Between the two wars he led the Macedonian insurrection against Belgrade. Together with Ante Pavelic, he participated in the killing of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia in 1934. And then he disappeared. Storia Illustrata has tracked him down for this exclusive interview: his first since then.
A conversation between Ivan "Vance" Mihailov and Antonio Pitamitz
He was among the most determined enemies, of the first Yugoslavia which was born after the First World War, and of its king, Alexander I Karadjordjevic. And he was the head of one of the most powerful irredentist movements in the Balkans: the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), which led the struggle of the Macedonians against the Turks beginning in 1893, and, after 1913, against Serbia which had annexed Macedonia to itself at the expense of Bulgaria after the Balkan wars of 1912-1913 and had imposed with violence the Serb way of life there. In Macedonia, IMRO had a degree of popular support, while its bases were in Bulgaria, where it was strong enough to become a "state within a state" in the 1920s, with agents in the bureaucracy, the army and in the government.
His name is Ivan Mihailov, also known as "Vance," and he led IMRO in the inter-war period. In Serbia he was considered a criminal. The pro-Bulgarian Macedonians of Serbia held him to be their defender against Serb domination. In Bulgaria he was deemed a patriot. Once, in the 1920s, over two hundred lawyers spontaneously offered to defend him when the courts in Sofia discussed prosecuting him for terrorism in absentia. The trial was scuttled.
Mihailov was one of the legendary Balkan revolutionaries of the period, internationally known for his tenacious fight for the liberation of Macedonia from Yugoslavia, often in tandem with Ante Pavelic, head of the Croat nationalist Ustase movement, who had the same goal for Croatia.
Mihailov and Pavelic's struggle against Belgrade was fought by all means at their disposal, including terrorism. Nothing was verboten, including the assassination of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia, killed in Marseilles, France in 1934 by a confidant of Mihailov's, "lent" to Pavelic's Croat Ustase who had condemned King Alexander back in 1928 after the killing Croat leader Stjepan Radic in parliament by a Montenegrin MP, a chauvinist Serb with ties to the Royal Court. Wounded by police and lynched by the enraged mob, Mihailov's agent took the secret of his identity to his grave. He went down in history as one Peter Kelemann - the last of the many aliases he used to stay one step ahead of the European police, among which was his own true name which was made public by the Bulgarian police. The Marseilles assassination made Europe fear for another Sarajevo. Fascist Italy and Horthy's Hungary, where the Ustase had training camps for their followers, were tangled up in the controversy. As it occurred at the precise moment when Mussolini was attempting a rapprochement with France (the ally of Yugoslavia), the shadow of Hitler's Germany also stretched as far as Marseilles.
But Mihailov disappeared from the scene after 1934, when Bulgarian military forces seized power in Sofia and outlawed by IMRO and its legal front, the Macedonian Revolutionary Committee. Not even the turmoil of World War II and the post-war chaos, which in the Balkans led to the tragic rendering of accounts between Croats and the pro-Bulgarian Macedonians with the Serbs, drew Mihailov back into the public eye. Many thought he was dead. Instead, Mihailov has been living for more than forty years in a Western European city, where we tracked him down.
This is the first interview Mihailov has given since the assassination in Marseilles, exclusively for Storia Illustrata. Now ninety-three years old, grown used to a life of conspiracy, he answered us in a slow, drawn manner, alternating between half-admissions and bold assertions - like the accomplished Balkan revolutionary that he is.
Q. Mr. Mihailov, let's start with the Marseilles attack. The assassin of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia was one of your men. He was positively identified by the French police as Peter Kelemann, which was one of his many aliases. What was his real name?
A. His true identity was made public by the Bulgarian police. That was Vladimir "Vlado" Gheorghiev Tchernozernsky. To me and our other companions, he had only been "Vlado."
Q. Between yourself and Ante Pavelic's Ustase there was a "coordinated action pact," both anti-Serb and anti-Yugoslav. When you "lent" Tchernozernsky to Pavelic, did you know what he would be used for?
A. A written and signed pact for a common struggle between the Macedonians and the Croats did not exist and it never has. But there was - and there still is - the same state of defense and attack against the actions and machinations of the Serbs at the expense of the Croats and the Bulgarians in Macedonia. Self-preservation is a powerful instinct. When the Serbs shot Croat MPs in the parliament, Ante Pavelic presented himself to me a few days later, as if by instinct, as a guest of the Macedonian exiles in Sofia and was welcomed with a genuine camaraderie. It was then that the Macedonian exiles and Pavelic together announced to the whole world that we would march together against Serbian tyranny. Immediately afterwards, Belgrade condemned Pavelic to death. You have to remember, Pavelic did not come to an agreement with IMRO but with the legal Macedonian National Committee, which included important people, people who were members of the Bulgarian parliament.
Q. You have not answered the question. Did you know what action Tchernozernsky was to undertake?
A. Tchernozernsky was placed at the disposal of Pavelic and the Croats for any activity directed against Yugoslavia, of course within the confines of the common fight for the liberation of our peoples from Belgrade's grip. King Alexander was one of the possible objectives.
Q. Did you discuss the death of Alexander with Pavelic?
A. Between Pavelic and myself there was no specific talk of the assassination. But for us it was a natural conclusion that Alexander should end like he did.
Q. You said there was nothing in writing between you and Pavelic. But IMRO agents were training Croats at the training camp in Janka Puszta, Hungary.
A. IMRO never ordered its men to be instructors for Croats at Janka Puszta or anywhere else. I can say that with confidence, because if I didn't know that was happening, nobody would have known. If some Macedonian students in Hungary went to the camps, it is not within my knowledge.
Q. Where were you on the day of the assassination?
A. Thirty days or so before the death of the Serbian king, I was in Istanbul. I stayed there for three or four weeks. During that time I realized that Turkey had probably accepted some kind of request from Belgrade to create difficulties for my departure to Western Europe. We had to leave Istanbul, on the advice of the Turkish police, for the town of Kastamonu seeing as how there were lovely woods there - for my wife's health, they told me. As soon as we arrived in Kastamonu, a police officer notified us that King Alexander had been killed in Marseilles. My immediate thought was that the King, who had done everything to complicate my departure for Western Europe, had been struck down by a higher power who prevented him from meddling any more. After we heard this bit of news, we were moved to a place about ten kilometers from Ankara. We lived there for more than two years. Then we were moved to the island of Prinkipo, which is near Istanbul. After about a year there, we finally moved on to Poland, and successively through different countries, five in all, until 1949, when we settled in one of them. The Yugoslav government was highly annoyed by the degree of freedom allowed me, and was even more so when the Turkish government refused to extradite me.
Q. You mention a "higher power." That "higher power" was called Tchernozernsky. And the "death" at Marseilles was a murder.
A. I have already had occasion to write that the act of Vlado Tchernozernsky cannot be called a murder. That was clear to anyone that knew anything about King Alexander's regime and the conspiracies devised by them. Vlado was the instrument of the punishment decreed by the curses, the rivers of tears and blood of the Macedonians, Croats, Albanians and other city and country-folk of Yugoslavia, including many Serbs. The Macedonians and the majority of other Yugoslav nationalities rejoiced at the news of the Serbian king's punishment. My mother, who lived in Serbia, got my brother to take her to Belgrade to take a look at the pistol used in the act, which was on display in a museum. Looking at it there, she cried, "May his hand flower!" Obviously, her blessing was on he who had killed the king, not on the king himself. Behind the killing of Alexander there are innumerable crimes done by the king and his advisors. As to the Serbian people, I don't have anything against them.
Q. One of the theories behind the Marseilles assassination, unproven on a documentary basis, is that Nazi Germany was behind it all. Is there any truth to this?
A. Quite a few years ago, the Macedonian Tribune, the journal of our people in America, denied the report in a newspaper which stated that I had met a German in Paris to approve the assassination of Alexander. I don't remember all the details they invented. I don't know who forwarded that lie, nor why they did so now. I never met any German in Paris or anyplace else. I never had a discussion like the one you mention. Since 1912, during the First Balkan War, when he entered Skopje after the Turks' withdrawal, Alexander Karadjordjevic - who was then still Crown Prince - gave proof of his atrocious character and his occupier's mentality in front of the entire population and important people representing all the nationalities of Macedonia.
It was then that a small child, a girl, welcomed him in the name of the people. Alexander asked her, who are you? The girl answered: a Bulgarian. Alexander Karadjordjevic slapped her.
That gesture, shameful and tragic, was the first in a long series of moral and material abuses, humiliations, continuous attempts to enforce a Serbian way of life on the Bulgarian population of Vardar Macedonia. IMRO was the only moral and material force among the Macedonian people. IMRO was able to reach as far as the Belgrade office of the highest representative of Serbian terror against the Macedonians, Jika Lasic. One of his lieutenants, whom he trusted, shot him behind his desk. He survived, and when the Communists came to power they gave him a lifetime pension for his services to Serbianism. Unable to justify a terrorist regime, the Serbs decided that it was not they who were the criminals, but whoever opposed them. In a spirit of vengeance, Serbian police killed my father and my brother, who were the most pacific of people in the village of Stip. In response, I told a journalist that IMRO would never sink to that level of the Serbian intelligentsia which justified the murder of so many Macedonians. Never.
Q. It has been historically proven that Pavelic's Ustase movement was supported by the Italian government. Did the Macedonians have a similar arrangement?
A. IMRO was supported by our people, and sometimes - though rarely - by the diaspora. I never saw or heard of any assistance given to IMRO by Bulgaria or any other state. IMRO never had any bases in Italy as the Croats did. I personally had no connection or any contact with Mussolini or his government.
Q. Macedonian independence, like Croatian independence, meant the disintegration of Yugoslavia, which was a triumph for Mussolini's vision of the Balkans. Wasn't this what you also wanted?
A. The destruction of Yugoslavia was the ardent desire of all peoples illegally annexed to it, except the Serbs.
Q. After the attack by Italians and Germans in 1941, Macedonia was annexed to Bulgaria. But the victory of the partisans of Tito meant that Macedonia remained in Yugoslavia. It became a federated republic. For the first time since the liberation from the Turkish yoke, the Macedonians have their own state. The old "Macedonian Question" has been solved. Wouldn't you agree that occasional irredentist references to Macedonia by Bulgarians - especially among academic circles - are historically out of place now?
A. The Bulgarians in Macedonia, the majority in that country, wish for either an independent Macedonia along the lines of Switzerland, or the outright reunification with Bulgaria. They are the majority. However, Bulgarians in Macedonia have always invited the minorities to fight for an independent Macedonian state. I approve of one of these solutions. Not one of the minorities in Yugoslavia ever wanted or fought for the Yugoslav state. The Yugoslav nationality doesn't exist and never has. But, on the other hand, different nationalities with centuries of history behind them still exist: among them, the Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bulgarians, Albanians, Bosnjaks, Romanians, Montenegrins, and so on.
Tito was dispatched to Yugoslavia to assume a role imposed from the outside. The latest events certainly testify to this. With regard to the Bulgarian Macedonians, they are not only in the frontiers of today's Yugoslavia. There are just as many who have left for Bulgaria, and at least three hundred thousand in Pirin Macedonia, more in America and Australia and elsewhere. So the Bulgarian academics are not being recidivist or archaic. To the contrary: they are in the middle of current events, by addressing Macedonia.
After 1945, when the Bulgarians in Macedonia realized that they were going to remain under Belgrade, a group of mainly secondary school students prepared - in secret, of course - a petition to the United Nations demanding an independent Macedonia. They were discovered and arrested. They were condemned to six to fourteen years in prison for it. To continue in imposing Serbian culture on the Bulgarians, the Communist regime created a "Macedonian language" and a "Macedonian nationality." This was derided by French sociologist Guy Heraud in 1966 as "non-existent and created to confused people."
Q. Others have written that within IMRO, you were the leader of the nationalist wing, opposing the faction favorable to Bulgaria's absorption with the Soviet Union. This bitter conflict ended with you killing the other faction's leader, General Alexander Protogerov.
A. No factions of this kind existed within IMRO. Protogerov had the same rank as I did in the central committee. He was ambitious for power, both in IMRO and in the country, but he wasn't a revolutionary. He was too manipulative. At a certain point he was in fact isolated from all political and military decisions within the central committee of IMRO. He had no idea of what we were doing until he read them in the newspapers. Protogerov was disciplined because he was responsible on his own for killing Todor Alexandrov, who had been one of IMRO's supporters. And I didn't kill Protogerov, I ordered his elimination.
Q. It's plain to see that Bulgaria didn't go the way you wanted, in that it became a Communist country. Because of that, Bulgarian nationalism in Macedonia has been defeated. This is also a defeat for you and your ideas, don't you think?
A. I have not been sidelined by history. I am living in the free world and I have always worked for my people. Communism was imposed, as you very well know. It was imposed by force on our freedom loving people like all others. If anything must be sidelined by history it is Communism. In America we have organizations which continue to fight for an independent Macedonia, who acknowledge our Bulgarian nationality.
Q. After the war, your name appeared often in publications about the Balkans and about European history. But nobody knew what happened to you. Many thought you were dead. How did you survive, and where did you go?
A. I was in Poland for a year before the war. I myself saw the Germans enter Warsaw. I distinctly remember hearing Hitler's praise for the Polish soldiers. After that, I went to Hungary. After Croatia's independence, I was a guest of my old colleagues there. I remained in Croatia until the end of the war. Late in the war, the Germans suggested placing me at the head of an independent Macedonian state. I did go to Skopje, but I refused, because I did not want to bear responsibility for the incredible bloodshed which would occur with Communism on the verge of taking over. The Germans didn't really like hearing that answer, but individually I think they knew that I had done right by my people. We all saw how many innocent victims Communism caused after the war.
Q. The struggle you headed, with an emphasis on terrorism, preoccupied Bulgaria and Yugoslav Macedonia for years. But it had no result. Today, some years later, what is your opinion of terrorism, of all terrorism?
A. You're saying that terrorist acts against the occupiers were fruitless. But in many parts of the world today, groups are still devoted to a terrorist strategy to further their aims. By terrorist acts there are many who are merely trying to keep attention focused on national or political questions. A specific struggle can in fact be sustained for a long time by different types of propaganda. But IMRO never resorted to terrorism. IMRO punished those who erred individually.
[Translation note: Mihailov was of the opinion that "Bulgarians" are indistinguishable from "Macedonians" and often uses the two words interchangably when referring to the people of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. The terms "Bulgarians in Macedonia," "pro-Bulgarian Macedonian" and "Macedonians" have been used accordingly, depending upon the context.]