The Role of Religion in the Policy of Serbianisation in the Aftermath of the Balkan Wars

Term Paper, 2016

14 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of content


Theoretical framework


Contextualisation: Serbia and Vardar Macedonia 1912-1914

Religion and the treatment of the population in Vardar Macedonia

Greigs report on “civil and religious freedom in this part of Servian Macedonia.”

German diplomatic reports



Primary sources

Secondary literature


The Balkan Wars (1912-1913) led to a crucial change for the people living in Vardar Macedonia. Having been ruled by the Ottoman Empire for a long period, they now had to cope with Serbia as occupant. Serbian military, police and authorities in general followed a nationalist policy of ‘Serbianisation’, which led to suppression of religious rights as well as harassment and atrocities against the non-Serbian population, especially Muslims. Ideas of ethnicity and religion played a significant role, when Serbian authorities tried to nationalise the people living in the region of “Vardar Macedonia” during the years 1912-1914. Suddenly, these people should not only be part of the state, but also the nation of Serbia. Background of this policy was the alleged common language, culture and religion of the people living in Serbia and in the new territory. In this paper, I will focus on the question of religion, which has to be seen in a close context to the ideas of nationalism and ethnicity in this region: Belonging to the Serbian nation meant belonging to the Serbian Orthodox Church. Since I will use diplomatic primary sources, my research question will be: “How did the idea of a common religion determine the policy of Serbianisation of Vardar-Macedonia in the eyes of foreign diplomats?” I will examine the treatment of the different religious groups in the region, such as Muslims, members of the pro-Bulgarian Exarchate Church, Jews and Protestants. Who should and who should not be assimilated, and if so, why? Was religion the most important factor or did questions of language, political or occupational background play a coequal role? To answer these questions, I will use some traditional theoretical concepts on the ideas of religion, ethnicity and nationalism provided by Benedict Anderson1 and Ernest Gellner.2 As primary source, I will focus on one contemporary witness of the occurrences, the British diplomat Charles Greig, Vice-Consul in Monastir (today’s Bitola) in the southwestern part of Vardar Macedonia. His reports dealt with the question of religion and especially the infringements of religious freedom and atrocities against ‘non-Serbian’ people.3 In addition, some German diplomatic sources will be used for the sake of comparability and a transnational perspective. Furthermore, I will use some important secondary literature.4

Theoretical framework

The policy of Serbianisation was clearly driven by a policy of nationalism by the Serbian government. Ernest Gellner defined nationalism as “a political principle, which holds that the political and the national unit should be congruent.”5 Therefore, nationalists pursue the aim of an accordance of ethnic and political boundaries: “Nationalism is a theory of political legitimacy, which requires that ethnic boundaries should not cut across political ones [...].“6 In the Serbian context, this meant that the main part of the Vardar Macedonian population was considered to be ‘ethnical Serbs’, or at least should become Serbs, because of an alleged culture, language and religion. Since many regions and territories, such as Macedonia at the beginning of the 20th century, have been intermixed with inhabitants with different or unclear ethnicities, it follows, “that a territorial political unit can only become homogeneous, in such cases, if it either kills or expels, or assimilates all non-nationals. Their unwillingness to suffer such fates may make the peaceful implementations of the nationalist principle difficult.”7 In the end, Gellners nationalism as a theory of political legitimacy leads to the invention and fabrication of nations. Benedict Anderson criticized Gellners point of view and defined the nation as an invention in the sense of imagining and creation, rather than fabrication and falsity.8 In his eyes, a nation is “an imagined political community - and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.”9 Limited in the sense of a concept, that includes an end of the own nation and the existence of other nations, and sovereign “because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.”10 In Andersons opinion, members of a nation imagine themselves to be part of the same nation, because they would never actually know all the other members. However, they believe to be a part of the same community, “because regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this ‘fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”11 As different Gellners and Andersons approach towards nations and nationalism may be, both concepts fit perfectly to the situation of the Serbianisation of Vardar Macedonia. The Serbian government wanted an accordance of the ethnical and political boundaries of Serbia and the region of Vardar Macedonia, called “Old Serbia”, so the population that was considered to be ethnical Serbs in Vardar Macedonia should stay and be assimilated, the rest should be expelled. This rest, mostly the Muslim population, was not a part of the ‘imagined community”, whereas the Slavs, that joined the Serbian Orthodox Church, could join the imagined community and the Serbian nation in the eyes of the Serbian nationalists. Therefor it seems that religion was the most significant factor, that decided, who did (and who did not) belong to the ethnicity and the imagined community of the Serbs.


Contextualisation: Serbia and Vardar Macedonia 1912-1914

In the course of the First Balkan War (1912-1913) the historical region of Macedonia, previously under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, became occupied by Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece. Fighting over the spoils led to the Second Balkan War (1913) between Bulgaria and the other allies, resulting in the Treaty of Bucharest. Under this Treaty, Bulgaria received approximately one-tenth (Pirin Macedonia), Greece one-half (Aegian Macedonia) and Serbia the remaining parts of Macedonian territory, the so-called Vardar Macedonia named after the Vardar, the major river of the area.12 This territory corresponds with the area of today’s Republic of Macedonia. Already in 1912, Serbian military entered this particular territory and undertook first steps to form a new local government by appointing civil authorities. One year later, some parts of the Serbian constitution were implemented in Vardar Macedonia through a royal decree, and the Serbian King Peter I. declared the unification of Serbia and the occupied territory, which was called “Old Serbia”. Due to the outbreak of the First World War, the Bill on the Annexation of Old Serbia to the Kingdom of Serbia and her Administration, submitted by the government in December 1913, was never accredited by the Serbian National Assembly.13 The process of unification was shaped by conflicts between the Serbian military and civil authorities regarding the organisation of local government in the new territories.14

Eventually, as Björn Opfer argues, “de facto the military remained the ruling power”.15

Religion and the treatment of the population in Vardar Macedonia

According to Opfer, Serbia did the same with its conquered territories as the other South Eastern European countries in the Balkan Wars: “Each of these states put the new territories under military administration, began with a more or less repressive policy of nationalization and practiced pressure on “undesirable” minorities.”16 An indication for this policy was that no general protection for ethnical or religious minorities was guaranteed in the Treaty of Bucharest. In the case of Serbia, this policy, driven by a nationalistic agenda, has often been described by the term “Serbianisation” or “Serbization.”17 This term was already introduced contemporary in the Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, published in 1914.18 Describing the situation at the western frontier of Macedonia, the authors of the report stated: “We find here, as everywhere else, the ordinary measures of “Serbization” — the closing of schools, disarmament, invitations to schoolmasters to become Servian officials, nomination of “Serbomanes,” “Grecomanes,” and Vlachs, as village headmen, orders to the clergy of obedience to the Servian Archbishop, acts of violence against influential individuals, prohibition of transit, multiplication of requisitions, forged signatures to declarations and patriotic telegrams, the organization of special bands, military executions in the villages and so forth.” This process is described similarly by Katrin Boeckh. She uses the term “general measures of Serbianisation” and mentions the examples of terrorism by irregular military volunteer units, the closing of non-Serbian schools or the enforced change of name of Bulgarians and Greeks, who had to add the Serbian suffix “-vić. For example, the Bulgarian name Dimov became Dimović, the Greek name Dimitropoolos became Dimitrović.19 Boekh has pointet out, that the main reason for the policy of Serbianisation was the low amount of real “ethnical Serbs” in Vardar Macedonia.20

The issue of few real ethnical Serbs in the region was approached by three measures:

Serbianisation, colonialisation and deportation. Religion played the most important role during the Serbianisation of the Christian population, especially the Macedonians who belonged to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. Becoming a Serb meant acknowledging and following the Serbian Patriarchate instead of the Bulgarian Exarchate. The consequence was the closing of Bulgarian schools and churches and the dismissal of exarchist teachers and priests.21 The second measure was the colonialisation of Vardar Macedonia: “Following the Serbian occupation Serbian policy aimed at increasing the Serbian share of the population in these areas through the settlement of Serbs.”22 During 1913 and 1914 approximately 12,000 Serbian families settled in the new territory.23 The third measure, the mass deportation of minorities, was directly connected to the second, because the new settlers needed land. As Opfer argues, “the needed living space for the settlers should be provided by the “undesirable minorities”, as Turks, Albanians and other Islamic groups were forced to leave the country through harassment and violence.24

The forced emigration of the Muslim population (in 1913 approximately 19 % of the Vardar Macedonian population) was partly determined by administrative discrimination, as Boeckh argues: “After the Muslim population had been the land holding class in the times of the Ottoman Empire, Belgrade displaced them from their property and thereby from their livelihood, by imposing above-average high, regional limited taxation on their property.”25 Furthermore, there were acts of violence, executed by the local police and often with the support of the military. In addition, irregular gangs were organised to terrorize these minorities. “The Serbian authorities […] encouraged local police officers, secret agents and lawyers, to terrorize the Muslims and to make a calm life for them impossible.”26 Boeckh mentions different forms of terrorism: There was the “slighter” form of destroying religious buildings and Muslim villages in general, which already had happened during the Balkan Wars, and the existence- threatening looting of foods.27 Furthermore there were direct acts of terrorism against Muslims; atrocities such as murder or rape.


1 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities, London 1983.

2 Ernest Gellner, Nations and Nationalism, Oxford 1983.

3 FO 371/2110, Mr. Dayrell Crackanthorpe, Belgrade, to Sir Edward Grey, Foreign Secretary, 2 June 1914, enclosing despatch from Vice-Consul Greig, Monastir, 25 May 1914, on Serbian occupation and its effects When the consular report is quoted in this essay, the following published edition will be used: Bejtullah Destani/Robert Elsie (eds.), The Balkan Wars. British Consular Reports from Macedonia in the Final Years of the Ottoman Empire, London 2014.

4 Katrin Boekh and Miroslav Svirčević on Serbia and its treatment of the new territories: Katrin Boeckh, Von den Balkankriegen bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg. Kleinstaatenpolitik und ethnische Selbstbestimmung auf dem Balkan, München 1996; Miroslav Svirčević , The New Territories of Serbia after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. The Establishment of the First Local Authorities, in: Dušan Bataković (eds.), BALCANICA XLIV, Belgrade 2013, pp. 285-306. Björn Opfer on the history of Vardar Macedonia: Björn Opfer, Im Schatten des Krieges. Besatzung oder Anschluss - Befreiung oder Unterdr ü ckung? Eine komparative Untersuchung ü ber die bulgarische Herrschaft in Vardar-Makedonien 1915-1918 und 1941-1944, Münster 2005. Richard C. Hall and Uğur Ümit Üngör, on the Balkan Wars in general as well as the issues of religion, mass violence and atrocities: Richard C. Hall, The Balkan Wars 1912-1913. Prelude to the First World War, London 2000; Uğur Ümit Üngör, Mass violence against civilians during the Balkan Wars, in: Dominik Geppert/William Mulligan/Andreas Rose (eds.), The Wars before the Grat War. Conflict and international Politics before the Outbreak of the First World War, Cambridge 2015, pp. 76-91.

5 Gelnner, Nations, p. 1.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid., p. 3.

8 Anderson, Imagined Communities, p. 6.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid., p. 7.

11 Ibid. 7.

12 Alice Ackermann, Making peace prevail: preventing violent conflict in Macedonia, New York 1999, p. 55.

13 For more information about the administration of Vardar Macedonia and the implementation of Serbian law: Svirčević, The New Territories of Serbia, pp. 285-306.

14 Ibid, p. 301-305.

15 Opfer, Im Schatten des Krieges , p. 38.

16 Ibid, p. 39.

17 Opfer as an example uses the German term “Serbisierung”: Ibid, p. 38-41.

18 International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars; Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Division of Intercourse and Education, Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan War, Washington, D.C. 1914. The commission consisted of university professors from the USA, France, Great Britain, Germany, Austria-Hungary and Russia.

19 Boeckh, Von den Balkankriegen , p. 163-164.

20 Ibid, p. 140.

21 Opfer, Im Schatten des Krieges, p. 39.

22 Boeckh, Von den Balkankriegen, p. 152.

23 Ibid, p. 154.

24 Opfer, Im Schatten des Krieges, p. 40.

25 Boeckh, Von den Balkankriegen, p. 165.

26 Üngör, Mass violence, p. 78.

27 Boeckh, Von den Balkankriegen, p. 166.

Excerpt out of 14 pages


The Role of Religion in the Policy of Serbianisation in the Aftermath of the Balkan Wars
University of Vienna
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Balkan Wars, Macedonia, Serbia, Serbianisation, nationalism, ethnicity, Bulgaria, transnational perspective, Diplomatic history, Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner, Serbian Orthodox Church, Religion, Old Serbia, First Balkan War, Second Balkan War, Kingdom of Serbia, Muslim population, Charles Greig, Edward Grey, Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Dayrell Crackanthorpe
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B.A. Martin Hamre (Author), 2016, The Role of Religion in the Policy of Serbianisation in the Aftermath of the Balkan Wars, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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