Eugene N. Borza
A nation is a group of people united by a common error about their ancestry and a common dislike of their neighbors.
ROBERT R. KING, Minorities under Communism
An essay on modem political culture in a volume devoted to reciprocity in life and art in the ancient world may require a word or two of explanation. The theme of what follows is the modem rebirth of ancient Macedonia as a symbol of nationalism in a part of the Balkans that has been a killing ground in recent times. Many contemporary observers have attempted to reinvent the ancient history of the region in order to fit the necessities of their own lives and the vagaries of modem Balkan politics. It is a distorted reflection of the past, which, in its warped form, serves a purpose useful beyond the romantic antiquarianism of the classroom, the tourist path, and the museum. Midst the great body of Peter Green’ s scholarship on literature, art, and the history of antiquity, one must not lose sight of the fact that he is one of our most perceptive observers of modem Greece, having lived among Greeks for several years, and having understood them better, perhaps, than they might have wished. Green’s essays in publications such as the New York Review, the New Republic, and the Times Literary Supplement are a rich source of insight for anyone who not only wishes to know something about contemporary Greece, but also requires some understanding of the issue of continuity and discontinuity between the past and present. 1 I hope that he will accept this essay in the spirit he has expressed in his own work on like subjects.
In the spring of 1993 I taught an undergraduate senior seminar to History majors, the topic of which was “Ethnic Minorities and the Rise of National States in the Modem Balkans.” We examined the status of minorities following the founding of Serbia (1815), Greece (1832), Bulgaria (1878), Albania (1913), and Yugoslavia (1918). Not long into the semester I asked my American students to identify their own ethnic backgrounds. One young woman said proudly that she was “Macedonian.” Grist for my mill. I asked her what that meant: was she Greek or Slav? She answered that she was Macedonian, and certainly not Greek, although she pointed out that she had spent most of her school life pretending that she was Greek, for, whenever her teachers asked about her ethnic background and she answered “Macedonian,” they responded, ”Oh, you must be Greek.” Now, as an honors student and a senior at a major university, she had stopped pretending she was Greek, and took my seminar in part to help her learn something about her Slavic Macedonian background.
Her family lived near a decaying central Pennsylvania mill town called, appropriately, Steelton. About halfway through the semester, the student told me that she had visited her church cemetery in Steelton, and that she had seen a number of gravestones on which the deceased had been identified as having been born in “Macedonia.” I asked what the dates of burial were, and she said “Oh, the 1950s.” “Not good enough,” I responded, ”Next time you visit, look for earlier dates,” knowing that by the 1950s it would not be unusual for birthplaces to be given as “Macedonia” in light of the federal status of Macedonia as a Yugoslav Republic. About two weeks later my student informed me that she had seen gravestones of the 1930s with the Macedonian identification. I jumped at the chance. “I’m going to pay you a visit in Steelton,” I told her. “Find some old-timer in your church, and let’s go looking for gravestones.”
Steelton is located along the Susquehanna River, just south of Harrisburg. The deteriorated mills, now largely deserted, stretch along the river, separated from a dilapidated old working-class community by a highway. Affluence has lured many people into the suburbs of Harrisburg a few miles away, and the houses and people who remain have clearly seen better times. The town climbs a bluff from the river. The higher parts are marked by greenery, better kept and larger homes, and bits of parkland. On the summit of one of the highest bluffs is an open, grassy area of several acres, the site of the Baldwin cemetery. Within lie the remains of immigrants who escaped the violence and poverty of Balkan life generations ago to seek economic well-being in the mills of Steelton.
The old woman who accompanied us knew the history of the cemetery and the churches whose members were buried there. One of the first things that struck me was that, by and large, the deceased who were identified as Serbs, Bulgarians, or Macedonians were buried in separate parts of the cemetery. In death, they sought the separation that sometimes eluded them in life. The old Macedonian woman had little but contempt for the Serbs, many of whom she had known, but she sometimes appeared confused by the distinctions between Macedonians and Bulgarians. For until the establishment of the Macedonian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in 1967, 2 the Macedonians belonged to either the Bulgarian Orthodox Church or tothe “Macedonian-Bulgarian” Orthodox Church described on a few gravestones. Indeed, the Macedonian community in Steelton had apparently experienced internal division over whether their priests should most legitimately have been trained in Macedonia or in Bulgaria.
We picked our way past hundreds of gravestones, stopping to take photographs 3 and looking for earlier dates. Some stones were engraved in Latin letters, most in Cyrillic. A few decrepit headstones had been replaced With new ones, but most were original, and I mused that my old teachers of epigraphy would have been pleased that many of the techniques used to examine ancient inscribed stones were useful in this twentieth-century American cemetery.
Nearly all the deceased had been born in the southwestern Macedonian town of Prilep, about forty miles northeast of the Greek frontier above Florina. Several stones appeared With death dates in the 1920s, and a few in the ‘teens. We halted at the edge of the cemetery, where the hillside had begun to collapse into a valley. I was told that the earliest gravestones had fallen away down the slope, and that the presence of snakes and ticks made the descent perilous. I was satisfied, for at my feet was an intact gravestone With the name of the deceased who had been born in “Prilep, Macedonia” in 1892, and who had died in Steelton in 1915. I was stunned. Here was clear evidence of a man who died in a central Pennsylvania mill town only two years after the Second Balkan War, and was identified at his burial as a Macedonian.4
A subsequent trip to the cemetery in 1995 confirmed and enlarged the data base. I now have 30 gravestones in my photo file, the most interesting one of which was discovered in my 1995 visit. It is a simple, weather-worn headstone With the name of the deceased followed by (in English) “Mace-done [sic] died Sep. 20, 1906 At Steelton Pa.”5 Thus, six years before the First Balkan War in which the region of Macedonia was detached from the Ottoman Empire by Serb, Greek, and Bulgarian armies, the reality of Macedonia/Macedonian already existed among Macedonian immigrants in central Pennsylvania.
All of which is confirmed by reference to the 1920 United States census report from Steelton.6 The census-taker collected data from about 250 persons who lived along Main Street in Steelton. Of the total 76 claimed to have been born in “Macedonia,” and to have “Macedonian” as their mother tongue.7 All 76 listed their parents as having been born in “Macedonia,” With “Macedonian” as their mother tongue. Thus 228 persons were identified by a U.S. census taker in 1920 on a single street in Steelton as having a Macedonian connection.
In the second century B.C. the Romans ended the independence of the five-century-old kingdom of the Macedonians. During that period the Macedonians had emerged from the Balkan backwater to a prominence unanticipated and much heralded. Under the leadership of Philip II, the Macedonians conquered and organized the Greek city-states as a prelude to Alexander the Great’s conquest of the Persian Empire. Macedon continued to produce talented kings during the Hellenistic era, sufficient to threaten the new Roman order in the East, and perhaps even Italy itself.
The Macedonian kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire, never to recover its independence. During medieval and modem times, Macedonia was known as a Balkan region inhabited by ethnic Greeks, Albanians, Vlachs, Serbs, Bulgarians, Jews, and Turks. With the collapse of Ottoman rule in Europe in the early twentieth century, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbs fought for control of Macedonia, and when the final treaty arrangements were made in the 1920s, the Macedonian region had been absorbed into three modem states: Greece, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia. Despite population exchanges, ethnic minorities were preserved in all states, for example, Slavs and Turks in Greek Macedonia and Thrace, Albanians, Bulgarians, and Greeks in Yugoslav Macedonia, Greeks in Albania, and Greeks and Turks in southwestern Bulgaria (Pirin Macedonia). Thus, recent claims based on ethnic conformity and solidarity notwithstanding, the region of Macedonia has, until well into the twentieth century, housed Europe’s greatest multiethnic residue, giving its name to the mixed salad, “macédoine.”
Peaceful ethnic pluralism has not been a common feature of Balkan life, save under authoritarian regimes such as the Ottoman and Hapsburg Empires and Yugoslavia under Tito. Attempts to establish ethnic purity in the region have varied from simple legal and religious restrictions against cultural expression to outright violence, as in the case of the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” campaign of the 1990s. In modern Greece the purification device is “Hellenization,” the absorption of non-Hellenes into the general Hellenic culture. In the forefront of the Hellenization movement has been the Orthodox Church, centered in the Greek partriarchate at Constantinople. 8 Its centuries-old effort to Hellenize the non-Hellenic Orthodox population of the Balkans was in keeping with the long-standing tradition of the Greek Church as the repository and protector of ancient Hellenism and Hellenic Christianity. Its success in this regard can be measured by the custom of the Turks, in their census reports, of identifying all Orthodox, without respect to ethnicity, as Greek, that is, adherents of the Church centered in Constantinople. With the growth of Serbian and Bulgarian nationalism, the Patriarchy unsuccessfully opposed the establishment of autonomous Serbian and Bulgarian churches in the nineteenth century, as it has the Macedonian church in the twentieth.
The emergence of a Macedonian nationality is an offshoot of the joint Macedonian and Bulgarian struggle against Hellenization. With the establishment of an independent Bulgarian state and church in the 1870s, however, the conflict took a new turn. Until this time the distinction between “Macedonian” and “Bulgarian” hardly existed beyond the dialect differences between standard “eastern” Bulgarian and that spoken in the region of Macedonia,9 and, while there had been disputes over which dialect should be the literary language, the arguments were subordinated to the greater struggle against Hellenization. By 1875, however, the first tracts appeared favoring a Macedonian nationality and language separate from standard Bulgarian,10 and the conflict had been transformed from an anti-Hellenization movement into a Bulgarian-Macedonian confrontation.
The region of Macedonia was freed from Turkish rule by the Balkan Wars (1912-13), and it was partitioned among Serbia (the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes in 1918, then Yugoslavia after 1929), Bulgaria, and Greece. Both Macedonian nationalism and a literary language continued to develop, despite the hostility of the three states that now laid claim to the region. 11 Serbs and Bulgarians continued to regard Macedonian as a dialect, not a real language, although, as Thomas Magner once pointed out, the decision about when a dialect becomes a language is sometimes a political, not a linguistic, act.12 The Greeks, under provisions of the Treaty of Sèvres (1920), were obligated to permit education and cultural outlets in native tongues for the minorities under Greek administration. Accordingly, a Macedonian grammar was produced in Athens in 1925,13 but never used because of an anti-Slav political climate in Greece in the late 1920s and 1930s, and Greek governments have prohibited the public and private use of Macedonian ever since.14
Taken from “The Eye Expanded”, chapter 16 “Macedonian Redux” by Eugene N. Borza, page 249-254, 1999.