prelude to a long, six-year war that lasted with small interruptions until 1918. Macedonia was one of the main theaters of war.

In his book Heroes and Assassins, the American writer Stoyan Christowe describes a bizarre detail at the beginning of the two Balkan Wars: Todor Lazarov, a Macedonian from Bulgaria who believed that his homeland would finally be free after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, shot himself with joy. Little did he know that in 1912 the Balkan allies had secretly partitioned Macedonia before they declared war on Turkey. This incident is perhaps a good illustration of the sick political minds of Macedonians in 1912.

After several centuries of rule, the Ottoman Empire collapsed in just a month and a half. It had ruled Macedonia for 517 years.

The signing of a peace treaty between the Balkan Alliance and the Ottoman Empire in London (May 30, 1913) was only a short break on the way to a new armed conflict, but now between Bulgaria and the other two members of the alliance. This war began on June 29, 1913. The Macedonian people suddenly found themselves in a sandwich. According to data from the Carnegie Commission, which only covers the Aegean part of Macedonia, around 170 villages and 16,000 houses were destroyed by the Greek army. The cities of Voden, Njeguš, Strumica, Kukuš and Dojran were badly damaged. Under the pressure exerted by the Greek terror, over 100,000 “Slav Macedonians” left the country.

(Goce Delčev, the most important revolutionary leader of the Macedonians, came from Kukuš, one of the centers of the Macedonian rebirth in the immediate vicinity of Saloniki. On July 4, 1913, the Greek army put the city and forty villages around it during an operation of ethnic cleansing on fire. According to the respected Macedonian historian Ivan Katardžiev, whose book Macedonia a hundred years after the Ilinden Uprising I have consulted for the purposes of this text, the Greek army used this method of ethnic cleansing everywhere it could, even in parts Macedonia, which were under Serbian occupation.)

Miroslav Krleža, one of the most important Yugoslav writers of the 20th century, takes an interesting look at the two Balkan Wars in one of his 99 variations; the first in which the Turks were expelled from the Balkans and the second in which Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia fought for the territory of Macedonia:

“The blood of Kumanovo was not yet dry when, just eight months later, the battle of the Bregalnica, like with a cannon blow, destroyed all the lyrical illusions that entire South Slav generations had believed were part of the survival of our people. In the smoke and fire of the Bregalnica battle (July 1913) we learned that the cynical Machiavellianism of the small Balkan dynasties was a reality, while Lisinski’s score, the Illyrian phantasmagoria, the Džakovać idyll and the longing for Prizren were nothing more than vile rhetoric. The balance account of the European banks from Saint Petersburg to Berlin and Paris bombed the symbols of Kumanovo in its favor, and we (Engelsschen) were told that it is not the Sopot frescoes that rule the world, but the banks, the kings and the cannons. We were facing a Leninist ‘strangely repulsive’ collapse of European civilization, at the imperialist magnetic pole of wars and massacres that have now been going on for forty years.”

After the defeat of Bulgaria, peace negotiations took place in Bucharest from July 28 to August 10, 1913. The Bucharest Peace Treaty was signed on August 10, 1913. With this treaty, Macedonia was divided into three parts.

The period between the Balkan Wars and the beginning of the First World War (July 29, 1914) until Bulgaria entered the war on the side of Germany and Austria-Hungary differed little in Macedonia from the time before the signing of the Bucharest Treaty. As Katardžiev says: Everything that should happen to the Macedonian people in the future resulted from the results of the Balkan wars – from the partition.

*The border is firmly rooted in the country. Numerous terms in almost all human languages testify to their original origin. Very often the border means a furrow that the ploughshare leaves in the ground. For the world of the time of the Latins, the trail of the plow is the primal furrow, that original furrow that founded urban space and marked the urban horizon; it is the line that divides the town from the village, the inside from the outside. But even more than that: to mark the limit with the plow means to seal the relationship between earth and sky. This place was not chosen by humans, but by the gods discovered, and the one who pulls the furrow is more priest than ruler.

In this first notch in the floor there is something of a sacrifice, the germ of archaic violence. Rome, for example, comes into being when Romulus sacrifices Remus, who dared in his audacity to jump over the sacred, recently drawn border and thus to negate it. Playing around with borders can be downright dangerous; with them the tragic and the comic are closely linked.

The Italian word for border, frontiera, as well as the Spanish frontera, the French frontiere and the English frontier – all of these words contain the noun “front”. The line that the ruler draws with the ruler (in Latin regula) not only determines the spatial territory, but also represents a regula, a rule that we must adhere to in order to remain upright.

About Nikola Gelevski

Born in Skopje in 1964. He studied comparative literature and has been head of the Templum publishing house since 1989. As the most prominent columnist of the year, he received the Borjan Tanevski Prize in 2007. In addition to his work as a publishing director, editor, translator and author, he founded the Kontrapunkt association and is a co-founder of three other associations (Točka, Ploštad Sloboda, GEM).

SOURCE: Magazine “KritičnaMasa/Kritische Masse”, translated from Macedonian (written by Nikola Gelevski) into German by Benjamin Langer. English translation by

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