Friday, May 15, 2015

Mystery and Treachery: Bulgarian Monarchy in World War II

World War II changed Bulgaria more than any other event in Bulgarian history. It certainly brought about the biggest change ever since the era of Turkish rule and the modern, independent Bulgaria that came into being after. The war changed many countries and, also like many others, Bulgaria never really wanted anything to do with the war. The monarch of Bulgaria, King Boris III (or officially “Tsar”), hoped to sit out the conflict, watching from the sidelines. However, the country was, perhaps inevitably, caught up in the cataclysm. As with several countries, it started out as a member of the Axis powers but later joined the Allied nations before the conflict was over. There were a great many divisions inside Bulgaria concerning the war. Some wanted to join in, others did not. Some favored the Axis, others favored the Allies. The story of Bulgaria in World War II is the story of a monarch who tried to walk a very thin line to do what was best for his country in a dangerous time as well as the story of a people who were na├»ve and that naivety cost them their freedom at the hands of the country that had once liberated them. This is that story.

Crown Prince Boris w/ Marshal Mackensen in WW1
As with almost everything involving World War II, the roots of Bulgarian problems go back to World War I in which Bulgaria, as one of the Central Powers, was defeated and forced to cede territory and pay reparations. Crown Prince Boris served in the First World War and with distinction but the loss had a destabilizing effect on the whole country. In 1918 King Ferdinand I was forced to abdicate and King Boris III came to the throne of a country which was impoverished and seething with resentment. The communists and the Agrarian Union wanted to abolish the monarchy, there was a military coup, a series of assassinations, assassination attempts and terrorist attacks as well as a brief war with Greece in the early years of the reign of Boris III. The country desperately needed peace, calm and order but there were many factions eager to cause trouble. The communists wanted a revolution and a socialist republic while many in the military wanted a dictatorship to wipe out all troublesome elements. There were also those who, naturally, wanted to regain what had been lost as a result of their defeat in World War I and during the inter-war years in Europe there were plenty of examples to follow.

Under similar conditions, Benito Mussolini and his Fascist Party had come to power in Italy. Political divisions were eliminated, law and order was restored and, as everyone knows, even the trains ran on time. More recently, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party seemed poised to assume total control over Germany. They too promised to end the threat of communist revolution, civil disorder and a redress of grievances from World War I. Many Bulgarian military leaders took inspiration from all of this and, shortly before Hitler did come to power in Germany, they led a successful coup in 1934 that effectively made Bulgaria a military dictatorship under Colonel Kimon Georgiev, leader of the Zveno or “link” organization that called for a union with Yugoslavia. King Boris III was reduced to being a ceremonial figurehead but that situation was not to last long. The Bulgarian monarch was not the sort of man to allow himself to be sidelined and do nothing about it. The following year he organized a royalist counter-coup that ousted Georgiev and replaced him with the monarchist General Pencho Zlatev as prime minister. Later, a civilian but still a loyal monarchist, Andrei Toshev, replaced him.

Queen Ioanna & the King wearing Italian decorations
For the moment, the situation seemed to be under control and a sense of normalcy seemed, at least, to be returning. King Boris III presided over a period of peace and increasingly prosperity that lasted for about five years, until the onset of World War II. The King was very much in control of things and he is due the largest share of credit for how well Bulgaria did in that time. Parliamentary government was restored but without the divisive political parties that seemed to be nothing but trouble. However, the monarchy still had its enemies, kept down but still there, biding their time. The great accomplishments of Boris III kept them sidelined, to their frustration. In 1930 he had married Princess Giovanna of Italy, daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III, giving the country some much needed color and celebration after so much hardship. In a meeting suggested by King George V of Great Britain, King Boris III met with King Alexander of Yugoslavia and worked out a reconciliation after tensions arose between the two countries over Macedonia. Everything seemed to be good in Bulgaria and only set to get better when the war intervened.

At first, King Boris III declared neutrality. There was no real consensus as to which side Bulgaria should join if it did fight. The King famously said, “My generals are pro-German, my diplomats are pro-British, my queen is pro-Italian and my people are pro-Russian.” However, the war crept ever closer and the Axis powers held out a number of temptations to win Bulgaria over such as reclaiming lost territory from Romania, Yugoslavia and Greece. At first, Hitler did not ask for Bulgarian involvement in the war but simply the right to establish bases for the German air force in Bulgaria and for German troops to move through the country in order to get at actual enemies like Greece and Yugoslavia. The King agreed and, at first, everything seemed to work out. Bulgaria gained territory without actually having to fight. However, things would change dramatically in the pivotal year of 1941. In that year Hitler launched the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union. Alongside the Germans, Finns, Italians, Hungarians and Romanians would participate (as well as smaller units from countries as far away as France and Spain) but Bulgaria refused to take an active role in any hostilities against Russia. Needless to say, Hitler was not best pleased.

King Boris III in World War II
The Bulgarians had long regarded Russia as something like a big brother. A fellow Orthodox, Slavic country, the Russian Empire had come to their rescue when they were being oppressed and persecuted by the Turks. The Russian Empire was largely credited with making Bulgarian independence from the Ottoman Turks possible and the Bulgarians did not forget that. However, the Russian Empire was a world apart from the Soviet Union and perhaps too few people in Bulgaria fully realized the importance of that distinction. In time, to their terror, they would find out all too well. Aside from refusing to take part in the war against Stalin, King Boris III infuriated Hitler in other ways as well such as his staunch refusal to allow the deportation of any Bulgarian Jews from his country for Nazi labor or death camps. So as not to infuriate Hitler to a point detrimental to his own country, Boris III did agree to join Germany in declaring war on Great Britain and the United States (Hitler had actually declared war on the U.S. immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, saving FDR the trouble of trying to explain to the American people why they needed to go to war with Germany after being attacked by Japan).

The United States was rather shocked by this, having no animosity toward Bulgaria and having previously refused to declare war on the country in World War I. Everyone believed that the Bulgarian declaration of war was the result of German pressure and so held off from retaliation. However, FDR finally decided that the situation demanded a response in kind and so, belatedly, declared war on Bulgaria in the summer of 1942. The following year, Sofia would be bombed by Allied air forces. However, Bulgaria was also in a difficult position with her Axis partner Germany. Hitler had been content to allow Bulgaria to sit out the war against Russia at first but in 1942 the tide began to turn and the Nazi dictator became increasingly difficult to deal with. In August of 1943 he demanded that King Boris III come see him and on that visit the Fuhrer launched a verbal tirade against the Bulgarian monarch demanding that he make a greater contribution to the Axis war effort. For hours Hitler ranted and cajoled but, after returning home, King Boris III remarked that he felt he had been successful in his resistance and keeping Bulgaria free of German control.

The worst of allies
However, one of the enduring mysteries of World War II emerged a couple of weeks later when King Boris III died on August 28, 1943 at the age of only 49. Officially the cause of death was listed as, “a thrombosis of the left artery to the heart, double pneumonia and a cerebral congestion” but not everyone was buying it, including the late tsar himself. He had returned to Sofia on August 17 and seemed to be fine. He took a week off, did some mountain climbing and it was not until four days after his returning that he began to complain of dizziness. By August 23 he was feeling worse and began to suspect that his staunch resistance to Hitler’s demands had prompted the Nazis to slip him a dose of slow-acting poison. Shortly after this he began vomiting and within days was dead. Many people to this day believe the German dictator assassinated Boris III. Yet, there is evidence to suggest otherwise. Hitler, while certainly not being above such methods, did not have a record of poisoning people; the Nazis were usually not so subtle. Also, on the flight back from Bavaria the King had complained that his oxygen mask had malfunctioned and, in the days of non-pressurized cabins in airplanes, flying at such a high altitude with faulty breathing equipment may have been to blame. However, enough questions remain to allow room for speculation.

For the Bulgarian Royal Family, the death of Boris III was the beginning of the end. It was also in 1943 that the King of Italy had dismissed Mussolini and sought an armistice with the Allies. This made the Germans all the more suspicious of the Bulgarians whose queen was the daughter of the King of Italy they considered a traitor to the Axis cause. She, Queen Ioanna (as Giovanna was called in Bulgaria), her daughter and her six-year-old son recently proclaimed King Simeon II were effectively prisoners in their own home at the hands of the Germans. However, even that was not expected to last long with the German forces on the Eastern Front crumbling and the Soviet Red Army pushing ever closer to the Bulgarian frontier. The Queen devised a plan to escape with her children to Syria, via Turkey, with a regency council holding power under Prince Kyril. There was never a chance to pull it off though. In 1944 the Red Army marched into Bulgaria after treacherously declaring war on the country that had gone to great pains to avoid giving Russia any cause for offense. Their advance was not resisted and opposition groups, the Agrarian republicans, communists and the “link” rose up against the monarchy at the same time, taking advantage of the situation. The regency was disbanded and (a year later) all its members were executed. About 200 would die in the overall purge.

King Simeon II of Bulgaria
World War II was over but the suffering had only just begun for Bulgaria. One thing was made abundantly clear to them: the Soviet Union was not their friend. The following year a referendum was held, under the guns of the Russian Red Army, which produced an overwhelming majority in favor of abolishing the monarchy and establishing a socialist republic. The boy-king, his mother and sister were all promptly exiled without little King Simeon II signing an instrument of abdication. No one seemed to think about it and it allowed Simeon II to assert his legitimate status as King of Bulgaria while in exile. For Bulgaria, their first republican dictator was a Soviet citizen, their first republican constitution was a direct copy of the Soviet constitution of 1936. Religion was banned or severely restricted, thousands were massacred and any dissent was brutally suppressed. Bulgarian leaders fought for power but the winner had to be approved by Moscow. All of this was a legacy of World War II as was the fact that, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Bulgaria petitioned to join NATO and was accepted in the fifth enlargement in 2004. Naturally, Russia was offended by this but the roots of the decision go back to the fact that Bulgaria had been invaded and brutalized by Russian forces when previously no other people had been more pro-Russian than the Bulgarians. The western Allies had their own acts of betrayal but for the Soviet Union the case of Bulgaria was probably the most treacherous act, simply because the people had been so sympathetic to Russia and Bulgaria had been so adamant to take no hostile action against the Soviet Union. Having plenty of company in the ranks of the betrayed likely does little to lessen the pain.

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