If one word could describe Bulgaria during World War II, it should perhaps be “lucky.” Compared to the hell unleashed in the rest of Europe, including its neighbors, the country remained relatively untouched.
Initially, it sided with Germany, lured by the promise of partial reconstruction of the San Stefano borders, an idea that Bulgaria has been obsessed with for over 50 years.
In 1944, after an invasion by the Red Army, the country switched sides.
TSAR BORIS III
The one stable figure in the turbulent Bulgarian political environment – a great diplomat to some and a shrewd, self-preserving monarch to others – Tsar Boris III is believed to have been the reason why Bulgaria did not suffer the full horror of World War II.
He reluctantly sided with Germany, but did not send Bulgarian troops to fight on the European battlefields and limited German military presence in Bulgaria.
The tsar proved such a disobedient ally that conspiracy theorists maintain he must have been poisoned by Hitler. Officially, the cause of his death in 1943 is heart failure.
In return for its support for the Axis powers, Bulgaria received the right to occupy Macedonia and parts of Thrace in Northern Greece.
The Bulgarian military and administrative control lasted there for three years.
In the official historical narrative, the local, predominantly ethnic, Bulgarian population welcomed the Bulgarian troops as liberators. The army, however, was far from kind to the non-Bulgarians, and policies of forceful cultural assimilation and expulsion were followed.
At the same time, a Communist-led resistance movement was causing trouble for the government in Bulgaria proper.
The partisans, young Communist party sympathizers, were determined to overthrow the country’s pro-Germany government and side with the USSR. They blew up bridges, attacked trains and, often frustrated by the relative lack of a bourgeoisie in Bulgaria, harassed well-to-do peasants and the village elders.
The partisans that were not hunted down and killed by the state security forces became the pillars of the Communist regime and the heroes of the newly born movie industry. They were given high government positions, valuable real estate and, until the 1980s, their children and grandchildren continued enjoying various privileges, such as short-cut university acceptance, apartments in prestigious neighborhoods, and the right to travel abroad.
SAVING THE JEWS
In 1941, the pro-Nazi government passed a law that stripped the Jews from their citizenship and civil rights.
In Macedonia and Thrace, under Bulgarian occupation at that time, 14,000 Jews were rounded up and sent to the Nazi extermination camps, never to be seen again.
The 50,000 Jews living in Bulgaria proper were next in line.
Upon hearing of the faith of the Jews from the occupied territories, however, the Bulgarian society rose up in protest. The archbishop of Plovdiv threatened to lie on the train tracks if the Jews gathered at the train station were loaded in the cars. The head of the church in Sofia declared all churches and his home open to Jews. The town of Kyustendil sent a delegation to Sofia to protest the scheduled deportation of the 1,000 Jews living there. Numerous professional organizations started petitions and wrote letters of disagreement. A member of the parliament, Dimitar Peshev, rallied to prevent any deportations.
Bulgarian Jews were expelled from the big cities but no deportations to the death camps occurred.
THE RED ARMY
In 1944, the Red Army marched into Bulgaria as a “liberator from fascist rule.” Bulgaria changed sides in the war and sent its first troops to the battlefields of Europe.
Overnight, the Bulgarian Communist party was transformed from an outlawed organization into the leading political force.
The Communists exercised their new power by setting up the so-called People’s Tribunals that declared enemies of the state and sentenced to death priests, teachers, doctors, politicians, and wealthier peasants. The exact number of the people executed is unknown, but estimates range from 3,000 to 25,000.
Ironically, when Bulgarians remember the century that brought the bloodiest wars in history, this is the violence that they most commonly cite.