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Serbia and Greece Ally Against Bulgaria

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 68th installment in the series.

May 14, 1913: Serbia and Greece Ally Against Bulgaria

By May 1913, the Balkan League had disintegrated, as the former allies turned on each other over the spoils of the First Balkan War. Deprived of its Albanian conquests by the Great Powers, Serbia asked to revise its 1912 treaty with Bulgaria to get a bigger share of Macedonia, but was rebuffed (or rather, ignored). To the south, Greece refused to give up Salonika, also claimed by the Bulgarians, while to the north Romania wanted a chunk of Bulgarian territory in Dobruja in return for agreeing to Bulgarian expansion elsewhere. Looking around, Bulgaria’s impetuous Tsar Ferdinand (above) suddenly found himself long on enemies and short on friends.

On May 14, 1913, Greece and Serbia cemented their secret treaty of May 5 with a military convention directed against Bulgaria, dividing Macedonian territory claimed by Bulgaria and outlining a plan of attack to secure their goals. In the disputed area, the Greeks and Serbians agreed to a border west of the Vardar River, although the details remained fuzzy; meanwhile, both partners were already moving their troops to concentration areas near Bulgarian-occupied territory, and the Serbs were organizing paramilitary groups to create chaos behind enemy lines.

Crucially, while the new alliance was directed against Bulgaria, it also divided up the new nation of Albania into Greek and Serbian spheres of influence—indicating that whatever promises they made to the Great Powers at the Conference of London, the Serbs had no intention of actually giving up their claim to Albanian territory. Of course, this put them on a collision course with Austria-Hungary, whose foreign minister, Count Berchtold, had been the driving force behind the creation of Albania precisely to prevent Serbia from gaining access to the sea.

The Serbs and Greeks now turned to delaying tactics: By dragging out peace negotiations at the Conference of London, they gave their armies more time to concentrate near the Bulgarian border while keeping Bulgarian troops tied up in the east, where the Bulgarians still faced Turkish armies at Chataldzha and the Gallipoli peninsula. For their part, the Bulgarians were eager to make peace with Turkey so they could redeploy their troops west against Serbia and Greece. The conflicting national aspirations of the Balkan states were bubbling up, and the Second Balkan War was a month and a half away.

The Romanian Conundrum

The Romanian situation was another headache for Tsar Ferdinand, who refused to give up Bulgarian territory in Dobruja even after the Great Powers awarded it to Romania at a side conference in St. Petersburg on May 8, 1913. Romania was benefiting from rivalry between the two European alliance blocs, as both the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy) and the Triple Entente (France, Russia, and Britain) vied for Romania’s favor by taking her side in territorial disputes—a classic example of the “tail wagging the dog,” as a smaller state exploits tensions between larger states to force them to do its bidding.

Although nominally aligned with the Triple Alliance, Romania was drifting towards neutrality—or even an outright switch to the Triple Entente. The matter was complicated for the Triple Alliance by Austria-Hungary’s large Romanian population, which resented the oppressive policies adopted by the Hungarian half of the Dual Monarchy against its own ethnic minorities. The Hungarians feared (not without reason) that Romanians in the Kingdom of Hungary wanted to be reunited with their ethnic kinsmen in the neighboring Kingdom of Romania, much as the Empire’s Slavs hoped for union with Serbia.

Of course the political disenfranchisement of Romanians in Hungary also angered Romanian nationalists in Romania itself—presenting yet another dilemma for Count Berchtold, who somehow had to square all these interests when crafting the Dual Monarchy’s foreign policy. If the vacillating foreign minister made too many concessions to the Romanians, he would anger the Hungarian elite and lose his domestic support; if he let the Hungarians bully their own Romanian subjects too much, Romania might leave the Triple Alliance and join the Triple Entente.

On top of all this, there was political intrigue to deal with as well: The heir to the throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and chief of staff Conrad von Hötzendorf both hated the Hungarians and favored concessions to the Romanians at home and abroad, but were opposed by the powerful Hungarian statesman István Tisza, who seemed to be the only politician able to keep Hungary in line with Austria. On June 4, 1913, Emperor Franz Josef was forced to ask Tisza to form a new Hungarian government, further limiting Berchtold’s freedom of movement on the Romanian issue.

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
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Tomb Raider: The Story of Saint Nicholas's Stolen Bones
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock
Photo illustration by Lucy Quintanilla, Mental Floss. Saint Nicholas: HULTON ARCHIVE, GETTY IMAGES. Skulls, backgrounds: iStock

Throughout history, corpses have been bought and sold, studied, collected, stolen, and dissected. In Rest in Pieces: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses, Mental Floss editor Bess Lovejoy looked into the afterlife of numerous famous corpses, including Saint Nicholas, one of the many canonized bodies whose parts were highly prized by churches, thieves, and the faithful.

Don't tell the kids, but Santa Claus has been dead for more than sixteen hundred years. No, his body is not at the North Pole, and he's not buried with Mrs. Claus. In fact, his remains are thousands of miles away, on Italy's sunny Adriatic coast. And while Santa might be enjoying his Mediterranean vacation, he's probably not too happy about what happened to his remains. They were stolen in the eleventh century, and people have been fighting over them ever since.

Of course, the Santa Claus of folklore doesn't have a skeleton. But his inspiration, Saint Nicholas, does. That's about all we can say for sure about Nicholas: he was a bishop who lived and died in what is now Turkey in the first half of the fourth century. Legend tells us that he was born into a rich family and delighted in giving gifts. Once, he threw three bags of gold into the window of a poor family's house, saving the three daughters who lived there from a life of prostitution. Another time, he raised three children from the dead after a butcher carved them up and stored them in a vat of brine. He also protected sailors, who were said to cry out his name in rough seas, then watch the waves mysteriously smooth.

The sailors spread Nicholas's cult around the world. Within a century of his death, the bishop was worshipped as a saint, lending his name to hundreds of ports, islands, and inlets, and thousands of baby boys. He became one of the best-loved saints in all of Christendom, adopted by both the Eastern and Western traditions. Christmas probably owes something to his December 6 feast day, while Santa Claus’s red outfit may come from his red bishop’s robes. "Santa Claus" is derived from "Sinterklaas," which was how Dutch immigrants to New Amsterdam pronounced his name.

As one of the most popular saints in the Christian world, Nicholas had a particularly powerful corpse. The bodies of saints and martyrs had been important to Christianity since its beginning: the earliest churches were built on the tombs of saints. It was thought that the bodily bits of saints functioned like spiritual walkie-talkies: you could communicate with higher powers through them, and they, in turn, could manifest holy forces on Earth. They could heal you, protect you, and even perform miracles.

Sometimes, the miracles concerned the saints' own bodies. Their corpses would refuse to decay, exude an inexplicable ooze, or start to drip blood that mysteriously solidified and then reliquefied. So it was with Nicholas: at some point after his death, his bones began to secrete a liquid called manna or myrrh, which was said to smell like roses and possess potent healing powers.

The appearance of the manna was taken as a sign that Nicholas’s corpse was especially holy, and pilgrims began flocking by the thousands to his tomb in the port city of Myra (now called Demre). By the eleventh century, other cities started getting jealous. At the time, cities and churches often competed for relics, which brought power and prestige to their hometowns the way a successful sports team might today. Originally, the relics trade had been nourished by the catacombs in Rome, but when demand outstripped supply, merchants—and even monks—weren't above sneaking down into the crypts of churches to steal some holy bones. Such thefts weren't seen as a sin; the sanctity of the remains trumped any ethical concerns. The relics were also thought to have their own personalities—if they didn't want to be stolen, they wouldn't allow it. Like King Arthur's sword in the stone, they could only be removed by the right person.

That was how Myra lost Saint Nicholas. The culprits were a group of merchants and sailors from the town of Bari, located on the heel of Italy's boot. Like other relic thefts, this one came at a time of crisis for the town where the thieves lived, which in this case had recently been invaded by a horde of rapacious Normans. The conquerors wanted to compete with the Venetians, their trading rivals to the north, who were known for stealing the bones of Saint Mark (disguised in a basket of pork) from Alexandria in 827. And when the Normans heard that Myra had recently fallen to the Turks, leaving Nicholas’s tomb vulnerable, they decided to try stealing a saint for themselves.

According to an account written shortly after the theft by a Barian clerk, three ships sailed from Bari into Myra's harbor in the spring of 1087. Forty-seven well armed Barians disembarked and strode into the church of Saint Nicholas, where they asked to see the saint’s tomb. The monks, who weren't idiots, got suspicious and asked why they wanted to know. The Barians then dropped any pretense of politeness, tied the monks up, and smashed their way into Nicholas's sarcophagus. They found his skeleton submerged in its manna and smelled a heavenly perfume wafting up from the bones, which "licked at the venerable priests as if in insatiable embrace."

And so Nicholas of Myra became Nicholas of Bari. The relics made the town, and the men who stole them. The thieves became famous in the area, and for centuries their descendants received a percentage of the offerings given on the saint’s feast day. The townspeople built a new basilica to hold the remains, which drew thousands of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. Even today, Bari remains a major pilgrimage site in southern Italy, visited by both Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Every May an elaborate festival, the Feast of the Translation, celebrates the arrival of Nicholas’s relics. As one of the highlights, the rector of the basilica bends over Nicholas’s sarcophagus and draws off some of the manna in a crystal vial. The fluid is mixed with holy water and poured into decorated bottles sold in Bari's shops; it is thought to be a curative drink.

But Bari is not the only place that boasts of the bones of Saint Nicholas. If you ask the Venetians, they will say their own sailors visited Myra during the First Crusade and stole Nicholas’s remains, which have been in Venice ever since. For centuries, both Bari and Venice have claimed the saint's skeleton.

In the twentieth century, scientists waded into the dispute. During renovations to the basilica of Bari in 1953, church officials allowed University of Bari anatomy professor Luigi Martino to examine the remains— the first time the tomb had been opened in more than eight hundred years. Martino found the bones wet, fragile, and fragmented, with many of them missing. He concluded that they had belonged to a man who died in his seventies, although because Martino was given only a short time with the bones, he could say little more.

Four decades later, Martino and other scientists also studied the Venetian bones. They concluded that those relics and the ones in Bari had come from the same skeleton, and theorized that the Venetian sailors had stolen what was left in Myra after the Barians had done all their smashing.

As for Demre, all they have is an empty tomb. And they want their bones back. In 2009, the Turkish government said it was considering a formal request to Rome for the return of Nicholas's remains. Though the bones have little religious significance in a nation that’s 99 percent Muslim, there’s still a sense in Turkey that the centuries-old theft was a cultural violation. Its restitution would certainly be an economic benefit: according to local officials, tourists in Demre frequently complain about the barren tomb, and they weren't satisfied by the giant plastic sculpture of Santa Claus that once stood outside Nicholas’s church. Even though Santa has become an international cultural icon, his myth is still rooted in a set of bones far from home.

From REST IN PIECES: The Curious Fates of Famous Corpses by Bess Lovejoy. Copyright © 2013 by Bess Lovejoy. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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