Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History

Lecture No. 11: Macedonia and the failure of Ottoman reforms

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The Ottomans and the Habsburgs were not passive spectators in the face of the revolutionary nationalist movements that eventually destroyed their empires. Leaders in both countries regarded reform efforts as an alternative that could blunt unrest and satisfy the mass of their populations.

In the nineteenth century, science and material progress seemed to offer solutions to society's problems. In viewing the Balkans, reformers assumed that backwardness was the real source of dissatisfaction, not political aspirations along ethnic-national lines. If corruption, crime and poverty could be eliminated, Balkan unrest was expected to end. By this analysis, reform promised to sustain both political and socio-economic changes: it was possible that common folk would tolerate, if not embrace, regimes that could deliver personal security, civil liberties and economic opportunity.

However, it was one thing to draw up reform plans on paper and another to make them work. As can be seen by examining Ottoman efforts in Macedonia and Habsburg efforts in Bosnia-Hercegovina, both empires lacked the resources or the will or both to carry out their reform plans.

Traditional Ottoman reform

Reform of a traditional kind had been an element in Ottoman life since the 1600s, when the first military defeats led reformers to examine their own society. Traditional Ottoman reform thought had five characteristics that limited the scope of reform.

First, the Ottomans assumed that their Muslim institutions were superior to those of non-Muslims. Reformers expected to tinker with existing structures, not adopt Western European models. In the belief that their society was based on divine tenets, devout Muslims doubted that mortal leaders could or should try new ideas. Secular ideas, such as scientific inquiry and philosophical skepticism, were especially suspect.

Second, the continued strength of some institutions in Ottoman society blocked efforts to change socially dysfunctional elements. For example, the "ulema" (the Muslim religious hierarchy, law courts and schools) was powerful enough to prevent changes in law or education. And the janissary infantry was capable of killing reformers who planned to reform the Ottoman army: their victims included Osman II in 1622, and Selim III in 1807.

Third, reform was only taken seriously in times of crisis. Some crises were so serious that irreparable damage was done to the country before reforms could have an effect; and sometimes the state was too weak during a crisis to take effective action.

Fourth, traditional reform solutions focused on external causes of problems, such as military defeats or humiliating foreign loans. Reformers failed to see that these events were superficial symptoms of deeper problems inside Ottoman society.

Fifth, reform remained superficial because Ottoman politics involved significant individuals, not mass movements that might have spread reform thinking to the whole society. Without mass support, reformers could be isolated and defeated, or simply ignored.

Modern Ottoman reform

Modern Ottoman reforms began with the importation of Western ideas and Western experts, and planned changes in fundamental military, political, social and economic institutions. This process began after the disastrous Kuchuk Kainarji Treaty in 1774.

Several sultans sought French advice to create modern artillery and naval units, until Selim III went too far by planning a "new army" to replace the janissaries, who reacted by toppling him from power in 1807. His successor, Mahmut II, ruled  for three decades (from 1808 to 1839) and this gave him time to proceed slowly. Mahmut II began with a modern corps of artillery, which did not directly compete with the interests of the janissaries. He also wooed the "ulema" by pious acts such as the building of mosques; as an ally of the ulema and its religious schools, he could decree universal primary education in 1824. Mahmut waited for 18 years before challenging the janissaries: when he did, he had loyal forces with modern arms at hand who crushed the old corps during the so-called the "Auspicious Incident" of 1826.

No longer in fear of his life, Mahmut II next reduced the power of conservative religious institutions. He abolished the conservative Bektashi order of dervishes and reorganized the Divan (the state council) to separate religious and secular authorities. The Sheikh-ul-Islam, the head of the ulema, remained responsible for education and the court system, but was embedded in an administrative bureaucracy that restricted his freedom to act. The Grand Vezir was transformed from a medieval palace official into a virtual prime minister, directing Western-style cabinet ministries for War, Finance, the Interior and foreign affairs. The reformed Ottoman state was not a liberal state, but closer to the enlightened despotism of Joseph II. There was no parliament, and new institutions like the postal service were created in order to increase central power.

In several ways, Mahmut II broke with traditional reformers.  First, he actively sought Western ideas. He sent student and military cadets to study in Paris. At home, he founded a military academy, a music academy (run by a brother of the composer Donizetti) and a medical school with a curriculum in French. Mahmut set up a state press to publish laws and decrees and sponsored a French language newspaper which began publication in 1834.

Second, Mahmut II altered the daily routines of Ottoman life so that all citizens became engaged in change. The sultan became an active figure in the state instead of an aloof symbol. Chairs and desks replaced couches and cushions in government offices. Dress changed. Soldiers already wore Western style uniform pants, tunics and boots instead of robes and slippers. An 1829 law reserved traditional robes and turbans for members of the ulema: other citizens had to adopt Western clothing and wear the fez, a cap introduced from North Africa.

Other reforms attacked real social abuses through systematic measures. The much-abused tax-farming system was replaced by a system of salaried state tax collectors. To ensure fair and accurate taxes, a census was carried out between 1831 and 1838. Appointed mayors replaced guild officers as city administrators.

Tanzimat reforms

These reforms still failed to address the grievances of non-Muslims, who were treated as second-class citizens and exploited by Muslim criminals and corrupt officials. The third wave of government reforms, known as the "Tanzimat", sought to establish legal and social equality for all Ottoman citizens. Abdul Mejid I was only 16 when he succeeded his father Mahmut II in 1839, but he was able to continue the reforms by surrounding himself with talented administrators.

Only five months into his reign, Abdul Mejid issued the "Hatti-Sherif of Gulhane" of 1839 (the Noble Rescript of the Rose Chamber). Typically, the decree was issued during a time of national crisis, in this case a rebellion by Egypt. The Rescript made four simple promises:

1) first, the state guaranteed security of life, honor and property;

2) second, a regular, fair tax system was to replace arbitrary tax-farming (which had continued to flourish despite earlier efforts);

3) third, military conscription and the length of service was regularized (and extended to Christians); and

4) fourth, the state promised equality under law and full rights to all the sultan's subjects, no matter their faith.

The Hatti-Sherif of Gulhane was not a constitution: it did not replace the sultan's authority with responsible or representative government. It did guarantee basic freedoms to all citizens. Even this step was so radical that the sultan and his grand vezir, Mustafa Reshid Pasha, had to pause for four years, and confine themselves for some time to legal reforms and a new commercial code.

The next milestone in the "Tanzimat" reforms came about once again during a crisis, this time the Crimean War. In an effort to capitalize on wartime support from Ottoman citizens and the alliance with Britain and France, the "Hatti Humayun" or Imperial Rescript of February 1856 extended the basic rights and equalities set out in 1839. More specific than the first document, the new edict promised equal status to Ottoman subjects of all faiths, races or languages, in taxation, education, the judicial system, property rights and eligibility for office. The edict promised improved national finances, better means of communication, and support for agriculture and commerce.

However, reforms were easier to describe than achieve. The Hatti Humayun of 1856 can be interpreted as a list of areas in which earlier reform plans had failed. Ottoman Christians still suffered from discrimination in taxation, and lacked access to schools, equal protection under the law, participation in public administration, security of property and even security of their persons and lives.

Anti-reform elements

Unfortunately, the Turkish state lacked the financial resources to enforce its own program. For local officials, pay was often months or years in arrears, so that bribe-taking was their only source of income. The state also lacked the money to improve roads, railroads and agricultural resources.

Many Muslims also resented the reforms, whether from a sense of piety or from economic self-interest. When a series of revolts by Orthodox peasants broke out in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Bulgaria in 1876, the Turkish army deposed two sultans in a matter of months. Sultan Abdul Hamid came to the throne in November 1876. He promptly decreed a true constitution, a bill of rights, an elected parliament and an independent judiciary. However, after settling into the levers of power, he suspended the Constitution in 1877 and sent the parliament packing: it did not meet again until 1908.

Subsequent changes in the Ottoman Empire were restricted to measures supporting Abdul Hamid's grip on power. He found money for the military, but not for schools or hospitals; he spent money for advances in railroads and telegraph lines to move troops to the site of revolts, and to receive reports from an army of domestic spies. Real reform ceased.

The Young Turks

Thanks to Abdul Hamid's tyrrany, the "fourth phase" of Ottoman reform moved outside the top circles of government for the first time, into the ranks of students and professionals who eventually formed the Young Turk Party. Their movement often resembled the national revivals in the Balkan states.

In 1865, Turkish literary figures -- some of whom were also Ottoman civil servants -- formed the secret Young Ottoman Society in imitation of Western groups to share their ideas. Unlike the Tanzimat reformers, the Young Ottomans opposed secular, Westernizing reforms. They expected to use revitalized Islamic concepts to support a new "Ottomanism" that would nourish all the ethnic groups in the country under Islamic law. Threatened with arrest, the Young Ottoman leaders went into exile in Paris. Their notion of "Ottomanism" was coopted by the sultan in the form of Pan-Islamic programs that appealed to conservative Muslims.

Cadets in the state military and professional academies now became the principal dissidents. Army officers were especially aware of the contrast between Western and Ottoman power: they had foreign teachers, read Western professional writings and sometimes traveled to Europe. The secret Young Turk society was founded in 1889 by four medical students. They rejected both "Ottomanism" and the supranational tenets of Pan-Islam. Instead they embraced a new Turkish ethnic nationalism that became the foundation for a secular Turkey after the Young Turks came to power in 1908, and especially after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I.

Brailsford's Macedonia

Meanwhile, the Tanzimat reforms remained unfulfilled under Abdul Hamid's reactionary regime. How effective had all these reforms been by the turn of the century? How bad was life for Christian peasants in the Balkans? In a 1904 book called Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future, the English relief worker H. N. Brailsford describes lawless conditions in Macedonia, the central Balkan district between Greece, Serbia, Albania and Bulgaria. In the areas Brailsford knew, the authorities had little power. He writes:

"An Albanian went by night into a Bulgarian village and fired into the house of a man whom he regarded as an enemy. ... The prefect ... endeavored to arrest the murderer, but [the man's Albanian] village took up his cause, and the gendarmes returned empty-handed. The prefect ... marched upon the offending village at the head of three hundred regular troops. ... The village did not resist, but it still refused to give evidence against the guilty man. The prefect returned to Ochrida with forty or fifty prisoners, kept them in gaol for three or four days, and then released them all. ... To punish a simple outbreak of private passion in which no political element was involved [the prefect] had to mobilise the whole armed force of his district, and even then he failed."

Robbers and brigands operated with impunity: "Riding one day upon the high-road ... I came upon a brigand seated on a boulder ... in the middle of the road, smoking his cigarette, with his rifle across his knees, and calmly levying tribute from all the passers-by."

Extortionists, not police, were in control: "A wise village ... [has] its own resident brigands. ... They are known as rural guards. They are necessary because the Christian population is absolutely unarmed and defenceless. To a certain extent they guarantee the village against robbers from outside, and in return they carry on a licensed and modified robbery of their own."

Self-defense by Orthodox peasants was dangerous: "The Government makes its presence felt ... when a 'flying column' saunters out to hunt an elusive rebel band, or ... to punish some flagrant act of defiance. ... The village may have ... resented the violence of the tax-collector ... [or] harboured an armed band of insurgents...; or ... killed a neighbouring civilian Turk who had assaulted some girl of the place. ... At the very least all the men who can be caught will be mercilessly beaten, at the worst the village will be burned and some of its inhabitants massacred."

It was not surprising that peasants hated their rulers. "One enters some hovel ... something ... stirs or groans in the gloomiest corner on the floor beneath a filthy blanket. Is it fever, one asks, or smallpox? ... the answer comes ... 'He is ill with fear.' ... Looking back ... a procession of ruined minds comes before the memory -- an old priest lying beside a burning house speechless with terror ...; a woman who had barked like a dog since the day her village was burned; a maiden who became an imbecile because her mother buried her in a hole under the floor to save her from the soldiers; ... children who flee in terror at the sight of a stranger, crying 'Turks! Turks!' These are the human wreckage of the hurricane which usurps the functions of a Government."

Four things are worth noting in Brailsford's account as we consider the prospects for a reform solution to Balkan problems. First, revolutionary politics was not the foremost issue for the Christian population. Nationalism addressed the immediate problems in their daily lives only indirectly, by promising a potentially better state in the future.

Second, loyalties were still local and based on the family and the village, not on abstract national allegiances. If criminal abuses ended, the Ottoman state might yet have invented an Ottoman "nationalism" to compete with Serbian, Greek, Romanian or Bulgarian nationalism.

Third, villagers did not cry out for new government departments or services, but only for relief from corruption and crime. The creation of new national institutions was not necessary, only the reform of existing institutions.

Fourth, and on the other hand, mistrust and violence between the two sides was habitual because so many decades of reform had failed by this time. The situation was so hopeless and extreme that few people on either side can have thought of reform as a realistic option.

Macedonia after 1878

Events in Macedonia offer an example of both the forces promoting reform, and the serious challenges they faced. Macedonia is a region lying between Greece, Serbia and Bulgaria, and therefore has strategic political and economic value. All three successor states had territorial ambitions to seize all or part of the region.

The Great Powers preferred to keep Macedonia in Ottoman hands, because any partition of the region implied the end of European Turkey. Macedonia was a land bridge between Istanbul, and Albania and Bosnia. In other words, the Macedonian Question was an extreme expression of the old Eastern Question: "What should succeed an Ottoman collapse?" The Great Powers also doubted that Macedonia could be divided among the three Balkan states without a major crisis or even war. Reform in Macedonia was attractive to the Great Powers because it might let them sidestep these difficult questions.

In 1875, Orthodox peasants in the Bosnian and Bulgarian areas of the Ottoman Empire revolted; despite brutal Turkish countermeasures, the uprising could not be halted. In 1877, the Russians declared war on Turkey, and their armies pushed all the way to the outskirts of Istanbul by early 1878. Thoroughly defeated, the Turks signed the Treaty of San Stefano in March. The treaty granted full independence to Serbia, Montenegro and Romania, and created a new, large and autonomous Bulgarian state, including not only present-day Bulgaria but also the Aegean coast and Macedonia. Albania, Bosnia and a strip of land in northern Greece remained under Ottoman control, but would have been detached from the rest of Turkey except by sea routes.

[Clicking here will display a map of a proposed "Big Bulgaria" in another browser window, while leaving this lecture text in the original browser window. The proposal of 1877 was rejected by the Ottomans, and led to the war of 1877-1878.]

The Bulgarians had gone through the same slow process of national revival as the other Balkan peoples, and the San Stefano Treaty offered them a chance for self-rule. However, Serbia, Greece and most of the Great Powers objected to the size of this "Big Bulgaria," and Russia was forced to accept a new plan.

The Treaty of Berlin, signed in July 1878, redrew the borders to create a smaller autonomous Bulgaria. The Turks retained control of Macedonia but promised to make reforms. Because Russia was expected to dominate the new Bulgaria, other Powers were compensated in various ways. Britain took control of the island of Cyprus, while Austria-Hungary occupied and thereafter administered Bosnia and the associated district called Hercegovina.

These decisions in 1878 set three forces into motion that shaped the next 40 years of Balkan politics.

First, Serbia lost the chance to seize Bosnia from the Turks. Instead, the Serbs found themselves in a long-term confrontation with Austria-Hungary, a struggle that led to the Sarajevo assassination of 1914 (this will be discussed further in Lecture 12).

Second, Bulgarians were outraged when Macedonia was returned to Turkish rule. Nationalists in Bulgaria and in Macedonia made plans to recover the area.

Third, Serbia and Greece were alarmed by the temporary creation of a Big Bulgaria at their expense, and began pushing their own claims in Macedonia against some future time when the Great Powers might revise the borders again.

The Treaty of Berlin ended one of the longest-running and worst Balkan crises but it laid the groundwork for Balkan frictions that continue to the present day.

Who are the Macedonians?

Notice that the Treaty of Berlin balanced competing claims among the Great Powers. There was little consideration of the best interests or wishes of the people of the Balkans, especially thre residents of Macedonia. Instead, reforms were expected to solve Ottoman abuses. The balance of power and the Eastern Question were two reasons for this approach, but a third reason was the difficulty in determining what Macedonians wanted.

In 1878, Macedonia had no non-Muslim spokesmen, no popular organizations and no newspapers to express local wishes. One way to end corrupt government might have been to award the region to one of the Christian Balkan states, but it was not at all clear which state had the best claim. The ethnicity of the Macedonians was, and still is, highly controversial. In the following decades, Bulgarians claimed that the peasant inhabitants were Bulgarian because they spoke a Slavic dialect much like Bulgarian. The Serbs claimed they were Serbs because they had folk customs like those of Serbia. The Greeks pointed to the prevalence of Greek Orthodox churches and the presence of Greeks in the area since the time of Alexander the Great, and argued that Macedonia's peasants were Slavic-speaking Greeks (after all, there were many Turkish-speaking Greeks in Anatolia).

Beginning in the 1890s, some educated Macedonians declared that there was a separate Macedonian Slavic nation. But most Macedonians had loyalties that were merely local: to family, religion and village. One British traveller at the turn of the century met three brothers who identified themselves in turn as Serbian, Bulgarian and Greek, based on their experiences and careers.

Assigning Macedonia to one Balkan nationality was also complicated because it was a region of mixed ethnicity. There was no reliable census, and the available maps were contradictory. Albanians lived in the mountains to the West. Vlach shepherds roamed the hills, and Jews were the majority in the largest city, the port of Salonika. Slavic- and Greek-speaking settlements were sometimes intermingled. Bulgaria claimed ties with large concentrations of Slavic-speaking peasants in the western part of Macedonia, but farmlands and cities with significant Turkish populations lay between that area and Bulgaria itself. There was no way to draw a simple border without leaving substantial minorities separated from their co-nationals.

Reforms in Macedonia

For all these reasons, reform seemed to be a plausible solution. Unfortunately, the Ottoman state had neither the money nor the will to enforce honest government, and abuses continued despite the promises of 1878.

In 1893, a group of Macedonian-born professionals (teachers, doctors and the like), some of them educated in Bulgaria, organized the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (known as IMRO) to plan a mass uprising that would force the Great Powers to remove Macedonia from Turkish rule. Factions within IMRO disagreed over re-uniting Macedonia with Bulgaria as opposed to creating a separate country, but no IMRO faction sought ties with Serbia or Greece.

IMRO caused enough trouble (including the 1902 kidnapping of a female American missionary, released for ransom) that Austria-Hungary and Russia forced the sultan to appoint a special inspector-general to carry out the usual slate of reforms: better courts, more public works and schools, more police. Without waiting to see if the reforms would work, IMRO launched its long-planned revolt in August 1903. After some early successes, the insurgents were brutally crushed by the Turkish army. Two thousand people were killed and 50,000 made homeless.

However, the disaster persuaded the Powers to demand more reforms. This time, Austria and Russia forced the sultan to put European officers in charge of the rural police to help curb revolutionary violence, while civil agents from the Great Powers worked directly with the Inspector-General to insure that reforms were carried out and paid for. Between 1903 and 1908, the quality of Ottoman administration did improve in Macedonia. The reformers did away with tax-farming, dismissed corrupt officials and repaired bridges and roads.

Civil war in Macedonia

Unfortunately, nationalist leaders in Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Macedonia itself had no intention of calling off their conspiracies because of any amount of reform. All of them expected that the Great Powers eventuallywould partition Macedonia, and took steps to stake out as much territory as possible for future claims.

Since the 1880s, the three neighboring states had competed to sponsor relief agencies and schools in Macedonia: in some years, they spent more for schools in Macedonia than at home. The fighting in 1903 ignited a civil war: Serbia and Greece sent former army officers across the border to organize "chetas" or "comites" that fought against rival pro-Bulgarian IMRO units. Villagers were caught in the middle: forced to shelter some guerilla band on one day, they might be punished the next by a rival "comite" or by the Turkish gendarmerie. Mayors, teachers and priests were murdered by all sides, and some villages were burned. By 1908, some 8,000 people had been killed (out of 3 million); another 40,000 escaped by taking jobs in the United States.

The fighting finally stopped in 1908, when rumors of an imminent Great Power partition of Macedonia led to the Young Turk Revolution by officers in the Ottoman army. The ensuing Young Turk military dictatorship ran the empire until its final collapse in 1918. In the 1920s, the former Young Turk and army general Mustapha Kemal (known as Ataturk) conducted a thorough-going reform of Turkey, converting it into a secular republic. Ironically, however, this genuine reform of Turkey's government and society only took place after the post-war truncation of the country had removed nearly all of its ethnic minorities. Reduced to a core heartland of ethnic Turks, the country could proceed with reform without the distractions of nationalist agitation.


The Macedonian experience shows why a century of reform in the Ottoman Empire failed to improve social and economic conditions, halt political violence and block the spread of nationalism in the Balkans:

1) Throughout the reform period, the central Ottoman leadership lacked the resources or the will or both to carry out meaningful reforms.

2) Ottoman provincial leaders also lacked the resources to carry out reforms: in addition, their incomes and careers were often so interlaced with corrupt practices, that they had disincentives for change.

3) Among the mass of the Muslim population, reform too often seemed to favor the Balkan Christians. Social, economic and political dislocations also impoverished Balkan Muslims, but those Muslims resisted reforms as a threat to their marginally better situation.

4) Balkan Christians under Ottoman rule never believed that reforms could solve their problems. Peasants were too conscious of past reform failures; political leaders were committed to political solutions for reasons of ideology or personal advantage.

5) The expansionist Balkan states had an interest in promoting revolutionary violence, not reform: a reformed Ottoman Empire would be too strong for them to attack.

6) The Great Powers, while paying lip service to reforms, still placed their own national security and economic interests ahead of the compromises that were required for reform to succeed.

For too many figures, reform required too much work. As a result, revolution remained the driving force in Balkan affairs.

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This lecture is a portion of a larger Web site, Twenty-Five Lectures on Modern Balkan History (The Balkans in the Age of Nationalism); click here to return to the Table of Contents page.
This page created 12 December 1996; last modified 11 June 2009.


Copyright 1996 by Steven W. Sowards