Bulgaria during the Second World War
Marshall Lee Miller
And those that have been able to imitate the fox have succeeded best. But it is necessary to be able to disguise this character well, and to be a great feigner and dissembler.
—MACHIAVELLI, The Prince, chapter xviii
- The Bitter Heritage
- Politics and Parties During the Interwar Period
- Foreign Policy
TSAR BORIS of Bulgaria frequently complained, “My army is pro-German, my wife is Italian, my people are pro-Russian. I’m the only pro-Bulgarian in this country.”  As a Bulgarian, Boris’s wartime goals included both the satisfaction of his country’s irredentist aspirations against its Balkan neighbors and noninvolvement in the fighting. Achieving these apparently irreconcilable aims necessitated a cunning aptly described by Hitler: “Boris is by temperament a fox rather than a wolf, and would expose himself to great danger only with the utmost reluctance.” 
Boris’s dealings with the Germans seemed to confirm Hitler’s assessment. While resisting Nazi demands to sever diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union, to deport Bulgarian Jews to Germany, and to join the war on the Eastern Front, he managed to gain their support for the Bulgarian occupations of the Southern Dobruja, Macedonia, and Aegean Thrace. Even as Boris was persuading the Germans that Bulgaria was their staunchest friend, he succeeded in convincing many British and Americans that his country’s real sympathies lay with the Allies.
In the early part of the war, therefore, Bulgaria was a small state pursuing its self-interest with a high degree of diplomatic skill and a fair amount of success. And yet, as the war neared its end, Bulgaria achieved the dubious distinction of being simultaneously at war with Great Britain, Germany, Russia, and the United States.
The Bitter Heritage
The seeds of Bulgaria’s involvement in the Second World War were sown over sixty years earlier, in 1878, when Russian troops under Alexander II helped liberate Bulgaria from five centuries of Turkish subjugation. By the Treaty of San Stefano in March 1878, Bulgaria was granted its independence and more territory than it was ever again to have. This victory was short-lived, however. Great Britain and Austria-Hungary were alarmed by the creation of a large, pro-Russian Slavic state within striking distance of the Turkish Straits; and on the invitation of German Chancellor Bismarck, a second peace conference was convened that summer in Berlin, which resulted in a drastic reduction of Bulgarian territory. The year 1878 thus produced three forces that were to be constants of Bulgarian politics for the next six decades: gratitude to the Russians as liberators, frustration at being despoiled of territory the Bulgarians considered rightfully theirs, and recognition that Bulgaria was a mere pawn in the diplomatic maneuvering of the Great Powers.
Turkey’s weakening grip on its European possessions prompted Bulgaria in 1912 to join with Greece, Serbia, and Montenegro in the First Balkan War. The allies were victorious but soon quarreled over the division of spoils. In the ensuing Second Balkan War the following year, Bulgaria confronted its former allies, who were aided by Rumania, while Turkey seized the opportunity to recover Edirne (Adrianople) and part of Thrace. The Bulgarians were overwhelmed and lost most of their previous gains.
The outbreak of the First World War a year later offered Bulgaria a chance to recoup its losses. Because of its strategic geographical position, Bulgaria was ardently wooed by both opposing parties, but the Central Powers (Germany and Austria-Hungary) had several advantages : first, they were more likely than the Allies to satisfy Bulgaria’s territorial demands; second, Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria was himself of German origin; and third, in the autumn of 1915, when Bulgaria decided to enter the war, the Central Powers seemed the probable victors. The Bulgarian army fought well, and with some German
assistance managed to halt the large expeditionary force of British, French, Serbian, and Russian troops that attempted to advance north from Salonika. But Bulgarian resistance finally crumbled in October 1918, and Tsar Ferdinand was forced to abdicate in favor of his twenty-four-year-old son, who ascended the throne as Boris III.
Once again Bulgaria was on the losing side. By the Treaty of Neuilly in 1919, Bulgaria lost its outlet on the Aegean to Greece, the Southern Dobruja (the area between the Danube and the Black Sea) to Rumania, and additional portions of Macedonia to Serbia (Yugoslavia). Limitations were imposed on the size of the Bulgarian army, and a large indemnity was demanded. This bitter heritage ruled out any cooperation between Bulgaria and its Balkan neighbors, prevented the formation of a unified and effective Balkan alliance against outside aggression, and was a principal reason for Bulgaria’s joining the Axis in the Second World War.
Politics and Parties During the Interwar Period
The Agrarian Party under Alexander Stambolisky assumed power amidst the disillusionment following the war. Stambolisky realized that the peasantry, although comprising eighty percent of the population, had long been neglected by the government, but his Agrarian regime overcompensated. Public officials were dismissed in favor of office seekers whose only qualifications were peasant origin, education was derided and curtailed, and Agrarian politicians became as entangled in graft and election-rigging as their predecessors had been. Every decision taken by the Agrarians seemed to antagonize powerful opponents. Nationalists resented the trials of their wartime leaders, Macedonians were angered by Stambolisky’s conciliatory policy toward Yugoslavia, the opposition political parties objected to the harassment of their activities, and monarchists were alarmed by rumors that Stambolisky planned to proclaim a republic.
On June 9,1923, Stambolisky was overthrown and tortured to death in a bloody right-wing coup. The leader of the new government coalition, Professor Alexander Tsankov, had previously played little part in politics but was to become a key figure during the Second World
War. The Bulgarian Communists were initially undecided whether to support the scattered Agrarian armed resistance to the new regime, for they had bitter memories of Agrarian persecution. In September 1923, however, on orders from Moscow, the Party attempted a general insurrection. The revolt was ill-timed, poorly managed, and quickly suppressed. This revolt, and the later abortive bomb attempt on the Tsar, resulted in the official suppression of the Communist Party in 1925. Although it continued thinly disguised as the Bulgarian Workers’ Party (BRP), the second largest party in the country after the Agrarians, it ceased to be a significant political force during the remainder of the 1920’s and most of the 1930’s.
In addition to the Agrarians, the democratic parties (commonly called the “legal opposition”) included the Radicals, the Democrats, and the Social Democrats. Size often had little to do with a party’s importance. One of the most influential parties, for example, was sometimes called the “kamion” (“truck”) party, because all of its members supposedly could have ridden in a single truck. The boundaries between the parties were rather vague, based as they were along class lines in a society where classes v/ere difficult to distinguish. The parties also tended to splinter easily into “wings, winglets, and feathers.” The Agrarians, for example, were deeply split between two main factions—Vrabcha (“sparrow”), led by Dimiter Gichev, and Pladne (“zenith”), headed by such men as G. M. “Gemeto” Dimitrov, Kosta Todorov, and Nikola Petkov. The latter group was somewhat more willing to cooperate with the Communists than the former, but the differences between the two were more historical and personal than ideological.
Along with the democratic parties and the Communists, a third major political bloc existed in interwar Bulgaria—the heterogeneous nationalist parties and right-wing organizations. These ranged from the patriotic society Otets Paisii (“Father Paisi”) to the fascist Ratnitsi (“warriors”) and Legionnaires supporting General Hristo Lukov. The most prominent nationalist was Alexander Tsankov (Premier from 1923 to 1926), who headed a mass movement during the 1930’s
modeled on Mussolini’s, but his pedantic orations soon cooled the enthusiasm of his followers.
One nationalist party deserves special mention. Zveno (“link”), with its companion organization the Military League, was a small group of idealistic military officers and politicians that had an influence on Bulgarian politics far out of proportion to its size. Under Kimon Georgiev and Damian Velchev, it participated in the rightwing 1923 coup, led the elitist coup of 1934 that made Georgiev the prime minister, and played a leading role in the Communist coup of 1944. It was not given a fourth chance.
In 1931, the Agrarians returned to power following an upset victory in an inadequately rigged national election. The ensuing coalition of Democrats, right-wing Agrarians, and liberals brought together older political leaders with younger men such as Dimiter Gichev and Konstantin Muraviev, who would later lead the opposition during the war. Instead of rekindling the democratic spirit in Bulgaria, however, the coalition soon degenerated into factions of greedy, squabbling politicians.
On May 19, 1934, the coalition was overthrown by Zveno, which established diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union (while maintaining the ban on local Communists) and launched ambitious plans for economic development. However, the anti-monarchist tendencies of the Zveno government alarmed Tsar Boris, who quietly began exploiting dissension among the government leaders. Within eight months Prime Minister Georgiev resigned, and Boris assumed personal rule of Bulgaria until his death in 1943.
Although Bulgarian internal politics had always revolved around the Tsar, his authority was neither absolute nor unvarying. During the disorders of the 1920’s and early 1930’s, his power waxed and waned several times, but after each crisis he emerged stronger than before. The relative weakness and disunity of the Bulgarian political parties and their poor record when in office contributed to his increasing influence. At last in 1935 the Tsar asserted his authority and appointed the pliable Georgi Kioseivanov prime minister. Kioseivanov
had first held office under Stambolisky and had acquired a reputation for being stupid but honest. He survived Stambolisky’s fall in 1923 and held a number of cabinet and diplomatic posts, including that of foreign minister early in 1935; but in the process he lost his reputation for honesty.
New rigged elections in 1938 produced a tractable Narodno Subranie (National Assembly), and the Tsar was able to turn his attention to the external situation, which in the late 1930’s was growing increasingly threatening.
As a small country, Bulgaria since 1878 had been dependent upon the favor of one or more of the Great Powers. Until the First World War, the two competing powers in Bulgaria were Russia and Austria, with Germany in the background. After the war, German influence replaced Austrian, and Italy also became involved in Balkan politics. Soviet Russia, after a revolutionary hiatus, resumed the traditional foreign policy of Tsarist Russia aimed at control of the Straits and access to the Mediterranean.
Foreign policy preferences played a major role in Bulgarian domestic politics, much as attitudes toward Britain and France did in American politics during the Jeffersonian era. During the interwar period, the Bulgarian nationalist groups generally looked to fascist Italy and Germany; the democratic parties preferred France and Great Britain, although they also professed friendship toward the Soviet Union; and the Communists were devoted to Moscow. For the nation as a whole, a simplistic but useful rule of thumb was that it had affection for Russia and admiration for Germany.
Although there was limited sympathy for the Soviet system, except of course among the Communists, years of official anti-Russian propaganda had also been largely ineffective. The ideological question was secondary to most Bulgarians; their affection for the Russians remained strong despite political and economic changes. The feeling was too complex to be attributed solely to Tsarist Russia’s role as Bulgaria’s
liberator, but its existence was undeniable, even among many pro-Western, anti-Communist Bulgarians.
Admiration for Germany was especially marked among the leaders of Bulgarian public life. The Bulgarian military respected German prowess and efficiency, notwithstanding the final bitter days of the First World War. The rise of the Third Reich and the rebuilding of the German army were generally welcomed in Bulgaria, as was Germany’s disregard of the Treaty of Versailles. Bulgaria was proud of its reputation as “the Prussia of the Balkans” and was receptive to appeals to the wartime comradeship in arms (Waffenbrüderschaft). Germany’s intellectual and cultural achievements also appealed to many Bulgarians. About half of the Bulgarian professors had studied in Germany, and German books in the Sofia University library almost outnumbered the total of those in Russian, French, and English. Bogdan Filov, the wartime premier and a former professor of archeology, was known for his almost blind admiration of Germany; yet even he once complained that Bulgarian professors attending a conference in Leipzig had embarrassed their hosts by being more Nazi than the Nazis.
Like every other Balkan country, Bulgaria traded extensively with Germany; but Bulgaria depended on German trade more than any other country in southeastern Europe. Almost 70 percent of Bulgaria’s exports in 1939 went to Germany, compared with 6 percent to Italy, 3 percent to England, and 1 percent to France. By comparison, Hungary and Yugoslavia sent only about 50 percent of their exports to Germany, and Greece and Rumania sent considerably less. At that time Germany may have been more interested in the trade than in its political consequences, but the two became increasingly intertwined.
Italian influence was appreciable during the 1920’s and 1930’s, owing to an initial regard for Mussolini, extensive Italian diplomatic machinations, and the marriage of King Victor Emmanuel’s daughter to Tsar Boris in 1930. Italy’s boasts, however, rang increasingly hollow, and by the outbreak of the Second World War they counted for little; eventually, whatever influence Italy possessed was essentially negative.
Great Britain and France had but slight political influence in Bulgaria, although they had some importance elsewhere in the Balkans. Nevertheless, they were not without their attractions. Paris was a mecca for Bulgarian students, including a number of future political leaders, and the British system of government was a model for those seeking an alternative to totalitarianism. But neither country displayed much interest in Bulgaria, and this attitude was reciprocated.
Least influential of all the Great Powers was the United States, which during the interwar years seemed all but oblivious to the very existence of Bulgaria. Even the two exceptions to this pattern were unofficial and indirect: the American colleges at Sofia and in northern Bulgaria, which steeped young Bulgarians in Western democratic ideals; and the Bulgarian-Americans in the Midwest, many of whom sent money back to their families in the “Old Country.”
As noted earlier, Bulgaria’s relations with its Balkan neighbors were less than cordial, and this was especially the case with Yugoslavia. This was the result of Bulgarian irredentism and particularly the activities of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a terrorist group that had originally formed to fight against Turkish rule but that raided into Yugoslav Macedonia during the 1920’s and the early 1930’s. Relations with Greece also deteriorated; in 1925 the League of Nations had to intervene to halt a retaliatory foray by the Greek army into southern Bulgaria. Premier Stambolisky’s attempt to reduce Balkan tensions in 1923 only succeeded in winning him an early grave at the hands of IMRO and its right-wing allies. Nevertheless, during the 1930’s Tsar Boris made overtures to archenemy Yugoslavia. Although his discussions with King Alexander ended tragically with the latter’s assassination by Croatian (and IMRO) terrorists in 1934, the suppression of IMRO that same year removed a major obstacle to further negotiations. Yugoslavia was a member of the Balkan Entente, an alliance including Rumania, Greece, and Turkey that was hostile to Bulgaria. Thus, the signing of a pact of perpetual friendship between Bulgaria and Yugoslavia in January 1937 signaled the end of Bulgaria’s long diplomatic isolation. Finally, in July 1938 the members of the Balkan Entente agreed to remove the
1919 restrictions on Bulgarian rearmament in the hope that this would facilitate a common Balkan front against German and Italian penetration. The all-important territorial issue, however, remained unresolved.
Six decades of independence had produced a truncated, bitter Bulgaria, surrounded by hostile states and menaced by contending Great Powers. Tsar Boris—no reckless adventurer—supported Bulgarian irredentism but was personally more concerned with preserving his throne. He therefore favored a policy of accommodation with all the Great Powers; but, if a choice had to be made, he regarded Germany as less a threat to Bulgaria’s internal order than Soviet Russia. Furthermore, Germany seemed increasingly the dominant power in southeast Europe. The perfect solution for Bulgaria, it seemed, would be an alliance between Germany and Russia, so that no choice between the two would be necessary. Yet such an alliance between the apparently implacable ideological foes seemed impossible. Then came the astounding news of the signing of the Nazi-Soviet Pact in late August 1939. For Bulgaria it seemed an ideal solution, and the Pact was widely acclaimed throughout the country.
A week later, Europe was once again plunged into war.
1. Todorov, Balkan Firebrand, p. 306; two variants are given in Studnitz, p. 73.
2. Trevor-Roper, Hitler s Table Talk, p. 379.
[Back to Index]