In its short post-Communist history Bulgaria has tried, with varying success, to slough off elements of its past and its behaviour as a Balkan nation where Communist-era propaganda used to distort or ban outright any public debate. These elements include, but are not limited to, the historically controversial figure of King Boris III, Bulgaria's last king. A war-time ally of Hitler, he was father to Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the country's prime minister in 2001-2005. Then there are Bulgaria's at best questionable policies towards its minorities, mainly Turks and Muslims and, of course, its past as a Warsaw Pact member, with its thought police and elaborate mechanisms for repression.
That these issues have been aired at all is something of a success, and would have been unthinkable prior to 1989, but it can also be seen as a failure because most of the "controversial" people and events have again been either glorified or vilified, depending on the political and intellectual capacity of whoever does the talking. History is once more being used to highlight some aspects of Bulgaria's past while downplaying others. Bewältigung der Vergangenheit, the German term that can roughly be rendered as "coming to terms with one's own past," does not even have a Bulgarian equivalent. So it is not difficult to see why the closer you come to the present time, the more difficult it becomes to discuss what is sometimes a painful and grey area of history.
An attempt to at least discuss, if not come to terms with, one such episode was a conference organised by the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, the leading human rights watchdog, entitled "Facing the Past," at the beginning of October. Its main topic was the 1941-1944 treatment by the Kingdom of Bulgaria of Jews living in Bulgaria-proper and in the "territories" it "administered," namely Vardar Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia, collectively referred to as the "new lands."
The conference brought together a varied group of historians, experts in Jewish studies, political scientists, reporters and writers including scientist Michael Berenbaum and Stephen Sage of the US Holocaust Museum. Also present were American documentary film-maker Ed Gaffney, Italian author Gabrielle Nissim and Sonia Comb, a university professor from France. Goran Sadikarijo of the Holocaust Fund for the Jews of Macedonia and Paul Hagouel of the Greek Jewish community also attended, as did Bulgarians Vladimir Paunovski of the Sofia Jewish Museum, historian Rumen Avramov and political scientist Antoni Todorov. Jewish history expert Albena Taneva, author and former ambassador to Switzerland Lea Cohen and many others participated.
When events that are expected to cause a controversy are held in Bulgaria, it is equally important to consider who failed to attend. The government did not send a representative (though Tsetska Tsacheva, the speaker of parliament, wired an "address" to the participants). Historian Ivan Ilchev, the head of Sofia University, cited previous commitments, as did Gavriil, the bishop of Lovech, who was invited to represent the Orthodox Church, a major player in the 1941-1944 Jewish events in Bulgaria. He sent a written apology, saying he would be attending an unrelated celebration in Greece.
Bulgaria's failure to apologise for what it did in the territories it occupied was interpreted from two opposing standpoints. One, which is the official government position at the moment, can roughly be described as a verbal sleight-of-hand. Bulgaria, it argues, did not "occupy" the said territories, but just "administered" lands that had been populated mainly by ethnic Bulgarians and which Hitler had granted to Sofia in return for its joining The Axis. Consequently, Bulgaria cannot be held responsible.
The other position argues that whether Macedonia, northern Greece and southern Serbia were "occupied" or "administered" does not really matter. The fact is that Bulgarian troops and the Bulgarian police, supervised by the notorious Jewish Affairs Commissariat, did round up 11,343 Jews. It did put them into Bulgarian State Railway cattle-cars which, passing through Bulgarian territory, brought them to the Bulgarian Danube port of Lom, whence they were deported to Austria and on to Treblinka. None returned.
Krasimir Kanev, the chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, concluded that judged from the modern legal and moral perspective, these events amounted to "genocide."
The conference coincided with the release of a new Macedonian feature film, The Third Half, by Skopje director Darko Mitrevski. Though the film has not been shown in Bulgaria (and it is highly unlikely it ever will), the Bulgarian media were quick to demonise it as "anti-Bulgarian propaganda." Several Bulgarian members of the European Parliament, outraged by the film, petitioned the current EU enlargement commissioner to reprove Skopje over what they said was an "attempt to manipulate Bulgaria's history," and to "spread hatred" by an EU membership candidate towards its neighbours. The Macedonians responded that Bulgaria tried to deny the Holocaust, and put forward The Third Half as their country's candidate for an US Academy Award.
The media coverage of the Helsinki Committee conference was limited. The mainstream media were mainly critical, when they commented at all. They ran an interview with a historian who works for the Council of Ministers, whose headline suggested "outside forces" had tried to redeem Hitler by paying in Bulgaria's coin.
The official position of the current Bulgarian government remains adamant. When meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in September, Bulgaria's Boyko Borisov put it plainly: "There are certain circles in the world who want to distort, to interpret and to comment on history. Yet I think that Bulgaria is a country that saved all of its Jews under Hitler, thanks to the whole Bulgarian nation."
Relations between Bulgaria and Israel are particularly cordial at the moment, since Turkey fell out with Jerusalem two years ago, and as Bulgaria is desperately seeking foreign investment to prop up its ailing economy.
It remains to be seen in what way or indeed whether the "Facing the Past" conference will influence public opinion in Bulgaria or whether it will prompt any policy changes on the issue.
In the present climate, this seems unlikely and the reasons have more to do with psychology rather than history.
Owing to its past as a hardline Communist state, Bulgaria never managed to properly "de-Communise" itself the way other former East bloc countries in Central Europe did. This is a complicated and painful process that will not produce black-and-white results and conclusions. Official Bulgaria so far prefers to forget, rather than to analyse so that it avoids repetitions. Like East Germany, which infamously declared it had nothing to do with either Nazism or the Holocaust as those had been the deeds of West Germany's "vile capitalists," Bulgaria now finds it very uncomfortable to admit that what it did in Vardar Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia was wrong.
One possible explanation is that many Bulgarians, having being brought up with the theory that the non-deportation of about 48,000 Bulgarian Jews was unique in Europe and one of the noblest events in Bulgaria's history, fear that any admission of guilt over the 11,343 deportees will tarnish the much grander event of the rescue.
The Bulgarians clearly need a lesson in Bewältigung der Vergangenheit, and the Helsinki Committee conference may have been the first step in this direction. What makes Bulgaria unique is that it did not, indeed, deport some 48,000 of its citizens. This is beyond any doubt an honourable event, especially when seen against the backdrop of some of the darkest years in human civilisation. However, it did turn in 11,343 people whom it had occupied and deprived of citizenship rights. This is the other side of the coin. The good cannot completely atone for the evil, but insisting that the wrong was never committed is counterproductive for the Bulgarians themselves.
For more on the factual side of Bulgaria and the Holocaust, as well as its interpretations, please click here.
For an alternative to the official Bulgarian reading of its Second World War history, see Shameful Behavior: Bulgaria and the Holocaust, by Shelomo Alfassa, a former director of Special Projects for the American Sephardi Federation (ISBN 978-1-257-95257-1; New York, 2011). Himself born in a Jewish family from Kavala, Greece, in Bulgarian-occupied Aegean Thrace, Alfassa lost 16 family members who were either killed in their hometown or deported to Nazi-occupied Poland.
In the book Alfassa provides detailed accounts of what happened in Bulgaria's "new lands," and reprints a series of documents, including New York Times dispatches, records of the US Congress and photographs to explain Bulgaria's occupation of Vardar Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia. Significantly, he puts into perspective the Bulgarian government's attitude to the issue since the early 2000s.