An Illustrated History of Slavic Misery: The IMRO and Macedonian Revolutionaries

Posted on August 3, 2014


Yeah, that’s a pretty long title isn’t it. I could have put the IMRO for short, but then I wouldn’t have this handy little intro bit.

The Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, or IMRO for short, were a revolutionary movement in Ottoman Europe that went by many different names throughout their time, but pretty much had the same goal throughout their existence. This was a goal however, that had two different aspects that unfortunately had opposite points. One of these was to gain autonomy for the Macedonian people, who up to this point had been put upon by the Ottomans, the Bulgarians, the Greeks and the Serbs, all of whom claimed that the Macedonians were theirs. The second goal, the contradictory one, was that they hoped to promote Bulgarian politics in the region, eventually leading to the annexation of Macedonia. So yeah, Macedonian independence, but Bulgarian hegemoney. Good thinking guys.

Founded in 1893 in Thessaloniki (yeah, Greece), the original group stated that they considered Macedonia an indivisible territory. That is to say that what we know as the three regions today, Aegean Macedonia (Greece), Vardar Macedonia (today’s Republic of Macedonia) and Pirin Macedonia (Bulgaria) are one area, and should exist as such. They mostly wanted the Ottoman Turks out, something that all the Slavs of the Balkans had in common. The IMRO was originally an organization based on moral and intellectualism only, whose earliest leaders were radical socialists and anarchists. These leaders had a mix of the two dominating belief systems, with Macedonian regionalism wrapped in a Bulgarian shell.

Much like Kosovo in the 1990s, idealism didn’t bring any acceptable results so the organisation fell into horrific violence. The heavy handed repression handed down to its activities from the Turks only led to the IMRO becoming more and more militant in its ways. The attacks on Ottoman officials increased, as did the violence against pro-Serb and pro-Greek portions of the population, The IMRO began to splinter into different factions, each as violent as the next. The violence had one eye fixed on attracting the Great Powers to the plight of the Macedonians, in the hope that they would get involved against the ailing Ottoman empire. All of this came to a head at what has come to be known as the Ilinden St Elijah’s Day Uprising, in 1903.

The Ilinden Uprising was an organised rebellion on the 2nd of August 1903. As expected, the different factions of the IMRO were split on whether this was the right idea at the time, but the uprising went ahead earlier than scheduled. Much like other rebellions against the empires at the time, there was some initial success. A provisional government was established in the town of Krusevo, leading to what is known as the Krusevo Republic, the first of its kind in the Balkans. It lasted a whole 10 days. An uprising began in Thrace in an attempt to support the Macedonians by engaging the Ottomans on a different flank, but this was to no use. The whole thing was over, and Turkish reprisal was about to commence.

You’ve read this far, have a guess how the Ottoman reaction went? Yeah, many did a death. Massacres. Brutal, brutal massacres, all over the place. The whole thing was quashed. Quashed to the point that the outside world did indeed kinda get involved, but in a very half-arsed manner. Half-arsed enough for nothing really to change. However, the violence has led to the leaders of the uprising being regarded as true Macedonian heroes in this day and age, so there is that. The day the uprising began is also considered a national day in the country now too. The uprising led to the IMRO splitting completely, with its pro-Bulgarian and pro-Macedonian factions completely alienated from each other. The terrorism continued, only now it was against each other. Crazy fools.

The Balkan wars came and went, and the organisation was pretty ineffectual. Indeed, their constant use of violence led to total alienation of their two sets of supporters, and by now the IMRO had moved to the fringes of the fringe. This would be the death knell for the organisation. The Bulgarian side had irredentism written all over them, and as such were kicked out of Bulgaria. The Macedonian side weren’t as blatant, but the newly created state of Yugoslavia was paranoid to have them disbanded just in case. The hit and run attacks continued, mostly in Yugoslavia with the assistance of Italian fascists. They even received some support from the Soviet Union, who saw this as a good way of destabilising the Balkan monarchies.

Their favourite activity seemed to be assassination, and no one was safe. The most famous of these was the joint hit on King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in Marseille (France), where they joined the Croatian Ustase in bumping off the king. This would be their last real act of note however, and the whole thing ended with a fizz. Nowadays the IMRO is active in Macedonian politics, but in the same way as I’m active with regards to my exercise. Which is to say barely.

The IMRO is a great example of the confused world of South-Slavic rebellion in the Ottoman Empire. The organisation started off brightly, led by fresh young men with big ideas and the thinking ability to get them through this. When things didn’t happen immediately, they quickly reverted to violence, which soon got out of control and became full blown terrorism. Much like a promising student at school who gets in with the wrong crowd and ends up committing petty crime on the street to fund their drug habit, the IMRO couldn’t recover once they got their first hit of violence. They started with the best intentions, and ended up just killing folk.