Bulgaria during the Second World War
Marshall Lee Miller
September 9, 1944. People’s Courts were established before the end of the year, and the three regents, the members of every wartime cabinet (including the recent Bagryanov and Muraviev cabinets), 130 of the 160 deputies of the Narodno Subranie, and numerous court advisers and bureaucrats were brought to trial. On February 2, 1945, Filov, General Mihov, and Prince Kiril were executed; they were followed by former premiers Bozhilov and Bagryanov, 68 Narodno Subranie deputies, two dozen former cabinet ministers (among them interior ministers Peter Gabrovsky and Docho Hristov), and several royal advisers, including Yordan Sevov. Muraviev, the last premier before the September coup, received a life sentence; Dimiter Gichev, the Vrabcha Agrarian leader, was sentenced to a one-year term but actually spent most of his remaining two decades in prison. Ironically, the pro-German leaders often fared well: Alexander Tsankov fled first to Germany, then to Argentina; and Legionnaire leader Ivan Dochev escaped to Canada. Stoyan Kosturkov, the leader of the small Radical Party that had been confident of a German victory, was now welcomed into the Fatherland Front; his son became mayor of Sofia.
People’s tribunals were also established at the provincial and village level throughout the country, and thousands of old scores were settled. The percentage of the population executed in Bulgaria probably exceeded that in any other Axis country, although the number of actual “war crimes” was comparatively low. The army was initially spared
the full extent of the purges because the Russians wanted to use it against the Germans. By this tactic, the Soviets secured the services of an unenthusiastic but disciplined force for the advance through Yugoslavia. The political commissars who maintained Communist control over the army allegedly equated high casualties with political devotion; yet the sacrifice of 30,000 troops did not earn Bulgaria the right to retain its wartime acquisitions in Greece or Yugoslavia. Only in the Southern Dobruja was Bulgaria’s largely undisputed rule maintained.
The Communists’ political strategy for attaining complete domination over the country involved several stages. The first was the execution or imprisonment of the leaders of the former regime and, where possible, the opposition. Second, the BKP undermined the power of the remaining opposition leaders by covertly aiding the minority factions within their parties. Next, the leaders of these minority factions were in turn ousted by cliques even more dependent on Communist support. Finally, the Communists purged their own ranks of both opportunists and the most ambitious. A good example of this strategy involved the Agrarian Party. The imprisonment of Gichev and his followers eliminated the Vrabcha wing of the party. The Pladne Agrarian leader G. M. Dimitrov (“Gemeto”) returned in late September 1944 from his wartime exile in the Middle East to resume leadership over his wing. However, he was ordered by Soviet viceroy General Biryuzov to resign his party post in January 1945, and he was soon forced to flee the country again. His successor, Nikola Petkov, soon became disillusioned with collaboration and was replaced by Alexander Obbov, who in turn was followed by Kosta Traikov. When Petkov refused to stop criticizing the new regime, he was charged with conspiracy against the government and executed in September 1947 after an outrageously biased trial.
Similarly, the Social Democratic leader Hristu Pastuhov was displaced and j ailed in favor of Grigor Chesmedzhiev, who had been an early supporter of the Fatherland Front and a minister in the Front’s first government. But Chesmedzhiev himself proved too independent, and in May 1945 he was replaced by Dimiter Neikov. Even Zveno
was ultimately not spared, although the pattern was somewhat different. After the German defeat, Interior Minister Anton Yugov (BKP) began purging the army of both suspected fascists and Zveno supporters. War Minister Damian Velchev (Zveno) was accused in the press of various crimes, and his private secretary—like Nikola Petkov’s—died under torture designed to extract a confession implicating Velchev and Premier Georgiev. When this plan miscarried, Velchev was sent instead as Bulgarian diplomatic representative to Switzerland, where he remained until his death in 1954. Georgiev was demoted from premier, first to foreign minister and then to minister of electrification, a position in which he showed his genius for survival by remaining from 1947 to 1959.
The Communists were also not immune. Traicho Kostov, the First Secretary of the BKP Central Committee and the leading Communist in Bulgaria until the return of Georgi Dimitrov from Moscow in late 1945, was executed for treason in December 1949 and only posthumously rehabilitated. The brutal Anton Yugov was more fortunate: he was ousted from influence along with Kostov but survived to reemerge as deputy premier several years later. Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov were leading Bulgarian-born Communists who had lived in the Soviet Union for many years and had taken Soviet citizenship. They remained in the Soviet Union after the September coup, although Dimitrov assumed the chairmanship of the BKP’s Central Committee. Why they did not return to Bulgaria at once remains unknown; one theory holds that Moscow believed the fiction of the Fatherland Front as a coalition government could better be maintained if the former Secretary General of the Comintern (Dimitrov) stayed abroad. This was thought necessary to secure Allied recognition and legitimize the new government. The Allied conference at Yalta in February 1945 promised free elections for Bulgaria, but the Communists so obviously rigged the electoral process and terrorized the populace that Western protests secured the postponement of the August 1945 elections on the very day for which they were scheduled. This setback to Communist morale led both to Dimitrov’s return from Moscow on November 7, 1945, and to a tougher BKP
attitude toward the opposition. Nine days after his return, Dimitrov renounced his Soviet citizenship and became a Bulgarian again for the elections of November 18, 1945. The opposition boycotted these elections, which this time were not postponed. The BKP consequently scored a sweeping electoral victory, and Kolarov, who had returned to Bulgaria in September 1945, became president of the Communist-dominated Narodno Subranie. Dimitrov, although he now dominated the political life of the nation, did not assume the premiership for another year.
During this period, the young Tsar Simeon remained the nominal ruler of Bulgaria through a new Regency Council established after the 1944 coup. Part of the Communists’ strategy involved eliminating the monarchy, and in this aim they were aided by the general lack of popular enthusiasm for the Saxe-Coburg dynasty after two disastrous world wars. A plebiscite on the future of the dynasty was held on September 8, 1946, and the government claimed that 93 percent of the voters favored the abolition of the monarchy. Within a matter of days, Simeon and his mother, Queen Ioanna, left Bulgaria. They traveled first to join her father, the former King Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, in Egyptian exile, and later went to Spain. The brief reign of the Third Bulgarian Empire was at an end.
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