34. Writing in Bulgaria during 1910-1920
AUG. 12, 2021
“Easily Bulgaria’s worst decade”. In a rollercoaster of events, Pete and Ryan discover an absolutely pivotal period in Bulgarian history. There’s victory, defeat, triumph and tragedy. So much tragedy. Also poems!
The Republic of Bulgaria is in the Balkan peninsula, which is not technically a peninsula at all, and is bordered by Romania to the North, Serbia and North Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, and the Black Sea to the east.
The region is named after the mountains, which are mostly in Bulgaria itself.
This episode discovers a critical period of Bulgarian History, described by one observer as “the absolute worst decade in Bulgaria's 1300+ years of history.”
From 1393 into 1900s, Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman empire, meaning the experienced 500 years of occupation. This could have led to a loss of Bulgarian identify, were it not for a period in the 18th and 19th centuries known as the Bulgarian Rennaisance.
This was generally agreed to have started in with a book first written in 1762 - Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya (Slavonic-Bulgarian History). Written by Saint Paisius of Hilendar, he said “The Serbs and the Greeks have twitted us many times because we did not have our own history." So he wrote one.
Oh, you unwise moron! Why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian and why don’t you read and speak in your native language? Weren’t Bulgarians powerful and glorious once?
Yes you were. And in this period there were increasing aspirations to become a nation independent again, which inspired poetry such as this one by Hristo Botev.
“The Hanging of Vassil Levski”
“O you, my Mother, my Native Land,
Why is your cry so sad and heart-rending!
And you, O Raven, accursed bird,
On whose grave croak you of ill impending?
I know, ah I know, you weep, my Mother,
Because you're a slave in bondage lying,
You weep because your sacred voice
Is a helpless voice in a desert crying.
Weep on, weep on! Near Sofia town
A ghastly gallows I have seen standing,
And your own son, Bulgaria,
There with dreadful force is hanging.
The raven gives its grim hoarse croak,
Dogs yelp, wolves howl, the sky is bleak,
Old men in prayers their God invoke,
Women shed tears, the children shriek.
The winter sings its evil song,
Squalls chase the thistles in the plain,
And cold and frost and hopeless tears
Wring and twist your heart with pain.”
Hristo Botev was a poet who put his money where his mouth was, as a teacher and as a revolutionary. He was exiled to Romania for speaking against the Ottomans and in 1876 he took part in the April Uprising. This revolt in Bulgaria against Ottoman rule broke out on 20th April 1876. In it, poorly equipped revolutionaries, including a number of home-made wooden cannons known as Cherry cannon, rose up against the Ottoman oppressors.
It was not a success.
The revolt was brutally suppressed by Ottomans using regular army and irregular Bashi-Bazouks and 15,000 Bulgarians were massacred near Plovdiv. It also saw the death of the revolutionary and poet, Hristo Botev.
Although the revolution was a failure, it was also the trigger for a cascade of events that changed the face of Europe forever. The Ottoman atrocities arousd indignation in the West and spurred one of the so-called Great Powers, Russia, to attack the Ottoman empire.
On 24 April 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottomans, madee substantial inroads into Ottoman territory supported by 12,000 Bulgarian volunteers, and only ended when the other Great Powers intervened.
This resulted in Russia accepting the truce offered by the Ottoman Empire on 31 January 1878 and the Treaty of San Stefano. This established the autonomous self-governing Principality of Bulgaria, with a Christian government and the right to keep an armyl. Alhough it was still technically part of the Ottomans, in practice it was functioning as an independent nation.
It also gave Bulgaria a lot of land all the way to the Black Sea on the East and large chunks of areas known as Thrace and Macedonia to the South. This was in many ways, the Bulgaria that Bulgaria has always wanted to be.
There was a problem though – Austria-Hungary, one of the Great Powers, really did not want a major power in the Balkans on their doorstep, so the Great Powers interfered again.
From 13 June – 13 July 1878 The Congress of Berlin took place. This was a diplomatic conference to reorganise the states in the Balkan Peninsula after the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–78 to something everyone is happy with.
Nobody was happy with the resulting Treaty of Berlin. The Ottomans were humiliated and had their weakness confirmed as the "sick man of Europe". Russia resented the lack of rewards, despite having won the war. Serbia and Greece got far less than they thought they deserved and Bulgaria was basically cut in half, creating Bulgaria and a country called Eastern Rumelia, AND Macedonia – which Bulgaria really wanted, was given back to the Ottomans.
After San Stefano.
After their de facto independence, Bulgaria underwent a transformation period of modernisation. The country was trying to transform from a poor agricultural state to a modern European country. The capital of Sofia grew by a factor of 600% - from 20,000 population in 1878 to 120,000 in 1912. Special emphasis was put on education, and, by the turn of the century, illiteracy had practically vanished and the University of Sofia (1888) was opened in 1888.
In literature, between 1892 and 1907 Misal (Thought) was a publication but also a group of literary intellectuals who were adopting more European ideas, including a young poet called Peyo Yavorov.
Yavarov married a woman named Lora and, after one dinner with another couple where Yavorov was getting too much attention from his friend’s wife, the couple had a fight. After this Lora entered the study and proceeded to shoot herself through the heart with a gun.
Yavorov was so shocked he took the gun and shot himself in the head. But he did not die. The bullet went through his temporal bone, leaving him blind. After this, he went on trial, accused of killing his wife and, even after he was acquitted, in a stroke of final despair, he poisoned and shot himself dead, at the age of 36.
My soul’s a sigh. My soul’s a dove.
Because I am a bird of fall:
to death is doomed my wounded soul,
to death inflicted by a love…
My soul’s a sigh. My soul’s a dove.
What’s the meaning of today, tomorrow?
And here I say: it’s hell and sorrow —
and in the sorrow love!
Mirages near — the road elsewhere
A wondrous cheerful truth
of naivete and greedy youth
of scorching flesh and spirit light as air…
Mirages near — the road elsewhere:
because before me she is shining
shining, not realizing, whose dove, a sighing —
she — flesh and spirit light as air!
Modernishing Bulgaria did not remove the sense of nationalism and Yavarov was himself was involved in the struggle for Macedonian liberation. Unification with Eastern Rumelia was still a national ambition.
To this end, on 18 September 1885, Rumelian militia took over the Governor's residence. The Governor was Gavril Krastevich, a Bulgarian patriot who, was absolutely fine with this turn of events. Although the Ottomans were presumably rather annoyed by this, even if they wanted to send in some troops to sort it, the Berlin treaty said the Sultan was only allowed to send troops to Eastern Rumelia at the request of Eastern Rumelia's governor. Reminder- that was Gavril Krastevich, Bulgarian patriot, who made no such request.
This event is marked by Bulgaria as Unification Day on 6th September every year.
Unfortunately this disturbed the balance of power in the region which was the whole point of the Berlin treaty and Serbia in particular was annoyed enough to take action. On 14th November 1885 Serbia declared war on Bulgaria.
Bulgaria were outnumbered 2 to 1 a the start and were largely in the wrong place at the start. One infantry regiment marched 95 km in 32 hours. Yes somehow Bulgaria won the war. Serbian casualties totalled 6,800 compared to 2,300 Bulgarians.
Bouyed by this and the troubles in Ottoman empire, Bulgaria declared independence on 5 October 1908 by Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria, who afterwards took the title "Tsar".
“I proclaim, in the name of the God Almighty, Bulgaria, united upon 6 September 1885, as an independent Kingdom. Together with my people I profoundly believe that this act will meet the approval of the Great Powers.”
Bulgaria was finally independent
Now we’re independent, let’s have a war
Whilst things were going well for Bulgaria, it was not so good for the Ottoman Empire which was in the process of a war with Italy as well as having its own internal political struggles.
Seeing an opportunity, the Balkan nations decide on a team-up.
On 13 March 1912 Serbia and Bulgaria settled their differences and signed an alliance, originally directed against Austria-Hungary by adding a secret chapter to it essentially redirected the alliance against the Ottoman Empire.
Serbia then signed a mutual alliance with Montenegro and Bulgaria did the same with Greece.
All together they formed … The Balkan League, an alliance of people bearing historic grudges against the Ottoman empire.
On 25 September 1912 Montenegro declared war on the Ottomans, soon followed by Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece on 17 October.
Bulgaria was militarily the most powerful of the four Balkan states, with a large, well-trained and well-equipped army.totalling 599,878 men.
Greece was not famed for it’s military prowess (A British consular dispatch from 1910: "if there is war we shall probably see that the only thing Greek officers can do besides talking is to run away"). What they did have was a navy, which was critical to stop the arrival of reinforcements for the Ottoman Army by sea.
Overall, the Balkan League could field 850,000 mean. Although the Ottomans had more men in total, they were not in the area. so at the start, the Balkan League significantly outnumbered them.
Adding to their problems, the Ottoman’s were still falling apart from the inside. Under Sultan Abdul Hamid II, the Ottoman army had been forbidden to engage in war games or manoeuvres out of the fear that it might be the cover for a coup d'état. In addition governmental upheaval meant they lacked stability in the military with lots of focus on polickiing, less on preparing for war.
Balkan League do well right from the opening offensive, advancing a long way into Ottoman territory. This all led up to one decisive battle which ended on 26 March 1913 with the capture of Adrianople by the Bulgarian 2nd Army and the Serbian 2nd Army.
Unfortunately, in a sign of dispute to come, the Bulgarian censor cut any references to Serbian participation in the operation in the telegrams of foreign correspondents.
The loss of Adrianople delivered the final blow to the Ottoman and they sued for peace.
A treaty was signed in London on 30 May, called The Treaty of London as ever with the Great Powers in attendance, except for the Ottomans. In this, the Ottoman empire lost pretty much all its European territory to be divided among the Balkan League.
There was just one problem, the Treaty of London failed to specify exactly how this territory would be divided amongst the Balkan nations. In particular, this change meant both Serbia and Bulgaria staked a claim to Macedonia.
Let’s have another war
With the distribution of captured lands in dispute Bulgaria then embarked on a programme of systematically annoying their neighbours.
The Ottomans to the South and East were annoyed because they’d just lost the war. The Serbians to the West were annoyed by Bulgaria’s claim to Macedonia. In fact, Serbia had already signed a secret Treaty of Peace, Friendship and Mutual Protection with Greece promising to work together if Bulgaria attacked.
To the North Romania was annoyed because Bulgaria refused to give up the town of Silistra in Dobruja as agreed in the First Balkan War, causing Romania to threaten to invade – only calmed down by Russia intervening again to arbitrate
And then they managed to annoy Russia when Tsar Nicholas II sent an personal message to the Kings of Bulgaria and Serbia, offering to act as arbitrator and the Bulgarian reply to the Russian invitation contained so many conditions that it amounted to an ultimatum. Russia realised that the Bulgarians had already decided to go to war with Serbia, so they cancelled the offer to arbitrate with the words "Do not expect anything from us, and forget the existence of any of our agreements from 1902 until present."
Undeterred by all this, Bulgaria attacked.
In June 1913 the Bulgarian high command, under the direct control of Tsar Ferdinand and without notifying his own government, ordered Bulgarian troops to start a surprise attack simultaneously against both the Serbian and Greek positions without declaring war and to dismiss any orders contradicting the attack order.
This was highly controversial and the government told the army to stop the attack, which added a lot of confusion to the mix and cause the Tsar to simply replace the top general and insist they keep fighting.
The Bulgarians had the idea to grab as much as they could of Macedonia and Thrace from the Greeks and Serbians before the Great Powers intervened and stopped them. To that end they committed all their military to the campaign in the South and West.
Their first attack on the Serbs and Greeks did not go well. They sustained heavy losses and found themselves dug in and holding desperately.
Greek Forces kept advancing pushing Bulgarians back to 76 km south of Sofia, where they were held.
Seeing Bulgaria vulnerable, Romania decided to join in, and declared war on Bulgaria on 10 July, start pushing into Bulgaria from the North. They push towards Sofia in a curiously unwarlike war with a diplomatic circular that said, "Romania does not intend either to subjugate the polity nor defeat the army of Bulgaria",
The Romanians soon find themselves seven miles North of Sofia. Interestingly, during the invasion, the fledgling Romanian Air Force performed photoreconnaissance and propaganda leaflet drops, so Sofia became the first capital city in the world to be overflown by enemy aircraft.
After Romania romped into Bulgaria, the Ottoman Empire in the East thought ‘hang on, let’s get in on this free for all’ and also started attacking as well. On 20 July 1913 they crossed the line and invaded Bulgaria.
Unsurprisingly, after all this, Bulgaria realised the situation was hopeless and they sued for peace, triggering yet another treaty.
The Treaty of Bucharest, signed 10 August 1913 agreed that parts of Macedonia went to Serbia and to Greece – which almost doubles in size. The Ottomans got a large chunk of Thrace back that they had lost to Bulgaria. Albania was established as an independent state and Romania gained Dobruja province, and with it a lot of fertile land.
Even less surprisingly, Bulgaria at the end of 1913 was a nation in a bad way. The financial cost of the wars was over 1.3 billion francs and they lost Dobruja, and with it 20% of Bulgarian grain production.
Still, it’s 1913 now, it’s not like another major war was round the corner eh?
Even more war – this time everyone joins in
The ‘Great Powers’ approach of balancing self interest with a network of treaties had been fairly successful right up until 28 June 1914.
That day in Sarajevo, an Archduke named Franz Ferdinand and his wife were murdered by a young Yugoslav nationalist named Gavrilo Princip.
This triggered a cascade of events, treaties and alliances that, in short, meant the start of World War 1. This was a conflict between two groups of countries
o Central Powers – Austria-Hungary, Germany, and later the Ottoman Empire
o Allied Powers – France, Britain, Russia, Serbia
As for Bulgaria, they,had enough of war and they decided to sit it out and stay neutral at the start.
But it wasn’t an easy war to stay out of. Both sides pressured Bulgaria to join them, in part due to their strategic location.
When the Ottomans enter the war on the side of the Central powers Bulgaria found its position even stronger. They could either block or enable the joining up of the central powers.
And it became stronger stillin May 1915, when Italy entered the war on the side of the Entente (allies) – which was itself slightly surprising because before it kicked off they had an alliance with the central powers. Nevertheless this action put Bulgaria in such a critical position the resultant wooing of the nation to join one side or the other became known as the Bulgarian Summer of 1915.
The Allies tried to court them – but they had a problem in that they were also on the side of Serbia – Bulgaria’s recent enemies. Also, what Bulgaria wanted was Macedonia, which Serbia currently had most of, so they weren’t really in a position to promise it, whereas Germany were happy to carve up Serbia and hand bits over to anyone willing to join their side. .
So Bulgaria eventually picked a side. On 6 September 1915, Bulgaria formalized its affiliation with the Central Powers in secret. In public, it was more circumspect. On September 22 1915, Bulgaria declared general mobilization and stated they would assume a state of "armed neutrality" that its neighbors should not perceive as a threat. Which was not very convincing to anyone.
Armed neutrality lasted less than a month On 14 October 1915, Bulgaria declared war on Serbia and the Bulgarian Army invaded Serbian territory with the words: “Today we see races that are fighting, not indeed for ideals, but solely for their material interests,” Radoslavov maintained. “The more, therefore, we are bound to a country in a material way, the greater is that country’s interest in our maintenance and increase, since thereby that one will profit who helps us and is tied to us by economic bonds… The figures show that our trade, our interests, and our economic life are inseparably linked with Turkey, Germany, and Austria-Hungary…”
The war started off relatively successfully for Bulgaria, and by the middle of December 1915, the entire Kingdom of Serbia was occupied by the armies of the Central Powers and the Allies were pushed back to Salonika by the Bulgarians.
Then in 1916 Romania entered the war on the side of the Allies, but still the tide did not turn - Bulgarian and Central powers troops pushed them North past Bucharest
But then it grinds to a halt and the war becomes the exhausting, bloody, starving mess that characterised that terrible war.
Supplies became short – not just on the front, but at home as well and everyone was tired of fighting and dying.
This included a young poet named Dimcho Debelyanov. He joined the army in 1912 to fight in the Balkan Wars. In 1914 he was actually discharged from the army and took up a post in an office, but he hated his job so much, he rejoined the army in 1916.
He was killed the same year.
By Dimcho Debelyanov
Behind me, the years run away from me one by one
And I run onwards, ever onwards, and up above
The sun burns the dismal desert my life has become
While I pursue the spectre of love
No crown of laurels encircles my brow
On my cheeks sweat mixes with blood now
My eyes mist over as with a fog of pain
While my soul seeks a happier terrain.
I am overcome with terror and fear: the time is nigh
When I must grasp the edge of a bottomless pit
But my fingers have lost their strength and grip
And with a scream I am thrown back into the shadow-filled night.
This heartbreaking poem sums up the horrors of the war – and how was feeling by the end ot. 80,000 Bulgarians were dead, 150,000 wounded. Agrarians and socialist workers were conducting antiwar campaigns, and soldiers' committees formed in army units.
In December 1917 10,000 people gathered in Sofia, demanding an end to the war and overthrow of the Bulgarian government. 1918 saw a wave of unrest and riots, including a "women's revolt" against food and clothing shortages,
Then it gets worse. In September 1918 the allies broke through on the Macedonian Front during the Vardar Offensive.
At this point Bulgarians were simply deserting and just going home, sometimes quite aggressively, On 25 September, a band of Bulgarian deserters arrived at the Bulgarian city of Kyustendil, looting it before converging on the railway center of Radomir in Bulgaria, just 30 miles (48 km) from the capital city of Sofia.
On 27 September, the leaders of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union took control of these troops - this was the rumblings of a revolution
In the chaos, Tsar Ferdinand was forced to sue for peace and on 29 September 1918 Bulgaria surrendered - they had lost another war.
And thus another treaty was born. The Treaty of Neuilly, signed in November 1919, gave the Aegean coastline to Greece, nearly all of Bulgaria’s Macedonian territory to the new state of Yugoslavia and returned fertile Dobruja to the Romanians.
Thus, from the start of the decade a freshly minted, aspirational country, winning territory from its Ottoman oppressor, the Bulgarians ended it a country exhausted, wrung-dry and war weary.
A final poem
A young poet name Hristo Smirnenski was born 1898 in Macedonia and just 16 when World War 1 started. He enrolled as a military cadet, but quit when he saw the brutal suppression of soldiers revolting at the end of the war.
Smirnenski’s rejection of authority and care for one’s fellow man over national institutions was typical of the war-weary veteran and he participated in demonstrations and rallies for causes such as requesting amnesty for convicted soldiers, and improving the material condition of workers and eventually in 1921 he joined the Bulgarian Communist Party.
Sadly, he died in 1923 from Tuburculosis.
Hristo Smirnensky – 1922/3
I do not know why I was born into this world,
I do not ask why I shall die.
When I was born the delicate May morn unfurled
its flowery freshness to the eye.
I greeted youthful Spring, I greeted vernal youth
and opened eager eyes to see
how life would come to me, beautiful and smooth,
amid a joyous rhapsody.
But no, I wasn't hailed by Spring with merry sounds
and showers of fragrant petals,
instead, a villain met me with a pack of hounds
to put my hands and feet in fetters.
Through clouds of fiendish greed and wicked spite,
a sinister shadow crept near,
a gold-armoured monster reared his height
dripping with blood and human tears.
In the falling gloom loomed faces pale and lea,
I heard laments in plaintive strains
and threats to repay for pain and vileness mean,
I also heard the clatter of chains.
I recognized my brothers who were kept enslaved
by the ungodly god of gold,
I saw the spirit of man: abased, depraved
and crucified a thousandfold.
I cried out in iron words and wrathful indignation:
May this be the dire day of doom!
The day of ruin and of new creation!
May fires blaze in this icy gloom!
May this, our earth, begin a fiery feast!
May the thunder roll and glow!
The slaves will unite to fight the monstrous beast,
and hurricanes of souls will blow!
I'll raise the banner of brotherhood unfurled,
and I will keep it flying high,
and then I'll know why I've come into the world,
I'll also know for what to die.