A „brief“ history of…. Bulgaria

A „brief“ history of…. Bulgaria


First thing, the present:

Official language of today’s Bulgaria is Bulgarian, the standard language is written in the Bulgarian Version of Cyrillic. The country has about 7.2 Millionen inhabitants of which 2011 84,8% were Bulgarians, 8,8% Turkish and according to official Bulgarian counts 4,9% Roma. Estimations of the European Parliament, however, speak of 12% Roma!!
Since the end of the communist era, the population has declined steadily. The unemployment rate in 2015 was just under 10%.
80% of Bulgarians are Orthodox Christians. Bulgaria has its own Antarctic climate research station and ranks number one in Europe concerning the number of IT experts per capita. The popular Bulgarian folk song “Izlel E Delio Haidutin” was one of the songs that were sent into space with the Voyager spaceship to get into contact with extraterrestrials. During the Holocaust, under the leadership of the Orthodox Church, the Bulgarian government rescued the Bulgarian-Jewish population of the country from being deported to Nazi concentration camps. Bulgaria was one of only two countries that did so. (The other one was Denmark.)
The main industries are the chemical industry, food and food processing industry, tobacco industry, metalworking industry and more than 10% of the world’s rose oil production comes from the Valley of Roses, making them international market leaders. And about 10% of the gross domestic product is generated on the beaches of the Black Sea coast. In 2015, Bulgaria was listed 113th place (!!!!) of 180 on the list of press freedom (Reporters Without Borders). The Corruption Index ranks 69th out of 167 countries in 2015, making it the most corrupt country in the EU (but just ahead of Italy!)
In 2015, Bulgaria ranked No. 59 in the world (last in the EU) in the Human Development Index, a prosperity indicator, and on the list of gross national product per capita, the country is also taking the last spot in the EU, even behind Romania.

So far some facts.

But now, the past…

Already 40000 years before Christ there was settlement in Bulgaria. Between 4000 and 1000 BC the territory of present-day Bulgaria was inhabited by different Thracian tribes who were feared as martial horsemen. One of them was the legendary Ulysses. Although they were a very artistic people, the written word does not seem to have been their preferred stylistic device, since most of the written traditions originate from their neighbors, the Greeks. The Thracians were a hedonistic people, they sanctified the god of wine Dionysus in orgastic rites, premarital sex was not prohibited but on the contrary especially girls were encouraged to engage in it and polygamy was the normality; there are reports of flashy tattoos and smoking of hemp seeds.

Beginning in the 7th century BC the Greeks gradually took over the coastal regions of the Black Sea, founded port cities, as todays Sozopol, Nesebar, Burgas, Varna, etc. and strengthened their influence through trade, which however, did not reach inland.

With the reign of the Macedonian King Philip II. and his famous son Alexander the Great also a large part of the Thracian territory fell under their sphere of influence and today’s Plovdiv was temporarily the capital of the huge empire. As the Macedonians 168 BC were defeated by the Romans, Bulgaria fell to Rome, which as usual, divided the country into several provinces. And like this Bulgaria also became part of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire and was ruled from Constantinople for a long time (todays Istanbul).

But as known, even this fabulous kingdom did not last forever and after Slavs and Avars had built up more and more pressure, about 630 AD Turkish Bulgarians (a Central Asian tribe) penetrated the region and took over. The fact that the ancestors of the modern Bulgarians shall actually have descended from the later hated invaders, the Ottomans, makes the blood of many Bulgarian scholars surge and the corresponding historical dispute on the roots of the people is still intensively pursued today.

The first great Khan Asparuh 681 AD proclaimed the First Bulgarian Empire, which existed for almost 350 years despite constant armed conflicts with Byzantium.
The title “Khan” means something like commander / ruler / leader and was primarily used by mounted nomads of Central and Middle Asia, which invented this title in the region.
And the subsequent Khans were very successfully expanding their territory. During their reign Bulgaria at times ruled over parts of Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Macedonia and Greece.

In the meantime, Christianity in Europe had triumphed over the pagans. The various orientations of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians led a quite ungodly fight about getting the biggest flock of believers in their stables and thereby religion developed an enormous importance in the political everyday life. Boris I. in 864 AD proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the country and cleverly exploited the conflicts between the different orientations. He first let himself be baptized Roman Catholic, but then devoted the country officially to the Orthodox Church and provided shelter to 2 missionary, orthodox monks who had been expelled from the Roman Catholics by papal decree in 885. These two were to have a decisive influence on the further history of the country, because the brothers Cyril and Methodius were the first to bring the religious message to the people in an easy to understand language (and not in Latin). They developed the Glagolitic alphabet, from which among others, later on in the Tsar-sponsored religious schools originated the Cyrillic alphabet. Thus, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was independent of both Rome and Constantinople and was not depending on neither Greek nor Latin.

Under Tsar Simeon I., at the beginning of the 9th century, Bulgaria became the strongest power in Europe, reaching from the Adriatic to the Aegean Sea and North to the Dnieper River. Like that, it covered almost the entire Balkan Peninsula! And Simeon probably also was the first to be officially awarded the title “Tsar”, synonymous with the Latin “Caesar” = “Emperor”, which underlined his position of power!

But the end of the First Bulgarian Empire, due to internal disputes, was unstoppable and the mighty Byzantium under conqueror Basil II annexed the country in 1018. Because of his cruelty in some bloody battles Basil had been given the nickname “Bulgar Slayer”. However even his end was already near and in 1185, with the proclamation of the 2nd Bulgarian Republic, another glorious period of a powerful Bulgarian Empire commenced. The new capital, Veliko Târnovo, became one of the most important cultural centers in Europe and today still lives off its former splendor!
And once again Bulgaria was the strongest power in the Balkans for a period of time!

However, this could not prevent the Empires fall in 1242 when attacked by Mongols / Tartars, a part of the Mongol invasion of Europe. The Great Empire splintered into several small principalities and independent states.

Beginning in the middle of the 14th century, with the decline of Byzantium, a new power grew stronger and from then on was to steer the course of events on the Balkan peninsula for a long time. The Ottoman Empire! The Ottomans were the dominant power for 500 years. During their reign Non-Muslims were considered citizens of 2nd class, a busy slave trade developed, especially with the Italian maritime republics, Bulgarian boys were forcibly recruited and trained to be Janissaries (an elite group of the Ottoman army) and the Bulgarian girls were sold to harems. As a consequence many Bulgarians fled or converted to Islam to escape these repressions. The converted Bulgarians have since been called “Pomaks” and correspond to the Bulgarian-speaking Muslim minority, predominantly living in southwestern Bulgaria. And although churches were destroyed or remodeled into mosques, practising the Christian religion was entirely permitted and especially in the largely autonomously existing monasteries (especially the monastery  of Rila) the Bulgarian tradition was carefully preserved. And even decisions in family law and education could be taken autonomously, as they were still assigned to the heads of the respective Christian denominations. However, the Orthodox Bulgarian patriarchy was dissolved by the Ottomans and subordinated to the Greek patriarchy, which meant a significant loss of cultural and national identity for the Bulgarians. But there was also resistance against the Ottomans, led by a group called “Hajduks” who were hiding in the mountains. Actually “Hajduks” was the term for a group of organized gangs, outlaws and robbers. During the Turkish rule in Southeastern Europe, however, freedom fighters against the foreign regime were called by that name and the term still exists in almost every region of the Balkans.

At the beginning of the 18th century it began to seethe in different corners of the Ottoman-ruled Bulgarian empire. The Ottomans had largely suppressed the further development of Bulgarian culture and identity and the geographical proximity to Constantinople had further intensified this. Additionally the Islamization of the Bulgarians was quite pronounced. Pushed especially by the Christian Orthodox monasteries and encouraged through the first book that dealt with the history of the Bulgarian people, an ever-increasing independence movement developed.

However, one of the main objectives primarily was to create a church independent of Greek Patriarchy. In 1870 the Turks could not help but acknowledge an independent Bulgarian church.
At the same time, until the beginning of the 19th century, an increasingly strong economic trade relationship with Western Europe developed, wealthy merchants built large private houses that reflected the architectural style of the developing period of national revival that  evolved in almost every part of the arts.

There were always bloody uprisings against the Ottoman rule, but they were quickly and brutally crushed and ended with about 30000 massacred Bulgarians. The brutal action angered the rest of Europe, but international efforts, led by the British and the Russians (who, of course, did not have any own interests in the case), were unable to achieve a  divestment for  Bulgaria at the Constantinople Conference. Russia then used this failure as a welcome opportunity to declare war on the Turks. With great losses, the Russians finally won and defeated the Ottomans. They awarded Bulgaria 60% of the entire Balkan area in order to consolidate their own influence in the region. Of course, the rest of Europe was not amused and after several new demarcations a decision was made in 1878 at the Berlin Congress. Bulgaria was recognized as an independent principality, but had to continue paying taxes to the Ottoman Empire and the remaining Bulgarian territory, including today’s Macedonia and Northern Greece, were further subordinated to the Ottomans as Eastern and Western Rumelia.

As many times before, this externally defined, unnatural demarcation led to dissatisfaction among those affected and to several wars that shook the entire region until the Second World War.

But first we’ll talk about the newly created Principality of Bulgaria. In 1879 the First Constitution was recognized and the German Prince Alexander Joseph von Battenberg, a close relative of the Russian tsar, was appointed head of state. From then on, a conservative, pro-Russian and a liberal, Western-oriented party quarreled with one another in the Bulgarian political landscape and in between them, Macedonian emigrants caused even more grief!

In a coup Prince Battenberg united Eastern Rumelia with his principality and argued with Serbia, which in turn was supported by the Austrian Habsburgs. The Russians did not like the new construct, whereas the Turks recognized the new state and somehow all of them were able to agree for a short time, until Prince Battenberg was abducted by the Russians and forced to abdicate.

After much chaos Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha became his successor, whose nickname “Foxy Ferdi” = “smart fox” already anticipated what followed in 1908. Taking advantage of political turmoil in the region, he declared the independence of his country and appointed himself as Tsar. He joined the Balkan Confederation (Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Greece), which victoriously declared war on the Ottomans in 1912 (1st Balkan War), thus conquering Northern Greece.

But the fact, that borders had never properly been clarified and disputes over the distribution of the newly conquered territor,y led to the 2nd Balkan War in 1913 between Bulgaria on the one hand and Greece, Serbia, Romania and the Ottomans on the other. After a lot of cruelty and ethnic cleansing on all sides, with the death of 71000 Serbian, 11200 Montenegrin, 156000 Bulgarian, 48000 Greek and 100000 Turkish soldiers and countless civilian victims, the borders were once again drawn differently.

Due to war losses and the immigration of hundreds of thousands of refugees, Bulgaria was only to be saved from economic collapse by foreign loans. When the French refused to pay any longer, Germany stepped into the breach and Ferdinand in defiance entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers, as did the Ottomans. Surprisingly like this, Turks and Bulgaria became allies despite their completely different and contradictory objectives. As is generally known, the war was lost by Central Powers against the Entente and another 100000 Bulgarian lives were lost as well as fought territories. The Bulgarians living in these areas fled to the motherland and in return hundreds of thousands of Turks and Greeks were expelled from Bulgaria. Reparation payments and the lack of everything  necessary caused an increasing destabilization of the country and social hardship led to political dissatisfaction. Parties from all camps, from capitalist to communist, tried to sell their ideology. However, under the post-war government of the Bulgarian farmers` federation, for many the country increasingly developed into an unwanted direction and in June 1923 a military right-wing alliance came to power. The new rulers pursued henceforth the communists, which formed an alliance with the farmers’ federation to instigate a coup in September of the same year, that ended with devastating 20000 victims. The Communist Party was banned and henceforth acted out of a terrorist underground, where  the Inner Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), a far-right terrorist group, was already frolicking. And actually, due to the continued territorial disputes, Bulgaria was quarreling with all its neighbors!

A period of relative democracy was superseded by another coup. A mixture of right-wing parliamentarianism and royal dictatorship under Tsar Boris III. was established. The country increasingly became friends with Nazi Germany and Mussolini Italy and was more and more economically dependent on them.

Nevertheless, Bulgaria tried to remain neutral for as long as possible during World War II. However, with increasing isolation among the surrounding Balkan states and the swelling danger of being attacked by the Russians, Turkey and Greece, they finally joined the Axis powers. Hitler’s offer to reunite Macedonia with Bulgaria certainly had its share. However, they refused steadily to fight against the Soviet Union. The request to deport all Jews to extermination camps was responded by Bulgaria in a difficult to evaluate way. First, all “foreign” Jews from the Greek and Macedonian regions were deported to protect the Bulgarian Jews. This way of proceeding was “successful” … Approximately 11400 Greek and Macedonian Jews died, nearly 48000 Bulgarian Jews survived the Holocaust this way.

In September 1944, it came thick and fast, a prime minister that was approved by the Allies was appointed, the alliance with Germany was terminated and shortly afterwards the country was occupied by the Soviet Union.

Days of “Red Terror” followed, many political leaders of other parties fell victim to it and the Communists took power under the leadership of the Soviets. Bulgaria became part of the Eastern Bloc and was run in the sense of a Russian satellite state. At the end of 1947, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria was proclaimed. After initially changing leaders in 1954 the long era of the communist dictator Todor Zhivkov began. He led
as a classic communist regime with relentlessness and full support of the Soviets. The Bulgarian intelligence service “Darschawna Sigurnost” took care of the enforcement of the laws, human rights were at best a term that did not interest anyone.
The methods of the secret service leaked spectacularly to the public when Georgi Markov, who had fled to the West as a dissident in 1978, was attacked on Waterloo Bridge in London with a poisoned umbrella tip equipped with the herbicide Rizin. And even the assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II in 1981 is said to have been committed by the Bulgarian intelligence service.

By Soviet support, cheap oil and economic treaties between the Eastern Bloc countries, Zhivkov managed to bring about a significant upswing for the state and to perform a structural change from an agricultural to an industrialized country. The population’s level of education also increased significantly. The aforementioned Georgi Markov once said about Zhivkov: “He served the USSR with more fervor than the Soviet leaders themselves !!“.

From the early 1980s, the oppression of the Muslim, Turkish and Roma minority increased extremely. In 1986 they were forced to adopt Slavic names and Turkish language was banned from schools. Around 380000 people of Turkish descent were forced by unbelievable pressure, torture and massacres to emigrate to Turkey or deported to labor camps. These practices persisted until 1990. And to this day, this chapter of Bulgarian history has not really been reappraised by subsequent governments.

In 1989, the wave of Perestroika that overthrew the Eastern bloc, also arrived in Bulgaria. Although Zhivkov was deposed, Bulgaria also was the first country to re-establish a communist government.

After that, various parties took turns governing the state, the people benefited from none and in the mid / late 90s Bulgaria once again was facing ruin. Until 2011, a conservative government pursued various reforms that brought one or the other economic improvement, but for the ordinary people they had little to none positive impact.

In 2001 this led to a unique event in history in the world: Simeon II, who 1946 as 9-year-old had been deposed as King of Bulgaria, was democratically re-elected as head of the country with his party “National Movement Simeon II“, now under his civil name Simeon of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha or Simeon Sakskoburggotski.
However, the citizens were not satisfied by his politics for very long and 2005 his government was history again. Despite all the problems, the constant corruption, the miserable environmental protection, etc. etc., Bulgaria became a member of NATO in 2004 and of the EU in 2007.

But neither economic nor social miracles followed and today disintegrated factories from the Communist era shape the image in many places. Bulgaria is and remains Europe’s poorhouse to this day and the mass exodus of well-educated young academics from musicians to doctors continues unabated.

And the almost 800000 Roma in the country are miserable for the most part. They live in ghettos where crime, poverty, prostitution and drugs are commonplace. In some areas, the Roma population has an unemployment rate of 70%! And since many people emigrate to  find work and take their children with them for a better school education, everything is going round in circles!

But there is also progress!

In 2012, the Bulgarian parliament passed a declaration that the Bulgarian State officially recognizes the crimes against the Bulgarian Turks and Muslims during the communist era!

And in some cities, such as the capital Sofia, the “economic” progress is booming … The metro has been extensively expanded and in 2013, 10 new shopping malls were opened in Sofia alone! In Plovdiv, in parts of the New Town you feel like in one of the hipster districts of Berlin and with the creation of a National Nanotechnology Research and Development Center in Sofia the country is at the top of this field in Europe.

Yes, and also the possession of status symbols such as expensive cell phones and flashy SUVs probably exceeds that of many richer EU countries. At the Black Sea coast, you’ll  certainly see more fancy cars than in Stuttgart and Munich together.

There still seems to be a lot of work waiting for the Bulgarians to create acceptable living conditions for everybody in their country and we keep our fingers crossed that this will succeed, because you can really feel how much positive energy there is in the Bulgarians!!