In the age of nationalism, many groups across Europe started to fight for their right to national self-determination. Poles, Hungarians, Greeks, to name but a few, rose up against the empires that ruled them to try and carve a place for themselves on the world stage. But this was far from a simple matter: different peoples settled on the same land, both at the same time and at prior moments in history. And one of the worst disputes over land was what is now the tiny Republic of Macedonia.

Nationalist claims to land are predicated on a people ruling territory that is part of their nation. This could be land that is indisputably theirs, such as Paris is for France, or land that a people considers theirs, but is claimed by several nations, such as Istanbul being important for both the Greek and Turkish nations. Macedonia was one of the most extreme examples of the latter. A territory about the size of West Virginia, it was the object of competing claims from Serbs, Greeks, Bulgarians, and Macedonians for over a century.

A root cause of this conflict was in how Balkan states framed their nationalism. For Serbia, Greece, and Bulgaria, it wasn’t that they wanted to be independent, or even just that they wanted all territories with their respective ethnic majorities. Each of the three countries considered the maximum extent of their respective medieval state to constitute the national borders that they sought (the empire of Stefan IV Dušan for the Serbs, the Byzantine Empire for the Greeks, and the Bulgarian Empire of the greatest Bulgarian tsars). All of these three claims met, and overlapped, in Macedonia. Although the Ottoman Empire ruled Macedonia until 1912, all three peoples began early on to promote its claim to Macedonia. Each of the three nations had reports and ethnic maps compiled that showed that their respective ethnicity was the majority in Macedonia. What came to be called the Macedonian Question had emerged: who would culturally dominate Macedonia and rule it?

French ethnographic map of Macedonia from the end of the 19th century. Note that most of Macedonia is considered ethnically Bulgarian. A Macedonian ethnicity is not included. Atlas Général, Paul Vidal de La Blache, 1898.

In the second half of the 19th century, a sense of Macedonian nationalism emerged. Macedonians, along with the Bulgarians, had fought to resist Greek attempts to Hellenize the region, which had already greatly suffered due to Ottoman reprisals against Greeks in Macedonia during the Greek War of Independence as well as the emigration of ethnically Greek intellectuals in Macedonia after the war’s conclusion. Bulgarian and Macedonian identities had a unique relationship with one another, since many Bulgarians saw freeing Macedonia from the Ottoman Empire as a goal of their own nationalism. This was improved upon further by the incorporation of northern Macedonia under the religious jurisdiction of the Bulgarian Patriarchate, which was established in 1870 and incorporated the districts around Skopje and Ochrid in 1874. In the Treaty of San Stefano (1878), all of Macedonia was given to Bulgaria, but the Congress of Berlin quickly reversed this later that year.

Giorgi Pulevski (1817-1895)

But even before the Congress of Berlin, a Macedonian identity had emerged. Macedonian writers such as Giorgi Pulevski published textbooks that explained that Macedonians were not ethnically Bulgarian, Greek, or Serb: they were Macedonian. The now infamous Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO) became the major Macedonian separatist organization in the 1890s, mostly employing terrorist tactics, a century before Al-Qaeda or ISIS. IMRO, and Macedonians in general, became strongly aligned with Bulgarian identity, favoring Bulgarian rule once the Ottomans were eventually removed from Macedonia. But Macedonia was still a very ethnically complex country: sizable numbers of Serbs, Bulgarians, Greeks, Muslims of Turkish or Albanian extraction, and other smaller populations such as Aroumanians were spread across the Macedonian landscape. While Bulgaria was favored in the north, Greece was favored in southern Macedonia, where there was a larger Greek population.

Foreign powers intervened in this Balkan issue as well. Austria-Hungary and Russia both promoted a separate Macedonian identity, to prevent Serbia or Bulgaria from becoming any stronger by absorbing Macedonia. Official maps were created that showed that a separate Macedonian Slavic identity existed, and was the majority, in geographical Macedonia.

This American ethnographic map still shows ethnic Bulgarians inhabiting Macedonia. It also includes the borders established after the Balkans Wars and World War I. Historical Atlas, William R. Shepherd, 1911.

During the Balkan Wars, IMRO fought alongside the Bulgarians. And at the end of the First Balkan War, Bulgaria was supposed to be rewarded with most of Macedonia, which had been taken from the Ottomans by Serb and Greek troops. But when it became clear that the Serbs and Greeks wouldn’t leave the occupied territories, Bulgaria attacked its former allies. Bulgaria was defeated in the Second Balkan War, and the resulting Treaty of Bucharest confirmed that Serbia would control 40% of Macedonia, Greece would control 50%, and Bulgaria would only control 10%. Although Bulgaria, a member of the Central Powers, took part of Macedonia during the course of World War I, it lost this territory at Versailles. Although the outside world had mostly seen Macedonians as a branch of Bulgarians up through World War I, at Versailles the Allies accepted the idea that Macedonians were a branch of Serbs, affirming the territorial allocation of Macedonia to Serbia, which was soon to become Yugoslavia.

During World War II, the eastern region of Macedonia was annexed by Bulgaria yet again, this time as a member of the Axis Powers. But now the favorable Macedonian view of Bulgaria was going to take a severe blow. Bulgarian officials behaved cruelly to the local population, including turning Macedonian Jews over to Nazi Germany (despite the fact that Bulgaria protected Jews inside Bulgaria proper). This helped to spur along Macedonian nationalism, now that the Bulgarians had blackened themselves in the eyes of Macedonians.

At the end of the war, Macedonia was again taken from Bulgaria and placed back under Yugoslavia. But this time, Tito made Macedonia a constituent republic of Yugoslavia. But this was not to promote Macedonian independence, which Tito fiercely opposed, but rather to counter the remnants of pro-Bulgarian feelings in Macedonia. But Macedonian nationalism indeed flourished to an extent: the Macedonian language was codified, national music, literature, and other aspects of culture were developed, a separate Macedonian Orthodox Church was established in 1967, and new stories of Macedonian history were woven.

With the breakup of Yugoslavia, Macedonia declared its independence and the Macedonian people gained a nation they call their own. But aspects of the Macedonian Question still linger.

The number of Macedonians that considered themselves Bulgarian by 1991 was very small. But those pro-Bulgarian groups that did exist faced severe backlash from the rest of Macedonia, to the extent that the European Court of Human Rights condemned Macedonia for violations against such groups. Several thousand Macedonians have applied for Bulgarian citizenship since 1991. All that is necessary for them to be granted citizenship is to declare that they are ethnically Bulgarian by origin. This is part of Bulgarian policy, which still sees Macedonians as “ethnopolitically disoriented Bulgarians.” Simply put, according to Bulgaria, Macedonians don’t exist as an ethnicity.

The Albanian population in Macedonia clamors for autonomy, and in some cases even independence. Most notably, the Albanian National Liberation Army (NLA) attacked Macedonian forces in 2001, leading to another post-breakup conflict in the former Yugoslav republics. The Ohrid Agreement, which ended the conflict that same year, set the groundwork for improving the rights of ethnic Albanians residing in Macedonia.

Geographic Macedonia, roughly based on the ancient Argead Kingdom of Macedonia.

Macedonia itself feels that the southern half of the historic territory of Macedonia, which has been part of Greece for over a century, should be united with Macedonia. However, since World War II, Greek efforts to Hellenize their Slavic populations in northern Greece have mostly been successful, with well over 90% of these provinces now speaking Greek and considering themselves ethnically Greek.

At the same time, Greece has been the most vocal adversary of the young Macedonian nation. It has refused to call Macedonia “Macedonia,” and Greece has also accused the Macedonians of appropriating aspects of Greek culture as their own, such as Alexander the Great, the Argead sunburst crest known as the Vergina Sun, and even the ancient kingdom of Macedonia itself. Vocal Greek protests have led to Macedonia being referred to as FYROM (The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) in many international circles, including the United Nations. Greece named Thessaloniki airport Thessaloniki International Airport “Macedonia” to prevent Macedonia from naming any of its airports similarly. In addition, they released a drachma with Alexander the Great’s face on one side and the Vergina Sun on the other, as if to say “these are ours.”

Macedonia has been the scene of many irredentist dreams over the past century and a half, but none of them have come to fruition. Instead, ethnic conflicts have only inflamed the region. And even now, over a century after where we began, the Macedonian Question still raises questions of race and causes hatred and conflict.