Macedonian Ramble: the Struggle for Independence

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Exhibit in the Museum of the Macedonia Struggle—from the 19th and 20th centuries—in Thessaloniki, Greece. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

This is the eighth part in a series about a journey across what used to be called Macedonia, which is now divided among Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey.

With less than three hours in Thessaloniki, I decided to limit my touring to the Museum for the Macedonian Struggle (a hard one to pass up) and a walk through the city’s old Jewish quarter (which vanished in the Holocaust). Along the way, I hoped that I could eat lunch and browse in a bookstore.

The morning rain had not let up so after stashing my backpack in a station locker I took a taxi to the museum. The cab driver had never heard of the Museum for the Macedonian Struggle, but at least he didn’t suggest driving me to Skopje, the capital of North Macedonia, where there is another museum with exactly the same name (the heroes inside are different).

Museum for the Macedonian Struggle

I loved this museum. It is located in an old consulate building several blocks from the Thessaloniki waterfront. I bought a ticket (and some postcards devoted to irredentism) from a woman sitting at a desk near the front door, and she pointed me toward the exhibits, which are arranged on three floors. Needless to say, I had the glass cabinets to myself.

The purpose of the museum is to insist that the region of Macedonia is and has always been Greek (not Turkish, Albanian, German, Italian, Yugoslav, Bulgarian, or Serbian).

Technically, this Macedonian struggle took place between 1893–1908, and in this context it refers to the Greek defeat of Bulgarian irredentists operating in the region.

The Greek Resistance

The timeline of the Macedonian conflict, and of the museum exhibits (leaving aside the allusions to Philip of Macedon and Alexander the Great), begins around the time of the 1878 treaties of San Stefano and Berlin, which turned Macedonia into a hot potato of European politics.

Truth be told, “the Macedonian struggle” continues to this day. (Note the endless conflicts between Greece and North Macedonia over the name of that country, and the tension between Albania and North Macedonia.)

Much of the coordination of the Greek resistance in Macedonia took place in the museum’s building. The exhibits show the consul’s desk and some artifacts from the struggle, including pistols and propaganda, much of which was directed against the inroads of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a group of Bulgarian nationalists operating across the region.

In his history of Ottoman decline, Sean McMeekin writes: “The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, or IMRO (formerly BMARC), founded in Salonica by Gotse Delchev in 1893, is often described as the prototypical modern terrorist organization. Confusingly, it advocated ‘Macedonia for the Macedonians,’ although it was mostly a Bulgarian affair.”

The heart of the museum is on the second floor, a room full of maps that tells a story about how the Ottoman province of Macedonia evolved from the Treaty of Berlin (1878) through the Balkan Wars (1912-13)—the bookends of the deepest Bulgarian penetrations into Macedonia.

Of Russians and Turks in Macedonia

What saved the region for Greece, in part anyway, was Bulgaria’s defeat at Dobro Polje in World War I, although the 1919 peace treaties also consigned much of Macedonia to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (the great grandfather of the current state of North Macedonia).

Bulgaria’s claim to nearly all of Macedonia was staked in 1878, in the Treaty of San Stefano (a Constantinople suburb) that adjudicated the Russo-Turkish War of 1877. The Russians won (the key battles were at Plevna and Shipka Pass) and awarded Ottoman Macedonia to its client state, Bulgaria.

A few months later, the other European powers, notably Prussia, England, France, and Austria-Hungary, got wind of Russia’s dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire (at least in Europe) and Bulgaria’s aggrandizement.

Under Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s leadership they convened a peace conference in Berlin (the 1878 Treaty of Berlin) that restored great power ascendency in the Balkans.

Austria was given control of Bosnia and the Sandjak of Novi Pazar and Bulgaria was cut back to size in Macedonia—infuriating Russia and Bulgaria.

The Many Balkan Wars

That tenuous settlement held until the Balkan Wars (1912-13) drove the Turks out of the Balkans, which again put Macedonia into play between the rival powers.

In the first Balkan War (1912), an alliance of Balkan countries—notably Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, and Serbia—attacked the Ottoman Empire and drove it out of Macedonia, if not Europe.

Then in the Second Balkan War (1913), Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece over their rival claims to Macedonia. Bulgaria lost in this second round, but less than two years later, when Austria-Hungary attacked Serbia at the start of the Great War (1914), Bulgaria returned to Thrace and Macedonia in force—until 1918 when the Serbian army broke through the lines in the mountains.

The Great Map Room

I suspect there are more than a hundred maps on the second floor of the museum. Some show Christian communities in Macedonia. Others indicate the tactics and fronts of the Balkan Wars. Still others show the progress, or not, made by the “gardeners of Salonika” as they fought toward Monastir (Bitola).

I took a picture of one French map indicating “Turkish Railways in Europe” that showed through rail service from Monastir to Salonika, and then a more serious line from Salonika to Dedeagach (spelled Dede Agatch on the French rail map). I did think that if the Turks still controlled this corner of Europe, I might be spared having to take a “replacement bus” after Drama.

At 2 p.m. the woman at the desk tracked me down in the map room and explained that the museum was closing. She let me take one more picture, this time of a general staff map from the last days of World War I, which I was hoping might show me how the next day I might get from Alexandroupolis (Dedeagach) to Edirne (Adrianople on the map).

The sad part about Macedonia is that travelers today can go far on general staff maps from the nineteenth century—once you have figured out that all city names have changed.

Thessaloniki’s Jewish Quarter

From the museum I went in search of Thessalonika’s Jewish quarter, not quite sure what might have survived the Holocaust.

During World War II, some 50,000 Jews from Salonica (as it was then called and spelled) were deported from the city and killed in extermination camps.

I knew that Thessalonika had a Jewish museum, but for some reason I had a hard time finding it, even though I knew the exact address. On the street where I knew it was located, I asked numerous pedestrians for directions, but they all shrugged.

Finally, I backtracked to a tourist office in the main square, where the cheerful clerk on duty gave me a map but said that the museum was closed. She said that it was an apartment in a building, and hard to find. She did guide me to a modernist memorial near the waterfront, which reads:

Dedicated by the Greek people to the memory of

The 50,000 Jewish Greeks of Thessaloniki,

Deported from their mother city

By the Nazi occupation forces in the spring of 1943, and

Exterminated in the gas chambers of

The Auschwitz – Birkenau death camps.

As for the rest of the Jewish quarter, it is gone. In its place is an elegant neighborhood of restaurants, cafés, and small shops, not unlike many old quarters in European cities. It is silent on the lives that were swept away in the Holocaust, although with my map from the tourist office I managed to track down several buildings, including a synagogue that dated to the late 19th or early 20th century.

On the Summer Waterfront

From the synagogue, I walked toward the city’s commercial harbor, remembering my first visit to Thessalonika in summer 1976. I had been a family trip to Greece with my parents and sister, and we were staying on the island of Skiathos for a few days. While there, my father arranged to meet a man on business in Thessalonika, which meant a long day up and back on the train from Volos and Larissa.

I remember the trains being awful—we baked in the hot sun coming through the filthy car windows—and our fellow passengers being rude (they smoked in the compartment).

The best part of the day came after the meeting, when we walked along the waterfront esplanade where the harbor glistened with ships at anchor.

At the time I wasn’t quite sure what had drawn my father to Thessalonika (the meeting struck me as an excuse to see the city), but now I know better: he wanted to see the city that had excited so many passions in the Balkans and had changed hands so many times between Greeks, Serbians, Germans, Turks, and Bulgarians.

It was from my father that I got my copy of Alan Palmer’s The Gardeners of Salonika—an account of World War I fighting in the area—which might explain why so often on the seafront walk, instead of looking at the sun-dappled water, my father had his infantry-officer eyes scanning the hills above the city, wondering—I am sure—what it would have been like to command assault troops in ‘‘the greatest internment camp in the world.” (For two years the front lines hardly moved.)

On this occasion, however, a cold December rain had settled over the waterfront, and after recalling the summer warmth of 1976, I trudged back to the station.

At one point I stopped at a kiosk and ordered kotopita (a fluffy chicken pie), which I ate under an awning on the esplanade (so much for my seaside picnic with Greek white wine). But what nagged at me on the walk was how little I had learned about Jewish life in Thessalonika—yet another Macedonian community swept under the rug of history.

Next: Jewish Salonica and the memoirs of Leon Sciaky. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, and The Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck.