Modern history



WHILE THE BANAT was being discussed, the possibility of making it part of a complicated series of land deals was floated by, of all people, the Americans. If Rumania got more of the Banat, then it might be willing to give back some of the territory that it had seized in 1913 from Bulgaria, its neighbor to the southwest; Bulgaria might then be willing to give up some pieces of land to Yugoslavia, which would then be happier about losing some of the Banat.1 Not surprisingly, this came to nothing. Rumania and Yugoslavia were in no mood to compromise.

Bulgaria, the one Balkan nation to have fought on the side of the Germans and Austrians, was of course not represented at the Peace Conference. Nevertheless, it came surprisingly close to gaining rather than losing territory. It had some friends, particularly in the United States, and even its enemies were halfhearted. Moreover, the principle of self-determination was in its favor; Bulgarians were in a majority in at least two areas outside the country: in the southern Dobrudja, along the west coast of the Black Sea; and in western Thrace at the top of the Aegean. It is also possible, as the Bulgarians argued, that they were in a majority in the parts of Macedonia belonging to Yugoslavia, but, as so often in the Balkans, establishing this was extraordinarily difficult.

It was not clear what made a Bulgarian. Not religion, because, while most Bulgarian speakers were Orthodox, some were Muslim. Race possibly, but were they Slavs, or nomads from Asia, or a mixture? And how were they different from Serbs and Macedonians? Their languages, after all, were very alike. Bulgarian nationalism was as new a growth as the others in the Balkans, newer perhaps because Bulgarians had lived under Ottoman rule since the fourteenth century, longer than any other Balkan nation. In the 1870s, they had finally revolted. Gladstone had made some of his greatest speeches when the Ottomans had massacred them by the thousands. But by 1919, Bulgarians were seen in western Europe less as victims than as unreliable thugs.2

From the time it first came into existence as a modern state, Bulgaria had been fluctuating like a Balkan amoeba. In 1878 a huge, autonomous Bulgaria had emerged out of the Ottoman empire, reaching westward to the borders of Albania and down to the head of the Aegean. That was too much, both for its neighbors and for the Great Powers. Serbia grabbed much of Macedonia, and Greece western Thrace. The Ottomans managed to hang on to eastern Thrace. After a short-lived expansion in 1912, Bulgaria lost the southern Dobrudja to Rumania. Recovering the losses became part of the Bulgarian national dream, along with that golden age in the tenth century when Bulgaria touched the Adriatic in the west and the Black Sea in the east.

If the Rumanians were the Neapolitans of the Balkans, the Bulgarians, some five million of them in 1919, were the lowland Scots. Dour, hardworking, thrifty and taciturn, they had a reputation for stubbornness. As a local proverb had it, “The Bulgarian will hunt the hare in an ox-cart, and catch him.”3 In the Great War, the hare Bulgaria wanted above all else was Macedonia, a goal that was shared by their king, an ambitious and wily German prince known to Europe as Foxy Ferdinand. Possession of Macedonia would give them control not only of the Aegean coast but also of the valleys and railways that linked central Europe with the south and the Middle East. After some calculation, Ferdinand and his government decided that the Central Powers offered the better deal and so in the autumn of 1915 Bulgaria attacked Serbia. The Allies declared war. Bulgaria enjoyed a brief period of success, during which it seized the southern Dobrudja and much of Macedonia, but by 1918 its armies, short of weapons and food, could no longer fight. Bulgaria was the first of the Central Powers to surrender.

With Bulgaria’s defeat, Ferdinand abdicated and went back to his considerable estates in Austria-Hungary and to bird-watching, his one great passion in life apart from his mother. His successor was his son Boris, a thin and unhappy young man. Boris’s main pleasure was driving trains; engine drivers on the Orient Express were warned not to let him anywhere near the cab. The young king’s new subjects thought him a fool or worse; most observers did not think he would last long on the throne, a view he himself shared. The Allies fretted from a distance. Would Bulgaria go communist? What if it refused to sign a peace treaty? As the British military representative pointed out in the summer of 1919, “the Allies had no troops, and, if a national uprising were provoked, it would be impossible to stop it.”4

Much depended on the flamboyant figure of Alexander Stamboliski, “like a brigand, moving through a blackberry bush” in the view of a British observer. The leading republican in Bulgaria, Stamboliski was the opposite of Boris in every way: powerful, crude, self-confident and energetic. He did an hour of gymnastics a day in his little farmhouse. Unlike Boris, he was not remotely in awe of Ferdinand. When Bulgaria was tilting toward Germany and Austria-Hungary, he had not only attacked the king in a private audience but had published the details in his paper, for which he was sent to prison.5

Stamboliski gloried in his peasant background. Although he had gone to university in Germany, his language was vivid with bulls mating and chickens clucking. He was not, as many suspected, a communist, but rather a peasant socialist, suspicious of both communism and capitalism; this was an appealing combination in a country where there were many small farmers. He articulated their suspicions of townspeople and the upper classes. “Who sent you to the trenches?” he asked. “They did. Who made you lose Macedonia, Thrace and Dobrudja?”6

In September 1918, as the Bulgarian armies collapsed, Ferdinand, in one of his last acts, sent for his old enemy. Stamboliski calmed the mutinous soldiers. By the following autumn he was prime minister. Curiously, he made no move to abolish the monarchy, perhaps because he had developed a soft spot for the “kinglet” Boris. The truth was, Bulgaria could not afford further upheavals. The Turks and the Bulgarians had loathed each other for years. Rumania had troops on the northern border and was preparing to move south. Greece was massing troops on the southern border and complaining about Bulgarian crimes, including the theft of cows. Only Yugoslavia offered some hope for friendship. An old dream that Serbia and Bulgaria might form a great South Slav state was not completely dead in either country. (Indeed, it was revived by Marshal Tito after the Second World War.) Still, it was an unpropitious time to talk of Slavic unity, given the way the Bulgarians had behaved during the war, first attacking Serbia in a pincer movement with Austria-Hungary and Germany, and then ravaging Serbian lands. At one point in 1919, the Serbians and the Greeks talked about waging a war against Bulgaria, an idea firmly vetoed by Clemenceau.7

Surprisingly, the Bulgarians awaited the start of the Peace Conference with considerable optimism. The American representative in Sofia found their view “peculiar”: they somehow considered themselves one of the Allies. “They realize that they committed a ‘crime,’ as the Prime Minister called it, but once having admitted this fact, they seem to think that this is the end of the matter, and cannot seem to understand why there should be any hard feeling or resentment among the Allies towards Bulgaria, or why there is anything to prevent Bulgaria from resuming her pre-war position as ‘The Spoiled Child of the Balkans.’” Artlessly, the Bulgarian prime minister admitted that his country had made a huge mistake in joining Germany and Austria: “Bulgaria would never have gone into the war if it had realized that it would have to come into conflict with England and the great powers.” The Bulgarian people themselves had always opposed their wartime alliance, which had been imposed on them by “a small band of unscrupulous politicians in the pay of Germany.” The victorious Allies, in fact, owed Bulgaria a debt of gratitude for suing for an armistice and thus starting the process that ended the war.8

The Bulgarian government put particular faith in one power: the United States. Wilson was, it was said, widely admired by Bulgarians; in particular, they liked his principle of self-determination. This was shrewd: Bulgaria was not formally at war with the United States, and Americans were generally sympathetic, encouraged by the enthusiastic lobbying of American missionaries from the Protestant Board. (It was suggested by a cynic that the latter were uniformly pro-Bulgarian because Bulgaria was the only Balkan country where they had enjoyed any success.) American experts favored giving Bulgaria access to the Aegean, the southern Dobrudja and perhaps part of Macedonia. Bulgaria itself would have settled for even more. Like the other defeated nations—Germany, Austria, Hungary and Turkey—it was anxious to see the terms of its treaty. The government sent a memorandum to Paris with its demands, which included the whole of Thrace; “unreal and unworthy of its subject” was the view in the British delegation.9

Bulgaria’s southern boundaries could not be decided until a peace was worked out with the Ottoman empire, which was clearly not going to happen for some time. As far as Macedonia was concerned, the Allies eventually decided that they had enough to do without worrying about that unhappy, much disputed piece of territory. The British and the French agreed that it was dangerous to start meddling with borders established in the Balkans before 1914. Macedonia was left alone, even though this would leave a considerable number of Bulgarians under Yugoslav rule.

The British and the French might have been persuaded to break their own rule (as they later did when they took western Thrace from Bulgaria and gave it to Greece) if they had felt Bulgaria deserved it. They did not. When Yugoslavia claimed territory on Bulgaria’s western frontier to protect crucial railway lines and Belgrade itself against future attack, the British and the French were prepared to listen. The Italians, hostile to Yugoslavia, objected. Italian soldiers in the Allied occupying forces apparently let Bulgarian prisoners escape, dragged their feet on disarming the Bulgarian army and even supplied it with weapons. Eventually, over Italian objections, four pieces of territory, mainly inhabited by Bulgars, were handed over to Yugoslavia—not as much as it wanted, but too much for Bulgaria, which complained bitterly that it had lost all the strategic points in the mountains dividing the two countries.10

The southern Dobrudja caused even greater bitterness. The Americans insisted that the Peace Conference deal with its ownership. On ethnic grounds, Bulgaria’s claim was much stronger than Rumania’s. The population was mixed: largely Tatars, Turks, Bulgarian-speaking Muslims and Christian Bulgarians, who were probably in a slight majority. There were fewer than 10,000 Rumanians out of a population of almost 300,000. Rumania nevertheless managed to hang on to it at the Peace Conference, partly because the issue was small and unimportant in the context of its other demands. And, as so often happened, facts had been created on the ground: by the time the Peace Conference opened, the French military authorities in the occupation forces had allowed Rumanian troops and civilian officials to take control of the area.11

The Bulgarian delegation, including Stamboliski, was summoned to Paris in July 1919 although their treaty was not ready. For two and half dreary months they sat in their hotel, an old castle in the suburb of Neuilly, under police guard. They were forbidden to go into Paris, their mail was censored and they were not allowed visitors. In a plaintive letter to Clemenceau they complained that the French press was attacking Bulgarians “as a barbarous people, unworthy of the confidence and friendship of civilized nations.”12Sadly for Bulgaria, the United States, the only power to support its claim to the Dobrudja, was disengaging itself from Europe and European affairs by the time the issue came up for negotiation. The American delegates who stayed on in Paris after the signing of the Versailles treaty doggedly argued their case through the summer of 1919, but they no longer had much leverage over the European powers, who held, as Balfour put it in his usual detached fashion, that although Rumania should properly give up a piece of territory “which was clearly not Rumanian,” it was not the time to make such a request.13

When the draft treaty was finally delivered in September, the delegation had much more to complain about. Bulgaria lost about 10 percent of its land, including the southern Dobrudja and what it still had of western Thrace, along with its access to the Aegean. (The Allies took over Thrace temporarily, but Greece, which had come to Paris with a long shopping list, had every hope of getting hold of it.) Bulgaria was to pay reparations of £90 million. (Since the annual payments taken together with the country’s foreign debts were more than the annual budget, Bulgaria eventually defaulted on both.) Finally the armed forces were severely slashed; the army was to be a mere police force of 20,000. When the details of the treaty were published, there was a national day of mourning in Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian delegation begged for modifications, arguing that since the overthrow of Ferdinand it had become a new, democratic country, just like France after its revolution. The Allies paid little attention; almost their only concession was to allow Bulgaria to maintain a small flotilla of lightly armed boats on the Danube. There was talk in Bulgaria of resistance but Stamboliski, a realist, said that he would sign “even a bad peace.” On November 27, 1919, a simple ceremony took place in the old town hall in Neuilly. Guards with fixed bayonets lined the stairway and a curious crowd waited for the Bulgarians to appear. Stamboliski, pale and apprehensive, entered alone. It looked, said a sympathetic American, “as if the office boy had been called in for a conference with the board of directors.” Among the observers was the Greek prime minister, Venizelos, “endeavouring not to look too pleased.” Clemenceau presided from a table covered in green baize, and the signing was over quickly. In Athens there was a public holiday. In Sofia there was glum resignation.14

Earlier that month, Stamboliski had made a desperate appeal to Venizelos for their two countries to cooperate: “Of all the statesmen in the Balkans, your excellency is the best able to appreciate the great efficacy of an understanding among the Balkan peoples.”15Venizelos, bent on his dream of a greater Greece and secure in his support from Britain, did not listen. The following year, western Thrace was given to Greece. Bulgaria’s southern boundaries were not finally settled until a lasting treaty with Turkey was signed in 1923, by which time Venizelos, and his dream, had run up against reality.

Stamboliski turned out to be something of a statesman. Bulgaria accepted its new borders and renounced its old expansionist policies, even in Yugoslavian Macedonia. He went further, mending relations with Yugoslavia and signing an agreement to cooperate against terrorists; he duly cracked down on the Macedonian terrorists who were turning Sofia into their fiefdom. He started to build a Green International of peasant parties to counter the new Communist International founded by the Soviet Russians. Bulgaria became an enthusiastic member of the League of Nations. But Stamboliski’s foreign and domestic policies also made him many enemies: Bulgarian nationalists, army officers, Macedonian terrorists, the middle classes suffering from inflation and high taxes, possibly the king himself. In June 1923, there was a coup; Stamboliski was killed by Macedonian conspirators who first cut off the hand which had signed the antiterrorist agreement with Yugoslavia. “The poor great man,” murmured the king when he heard. 16

The moderate approach to foreign affairs taken by Stamboliski did not long outlast his death. Too many Bulgarians looked back longingly at the great Bulgaria of earlier decades; they resented the Treaty of Neuilly and were infuriated by the treatment of their compatriots by Rumania, Greece and Yugoslavia. The Macedonian terrorists continued to operate from Bulgarian soil with virtual impunity, worsening relations with both Greece and Yugoslavia. Attempts in the early 1930s to get a general Balkan agreement respecting existing boundaries foundered on Bulgaria’s refusal. The result was an agreement among Yugoslavia, Greece, Turkey and Rumania that left Bulgaria isolated. As Europe drifted toward war again, Bulgaria tilted to the German camp. In 1940, under pressure from Germany, Rumania handed back the southern Dobrudja. In the spring of 1941, Bulgarian troops, fighting with the Germans and the Italians, occupied Macedonia and western Thrace. Bulgaria did not enjoy its recovered territories for long; under the settlements of 1947 it kept only the southern Dobrudja. By that time its new communist regime was firmly in place. Boris was long dead—poisoned, many believed, by the Nazis. Foxy Ferdinand, however, died peacefully in Germany in 1948, at the age of eighty-seven. 17

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!