The underground Macedonian Revolutionary Organization recruited and mobilized over 20,000 supporters to take up arms against the Ottoman Empire between 1893 and 1903. Challenging conventional wisdom about the role of ethnic and national identity in Balkan history, Keith Brown focuses on social and cultural mechanisms of loyalty to describe the circuits of trust and terrorwebs of secret communications and bonds of solidaritythat linked migrant workers, remote villagers, and their leaders in common cause. Loyalties were covertly created and maintained through acts of oath-taking, record-keeping, arms-trading, and in the use and management of deadly violence.
About the Author
Keith Brown is Professor at Brown University's Watson Institute for International Studies. He is author of The Past in Question: Modern Macedonia and the Uncertainties of Nation and editor of Transacting Transition: The Micropolitics of Democracy Assistance in the former Yugoslavia.
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Loyal Unto Death
Trust and Terror in Revolutionary Macedonia
By Keith Brown
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2013 Keith S. Brown
All rights reserved.
Terminal Loyalties and Unruly Archives: On Thinking Past the Nation
"Why not Macedonia for Macedonians, as well as Bulgaria for Bulgarians and Servia for Servians?"(Gladstone 1897). This simple-seeming question, first posed by a former British prime minister with considerable knowledge of the Balkans, still remains controversial today. In its original formulation, it represented a continuation of Gladstone's long advocacy for the rights of diverse Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire. In the 1850s, he was welcomed by the Greek population of the Ionian islands as a champion of their interests; in the 1870s, he deplored Ottoman atrocities in Bulgaria; and in the 1890s, he denounced the empire's treatment of Armenians. Yet whereas Greeks, Bulgarians, and Armenians—along with a number of other former Ottoman subject peoples in the Middle East—are now firmly identified with their own territorial nation-states, the precise status of Macedonians and their relationship with Macedonia has remained a source of contention.
Over the years, Gladstone's question has consistently been amended to include a definite article and turned into a slogan—Macedonia for the Macedonians—that continues to underpin scholarly research on the region's history and culture (Rossos 2008; ?epreganov 2008). But there is irony in this legacy. For by the time Gladstone posed his question on Macedonia—at a moment when Greece was preparing to go to war against Turkey on behalf of fellow Christians in Crete—he had already come to recognize that liberation from Ottoman rule was not a cure to all the region's ills. Indeed, he prefaced the question by stating that "next to the Ottoman Government nothing can be more deplorable and blameworthy than jealousies between Greek and Slav, and plans by the States already existing for appropriating other territory" and followed it with the prediction that unless these peoples stood together in common defense, they would assuredly be "devoured by others."
In some sense, then, Gladstone already provided one answer to his question. There would be no Macedonia for Macedonians, because existing, ambitious states would jockey for control of the Ottoman territory of Macedonia and usurp any aspirations its inhabitants might have. That was how history played out in 1912, when Greece, Serbia, and Bulgaria (as well as the tiny state of Montenegro) declared war on the Ottoman Empire and carved up the six vilayets, or provinces, that spanned the peninsula from the Sea of Marmara to the Adriatic coast of modern Albania. Gladstone's caveats also foretold how quarrels would undo the allies. Bulgaria, which had gained the smallest slice of territory from the first round of fighting, then launched a self-destructive attack against its former allies, sparking the Second Balkan War. When the lines of demarcation were drawn, the territory on which the MRO had aspired to create an autonomous Macedonia was divided along national frontiers that, apart from revision during each World War, have endured until today.
The Legacy of Ilinden: Methodological Nationalism
The defeat of the uprising in 1903 brought an end to the fragile unity of the organization. It also served as ground zero for a set of acrimonious debates about nation and national identity in the region, which took on renewed significance after the establishment of a Macedonian republic within the framework of federal Yugoslavia in 1944. Since that date, historians in Bulgaria, Greece, and the Republic of Macedonia (both before and after its declaration of sovereignty in 1991) have produced a substantial scholarship centered on the status of the uprising and the identity of those who took part. Notwithstanding dialogue and disagreement over historical theory and methodology within each national tradition, three dominant narratives have emerged, drawing on distinct bodies of archival material, to make sense of the question that the facts of the buildup to Ilinden, and the uprising itself, generate.
The most straightforward accounts are those produced by successive generations of Bulgarian historians, who can draw on both state archives and those of Macedonian organizations, many of which had their headquarters in Sofia. They link Ilinden, in the Monastir region, with the Preobrazenie Uprising, in the vilayet of Adrianople, that began sixteen days later on August 19, 1903. Both, in this narrative, were aided by "progressive" forces in Bulgaria and led by Bulgarian military personnel who also provided the key leadership for the organization. The Christian inhabitants of Macedonia who joined the uprising were motivated by shared Bulgarian ethnonational consciousness, which they also expressed by adherence to the Exarchist Church. Language andreligious belonging—in social scientific terms, "primordial sentiments"—were the motivating factors of identity and subsequent participation. This view persisted after the division of Macedonia in 1912–13, as Bulgaria continued to abet local resistance to Greek and, especially, Serbian rule in the Monastir region, on the grounds that the majority of the inhabitants were Bulgarian.
Greek historiography draws on official Greek military, religious, and state archives, as well as the memoirs of self-identified Greek residents of the Monastir area, Greek officials, and military personnel who served in what Greeks refer to as the "Macedonian Struggle" (Kazazes 1904; Dakin 1966; Kofos 1993). Many of these are preserved by organizations established in Thessaloniki after the First World War, dedicated to preserving a record of the region's Greek heritage after it was occupied by Serbian forces. Where Bulgarian historiography elevates the significance of Ilinden by casting it as part of an orchestrated, larger uprising, Greek historians diminish it (Karakasidou 1997: 102). Skeptical of the depth or sincerity of local support, they suggest that those who took part were for the most part duped, bribed, or forcibly coerced into short-term participation, and deserted at the first opportunity. They acknowledge the existence of an organization, but deny it any genuine roots or support in Ottoman Macedonia: it was a tool of Bulgarian state interests and thus an external and illegitimate actor in a geographical region that, in this narrative, was a longstanding part of the Greek world (Mylonas 1947: 77–83). This view was operationalized by colonizing those parts of the Monastir vilayet that were incorporated into Greece after 1913 with refugees from Asia Minor (put in motion by the failure of Greece's war of aggression against Turkey in the 1920s), and by systematic, aggressive efforts to assimilate the Slavic-speaking population (Karakasidou 2000; Carabott 1997).
Before World War II, Serbian historiography likewise emphasized Ilinden's Bulgarian provenance and also sought to downplay its significance for the local population of the Bitola region, who were simultaneously subjected to a campaign of Serbian national assimilation. After the creation of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, though, and the recognition of a Macedonian republic and people (narod) within it, Ilinden was recast (Brown 2003). The late nineteenth and early twentieth century became a major focus for the work of the newly established Institute of National History in Macedonia's capital city, Skopje. Drawing primarily on archival materials and published accounts shared by Sofia during the brief entente between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia (1946–48), Skopje's national historians presented Ilinden as an early expression of Macedonian commitment to national liberation, also infused by proto-Yugoslav ideals of brotherhood and unity. They focused attention on those leaders who had espoused socialist ideals and had reached out to Macedonia's Albanian, Turkish, and Vlah victims of Ottoman oppression and bourgeois (Greek) exploitation; those with obvious ties to Belgrade or Sofia (or both) were marginalized or cast as traitors (Brown 2003, 2004). Ilinden 1903 became part of a longer process of Macedonian national awakening, a precursor to the 1944 establishment (on the same date) of a Macedonian Republic quickly incorporated into Yugoslavia. This perspective survived the breakup of Yugoslavia, with the establishment of an autonomous, sovereign Republic of Macedonia represented as a third Ilinden (Brown 2000).
Divergent and seemingly incompatible though these narratives appear, they share a common frame of methodological nationalism (Wimmer and Glick-Schiller 2002; Chernilo 2007: 1–20). That is to say, in all three versions the nation-state occupies center stage as the agent of history, and all three assume that the establishment (or enlargement) of a nation-state must have been the ultimate goal of any organization that existed. For Bulgarian historians, again, the narrative is straightforward. The nation-state at the heart of Macedonia's history is Bulgaria. The activities of the organization and its supporters sought to unite ethnic Bulgarians within the boundaries briefly established in 1878, after the Russo–Turkish War, but then redrawn by the other great powers. Ilinden was an expression of the will of the Bulgarian-speaking majority of Macedonia's Christian population for freedom, and a united Bulgarian nation-state was the best provider and guarantor of that freedom.
Greek and Macedonian narratives share a central preoccupation with the primary significance of nations in history, but, in denying the straightforward Bulgarian version, are forced in different and directly adversarial directions. For Greek historians, focused on the region's Byzantine and Orthodox heritage and its inhabitants' supposedly underlying Greek national identity, the idea that the organization enjoyed authentic mass support, or sprang from indigenous activism, was simply unthinkable. So although acknowledging that it was an expression of Bulgarian nationalism, Greek narratives depict the organization as a façade maintained by an alien elite. While the mro's leaders claimed their goal was to liberate fellow nationals, this Greek narrative asserts that they sought to advance Bulgarian state interests by fostering instability and violence in Macedonia at the expense of the territory's truly, deeply Greek population.
The same two ideas that are anathema to Greek historians—authentic mass support for the MROand its roots in indigenous activism—are central to the post-Yugoslav Macedonian narrative. That puts Skopje's historians, obviously, at odds with their Athens- and Thessaloniki-based counterparts. At the same time, though, they also fiercely contest the annexation of the organization's story by Sofia and insist on the existence of a distinct Macedonian nation, and national consciousness, in the Ilinden period, which gave birth to and sustained the organization.
There is evidence in the historical record to support all three narratives. And all three have been articulated by diligent and conscientious historians, who are aware of the rival versions and seek to counter them. The effect of this heated debate, though, has been to focus the collective energy of scholars on a single point of contention: the national identity of Macedonia's Christian inhabitants, especially those who were members of the organization or participated in the Ilinden Uprising. In its simplest form, much of the historical research on early twentieth-century Macedonia and its residents has come to be organized around the question "Who were they?"
But while this appears to be a legitimate, open historical question, it disguises a strongly presentist, politicized orientation in the debate. For what it really asks is, "Of which subsequent nation-state were these people members-in-waiting?" That was already an urgent question for Western journalists and diplomats in the early 1900s; Greek, Serbian, and Bulgarian ideologues were happy to provide their own answers. And those answers still have consequences today, where the question is still asked regarding the Slavic-speaking Orthodox majority of the (Former Yugoslav) Republic of Macedonia (Poulton 1995; Pettifer 1999; Roudometof 2002). A hundred years later, the two established EU member-states of Greece and Bulgaria have continued to pursue policies toward their neighbor shaped by their different perspectives on the historical standing of the Macedonian nation, while domestic politics within the Republic of Macedonia have been profoundly affected by the dissonance between people's strong sense of national distinctiveness and the externally generated doubts cast on that distinctiveness. The struggle to establish a single, authoritative answer on the status of Macedonian national identity at the beginning of the century has profound existential consequences for the present.
Beyond Identity: Toward a History of Non-National Loyalties
Rather than focus on the presence or absence of national consciousness in the past, I seek here to move beyond unproductive methodological nationalism. Specifically, I argue that the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization's emergence and reception among the Christian population of Turkey in Europe reveals not the presence or absence of national identity, but rather a process of the creation, interaction, and conscious reordering of diverse loyalties. This formulation draws on a strand of social scientific theory that traces back to Edward Shils's classic article "Primordial, Personal, Sacred and Civil Ties" (Shils 1957). There, Shils lays out the argument that the work of making group solidarity is not only cultural but also social, involving multiplex ties, bonds, and attachments among persons as well as shared ideas and attitudes that orient individuals to abstract ideals. As an example from his own research, Shils stresses that relationships within primary groups—bunde —played a greater role than commitment to national ideology in motivating both German and Soviet soldiers during World War II.
Shils's insights were further developed by Clifford Geertz in the course of his now less fashionable work on the new nations in the 1960s. Geertz develops an argument that primordial sentiments or, in his gloss, "assumed givens" about common blood, race, religion, or language may weigh more heavily for ordinary people than calls from state elites to build solidarity out of shared self-interest (Geertz 1973: 255–310). Geertz's point here—that people in the "new states" of the postcolonial world could be pulled in opposite directions by the demands of state, nation, sect, tribe, region, or family—was subsequently reiterated, still more forcefully, by Walker Connor (1978). Often caricatured, along with Geertz, as expressing disguised racism (that in the last resort, after Bismarck, people "think with their blood"), Connor (again like Geertz) in fact states quite clearly an argument for attention to multi-causal rather than monocausal explanations of behaviors grouped under"nationalism."
Both Geertz and Connor quote a key definition of nation by Harvard-based political scientist Rupert Emerson, as the "terminal community" or
the largest community which, when the chips are down, effectively commands men's loyalty, overriding the claims both of lesser communities within it, and those which cut across it or potentially enfold it within a still greater society." (Emerson 1960: 95; cited in Connor 1978: 37n)
Although, as Geertz comments, this definition at first glance seems only to shift ambiguity from the term "nation" to the term "loyalty" (1973: 257), the shift is in fact productive. For it offers, from convergent work in different disciplines from a half-century ago, an underexplored pathway by which to challenge some of the too easily assumed givens of scholarship on nationalism. Geertz himself, speaking in 1993, suggested that the discourse on nationalism felt more like "batting about vaguely at clouds and vapors than coming to grips with etched-in selves" (1994: 4) and suggested that reviving attention to primordial loyalties might redress the balance and encourage a return to the microsociological level at which anthropologists, as well as many historians, believe that important things happen.
This book proposes a radical reassessment of early twentieth-century Macedonian history in this spirit. It draws in particular on an empirically rich vein of work on revolutionary activism by social historians, including classic and lesser-known work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century working-class movements, and on mid-twentieth-century anticolonial struggles. In work on Mau Mau in Kenya, for example, John Lonsdale criticized the "Western transubstantiations that have squeezed African responses to colonial rule into the prefabricated, imported, moulds of nationhood or class formation" (Berman and Lonsdale 1992: 317). From evidence on insurgent India, Ranajit Guha offered the observation that the effect of Indian historians' focus on state and state builders has been"to exclude the insurgent as the subject of his own history" (Guha 1999: 4), while E. P. Thompson, in his classic The Making of the English Working Class, stated the problem that popular resistance or dissent is read
in the light of subsequent preoccupations, and not as in fact it occurred.... Only the successful (in the sense of those whose aspirations anticipated subsequent evolution) are remembered. The blind alleys, the lost causes, and the losers themselves are forgotten. (Thompson 1966: 12)
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Table of Contents
Introduction: The Archival Imagination at Work
1. Terminal Loyalties and Unruly Archives: On Thinking Past the Nation
2. The Horizons of the "Peasant": Circuits of Labor and Insurgency
3. The Oath and the Curse: Subversions of Christianity
4. The Archive and the Account Book: Inscriptions of Terror
5. The eta and the jatak: Inversions of Tradition, Conversions of Capital
6. Guns for Sale: Feud, Trade, and Solidarity in the Arming of MRO
Conclusion: The Archival Imagination and the Teleo-logic of Nation
Appendix 1. Documents of the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization
Appendix 2. Biographies from the Ilinden Dossier
What People are Saying About This
This book is, to my mind, exactly the kind of work that needs to be done in order to understand civil wars, insurgencies, nationalism, and rebellions, and to get away from what the author rightfully critiques as ‘pidgin social science.'
Engaging, theoretically sophisticated, and ethnographically detailed. . . . Makes a very complicated period of Balkan history admirably clear.
Drawing on over two decades of engagement in anthropology, archival and social history, and fieldwork in the Balkan region, Keith Brown has crafted a subtle and compelling account of revolutionary insurgency in turn-of-the-century Macedonia. His analytical focus on loyalties, rather than identities, goes beyond critiques of nationalism in enabling powerful new understandings of the region’s histories and its continuing social dynamics. Elucidating 'the circuits travelled by things, people and ideas,' Loyal Unto Death reveals how, against a backdrop of Ottoman governance, competing nationalisms, rural poverty, and labour migration to North America, a modern revolutionary organisation transformed existing solidarities into a new sense of Macedonian selfhood and built commitment to an agenda of political autonomy.
Keith Brown does a fantastic job of reconstructing the feeling inside Macedonia itself at a time when Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria were vying with Turkey to possess it. He makes clear how important it is not to impose the present on the past. By thinking outside the box of nationalism, Brown improves our understanding of the past and also contributes to understanding the present.