Failure to face recent past, unbridled hate speech feed continued prejudice
А crudely-cut cartoon circulating on social media shows Former Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, who is Jewish, being held by two Nazi-clad soldiers. The text (in Bulgarian) reads: "If you don't want Russian gas, we will give you some of ours."
This journal has rarely abstained from calling a spade a spade whenever it comes to the Bulgarian political apple cart, but in this particular instance we thought the cartoon was so tasteless, offensive and plainly disgusting that we will not reprint it, not even for illustration purposes.
Responses were quick to ensue. Some social media users gloated. Shalom, the Organisation of Bulgarian Jews, filed a complaint with the prosecution service against the outrageous picture, claiming hate speech. Dr Alek Oscar, Shalom's chairman, unequivocally denounced the cartoon as clear-cut antisemitism. He was joined by a number of Jewish leaders as well as Bulgarians of various professions, political inclinations and social standing. As has become customary in Bulgaria, online petitions and newsletters were put into circulation.
This time around, the fingers were pointed at Vazrazhdane, or Revival, the extremist political party led by Kostadin "Kostya Kopeykin" Kostadinov, who has gained notoriety for his anti-minority rights rhetoric, his anti-Western stance and his clear support for Putin.
But Kostadin Kostadinov was quick to distance himself. He said his party had nothing to do with the image, notwithstanding the fact that it was being disseminated by a Revival activist in Varna. He also struck back by filing a counterclaim against Dr Oscar, accusing him... of antisemitism and drawing new division lines in Bulgaria's already fractured society.
Thief cries thief, as the saying goes. But the infamous Pasi meme, which is still being talked about owing to its exceptional ugliness, is just the tiny tip of the iceberg of Bulgaria's antisemitism. To understand it, one needs to consider the background.
Desecrated Jewish tombstones, in Shumen
Bulgaria has never eschewed the sort of antisemitism prevalent in the rest of Europe in general and Eastern Europe in particular. That said, over the centuries antisemitic sentiments have rarely turned violent. Bulgaria has never witnessed Russian or German-style anti-Jewish pogroms, and even in the darkest years of the 1940 Defence of the Nation Act, when Bulgaria was a Nazi ally, the state's enforcement of anti-Jewish regulations was sometimes tepid.
While the earliest acts of antisemitism predate the official Christianisation effected by Prince Boris I in 864, the first real anti-Jewish polemic appeared in the writings of early mediaeval Bulgarian writers. Yoan Ekzarch, Presbyter Kozma and others, now taught in Bulgarian schools, sometimes indulged in acrid antisemitic speech.
Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottomans in 1393-1396. An urban myth was put into circulation that the gates of Tarnovo, the mediaeval Bulgarian capital, had been surreptitiously opened for the invaders by a Jew, an act of high treason that would condemn Bulgaria to 500 years of Ottoman rule. The myth lives on to this day.
The great man of letters of the Bulgarian National Revival, Ivan Vazov (1850-1921), produced a unusually acrimonious rhyme about that "dirty Jew" who "betrayed" Bulgaria. As late as 1930 Angel Karaliychev, a popular writer of children's fiction, published a story about the "Jewish treachery."
As Bulgarian nationalist fervour grew in the 19th century, so did antisemitism. While Vasil Levski, the great Bulgarian National Liberation revolutionary, called for the foundation of a republic where all nationalities would have equal rights, his fellow revolutionaries Hristo Botev and Lyuben Karavelov considered the "great Jewish kings of capital" as the source of all the evil in the world.
The Berlin Congress of 1878, seen by the Bulgarians as one of the greatest catastrophes to befall the nation, was masterminded by the Great Powers who had their own reasons not to allow a large and Russia-friendly state in the Balkans. The Congress included stipulations to safeguard the rights of all nationalities in the new Balkan states (Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania), including the Jews; but it left Greater Bulgaria dismembered. British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, a Christianised Jew, was singled out for special castigation: "Oh, pity you, England, for being ruled by a kike," Ivan Vazov exclaimed in a poem.
Late 19th and early 20th century Bulgaria saw the proliferation of antisemitic literature, including many newspapers bearing names such as Bulgaria Without Jews and Golgotha. Most political parties were to various degrees steeped in antisemitism.
The most serious curtailment of Jewish rights started in the 1930s, when the access of Jews to public and educational services was gradually blocked. Bulgarians again vilified minorities, especially the Jews, for all the hardships Bulgaria, defeated in the Great War, had to endure. The country grew closer to Nazi Germany and saw the emergence of organisations such as Ratnik, or Warrior, which had been modelled on the German Hitlerjugend.
Not a Nazi state? Bulgaria in the 1940s
In 1939, in a copycat Kristallnacht, extremists in Sofia smashed the windows of Jewish shops and destroyed Jewish property.
In 1940, the Defence of the Nation Act, modelled on the infamous Nuremberg laws in Germany, was passed. The Bulgarian Jews were stripped of political, economic and other civil rights. Jewish men were forced into labour camps and all Jews were ordered to wear yellow Star of David badges.
The Bulgarian Army, which administered Vardar Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, organised with significant cruelty the deportation of over 11,000 Jews to Nazi-occupied Poland. The majority of those perished in the death camps at Treblinka and Auschwitz.
The Bulgarian government had decided to deport all of the Jews in Bulgaria-proper as well. The plan failed to materialise in what would later be dubbed the "Salvation of the Bulgarian Jews." This is well-known. What is not so well known, however, is that the Final Solution itself might have been inspired by a Bulgarian. Criticising demands by Spain, Hungary and Romania for a different treatment of their Jews, Ivan Popov, the Bulgarian foreign minister, insisted to his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop that all Jews in all European states be treated equally, hinting at a "common solution" to the "Jewish problem." The Wannsee Conference ensued in 1942.
While all the details of who did what and what really happened remain mired in controversy, the fact is that the majority of Bulgarians were passive observers of the antisemitic hysteria and planned deportations. While it is true that the desire to render Bulgaria Jüdenfrei was nowhere near as strong as in some other European nation, many professionals, for example teachers, were reluctant to risk their careers by teaching in Jewish schools.
What the Nazis failed to do regarding the Bulgarian Jews, the Communists achieved. The overwhelming majority of Bulgarian Jews were allowed to emigrate to Israel in 1949. All pre-war Jewish organisations were disbanded and the new Cultural Organisation of Bulgarian Jews was purged of religious functions. Jewish schools were gradually closed down, synagogues were nationalised and turned into sports halls or warehouses. Jews were given quotas for higher education and the armed services. The Jewish News newspaper continued to circulate, but it was largely reduced to a mouthpiece of the regime. Bulgaria had become the closest satellite of the Soviet Union.
Jewish spiritual life had practically come to a standstill. Just a handful of elderly people attended the Sofia Synagogue, hardly making up a quorum for the Sabbath. The only other functioning synagogue in the country was the Zion Synagogue in Plovdiv, but services there were held only on the Day of Atonement.
Following the Six-Day War in 1967, Sofia broke off diplomatic relations with Israel. The main reason was that Communist Bulgaria strictly toed the line of the USSR which saw a chance to export revolution to the Arab states. Arabs were treated as friends. Americans, Britons, West Germans and Jews were the foes. The official propaganda of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s spoke of two world evils, in this order: "Anglo-American Imperialism" and "International Zionist Reactionism." While no Bulgarian save for those very well educated in history and political affairs knew anything about Zionism, the word itself became synonymous with Cold War Western aggression and anti-Socialist conspiracy.
The collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 paved the way for a Jewish revival in Bulgaria. Most Jewish property was returned to its former owners, and Shalom, the organisation of Bulgarian Jews, began working to spread information and understanding of Judaism among the wider populace.
Swastikas in Sofia
But the counter-reaction followed swiftly. The 1990s, 2000s and 2010s witnessed attacks on Jewish properties, including the vandalisation of cemeteries. The Jewish cemetery in Kyustendil, for example, was vandalised on at least seven different occasions. The Sofia Central Synagogue was burgled. Extremist political leaders have taken up antisemitism as their cause célèbre. Bulgarian publishers freely publish antisemitic literature by Hitler, Goebbels, Jürgen Graf and Henry Ford, and these books can be found in most Bulgarian bookshops and street stalls. The authorities have done little if anything to curtail their distribution, nor have they properly investigated the spraying of Jewish graves with swastikas in Shumen and elsewhere.
In the area of politics, "incitement to racial hatred" is banned. In reality, however, various groups openly indulge in antisemitic rhetoric. The use of the Nazi swastika is widespread – from street gangs spraying it onto Gypsy homes and Turkish mosques, to football fans asserting their membership of a team, to anti-Communists pitching it against still omnipresent Red Army symbolism. The authorities usually consider it vandalism with no particular political meaning.
Since 2003 Sofia has become a focal point of international neo-Nazi groups. They usually arrive and hold a rally they call Lukov March, meant to commemorate the assassination of a Bulgarian general, Hristo Lukov. He was a First World War hero who turned antisemitic and headed the Union of Bulgarian National Legions, a Nazi organisation, ahead of and during the Second World War. Lukov was assassinated in front of his house, in 1943, by a Communist group that included a Jewish woman. In addition to the neo-Nazis, some people identifying themselves as "rightwing intellectuals" also hallow Hristo Lukov as a "bulwark" against Communism. Many international entities, including the government of Israel, the US Congress, the World Jewish Committee and the Helsinki Committee have approached the Bulgarian authorities with requests to ban the march. Those requests have been met at best half-heartedly with the usual citation of freedom-of-speech rights. The march was finally banned as late as 2020.
One not directly antisemitic yet particularly insidious method employed even by modern Bulgarians identifying themselves as pro-democracy intellectuals is rewriting history. Just like the Communists obliterated whole chapters in the history books when they got the power in 1944 – and rejiggered many of the remaining paragraphs – so do the latterday anti-Communists and nationalists who try to promote their own interpretations of the Bulgarian 20th century. As a rule, they put the main blame on the 9 September 1944 Communist coup and what came after it. The Kingdom of Bulgaria was an exemplary democracy between the world wars, they claim, and it would have continued to be one had some vile Bolsheviks, assisted by the USSR, not seized the power. Usually, King Boris's unholy alliance with Nazi Germany gets exonerated. The Defence of the Nation Act and the thousands of interned Bulgarian Jews are swept under he carpet. The atrocities and thefts committed by Bulgarian troops, police and civil servants in the occupied "New Lands" in Greece, North Macedonia and southern Serbia were done by... Germans, the narrative goes.
This type of doctoring history has been espoused by a number of prominent Bulgarians, especially in publishing and the media, who have rushed in defence of old-time Nazis once incarcerated by the Communists whom they see as courageous democrats and anti-Communists rather than as antisemites. This is a process that has gone on well into the 2020s – and shows no signs of subsiding.
Another indirect form of antisemitism is manipulating the history of the Holocaust. Bulgaria refuses to acknowledge what Bulgarian administrators, troops and police did in North Macedonia, Greece and southern Serbia during the Second World War. In those areas, then referred to as the New Lands, 11,343 Jews were deported to certain death in the concentration camps in Nazi-occupied Poland. The Bulgarians now insist it was the Germans, rather than themselves, to blame. This is official state policy in 2023.
And then of course comes the so-called People's Court, back in 1945. In line with Allied directives, Bulgaria – like most other nations in post-war Europe – had to try those responsible for the war. Though observed by the Allies, the People's Courts in Bulgaria, which at the time was rapidly becoming Stalinist, can hardly be seen as any paragon of justice. The death sentences handed on real or imaginary criminals outnumbered the death sentences at Nuremberg. Many people, including Dimitar Peshev, the MP who actively thwarted the planned deportations of Jews two years previously, were imprisoned on verdicts of... antisemitism. No one bothered to separate the innocent from the Nazi deadwood.
In the 1990s the post-Communists completely overturned history. Unlike other nations in the former East bloc that put a conscious effort to analyse and evaluate their past, the Bulgarians went down the easy road. They just inverted the signs. The partizani, or guerilla fighters, considered "heroic" under Communism became "terrorist." The "monarcho-fascists" of yesteryear are now the "elite of Bulgarian society."
The National Assembly was quick to repeal most sentences handed down by the People's Court in 1945 with just as little consideration for the individual as when the People's Court had pronounced them.
At present, people like Bogdan Filov, the war-time prime minister who signed Bulgaria's accession to the Axis, are fully rehabilitated. Filov's portrait now hangs in the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, a noted archaeologist. And Alexander Belev, the notorious antisemite installed to head the infamous Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, is seen as a victim of Communism, His name is on the "wall of victimhood" in front of the National Palace of Culture in central Sofia.
In 2023, the current Revival political party, which its "rightwing intellectual" opponents want banned, just thrives against this background that the "rightwing intellectuals" of post-Communism contributed to making over many years. Its leader may be obnoxious, but he just repeats – and in some cases amplifies – what others before him did, notably Volen Siderov of Ataka in the 2000s and the leaders of the NFSB, or National Front for the Salvation of Bulgaria, in the 2010s. His party garners over 15 percent of the vote, and if there is any official repression against it that number is certain to rise. Whether Kostadinov's bark will not turn to be worse than his bite remains to be seen, but in all likelihood – sooner or later – he will follow his predecessors into political oblivion for a simple reason: the Bulgarian society rarely carries out extremist ideas in real life.
To tackle head on Bulgaria's modern antisemitism these issues, not just Kostadin Kostadinov, have to be addressed frankly and without bias. However, this is unlikely to happen any time soon. The "rightwing intellectuals" currently in government consider any critical mention of the handling of the People's Court a Communist ploy, an anathema. The pre-Communist past is being hailed as the most prosperous period Bulgaria has ever had. It remains one of the lynchpins of their agenda for the future.