History of Bulgaria

From Academic Kids

St Ivan of Rila, patron saint of Bulgaria
St Ivan of Rila, patron saint of Bulgaria

The history of Bulgaria began in the 7th century CE with the arrival of the Bulgars in the Balkans. The Bulgars had been moving northwest across the Caucasus and what is now southern Russia and Ukraine; their origin is not entirely clear. The established theory is that the Bulgars are related to the Huns, and more distantly the Turks. However, this position is increasingly being challenged by a theory claiming Aryan-Pamirian origin for the Bulgars. Clues for this can be found in the advanced calendar and system of government of the early Bulgars.

The Bulgars were governed by hereditary khans. There were several artistocratic families whose members, bearing military titles, formed a governing class. Bulgars were monotheistic, worshipping the Sun and a life-force. Later in the beginning in the 8th century the Bulgars in Volga Bulgaria converted to Islam. The Bulgars were warlike and spent much time on horseback, raiding neighboring tribes.

In the 6th and 7th century, the Bulgars had lived on the northern coast of the Black Sea. Under pressure from peoples further east (such as the Khazars) one confederation of Bulgars, the Kutriguri, moved into the territory which is now Romania. By 681, they had crossed the Danube into what is now Bulgaria. The Utiguri Bulgars settled on the Volga, where they converted to Islam and maintained an independent state until the 13th century.

Although this is the most widely recognized presence of the Bulgar tribes on the Balkan peninsula, there is strong evidence of their presence before the 7th century. One example is the Bulgar invasion on Constantinople during the reign of emperor Justinian.


The First Bulgarian Empire

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Simeon the Great

During the time of the late Roman Empire, the lands of medieval Bulgaria had been organised in several provinces - Scythia (Scythia Minor), Moesia (Upper and Lower), Thrace, Macedonia (First and Second), Dacia (Coastal and Inner, both situated south of Danube), Dardania, Rhodope and Hemimont, and had a mixed population of Thracians, Greeks and Dacians, most of whom spoke either Greek or a Latin-derived language known as Romance. It had been overrun by the Slavs after the final decades of 6th century. In 681, the Bulgars founded a khanate on the Danube after defeating an army of the Byzantine Empire under Emperor Constantine IV in a battle south of the Danube's delta. Following their defeat, an agreement was made between the Bulgar ruler Asparukh and the Byzantine Emperor, giving the Bulgars the territory between the Carpathians and the Balkans range and yearly tribute from the Byzantine.

Under the warrior Khan Krum (802-14), also known as Crummus and Keanus Magnus), Bulgaria expanded northwest and southwards, occupying the lands between middle Danube and Transylvania, Sofia in 809 and Adrianople (modern Edirne) in 813, and threatening Constantinople itself. During the reign of Khan Omurtag (814-831) the northwestern boundaries with the Frankish Empire were firmly settled along the middle Danube and magnificent palace, pagan temples, rulers residence, fortress, citadel, water-main and bath were built in Bulgarian capital Pliska, mainly of stone and brick. Under Boris I the Bulgarians became Christians, and the Ecumenical Patriarch agreed to allow an autonomous Bulgarian Archbishop at Pliska.

The Bulgars were greatly outnumbered by the Slav population among whom they had settled. Between the 7th and the 10th centuries, the Bulgars were gradually absorbed by the Slavs, adopting a South Slav language and converting to Orthodox Christianity under Boris I in 864. By 1000, the mixture of Bulgars, Slavs and, according to some researchers, elements of the old Thracian population had melted together to form a new people, the Bulgarians,. They were classified as a Southern Slavic people related to the Serbs, rather than as a Turanian one. With the adoption of christianity the title khan changed to kniaz (Slavonic for prince). Later on Simeon I (the son of Boris) adopted the title Czar of Bulgaria, and ruler of the Bulgarian Empire (called by some historians the West Bulgarian Empire to distinguish it from the lands of the Turanian Bulgars who still lived in the Volga valley).

Missionaries from Constantinople, Cyril and Methodius, devised the Glagolitic alphabet, which was adopted in the Bulgarian Empire around 886. The alphabet and the Old Bulgarian language gave rise to a rich literary and cultural activity centered around the Preslav and Ohrid Literary Schools, established by order of Boris I in 886. In the beginning of 10th century AD, a new alphabet - the Cyrillic alphabet - was developed on the basis of Greek and Glagolitic cursive at the Preslav Literary School. According to an alternative theory, the alphabet was devised at the Ohrid Literary School by Saint Climent of Ohrid, a Bulgarian scholar and disciple of Cyril and Methodius. A pious monk and hermit St Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski, 876-946), became the patron saint of Bulgaria. After 893 Preslav (http://museum-preslav.com/) became truly new and in many aspects authentic Bulgarian capital.

By the late 9th century Bulgaria extended from the mouth of the Danube to Epirus in the south and Bosnia in the west. A Serbian state came into existence as a dependency of the Bulgarian Empire. Under Czar Simeon I (Simeon the Great), who was educated in Constantinople, Bulgaria became a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire. Simeon hoped to take Constantinople and make himself Emperor of both Bulgars and Greeks, and fought a series of wars with the Byzantines through his long reign (893-927). Simeon proclaimed himself "Tsar (Caesar) of the Bulgarians and the Greeks," a title which was recognised by the Pope, but not of course by the Byzantine Emperor.

After Simeon's death, however, Bulgarian power declined. Under Peter I and Boris II the country was divided by the egalitarian religious heresy of the Bogomils, and distracted by wars with the Hungarians to the north and the breakaway state of Serbia to the west. In 972 Emperor John Tsimisces was able to make eastern Bulgaria a Byzantine protectorate. The Bulgarians maintained an independent state for a time in the western part of the country, but in 1014 Emperor Basil II defeated the armies of Czar Samuil at the Balasita and massacred thousands, acquiring the title "Bulgar-slayer" (Voulgaroktonos). He ordered 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners blinded and sent back to their country. At the sight of his returning armies Samuil suffered a heart attack and died. By 1018 the country had been mostly subjugated by the Byzantines.

The Second Bulgarian Empire

The Byzantines ruled Bulgaria from 1018 to 1186, subordinating the independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church to the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople but otherwise interfering little in Bulgarian local affairs. There were rebellions against Byzantine rule in 1040-41, the 1070s and the 1080s, but these failed. By the late 12th century the Byzantines were in decline after a series of wars with the Hungarians and the Serbs. In 1185 Peter and Asen, leading nobles of supposed and contested Bulgarian, Cuman, Vlach or mixed origin, led a revolt against Byzantine rule and Peter declared himself Tsar Peter II (also known as Theodore Peter). The following year the Byzantines were forced to recognise Bulgaria's independence. Peter styled himself "Tsar of the Bulgars, Greeks and Vlachs.

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Frescoes from the Boyana Church (1259): Desislava

Resurrected Bulgaria initially occupied borders very similar to those of modern Bulgaria, since the power of the Serbs and Hungarians prevented significant expansion to the west and northwest. Under Ivan Asen II, however, Bulgaria once again became a regional power, occupying Belgrade and Albania. In an inscription from Turnovo in 1230 he entitled himself "In Christ the Lord faithful Tsar and autocrat of the Bulgarians, son of the old Asen". Ivan Asen II had a reputation as a wise and humane ruler, and opened relations with the Catholic west, especially Venice and Genoa, to reduce the influence of the Byzantines over his country.

In the 13th and 14th centuries Bulgaria became a thriving cultural centre. The flowering of the Turnovo school of art was related to the construction of palaces and churches, to literary activity in the royal court and the monasteries, and to the development of handicrafts. Remarkable achievements of this school have been preserved down to this day: the murals of the Boyars' houses in Trapezitsa and the Forty Holy Martyrs church in Veliko Tarnovo, the Boyana Church (1259) and the Rock-hewn Churches of Ivanovo. Book illuminations also developed, examples include the Manasses Chronicle, the Tetraevangelia of Ivan Alexander and the Tomich Psalter.

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Tsar Ivan Alexander (1331-1371), an illustration from the Four Gospels of Tsar Ivan Alexander (Tetraevangelia of Ivan Alexander), ca. 1356, the British Library

But under Ivan II's successors, Bulgaria once again declined. When Constantinople fell to the Fourth Crusade in 1204, Bulgaria was forced to cede Macedonia to the Latin Empire. The Mongols also raided the Balkans in the early 13th century, devastating Bulgaria in 1242, and Bulgaria was forced to pay tribute to the Khans of the Golden Horde. By the reign of Ivan III 1279-1280, Bulgaria was reduced to a small state on the south bank of the Danube.

The withdrawal of the Mongols from Europe in the early 14th century stabilised the situation in the Balkans and Bulgaria reassumed something like its modern borders. But Bulgaria was threatened by the rising powers of Hungary to the north and Serbia to the west. In 1330 the Bulgarians under Michael III were heavily defeated by the Serbs at Velbuzhd, and large parts of Bulgaria came under Serbian domination. Under Ivan IV (Ivan Alexander) Serbian control was ended, but Bulgaria was left divided into rival states; of the two largest, one was based at Veliko Turnovo and the other at Vidin, ruled by Ivan's two sons.

Weakened Bulgaria was thus no match for a new threat to the south, the Ottoman Turks, who crossed into Europe in 1354. In 1362 they captured Philippopolis (Plovdiv), and in 1382 they took Sofia. The Ottomans then turned their attentions to the Serbs, whom they routed at Kosovo Polje in 1389. This battle sealed the fate of the Balkans for 500 years. In 1393 the Ottomans occupied Turnovo after a three-month siege. In 1396 the Despotate of Vidin was also occupied, bringing the Second Bulgarian Empire and Bulgarian independence to an end.

Bulgaria under Ottoman rule

The Ottomans reorganised the Bulgarian territories as the Beyerlik of Rumili, ruled by a Beylerbey at Sofia. This territory, which included Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia, was divided into several sanjaks, each ruled by a Sanjakbey accountable to the Beylerbey. Significant part of the conquered land was parcelled out to the Sultan's followers, who held it as feudal fiefs (timars and ziamets) directly from him. That category of land could not be sold or inherited, but reverted to the Sultan when the fiefholder died. So long as this system applied, the Bulgarian peasants were in some ways better off than they had been under the rule of the boyars. The rest of the lands were organized as private possessions of the Sultan or Ottoman nobility, called "mulks", and also as economic base for religious foundations, called "vakufs".

The Ottomans did not require the all Christians to become Muslims, although many did so. Nevertheless there were cases of individual or mass forced islamization. Provided they paid their taxes and gave no trouble, Bulgarians were left to themselves. Non-Muslims did not serve in the Sultan's army, so the burden of conscription was lifted from the peasants. The exception to this was the "tribute of children," whereby every Christian community was required to give one son in five to be raised as a Muslim and enrolled in the corps of Janissaries (yenicheri or "new force"), an elite unit of the Ottoman army, and also some small groups of the population with specific statute, usually used for auxiliary or rear services. The Bulgarians gave some regularly paid taxes as a tithe ("jushur"), a capitation tax ("dzhizie"), a land tax ("ispench"), a levy on commerce and so on and also various group of irregularly collected taxes, products and corvees ("avariz").

The Sultan regarded the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church as the leader of the Christian peoples of his empire. The independent Bulgarian Patriachate was suppressed, and the Greek Patriarch given control of the Bulgarian Church. The autonomous Ochrid Archbishopric was abolished in 1767. This remained a source of discontent throughout the Ottoman period. Significant number of Turks settled in Bulgaria, particularly in the south-east around Kurdzhali, in the north-east around Shumen and in the south-west along the Vardar valley. Since few outside the church were literate, the dominance of the Greek clergy led to the decline of Bulgarian elite culture. There was not a single pure Bulgarian-language modern school in the country until 1835.

Nevertheless, while the Ottomans were ascendant, there was certain overt opposition to their rule. First revolt began over 1408 when two Bulgarian nobles, Konstantin and Frujin, liberated some regions for several years. Then there were rebellions in 1598 and 1686 around the old capital Turnovo followed by the Chiprovtsi uprising in 1688 and insurrection in Macedonia led by Karposh in 1689, both provoked by the Austrians as part of their long war with the Ottomans. In 1739 the Peace of Belgrade between Austrian Empire and the Ottoman Empire ended Austrian interest in the Balkans for a century. But by the 18th century the rising power of Russia was making itself felt in the area. The Russians, as fellow Orthodox Slavs, could appeal to the Bulgarians in a way that the Austrians could not. The Treaty of Kuchuk-Kainarji of 1774 gave Russia the right to interfere in Ottoman affairs to protect the Sultan's Christian subjects. Ironically, this led the Ottomans to see the Bulgarians as potential enemies and made their situation worse.

The struggle for independence

Bulgarian national feeling began to revive in the early 19th century under the influence of western ideas such as liberalism and nationalism, which trickled into the country after the French revolution, mostly via Greece. The Greek revolt against the Ottomans which began in 1821 (see History of Ottoman Greece), also influenced the small Bulgarian educated class. But Greek influence was limited by the general Bulgarian resentment of Greek control of the Bulgarian Church, and it was the struggle to revive an independent Bulgarian Patriarchate which first roused Bulgarian nationalist sentiment. When some Bulgarians threatened to abandon the Orthodox Church altogether and form a Bulgarian Uniate church loyal to Rome, the Russians intervened with the Sultan. In 1870 the Bulgarian Patriarchate was revived, and the Patriarch became the natural leader of the emerging nation. The Greek Patriarch reacted by excommunicating the Bulgarians, which reinforced their independence.

Another source of the Bulgarian national revival was the Romantic nationalist vision of a people sharing oral traditions and practices. These ideas were stimulated by the work of Johann Gottfried Herder in particular, and were reinforced by Russian Slavophiles and the model Serbian nationalism under the stimulus of scholar-publicists such as Vuk Karadzic. In Bulgaria, the scholar and newspaper editor Lyuben Karavelov played an important role in collecting and publishing oral traditions, and comparing them with the traditions of other Slavic peoples.

In April 1876 the Bulgarians revolted in the so-called April Uprising. The uprising was organised by the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee and was inspired by an insurrection in Bosnia the previous year. The revolt was largely confined to the region of Plovdiv, though certain districts in northern Bulgaria, in Macedonia and in the area of Sliven also took part in it. The uprising was crushed with cruelty by the Ottomans who brought irregular Ottoman troops (bashi-bazouks) from outside the area. Altogether some 30,000 people were massacred, the majority of them in the insurgents towns of Batak, Perushtitza and Bratzigovo in the area of Plovdiv. The massacres aroused a broad public reaction led by liberal Europeans such as William Gladstone, who launched a campaign against the "Bulgarian Horrors". The campaign was supported by a number of European intellectuals and public figures, such as Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi.

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Bulgaria after the Conference of Constantinople, 1876, from "Report of the International Commission To Inquire into the Causes and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, 1914

The strongest reaction, however, came from Russia. The enormous public outcry which the April Uprising had caused in Europe gave the Russians a long-waited chance to realise their long-term objectives with regard to the Ottoman Empire. The Russian efforts, which were concentrated on ironing out the differences and contradictions between the Great Powers, eventually led to the Conference of Constantinople held in December 1876 in the Ottoman capital. The conference was attended by delegates from Russia, Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, Germany and Italy and was supposed to bring a peaceful and lasting settlement of the Bulgarian Question.

Russia insisted to the last minute on the inclusion of all Bulgarian-inhabited lands in Macedonia, Moesia, Thrace and Dobrudja in the future Bulgarian state, whereas Britain, afraid that a greater Bulgaria would be a threat to British interests on the Balkans, favoured a smaller Bulgarian principality north of the Balkan Mountains. The delegates eventually gave their consent to a compromise variant, which excluded southern Macedonia and Thrace, and denied Bulgaria access to the Aegean sea, but otherwise incorporated all other regions in the Ottoman Empire inhabited by Bulgarians (illustration, left). At the last minute, however, the Ottomans rejected the plan with the secret support of Britain.

Having its reputation at stake, Russia had no other choice but to declare war on the Ottomans in April 1877. The Romanian army and a small contingent of Bulgarian exiles also fought alongside the advancing Russians. The Russians and Romanians were able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at Pleven, and, by January 1878 they had occupied much of Bulgaria. They were thus able to dictate terms to the Sultan, and in the Treaty of San Stefano they proposed creating a large Bulgarian state, embracing much of Thrace and Macedonia as well as modern Bulgaria. The Sultan was in no position to resist, but the other powers were not willing to allow the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire or the creation of a large Russian client state in the Balkans.

Borders of Bulgaria according to the Treaty of San Stefano of March 3rd, 1878
Borders of Bulgaria according to the Treaty of San Stefano of March 3rd, 1878

As a result, the Treaty of Berlin (1878), under the supervision of Otto von Bismarck of Germany and Benjamin Disraeli of Britain, revised the earlier treaty, and scaled back the proposed Bulgarian state. A Principality of Bulgaria was created, between the Danube and the Stara Planina range, with its seat at the old Bulgarian capital of Veliko Turnovo, and including Sofia. This state was to be under nominal Ottoman sovereignty but was to be ruled by a prince elected by a congress of Bulgarian notables and approved by the Powers. They insisted that the Prince could not be a Russian, but in a compromise Prince Alexander of Battenberg, a nephew of Tsar Alexander II, was chosen.

Between the Stara Planina and the line of the Rhodope Range, which runs about 50km north of the modern border between Bulgaria and Greece, the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia was created. With its capital at Plovdiv, it was to be under Ottoman sovereignty but governed by a Christian governor appointed by the Sultan with the approval of the Powers. This hybrid territory was governed by Alexander Bogoridi for most of its brief existence.

Independent Bulgaria

Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria
Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria

The Bulgarians wrote themselves an advanced democratic constitution, and power soon passed to the Liberal Party led by Stefan Stambolov. Prince Alexander had conservative leanings, and at first opposed Stambulov's policies, but by 1885 he had become sufficiently sympathetic to his new country to change his mind, and supported the Liberals. He also supported the unification of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, which was brought about by a coup in Plovdiv in September 1885. The Powers protested but none of them cared enough about Bulgarian affairs to intervene. Shortly after, Serbia declared war on Bulgaria in the hope of grabbing territory while the Bulgarians were distracted. The Bulgarians defeated them at Slivnitsa.

These events made Alexander very popular in Bulgaria, but Russia was increasingly dissatisfied at his liberal tendencies. In August 1886 they fomented a coup, in the course of which Alexander was forced to abdicate and was exiled to Russia. Stambolov, however, acted quickly and the participants in the coup were forced to flee the country. Stambolov tried to reinstate Alexander, but strong Russian opposition forced the prince to abdicate again. In July 1887 the Bulgarians elected Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha as their new Prince. Ferdinand was the "Austrian candidate" and the Russians refused to recognise him. Ferdinand initially worked with Stambolov, but by 1894 their relationship worsened. Stambolov resigned and was assassinated in July 1895. Ferdinand then decided to restore relations with Russia, which meant returning to a conservative policy.

One consequence of Ottoman rule was the mixture of peoples in the Balkans. Not only was there a large Turkish minority in Bulgaria (plus a smaller Greek one along the Black Sea coast), there were many Bulgarians still living under Ottoman rule in Macedonia and Thrace. To complicate matters, there were also large Greek populations in both these areas, and a smaller Serbian population in Macedonia. Thus began a five-sided struggle for control of these areas which lasted until World War I. In 1903 there was an insurrection in Ottoman Macedonia and war seemed likely. In 1908 Bulgaria's rivalry with Greece and Serbia over Macedonia led Ferdinand to declare Bulgaria a fully independent kingdom, with himself as Tsar.

The Balkan Wars

Bulgarian dead in the Balkan Wars
Bulgarian dead in the Balkan Wars

In 1911 the Nationalist Prime Minister, Ivan Geshov, set about forming an alliance with Greece and Serbia, and the three allies agreed to put aside their rivalries to plan a joint attack on the Ottomans. In February 1912 a secret treaty was signed between Bulgaria and Serbia, and in May 1912 a similar treaty was signed with Greece. Montenegro was also brought into the pact. The treaties provided for the partition of Macedonia and Thrace between the allies, although the lines of partition were left dangerously vague. After the Ottomans refused to implement reforms in the disputed areas, the First Balkan War broke out in October 1912. (See Balkan Wars for details.)

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Boundaries on the Balkans after the First and the Second Balkan War (1912-1913)

The allies were swiftly successful, and the Ottomans sued for peace in December. Negotiations broke down, and fighting resumed in February 1913. A second armistice followed in March, with the Ottomans losing all their European possessions west of the Midia-Enos line, not far from Constantinople. Bulgaria gained possession of most of Thrace, including Adrianople and the Aegean port of Dedeagach (today Alexandroupoli). Bulgaria also gained a slice of Macedonia, north and east of Thessaloniki (which went to Greece), but only some small areas along her western borders.

Bulgaria sustained the heaviest casualties of any of the allies, and felt entitled to the largest share of the spoils. The Serbs in particular did not see things this way, and refused to vacate any of the territory they had seized in northern Macedonia (that is, the territory roughly corresponding to the modern Republic of Macedonia). In June 1913 Serbia and Greece formed a new alliance, against Bulgaria. The Serbian Prime Minister, Nikola Pasic, told Greece she could have Thrace if Greece helped Serbia evict Bulgaria from Macedonia, and the Greek Prime Minister Eleftherios Venizelos agreed. Bulgaria attacked Serbian and Greek forces on June 29. But the war soon turned against Bulgaria. She lost her share of Macedonia to Serbia and western Thrace to Greece, while the revived Ottomans retook Adrianople. Romania also intervened against Bulgaria, and was awarded the southern-Dobruja region (also known as Cadrilater).

War and social conflict

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Alexander Stamboliyski

In the aftermath of the Balkan Wars Bulgarian opinion turned against Russia and the western powers, whom the Bulgarians felt had done nothing to help them. The government of Vasil Radoslavov aligned Bulgaria with Germany and Austria-Hungary, even though this meant also becoming an ally of the Ottomans, Bulgaria's tradional enemy. But Bulgaria now had no claims against the Ottomans, whereas Serbia, Greece and Romania (allies of Britain and France) were all occupying lands which Bulgaria claimed. Bulgaria, recuperating from the Balkan Wars, sat out the first year of World War I, but when Germany promised to restore the boundaries of the Treaty of San Stefano, Bulgaria, which had the largest army in the Balkans, declared war on Serbia in October 1915. Britain, France and Italy then declared war on Bulgaria.

Although Bulgaria, in alliance with Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottomans, won military victories against Serbia and Romania, occupying much of Macedonia (taking Skopje in October), advancing into Greek Macedonia, and taking Dobruja from the Romanians in September 1916, the war soon became unpopular with the majority of Bulgarian people, who suffered great economic hardship and also disliked fighting their fellow Orthodox Christians in alliance with the Muslim Ottomans. The Agrarian Party leader, Aleksandur Stamboliyski, was imprisoned for his opposition to the war. The Russian Revolution of February 1917 had a great effect in Bulgaria, speading antiwar and anti-monarchist sentiment among the troops and in the cities. In June Radoslavov's government resigned. Mutinies broke out in the army, Stamboliyski was released and a republic was proclaimed.

In September 1918 the Serbs, British, French and Greeks broke through on the Macedonian front and Tsar Ferdinand was forced to sue for peace. Stamboliyski favoured democratic reforms, not a revolution. In order to head off the revolutionaries, he persuaded Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of his son Boris III. The revolutionaries were suppressed and the army disbanded. Under the Treaty of Neuilly (November 1919), Bulgaria lost its Aegean coastline to Greece and nearly all of its Macedonian territory to the new state of Yugoslavia, and had to give Dobruja back to the Romanians (see also Dobruja, Western Outlands, Western Thrace). Elections in March 1920 gave the Agrarians a large majority, and Stamboliyski formed Bulgaria's first genuinely democratic government.

Stamboliski faced huge social problems in what was still a poor country inhabited mostly by peasant smallholders. Bulgaria was saddled with huge war reparations to Yugoslavia and Romania, and had to deal with a flood of refugees as Bulgarians were expelled from Yugoslav Macedonia. Nevertheless Stamboliyski was able to carry through many social reforms, although opposition from the Tsar, the landlords and the officers of the much-reduced but still influential army was powerful. Another bitter enemy was the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), which favoured a war to regain Macedonia for Bulgaria. Faced with this array of enemies, Stamboliyski allied himself with the Bulgarian Communist Party and opened relations with the Soviet Union.

In March 1923 Stamboliyski signed an agreement with Yugoslavia recognising the new border and agreeing to suppress VMRO. This triggered a nationalist reaction, and on June 9 there was a coup in which Stamboliykski was assassinated. A right wing government under Aleksandur Tsankov took power, backed by the Tsar, the army and the VMRO, who waged a White terror against the Agrarians and the Communists. The Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov fled to the Soviet Union. There was savage repression in 1925 following an attempt on the Tsar's life and a bomb attack on Sofia Cathedral. But in 1926 the Tsar persuaded Tsankov to resign and a more moderate government under Andrey Lyapchev took office. An amnesty was proclaimed, although the Communists remained banned. The Agrarians reorganised and won elections in 1931 under the leadership of Nikola Mushanov.

Just when political stability had been restored, the full effects of the Great Depression hit Bulgaria, and social tensions rose again. In May 1934 there was another coup, the Agrarians were again suppressed, and an authoritarian regime headed by Kimon Georgiev established with the backing of Tsar Boris. In April 1935 Boris took power himself, ruling through puppet Prime Ministers Georgi Kyoseivanov (1935-40) and Bogdan Filov (1940-43). The Tsar's regime banned all opposition parties and took Bulgaria into alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. Although the signing of the Balkan Pact of 1938 restored good relations with Yugoslavia and Greece, the territorial issue continued to simmer.

World War II and after

Adolf Hitler with Tsar Boris III
Adolf Hitler with Tsar Boris III

Under Filov's government Bulgaria drifted into World War II, faced by an Invasion and bribed by the return of southern Dobruja from Romania, on the orders of Hitler (see Vienna Award), in September 1940. In March 1941 Bulgaria formally signed the Tripartite Pact, becoming a German ally, and German troops entered the country in preparation for the German invasion of Greece and Yugoslavia. When Yugoslavia and Greece were defeated, Bulgaria was allowed to occupy all of Greek Thrace and most of Macedonia. Bulgaria declared war on Britain and the United States, but resisted German pressure to declare war on the Soviet Union, fearful of pro-Russian sentiment in the country.

In August 1943 Tsar Boris died suddenly after returning from Germany(possibly assassinated, although this has never been proved) and was succeeded by his six-year old son Simeon II. Power was held by a council of regents headed by the young Tsar's uncle, Prince Kirill. The new Prime Minister, Dobri Bozhilov, was in most respects a German puppet. (To this government's credit, however, is the fact that it resisted German demands for the deportation of Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews.)

Resistance to the Germans and the Bulgarian regime was widespread by 1943, co-ordinated mainly by the Communists. Together with the Agrarians, now led by Nikola Petkov, the Social Democrats and even with many army officers they founded the Fatherland Front. Partisans operated in the mountainous west and south. By 1944 it was obvious that Germany was losing the war and the regime began to look for a way out. Bozhilov resigned in May, and his successor Ivan Bagrianov tried to arrange negotiations with the western Allies.

But it was the Soviet army which was rapidly advancing towards Bulgaria. In August Bulgaria unilaterally announced its withdrawal from the war and asked the German troops to leave: Bulgarian troops were hastily withdrawn from Greece and Yugoslavia. In September the Soviets crossed the northern border. The government, desperate to avoid a Soviet occupation, declared war on Germany, but the Soviets could not be put off, and on September 8 they declared war on Bulgaria - which thus found itself for a few days at war with both Germany and the Soviet Union. On September 16, the Soviet army entered Sofia.

The Fatherland Front took office in Sofia, setting up a broad coalition under the former ruler Kimon Georgiev and including the Social Democrats and the Agrarians. Under the terms of the peace settlement, Bulgaria was allowed to keep southern Dobruja, but formally renounced all claims to Greek and Yugoslav territory. To prevent further disputes 150,000 Bulgarians were expelled from Greek Thrace. The Communists deliberately took a minor role in the new government at first, but the Soviet representatives were the real power in the country. A Communist-controlled People's Militia was set up, which harassed and intimidated non-Communist parties.

In February 1945 the new realities of power in Bulgaria were shown when Prince Kirill and hundreds of other officials of the old regime were arrested on charges of war crimes. By June Kirill and the other regents, 22 former ministers and many others had been executed. In September 1946 the monarchy was abolished by plebiscite, and young Tsar Simeon was sent into exile. The Communists now openly took power, with Vasil Kolarov becoming President and Dimitrov becoming Prime Minister. Free elections promised for 1946 were blatantly rigged and were boycotted by the opposition. The Agrarians refused to co-operate with the new regime, and in June 1947 their leader Nikola Petkov was arrested. Despite strong international protests he was executed in September. This marked the final establishment of a Communist regime in Bulgaria.

Communist Bulgaria

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Georgi Dimitrov

Although Dimitrov had been in exile, mostly in the Soviet Union, since 1923, he was far from being a Soviet puppet. He had shown great courage in Nazi Germany during the Reichstag Fire trial of 1933, and had later headed the Comintern during the period of the Popular Front. He was also close to the Yugoslav Communist leader Tito, and believed that Yugoslavia and Bulgaria, as closely related South Slav peoples, should form a federation. This idea was not favoured by Stalin, and there have long been suspicions that Dimitrov's sudden death in July 1949 was not accidental, although this has never been proved. It coincided with Stalin's expulsion of Tito from the Cominform, and was followed by a "Titoist" witchhunt in Bulgaria. This culminated in the show trial and execution of the Deputy Prime Minister, Traicho Kostov. The elderly Kolarov died in 1950, and power then passed to an extreme Stalinist, Vulko Chervenkov.

Bulgaria's Stalinist phase lasted less than five years. Agriculture was collectivised and peasant rebellions crushed. Labor camps were set up and at the height of the repression housed about 100,000 people. The Orthodox Patriarch was confined to a monastery and the Church placed under state control. In 1950 diplomatic relations with the U.S. were broken off. The Turkish minority was persecuted, and border disputes with Greece and Yugoslavia revived. The country lived in a state of fear and isolation. But Chervenkov's support base even in the Communist Party was too narrow for him to survive long once his patron, Stalin, was gone. Stalin died in March 1953, and in March 1954 Chervenkov was deposed as Party Secretary with the approval of the new leadership in Moscow and replaced by Todor Zhivkov. Chervenkov stayed on as Prime Minister until April 1956, when he was finally dismissed and replaced by Anton Yugov.

Zhivkov ran Bulgaria for the next thirty years, completely loyal to the Soviets but pursuing a more moderate policy at home. Relations were restored with Yugoslavia and Greece, the labour camps were closed, the trials and executions of Kostov and other "Titoites" (though not of Petkov and other non-Communist victims of the 1947 purges) were officially regretted. Some limited freedom of expression was restored and persecution of the Church was ended. The upheavals in Poland and Hungary in 1956 were not emulated in Bulgaria, but the Party placed firm limits to intellectual and literary freedom to prevent any such outbreaks. Economic conditions improved and Bulgaria became generally regarded as the most loyal of the Soviet Union's eastern European satellites.

Yugov retired in 1962, and Zhivkov then became Prime Minister as well as Party Secretary. In 1971, however, he promoted himself to President and made Stanko Todorov Prime Minister. Zhivkov survived the Soviet leadership's transition from Khrushchev to Brezhnev in 1964, and in 1968 again demonstrated his loyalty to the Soviet Union by taking part in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. Although Zhivkov was never a despot in the Stalin mold, by 1981, when he turned 70, his regime was growing increasingly corrupt, autocratic and erratic. This was shown most notably in a bizarre campaign of persecution against the ethnic Turkish minority (10 percent of the population), who were ordered to adopt Bulgarian names: many fled to Turkey, and the issue strained Bulgaria's economic relations with the west.

Democratic Bulgaria

Simeon Sakskoburggotski
Simeon Sakskoburggotski

By the time the impact of Mikhail Gorbachev's reform program in the Soviet Union was felt in Bulgaria in the late 1980s, the Communists, like their leader, had grown too feeble to resist the demand for change for long. In November 1989 demonstrations on ecological issues were staged in Sofia, and these soon broadened into a general campaign for political reform. The Communists reacted by deposing the decrepit Zhivkov and replacing him with Petur Mladenov, but this gained them only a short respite. In February 1990 the Party voluntarily gave up its claim on power and in June 1990 the first free elections since 1931 were held, won by the moderate wing of the Communist Party, renamed the Bulgarian Socialist Party. In July 1991 a new Constitution was adopted, in which there was a weak elected President and a Prime Minister accountable to the legislature.

Like the other post-Communist regimes in eastern Europe, Bulgaria found the transition to capitalism more painful than expected. The anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces (UDF) took office and between 1992 and 1994 carried through the privatisation of land and industry through the issue of shares in government enterprises to all citizens, but these were accompanied by massive unemployment as uncompetitive industries failed and the backward state of Bulgaria's industry and infrastructure were revealed. The Socialists portrayed themselves as the defender of the poor against the excesses of the free market. The reaction against economic reform allowed Zhan Videnov of the BSP to take office in 1995. But by 1996 the BSP government was also in difficulties, and in the presidential elections of that year the UDF's Petur Stoyanov was elected. In 1997 the BSP government collapsed and the UDF came to power. Unemployment, however, remained high and the electorate became increasingly dissatisfied with both parties.

This impasse provided an opportunity for the former Tsar Simeon II, who had left Bulgaria as a nine-year-old boy in 1946. He returned in 1996 as a wealthy 59-year-old businessman under the name Simeon Sakskoburggotski (a Bulgarian spelling of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha). Sakskoburggotski formed a new party, the Movement for Simeon II, and swept both the major parties away in the elections of June 2001. As Prime Minister he has followed a strongly pro-western course, with Bulgaria joining NATO in 2004 and on track to join the European Union in 2007. Economic conditions have improved somewhat, although unemployment and emigration remain high. Sakskoburggotski says he has no interest in restoring the monarchy, but is thought likely to run for President in 2006, when the term of the BSP incumbent, Georgi Purvanov, expires.

Related topics


  • Balkans : a history of Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Rumania, Turkey / by Nevill Forbes ... [et al.]. 1915.
  • History of Bulgaria / Hristo Hristov ; [translated from the Bulgarian, Stefan Kostov ; editor, Dimiter Markovski]. Khristov, Khristo Angelov,. c1985.
  • History of Bulgaria, 1393-1885 / [by] Mercia Macdermott. MacDermott, Mercia, 1927- [1962].
  • Concise history of Bulgaria / R.J. Crampton. Crampton, R. J. 1997.
  • Short history of Bulgaria / [by] D. Kossev, H. Hristov [and] D. Angelov ; [Translated by Marguerite Alexieva and Nicolai Koledarov ; illustrated by Ivan Bogdanov [and] Vladislav Paskalev]. Kossev, D. 1963.
  • Short history of Bulgaria / Nikolai Todorov ; [L. Dimitrova, translator]. Todorov, Nikolai, 1921- 1975.

External links

de:Geschichte Bulgariens eo:Historio de Bulgario fr:Histoire de la Bulgarie nl:Geschiedenis van Bulgarije zh:保加利亞歷史


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