War in Eastern Europe
John Reed


But the key to the Balkans is Bulgaria, not Rumania. Leaving Bucharest on a dirty little train, you crawl slowly south over the hot plain, passing wretched little villages made of mud and straw, like the habitations of an inferior tribe in Central Africa. Gentle, submissive-looking peasants in white linen, stand gaping stupidly at the engine. You stop at every tiny station, as if the Rumanian Government were contemptuously indifferent of any one going to Bulgaria, and at Giurgiu there is an unnecessarily rigid examination by petty despotic customs officials, who make it as disagreeable as possible to leave the country.

But across the yellow Danube is another world. While the steamer is yet a hundred yards from the landing-stage somebody hails you with a grin - a big brown policeman who has been in America, and whom you saw once as you passed that way two months ago. Good-natured, clumsy soldiers make a pretence of examining your baggage, and smile you a welcome. As you stand there a well-dressed stranger says in French: 'You are a foreigner, aren't you? Can I do anything for you?' He is not a guide; he is just a passenger like yourself, but a Bulgarian and therefore friendly. It is wonderful to see again the simple, flat, frank faces of mountaineers and free men, and to fill your ears with the crackling virility of Slavic speech. Bulgaria is the only country I know where you can speak to any one on the street and get a cordial answer - where if a shopkeeper gives you the wrong change he will follow you to your hotel to return a two-cent piece. Never was sensation more poignant than our relief at being again in a real man's country.

The train labours up through Rustchuk - half Turkish with its minarets, spreading tile roofs, peasants wearing baggy trousers, red sashes, and turbans - into mighty uplands that roll south ever higher toward the mountains. A marriage procession passes; four ox-carts full of uproarious men and girls waving paper streamers, and gay with embroideries of white linen, chains of gold coins, bright-coloured blankets, bunches of grapes, and flowers. Ahead a man rides a mule, beating a drum, and a wild squadron of youths on horseback scurry shouting over the plain.... Night falls - the cold night of high altitudes - and you wake in the morning hurrying down a winding gorge beside a mountain torrent, between high hills of rocks and scrub, where herdsmen in brown homespun pasture their goats against the sky; past ravines in which little villages are caught, irregular and Turkish, their red roofs smothered in fruit-trees; until finally the mountains break, and you see Sofia crowning her little hill like a toy city of red and yellow, topped by her golden dome and overshadowed by her mountain.

Nothing could be more different from Bucharest than Sofia. A sober little town of practical, ugly buildings, and clean streets paved with brick. Telephone-wires run overhead; many street-cars clang along. Except for an occasional ancient mosque or Byzantine ruin, and a sudden glimpse of shabby squares full of peasants in turbans squatting on their heels, it might be a bustling new city of the Pacific Northwest. There is one hotel where literally everybody goes - the Grand Hotel de Bulgaria; next door is the Grand Café de Bulgaria, where journalists make news, magnates plot and combine, lawyers blackmail, and politicians upset ministries. If you want an interview with the premier or one of the ministers - in one case I know of, with the King - you get a bell-boy of the Grand Hotel to call him up on the telephone. Of if you don't want to do that, simply take a table in the Grand Café - they will all come in some time during the day.... Sofia is a little place, friendly and accessible. The unpretentious Royal Palace is right across the street; the National Theatre one block down; the House of Parliament, or Sobranié, two blocks in the other direction, near the Foreign Office, and the Cathedral and Holy Synod just beyond. Every one of any importance lives in a radius of five blocks....

Toward evening the town gets on its best clothes, and strolls along the avenue of the Tsar Liberator to Prince Boris Park. It is a solemn domestic little parade of country people with their wives, daughters, sweethearts, and all the children. The women are comfortably unattractive, and they dress in last year's rural styles. Many officers mingle with the crowd -officers who wear smart, practical uniforms built for campaigning, and look as if they knew how to fight. Squads of burly soldiers in peaked caps and boots tramp stiffly by, roaring slow, hymn-like songs such as you hear in the Russian army....

Darkness brings a chill - for Sofia is a thousand feet up - and sharp on the stroke of eight the crowd scatters home to dinner. There is no restaurant except your hotel, and the food has no subtlety - ham and eggs and spinach being the Bulgarian's favourite dish. Afterward you can sit in the National Casino in the Public Gardens, and drink beer to the strains of a fine military band, or you can listen to interminable Bulgarian dialogues at the Municipal Theatre. There is only one music-hall, called 'New America,' a dreary place where heavily humorous comedians and unshapely dancers delight the guffawing peasants who have come to town on a jag.

The number of people who speak English is amazing. Almost all the political leaders have been educated at Roberts College, the American missionary school in Constantinople. Roberts College has had such an influence on Bulgaria, that after the consolidation of the country and establishment of the kingdom in 1885, it was hailed as 'cradle of Bulgarian liberty.' That's why Sofia is so American, and that's why so many American methods are used in Bulgarian politics - even our kind of graft! But there are more powerful influences. Bulgaria was nearest to Constantinople, and longer subject to the Turks than any other Balkan country - the language is full of Turkish words, and the popular life of Turkish customs. Then Russia's freeing her in 1876 turned the entire trend of Bulgarian thought toward her mighty Slav brother. There was also a group of intellectuals, fighting to free Macedonia, who imbibed republican ideals in France. And lastly, Bulgarian army officers, scientists, teachers, journalists, and politicians, for the last fifteen years have studied almost exclusively in Germany.

An hour by automobile from Sofia lies a typical Bulgarian village. The fields around it are owned and farmed communally by the inhabitants, except for the lands belonging to the monastery at the top of the hill. A wild mountain stream tumbling down the ravine turns the wheels of fourteen mills, where the peasants grind their corn; and since the mills all charge the same price, and the highest mill had no trade at all, the peasants and the monks together have agreed to abolish all mills, and build a single large one run by electricity generated by the stream, to be owned in common by the village. Broad, comfortable houses with tile roofs, built of wood or stone or baked clay, straggle along the cobbled streets. Every one seems happy and prosperous, for in Bulgaria each peasant can own five inalienable acres of land, and, as in Serbia, there are no rich men. At the end of the street is a big, fine public school, with room for all the children, and teachers trained in Germany. Telegraph and telephone, train and automobile road connect it with the city. And these evidences of organization and progress are to be seen all over Bulgaria. King Ferdinand and the group of scientific experts with which he has surrounded himself are chiefly responsible for all this. The Bulgars are loyal, honest and easily disciplined, in contrast to the anarchistic Serbs. Centuries of Turkish tyranny have helped to prepare them for the hand of the organizer.

I know three derisive stories told by the peasants of other Balkan peoples about Bulgars for seven hundred years, which illustrate the Bulgarian character better than anything I could say.

A Bulgar who had been mowing late in his fields went home at night with his scythe over his shoulder. Coming to a well, he looked down and saw the moon reflected in it. 'Good God!' he cried, 'the moon has fallen into the well. I must save it!' So he put his scythe into the water and pulled. But the scythe caught in the rocks of the well. He pulled and pulled and pulled. Suddenly the rock gave way and he fell on his back. Above him in the sky was the moon. 'Ha,' said he with satisfaction, I have rescued the moon!'

Four Bulgars walking across the fields came to a pond with a willow-tree bending over it. Wind rustled the leaves and the peasants stopped to look at it. The tree's talking,' said one. 'What is it saying?' The others scratched their heads. It probably says that it wants a drink,' replied another. Filled with pity for the poor thirsty tree, the Bulgars climbed out on the branch and weighed it down into the water. It broke and they all drowned.

The Bulgarian army, so goes the story, had been besieging Constantinople for two years without the slightest result. They took counsel together and decided to push down the wall. So the soldiers strung themselves all around the city with their back to the wall and began to push. They pushed and sweated with all their strength - they pushed so hard that their feet began to sink into the ground. Feeling something give way, the whole army shouted: 'Just a little more now! Keep on pushing! She's moving!'

The Bulgarians were originally a Mongolian race, who invaded the Balkan Peninsula in the seventh century and mingled with the Slavs they found there. Under the legendary Tsar Simeon they erected by conquest an ephemeral 'empire,' which extended from Adrianople to the mouths of the Danube, northwest so as to include Transylvania and all of Hungary, then south to the Adriatic, taking in Bosnia, Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia, Albania, Epirus, and Thessaly - and east to Thrace. Two hundred years later, a Serbian 'empire' under the mythical Tsar Dushan had conquered the same territory and subjugated the Bulgars. In the thirteenth century the Bulgars predominated again, and in the fourteenth the Serbs had their turn. Twice during this time Bulgarians laid siege to Byzantium. I mention this to explain Bulgarian 'national aspirations' on 'historical grounds' - like all Balkan 'aspirations,' they are practically boundless.

But the Bulgars are really very simple people, without guile. Why, then, did they enter the war on the side of Germany and Austria? And to go further back, why did they break the Balkan Alliance and provoke the second Balkan War? It is again a question of 'aspirations.'

The Macedonian question has been the cause of every great European war for the last fifty years, and until that is settled there will be no more peace either in the Balkans or out of them. Macedonia is the most frightful mix-up of races ever imagined. Turks, Albanians, Serbs, Rumanians, Greeks, and Bulgarians live there side by side without mingling - and have so lived since the days of St Paul. In a space of five square miles you will find six villages of six different nationalities, each with its own customs, language, and traditions. But the vast majority of the population of Macedonia are Bulgars; up to the time of the first Balkan War no intelligent Greek or Serbian or Rumanian ever denied this. Almost all of Bulgaria's great men have come from Macedonia. They were the first people, when Macedonia was a Turkish province, to found national schools there, and when the Bulgarian Church revolted from the Greek Patriarch at Constantinople - no other Balkan Church is free - the Turks allowed them to establish bishoprics, because it was so evident that Macedonia was Bulgarian. Ambitious Serbian nationalists followed the Bulgarian example of establishing schools in Macedonia, and sent comitadjis there to fight the Bulgarian influence; but Serbian scientists and political leaders recognized for a century that Macedonia was peopled with Bulgarians. The Serbians did not spread south; they came from the north and spread east through Bosnia, Herzegovina, Dalmatia, and beyond Trieste - and that way their logical ambitions lie.

During the last years of Balkan turmoil under the Ottomans, when the Great Powers were bawling for reform in the European vilayets, and the end of the Turkish Empire was in sight, Greece also sent comitadjis to Macedonia to wage an underground bandit warfare on the Serbs and Bulgars, with the hope of eventually getting a slice. But up to the outbreak of the Balkan War no responsible Greek ever dared to claim Macedonia on any other but 'historical' grounds. Constantinople, parts of Thrace, Asia Minor, and the European littoral of the AEgean and Black Seas were claimed by Greece because Greeks lived there. But that was all.

Even in the treaties of the Balkan Alliance that preceded the war of 1912z, Serbia recognized Macedonia as Bulgarian. Mr Milanovitch, the Serbian premier who helped draw the treaties, said: 'There are districts which cannot be disputed between us. Adrianople ought to go to Bulgaria. Old Serbia north of the Char Planina Mountains ought to go to Serbia. Most of Macedonia will be Bulgarian. But a strip of eastern Macedonia ought to be given to Serbia. And the best thing will be to leave the division to the Emperor of Russia as arbitrator.' And this was inserted in the treaty. Greece also accepted the principle of Bulgarian dominance.

When the Balkan conflict exploded, Bulgaria, with her superior army, was to leave a strong force in Macedonia, and aid Serbia with more troops if she found things difficult. But, on the contrary, it was Serbia who sent aid to the Bulgars in Thrace; this, Serbia called 'the first violation of the agreement.' Adrianople fallen, the Bulgars pressed on, amazed at their success. They said they would stop at a line drawn through Midia on the Black Sea to Enos on the AEgean; but the Turks tried so frantically to make peace that they broke the armistice, and drove straight for Constantinople. Only Tchataldja stopped them, and they might finally have stormed that if events in their rear hadn't taken a disquieting turn.

In the meanwhile the Serbians and Greeks, who had occupied all of Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly, were jealous of the boundless Bulgar ambition. Nothing in the Balkan Alliance had given Bulgaria the right to seize the capital of the Eastern world. Together Greece and Serbia had conquered the western vilayets, and they didn't see why they should give up territory fairly won to any powerful Balkan Empire - no matter what the treaties were. So they made a secret treaty and quietly went to work to Grecianize and Serbianize their new territories. A thousand Greek and Serbian publicists began to fill the world with their shouting about the essentially Greek or Serbian character of the populations of their different spheres. The Serbs gave the unhappy Macedonians twenty-four hours to renounce their nationality and proclaim themselves Serbs, and the Greeks did the same. Refusal meant murder or expulsion. Greek and Serbian colonists were poured into the occupied country and given the property of fleeing Macedonians. Bulgarian school-teachers were shot without mercy, and Bulgarian priests given the choice of death or conversion to the Orthodox religion. The Greek newspapers began to talk about a Macedonia peopled entirely with Greeks - and they explained the fact that no one spoke Greek, by calling the people 'Bulgarophone' Greeks or 'Vlaquophone' Greeks. The Serbs more diplomatically called them 'Macedonian Slavs.' The Greek army entered villages where no one spoke their language. 'What do you mean by speaking Bulgarian?' cried the officers. This is Greece and you must speak Greek.' Refusal to do so meant death or flight.

Bulgaria concluded a hasty peace with the Turks and turned her attention westward. The Serbs and Greeks were evasive - they declared the Balkan Alliance had been broken by their ally. Bulgaria called upon the Tsar to arbitrate, but Serbia, in possession of far more than she ever had dreamed of gaining, realized that she had powerful friends: Russia, alarmed at the gigantic ambition of her protégé, and Austria, who wanted no powerful state in the Balkans. Finally Tsar Nicholas agreed to settle the question; but just as the two delegates were about to start for St Petersburg, Bulgaria took a step that justified the fears of the Great Powers, alienated the world's sympathy, and lost her Macedonia. Without warning, her armies suddenly attacked the Serbs and the Greeks and marched on Salonika. The Bulgarian people was not consulted. The news came as shock to the cabinet, whose policy was one of conciliation and peace. Consternation and fury broke loose in Sofia. Who had given the order? There was only one person who could have done so, and that was King Ferdinand.

King Ferdinand is a regular romantic Balkan King. He perpetually sees himself riding into Constantinople on a white horse - the Tsar of an immense, belligerent empire. And as I write this he has again hurled his people against their will into a war from which they cannot emerge except as losers.

I saw it all. I was in Sofia when the Entente Powers made their offer, and from then off and on until the end. The Allies offered as the price of intervention all of Serbian Macedonia to the Char Planina Mountains, Thrace, and diplomatic support for the recovery of Grecian Macedonia and Silistria. The Central Powers would give Macedonia, part of Serbia, Silistria, free access to Cavalla and Salonika, and a slice of Turkey to be ceded immediately. Germany told Bulgaria that she need only effect a junction with the German forces through Serbian Macedonia, and then she could turn all her attention to occupying these territories; while the Allies wanted her to attack the Turks, and wait for compensation until after the war. The Bulgars clamoured for immediate occupation....

The Allies replied that they would guarantee her countries for her by occupying the line of the Vardar with Allied troops. But the Bulgarian Government was sceptical of promises to be redeemed 'after the war.'

The premier, Mr Radoslavov, said on July 15: 'Bulgaria is prepared and ready to enter the war immediately absolute guarantees can be given her that ... she will attain ... the realization of her national ideals. The bulk of these aspirations are comprised in Serbian Macedonia, with its Bulgarian population of one and a half millions. It was pledged and assigned to us at the end of the first Balkan War, and it is still ours by right of nationality. When the Powers of the Triple Entente can assure us this territory, and assure us that our minor claims in Grecian Macedonia and elsewhere will be realized, they will find us ready to march with them. But these guarantees must be real and absolute. No mere paper ones can be accepted. Only certainty on this point can induce our people again to pour out their blood.'

In that he had the country with him, for there is a very decided public opinion among the Bulgarian peasants. In the first place more than half a million Bulgarians fled from persecution in Macedonia under Turks, Greeks, and Serbs and were scattered throughout the villages of Bulgaria, forever preaching the liberation of their country. In the middle of the summer half the population of Sofia was composed of Macedonian refugees, and you could visit a camp in the outskirts of the city where sixteen thousand of them lived under tents, at great expense and annoyance to the government. While I was in Sofia in September, there arrived five thousand Bulgarians who had been taken prisoners by the Austrians after being forced to serve in the Serbian army -  returned with the compliments of the Emperor Franz Joseph. Every day the press was full of bitter tales brought by the refugees, and expressions of hatred against the Serbians; the Serbian press responded as bitterly, accusing the Bulgarians of raiding across the frontier, burning and slaughtering. Both were true. To offset this hatred there was the traditional love and gratefulness - very strong among the peasants - to Russia the Liberator, and the memory of the generation who had seen her armies rout the Turks.

Bulgarian statesmen are just as they are in Rumania; they play the game of personal ambition and personal profits - with the important difference that in Bulgaria they must wheedle the people, and are subject to an unscrupulous and irresponsible monarch who has real royal power. All Bulgarians were agreed on the programme of regaining Macedonia; they only differed on the question of which group of Powers could give it to them. As Mr Joseph Herbst said to me: 'If Zululand would give us Macedonia we would march with Zululand!' A bitter and exhausting struggle went on between the two parties - between hatred of the Serbs and love for Russia. The Radoslavov government showed itself benevolent toward the Central Powers in a hundred ways - for instance, by allowing the military censorship to suppress six pro-Ally newspapers on the ground that they were 'bought with Russian gold.'

By an agreement of all political parties at the outbreak of the European war, power to act was left in the hands of the government, and the Sobranié adjourned indefinitely. But as the government's attitude became denned, the growing opposition demanded the calling of Parliament to consider the country's position. This the King absolutely refused to do, for he knew that the majority of the country was still pro-Ally. In its desperation the Liberal government was forced to a trick. The provinces of New Bulgaria were electing their first deputies, and they were so gerry-mandered that all the twenty deputies were Liberals. How the voters felt about it was made plain when a confidential man journeyed south to find out what side the peasants would like to fight on. 'You give us guns first,' they replied threateningly, 'and we'll show you which side we'll fight on!' In spite of the twenty, however, there was still a majority against the Germans when Bulgaria went to war.

As I passed through Sofia in the middle of August the pro-Ally sympathizers were jubilant. Mr Guenadiev, leader of the Stamboulovist party, seemed to think Bulgaria would accept the last offer of the Entente Powers, to which Serbia had conditionally agreed. Mr Guechov, chief of the Nationalists, talked of a coming demonstration in force by the opposition, to compel the summoning of the Sobranié. And Mr Malinov of the Democratic party believed that his country knew how fatal to Bulgarian predominance would be the German drive eastward.

But when I returned two weeks later all was changed. The Duke of Mecklenburg had twice visited the King, the Turco-Bulgarian secret treaty had been signed, the first gold instalment of an immense German loan had arrived, and Mr Guechov told me that the Central Powers were now urging Bulgaria to attack Rumania, in case attempted negotiations between Austria and Serbia came off. 'If the Germans come through Serbia to our frontier,' said Mr Guenadiev, 'what can our small army do against them? We do not want to be another Belgium.' A politician who had once told me with glowing approval how the peasants loved Russia, now seemed lukewarm. The peasants are very simple folk,' said he; 'they remember Russia the Liberator, but they are not intelligent enough to realize that freeing Bulgaria was merely a step in the Russian march toward Constantinople. You and I know better; we understand that the peasants will do what they are told, and that a people needs thoughtful leaders.' And he hurried away with an important, furtive air.

In the first week in September the Opoltchenié, or Macedonian Legion, composed of refugees, was called to the colours 'for forty-five days' training.' No one was fooled. The government press breathed double hate against the Serbs, and cried: 'Macedonians! The hour is at hand to free your country from the oppressor!' Sixteen thousand Macedonians were summoned - sixty thousand responded, and with them some fifteen thousand Albanians, and ten thousand Armenians who had been given asylum from Turkish persecution. A grand demonstration was arranged with true Bulgarian thoroughness; the new volunteers, all slow, exalted faces, and rough, brown homespun, surged through the streets cheering and singing behind their war-worn flag. They knew that they were to head a Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia. In twenty speeches delivered from the balcony of the Military Club, from the steps of the Sobranié, and from the Tsar Liberator monument, they were told so.

Next Sunday, September 6, was the national holiday, celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the union of the Bulgarian kingdom. The printed programme of the parade announced that the Opoltchenié and the troops of the garrison of Sofia would participate; but on Saturday night a Bulgarian wood merchant told me that he had received an order from the government to unload twelve railroad cars full of timber in four hours, and turn them over to the government. Late in the evening most of the cab horses in the city were seized by government quartermasters. That very night the Macedonians mysteriously disappeared; and when the parade began in the morning the garrison of Sofia - horse, foot, and artillery - had also vanished, except for two companies. In the afternoon there was a grand patriotic demonstration by civilians, punctuated with bellicose speeches; in the evening a torchlight procession of students singing Macedonian songs. My, how full of politicians and journalists was the Grand Café de Bulgaria that night! But, in spite of the national holiday and the critical situation of events, there was no excitement whatever. There never is in Sofia - the Bulgars are an unemotional people. Even the demonstrations were methodical, organized, and directed like flocks of sheep. The party chiefs and politicians refused to be interviewed - and when that occurs in Bulgaria, things are serious indeed. Too late the Opposition leaders were scurrying around for support to stop the resistless march of events.

The last act of the coup d'état was brief and dramatic. On Friday, September 18, the Opposition leaders, representing six out of the eleven Bulgarian parties, had a conference with the King. Tsanov, representing the two Radical parties, Danev the Progressive Liberals, Stamboliisky the Agrarians, Guechov the Nationalists, and Malinov the Democrats, were received by his majesty in the presence of his secretary, Doctor Dobrovitch, and the Crown Prince Boris. Malinov, in his speech, said that the military situation in Europe and the political situation in the country made it extremely dangerous for Bulgaria to enter the war on either side at present. He believed firmly in continued neutrality; but if the government thought that entrance in the war would help realize the national ideals, his constituents desired that it should be on the side of the Entente Powers. Stamboliisky then presented a memorandum signed by himself and his colleagues, which respectfully demanded:

First. That the government should take no action without calling the Sobranié and consulting the wishes of the country.

Second. That before any action was taken a coalition cabinet should be formed (after the model of the English and French war governments), with an enlarged number of ministers to represent the eleven political parties.

Third. That the Crown should present to the government in power the demands of the Opposition, with the indorsement of the Crown.

Guechov took the floor, pointing out by means of figures and calculations the inevitable final victory of the Entente Powers. 'The moment for our entrance into the war is unripe,' he said. Tsanov followed with a speech along the same general lines; and after a discussion precising the details of the memorandum, the King, Prince Boris, and Doctor Dobrovitch withdrew for a private discussion.

When they returned it became apparent from what Doctor Dobrovitch said that the government had made up its mind to a course of action, on the basis of information which could not be made public.

'What most concerns the people of this country,' burst out Stamboliisky, 'must remain a secret then?'

I had no idea that you represented the people of this country, Mr Stamboliisky,' said the King. 'Why is it that you have never come to see me before?'

'Because the democratic principles of my party forbid it,' said Stamboliisky; 'but I waive principles when the country is in danger. And let me remind your Majesty that dynasties which thwart the popular will do not last long!'

'My head is old,' replied the King, 'and not of much value. But you had better take care of your own!'

In vain Malinov and Guechov tried to quiet things. By this time Tsanov had lost his temper and joined Stamboliisky, and 'for a while,' said an imaginative observer, 'they all kicked each other's shins.'

Finally the King rose and said very sternly: 'Gentlemen, I shall present your demands to the government. I can tell you that we have decided on a policy which will be thoroughly carried out at any cost. Mr Stamboliisky, I am happy at last to have made your acquaintance!'

Two days later we left Sofia for Nish, and three days after that the Bulgarian mobilization was announced.

[Previous] [Next]
[Back to Index]