WOODROW WILSON COMES TO SOFIA

text and photography by Anthony Georgieff

Bust of 28th American President receives cheers, media fail to note controversies

woodrow willson monument bulgaria sofia

Seen from a US standpoint, the 28th American President is usually being put in the "upper tier" of US leaders despite criticism of his propagation of racial segregation. Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who served two terms in 1913-1921, successfully led the United States through the Great War. His foreign policy came to be known as Wilsonianism. He was the leading architect of the League of Nations project. His 14 Points, through which he among other things advocated the establishment of an independent Poland as well as self-determination for the peoples of the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, still reverberate in the world today.

However, even people solidly versed in American history may be at a loss why in recent years Woodrow Wilson is cautiously being celebrated in Bulgaria. Here is the background.

When World War I began in August 1914, both Bulgaria and the United States were neutral. The United States wished to stay out of any European conflict, while Bulgaria wanted to see which side – the Entente or the Central Powers – would help it regain Thrace, Dobrudzha and Macedonia. To put it in another way, Bulgaria would go after whoever made the grander promise. In that same year Stefan Panaretov had become the first ever Bulgarian ambassador to the United States. A few months later, in 1915, Dominick Murphy became the Consul General in Sofia, the first American diplomat stationed in this country.

When the First World War started and British forces came close to capturing the Dardanelles, Bulgaria considered joining the Entente in the hope it would help it regain Macedonia, Thrace and Dobrudzha, which it had lost as a result of the Balkan Wars in 1912-1913. However, Britain was reluctant to incur territorial losses on its allies Greece, Serbia and Romania.

On the other hand Germany promised Bulgaria it would help it regain its borders as outlined in the 3 March 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. That treaty, the date of which Bulgaria now marks as its national holiday, was never enforced, and its provisions were largely annulled by the Berlin Congress a few months later. But it remained a beacon of the "national idea" of what was then the young Bulgaria state.

With all this in mind, Bulgaria did sign an alliance with Germany, declared war on Serbia and as a result found itself on the wrong side of the trenches with Britain and France.

In Washington, President Wilson was under pressure by some members of Congress to declare war on Austro-Hungary, Turkey and Bulgaria. Initially, he was willing, but later backed down, saying Bulgaria and Turkey were just "tools in the hands of Germany and do not yet stand in our proposed path of action." So, a declaration of war between the United States and Bulgaria was avoided. In his 14 Points President Wilson made several mentions to the Balkans. In Point 11 he called for "the relations of the several Balkan states to one another to be determined by a friendly counsel along historically established lines of allegiance and nationality." And later he added that "every territorial settlement involved in this war must be made in the interest and for the benefit of the population concerned."

The Bulgarians took that to mean that the United States would look favourably at their hopes to regain the territories they had lost in several wars.

Bulgaria suffered heavily in the First World War. It not only failed to regain Macedonia, Thrace and Dobrudzha, but lost additional territories and saw large amounts of people displaced in what Bulgarian historians would later bill the First National Catastrophe. For that reason, less than 30 years later, it would again join Germany in the Second World War because Germany would once more promise it would help it gain control of Macedonia, Thrace and Dobrudzha.

Woodrow Wilson was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1919.

The name of Woodrow Wilson and his attitude to Bulgaria was never mentioned under Communism because the Bulgarian Communists, notorious for their rewriting of history, considered it extremely improper to name an American president as a benefactor to what was now a Warsaw Pact country. With Communism gone, some Bulgarians started to remember Woodrow Wilson and his "defence" of Bulgaria at the Treaty of Neuilly. In Bulgaria he is now credited for not allowing the victorious First World War allies to completely dismember Bulgaria. A small bust for him was erected in the Sveti Vlas seaside resort north of Sunny Beach. It was sponsored by the Dinevi Brothers, major building entrepreneurs in the area, and by the Atlantic Club of Bulgaria. A relief depicting Wilson was later unveiled in Plovdiv.

In September a new bust of Woodrow Wilson was inaugurated in the square between the 16th century Banya Bashi Mosque and the former Central Bath House, in central Sofia. Curiously, it was sponsored not by the Bulgarian government, not even by the Sofia City Council. Its chief initiators were... the Association of Bulgarian Prosecutors and the Chamber of Bulgarian Police Investigators.

In attendance at the inauguration were individuals usually not seen at events commemorating relations between the United States and Bulgaria. These included some of the most controversial figures in Bulgaria's recent past such as the historian Georgi Markov, who usually takes his fees from the highest bidder, most recently the VMRO, or Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation; and the writer Anton Donchev who is best known for providing moral justification to some of the worst excesses of Bulgarian nationalism in the 1980s. Former Prime Minister's Boyko Borisov's Chief Prosecutor Ivan Geshev, the target of the street protests in 2020, was also to be seen.

Conversely, none of the individuals and public figures who now protest eternal subscription to "Euro-Atlantic values" and this country's current "geopolitical orientation" bothered to turn up.

Why would Bulgaria's prosecutors and police investigators, backed with the money of one of this country's richest man, mogul Kiril Domuschiev, want to have a statue of US President Woodrow Wilson erected in the middle of Sofia was never made clear by the usually inquisitive media. 

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