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The Importance of Historical Truth and The Macedonian Issue

Australian Macedonian Advisory Council

November 28, 2010

I began studying Latin at school at the age of ten, and because I was good at it, I was also allowed to study Ancient Greek. I then followed what was the standard programme in the Classical languages in the better British schools. By the time I was sixteen years old, I had read a book of the Odyssey in the original Greek, some Xenophon, a play by Euripides, and other pieces of classical Greek literature, and within the next two years I practised trying to translate passages from the best English authors into something like the prose of Plato or the poetry of Sophocles. It was an excellent education, because it gave me access to some of the greatest works of literature that have ever been written, and of course it gave me control over the English language.

After emigrating to Australia to take up a lectureship at The University of Western Australia I taught ancient Greek there. At that time my only interest was in the Classical world. I travelled to Greece twice, in 1960 and 1965, and was preoccupied with visiting archaeological sites and museums. I had hardly any idea of what the Greek people had been through in the years before that, although I will never forget one photograph which is displayed in the Historical Museum of Iraklion, and shows a Greek man about to be shot after the Germans had invaded Crete during the Second World War.

In 1967 a student who was researching the history of the siege of Constantinople in 1453 sought my help. An account of this event had been written by a Venetian, Nicolò Barbaro, and she needed to have it translated. I made a translation, which was published later, and this led to my taking an interest in the Byzantine period. I have now published three books of translations of accounts of sieges of Thessaloniki in 1185 and 1423-1430, and am working on another, about Venice and Constantinople in the period 1450-1455. I also held the position of President of the Australian Association for Byzantine Studies in 1997-2005.

In 1981 and 1982 I studied Modern Greek with a good teacher. In the second year she made us read part of a novel about Greeks from Asia Minor who had been resettled near Athens in the 1920s after the exchange of populations, and some of the poems of Solomos, Kavafis and Ritsos. So I began to learn more about the history of Greece in modern times. And in 1999, when I was invited to spend a week in Thessaloniki after receiving an Aristotle Award from the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, I learned much more about that part of Greece. I will never forget being taken to the Prespa Lakes, and seeing how close Greece, the FYROM and Albania were to each other.

Then I had another learning experience. In 2000 I was given an old icon painting. It was so good that it was worth restoring. I took it to a restorer, who did a beautiful job (you may see it when the National Gallery of Victoria arranges a display of icons, which they plan to do in late 2012, or earlier if a suitable time slot opens up). When I was talking with the restorer, he said that he was a Macedonian, and in my innocence I asked him 'Do you mean Yugoslav Macedonia or Greek Macedonia?' This led him to talk for at least twenty minutes, as he explained to me that the true Macedonians had been there for thousands of years before the Greeks ever came there, and that St Luke (I'm sure that he said St Luke not St Paul) had been there and learned the Macedonian language; and he tried to correct my ignorance by telling me many other things that I have forgotten. I stood there with my jaw dropping, not knowing what to make of this, and went away to find out more about it (being an academic, I wanted to do a little research, because as far as I was concerned 'Yugoslav Macedonia', which by that time was an outdated name, was originally Paionia).

Of course, it did not take me long to realise that what he had said had no foundation in historical truth, but it made me realise, as I have realised on some other occasions since then, that several generations of people in the FYROM have now been indoctrinated with misinformation of this kind, and of course, when indoctrination has been successfully achieved, it is difficult or impossible to change the attitude of mind that it creates.

My position is different from yours. I am not a Greek, so I have no emotional involvement in this matter. It is only my head, not my heart, that is involved. I can only say that you are right to resist the attempts by the present day Slav inhabitants of the FYROM to create a nation that is founded on a recent invented mythology, not on historical truth. My understanding of the matter is that at some time in the nineteenth century, certain elements in South Serbia (later the Vardar Province of Serbia) decided that they were not sufficiently well looked after by Belgrade. Although they were more Bulgarian than anything else (at least in the eastern parts of this area), they did not wish to place themselves under the control of Sofia. They therefore began to push for the creation of a separate state. Much later, this was approved by President Tito (who, being a Croat, had no desire to support the Serbs, and also thought that this might be the first step in annexing some of the northern part of Greece), and the 'Republic of Macedonia' was formed. And then their mythology began to be created, and their language was established in a way that made it slightly different from Bulgarian. Unfortunately, I fear that the name of 'Macedonia' has now become inseparably connected with the FYROM. Although FYROM makes a nice acronym in English, it doesn't work in the same way in other languages, and if you don't use the acronym, it is simply too much of a mouthful. People will always look for the easiest way of referring to anything, just as they say 'carbon emissions' when they really mean 'emissions of carbon dioxide', and when a word or phrase has become established, you can't stop people from using it (look at the way in which we say 'daylight saving', when no daylight is actually saved). The best option, as I see it, is to get the 'Fyromians' to agree to their country being called 'North Macedonia' ('Upper Macedonia' and 'Macedonia-Skopje' are less satisfactory, and it is too late to put forward my own suggestion, which would have been 'Vardaria'). I believe that this has already been declared acceptable by the Greek government, and provided that it could be made clear that no territorial claims could be made on the basis of this name, then perhaps the FYROM might be allowed to stand in the queue of countries waiting to join the European Economic Community (which might not be a bad thing in the long run, because if the diplomatic issues can be resolved, the possibilities for greater economic cooperation are considerable). This will, of course, require a moderation in the current aggressive attitude of the government of the FYROM towards the Greeks, and, perhaps, some rather harder pushing by Greek diplomats than has been exercised in recent years.

The issue of the erection of a statue of Alexander the Great in Skopje is one which is particularly annoying to the Greeks at the present time. It is, of course, not true to say that the present occupants of Skopje are the descendants of the Macedonians of the fourth century B.C., although perhaps the statue could be considered as a sort of homage to the man who expanded the area under his control by conquering the territory of their pre-Slavic predecessors in Paionia. To present Alexander the Great as a figure from FYROM is like saying that Santa Claus was a Turk (after all, the St Nicholas who was the origin of the Santa Claus stories was the bishop of Myra, which is now in southern Turkey). And if we pursue this claim to its logical end, the people from FYROM should follow Philip and Alexander and make the Greek language the standard one for all their administrative activities, and seek to enter the Olympic games under the Greek flag.

I have met a number of people from FYROM in Perth. They are good citizens, working hard to establish themselves, and to look after their families. They have set up their own church, since they feel that they cannot continue to belong to the Orthodox Church of Serbia. They are often not well educated (so it is easy to brain-wash them into a state in which they accept without question the distorted view of history that is the basis of their nation, which otherwise has little historical support for its existence). I feel sorry for them. They need to have an identity, and without this, they are lost, then échoun tavtóthta; but if you are naked, that does not give you the right to steal someone else's garments - "an then échete roúcha, then prépei na klévete ta roúcha twn állwn". We might also remember the fable of Aesop which tells of the jackdaw which preens itself proudly after sticking the feathers dropped by the peacocks into its own plumage: koloiós allotríois pteroís agálletai.

Professor Melville-Jones
Graduate Research School

University of Western Australia


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