Rebuilt from stone after a destructive earthquake in 1829, the city once known to the Byzantines as Xantheia hosted about 8,000 inhabitants during the 19th Century, most of them Greeks. Flourishing as a center of the tobacco trade, its prominent position near the Aegean coast in Thrace put Xanthi right on top of important trade routes, creating an eclectic mix of late Ottoman buildings, neoclassical mansions, and churches huddled close together on cobblestone streets.
But these are also precisely the qualities that Bulgaria coveted in the Balkan Wars, which ended with Sofia in possession of the Thracian strip south of the Rhodope mountain range that the Byzantines called Strymon. Having territory on the Aegean coast made it possible to circumvent Turkish control of the Bosphorus and reach world markets, and the Bulgarians desire even more coastal territory, including Salonika and Kavala. In 1916, the importance of Xanthi to the Bulgarian crown is made clear by the condition of the roads leading to it: on the Greek side, there are no bridges where seasonal streams cross a track that is mostly dirt, and motorcars are not a sure means of transport. On the Bulgarian side, the road is paved, has sturdy bridges, and regular maintenance.
Local human geography has also been altered by the political upheavals of recent years. More than 35,000 Greeks have resettled in Greek Macedonia from newly-Bulgarian territory since 1912. Bulgarian authorities have interned Greek religious, civil, and political leaders, along with anyone deemed popular enough to stir revolt. Teachers were installed in schools to give lessons in the Bulgarian language, while churches were converted to the Bulgarian Exarchate. At the behest of Prime Minister Radoslavov, in 1914 Greek families living around the port city of Dedeagach were brought in one by one and instructed to “temporarily depart” their place of birth to make room for Bulgars being evicted from Greece. These measures were often unpopular with the Bulgars already living in the new territories, for they ripped away friends, business partners, and even relatives by marriage.
Having now conquered the formerly-Greek and formerly-Serb parts of Macedonia, the Bulgarian government has adopted even harsher methods against the local Greek population. During 1916, nearly 36,000 Greek residents of the region are interned, usually by railroad, confined in concentration camps under deplorable conditions, and forced into agricultural and labor work. Thousands will die. Meanwhile, 39,000 Bulgarians — mostly refugees of the Balkan Wars — are resettled in the captured territories, where the Cyrillic alphabet has been suppressed and street signs replaced with Latin script.
Today a new round of deportations from Xanthi begins. Reporting on the event, an Austro-Hungarian liaison officer named Colonel von Lustig sends a confidential memorandum to his supreme command from the German 11th Army headquarters:
The Bulgarians are certainly making use of their occupation of eastern Serbia and Macedonia. They have been ruthless and brutal in introducing their new administration…Bulgarianisation takes two basic directions: the destruction of the upper and middle classes (the intelligentsia) of the domestic population, and the enforced introduction of the Bulgarian language.
It is known that most of the Serbian intelligentsia…withdrew with what was left of the Serbian Army, but a certain number of them have gradually started to return for material or psychological reasons. Here, in Occupied territory, in is virtually impossible to find either of them or those who did not flee; they have ‘gone to Sofia,’ as the new Bulgarian saying goes. These men were handed over to Bulgarian patrols (usually komitadji) as suspects without any proper judicial procedure, with the order that they should be ‘taken to Sofia.’ The patrols actually return the next day without them. Whether they are taken 20 or 200 kilometers, it is all the same. The patrols pick up spades, disappear into the mountains and quickly return, but without the prisoners. Bulgarian officers do not even try to conceal the executions, they boast about them.
It is a stark preview of what is to come. The year will see ever-more strident efforts to erase Greek and Serbian ethnicity from Bulgarian territory, with military and paramilitary elements taking ever-tougher measures to remove the unwanted populations. A century later, this historical period of rising national hatred and the transformation of diverse populations into ethnically homogenous ones has given us a linguistic legacy in the word ‘Balkanization.’ These abuses are an eerie dress rehearsal for the horrors of the Second World War, when Bulgaria once again claims the Aegean coast and engages in an even more rigorous campaign of ethnic cleansing with their Nazi allies.