No Borders, No Nations: Making Greece in Macedonia

Author: John Agnew
Affiliation: University of California, Los Angeles.
DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.2007.00545.x

Macedonia's centrality to the making of Greece over the past century provides the empirical grounding for an exploration of how cultural-symbolic borrowing rather than cross-border othering has been crucial for border making in Modern Greece and, by extension, everywhere in the world.

There has been a recent revival in studies of borders between states and what they mean in relation to both the history of state formation and the effects of globalization on state power.

Typically, however, the borders between modern “nation-states” are seen as originating in cross-pressures between pairs of neighboring states just the same in Africa today as, say, in nineteenth-century France.

The wider contemporary geographical context may be invoked in terms of the “sides” taken in particular border disputes by other nearby states or by the Great Powers.

Rarely, however, is the wider historical-geopolitical context invoked as the primary source of the practices, simultaneously material and symbolic, that produce the desire for precise borders in the first place. With increased globalization, however, the making of Greece in Macedonia may become increasingly problematic because the political logic of all national border-making is increasingly in question.


A chronological narrative of the role of Macedonia in the making of a Modern Greek nationstate provides a vivid example of the way in which borders crucially enter into the very definition of nationhood. 

In the Greek case, the desire to construct a state came initially from the Greek commercial diaspora scattered around the Mediterranean and Black Seas and in the cities of Central and Western Europe allied to the romantic aspiration, shared with ‘‘philhellenic’’ Western intellectuals (most famously England’s Lord Byron), to liberate Balkan Christians from the Ottoman Turks and, hopefully, to reestablish the glory of ancient Greece. If there was a concentration of identifiably Greek people living in the southern part of the Balkan Peninsula, many if not most Greeks (of either linguistic or religious qualification) lived scattered well beyond this territory. Of course, quite what constituted a ‘‘Greek’’ as opposed to a Balkan Christian or even a Turkish Christian remained very much in doubt. As Greece was made, so were the Greeks.

The numerous popular revolts against the Ottomans over the years had never taken a national cast until the early nineteenth century but even then the first Modern Greek state was a largely foreign enterprise financed by Britain and France and in the hands of a Bavarian prince and administrators.


In this way, historic association and present occupancy became fatefully fused (and confused) in a cartographic representation ‘‘justifying the ‘liberation’ of the territories concerned and their annexation to Greece’’ (Tolias 2001, 15). At the same time, various apparently distinguishable groups in and around the borders of the state (particularly ‘‘Albanians’’ and ‘‘Vlachs,’’ the largely Hellenized speakers of a language akin to Romanian) were accused of ‘‘brigandage’’ that Turkish misrule was held to have passed on to them. They could be Balkan Christians but only as Hellenized Greeks could they be rescued from their outsider status. Until this happened, they were the aliens against whom Greek nationhood could be most readily defined (Tzanelli 2002).

To push beyond their dependent status and to live up to the nationalist imagination of a Greece that included
most Greeks within its compass and that was ‘‘true’’ to its Hellenic genealogy, Greek nationalists used their fusion of ethnic and historical arguments to justify territorial expansion. By the late nineteenth century this was part of what has been called a ‘‘territorial hysteria’’ (Bibo´1986) as Greeks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Macedonian Slavs (and others) all strove to carve out nation-states for themselves from the European rump of the Ottoman Empire.


On the Greek side, a Hellenic ideal of past cultural greatness in need of discovery and revival was the overwhelming thrust of the cultural redefinition involved in the process of popular recruitment to the national cause (Herzfeld 1982; Peckham 2001; Bien 2005).

From this viewpoint, Byzantine and Ottoman influences had corrupted the ancient mores. Local folklore studies (dances, music, clothing, etc.) were used to both reveal and teach how the ‘‘masses belonged to the nation or ethnos’’ (Peckham 2001, 67). Capturing Macedonia was particularly important in this endeavor.

Not only would this bring together ancient and Byzantine conceptions of the Greek nation, thus reconciling the Church and the modern nation, it also justified a popular imperialism in which modern Greece was tied historically to Alexander the Great through the potential occupation of his homeland. Out of this confluence developed a romantic Hellenism in which Macedonia was defined as the ‘‘lung of Greece’’ and its possible ‘‘loss’’ as a mutilation (Dragoumis 1907; Vakalopoulos 1987). In this construction, Macedonia was potentially a repository of ancient Greek ideals as well as a pocket of cultural pollution. Paradoxically, therefore, it was at one and the same time both vital to the nation and a threat to its integrity. Macedonia is the historic name for a large area that was shared following the border delimitations after the First World War between Bulgaria, Greece, and Yugoslavia. It comprises the watershed of the Vardar River with the two main cities of Salonica in northeastern Greece and Skopje in Yugoslavia providing the communication and transportation axis through the region.

The region was populated predominantly with SlavoMacedonians and Bulgarians at the time of the Balkan Wars (1912–1913), although the cosmopolitan city of Salonica, with its large Jewish, Muslim, and Greek populations, was exceptional (Mazower 2004). Macedonia’s division into Pirin (Bulgarian), Vardar (Serbian), and Aegean (Greek) segments left a significant SlavMacedonian population in Greek Macedonia, particularly in rural areas and in and around Florina in the west.

The fervently held nationalist goal of incorporating the whole of Macedonia into Greece came up against a complex local reality that long seemed to challenge the ideal. The border now ran through a potential zone of expansion rather than simply delimited the limit of a territorial claim (Figure 1B). For a time Greek territorial claims in Macedonia became increasingly inseparable from a vision of a Greek state that would incorporate Crete, Macedonia, the Aegean islands, Cyprus, the west coast of Asia Minor, Constantinople (Istanbul), and areas around the Black Sea. Rather like the analogous claim to a Greater Serbia devoted to uniting all Serbs under one government, the image of Greater Greece (known as the Great Idea) was to lead to disastrous wars against the Turks first in 1897 and then, most devastatingly, in 1922. Such an expansive irredentism was at the root of Greek ‘‘cartographic anxiety’’ from the founding of the state down to the 1920s (Peckham 2001, 40).

With so many potential Greeks scattered beyond the territorial limits of the state, the possibility of incorporating all of them in a territorial form was always problematic. The initial success in Macedonia compared to failure in many other places was to be reinforced, therefore, when in the aftermath of the failed attempt at expanding into Asia Minor in 1922, the Orthodox Christian population of Anatolia was exchanged for much of the Muslim population of mainland Greece, with the majority of the transplants to Greece settling in Greek Macedonia. In this way a Macedonia still ambiguously Greek at best was ethnicized or made increasingly Greek by the transfusion of refugees (Pentzopoulos 2002; Hirschon 2003).

Uncertainty about the Greek status of Macedonia, however, did not disappear (Figure 1C). Indeed, with the incorporation of only one part of the historic region into Greece, Macedonia became, if anything, even more central to the self-definition of the nation. In the 1930s authoritarian Greek governments attempted to impose a cultural uniformity in Greek Macedonia by forbidding the use of languages other than Greek and denying the contemporary existence of any degree of regional ethnic heterogeneity. In the aftermath of the Second World War, when Greece had been invaded and devastated by the Axis powers of Italy and Germany, a Communist insurgency broke out against the Royalist Greek government as it returned home from exile. The Greek Civil War came to be as much about the ‘‘Macedonian Question’’ as it was about a change of government in Greece as a whole (Jones 1989, 66–67, 200–1, 222–23).

Particularly in its later phase, as the insurgents were forced into pockets near the Albanian and Yugoslav borders, the issue of the political future of Macedonia divided the Communist leadership as one group attempted to mobilize Slav-Macedonian support by backing an autonomous Macedonia that would then join Yugoslavia. Of course, by this time the great majority of people in Greek Macedonia saw themselves as ethnically Greek, so this meant largely abandoning whatever support they may have offered. Splits among the Communists in 1949 over whether to back a Yugoslav or Bulgarian association and successive defeats following the fateful adoption of a conventional military posture that played into the hands of the U.S.-supported Greek army led to an ever greater reliance on non-Greek recruits. Many people who fought on the Communist side or who found themselves targets of Greek government revenge, including their families or just their children, left Greek Macedonia as the war wound down. Most never returned home, either staying in Yugoslav Macedonia or emigrating to Australia and other countries in the early 1950s (Danforth 1995, 2003).

The U.S. military and economic assistance to the Greek government from 1947 to 1949 was the first fruit of the Truman Doctrine of U.S. commitment to back governments struggling with Communist insurgencies. Even after the defeat of the Greek Communists, collective memory of the critical position of Macedonia in the Civil War combined with the continuing dynamic of the Cold War to create a popular ideology, particularly powerful on the political right, in which leftist politics (whether truly Communist or not) was labeled as ‘‘Slavic’’ and its proponents as ‘‘Slavs’’ or ‘‘Bulgarians.’’

This ethnicization of political ideology fits into a pattern of Greek nationalist thought that long predates the Civil War (Herzfeld 1982, 55-60).

Classical and, by extension, modern Greek culture are associated with individualism, whereas the Slavs are associated with conformism and collectivism. Harking back to the challenge to Hellenism from the ‘‘execrable’’ Jakob Fallmerayer, the Austrian writer who in the 1840s had denied modern Greeks any racial affinity with the ancient ones and thus viewed them as definitely not European but as a mix of Slavs and Albanians (Herzfeld 1982, 75–81), the recycling of this opposition serves to rescue the Greeks from such a fate. In 1950, it not only made leftist politics un-Greek, it effectively situated Greece in the modern First or ‘‘free’’ World of the United States and Western Europe in counterpoint to the Communist or ‘‘captive’’ Second World of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The Makronisos prison camp established to detain and reeducate leftist guerrillas, for example, required inmates to build replicas of ancient Greek monuments to show ‘‘not only the inmates but to all dissidents in Greece that the ancient Greek ‘spirit,’which had survived to the present, was incompatible with modern radical ideologies. Communists and other left-wing citizens were associated with the national ‘other,’ which in the context of the Civil War and Cold War was ‘Slavo-Communism’ ’’ (Hamilakis 2002, 318; also see Van Steen 2005). The Modern Greek historical experience in Macedonia, therefore, continued to have a negatively charged valence in postwar Greece, even as the symbolism of ancient Macedonia as integral to Greece retained its hold on Greek nationalism. If anything, this latter acquired ever greater importance be cause of continuing difficulty on other irredentist fronts, particularly in bringing Cyprus into the national fold and because of the disaster of 1955 when a pogrom in Istanbul was directed largely against that city’s Greek minority, most of whom were forced to flee the city (Kuyucu 2005;Vryonis 2005).

Increasingly, however, two conflicting images of Greek culture threatened to divide Greek nationalism: the ‘‘Hellenic’’ as directly derivative of the ancient Greeks from whom ‘‘modern’’ Greeks descended and the ‘‘Romeic’’ in which Greeks were more immediately the inheritors of Byzantine and Turkish influences (Herzfeld 2001, 17). The succession of post–Second World War military governments and, in particular, the Colonels dictatorship of 1967–1974 attempted to resolve these contradictions finally. The dictator George Papadopoulos aggressively pursued what he called a ‘‘Greece of the Hellenic Christians,’’ managing in one slogan to bring together both strands of the origins of national culture yet also to draw attention to their mutual exclusivity as pagan and Christian. Herzfeld (2001, 18) notes how much these official efforts related to lation of Macedonian sentiment, and this is certainly an important part of the picture. But it is equally significant that Greek politicians have long felt the need to claim Macedonia as an integral part of what one might call the ‘‘prehistory’’ of the Greek state. It is important to keep these details in mind when contemplating present day struggles over the definition of the past in Greece...

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