||Macedonia: What Went Wrong in the Last 200 Years
Part VII - 1939 - 1949
WWII & The Greek Civil War
by Risto Stefov
click here for a printable version
In the previous article (part VI) I covered the effects of Macedonia's partition and the practices and policies of its subjugators.
In this article (part VII) I will cover World War II, the Greek Civil War and their effects on the Macedonian people. This article contains first hand accounts of people who lived through the ordeals of World War II and the Greek Civil War.
After the conclusion of the Great War and the Soviet Bolshevik revolution the Super Powers were in ruins and began their lengthy process of rebuilding.
Russia's desires for imperialist ventures and her obsession with destroying the Ottoman Empire brought immense economic suffering to her people.
While the Macedonians in the Balkans were suffering from denationalization and oppression, the world around them was changing.
Lenin's rise to power put an end to Russian imperialist ambitions in the Balkans, especially the Tsarist desires for annexing Tsari Grad (Constantinople) and Endrene (Macedonian Dardanelles). Germany on the other hand, bitter about her latest defeat, began to rebuild her economy. Smarting from their latest bouts with Germany, France and Britain too began to rebuild their economies and military strengths.
Germany as the vanquished party and instigator of the Great War was forced to pay restitution for damages to the victorious nations.
In spite of all efforts made to recover from the Great War, the economic situation in Europe was worsening and came to a climax in October 1929 when the stock market crashed in the United States.
The economic collapse of the 1930's and the "Great Depression" polarized the world into "left and right" economic camps. On the left were the supporters of the working class and Communism, while on the right were the supporters of industry and capitalism.
The tug of war between left and right came to a climax when civil war broke out in Spain in July 1936. Germany was in support of the right and sent troops to fight on the side of the Spanish Government. Germany at the time was only allowed to have a small army, so to compensate for her limited numerical capability she focused her efforts on producing a superior force. Germany's small but capable army was field-tested and battle hardened in the Spanish conflict. This explains her numerous victories during the course of World War II.
Russian and German influences did not escape the Balkan States and they too felt the pull from the two camps.
To maintain control of his kingdom, King George II of Greece made his state a dictatorship and in 1936, after the Greek premier's death, appointed General Metaxas to take charge of Greek affairs, who at the time was minister of war.
While there were some prospects for basic human rights for the Macedonian people in the Greek State in the early 1920's, those prospects died as Greece tightened her grip on Macedonia by implementing more racist assimilation policies. If that was not enough, on December 18, 1936 the Greek Government issued a legal act concerning, "Activities Against State Security". By this act thousands of Macedonians were arrested, imprisoned, and expelled from their homeland.
Among other things Metaxas, on September 7, 1938 by legal act 2366, outlawed the Macedonian language and prohibited people from speaking it by imposing heavy fines and imprisonment.
In 1938 Australian author Bert Birtles in his book "Exiles in the Aegean" wrote, "In the name of 'Hellenization' these people (Macedonians) are being persecuted continually and arrested for the most fantastic reasons. Metaxa's way of inculcating the proper nationalist spirit among them has been to change all the native place-names into Greek and to forbid use of the native language. For displaying the slightest resistance to the edict-for this too is a danger to the security of the State-peasants and villagers have been exiled without trial." (page 112, John Shea, Macedonia and Greece The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation).
Once in control of the Greek State Metaxas acted against the labour unions and their leaders and declared strikes illegal. He then turned to suppressing all political opposition, outlawed all political parties and imprisoned the leaders who would not pledge their loyalty. The communist party too was outlawed and driven underground. The press was also heavily censored.
Being a military man himself, Metaxas dedicated much of the State's finances to modernize the Greek army in both manpower and military hardware. In the sphere of education, he re-wrote Greek history to support his own ideologies declaring that there were three great periods in history: the classical, the Byzantine and his own regime, which was then known as the "Regime of the Fourth of August". He created a National Youth Organization to bring together the children of the various social classes and provided military training for boys and domestic skills for girls.
Even though the Metaxa regime was ideologically similar to that of Spain and Italy, the Greeks were always loyal to Britain.
In Yugoslavia, events were progressing in a similar manner to those in Greece. After King Alexander declared himself dictator of Yugoslavia in 1929, he suspended the constitution and subdivided his kingdom in such a way that the Serbs would be a majority in all districts. He also abolished trade unions and removed personal liberties.
The Serbian occupied territory of Macedonia was referred to as "South Serbia" and the Macedonian language was forbidden from being spoken in public. The history of the Macedonian people and their surnames were changed as well, to give Serbian emphasis. Place names too were changed and replaced with historically Serbian names.
Unlike the Metaxa regime, after the 1930's the Yugoslav regimes began to relax their tight grip and allowed unofficial and limited use of the Macedonian dialects to be spoken in the streets of Macedonia and in plays and drama clubs.
In Bulgaria, events followed a similar course as in Yugoslavia and Greece. A military coup was imposed in May 1934, the 1879 constitution was abolished, and political organizations and trade unions were suppressed. In 1935, King Boris III, in a bloodless coup, overthrew the old dictatorship and replaced it with his own Royal one.
Bulgarian governments since Bulgaria's inception in 1878 have officially and adamantly denied the existence of the Macedonian nationality arguing that Macedonians are Bulgarians.
Thousands of Macedonians who over the years tried to express different views were jailed or exiled. The attitude that Macedonians are Bulgarians was used to justify violent assimilation acts and to deny Macedonians their basic human rights.
Ever since her inception in 1878, Bulgaria has been obsessed with possessing Macedonia and has caused immense suffering for the Macedonian people.
The downfall of the Tsarist Russian Imperial Empire, the break-up of the Hapsburg Austro-Hungarian Empire and the demise of the Ottoman Empire, removed three of the Super Powers from internal Balkan influence. While Britain played a less active role, France and Italy attempted to form competing alliances in the Balkans but did not have the military might to enforce them. The Balkan governments on the other hand, for the first time, had an opportunity to adjust their relations with each other and form alliances to protect their mutual interests. Unfortunately, their hatred for each other and fear of losing Macedonia always prevented such an alliance and allowed outsiders to again play a role in their internal affairs.
Germany's humiliating defeat in the Great War, coupled with her economic plight in the 1930's, gave rise to a new kind of German radicalism. Hitler exploited that and turned it to his own advantage. Hitler, in the short term, also gave the German people what they desired most, work and hope for a better future. Unfortunately, in the long term, he delivered disaster not only to the German people but also to many other nations, including the Macedonians.
As a new-world order emerged, new alliances began to form. On one side stood the Axis partners, initially consisting of Germany, Italy and Japan, then as war broke out, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Finland and Thailand joined in. On the other side were the Allied partners consisting of Britain, the Soviet Union, the USA, and China. As the war progressed, more and more nations joined the allies, totaling about fifty before the war was over.
In September 1940, Germany, Italy and Japan signed a cooperation agreement, which basically identified their intentions with respect to each others' spheres of influence, and defined their political, economic, and defense strategies as well as their obligations to each other. The agreement came to be known as the "tripartite pact".
After war broke out in the Balkans, the first to fall to fascist aggression was Albania. By an ultimatum delivered to Albanian King Zog on March 23, 1939, Italian troops landed in Albania and occupied her territory on April 7, encountering little resistance.
Soon after consolidating control in Albania, on October 28th, 1940, Italy declared war on Greece. Greece however, turned out to be a tougher nut to crack and Metaxa's foresight in arming his state paid off.
Official history praises Greece and the Greek soldiers for their bravery and fighting spirit but neglects to mention Macedonian contributions and sacrifices made to keep Greece safe. Macedonians were the first to be dispatched to the front lines in Albania and took the full brunt, not just of the offensive, but of the winter cold as well. More Macedonian men suffered from gangrene than from Italian bullets and bombs. Unprepared for the frigid temperatures, many men lost their fingers, toes, limbs and even their lives to frostbite. Food too was in short supply and the brave Macedonian soldiers had to fight off starvation as well as the Italians. They did this to protect a country that refused and still refuses to recognize them.
All their sacrifices were in vain anyway because six months later, on April 6th, 1941, the German army marched into Greece. Again the Macedonians fought bravely but they were no match for the well-trained, well-disciplined German army. (If you wish to learn more about World War II, specifically about events that involved Greece, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania, please read Volume 4 of "The Marshal Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War II, but don't expect to find anything about the Macedonian contribution).
There is a story I am told of a Macedonian soldier, a real old coot, who refused to surrender to the invading Germans and continued to fire at them in spite of orders to cease. He held his position until he ran out of ammunition and the Germans practically grabbed him by the neck. Expecting to meet his maker, he stood up and bravely faced his enemy. But instead of killing him, the German soldiers, one by one, shook his hand and praised him for his bravery, then let him go. (I don't want to give you the wrong impression about the Germans. This is how they behaved in the beginning, later however, during the Partisan days, their policy was to "kill ten innocent civilians for each German soldier killed").
When the Germans reached Athens, the Greek government capitulated and the soldiers on the Albanian front were left on their own. Some were told to go to Epirus and regroup, expected to make the long trek on foot. Others were told nothing and were left to roam the countryside. Eventually they were all picked up by German patrols, disarmed and sent home.
At home, the returning soldiers were given a hero's welcome. Unfortunately for those who were wounded and lost fingers, toes and limbs to frostbite, there was no compensation or solace for their pain.
The German invasion was a welcome relief for the soldiers from the Italian front, but at the same time it posed an uneasy uncertainty as to what was going to happen next. No one was certain how the new invaders were going to react. The Macedonian people, having ample prior experiences with being occupied were expecting the worst. As time would show however, the new invaders were a mixed blessing for the Macedonian people.
After the war broke out in Europe, Bulgaria allied itself with the axis powers and on March 1, 1941, joined the German led pact. The entry of German troops into Bulgaria put Yugoslavia in a difficult position. To avoid the German wrath, on March 25, 1941 the Regent, Prince Paul, also joined the German led pact. This did not sit well with young King Peter however, who with the help of the Yugoslav military, staged a coup and deposed the Regent. This meant that again Hitler had to negotiate with Yugoslavia. Hitler was counting on Yugoslavia to allow him passage to attack Greece. The new situation angered Hitler and instead of negotiating, he signed directive number 25 declaring Yugoslavia an enemy of Germany and ordered her destruction. Hitler wanted a swift strike so he withdrew troops from the Russian campaign.
It took Hitler's army 12 days to demolish Yugoslavia, a small diversion in his destructive career, but there are those who believe that this little diversion changed the course of history. To begin with it gave the Soviet Union just enough time to adequately prepare for an offensive, which ultimately led to Germany's defeat. Secondly, the violent nature of the attack created the right conditions for a Partisan uprising, which ultimately helped to establish the Republic of Macedonia.
The battle for Yugoslavia and Greece was swift and effective. When it was over the Germans, as an ally to the axis powers, allowed Bulgaria to occupy Vardar (Yugoslav occupied) Macedonia and the eastern region of Aegean (Greek occupied) Macedonia. Later, after the Italians left, Germany allowed Bulgaria to occupy western Macedonia as well.
Many Macedonians from the Vardar region who had suffered under the Yugoslav regime welcomed the Bulgarian invaders as saviors and liberators. Their euphoria was unfortunately short lived as the Bulgarians quickly began to oppress and forcibly Bulgarize the Macedonian population. If there had been any pro-Bulgarian sentiment before, it quickly disappeared after the occupation.
Germany's violent entry into Yugoslavia, coupled with Bulgarian oppressive attitudes towards the Macedonian people, gave birth to an underground Macedonian resistance movement.
In Aegean Macedonia, after the Germans settled in, life for the Macedonian people took on an uneasy normalcy. The Greek police that had supported the Metaxa regime before the occupation now cooperated with the German military and again became active in Macedonia. To counter its oppressive tactics, the old Komiti (Ilinden revolutionary guard) rearmed and went back to active duty. The "old timers" were angered by Greece's oppressive laws and were spurred back into action by Bulgarian propaganda condemning the Greek oppressive tactics. The Bulgarians were well aware of the unfavourable conditions the Greek Government had created in Macedonia and used the opportunity to agitate the Greeks. Komiti actions were limited at best and were restricted to the Italian zones, as the Germans would not tolerate armed actions in their zones.
The Partisan movement in Yugoslavia was more organized and progressive than that in Greece. Led by Tito, the Communist partisans in Yugoslavia organized a war of national liberation in which the Macedonians, led by General Tempo, fought on an equal footing. Macedonians formed their own section of resistance even before they were recognized and accepted by Tito. The first anti-fascist war of national liberation began in the Republic of Macedonia on October 11, 1941. October 11th is the "Second Ilinden" for the Macedonian people. Since 1941 they have celebrated it as "Macedonian Revolution Day". The Macedonian people by their actions, loyalty, and patriotism earned their place in the world. By hardship, determination, and the spilling of blood the Macedonian people demonstrated their desire for freedom and the willingness to rule themselves. The Super Powers in 1829 (by the London Protocol) satisfied the Greeks by making Greece a country. Similarly, in 1878 (by the congress of Berlin) Russia liberated the Bulgarians making Bulgaria a country. Unlike the Greeks and Bulgarians however, the brave people of Vardar Macedonia had to fight by themselves and for themselves to earn their place in the world among the free nations.
For just over a year the Macedonians of Vardar endured enough Bulgarian treachery to last them a lifetime. Then in April 1942 they rose up and demonstrated their displeasure. Macedonian Partisans took up arms against the Bulgarian army but were massacred in a bloody battle. Unarmed Macedonians then took to the streets to protest the massacre and they too were cut to pieces.
To escape persecution, sections of the Macedonian Partisan force fled into Aegean Macedonia. Some entered the Italian zones near the village of Besfina and the rest penetrated the German zones in the region around the village Sveta Petka and quickly went underground. The Besfina force, before it had a chance to make contact with the local population, was spotted by the Komiti who quickly sprang into action. Seeing uniformed men on the Besfina hillside startled the old Komiti. Thinking that it was a Greek police (Andari) invasion force, the Komiti appealed to the local Italian garrison and were given arms and permission to attack. When the Komiti started the offensive, the Partisans backed off and sent representatives to negotiate. They went from village to village and spoke with the local chiefs. The strangers wore handsome uniforms and conducted themselves seriously with charm and charisma. They spoke long and well about freedom, liberty and the treachery of the Bulgarian Fascists.
When the Komiti found out that the uniformed men were Macedonians, they accepted them with open arms, gave them their weapons and many voluntarily joined their cause. The Partisans of Sveta Petka, because of a German presence, had to work under cover and they too succeeded in recruiting volunteers from the local population. After the Partisan penetration, the Macedonian people of Aegean Macedonia learned about Bulgarian atrocities and ceased to believe the Bulgarian propaganda. The old Ilinden guard was demobilized and replaced by a Partisan movement.
Partisan organizers took extraordinary measures to explain to the Macedonian people that they were fighting for freedom and for the liberation of the Macedonian people from the tyranny of the oppressive states. The Macedonian involvement in this war and later in the Greek civil war was not about "Communist ideologies" or about alliances or obligations to the Super Powers. It was simply the next stage in the long struggle for "liberation from oppression" and to fulfill a longing for freedom, re-unification, and self-rule. The Macedonian contribution to fight against Fascism is not only under emphasized, but historians also misinterpret it. I will once again say that the Macedonian people during the Second Great War (WWII) rose on the democratic side and fought against fascism and for the liberation of the states in which they lived. The Macedonian people, like other people in the Balkans fought to liberate their homeland and thus earned their place in the world. This cannot be ignored and must be recognized and recorded in the annals of history.
Word of a Macedonian Partisan movement in Aegean Macedonia spread like wild fire. People came out to the streets to freely speak their native Macedonian language, to sing songs and write Macedonian plays and poetry. The Partisans even set up Macedonian schools and taught children patriotic songs, poems and Macedonian history using the local Macedonian dialects. The younger generations, for the first time, saw written words in their beloved, sacred Macedonian language. The newfound freedom brought happiness to the lives of the oppressed Macedonian people who welcomed the Partisans into their villages as "our own boys and girls". The newfound confidence and strength projected by the Macedonians, terrified the Greeks especially the Andari and their collaborators. For a while they were no longer a threat.
The Germans and Italians did not care one way or another about Macedonian affairs as long as there was no trouble for them.
Macedonian interest in Partisan activities continued to climb, bringing new recruits and volunteers to the cause. Youth organizations (NOMS) were created with young men and women recruited to be the eyes and ears of the community and to help defend the villages. Many young volunteers of military age were recruited and trained to perform policing and civic duties in the newly formed organizations. The famous "all Macedonian" organization SNOF (Slaven Naroden Osloboditen Front or Slavic Macedonian People's Liberation Front) was formed and recruited fighters from the Kostur, Lerin and Voden regions. SNOF even cooperated with Greek organizations with similar ideologies. Later, there was talk about re-uniting Macedonia, possibly through a Balkan confederation. Britain unfortunately, was against the idea and discouraged Greece from taking part in such matters. Bulgaria too could not agree and withdrew support. As usual, the Bulgarians wanted to become rulers of Macedonia, which was unacceptable to the Macedonians.
There is a story told that about five hundred young Macedonian civilian men gathered at the village of D'mbeni eager to join the Partisan movement. Word of this reached the Greek Partisan leadership who appeared to be terrified at the prospect of a strong all Macedonian force. There is nothing the Greeks fear more than losing Macedonia. The Greeks by this time had formed their own Partisan movements (outside of Macedonia) and began to negotiate with the Macedonians about combining forces. For some time Greek Partisan representatives tempted the Macedonians to join them. When negotiations failed to achieve results, the Greeks tried ordering the Macedonians to surrender their arms. Macedonians were well aware of Greek treachery and refused to join them or surrender their arms. Instead they sealed the borders from Bigla to Korcha, rendering them inaccessible to Greeks. Initially the Macedonians acted alone but later they joined a wing of the EAM, the Greek Popular Liberation Army.
The leadership of the Macedonian force in Western Aegean Macedonia was shared between Voivoda Ilia Dimov code named "Goche" and our own Oshchima Voivoda, Mito Tupurkovski code named "Titan". Both commanders were loved by their men for their fighting abilities and respected for their leadership.
I briefly want to mention at this point that in an ironic twist of events, while Mito Tupurkovski engaged the Germans in bitter battles, his mother Sulta was accidentally killed by a stray German bullet.
It was an ordinary summer day in 1944 and for some time now the local people had become accustomed to German patrols making their routine rounds, inspecting the road conditions and the communication lines between Zhelevo and Breznitsa. Early each morning two German soldiers left Zhelevo on foot for Breznitsa and a pair left Breznitsa for Zhelevo. When the patrols met they reversed direction and continued this routine all day long.
On this particular day, ten Partisans came to Oshchima and decided to attack one of the patrols and take the soldiers as hostages. They set a trap in a ditch near Ternaa and sat in wait. While they were waiting, two men from Oshchima, Paso Boglev and Giro Keleshov went to a nearby mill. Paso left his donkey to graze on the road above and stepped inside the mill. When the Germans passed by they borrowed the donkey and one of them rode it as they made their way. When they reached the Partisan trap, the only armed Partisan fired a rapid-fire volley in the air. Unfortunately, after the initial burst, his gun jammed. The Germans quickly took cover in the ravine and started to fire back. Discouraged by their failed attempt the Partisans quickly fled into the mountains. The loud gunfire alerted the German garrison in Zhelevo and reinforcements were quickly dispatched. Paso and Giro also heard the gunfire and came out of the mill to investigate. Seeing a rushing vehicle with armed soldiers headed towards them startled the two men and in panic they fled. Paso ran down to the river and hid out of sight. Giro unfortunately, ran up the hill and was in full view of the German patrol. The Germans, thinking he was the culprit, gave chase. Giro was a fast runner and the Germans couldn't catch him so before he could disappear into the woods, one of the soldiers fired a rapid-fire volley at him. Who would have expected that a bullet from that round would mortally wound Mito's mother Sulta who was quietly sitting in her yard enjoying a beautiful summer's day? Giro escaped unharmed but unfortunately Sulta died from her wound on August 20th, 1944.
In September 1944 German troops began to withdraw from the Balkans. Fearing reprisals, many Macedonians evacuated their villages and set up temporary homes in the mountains in seclusion. As it turned out the Germans were not a threat, so after a month or so villagers returned to their homes. The people that lived near main roads were afraid to return and took up residence with relatives in secluded villages and stayed there until all the Germans were gone.
There was one incident that I know of where the Germans did do damage. This was in the Village of Ternaa where returning Germans found their "host village" empty, became enraged and stoned two old people to death.
To protect soldiers from being attacked out in the open at night, the Germans assigned them residences inside the villages among the locals. Each house was identified with a marker and returning soldiers used it for shelter. In Oshchima, as in other villages, identification numbers were stamped on the outside door of each house. Time and time again the same soldiers came back to the same house. According to stories my family told me, several German soldiers used to spend the night at our house. When someone was missing my grandfather would motion "what happened" and point in the direction where the man had last sat. The Germans would then motion back "sleep", meaning that he was killed or would say "mama" for gone home on leave to visit his family.
After all the German and Bulgarian occupying forces withdrew from Yugoslavia, the Partisans numbering about 800,000 men were in full control. There were no outside invasion forces (Allied or Russian) inside Yugoslavia, so foreign interference was not a problem. At that time the Macedonian Partisans possessed a sizeable force and wielded considerable influence in the ranks of the Tito regime. The Macedonian people did their share of fighting for the liberation of Yugoslavia from the Fascists and earned their place as equals among the Yugoslav people.
On August 2nd 1944, Macedonia was officially proclaimed a Republic within the Yugoslav Federation. A Bitola-Lerin dialect was chosen and adopted as the official language of the Republic and the city of Skopje was chosen as the new Republic's capital.
No sooner had the Germans withdrawn from Greece than the British military arrived in Athens. Athens was evacuated on October 12, 1944 and a British occupation force entered the city a few days later.
While Britain entered Greece with only four thousand troops, most unfit for combat, ELAS (Greek Partisans) in contrast had seventy thousand men armed and ready for combat. Even the British admit that if the Greek Partisans wanted to, they could have seized power. The conditions were certainly right. The question is why didn't they, and what was the Civil War all about? Official history provides no answers, only more questions.
It took the British a couple of months to get organized and by mid December 1944 they had fifty thousand soldiers of their own and some loyal Greek troops to back them. The local Greek troops came from the ranks of the Andari (National Republican Greek League), the same men who fought alongside the Germans. They switched their German gear for British uniforms and they were back on the streets again attacking the Partisans.
As Greece started to collapse, before Germany invaded in 1941, King George II fled and formed a government in exile in London, which was recognized by the Allies as the official Government of Greece. Also, the British in advance of the German departure established a centre of Greek activity in Cairo where a Greek army, navy and air force operated under British command.
After the British consolidated power in Greece, they were able to support the British appointed Greek Government and ordered the Partisans to demobilize. What is interesting here is that before the British were able to militarily enforce a disarmament they ordered the Partisan forces to disband. What is more interesting and noteworthy is that EAM agreed to demobilize its own forces with hardly any conditions. The only condition worthy of mention is the request for Britain to disarm the "Government support units" EAM's main opposition. Knowing full well that Britain would never allow communist rule in Greece and also knowing that the Soviet Union signed an agreement with Britain not to interfere in Greece, EAM still believed it could come to power with no outside help.
When the British went ahead with the original plan, ignoring EAM's request to disarm the Government Support Units, EAM withdrew from the government. EAM then protested against British actions by organizing demonstrations and general strikes. When the Athens square began to flood with thousands of demonstrators, the police were ordered to fire on the crowds killing fifteen people. To make matters worse, Churchill approved a plan for Britain to occupy Athens by any means necessary if required. ELAS still held more than three-quarters of Greece but because it could no longer count on outside (Soviet) support, it had to re-evaluate its own position.
Under these conditions, EAM on January 1945 accepted an armistice, trading guns for votes. The Varkita agreement was signed on February 12, 1945 requiring all bands to demobilize and surrender their weapons. The British, once again confirmed their allegiance to the Greek Government by giving Athens full political and military support, committing their willingness to fight to prevent a Partisan victory. The biggest losers of the Varkita agreement were the Macedonians. As soon as EAM signed the agreement, all anti-Macedonian laws were back in force and the Macedonian people lost all that they had gained during the German occupation. EAM/KKE (Greek Communist Party) made absolutely no effort to safeguard Macedonian rights in the agreements with Britain and as a result began to lose favour with the Macedonian leadership. When the Macedonian Partisan forces were ordered to demobilize as part of the Vartika agreement, the Macedonian leadership refused. Goche and Titan refused to disarm and disband without guarantees that no harm would come to their men or to the Macedonian people.
The question of "what will happen to Aegean Macedonia under Greek communist rule", was still unclear. Greece unfortunately was determined to rid itself of the Macedonians one way or another and outlawed the Macedonian forces. A strike force was assembled by ELAS (the Greek Partisans) and sent north to intervene and arrest the Macedonian outlaws. Instead of putting up a fight however, the Macedonian brigades crossed over the Yugoslav border and entered Vardar Macedonia where they were a welcome addition to existing Macedonian forces fighting the Albanian Balisti (German allies) in Tetovo and Gostivar. The Macedonian leadership could have stayed and fought the ELAS but it would have made no sense to bring the war home to Macedonia. They knew very well that British troops would soon follow and they would be fighting a senseless, bloody war in their own backyard.
With the Macedonian force out of the way, the Greek police were back and up to their old tricks. This time it wasn't only the Macedonians who were their victims. They hated the Greek Partisans just as much. With practically no one to stop them, the Greek police escalated their terror activities arresting, torturing and murdering people indiscriminately. This included the EAM, ELAS and KKE (Communist Party of Greece) leadership. By the time the elections were convened most of the Partisan leadership had disappeared. They were either in jail serving hard time on fabricated and trumped up charges or they were dead.
The elections were scheduled for March 31st, 1946 but instead of voting, the Greek Partisans re-armed themselves and rebelled against the Greek Government. The rebellion manifested itself as an attack on Greece in the village of "Lithohorion" situated East of Mount Olimp (Olympus) directly south of Katerini in Thessaly.
Other attacks soon followed and in no time the conflict escalated into a full scale Civil War, engulfing not only Greece but Macedonia as well.
In a bizarre turn of events the same ELAS, who less than a year ago turned their guns on the Macedonian fighters now extended their hands in friendship. All was forgiven and forgotten when the ELAS leadership asked the Macedonians for their help. This time they came with offers of "equal rights", "recognition" and even possibilities of "re-unification with Vardar".
Now tell me what Macedonian could resist that?
Many Aegean Partisan fighters who had crossed over to Vardar Macedonia only the year before came back. On their return they organized themselves under NOF, the Macedonian National Liberation Front and fought side by side with the ELAS. Many were well aware of the saying "beware of Greeks bearing gifts", and knew that the Greek offer was too good to be true, but there was always that small ray of hope that perhaps this time the outcome for Macedonia might be different. Besides, their families, homes and lives were in Aegean Macedonia, so what other choice did they really have? They returned because they were lonely, because they loved their families and because they had to live with the guilt of leaving their loved ones in dire straits. Every Macedonian born in Macedonia, even in the most desolate places, knows the feeling of homesickness and yearns to return.
The new alliance between ELAS and NOF opened many opportunities for the Greek Partisans beyond the Greek borders. While the Greek government controlled the big cities and towns, the Partisan strength was in the villages and mountains. Most of the Partisan recruits came from the peasant population and showed themselves to be idealistic, hopeful and determined to fight. Camps were set up in mountainous seclusion where new recruits were given combat training. There were also training camps and supply depots set up outside Greece, in Albania and Yugoslavia. One such camp was the town of Bulkes located in northern Yugoslavia. Bulkes was a beautiful town with neat rows of lovely houses and fertile lands that could feed an army. The Germans built Bulkes to house German families but after the German armies retreated, some residents of Bulkes were kicked out while others left voluntarily. The empty town was loaned to the Greek Partisans to use as a supply depot for warehousing food, uniforms and weapons. Bulkes was also a training centre for officers, and an administrative centre for propaganda. During the Partisan days the town of Bulkes was administered in the true spirit of socialism.
By early 1947, the Partisan force was showing real strength in military capability and promise for delivering on its commitments to the Macedonian people. About 87 Macedonian schools were opened in the Lerin and Kostur regions. A record number of students (10,000) were reported attending school. Macedonian literature and culture seemed to flourish. The Greeks, unfortunately, were never at ease with the Macedonian gains and there was visible resentment and mistrust between the two peoples. Greek chauvinism seemed to flourish even at the best of times. Macedonians on the other hand were never at ease about revealing their real names or identities, especially to the Greek Partisans. One Macedonian explained it to me this way, "If they knew that you were Macedonian then you had to watch both your front and back, because you never knew where the next bullet was going to come from".
In Macedonia the ranks of the Partisans were swelling mostly with volunteers from the patriotic Macedonian villages. Some who had combat experience were promoted to the rank of officer. The Greeks were hesitant and careful not to promote Macedonians to high ranks. Those they reserved for Greeks only. In addition to enlisting men, the Partisans also drafted women as nurses, field medics, tailors, menders, launderers, cooks, supply organizers and even armed combatants. For a while the Partisans grew their own food in donated and abandoned fields. The workforce managing the harvests and delivering food to the Partisan camps was made up mostly of women volunteers.
Britain was not happy with the new developments and squeezed the Greek Government to expand its military capability and to arm itself with heavy arms. "Up to 1947 the British Government appointed and dismissed Greek Prime Ministers with the barest attention to constitutional formalities. British experts dictated economic and financial policy, defence and foreign policy, security and legal policy, trade union and unemployment policy". (page 306, Barbara Jelevich, History of the Balkans, Twentieth Century).
For her interference inside a Sovereign State's affairs and for allowing heavy-handed tactics, Britain received criticism from the United States whose dollars were used to rebuild Greece.
Both the Greek Government and the Partisans were recruiting fighters from the same population. While young men were drafted to fight for the Greek Government, their wives, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers were drafted to fight for the Partisans. There were heavy propaganda campaigns conducted on both sides poisoning the minds of the young and impressionable, dividing and tearing the community apart and pitting brother against brother.
This was the Greek legacy passed on to the Macedonian people for offering their help. This was the "Greek curse" that many Macedonians must bear for partnering with the Greeks. To this day many Macedonians harbour hard feelings and struggle to make amends. To this day the Macedonian community remains divided on this issue.
Ever since the day the British set foot in Greece, they were adamant about ridding themselves of the Partisans by any means possible, even condoning acts of violence and terror. From mid-1945 to May 20th, 1947, the Partisans reported that "in Western Macedonia alone, 13,529 Macedonians were tortured, 3,215 were imprisoned, and 268 were executed without trial. In addition, 1,891 houses were burnt down and 1,553 were looted, and 13,808 Macedonians were resettled by force. During the war, Greek-run prison camps where Macedonians were imprisoned, tortured, and killed included the island of Ikaria near Turkey, the Island of Makronis near Athens, the jail Averov near Athens, the jail at Larisa near the Volos Peninsula, and the jail in Thessaloniki. Aegean Macedonian expatriates claim that there were mass killings on Vicho, Gramos, Kaymakchalan, and at Mala Prespa in Albania." (page 116 John Shea, Macedonia and Greece, The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation).
In 1946 the Greek police attacked a band of musicians from Oshchima and Ternaa at Popli while they were on their way to play at a wedding in Rudari. The musicians were severely beaten and their musical instruments were destroyed. For one young man his trumpet was his only means of support.
In 1946, a Greek policeman shot and killed Sofia Ianovska from Zhelevo for fun. The woman, whose husband was in Canada at the time, was standing on her front porch waiting for her children to arrive from work. The crazed policeman fired at the woman because she was looking in his direction, instantly killing her. According to local accounts, no inquiry was made regarding the shooting nor was the policeman ever questioned about his actions.
In 1945-46, in retaliation for one of their own being killed, the Prosfigi (people that Greece imported from Asia Minor during the 1920's) of Popli killed Nikola Cholakov, an innocent man from Orovnik. The only connection Nikola had with the dead man was that he was a supporter of the opposite side in the conflict.
I have been told that the Prosfigi in Macedonia committed atrocities against the Macedonian people, and were never punished for their crimes. I also want to emphasize that the Macedonian Partisans had the strength and opportunity to round up all the Prosfigi in north-western Macedonia and massacre them to the last one but instead they used sound judgement and left them alone. Macedonians understand that the Prosfigi are also victims of Hellenism.
The Greek Government in Macedonia worked closely with local collaborators and enlisted from the Macedonian population only those who could be proven trustworthy. The collaborators worked hard to identify all those who were sympathetic to the Partisans and reported on their activities on a regular basis. Anyone reported aiding the Partisans was severely punished and sometimes executed.
In the spring of 1947, all those who were on the "bad guys" lists were rounded up, arrested and locked up in the Lerin jails. Those accused of aiding the Partisans were taken out and executed. The rest, after spending one hundred days in jail, without a trial, were sent to various concentration camps in the most desolate Greek Islands.
I want to mention something very important here because I believe the Greek Government, even before the Greek civil war, had plans "to deal with the Macedonians in Greece". "In 1947, during the Greek civil war, the legal act L-2 was issued. This meant that all those who left Greece without the consent of the Greek government were stripped of Greek citizenship and banned from returning to the country. The law applied to Greeks and Macedonians, but in its modernized version the act is binding only on Macedonians. It prevents Macedonians, but not former Communist Greeks who fought against the winning side from returning to Greece and reclaiming property. On January 20, 1948, the legal act M was issued. This allowed the Greek government to confiscate the property of those who were stripped of their citizenship. The law was updated in 1985 to exclude Greeks, but still binding on Macedonians." (Pages 116, 117 John Shea, Macedonia and Greece, The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation).
Clearly acts L-2 and M were designed to work against the interest of the Macedonian people. Even innocent Macedonians who left before the Civil war were not allowed to return. The question now is, "What was Greece planning to do with the Macedonians?" The way acts L-2 and M were enforced over the years brings another question to mind. If there were no Macedonians living in Greece, as the Greeks claim, then what nationality were these people the Greek Government refused to allow back? Why is it that Greek law makes the distinction between Macedonians and Greeks when it suits Greece and not when it benefits the Macedonians?
By the end of 1947 battles were raging everywhere and the war was slowly moving north into Macedonia. Clearly this was a "Greek War", yet again the Macedonian population was being sucked into it. The heavily armed Greek Air force and mechanized artillery gained control of most cities and main roads. The Partisans were literally trapped and continued their strictly defensive campaigns mainly from the mountains of Vicho and Gramos.
As the situation became critical, both sides stepped up their recruitment campaigns and again were drawing from the same population. The Partisans could no longer count on volunteers alone and began to enlist fighters by force and drafted anyone they could get their hands on, male or female. In addition to support roles, women were now armed and given combat duties to fight alongside the men against the well trained, well disciplined and heavily armed Greek Army. Such was the fate of the Macedonian daughters, sisters, and mothers most of whom were taken by force to fight in someone else's war.
As the war intensified, the Greek air force regularly bombed Macedonian villages putting the civilian population, including the children, in danger.
To save the children, in the spring of 1948 a temporary evacuation program was introduced and implemented on a voluntary basis. It is estimated that about 28,000 children from the ages of 2 to 14 were rounded up and taken across the border into Yugoslavia (more on this in part VIII). From there they were sent to various Eastern Block countries.
Again, I want to point out that the evacuation program was sponsored and organized by the Greek Partisan Leadership which was fully versed in "Greek Law"(act L-2), yet they carried out the children's evacuation program and lied to the trusting mothers that the evacuation was only a temporary measure. Almost all the Macedonian children who were evacuated in 1948 are still not allowed entry into Greece.
By the spring of 1949, the Greek Civil War became a "killing field" consuming the Macedonian population. Some of the children who were previously evacuated were brought back to fight against the battle hardened Greek army. Children that were strong enough to carry a rifle, regardless of age, were snatched from the child refugee camps in Romania and brought back to Greece. Two of the three groups that were brought back were instantly massacred upon engaging the Greek Army. They were all under the age of fifteen and had no combat training and no idea of what to expect.
The third group was spared only because mothers protested against such barbaric acts. The Partisans demobilized the third group before it reached the battlefields and sent the children home.
By the twisted hand of fate, Zachariadis the supreme commander of the Partisan forces and his cronies, in their wisdom, decided to make a final stand against Greece that would make or break the Partisan movement. Their rationale was that the Partisans needed to occupy a large town or city to serve as their base. This would make them worthy of consideration and perhaps gain the attention of the Super Powers, especially the Soviet Union. There are many who share my belief in believing that the Partisan attack on Lerin on February 12, 1949 was nothing more than an attempt to exterminate the Macedonian fighting force and terrorize the rest of the Macedonian population into leaving Greece. I can say that with certainty now because that is exactly what happened.
In one last-ditch attempt to gain composure and legitimacy the Partisans attacked the city of Lerin attempting to create a base of operation and show the world that they were a force worthy of recognition. Their effort however was not rewarded. They did not capture Lerin and lost most of the force in the attempt. Seven hundred young Macedonian men and women died on that fateful day, their bodies buried in a mass grave. The Partisan leadership waited until dawn before ordering the attack. Wave after wave of innocent young men and women were slaughtered, cut down in their prime by Greek machine-gun fire. The horror of the slaughter became visible at the crack of dawn when the first light revealed the red stained terrain. The fresh white snow was red with the blood and bodies of the fallen.
To this day opinions are divided on the rationale of attacking Lerin so late in the war. The war was almost over and the Greek Army, supported by Britain, was unstoppable. In retrospect, some believe that gaining control of Lerin would have given the Partisan leadership a bargaining chip for surrender. Looking at the facts however, reveals a more sinister plan. By now it was well known throughout the world that Britain would not allow a communist influence in Greece. Britain's decision was supported by the Soviet Union and by Stalin himself. The Partisan leadership was well informed that it can no longer depend on support from the Communist Block countries under Soviet influence. Relations with Yugoslavia had broken off and the Greek-Yugoslav border was closed (more on this later). The Communist Party that promised Macedonians human rights and freedoms slowly began to distance itself from its commitments. Most of the Partisans who fought in the battle for Lerin were new recruits and inexperienced fighters. Most of the force was made up of Macedonian men and women under Greek leadership. The Partisan command hesitated when it was time to launch the offensive thus giving the enemy extra time to prepare its defenses. The hesitation demoralized the Partisan combatants who were not prepared for the prolonged outdoor winter cold.
A cursory analysis of developments prior to the Lerin assault and a post-mortem of the aftermath led to one inescapable conclusion. As I mentioned earlier, the assault on Lerin was designed to destroy the Macedonian Partisan force. By offering the Lerin offensive instead of surrendering, the Partisan leadership "sacrificed its own force". By accident or by design the assault on Lerin contributed to the demise of many Macedonian fighters and to the mass exodus of the Macedonian population. Many believe that the Greek civil war succeeded in "ethnically cleansing" the Macedonian people where many years of assimilation had failed.
Fearing reprisal from the advancing Greek army, in August 1949 waves of refugees left their homes and went to Albania to save themselves. When the war was over, Greece did not want them back. As a result, they were sent to Eastern Block countries that were willing to take them.
Years later some tried to return but Greece (act L-2) would not allow it. Even innocent Macedonians, who did not participate in the conflict, including the evacuated refugee children, were refused entry (again act L-2). Years passed and still they were refused entry again and again. They were not even allowed to visit ailing relatives. Finally in 1985, as I mention earlier, a repatriation policy was introduced and amnesty was given but only to those of "Greek origin". This again excluded the Macedonians.
As the Macedonian terrain was rained upon by bombs from the air and from cannon fire, the frightened Macedonian people, mostly made up of old men and women and mothers with young children, took with them whatever they could carry and left their homes for the safety of the mountains. From there they were told to go to Albania and meet up with their relatives.
"One such group left the village of Kolomnati and was headed down the mountain towards Rula when it was spotted by a young Greek officer. The young man immediately telephoned his general and informed him of the situation. 'Should we intercept?' inquired the young officer. 'No, let the troublemakers go, we don't want them here,' replied the old general." (story told by the general's assistant who asked to remain anonymous).
When the Greek Army broke the Lerin front the Partisan force that survived the onslaught fled for Albania. The fighters closest to the city were captured and imprisoned. Those who confessed to having voluntarily joined the Partisans were all executed. The others were either exiled in the Greek Islands or released after serving their sentences in local jails.
In its pursuit of the fleeing Partisans, the Greek Army managed to cut off the escape route of a group of Partisans who were manning the cannons and artillery fire at Bigla (the cannons after the war were put on display in the city of Lerin). Being unable to flee for Albania, the Bigla group attempted to cross into Yugoslavia near Prespa Lake. At the Yugoslav border they were stopped by the Yugoslav army, which agreed to allow them passage only if they voluntarily disarmed. Expecting to continue the war from Albania, the Partisans were reluctant to disarm and chose a different escape route. Unfortunately, they attempted their escape during the daytime and were spotted by the Greek Air force. Many were killed by machinegun fire from above and some drowned attempting to swim across Lake Prespa. Only a small group made it to Albania.
When they arrived in Albania, to cover for their own blunders, the leaders of the Bigla group concocted stories claiming that Tito's forces attacked them and would not allow them entry into Yugoslavia. Later the same men changed their stories and told the truth about what happened. Unfortunately, by then Greek Partisan and Yugoslav relations had deteriorated. Even though Yugoslavia was one of EAM's strongest supporters, the Greek Partisans used this story in their propaganda campaigns to discredit Tito in the eyes of the Soviet Union.
When the Greek Civil War was over, the Partisan leadership assembled in the abandoned Italian camp of Bureli in Albania to assess what went wrong and why they lost the war. After some deliberation, they came to the conclusion that it was Tito and the Macedonian collaboration that sabotaged the war effort. The failure was blamed on the Macedonian Partisan leadership for co-operating with Tito's Partisans. Seven of the most loyal Macedonian leaders were accused of sabotage and sentenced to death. Fortunately, Ever Hodzha (Albania's highest State Leader) did not want atrocities committed in his country and would not allow the executions to take place. The men were then taken to the Soviet Union, tried for treason and sentenced to life imprisonment to be served in the prison camps of Siberia. After Stalin's death, Krushchev re-opened the case and found the men innocent of all charges and released them.
After the Greek Civil War was over, life in Aegean Macedonia was no longer the same. The smaller villages were evacuated (some permanently) and the people were relocated to the larger towns under the watchful eye of the Greek police. The familiar joy and laughter was gone and the streets were barren of children. The proud Macedonian people, who only a few years before had revelled in life, were once again joyless.
Through the conflict of the Second Great War a new-world order emerged. Two industrial giants, the Soviet Union and the Unites States, rose above the rest and with their opposing ideologies would dominate the future world.
To be continued in part VIII.
You can contact the author at [email protected]
1. John Shea, Macedonia and Greece The Struggle to Define a New Balkan Nation, McFarland
2. Barbara Jelavich, History of the Balkans, Twentieth Century
3. The Marshall Cavendish Illustrated Encyclopedia of World War II Volume 4
4. Benefit Society Oshchima 75th Anniversary 1907-1982 Toronto-Canada
5. Vasil Bogov, Macedonian Revelation, Historical Documents rock and shatter Modern Political Ideology
6. Interviews with survivors of WWII and the Greek Civil War