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Concise History of Bulgaria

The history of Bulgaria is as diverse and old as one could imagine. This country’s roots go back to thousands of years ago; the earliest discovered evidence of hominid occupation date back to at least 1.4 million years ago. The first evidence discovered of an advanced civilization goes back to around 5,000 BC.

The Republic of Bulgaria has roots in Antiquity followed by the Dark Ages when the country got its name; Bulgaria. The First and Second Bulgarian Empires intertwined with the Byzantine Rule and the Ottoman rule over the region.

Following the Russo-Turkish War came the Third Bulgarian State that went through the First and Second World Wars before Bulgaria’s independence from all foreign interference leading up to the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria before it turned into the current Republic of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria is a country in the southeast of Europe, on the eastern flank of the Balkans. Bulgaria is bordered by Romania from the north, Serbia and North Macedonia from the west, Greece and Turkey from the south and the Black Sea from the east. The Capital of Bulgaria is Sofia, also its largest city and its serving President is Rumen Radev.

Saint Sofia overlooking the city of Sofia with the Largo in sight
Saint Sofia overlooking the city of Sofia with the Largo in sight

This, is a brief account of the History of Bulgaria!

History of Bulgaria from Antiquity to the Dark Ages (6,000 BC – 6th Century)

Peshtera Kozarnika is a cave in northwestern Bulgaria where the first human remains, dating back to 1,6 million BC, were found in Bulgaria. It is considered the cave where the first human behavior was found. The oldest humanmade structures were discovered in Stara Zagora, known as Stara Zagora Neolithic dwellings. These dwellings are the ruins of the two oldest surviving buildings in the world, dating back to 6,000 BC.

The Hamangia culture and the Vinča culture developed on what is today known as Bulgaria, southern Romania and eastern Serbia. The Durankulak lake settlement in Bulgaria had started as a small island around 7,000 BC. By 4700 or 4600 BC, the stone architecture was already in use and became one of the characteristics of architecture of Europe.

Varna: The First Sophisticated Culture (5,000 BC)

The oldest gold treasure in the world belongs to the Varna Culture from around 5,000 BC. The Varna Culture is the first socially sophisticated civilization to exist in Europe. The centerpiece of this culture is the Varna Necropolis, discovered in the early 1970s. The well-preserved ritual-burials, pottery and golden jewelry give us insight on how the old European societies lived during those times.

An unearthed grave that goes back to the Varna Culture contained golden rings, bracelets and ceremonial weapons which were likely created between 4,600 and 4,200 BC. These artefacts are the oldest gold artefacts discovered in the world.

Another culture with the name of the Karanovo Culture developed at the same time of the Varna Culture which gives a wider understanding of the prehistory of the Balkan region.

The recorded culture after Varna and Karanovo is the Ezero Culture which displays the first evidences of grape cultivation and livestock domestication. The prehistoric wall paintings discovered in a cave in Magura are estimated to be from the same era as the Bronze Age Ezero Culture. It is, however, not known are the years during which these wall drawings were created.

The Thracians (1,500 BC)

The Thracians were the first people to leave a lasting cultural heritage in the entire Balkan area. Although their origin is unknown, it’s is thought that the Thracians inherited the craftsmanship of the indigenous people who lived before them, after being invaded by the Indo-Europeans. It is believed the intricate craftsmanship of gold artefacts, of which the Thracians are famous, come from the previous indigenous civilizations.

The Thracians, similar to the Gauls and other Celtic tribes, were a disorganized people in general, only forced to unite together to fend off foreign invasions and attacks. It’s believed they lived in small fortified villages and mostly on hilltops.

Larger fortifications of that period usually served as regional market centers. Before the unification of the Thracian tribes under the Odrysian Kingdom, Greek colonies found their way into Thrace in the 8th century BC and some of the tribes later fell under Persian rule in the late 6th century BC till the first half of the 5th century BC.

First Thracian Kingdom: The Odrysian Kingdom (470 BC – 479 BC)

King Teres united most of the Thracian tribes forming the Odrysian Kingdom around 470 BC. The Kingdom had volatile relations with the people of Greece. King Sitalces entered into an alliance with the Athenians and in 429 BC he invaded Macedon while Cotys I went to war with them for their domination over the Thracian Chersonese.

Ever since the surrendering of the Macedonian king and the road for the Persian invasion of Thrace. Starting from 513 BC, Darius the Great’s army was able to overtake several Thracian tribal areas along with almost all other regions that touch the European part of the Black Sea such as parts of the nowadays Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine and Russia. The Persian grip on the area was loosened gradually after the Ionian Revolt ending in 479 BC.

The Celts and the Roman Empire (298 BC – 6th Century)

The Celtic tribes, in 298 BC, might have failed to take over Macedonian territories but were able to overtake many Thracian communities that were weakened by Macedonian occupation.  The short-lived kingdom of Tylis which was established by Comontorius; leader of the Celtic armies, in Thrace after conquering it. Several items have been discovered over time that show evidence of both cultures; Thracian and Celtic such as the chariot of Mezek.

Kingdom of Tylis lasted only until 212 BC as the Thracians were able to regain their dominance over the region. Some bands of the Celts survived in Eastern Bulgaria such as the Celtic tribe Serdi from which the ancient name of Sofia; Serdica came.

The threat of the Roman Empire arose by the end of the 3rd century. In 188 BC the Romans began their war on Thrace and eventually tightened their grip on it in 46 BC when the establishment of the province of Thracia.

By the 4th century, the Thracians had their own identity of Christian Romans who had preserved some of their pagan rituals. The Thraco-Romans became a dominant group in the region and urban centers became quite developed under Roman rule.

In the 5th century, the Huns started to attack the areas of what is now Bulgaria, taking over several Roman settlements. By the end of the 6th century, the Avars had organized several attacks on northern Bulgaria in preparation for the arrival of the Slavs into the region. It was the easternmost south Slavs that settled in what is now the modern-day Bulgaria during the 6th century before the Bulgar élite formed the First Bulgarian Empire.

Ancient History of Bulgaria: The First and Second Bulgarian Empires (681 – 1396)

Between the First and the Second Bulgarian Empires were several stages that comprised of political stability, the fall of the country under Byzantine rule before the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire.

The First Bulgarian Empire (681 – 1018)

The name Bulgaria comes from the name of the Bulgars; a semi-nomadic people of Turkic descent originally from central Asia. A branch of them gave rise to the First Bulgarian Empire in 632. The Bulgars were governed by hereditary Khans and it was Khan Kubrat who united the three largest Bulgar tribes; the Kutrigur, the Utugur and the Onogonduri to form what is now called Great Bulgaria. This country extended to the lower course to the Danube River to the west, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea on the south, the Kuban River to the east and the Donets River to the north.

Khan Kubrat has a good relationship with the Byzantine Emperor; Heraclius who gave Kubrat the title Patrician. After Kubrat’s death, Great Bulgaria was destroyed by the Khazars and the Bulgars dispersed into different parts of the country. One of Kubrat’s successors led nine Bulgar tribes and established a new kingdom of the Volga Bulgars by the Volga River, now Russia. The new kingdom’s strategic location gave it great importance in trade.

Welcome to Sofia, the Bulgarian Capital

The First Bulgarian Ruler (Second half of the 7th century – 681)

Another successor of Kubrat is Asparuh who is considered to be the first Bulgarian ruler since he signed a treaty with the Byzantine Empire in 681. By this treaty, the Byzantine Empire recognized Asparuh’s state as independent and the year of the signing is regarded as the year of the establishment of the present-day Bulgaria.

Tervel, Asparuh’s son ruled after him, he helped the Byzantine Emperor Justinian II recover his throne, after which he bestowed upon Khan Tervel the Byzantine title Cesar. Justinian II, however, betrayed Tervel and attacked Bulgaria and lost in the battle of Anhialo. Justinian II’s successor, Theodosius III, found himself trapped between the Bulgarian crusades and the Arabs which forced him to sign a peace treaty with Tervel.

Tervel’s help was needed again when Emperor Leo III the Isaurian needed help fending off the threat of the Arabs at his gates in 717. With Khan Tervel’s help, the Arab army exercising a siege on Constantinople was decimated and the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople ended. After the reign of Tervel, there were changes in the ruling houses leading to instability and political crises in Bulgaria.

 In 768, Khan Telerig brought stability to the Bulgarian Empire after a failed excursion from his side towards the Byzantine Empire and a failed one as well from the Byzantine side. Telerig was aware of the increase of Byzantine spies in the capital of his empire Pliska. He sent a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Constantin V asking for refuge in the city in Constantinople and the knowledge of which Byzantine spies can help him. Upon finding their names, Telerig got rid of all the spies in the capital.

Political Stability of the First Bulgarian Empire (802 – 831)

The development and political stability of the First Bulgarian Empire continued during the reign of Khan Krum, who led campaigns with the expansion of the empire in front of his eyes. Under his rule from 802 and 814, Bulgaria expanded to north, west and south occupying the lands between the middle Danube and Moldova rivers, all of what’s now Romania, Sofia, Adrianople threatening even Constantinople. Krum implemented law reforms to fight poverty and help strengthen social ties. From 814 to 831, Khan Omurtag had a magnificent palace, pagan temples, ruler’s residence, fortress, citadel, water mains and baths built in the Bulgarian capital Pliska.

Omurtag’s reign was distinguished by a 30-year treaty with the Byzantines and this gave Khan Omurtag the opportunity to fend off the advancement of the Frankish Empire to take Bulgaria’s north-western lands. Architecture was another field that thrived under the rule of Omurtag. He adopted a policy of suppression against the Christians mainly those that were war prisoners.

The Bulgarian Empire adopted Christianity as the formal religion under the rule of Boris I and Tsar Simeon was the first to call himself Tsar after being previously styled Knyaz. Tsar Simeon’s reign was the Golden Age of Bulgarian Culture as well as the expansion of the Bulgarian Empire to its greatest territorial expansion. This territorial expansion and cultural development made Bulgaria the most powerful state in contemporary Eastern and Southeast Europe.

After the death of Tsar Simeon I, Bulgaria suffered from attacks from several fronts, the Byzantine Army captured the capital in 971. The Bulgarian Empire recovered briefly under the rule of Samuil. The Byzantines eventually overtook Bulgaria under Basil II after the death of the last Bulgarian Tsar in 1018 after which the majority of Bulgaria’s nobility chose to join the Eastern Roman Empire.

Byzantine Rule of Bulgaria (1018 – 1185)

The Bulgarians were fairly subdued during the first decade under Byzantine rule. It is historically thought that Basil II granted the Bulgarian nobility several concessions to gain their support hence the quiet era. Another thing Basil II did was not completely diminish the power of the Bulgarian nobility, he also issued royal decrees that secured the continuation of the dioceses that already existed under Samuil, their properties and other privileges.

Instability plagued the Byzantine Empire after the death of Basil II, a failed Bulgarian revolt was attempted by Peter Delyan in 1040 that resulted in his killing. The Komnenos dynasty brought stability back to the Byzantine Empire which last only until the last of the capable Komnenoi in 1180. This gave the Bulgarian nobility the opportunity to organize a revolt in 1185. Who is now known as Tsar Peter II led a rebellion against Byzantium and the following year, Byzantines were forced to recognize Bulgaria’s independence. Peter declared himself “Tsar of the Bulgars, Greeks and Wallachians”.

The Second Bulgarian Empire (1185 – 1396)

The power of the Second Bulgarian Empire was beyond expectation. The empire extended to the territory between the Black Sea, the Danube and Stara Planina including a part of Easter Macedonia, Belgrade and the valley of the Morava. Bulgaria also exercised control over Wallachia.

Tsar Kaloyan (1197 to 1207) waged wars against the Byzantines on the Knights of the Fourth Crusade after 1904. He conquered large parts of Thrace, the Rhodopes, Bohemia, Moldovia as well as the whole of Macedonia. Even though Kaloyan was able to limit the power of the Latin Empire after defeating them in the battle of Adrianople, he couldn’t extend the Bulgarian Empire to the west and the north west due to the power of the Hungarians and to some extent the Serbs.

Regaining its regional power under the reign of Ivan Asen II, Bulgaria occupied both Belgrade and Albania. Ivan Asen II was a wise and humane ruler; he extended his hand to the Catholic of the West especially Venice and Genoa aiming to reduce the influence the Byzantines had over his country. Ivan Asen II succeeded in making Tarnovo a major economic and religious center; a third Rome while the power of Constantinople diminished.

The Diminishing of the Bulgarian Empire’s Force (1257 – 1396)

The country’s stability virtually ended with the Asen Dynasty in 1257, the Empire was weakened due to internal conflicts, attacks from the Byzantines and the Hungarian not to mention Mongol domination. Temporary stability was achieved when Tsar Teodore Svetoslav from 1300 to 1322 but it was short-lived as Bulgaria faced a new threat from the south.

The Ottoman Turks crossed into Europe in 1354. By 1371, factional divisions between the people of the Second Bulgarian Empire caused it to split into three small tsardoms, Vidin, Tarnovo and Karvuna. The three small tsardoms along with other semi-independent principalities fought among themselves and with the Byzantines, the Hungarians, the Serbs, the Venetians and the Genoese.

The division of the Bulgarian Empire made it easier for the Ottoman Turks to invade the country. In 1362, the Ottomans captured Philippopolis (Plovdiv), in 1382 they captured Sofia. In 1393 they captured Tarnovo after a three-month siege and eventually in 1396 they took over the Tsardom of Vidin which brought an end to the Second Bulgarian Empire.

Freedom Monument on Shipka Pass
Freedom Monument on Shipka Pass

Modern History of Bulgaria

The modern history of Bulgaria is divided into several eras. Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule which started by the fall of the Tsardom of Vidin in 1396 ending in 1878 with the Russo-Turkish War between the Ottoman Turks and Russia on behalf of Bulgaria. The Third Bulgarian State began after the Liberation of Bulgaria from 1878 until 1946.

Bulgaria Under Ottoman Rule (1396 – 1878)

The fall of the last tsardom; the Tsardom of Vidin marked the end of what’s historically known as the Second Bulgarian Empire. By this, the Ottomans had subjugated and occupied Bulgaria. Even though a Polish-Hungarian army set out to free Bulgaria and the Balkans in 1444, they were defeated in the battle of Varna from the Ottomans.

The new authorities dismantled Bulgarian institutions and merged the separate Bulgarian Church into the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople. Most of the Medieval Bulgarian fortresses were destroyed so as to prevent any rebellions. Even the large towns and areas where Ottoman power predominated remained unpopulated until the 19th century. Even though conversion to Islam was not forced on the Bulgarian people, several cases of forced Islamization were recorded such as the Pomaks who got to keep their Bulgarian language, dress and some customs that were compatible with Islam.

Decline of the Ottoman Rule over Bulgaria (17th century)

The might of the Ottoman Empire and governing system was declining in the 17th century and nearly collapsed in the 18th century. With the weak governing system, some local Ottoman holders of large estates established personal ascendency over several regions. After that armed groups of Turks called Kurdjalii spread around in different regions causing peasants to flee to Moldova, Wallachia or southern Russia.

Despite the turbulent political scene in Bulgaria under the Ottoman rule, this period of time was one of the flourishment of Bulgarian culture. Several Bulgarian towns prospered including Gabrovo and Koprivshtitsa. Although, all the lands officially belonged to the sultan, they were in the possession of the peasants and this helped trade, communication and transportation. The first factory in Bulgaria opened in Sliven in 1834 and the first railway system started running in 1865 between Rousse and Varna.

Bulgarian nationalism was developing in the 19th century under the influence of western ideas such s liberalism and nationalism that reached the Bulgarians through after the French Revolution. The Greek revolt against the Ottomans also influenced the small Bulgarian educated class except that this influence was limited because of the resentment of the Greek control over the Bulgarian church.

The excommunication of the Bulgarian Exarchate by the Constantinople Patriarch reinforced the Bulgarians desire for independence. Two main liberation fronts rose to the political scene; the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee and the Internal Revolutionary Organization led by liberals such as Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Lyuben Karavelov.

Todor Kableshkov Monument in Koprivshtitsa
Todor Kableshkov Monument in Koprivshtitsa

The April Uprising of 1876

Preparations for the April Uprising began in 1875 with the meeting of the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee in the Romanian town of Giurgiu. They decided the suitable time for the uprising was either April or May of 1876 and they divided the country into five revolutionary districts. The idea of a fifth revolutionary district in Sofia was later abandoned.

A meeting of the delegates from the fourth revolutionary district on April 14th of 1876 was disclosed to the Ottoman authorities along with the plot of the April Uprising.  A few days later the Ottoman police tried to arrest the leader of the local revolutionary committee in Koprivshtitsa; Todor Kableshkov, the events escalated in the following days.

The uprising started earlier than planned which led to the deadly suppression of all revolutionary activities and the killing of many of the delegates. The uprising was completely crushed by the middle of May, ending with the killing of Hristo Botev and his fellows after his attempt to rescue come to the rebel’s rescue with a detachment of Bulgarian political immigrants from Romania.

The uprising was mainly confined to the region of Plovdiv with other areas from northern Bulgaria, Macedonia and in the area of Silven. After the suppression of the revolt, many villages were pillaged and thousands of people were massacred most of them in the towns of Batak, Perushtitsa and Bratsigovo which were all in the area of Plovdiv.

Liberation of Bulgaria – The Russo-Turkish War (1877 – 1878)

The atrocities committed by the Ottoman authorities in Bulgaria after the April Uprising provoked intellects and public figures from all over Europe. The British liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone, launched a campaign against the “Bulgarian Horrors”. The strongest reaction came from the neighboring Russia which led to the Constantinople Conference of the Great Powers in 1876 and 1877.

The Constantinople Conference reached several decisions which Turkey refused to adhere to. This refusal gave Russia the long-awaited opportunity to start its military campaign against the Ottoman Empire. In April 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottomans.

The coalition led by the Russian Empire included Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro. The famous battle of the war was the Siege of Plevna, which paved the way for the victory of the Russian army and the Bulgarian Opalchentsi defeated the Ottomans at Shipka Pass and Pleven. By 1878, most of the Bulgarian lands were liberated.

Third Bulgarian State (1878 – 1946)

The Russo-Turkish War officially ended by signing the Treaty of San Stefano on March 3rd, 1878. The treaty was signed by the Russian and Turkish Empires and beside concluding the war between the two empires, it established an autonomous Bulgarian principality on the territories of the Second Bulgarian Empire. However, there was a growing fear of the establishment of a large Russian state in the Balkans, the other Great Power didn’t accept the treaty.

As a result, in July of the same year another treaty was signed; the Treaty of Berlin. This new treaty was a revised version of the Treaty of San Stefano under the supervision of Otto von Bismarck of Germany and Benjamin Disraeli of Britain. The proposed Bulgarian state was cut back in this new treaty leaving a lot of ethnic Bulgarians outside of their new country.

It was always thought that Bulgarian would be Russia’s ally, especially that the first Bulgarian Knyaz in 1879; Alexander of Battenberg was a German with close ties to the Russian Tsar.  The new Bulgarian territory was limited between the Danube and the Stara Planina range with its seat at the old capital; Turnovo and included Sofia. The new Bulgarian state cooperated with the British to stand against the aggressive Russian expansion. Bulgaria earned the respect of the great powers after succeeding in defending itself against the Serbs in 1885.

Stefan Nikolov Stambolov – The Bulgarian Bismarck (1886 – 1894)

Stefan Stambolov was the regent at first then prime minister of Ferdinand I of Bulgaria. Stambolov believed that Russia had the hidden intention of adding the Bulgarian lands to its territory, hence helping the distressed country break free from the Ottoman grip. Therefore, Stambolov set a clear plan in order to preserve the Bulgarian independence at any cost.

Working with both political fronts; the Liberal Majority and the Conservative Minority, they turned Bulgaria from an Ottoman province into a modern European State. His most important move was his foreign policy as he aimed at the unification of the Bulgarian nation including all the territories of the Bulgarian Exarchate that were granted by the Sultan in 1870.

In order to achieve his foreign policy, he took a few steps. He started by establishing close ties with the Sultan so as to favor the Bulgarian spirit in Macedonia over the Russian-backed Greek and Serbian propaganda. This resulted in the Sultan recognizing the Bulgarians as the predominant people in Macedonia and gave them the green light to start establishing a strong church and cultural institutions.

The following step was that Stambolov negotiated loans with western European countries and he used diplomatic manoeuvers to win them over. His main objective behind this was to strengthen Bulgaria’s economic and military fronts. He aimed at developing a modern army that was capable of protecting Bulgaria’s independence.

Stambolov’s internal policy included defeating terrorist groups sponsored by Russia, strengthening the rule of law, sponsoring economic and educational growth leading to social and cultural change in order to strengthen the army. Since Bulgaria emerged from under the Ottoman umbrella as a poor and underdeveloped country, Stambolov understood that Bulgaria had to be politically, militarily and economically strong in order to achieve national unification.

However, Stambolov’s plan for the Bulgarian state was short-lived as it dwindled after his death and such policies were abandoned. This didn’t stop the development of the country’s sectors though, as there was a national movement in favor of building more elementary and secondary schools. After the establishment of the first university in 1888, the flow has been steady. Later, the university’s name was changed to University of Sofia and the three colleges of history and philology, physics and mathematics and law produced civil servants for public offices.

The Balkan Wars (1912 – 1913)

The Balkan Wars refer to two wars. The first was between Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro against the Ottoman Empire. The second Balkan war was between Serbia, Greece, Romania and the Ottoman Empire against Bulgaria. Many casualties were sustained by Bulgaria during the two wars and instability seeped back into the country.

The First Balkan War (1912)

The economic development in Bulgaria was accompanied by rapid military growth, it was referred to as the Balkan Prussia. Bulgaria desired to revise the terms of the Treaty of Berlin through warfare since the division of territory according to the treaty aroused content both in Bulgaria and the neighboring Balkan countries. An alliance between Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia was formed in 1911 and they signed secret treaties of the alliance in 1912 to jointly attack the Ottoman Empire and take back their lands.

The first Balkan war broke out in October 1912 after Montenegro had joined forces with the three allies and they easily defeated the Ottomans who were fighting a brutal war against Italy in Libya. Due to the obscure terms of the treaties signed between the allied countries this led to dispute over the gained territories. Bulgaria was the country that both sustained the most casualties and gained the most territories.

The Second Balkan War (1913)

Fueled by resentment against Bulgaria’s claim to the majority of the territories claimed during the First Balkan War, Serbia and Greece formed an alliance against their former ally. The Serbs refused to vacate any of the territory they’d seized in northern Macedonia. They Serbian defense was that Bulgaria would have failed to achieve any progress if it weren’t for the help of the Serbian forces. The Bulgarian Tsar at the time, Ferdinand, saw that the formation of an alliance between Greece and Serbia in June 1913 as a violation of the pre-war agreements and hence declared war on both countries on June 29th.

The Bulgarian army initially gained advantage causing the allied forces to retreat, but the sides quickly shifted afterwards. Romania joined in the battle attacking Bulgaria from the north and the Ottoman Empire attacked from the south-east seeing it as the perfect opportunity to regain the territories it had lost during the First Balkan War.

Bulgaria came out of the Second Balkan War defeated and forced to relinquish most of the territorial earlier gains in Macedonia to Serbia and Greece, Adrianople to the Ottoman Empire and the region of Southern Dobruja to Romania. The two wars greatly destabilized Bulgaria leading to the stoppage of the steady economic growth. Political movements, though campaigned for the restoration of Macedonia to Bulgaria.

Bulgaria in the First World War (1914 – 1919)

World War I broke out in 1914 but Bulgaria didn’t join in at the beginning as it was recuperating in the aftermath of the two Balkan Wars. The general feeling in Bulgaria was resentment and betrayal by Russia and the Western Powers. Even though the government at the time saw its best interests were in the alliance with the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, it meant Bulgaria would have to join forces with its fiercest enemy; the Ottoman Empire. This unlikely alliance didn’t both the Bulgarians since their country had no claim against any land held by the Ottomans while Serbia, Greece and Romania held lands that the Bulgarians perceived as Bulgarian.

Taking its time to rebuild, time was ticking for both Germany and Austria since they knew they needed Bulgaria’s help to defeat Serbia and open a supply route from Germany to Turkey. Except that Bulgaria needed to guarantee its territorial gains if it were to participate in the war alongside Germany and Austria. Bulgaria insisted on retrieving its former gains especially Macedonia, which Austria was reluctant to agree to if it weren’t for Germany’s insistence.

Even though Bulgaria negotiated with the Allies as well, it eventually decided to side with Germany and Austria who gave more generous offers for the aspiring country. Bulgaria, Germany and Austria signed an alliance agreement in September 1915 with a special Bulgarian-Turkish arrangement. Bulgaria declared war on Serbia the following month and Britain and France responded by declaring war on Bulgaria.

With the backing of its allies, Bulgaria made huge victories against Serbia and Romania which resulted in great territorial gains. Bulgaria took much of Macedonia and even advanced into the Greek Macedonia in October 1915. Dobruja was taken from the Romanians in September 1916 which resulted Serbia getting kicked out of the war. In 1917, Bulgaria’s over a million-soldier army, inflicted defeat on Serbia, Great Britain, France, the Russian Empire and Kingdom of Romania.

It wasn’t long after that the Bulgarians grew resentful of the war taking the souls of their soldiers especially siding with their former Muslim enemy; the Ottomans against their fellow Orthodox Christians. The Russian Revolution in February 1917 had a great effect on the Bulgarians inducing anti-war and anti-monarchist sentiment between soldiers in particular. By June of the same year, the government resigned and a republic was proclaimed.

The anti-war movement in Bulgaria resulted in political turmoil and the country fell back from the war. The Central Powers; Germany, Austria, the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria were defeated in the First World War and the end of the war was declared by the signing of the Treaty of Neuilly in November 1919.

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Bulgaria between the First and Second World Wars (1919 – 1941)

After the First World War and the abdication of Tsar Ferdinand in favor of his son Boris III in September 1918. The Treaty of Neuilly stated that Bulgaria had to cede most of its military gains. Bulgaria ceded Western Thrace to Greece, ceded almost all of its Macedonian territory to the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes and ceded Dobruja back to Romania. Bulgaria also had to sign a convention on population exchange with Greece.

The worst terms of the treaty were to enforce Bulgaria to reduce its army to 20,000 men, pay reparations of more than 117 million Euros. This was in addition to that Bulgaria had to recognize the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

The first elections in the Republic of Bulgaria were held in March 1920, which the Agrarians won a great majority. Aleksander Stamboliyski formed the first peasant Bulgarian government. Stamboliyski faced strong opposition from the middle and upper classes, the landlords and the officers of the army yet he succeeded in carrying out many reforms.

Stamboliyski was assassinated in 1923 after signing an agreement with the Kingdom of Yugoslavia recognizing the new border between the two countries and agreeing to suppress the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization known as VMRO which favored a war against Yugoslavia to gain back Macedonia.

After the coup that resulted in Stamboliyski’s assassination, the extreme-right wing politician Aleksandar Tsankov formed the new government with the backing of the army and VMRO. This brought about more political instability as the Bulgarian Communist Party, back by agrarians and anarchists organized an insurgency otherwise known as the September Uprising in order to overthrow Tsankov’s government.

The September Uprising was met by what’s known as a White terror against the Agrarians and the Communists since their main objective was to install a government of workers and peasants. In 1926, the Tsar convinced Tsankov to resign and a more moderate government under the leadership of Andrey Lyapchev and amnesty was proclaimed although communists were banned.    

Under the political alliance of “Popular Bloc”, the Agrarians rejoined the political game by winning the 1931 elections. The alliance was thrown out of power by a coup in May 1934 and replaced with an authoritarian military regime headed by Kimon Georgiev. The following year, the Tsar removed the military regime from power and restored a form of parliamentary rule under his own strict control and without political parties.

Bulgaria in the Second World War (1941 – 1944)

After Tsar Boris tightened his grip on the political situation in 1935, he claimed that Bulgaria stands neutrally from its neighboring fights. Bulgaria though gradually slipped into alliance with Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. This resulted in dragging Bulgaria to war in the Second World War relinquishing the country’s hopes of territorial gains without going to war.

Bogdan Filov, the Bulgarian Prime Minister at the time Second World War broke out, declared that Bulgaria is neutral regarding the war. Bulgaria succeeded in negotiating the recovery of Southern Dobruja after the signing of the Treaty of Craiova in 1940 with the sponsorship of the Axis countries; Nazi Germany, Kingdom of Italy and the Empire of Japan. This treaty gave Bulgaria hope that it can negotiate more territories without involvement in the war.

Even though there was strong pressure on Bulgaria to join the Axis countries’ side in the war, specially with regards to Bulgaria’s geopolitical position in the Balkans. This era was short-lived as Bulgaria was put to the real test when German troops setting to attack Greece through Romania arrived at the Bulgarian borders demanding permission to pass through Bulgarian lands. Tsar Boris III allowed the German forces to pass since the Soviet Union at the time had a non-aggression pact with Germany. Boris, however, refused to surrender the Jewish people in his country to the Nazis which saved 50,000 lives.

Bulgaria Forced to Make a Stand

The Bulgarian government was forced by Germany to declare a stand of war on both the United Kingdom and the United States on December 13th 1941. This declaration resulted in the Allied bombing of several Bulgarian cities including Sofia. In response, the Bulgarian military destroyed some Allied aircrafts that were passing through its air field aiming to bomb Romania’s oilfields.

Bombers flying back to airbases in North Africa through Bulgaria were intercepted by the Bulgarian Air Force and any of the survivors were taken as prisoners under the Geneva Convention of 1929. Most of the prisoners of war were from the United States Army Air Force and the Royal Air Force of the United Kingdom. Other prisoners of war included Canadian, Australian, Dutch, Greek and Yugoslav airmen. All prisoners of war were held at the POW camp at Shumen.

Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941 and failed to defeat the USSR. The United States joined the Allies and hope for the Axis countries winning the war shrunk. Several movements such as the Communist Party, the Zveno movement and The Fatherland Front were established in Bulgaria to resist the pro-German government.

The sudden death of Bulgarian Tsar Boris III in August 1943, two weeks after a visit to Germany left Bulgaria in turmoil. Amid allegations that Boris III was poisoned, his six-year-old son Simeon II ascended to the throne but due to his young age, a regency council headed by Prime Minister Bogdan Filov was set up. On 14th of September 1943 Bogdan gave up his position in favor of Dobri Bozhilov who began to seek an escape from the war.

Bulgaria Under Pressure to leave the Axis Countries

Bulgaria was under tremendous pressure from the Soviet Union to leave the Axis countries, since Bulgaria maintained diplomatic relations with the union while being a member of the Axis. Filov sacked Bozhilov and appointed Ivan Bagryanov and during this time Filov was hoping to win favors with the Allied forces in order to prevent territorial losses of Thrace and Macedonia while avoiding the German invasion of Bulgaria.

The invasion of Normandy vanquished all Bulgarian hopes in having an advantage to offer the Allied forces. The German forces withdrew from Greece and the Soviet westward offensives continued.

Ivan Bagryanov had sympathies towards the west and wanted to untangle Bulgaria from the war before the Russian forced reached the Danube. He succeeded in negotiating the withdrawal of German forces from Varna citing the reason that their existence represented an invitation of an Allied attack. After this, Bagryanov blocked the arrival of any more German troops in Bulgaria.

Soviet forces were able to break through the Axis defenses in Romania on August 20th 1944, approaching Bulgaria and the Balkans. On August 23rd, Romania left the Axis powers and declared war on Germany which allowed the Soviet forces to march through its lands and reach Bulgaria. On August 27th, Bulgaria announced its neutrality.

Bulgaria’s Last Hope Before the Soviet Invasion

Joseph Stalin refused to recognize Bulgaria’s neutrality on August 30th. Bagryanov did his best to shade his country from the trials of war, he assured the Soviet troops that foreign troops in Bulgaria would be disarmed, he ordered the German troops to leave the country and began disarming the German soldiers arriving in Dobruja. He did everything but refused to renounce his country’s neutral position when it came to announcing war on the Germans.

Bagryanov’s government was replaced by that of Konstantin Muraviev who initially opposed going to war with Germany. After the Fatherland Front held public strikes on September 4th, Muraviev broke off diplomatic relations with Germany the following day. He awaited the complete evacuation of Bulgarian troops from Macedonia to announce war on Germany.

On the afternoon of September 7th, with the last German soldier stepping foot outside of Bulgarian territory, Bulgaria announced war against Germany. Earlier during that day, the Soviet Union had declared war against Bulgaria on allegation of “liberating Bulgaria”. On September 8th, Bulgaria found itself in war with four major forces: Germany, Britain, the United States and the USSR. The Soviet forces crossed the border into Bulgaria on September 8th.

Muraviev’s government was overthrown the following day and was replaced by the Fatherland Front backed government of Kimon Georgiev. Even though the Soviet Red Army entered Sofia on September 16th, the Bulgarian Army realized several victories against the 7th SS Volunteer Mountain Division Prinz Eugen; the armed branch of the German Nazi Party, the 22nd Infantry Division; specialized German Infantry Division and other German forces.

Implications of the Second World War on Bulgaria

The Soviet invasion of Bulgaria installed a communist regime in 1946 headed by Georgi Dimitrov with the abolishment of the monarch system and the tsar was sent to exile. The new Communist country was called the People’s Republic of Bulgaria which lasted until 1990 until the abolishment of communism. Bulgaria remained under Soviet occupation until 1947.

Many noncommunist Bulgarians placed hopes on strengthening the ties with the Soviet Union since they believed the events of the past 15 years had discredited the integrity of Germany and the Allies. The armistice signed between Bulgaria and the Soviet Union cost Bulgaria all its military territorial gains made during the war except for southern Dobruja. Hence, Macedonia was returned to Yugoslavia and Thrace to Greece.

Overall war damage to Bulgaria was rather moderate in comparison to the damage incurred by other European countries. The country emerged from the war with no identifiable political structure which allowed the Communist to gradually rise to power. Even though the Soviet representatives were the real power holders in the country, the communists deliberately took a small role in the government. They established a Communist-controlled militia which harassed and intimidated non-Communists.

The first Public Trial was held in 1945 when Prince Kirill along with hundreds of officials from the old regime were arrested, tried on charges of war crimes and executed by June. The monarchy was officially abolished the following year with young Simeon sent into exile. This was when the Communists openly took power and Vasil Kolarov became President and Georgi Dimitrov became Prime Minister.

During the 1930s, the Bulgarian economy was described as being bound to Germany hence the Bulgarian economy started suffering when Germany began to lost in the Second World War. The economy of Bulgaria was mainly an agrarian one with agriculture, crafts and partly trade being the only developed industry sectors.

Welcome to the revolutionary town of Koprivshtitsa

History of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria

People’s Republic of Bulgaria was ruled by the Bulgarian Communist Party in the form of the Fatherland Front. The first thing the Communists did with their rise in power was to collectively arrest and charge the former regent Prince Kiril, former Prime Minister Bogdan Filov alongside hundreds of other officials and tried them on basis of war crimes.

The new government also began arresting Nazi collaborators which led to the arrest of thousands of people who were later tried with treason or participation in counter-revolutionary conspiracy. They were either sentenced to death or life in prison.

During the time Vasil Kolarov was Prime Minister with Georgi Dimitrov as leader of the Communist Party, leader of the Agrarians; Nikola Petkov was arrested despite international opposition. December 1947 witnessed the ratification of the new constitution known as Dimitrov Constitution. The new constitution was drafted with the help of Soviet jurists taking the 1936 Soviet Constitution as a model.

By 1948, all opposition parties were either realigned or dissolved even the Agrarian Union became a close ally of the Communists. Under Communist rule, all religious organizations were either restrained or banned. Even the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria never regained the same influence it had under the monarchy; many high roles at the church were assumed by communist allies.

The Deaths of Georgi Dimitrov and Vasil Kolarov

With the sudden death of Georgi Dimitrov in 1949 and the passing of the elderly Prime Minister Vasil Kolarov, his position passed down to the Stalinist Vulko Chervenkov who assumed the leadership of the Communist Party after Dimitorv’s death. Right after this collective leadership, Chervenkov adopted a policy of rapid industrialization that followed the Soviet industrialization model.

The Chervenkov Stalinist era was distinguishable by collectivized agriculture and the oppression of peasant rebellions. He had labor camps set up which at one point housed about 100,000 people. Thousands of dissidents were executed and many of them died in labor camps. The Orthodox Patriarch was furthermore confined to a monastery with the placement of the church under state control.

After the severing of diplomatic relations with the United States in 1950 and the death of Stalin in March 1953, Chervenkov was deposed and replaced by Todor Zhivkov. Although Chervenkov served as Prime Minister at the time, he was replaced by Anton Yugov in April, 1956.

Todor Zhivkov directed the implementation of some market-oriented policies during the 1960s. The standard of living rose and farm workers began to benefit from the First Agricultural Pension and Welfare System in Eastern Europe. Lyudmila, Zhivkov’s daughter, promoted Bulgaria’s national heritage, culture and arts on a global level. The new constitution; Zhivkovskata, resulted in the promotion of Todor Zhivkov as President and Stanko Todorov became Prime Minister.

Bulgaria was one of the signatories of the Helsinki Accords in 1975 which guaranteed human rights and fundamental freedoms including freedom of movement, contacts, information, culture and education, right to work, and the rights to education and medical care. However, in the late 1980s, an assimilation campaign was directed against ethnic Turks in violation of the Helsinki Accords.

This campaign forbade the ethnic Turkish minority from speaking the Turkish language and forced them to adopt Bulgarian names. The campaign resulted in the immigration of about 300,000 Bulgarian Turks to Turkey in 1989 causing a significant drop in agricultural production in southern regions due to the loss of working force.

The End of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (The 1980s)

The Conservatives were in charge of the government by the 1980s. The social and cultural reforms led by Lyudmila Zhivkov were a growing reason of concern for the Communists. They perceived her lifestyle to be unorthodox specially in regard of her practice of Eastern religions. Lyudmila died in 1981 just before she turned 39 years old.

Communists have silenced all outcries for change all during their time as they monopolized the political system. By the late 1980s, the Communists have grown tired of the constant resistance. An environmental demonstration in Sofia in October 1989, turned into a general campaign calling for political reform. Communists responded by deposing Todor Zhivkov and replacing him with Petar Mladenov in November 1989.

This sudden change gave the Communists hope they could win back the people. Mladenov promised to open up the regime and that multi-party elections were to be held soon afterwards. However, state-wide demonstrations broke out demanding change.

President Mladenov announced that the Communist Party would cede its monopoly over the political system. On January 15th 1990, the National Assembly officially amended the legal code to abolish the “leading role” of the Communist Party.  The first multi-party elections since 1931 in Bulgaria were held in June 1990. The Communist Party changed its name to the Bulgarian Socialist Party after getting rid of its hardliner wing.

On November 15th 1990, the 7th Grand National Assembly voted to change the country’s name to be the Republic of Bulgaria. The Assembly also gave instructions to remove the Communist emblem from the Bulgarian national flag. The new constitution adopted in July 1991 stated that the system of government in the new republic will be one of a parliamentary Republic with a president and prime minister chose through direct elections.

The Republic of Bulgaria from Communism to Capitalism (1990 – 1995)

After the 7th Grand National Assembly voted to change the country’s name to the Republic of Bulgaria and the statement of the constitution that the political system in Bulgaria would be one of a parliamentary Republic, the Communist emblem was removed from the Bulgarian flag. The red star “which is a common symbol of Communism” atop the Party House – currently a part of the Largo complex – was replaced with the Bulgarian flag.

The transition from Communism to Capitalism was harder than expected. The successful change of the political regime in the country failed to reflect on the conditions of the economy and society. Bulgaria was one of the Eastern European ex-communist countries that faced many difficulties after the shift from Communism.

The hastiness with which the political change was achieved struck both the government and the people as they weren’t ready for industrial modernization. When the anti-Communist Union of Democratic Forces took office between 1991 and 1992, it set out to privatize agricultural land, properties and industries eventually issuing shares in government enterprises to all citizens.

Such privatization policies were accompanied by high unemployment rates due to branding some industries as uncompetitive which led to their failure in the market and the letting go of many workers. Unemployment was almost non-existent before in Bulgaria. Many industries failed in the competition in the global market especially that Bulgaria hadn’t joined any new regional or world trade organizations.

Another rising concern for the government was the rise in criminal activities. Due to the disbandment of the former State Security which operated under the Communist regime mainly to silence the opposition. The State Security also had a tight grip over any criminal activity in the country. The Bulgarian police weren’t ready to cope with the high criminality rate, which led to mass theft of capital, machinery, materials and even furniture from factories and institution leading the economy more down the slope.

The Republic of Bulgaria: Socialist Party Era (1995 – 1997)

The former Communist Party which became the Socialist Party after 1991, found the perfect opportunity for their return to the political scene with the fluctuating circumstances of the economy. They presented themselves as defenders of the poor against the harshness of the free market policies. They used the high unemployment rates and the bad economic conditions of many towns to fuel their agenda.

Indeed, in the 1994 parliamentary elections, Socia



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