Illustration Katrin Stenmark

Reviews Reinterpreting a Bulgarian past. The dialectics of dictates and dictatorships

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds Baltic Worlds 2:2012, p 48-51
Published on on juni 30, 2012

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At the peak of his country’s recent crisis, a Greek minister admonished his people to accept some drastic austerity measures. Or else, he explained, the Greeks would be reduced to living like the Bulgarians. I have no idea whether this really hit home with the Greeks, but the Bulgarians were outraged. In a way it all boils down to how much anyone knew about Bulgaria other than what comes across through international comparisons, where that country often appears at the bad end of the ratings: the lowest per capita incomes, the lowest level of life satisfaction, the largest percentage dreaming of emigration, and so on, in a never-ending mood of despair. Even the EU is skeptical and is keeping new member Bulgaria’s entry to the Schengen zone on ice because of well-grounded suspicions of high-level corruption combined with a politically manipulated legal system. It is sometimes said that happy countries have no history. If that saying is true, then Bulgaria should be heavy with the weight of history books. Only the period from 1878 to 1912 can be considered a success. About the only bright point in modern Bulgarian history is the government’s refusal to cooperate with its German allies in murdering the Jewish population during World War II. The king, the bishops, the parliamentarians, and local people combined in 1943 to stop on-going plans to deport the nearly 50,000 Bulgarian Jews to Auschwitz. Repeatedly, King Boris refused Hitler’s demands that Bulgarian soldiers be sent to the Eastern Front. There has been controversy about these events. Until 1989, Bulgaria was part of the Soviet sphere, and historians were bound to the unique prejudices of the Stalinist school of class and party history. According to this school, members of the middle and upper classes and their political parties could do nothing morally good as they were assumed to be bearers of fascism. Thus the socialist historians attributed the saving of the Jews either to the efforts of the Communist Party and its leading functionaries (which is obviously false), or saw it as a moral rising of the entire Bulgarian people that forced the elite to act (which is not true either). An entire nation populated with Raoul Wallenbergs? Not very likely. Only after the fall of communism in 1989 did the story of the role of the “monarcho-fascist” elite, and in particular the heroic part in hindering the destruction of the Jews played by the deputy speaker of parliament, Peshev, get told. But even this single glorious moment is badly tarnished by the Bulgarian government’s deportation of Jews from the areas of Greece and Macedonia that the Germans allowed them to occupy.

Many of these sorts of historiographical conflicts are revealed in Roumen Daskalov’s studies. Daskalov is professor of history at the New Bulgarian University in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, and is also attached to the Central European University in Budapest. The book is based on a series of seminars he held at the Center of Advanced Studies in Sofia. It is divided into four thematic studies of history writing. The first deals with Bulgaria’s leading nineteenth century statesman, Stefan Stambolov, who ruled with an iron fist in the 1880s and ’90s. The second takes up the reign of Agrarian National Union leader Aleksandŭr Stamboliiski (1919—1923), with his worldview that seems like a radical, but less bloody-minded, precursor to the Khmer Rouge. The third study covers the debate on whether or not all of the Bulgarian governments from the 1920s up to the communist takeover in 1944 can be categorized as fascist. The final study looks at interpretations of the origins and character of the “people’s democracy” and socialism. Each of the studies is meticulously researched and covers not only professional historians, but also the works of amateur historians, journalists, and novelists. Throughout, Bulgarian historians emerge as an ethnocentric and relatively isolated guild satisfied by the honor and status given them by the regimes whose policies they served.

Daskalov’s main point concerns the degree of intellectual friction that arose when the Stalinist class-against-class view of history came to confront the homegrown blood-and-territory nationalism of Bulgarian historians. This conflict became increasingly visible in the late 1960s and ’70s as nationalist rhetoric was allowed to permeate most levels of Bulgarian politics. The idea behind the official sanctioning of nationalism was a perceived need to graft communist ideology into a nationalist narrative. It was hoped that this would reinforce patriotic consciousness. During the time that dictator Zhivkov’s daughter was minister of culture, the leading historians gained privileged public status.

From its birth as a modern state Bulgaria has lived under the shadow of either Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union, both of which posed as the “liberator”, first from the Ottoman Turks, and then from fascism. Thus nationalistic history writing — which seems endemic among Bulgarians — bumped up against the political need to keep in lockstep with Russia. In Daskalov’s view, the communist era politicized historians in order to serve the rulers. But at the same time, the nationalists succeeded in “liberalizing” history and making it capable of subverting “official tenets and meanings, not least due to the power of language to displace meanings and shift perspectives”. Most of these shifts turn out to be subtle semantic adjustments hidden within complex historical arguments. Daskalov, on the one hand, does us a great service in teasing out these subtle changes from the density of publications, conferences and debates, some of which are obscure to say the least. On the other hand, because nationalism was officially encouraged, he risks exaggerating the degree to which any but a few writers of history were subversive in any normal meaning of the word.

Bulgaria today cultivates a special form of amnesia. Recent history is not taught at school and there is no museum treating communist misrule. Unlike many other post-communist states, there has been no historical commission to deal with the crimes committed during World War II and during the Soviet era. One reason for this neglect is that much of the brutality of Bulgarian history is homegrown. There was no Nazi military occupation, and the communists built their own horrible Gulag on islands in the Danube River. Nor is there any research institution studying this period. In most Eastern European countries, domestic anti-communism, dissidence and revolt against Soviet oppression fits organically into a new historical narrative. Not so in Bulgaria, and there is considerable continuity after what is known simply as the “Event of November 10, 1989”. The following year, the government removed Bulgarian communist icon Georgi Dimitrov’s preserved body from its mausoleum in downtown Sofia. Then it tried three times to dynamite the structure — but, symbolically, with little success. One can try to ignore it, but some of the rubble of the communist past is still to be seen.

Bulgaria became a modern state after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877—1878. Although there was a native Bulgarian independence movement, it was very weak, and without the Russian and Romanian armies, the country would not have come into being, at least not just then. From the start Russian interference was clumsy, and Russia manipulated the nomination (and dethronement) of the princes; sometimes it placed its own generals in cabinet minister positions, instigated and financed coups, supported assassinations, sent warships at moments of political crisis, and so on. As the leading Bulgarian statesman, Stambolov needed to shield the integrity of his country from the pressure of Russia, resulting in a strong-arm nationalistic policy that was basically Russophobic, and his opponents became known as the Russophiles. The nationalists had several aims that were against Russia’s interests. The most important was the will to expand territorially from the small state area that was created at the Treaty of Berlin in 1878 to cover all areas where Bulgarians lived, or were believed to live, or had a historic presence. The “Nationalist Question” meant an ambition to annex regions still held by the Ottomans — the so-called Eastern Rumelia that lay south of the Balkan Mountains, Thrace, and Macedonia (the “Macedonian Question” is still alive). The aims included the acquisition of parts of southeastern Serbia, and, if possible, getting hold of harbors on the Aegean and Adriatic coasts. All this collided with Russia, which, playing its traditional cat-and-mouse foreign policy, decided that for the time being it had to be on good terms with the Turkish Sultan and even better terms with the Serbs.

Russia reacted very negatively when Bulgaria single-handedly marched in and annexed Eastern Rumelia in 1885, forming a territory with borders that are almost exactly those of today. This did not please the Tsar. A Russian-backed revolt by Bulgarian military officers brought on the forced abdication of Prince Alexander and his replacement with Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In return, Bulgaria broke off diplomatic relations with Russia, but the Russians continued to instigate plots, conspiracies, political assassinations, and riots. Stambolov responded with violent repression against his Russophile opponents. He was assassinated in 1895, and only after his death could diplomatic relations with Russia resume.

For traditional historians, Stambolov has been a true hero and his defense of Bulgarian independence against Russian “enslavement” was glorified for a long time. It could have been reasonable for Marxist historians to play down the conflict between Russophiles and Russophobes. These events did take place under reactionary Tsarist regimes with which the Bolshevik revolution claimed to make a clean sweep. However, with Stalin in power there was a desperate need to ignore the suffocating impact of Russia’s interference in the past, as the parallels to the Soviet Union’s own bullying would be all too obvious, and questioning Russia was unthinkable. Thus, the communist-era historians censored themselves and made a point of being anti-Stambolov and pro-Russian.
Stambolov’s regime was criticized as a violent dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, using national independence to hide its real character as a puppet for foreign capitalists. An exception was Nikolai Genchev’s 1976 book on Bulgarian-Russian cultural exchanges, which exposed their negative impact, though the book was immediately withdrawn from circulation and destroyed. It had spoken about the debilitating effects of population exchanges with Russia, and the use of universities to spread propaganda among Bulgarian students. It also pointed out the fact that even Russia, not just Britain and Germany, had almost from the start agreed to put an end to all hope for a Greater Bulgaria. A few other books that showed Russia in a negative light disappeared from the bookshops and were placed in “special collections” in libraries.

By the 1970s, the solidly negative view of Stambolov’s stance had begun to change. Historians switched towards diplomatic history and focused on why the dream of uniting all of the territory inhabited by Bulgarians failed. This line of inquiry meant not just the need to explain or rationalize away why Russia opposed the union with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, but also opened a whole Pandora’s box by clarifying how Bulgaria’s and Russia’s interests clashed. A shift to vindicating Stambolov as a statesman occurred with a little-known historians’ conference in 1984 entitled “Stambolov — Revolutionary and Man of Letters” (the presentations were published after a long delay in 1987) and the re-release of Simeon Radev’s hyper-patriotic Builders of Contemporary Bulgaria (originally published in 1911), which sold more than one hundred thousand copies in 1990. Stambolov was particularly venerated for his courage in standing up for Bulgarian independence against Russian Tsar Alexander III, a point that even the Bulgarian communist leader Todor Zhivkov was said to have appreciated.

During the communist era, agrarian leader Stamboliiski was never as completely demonized as Stambolov. There was considerable overlap between his style of rule and that of the communists. The Bulgarian National Agrarian Union was a mass political party backed up by an ideology that attacked urban capitalism, as well as city life in general. It even spoke of creating a “dictatorship of the peasantry”. A personality cult grew up around Stamboliiski and the party had its own paramilitary thugs, the Orange Guard, for harassing political opponents. Because the Bulgarian population was made up overwhelmingly of farmers, it was possible for historians to see the Agrarian Union era as both a unique Bulgarian adaptation to its peasant society and as a necessary step in the universal transition to the “dictatorship of the proletariat”.

The problem was that the polity created by the Agrarian Union was an utter catastrophe. After 1989 historians could point to many flaw. The administration by party hacks, recruited from the party cells, was often incompetent and ruled with brutality. Agrarian activists armed with clubs could invade towns, breaking up shops and bullying the inhabitants. The party ideology created a sharp conflict between town and countryside. Extreme nationalists take Stamboliiski to task for his pacifistic foreign policy. He abandoned Bulgaria’s irredentist claims and relied on the League of Nations to protect the rights of Bulgarian minorities elsewhere. Crucially, he ignored the “Macedonian Question” in order to be on friendly terms with Yugoslavia, and this led to attacks by Europe’s first large-scale terrorist band, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization, and ultimately to his assassination.

Stamboliiski summed up the situation: “Our rule is not a rule, but a war, a true internal and external war: a war against railway workers, a war against brigands in the forests, a war against brigands in the towns, a war against teachers, a war against parties, a war against the Military League, a war against hatred and mistrust outside us, a war against bureaucracy, a war against the Holy Synod. Tell me with whom in Bulgaria we have not quarreled yet, tell me against whom we have not started a war, that we may start it all the sooner.” In the end, the Agrarian Union regime had antagonized too many powerful political forces and was overturned by a military coup in 1923. Stamboliiski was shot and his supporters were brutally suppressed.

The most astonishing feats of semantic athletics occur when Bulgarian historians write about “September Ninth”, the day of the communist takeover in 1944, mythologized as a founding day. In this matter, historians had to follow the lead of the politicians, and the politicians changed their position several times. Some of the background: Bulgaria was a somewhat unreliable ally of Nazi Germany and had occupied parts of Greece and Macedonia. On September 5, 1944, the Red Army marched in, and on the Ninth, after a pro-communist officers’ coup, authority passed into the hands of the “Fatherland Front”, controlled by the Bulgarian Communist Party, but with representatives of some of the other political parties. The historiographical question concerns how to categorize this event.

From the start the leader of the new regime was Georgi Dimitrov, a famed communist veteran who was the star of the Reichstag Fire trial in 1933 and had been the secretary-general of the Comintern until its dissolution in 1943. He rejected the first official description of events as an “anti-fascist revolution”. Instead he proposed the formulas that it had been an “armed popular uprising” or an “all-people’s uprising”. It was vital to avoid the term “revolution” as that would signify a violent class revolution; instead, it was important to show that Bulgarian partisans and Soviet troops uneventfully paraded in to the “jubilation” of the “liberated” citizens. Dimitrov also proposed the term “people’s democracy” — a term he coined when he headed the Comintern — to designate a popular front coalition of several anti-fascist political parties including part of the bourgeoisie. This he used to designate the new Bulgarian “Fatherland Front” government, which even tolerated some political opposition. Scarred by memories of the Stalinist terror, Dimitrov was adamant that he wanted to avoid the “dictatorship of the proletariat” and preserve a façade of parliamentary pluralism. This was seen as a transitional stage towards a Soviet model.

By the 1950s, however, the term “revolution” had been rehabilitated to designate a two-stage process: first a people’s-democratic revolution (1944—1948), then the “socialist” revolution into which it morphed. At the fifth congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party, Stalin forced Dimitrov to give in and accept the point of proletarian dictatorship, which of course meant undivided control by the Communists. Because of its revelation of such awkward facts, the regime deemed Dimitrov’s diary too dangerous to publish during the communist era. It was published in an edited form in 1997.1 Even before 1989, the reputation of Dimitrov among historians had been treated with considerable sympathy, representing what Daskalov sees as a “vague dream of a different and more humane face of socialism, of a better course of development aborted under pressure from Stalin”. Whether or not the revisionist Bulgarian historians can succeed in rescuing Dimitov’s reputation from remaining that of a Stalin henchman remains to be seen.

After the death of Dimitrov, the communist leadership continued to create new interpretations of history. The new secretary-general Todor Zhivkov declared at the seventh congress of the Bulgarian Communist Party in 1958 that it had been a “socialist revolution” from very start and was a replica of the Bolshevik revolution in its basic features. Zhivkov repeated his stance in 1974: “Achieved with the decisive assistance of the Soviet army, the September Ninth Revolution was from its very beginning a socialist revolution, a repetition of the Great October in its basic and main features. Of course, the September Ninth Revolution also solved general democratic and anti-fascist challenges. This was its peculiarity as a socialist revolution.”

That settled the categorization once and for all, but what were historians to do with the facts? Some had to be ignored or minimized, such as the pro-communist coup of a handful of army officers on the eve of September Ninth. A conspiracy would cast doubt on the claim that it was a popular uprising and a heroic revolution. A very sensitive issue was the role of the Red Army. Should it be seen as the “liberator” of the Bulgarians and thus get the star role and be the decisive factor? This was the position of Stalin and his historians, who claimed that power had passed immediately to the working class, “not by an internal uprising but by help from outside, from the Soviet troops, thus easily, without much effort”. But from what were they liberated, since there was no German occupation? The Bulgarian leaders needed to reduce the Russian impact (well, only slightly) to a helping-hand role in order to build up the case for victorious internal revolutionary forces fighting against domestic fascism. Dimitrov proposed a compromise, that it was a “combination of the popular rising of September 9, 1944, with the victorious march of the Soviet army in the Balkans”.

The Bulgarian historians were struggling with many difficult issues. Some supported the Stalinist version while others took Dimitrov’s line. The official History of the Anti-Fascist Struggle in Bulgaria (1982) balances the impact of the Red Army with an emphasis on internal aspects. By advancing “slowly”, the Soviet troops gave time for the internal forces to become “prominent” and allowed the ripening of a “revolutionary situation” (Lenin’s term) and the fall of the regime. The help from the Soviet Union could not be considered “export of revolution” and should not be seen as Soviet interference with the development of Bulgarian society. Further, the need to show that a revolutionary situation had ripened meant that historians needed to examine what was going on during World War II and lift up some sort of anti-fascist and anti-capitalist resistance. But in the absence of Nazi troops it was hard to argue for a massive partisan movement, so that the historians’ search for heroes was pushed back into the interwar period to take the failed 1923 uprising as evidence of longstanding anti-fascism. In the 1960s, historians returned to the people’s democracy period to re-interpret the role of the non-communist politicians in a polarized form. Those who were allied with the communists were dubbed “healthy” forces on the side of the good, while those opposed to communism were judged “rightist” reactionary archenemies on the side of all that was bad for the country. The first years of the people’s democracy were narrated as “the defeat of the bourgeois opposition”. The harsh repression of these politicians and activists (estimated to be 11,000) by the so-called People’s Courts was described as a just retribution meted out to morally evil elements.

The head of the Bulgarian Institute of History in 1991 declared that the former regime had considered “history as politics turned to the past”. Daskalov is a historiographer and writes about those who write history. Such books are very hard to review as, particularly in Bulgaria, there is hardly a turning point or a prominent personality that has not been interpreted, reinterpreted, revised, and/or condemned to temporary silence. And that several times over. It is a never-ending story very much dependent on political structures. The readers of Daskalov’s book cannot help being struck by the similarities between the aims and methods of communist and traditional nationalist historians. Both types share the same attitude towards history — that there is a single Truth to be discovered by sifting through documents. Both types are willing to subordinate their use of sources to a one-sided interpretation that serves a political purpose. It proved possible for both groups to co-exist in the late communist period. Perhaps this is an explanation of the remarkable continuity of Bulgarian historical writing after the “Change” of 1989. Many historians who attained positions during the previous regime could continue business as usual. ≈


1 Georgi Dimitrov, Dnevnik, 9 mart 1933 — 6 fevruari 1949, edited by D. Sirkov, P. Boev, N. Avreiski & E. Kabakchieva, Sofia 1997.

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Roumen Daskalov, Debating the Past, Modern Bulgarian History – from Stambolov to Zhivkov, Budapest: Central European University Press 2011 367 pages, Original Bulgarian edition 2009