Saturday, August 17, 2013


On 2 August 2013, a most extraordinary posting made itself manifest upon the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance’s website. Bearing the title: Australian Macedonian Commemorative Service Ilinden/ St Elijah’s Day, the accompanying explanatory text went on to discuss the Battle of Vevi.
Persons who know something of Balkan History are right to be mystified by this bizarre posting by an organisation that is widely considered to be an important repository of military history. Ilinden, has nothing to do with the Battle of Vevi. Instead, the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising, as it is properly called, took place in 1903, some years before the battle of Vevi. This was an organised revolt against the Ottoman Empire which was carried out on the feat day of Saint Ilia,  by the Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organisation, an entity that wished to liberated territories inhabited by ethnic Bulgarians in Macedonian and Thrace from the Ottomans, and unite these to the Bulgarian Kingdom. A provisional government was established in the town of Kruševo, in today’s FYROM, which was overrun after only ten days. This day is thus an important day in the Bulgarian calendar and marks a key event in their campaign for self-determination, one that inevitably conflicted with Greek claims over the same region.
Ilinden is also celebrated a national day in FYROM as its historians claim that the uprising was an expression of “Macedonian” nationalism. In doing so, these historians conveniently distance themselves from the fact that the uprising was jointly co-ordinated in both Thrace and Bulgaria, for they understandably find it difficult to explain why “Macedonians” would want to free Adrianople, a city not so far away from Constantinople. The day of Ilinden is also commemorated as the day when in 1944, the Anti-fascist Assembly for the People's Liberation of Macedonia was founded by communist partisans. This organisation, sought the liberation of the entire geographical region of Macedonia, including those parts within Greece, Bulgaria and Albania, within the context of a broader Balkan Federation.
Confused? Wondering what all this has to do with a battle in Vevi? There were in fact two battles in Vevi, none of which have absolutely anything to do with Ilinden. The first battle of Vevi took place in October 1912 and immediately there is a dispute as to its name, it being variously called the Battle of Sorovich or Banitsa, as the town in question was only renamed Vevi in 1926. In the battle, a division of the Greek army was surprised near Banitsa (modern Vevi) by the retreating Ottoman army and was forced to retreat towards  Sorovic (modern Amyntaio), leaving the city of Monastiri to be eventually captured by the Serbs. This battle is usually held up by historians as evidence of the consequences of the lack of any coordination between the three Slav allies and Greece during the First Balkan War. Elucidating how in the august estimation of the trustees of the Shrine of Remembrance this battle, which was fought on Greek soil, between Greece and Turkey has anything to do with Ilinden or indeed people who culturally or ethnically identify with FYROM is to confound the deductive faculties of even the most hardened revisionist.
Perhaps then the Shrine is referring to the second and more famous battle of Vevi, which took place on 12 April 1941, between the Greek army, assisted by Australian, New Zealand and British troops and the invading Nazi forces. In that battle, after a fierce and protracted struggle, the Nazis were able to smash through Allied resistance, greatly demoralising the remaining Greek forces and paving the way for the capitulation of Greece. Again, one struggles to see what this battle, which forms part of the Greek national epic of resistance against the fascist forces in World War II, has anything to do with Ilinden. Indeed it took place 38 years after that event.
When this was pointed out to the relevant Shrine officials, they commendably removed any reference to the Battle of Vevi from their website, without of course, offering an explanation as to their extraordinary conduct in attempting to link an important battle in Australian and Greek military history to an unrelated historical event and people. They even removed any mention of Ilinden, instead, clarifying that the Australian Macedonian Commemorative Service, would be “a service to honour the service and sacrifice of both Australian and Macedonian Servicemen and Women who have fought together during European campaigns.”
This time, the Shrine took great pains not to mention exactly which European campaigns these are. The wording “fought together” is also suitably ambiguous, as it could also be taken to mean “fought together but against each other.” This is because during the First World War, the inhabitants of FYROM generally were possessed of a Bulgarian consciousness and actively assisted Bulgaria in fighting against the British Empire. The same is also true of the region in the Second World War, except for the communist partisans, who while leaning towards the Allies, could not have fought with Australian soldiers as these had been evacuated from the Balkans after 1941.
We have here then, the creation of a myth, albeit ostensibly with good intentions. Australians who identify themselves ethnically or culturally with FYROM wish to cement the fervour and love they have for Australia by placing it within an imagined historical context, in emulation of other Australians of diverse cultural backgrounds who actually fought with Australian soldiers and lost their lives protecting them. The trustees of the Shrine of Remembrance however, in indulging people their well - intentioned historical fantasies can not be let off so lightly. As custodians of Australian military history, they must be careful not allow that history to serve ethnic or political agendas. Also, they must take pains to properly document and research such events as the battle of Vevi. In this way, a comparison between the way they treat battles fought by Australians with European allies, as opposed to those fought with Balkan allies, and an accusation that those fought with Balkan allies are considered of lesser importance because of the ethnicity of those allies can be avoided. One would hate to be led to believe by their conduct that the Shrine of Remembrance was able to confuse Ilinden with the Battle of Vevi and then make spurious claims about “Macedonians” fighting side by side with Australian soldiers simply because they consider the Balkan context unimportant enough to render itself to manipulation.
For it does appear that the Shrine is the victim of some shrewd manipulation here. It is insidious as it is clever. Vevi, is a town that exists in that marginal region of northern Greece where ethnic and cultural identities have overlapped. There were two Bulgarian schools in the town in Ottoman times and a survey conducted in 1993 of its inhabitants claimed than many of those over the age of thirty spoke or understood a Slavic dialect. Today, it is a town whose inhabitants in their overwhelming majority indentify as Greek. In feeding information to the Shrine that links together Ilinden, so-called “Macedonians” and Vevi, the persons responsible for providing that information to the Shrine seem to be attempting to impugn the ‘Greekness’ of that town, its history and legacy and impose their own cultural interpretation on it, making the Shrine unwittingly complicit in a fight that is not its own and from which it should steer clear.
In his classic: “Life in the Grave,” Stratis Myrivilis, the renown Greek author who was posted in villages around Monastiri during the First World War shows how complex issues of identity can be. While asserting that the inhabitants of Monastiri at the time where predominantly Greek speaking and were being pressured by the Serbs not to speak their language, he also casts a sympathetic eye towards those who, he stated, were told by the Serbs that they were Serbian and thus forced into the Serbian army and also told they were Bulgarian by the Bulgarians and were forced into the Bulgarian army. In short, he charts the beginning of the development of a separate ethnic identity for the Slavs of Macedonia while also acknowledging that in the heart of the space that they claim as their own heimat, there exist Greek and other populations with older and more developed ethnic identities also with their own claims. The Shrine should not be put in a position to have to adjudicate such claims. This is not their function, nor, as they have proven, do they have the expertise to do so.
Regardless of what one believes about the validity of such claims, Australian institutions should not be cynically used in order to lend legitimacy to spurious re-interpretations of history or disrespectful attempts to re-construct battles in which Australian soldiers gave their lives in the cause of the freedom of all nations, in order for ethnic minorities to score points off each other. This latest manifestation of a disturbing tendency to subvert history in the service of ethnic politics, is in appalling bad taste.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN NKEE on Saturday 17 August 2013