by Professor Hristo Matanov; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Communists seized power in Bulgaria after three coups, two disastrous alliances and years of pseudo-democracy

happy bulgarians.jpg


When news of the 27 November 1919 treaty signed in the Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine reached Bulgaria, there was not a dry eye to be found. The victors in the First World War forced the defeated nation to accept a peace deal that Bulgarians to this day consider a national catastrophe.

Bulgaria was forbidden to have a conscript army and was ordered to pay reparations of 2.25 billion gold francs over the next 37 years. The most painful consequences, however, were not financial - the Treaty of Neuilly definitively smashed to pieces the Bulgarian dream of national unification.

The Treaty of Neuilly was signed in the eponymous suburb of Paris

The Treaty of Neuilly was signed in the eponymous suburb of Paris

Romania received Southern Dobrudzha, while Bulgaria's outlet to the Aegean Sea went to the Greeks. The so-called Zapadni pokraynini, or Western Outlands, became part of a new state, which bore the long-winded name of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes until 1929, when it became known as Yugoslavia. Bulgaria's new borders were often imposed mechanically, cutting through the middle of villages, schools, homes and families. Hundreds of thousands of refugees flooded into Bulgaria, increasing the sense of total catastrophe.

The defeat was a critical turning point in the formation of the Bulgarian national consciousness. The optimistic dream that all Bulgarians would one day live together in a single nation gave way to nihilism and the belief that the Great Powers and corrupt politicians were to blame for all of Bulgaria's misfortunes. It was then that a dubious claim arose, which is still repeated on “patriotic” television programmes, as well as by slightly tipsy Bulgarians. According to this argument, Bulgarian soldiers never lost a single battle - rather incompetent politicians, diplomats and the king frittered away everything they had won.


Disappointed by the “old” politicians, Bulgarians turned to rising leftist figures on the political stage who promised fast and effective change. The humble Party of Bulgarian Socialists attracted followers and in 1919 changed its name to the Bulgarian Communist Party, led by the young radicals Vasil Kolarov and Georgi Dimitrov.

The Agrarian Union, however, hit the jackpot, uniting a massive layer of Bulgarian society: villagers. Its charismatic leader Aleksandar Stamboliyski boosted the popularity of the party. He had opposed Bulgaria's participation in the First World War and in 1915 was sentenced to life in prison. Ironically, it was precisely Stamboliyski - then serving as prime minister - who signed the Treaty of Neuilly. Afterwards, in an expression of helpless rage, he broke the pen that he had used to sign it.

Stamboliyski's plans were ambitious. He compensated for the lack of an army by introducing mandatory labour service - combined with military training - for all young men and women. He also reformed the tax system, trade law and simplified the alphabet.

Statue of Alexander Stamboliyski in front of the Opera House in Sofia. The building was designed to house the Agrarian UnionStatue of Alexander Stamboliyski in front of the Opera House in Sofia. The building was designed to house the Agrarian Union

His foreign policy, however, earned him enemies. To end Bulgaria's international isolation, he warmed relations with the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. This angered representatives of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation, or VMRO, who were fighting for the “liberation” of Bulgarians within the kingdom. Rightist and central parties joined the opposition and created a broad coalition called the Demokratichen sgovor, or Democratic Alliance. Radical, unemployed soldiers gained popularity and founded the aggressive Voenen sayuz, or Military Union. The Agrarians decided to take pre-emptive action against their opponents. However, their paramilitary Orange Guard gave them a false sense of security, even as late as the eve of their fall from power.


The future leader of the Agrarian Union was born in 1879 and went to Germany to study agriculture and philosophy. Due to a serious case of tuberculosis, however, he returned to Bulgaria. Once he recovered, Stamboliyski participated enthusiastically in the party's activities and became not only its leader, but also its ideologue. According to his “class theory” the most numerous class should rule Bulgaria, namely the farmers.


All coups in Bulgaria, beginning with that against Prince Alexander Battenberg on 9 August 1883, have taken place on dates that include the number nine. The coup orchestrated by the Military Union and representatives of the Macedonian liberation movement was no exception. The organisers informed the leader of the Democratic Alliance - Aleksandar Tsankov, a law professor - and King Boris III of their plans.

Other Bulgarians, however, especially the Agrarians themselves, were greatly surprised when on 9 June 1923 they learned that Bulgaria had a new prime minister, none other than Professor Aleksandar Tsankov himself.

Prime Minister Tsankov, dubbed Blood-Thirsty Professor, opens a high school in Vidin

Prime Minister Tsankov, dubbed Blood-Thirsty Professor, opens a high school in Vidin

Stamboliyski attempted to organise resistance to the new regime - but this opposition ended with his brutal murder in his home village of Slavovitsa near Pazardzhik. Agrarian leaders were arrested, killed or forced to flee abroad, and their remaining supporters were repressed.

Following orders from Moscow, the Bulgarian Communist Party did not take a clear stance vis-à-vis the coup. Shortly afterwards, however, the USSR changed its tactics. Via its envoy Vasil Kolarov, the Communist International ordered Bulgarian Communists to begin an armed uprising, which broke out in the autumn of 1923.

The government's military and armed detachments used repression and violence to crush the attempted revolt, which Marxists and historians have dubbed the Septemvriysko vastanie, or September Uprising. Kolarov and Dimitrov fled to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and from there wrote an open letter to their comrades in Bulgaria urging them to continue the struggle. They then travelled to the USSR and assumed powerful positions in the Third International.

Some Communists did “continue the struggle” - with a series of assassinations. The most horrifying attack took place on 16 April 1925, when they blew up the St Nedelya Church in Sofia during the funeral of a general whom the Communists had killed. The king and his ministers miraculously survived - another 150 victims, primarily women and children, were not so lucky. The government responded to the attack with a new wave of persecution and repression, which quickly became part of Bulgaria's everyday life.

St Nedelya Church

St Nedelya Church after the bombing

Poet Geo Milev was among the victims of the hunt targeting Communists after the bombing of St Nedelya Church in 1925

Poet Geo Milev was among the victims of the hunt targeting Communists after the bombing of St Nedelya Church in 1925


The new Prime Minister Aleksandar Tsankov earned the nickname “The Bloodthirsty Professor”. Bulgaria, however, gradually calmed down - especially after the Great Powers hinted that the time had come to re-establish democracy.

In January 1926 Andrey Lyapchev took the helm of the Democratic Alliance's new government. His political slogan was so krotse, so blago, i so malko boy , or “nice, gentle and with some thrashing.” And he stuck to his motto. He allowed the Agrarians and the Communists to resume limited activities and offered partial amnesty to participants in the 1923 revolts.

Under his government, scarcely noticeable yet important changes began to take place. Bulgaria gradually ended its international isolation. Bulgarians came to terms with their territorial losses and finally relegated the “national question” to the dustbin of history. The VMRO, however, led by Ivan Mihaylov, had no intention of giving up the struggle for a unified Bulgaria and set up a parallel power centre in Pirin Macedonia. The government's attempts to deal with the situation created a new source of tension and political assassinations.

Strange as it may seem under such circumstances, democratisation continued. In 1931 the coalition Naroden blok, or the National Bloc, headed the government. Prime Minister Aleksandar Malinov re-established the traditional political parties and the Communists “crawled out into the light of day” and reasserted themselves as a legal political organisation. The parties were highly unstable, however. They splintered, combined and created unscrupulous coalitions at such a rapid pace that most Bulgarians were left with the lasting impression that too much political variety was unnecessary and harmful. This prepared the ground for a new coup and the establishment of an authoritarian regime headed by Tsar Boris III, who until then had remained on the political sidelines.


Bulgaria survived the global economic crisis of 1929-1933 without massive bankruptcies or suicides, for the simple reason that the country's economy was too underdeveloped to be affected. Of course, this also had its downside: the export of agricultural products declined, leading to growing unemployment. Just when Bulgaria had recovered, it was time for a new coup. On 19 May 1934, a group of military men united into an organisation called Zveno, or Link, led by Kimon Georgiev overthrew the National Bloc. The new Prime Minister Georgiev instituted a series of reforms obviously influenced by Mussolini's fascist ideas. As a perfect example of the theory that there is little difference between the extreme right and the extreme left, Georgiev made no secret of his sympathy for the USSR.

Political parties were forbidden and troops destroyed the VMRO's parallel power centre. Parliament was not dissolved - the government simply ignored it and ruled via decrees from King Boris III. They encouraged all kinds of cooperation, created government monopolies and established diplomatic relations with the USSR.

Christo's wrapped Reichstag

Christo's wrapped Reichstag

The king, however, did not allow Zveno to hold onto power for long. He delicately removed the military group from power and began to rule on his own, with the help of a government loyal to him. Propaganda promoted an image of the “good king” who drove a locomotive, hiked in the mountains almost unprotected, drove his own car and frequently stopped to talk to ordinary people.

While Boris III was cementing his power, Bulgaria experienced economic growth that outpaced the other Balkan nations. This attracted the attention of Germany, which in the 1930s directed its economic expansion toward the Balkans. This tendency became especially obvious after 1935, when German firms won military concessions for the re-outfitting of the Bulgarian army.


Bulgarians have figured twice in the history of the Reichstag. In 1995 the Bulgarian avant-garde artist Christo wrapped the German parliament, while in 1933 the Nazis accused the Bulgarian Communist leader Georgi Dimitrov of setting it on fire. In fact, the Nazis themselves set the blaze to create an excuse for stamping out the German Communists. Georgi Dimitrov, the Comintern representative in Germany, was of course among the accused. His sensational trial in Leipzig ended in acquittal, however, thanks to Dimitrov's skilful lawyers and the international outcry in his defence. After his release, the “hero of Leipzig” returned to Moscow, where he came under Stalin's influence and led Comintern until the organisation's closure in 1943.

The Judge and the Judged - John Heartfield's poster protesting the trial against Georgi Dimitrov

The Judge and the Judged - John Heartfield's poster protesting the trial against Georgi Dimitrov


Bulgarians are proud that not a single one of Bulgaria's 50,000 Jews fell victim to the Holocaust. However, few of them mention the fact that Bulgarian soldiers deported Jews from the “new territories” in Aegean and Vardar Macedonia to Nazi concentration camps.

Bulgarians have never been zealous anti-Semites. In 1942, however, Parliament passed an anti-Semitic Law for the Protection of the Nation and the government created a Commissariat for Jewish Questions. Bulgarian Jews were subjected to forced labour, humiliation and were required to wear yellow stars in public. At the beginning of 1943 the Commissariat prepared for the deportation of 20,000 Jews from the old Bulgarian territories and 11,500 from the new territories to “death camps”.

Dimitar Peshev has a tree in the Garden of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

Dimitar Peshev has a tree in the Garden of the Righteous in Yad Vashem, Jerusalem

However, there was an unexpected public outcry, led by Deputy Speaker of Parliament Dimitar Peshev and the Holy Synod. The most dramatic events took place on the night of 9 March, when Kiril, the Metropolitan Bishop of Plovdiv, blocked the removal of Jews from the city. The government was forced to heed public opinion and to stop the deportations.

While Jews in the “old territories” celebrate 10 March as the day they were saved from the Holocaust, by cruel irony this was the very date when deportation of the first Jews from Macedonia to concentration camps in Poland began.

A word of gratitude by the Jews in Plovdiv

A word of gratitude by the Jews in Plovdiv


When the Second World War began in 1939, Bulgaria had a single aim: to avoid repeating the mistake of 1915, when it allied itself with the losing side in the First World War. The government declared neutrality, relying on the re-established Bulgarian army for protection. No one, however, was foolish enough to believe that it would be able to defend the country if the Germans headed south.

Opinions on the war differed widely. The traditional parties sympathised with the Western Allies, Communists followed the Soviet party line, while right-wingers demanded that Bulgaria support the Axis. The king played the role of mediator and tried to put off making a decision for as long as possible.

In the summer of 1940 Germany had conquered most of Europe. Hungary and Romania allied with the Nazis, yet Bulgaria still hesitated. Once again, however, the “national question” emerged. The hope that the Third Reich would help Bulgaria take back its lost territories once again trumped common sense. Expectations ran high when in 1940 Germany and its then-ally the USSR forced Romania to return Southern Dobrudzha to Bulgaria.

King Boris III dies days after a meeting with Hitler

King Boris III died days after a meeting with Hitler


On 1 March 1941 Bulgaria officially joined the Axis powers, offering Hitler and Mussolini a promising if headstrong ally.

Germany used Bulgaria as a base for its occupation of Greece and Yugoslavia in the spring of 1941. As a reward, Bulgaria received part of Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and the Western Outlands. The populations in the so-called new territories greeted Bulgarian troops ecstatically for the most part, while propaganda advertised “national unification” as the king's single-handed accomplishment.

Boris III did everything he could to avoid more active participation in the war and even maintained diplomatic relations with the USSR after the Germans invaded it in June 1941. His stubbornness had its limits, however. At the end of the year Bulgaria declared “symbolic war” on the United States and the UK. The Allies began a decidedly non-symbolic bombing campaign against Sofia.

The invasion of the Soviet Union changed many things. Bulgarian Communists formed partizanski otryadi, or partisan detachments. Although they never numbered more than a few thousand men even by the end of the war, every German military defeat nevertheless swelled their ranks with new recruits. The first German failures on the Eastern Front increased apprehension that Bulgaria would once again end up on the losing side. The situation became even more complicated on 28 August 1943, when King Boris III died suddenly after visiting Hitler in Germany.

The Bulgarians were overwhelmed by despair. Their only consolation was that Bulgarian troops had managed to avoid direct combat. At that moment the Communists began preparing a coup, uniting the leftist parties into the so-called Otechestven front, or the Fatherland Front.


Before becoming king upon his father Ferdinand's abdication, Boris III had spent the years between 1912 and 1918 on the frontlines - which prevented him from completing his education. Boris had grown up under the sharp eye of a despotic father and hence was secretive and reserved. During the first years of his rule his main interests seemed limited to hunting, hobbies and his marriage in 1930 to Princess Giovanna of Savoy, later known as Queen Ioanna of Bulgaria. The marriage produced a son, Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, who later served as prime minister of Bulgaria from 2001 to 2005.

Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became king at age six

Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became king at age six

In the 1930s, however, Boris set up a typical authoritarian regime and during the war Bulgarians clung to him as the only hope of keeping their troops out of the war. For that reason his sudden death caused panic, a political crisis and gave rise to rumours that Stalin or Hitler was behind his demise. The autopsy results, however, revealed that a classic heart attack was the true culprit.

The king was buried according to his wishes in the church at Rila Monastery. When the Communists came to power in 1944, however, they exhumed his body and buried it in an undisclosed location. The whereabouts of the king's remains are unknown to this day - except for his heart, which was miraculously found and reburied in the monastery at the beginning of the 1990s.

The king was expelled by the Communists in 1946 and returned to Bulgaria for the first time in 1996

The king was expelled by the Communists in 1946 and returned to Bulgaria for the first time in 1996


Less than two years after entering the war, the Bulgarians realised that they had once again bet on a losing horse. The government and the regents of the underage King Simeon II, however, were afraid to break ties with Germany. They waited until as late as August 1944 before reaching out to UK and US representatives in Cairo. The negotiations led nowhere, however, because the Allies had long since relegated Bulgaria to the sphere of Soviet influence.

Communist partisans celebrate 9 September 1944. This famous propaganda photo turned out to have been doctored

Communist partisans celebrate 9 September 1944. This famous propaganda photo turned out to have been doctored

Stalin didn't wait long to exercise his rights. On 5 September 1944, when the Red Army had already assembled on Bulgaria's northeastern border, he declared war on the country. The Bulgarian government's response - to declare war on Germany - was too little too late. The Red Army invaded the country, yet Bulgarian troops avoided direct confrontations with Soviet forces, following government orders. The Fatherland Front took advantage of the situation and captured Sofia with help from Zveno officers. On the morning of 9 September the seasoned conspirator Kimon Georgiev once again became prime minister. The partisans attacked cities and villages and secured the Fatherland Front's rule. The Communist regime, which would last 45 years, had just begun.

Memorial to the victims of Communism in front of the NDK in Sofia

Memorial to the victims of Communism in front of the NDK in Sofia


The influenza pandemic known as the Spanish flu kills 30 million people in Europe

1919 Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini establish rightwing parties in Germany and Italy

1920 Prohibition begins in the United States

1922-1923 Kemal Ataturk declares Turkey a republic

1922 Mussolini takes power in Italy

1922 Soviet Russia is renamed the USSR

1924 Lenin dies and Stalin seizes power

1926 A general strike paralyses the UK

1927 Charles Lindbergh flies across the Atlantic Ocean

1929 Alexander Fleming discovers penicillin

1930 The host country, Uruguay, wins the first football World Championships

1931 Al Capone is convicted of tax evasion

1933 Adolf Hitler becomes chancellor of Germany

1934-1935 Persecution of Jews in Germany begins

1936-1939 The Spanish Civil War

1-3 September 1939 Germany attacks Poland starting the Second World War

August-September 1940 The aerial battle for Britain rages

22 June 1941 Germany invades the USSR

7 December 1941 Japan attacks Pearl Harbor

October 1942 German and Italian forces are defeated at El Alamein

Beginning of 1943 The Red Army routs the Germans at Stalingrad

Summer of 1943 The Allies disembark in Sicily

6 June 1944 The Allies land in Normandy


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