The Contest for Macedonian Identity 1870-1912 – Review

Reviewed by Risto Stefov

The Contest for Macedonian Identity 1870-1912, written by Nick Anastasovski and published by Pollitecon Publications in Australia is a publication which describes in detail ongoing attempts, first by the Ottoman Empire and then by Macedonia’s neighbours Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, to dominate Macedonia and control the Macedonian people. After colonizing Macedonia, the Muslim Ottoman Empire economically influenced many Macedonians to convert to Islam. When the Ottoman Empire fell apart, Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria fought by any means possible to turn Macedonians into Greeks, Serbs and Bulgarians.  This included the use of State-sponsored teachers, priests, and terrorism through armed intervention.

Anastasovski carefully examines in detail the fierce competition between the various factions and shows how they fought at the political, religious, educational and day-to-day level. He analyzes numerous Ottoman, Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian, Macedonian and other sources and introduces new and original research which he conducted in the Bitola region, western Macedonia and other parts of ethnic and Ottoman Macedonia.

            This text offers historical and personal accounts of people and events that shaped Macedonia in the last two hundred years or so, while providing maps, statistical and demographic charts from various sources.  The author does his own comparative analysis and reaches his own conclusions.

            The book is full of historical facts, not only about Macedonia’s history, but also about the Macedonian peoples’ culture, centuries old traditions and customs. Nick dedicates an entire chapter to Bitola in which, among other things, he describes the various customs and traditions observed in the region including those of marriage, the role of women in society and the home, religious celebrations, holidays, rain rituals and more. The customs and traditions may vary a little but equally apply to every corner of Macedonia.

            The tradition I liked best, which Anastasovski describes in his book, is the Dudule. I have always been fascinated by the rain ritual performed during droughts especially by the lyrics in the various chants. The rain dance is not exclusive to Macedonia, it is a world phenomenon most popularized by the indigenous people of North America.

            The book is subdivided into six chapters, each one dealing with many aspects of Macedonia, such as religion, rivalry of the Balkan states, and the resulting insecurity which prompted emigration of temporary workers known as pechelbari.  Foreign religious organizations which include Western Churches are included along with the Patriarchate and Exarchate Churches. There is a chapter on the impact of schools and what effects foreign education had on the Macedonian identity.  The impact of islamicisation upon identity, social structure and village rituals in the Dolna Reka, Debar Region is also covered.

            By far the strongest of the author’s abilities is his understanding and presentation of the roles of each of the competitors vying for Macedonia and how each manipulated situations to gain an advantage over the others and particularly over the Macedonian people. 

            In his abstract Anastasovski writes:

            “As a contested space Macedonia in the late nineteenth century suffered political, religious and   paramilitary incursions made upon the population by the neighbouring nascent states and the disappearing Ottoman Empire…. The European Powers maintained their own pretence and   acted as patrons of the small Balkan States. Although churches, schools and paramilitary   bands were the primary instruments of the Greek, Bulgarian and Serb states, expansion into Macedonia was ultimately achieved by a full military mobilization when the armies of Greece, Bulgaria and Serbia marched into Macedonia in October 1912 and drove out the Ottoman  Turks. The territorial division of Macedonia and claims upon the Macedonians has continued to be a matter of contention between the Balkan States into contemporary times.”

            In regards to population data compiled by non-Balkan Europeans he points to Macedonia’s strategic geographical location.  Macedonia, because of its strategic geographical location in the 19th Century, was offered by European countries, primarily Russia and Austria, to Serbia and Bulgaria.  The English and French backed a greater Greece and wanted to prevent Russia’s access to Solun and the Mediterranean.  It became a veritable game of musical chairs with Macedonia always ending up without a chair.

            When visitors toured the country at that time, their impressions inevitably “assimilated the ideas of their guide rather than divined the nationalism of the people”, or they concluded that Macedonians were simply “Christian” and not a having a particular ethnicity or national consciousness. 

            I have always believed that Macedonians had never had the need to define themselves as anything other than Macedonians. Here is what Anastasovski has to say: “A popular term of identification indicating separateness from others, and acknowledges an individual or group as being Macedonian is the term nash’ or nashi, literally meaning ‘ours’ -or ‘one of ours’. 

            These terms of identification persist even at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Similarly Macedonian Muslims, when referring to other Macedonian Muslims, used the term ‘nash Turchin’ (‘one of us’ / ‘ours – Turk’) instead of simply Turchin, as was the case when referring to a Muslim Turkish speaker. Depending upon which particular Balkan church maintained religious jurisdiction over a village, the inhabitants might have used the terms ‘Exarchists’ (Eksarhisti) or ‘Patriarchists’ (Patriarhisti) when referring to ‘others’, or when intending to use derogatory labels one could refer to ‘others’ as ‘Bugari’ (Bulgarians) or ‘Grci’ (Greeks). These labels were understood as being representative of a religious association and not as a form of ethnic or national identification.”

            This text also tackles another controversial but less known subject, which is the role of the Muslim Albanians in Macedonia. “From the end of the eighteenth century, Albanian Muslim colonists, more hostile and violent than the Ottoman Turks, commenced moving into Macedonia and over the coming centuries, to the end of Ottoman rule, were notorious persecutors of the Christian population. Although a limited number of historians have acknowledged that Albanian persecution of Christians resulted in Christians emigrating from western Macedonia, the Albanian role in the Islamicisation of the Macedonian Christian population has been largely unnoticed by historians.”

            He points out that religion was also used to manipulate census numbers. In order to secure Ottoman rule near the end of the 19th Century, they tried to claim that Muslims were the majority in Macedonia.  In other words the census counted religious converts, and incorporated these figures into the overall Turkish/Muslim population.  These were Macedonians by ethnicity. 

            Contemporary and modern, accounts of the political rivalry of late nineteenth-century Ottoman Macedonia fail to examine the position of the Macedonian Muslim population. Ottoman Macedonia is too often viewed only from a Christian perspective -in relation to the struggle of the Balkan States for the adherence of the Macedonian Christian population. The author looked into how these Macedonians who had converted viewed themselves and how they viewed their fellow Macedonians who were Christian.   Evidence obtained indicates that Macedonian Christians were viewed as the same people, but of a different religion, and not as ‘Bulgarians’, ‘Greeks’ or ‘Serbs’. Macedonian Muslims of the sample Reka district had no concept or understanding of the terms ‘Patriarchists’ and ‘Exarchists’ as labels for Macedonian Christians.”

      Nick Anastasovski has made use of over sixty primary and more that 130 secondary sources as well as numerous other documents to put this book together.  It is a large format with 520 pages, The Contest For Macedonian Identity 1870-1912 is a well researched and an easy to read book that everyone should own. It is an excellent defensive weapon to use in the protection of the Macedonian identity.

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