Bulgaria recently celebrated the 80th anniversary of the State rescuing 48,000 Jews from deportation and death in Nazi concentration camps. On the surface, this reads like a nation-affirming narrative. But Ildiko Otova argues that the celebrations were merely another attempt to construct a mythology of Holocaust distortion
There is a significant event in Bulgarian political history, known as 'the Rescue'. It recently resurfaced in popular consciousness because of a ceremony to mark its 80th anniversary.
In late 1940, Bulgaria's government passed a 'Law for Protection of the Nation', which came into force in January 1941. The law enforced anti-Jewish measures, including compulsory labour-camp service for men. Pursuant to its agreement with allied Germany, in early 1943, the Bulgarian government prepared for the deportation of the Jewish population.
However, a group of parliamentarians, church leaders, public figures and citizens pressed the government to countermand the decision. The government remitted the deportation and, as a result, a great proportion of Bulgarian Jewry survived. Around 48,000 Jews, holders of Bulgarian citizenship and originating from the 'old' (pre-1941) State boundaries, were given leave to remain.
Despite numerous documents proving it authorised the deportation of Jews to Treblinka, the Bulgarian State has adamantly refused to admit responsibility
Yet, this decision excluded Jewish people from the occupied territories who did not enjoy Bulgarian citizenship. The fate of these Bulgarian Jews was different. 11,343 Jews from the 'new' territories – areas annexed from Yugoslavia and Greece and under Bulgarian occupation – were deported and killed in Treblinka.
Despite numerous documents proving that it was responsible for this deportation, the Bulgarian State has adamantly refused to recognise it. Not a single state or political leader has officially admitted responsibility. Rather, the State has consistently mythologised the Rescue as a separate entity from the ‘non-rescue’. In fact, the two are integral parts of the same story.
The Rescue myth came into being during the period of state socialism, and it served as a cover for the malefactions of the totalitarian regime. It escalated into a veritable propaganda campaign in the 1980s, with the enforced compulsory assimilation of Bulgarian citizens of Turkish descent.
After 1989, the Rescue narrative was uppermost in the construction of a positive image of Bulgaria. This vindication of the State continued in the 2000s through the governments of the National Movement of Simeon II (NDSV) and the Tripartite Coalition (NDSV, Bulgarian Socialist Party, Movement for Rights and Liberties). Significantly, NDSV was the first major populist project on the political scene. Its successor – Citizens for European development of Bulgaria (GERB) – continued the effort after 2008.
The mythologising of the Rescue was particularly evident while GERB ruled in coalition with the national-populist alignment United Patriots. The idea of Bulgaria's 'saviour' also underwent different personifications. From communist leader Zhivkov, through civil society to Boris III – the saviour's identity was contingent upon the political status quo and propaganda necessities.
One perverse interpretation claims that the Bulgarian army was the nation's ‘rescuer’. This was a narrative that former military minister and Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation (VMRO) leader Krasimir Karakachanov, along with President Rumen Radev, both helped to promote. According to this narrative, the army saved Bulgarian Jewry from deportation and death by forcing Jews into labour camps. They back this theory with a book by a retired member of the military. Its publications were financed by the GERB representative in the European Parliament's Group of the European People's Party, and by an Israeli arms company.
Political instability in Bulgaria since 2021 has crystallised into the de-facto anti-constitutional presidential regime of Rumen Radev. The 80th celebration of the Rescue took place in the context of a populist leader in power with an undisguised lust for authoritarianism.
An initiative committee for the celebration was founded under Radev's patronage. Numerous statements indicated that the celebrations would follow the line of State exoneration – even claiming that the rescuer was the State itself. The government mobilised numerous speakers to propagate this thesis. These included supporters of Radev, representing various pro-Russian circles, as well as prominent critics of Radev on issues such as the war in Ukraine. Some speakers had affiliations with far-right groups. These differing groups united in a post-political populist consensus to glorify Bulgaria as the rescuer.
Wildly differing political groups managed to unite in a populist consensus to glorify Bulgaria as 'the rescuer'
On the eve of the anniversary celebrations, a group of Bulgarian intellectuals issued a declaration, covered by independent news media but, tellingly, not by the Bulgarian News Agency. The declaration emphatically criticised the position of the State and its mouthpieces. It also appealed to Bulgaria's government to acknowledge the truth and offer an apology. Undoubtedly a bold act by Bulgarian public figures, the declaration was supported by Jewish organisations, including B'nai B'rith Bulgaria.
On the day, Radev celebrated the Rescue alongside Simeon of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha but without a single representative of the Bulgarian Jewish community in attendance. Some community members disclosed on social media that the Presidential administration had pressurised them, in vain, to take part.
Populism always puts the terminology of the 'people' to good use. The 'people' are morally pure, in opposition to a corrupt 'elite'. In this context, Bulgarian people have been cast as 'rescuers'; champions of morality. This rewriting of history vindicates the nation-state. The elite become externalised: the Germans are to blame, not Bulgarians or the Bulgarian State.
Bulgaria's populist government has rewritten history to vindicate the nation-state. The Germans, not Bulgarians, are to blame
Populism often blurs horizontal distinctions; the right-left axis, for example. The Rescue has been politicised via a top-level agreement between political actors of very different views. Otherwise strongly polarised, the Rescue brings these actors together in a populist, nationalist and post-political consensus.
Just as in Bulgaria’s national dish, the Shopska salad, different ideological currents are intermixed. And the analogy doesn't end there. Bulgarians' culinary pride is not, in fact, authentic. Shopska salad was invented by communist Bulgaria's tourist machine purely to showcase the white, green and red of the national flag. Bulgarians should know the truth about their national dish, just as they should know the truth about the (non) Rescue.