The seventy-fifth anniversary of the defeat of Nazism ought to have been cause for celebration. Such was the thinking of the Russian cultural center in Sofia, as it announced an exhibition in the Bulgarian capital entitled “The Road to Victory.” Instead, the initiative sparked a storm of protest — and days before the planned opening on September 9, the Bulgarian foreign ministry issued a strongly worded statement accusing the Russians of “meddling in Bulgaria’s internal affairs.”
But why should a celebration of the defeat of Nazism be considered unwelcome intrusion? The answer owes to the specific anniversary being commemorated — the events of September 9, 1944, the day when the Fatherland Front took over the government. Uniting an anti-Nazi coalition of Communists, Agrarians, Social-Democrats, and military generals, the Fatherland Front came to power against the backdrop of the arrival of Soviet troops. This date is thus usually considered the beginning of socialism in Bulgaria, paving the way for the Communist Party takeover in 1947.
Every year, this anniversary (known as 9/9) triggers debates and denunciations. Liberals never miss an opportunity to bewail the events of 1944 and the “criminal deviation of history” which Bulgarian socialism supposedly represented. But this year, the Russian exhibition added an international dimension to the traditional “September 9 debate.” The problem, for many, was that the defeat of Bulgaria — a Nazi-allied, but sovereign country — was integrated into a general celebration of the liberation of central-eastern Europe from Nazi occupation.
The Bulgarian foreign ministry reacted angrily to this narrative. It argued that whatever the Soviet Union’s undoubted contribution to the defeat of Nazism, the Red Army brought Bulgaria not freedom but totalitarian oppression, deviation from the economic dynamics of the developed world, and so on. The Russians were bemused: they asked, quite rightly, how dare anyone condemn an exhibition they hadn’t seen yet.
But it seems that the explanation was to be located in the intensity of the debate itself. Even with no strong working-class movement or left in Bulgaria, ruling-class forces remain obsessed with demonizing Communism. As with last month’s European Parliament motion on the equivalence of all “totalitarianisms,” a battle of political direction that seems impossible in the present is instead fought on the ground of historical memory, condemning or rehabilitating the demons of the past. And faced with an absent left, it’s the right-wing message that’s winning.
The Ministry’s reaction encapsulates a position typical of the Bulgarian right and, indeed, liberals: that the Red Army was not the liberator that socialism falsely called it, but rather an occupying force which imposed “anti-fascism” from the outside, as a false pretext for its own control. They base this claim on the fact that just days prior to 9/9, Bulgaria had switched sides and declared war on Nazi Germany. The Soviets were unmoved by this sudden change of heart: on September 8, 1944 the Red Army entered Bulgaria through the Danube and the following day the Fatherland Front proclaimed itself the new government.
The proclamation crowned a successful takeover of key state institutions by a small group of Communists in military uniform the night before, followed by partisan takeovers in towns across the country (notably including a partisan and political prisoner-led uprising in the seaport of Varna). With an enfeebled ruling class in chaos and split between Axis and Allies, and the Soviet invasion guaranteeing the end of the existing regime, it was hardly surprising that the partisans should have taken the opportunity to seize power. The Communist Party at the lead of the movement had, indeed, never made a secret of its desire for revolution in Bulgaria.
Yet even the legitimacy that might be implied by the word “revolution” is now denied it. Indeed, if during the socialist era 9/9 was celebrated as a revolution, after 1989 it was relabeled a “coup.” As historian Alexander Vezenkov notes, this particular “coup” had the unusual feature that power was immediately handed to a civilian force — the Fatherland Front. But denying that this was a “revolution” has another purpose. Even despite years of vilification, the word “revolution” still invokes mass participation and thus implies a degree of democratic consent, whereas “coup” usually refers to some illegitimate and factional assumption of power.
The Right cannot admit that there was a “revolution,” because this would be to acknowledge that the events of 1944 in any way responded to the aspirations of the mass of Bulgarians, rather than just the Russian “occupiers.” This is also allied to a prominent trend in the post-1989 liberal public sphere — at the source of a continuing historical revisionism — which denies that there was ever such a thing as a Bulgarian fascism, such as might have needed to be fought against. This denial of the basic legitimacy of anti-fascism makes it easier to portray it as a fraudulent, antidemocratic politics imposed by a foreign imperial power.
This historical revisionism necessarily has short shrift for the facts — after all, pre-1944 Bulgaria was anything but democratic. Aside from being a Nazi ally, it was a constitutional monarchy with weak parliamentary life disrupted by coups, suspensions of the constitution, paramilitary violence, and a royal dictatorship that suspended party political life from 1934 until 1944. In January 1941, two months before it joined the Axis, Bulgaria drafted a Law for the Protection of the Nation which stripped the Bulgarian Jews of civic and political rights and launched a state terror against them.
As an Axis ally, Bulgaria shipped all the Jews from territories it had occupied in Greece and Macedonia to the Treblinka extermination camp. While the Bulgarian government was not explicitly Nazi, it did have overt fascist leanings and created or tolerated a number of fascist organizations. If Bulgaria did, indeed, avoid falling under the Nazi jackboot like neighboring Yugoslavia or Greece, the domestic regime was certainly pro-fascist and provided good enough reasons for the homegrown opposition to fight it. In fact, an anti-fascist resistance emerged even before Bulgaria joined the Axis: it was certainly not just “imported” on the bayonets of the Red Army.
This leads us to the other crucial fact that the revisionism omits — the scale of the domestic opposition to fascism. Due to the illegal nature of their activities, it’s hard to reach any definitive estimate of partisan numbers. According to historian Iskra Baeva, the Bulgarian partisan movement numbered between 5,000 and 9,000 people; Vezenkov puts the number on the lower end but shows that these fighters were assisted by around 12,000 “helpers” who supplied food, lodging, and other types of assistance to the partisans. Taken together, these numbers are impressive, given that the country was not facing an existential threat under Nazi occupation like its neighbors.
Indeed, despite its dismal fate today, the Left in Bulgaria was historically a strong force. Vezenkov notes the paradox that the King’s so-called “personal rule” of the king — banning all political parties in 1934 — helped the Communist Party for while the other parties’ activity depended on their base in parliament, which was now destroyed, the Communists were far better adapted to building clandestine mass structures.
Yet there were also other local left-wing traditions, from Alexander Stambolijski’s Agrarian Party (the first real mass party in the Balkans, promoting a peasant-oriented socialism) to the Social Democratic Workers’ Party. A narrative which sees the downfall of the King only as the effect of “foreign occupation” must necessarily ignore these homegrown socialist forces and their opposition to war and antisemitism. And it inadvertently ends up as an apology for fascism because very few European countries freed themselves from fascism without outside intervention or invasion. Аnticommunist revisionism must also ignore the fact that not just the Soviets, but also the British and Americans, supported the partisans.
The Foreign Ministry statement also reiterates another common talking-point of the Right, namely, that in 1944 one totalitarianism replaced another. Any celebration of the defeat of Nazism is replaced by the complaint that Bulgaria was “forcefully shut out from Europe by the Soviet invasion.”
The purported moral equivalence of Nazi and socialist “totalitarianisms” then justifies a second move, claiming that socialism was the worse of the two since it 1) lasted much longer, and 2) unlike Nazism, it violated the sacred right to private property. The latter point was made by politicians like Zhelyu Zhelev, the first democratically elected Bulgarian president and a liberal philosopher who introduced the notion of totalitarianism to Bulgaria. Of course, the fascists in power did violate some private property, for example that of the Jews, but it seems that this was a small price to pay for Bulgaria’s Axis membership and the preservation of capitalism in general.
Indeed, if numerous declarations from the European Parliament have explicitly put Communism and Nazism on an equal footing, liberals’ actions betray a preference for one “totalitarianism” over the other. One of the sponsors of the controversial recent European Parliament motion on historical memory, the Bulgarian MEP Andrey Kovatchev, even invited Dyanko Markov — a member of the interwar Nazi paramilitary group known as the Bulgarian National Legions — to the European Parliament. Markov rode the 1990s wave of rehabilitation of interwar fascists: on one solemn occasion, honoring the “victims of Communism,” he excused the deportation of the Jews to Treblinka by calling them “an enemy population.” He spoke those words in the Bulgarian Parliament, no less.
The other Bulgarian MEP who sponsored the European Parliament motion, Alexander Yordanov — a politician from the early liberal anticommunist opposition — publicly insists there was never fascism in Bulgaria. It is worth emphasizing that these MEPs are members of the ruling European People’s Party — the respectable “center-right” — and not from some fringe extremist party.
In fact, as well as creating the conditions for such fascist apologetics, a major cul-de-sac of the liberal revisionism equating the “two totalitarianisms” is that it makes it impossible to understand why the Soviets even bothered to fight the Nazis. Or indeed, why Bulgarians fought alongside the Red Army in this cause. In September 1944 the Soviet army entered Bulgaria without firing a single shot, having faced no opposition whatsoever by its Bulgarian counterpart — hardly the case during an “invasion.” After that, the Bulgarian army committedly took part in the final phase of World War II, helping to push the Nazis out of South-Eastern Europe — a fact also curiously neglected by the Bulgarian right.
One may wonder why thirty years after 1989, Communism remains such an inflammatory question in Bulgaria. The absence of an organized working-class movement or strong left-wing party contending for power would seem to render it irrelevant. Yet the ruling-class obsession with this topic persists, whether in legislative initiatives criminalizing Communism or the constant complaints that school textbooks are not telling the truth about Communism.
Most recently, praise for the Communist past has even been declared a “national security threat” by a new Euro-Atlantic think tank, founded by the ruling party’s former “second man” after his ouster from the party over corruption scandals. One way to understand this paranoid obsession with the past is as a strategy of the Right to stitch up its unraveling hegemony and counter the growing fatigue with the neoliberal reform consensus. Bulgarians have not rushed into the embrace of the Socialist Party or any hypothetical left-wing alternative, but they aren’t enthusiastic about the waning center-right either.
In a context in which consensus is declining yet alternatives are absent, anticommunism becomes even more intense, expressing not the strength of the Right but its weakness and declining ability to mobilize. Anticommunism papers over voter estrangement from an ossified ruling class incapable of offering a future other than the endless repletion of the same anti-labor and austerity policies within a degrading developmental model based on low wages and low taxes.
With the future foreclosed, the symbolic confrontations over the past turn into the sole meaningful terrain for expressing political differences. As sociologist Lilyana Deyanova explains, absent meaningful political confrontation in the wake of the eclipse of grand narratives, “the civil war of memory” starts acting as an ersatz-politics. But with anticommunism and liberal anti-totalitarianism on the march, the only effect is to help fascism inch ever closer to rehabilitation.