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The War to Remember and Forget

In some ways World War I killed Bulgaria’s last, best dream, but it doesn’t have to stay dead.

by Boyko Vassilev 3 July 2014

Atop the gate leading to Vienna’s Hofburg Palace march a series of laurel wreaths with inscriptions so small they can be read only with a magnifying glass.


Four of them contain the names of the royals from the Central Powers who fought World War I together – Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany, Sultan Mehmed V of the Ottoman Empire, and Tsar Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Those were the losers of conflict that brought the greatest carnage Europe had encountered so far, outshone only later by World War II. This year we commemorate its centenary.


Considering the present status of Bulgaria, the Hofburg inscriptions are striking. Bulgaria is treated as a first-rate ally of three much bigger empires. Likely never again will it achieve such prominence on the world stage.


Yet the 100th anniversary of World War I barely strikes a chord with Bulgarians. They do not call it “the Great War,” as Serbs do. Nor do they have a special commemorative symbol like Britain’s poppy.


Such indifference for a war that claimed the lives of 100,000 Bulgarians and wounded 160,000 more. A whole generation suffered a wound that did not heal, although in the losing cause Bulgaria’s military achieved some astonishing victories. One of the greatest – forgotten to most Bulgarians – was General Vladimir Vazov’s defense of Doiran against the Entente. Some 20 years later Vazov was invited to a commemoration ceremony in London, a rare act of respect for a former enemy in interwar Europe.


Besides the bravery of soldiers, there was the enormity of defeat. This was the second of three great national catastrophes, between the Second Balkan War and World War II, and it was particularly painful. For the first time since the country’s 19th-century Renaissance, Bulgarians were divided. Disgruntled soldiers staged an uprising in 1918, which was violently put down. Shortly thereafter began a long period of civil strife began that many say has not yet ended.


That is the main reason Bulgarians should think deeper about 1914. Why did Sofia go to war? Yes, it suffered the injustice of the Second Balkan War in 1913 – and sought to retake territory from Serbia and Greece. But did it have another choice? Was neutrality an option? And didn’t political shortsightedness and extremism in the media match soldiers’ bravery?


The answers to those questions are not always flattering for Bulgarians, so they do not indulge in commemorations.


Or perhaps they instinctively understand the loss was deeper than a military defeat. Those were the last years Bulgarians shared a dream of national unification. That ended disastrously in 1918, and since then some Bulgarians have opted not to dream at all.


In the beginning of 20th century Bulgaria was the most industrialized and the most economically and financially developed Balkan nation. Sofia pursued industrialization on a large scale, using textile production from the Ottoman period as a base for development. The capital city took on a European cast, with Secessionist facades and yellow street nameplates. Henry Kissinger once noted that before World War I Bulgaria had a bigger army than the United States. Oxford professor Richard Crampton, the best British historian on Bulgaria, recalls the judgment of an esteemed predecessor, R.W. Seton-Watson, in calling Bulgaria “the great island of stability in the Balkans in the 1900s.”


All that burned up in the flames of the Great War. Since then, Bulgaria has gradually descended into a second-rate country, which some historians say accounts for the otherwise inexplicable Bulgarian pessimism I have often written about in this column. People who lack confidence can easily think that every effort is doomed. “You could have a victim complex, or you could have a victor complex,” Crampton says. “And I think probably Bulgaria has more of a victim complex or attitude toward history.”


That’s why it’s important to study the lessons of World War I. Everybody speaks these days, with a good reason, about the ills of terrorism, extremism, and ethnic hatred. Some of the experts I have spoken to (notably Vienna-based Swiss historian Oliver Schmitt and the Habsburg dynasty’s heir, Karl von Habsburg) would add the imperfections of postwar peace accords, which distinguished between good guys and bad guys – and helped to trigger World War II.


All this is important for the Balkans today, especially for Bosnia, where the bad blood from recent conflicts split the World War I commemoration along Serbian and Bosnian/European lines. Yet Bulgaria has a lesson of its own. It should end its inner civil war, which began with the defeat of 1918 and the crushing of the Renaissance ideal. A first step would be to consider what the country has achieved in the last decades. To say the least, Sofia has waged no war and joined the European Union. For many Bulgarians that might be small consolation for the hardships of transition, but many others in southeastern Europe would dream of it.


To borrow Crampton’s words, “Bulgaria got a very raw deal from modern history. But it is not condemned to instability.”


Bulgarian pessimism can spoil even things like financial stability and a sound banking system, or a pro-EU consensus and orientation toward the West. Bulgarians should trust themselves – and mobilize their last drops of energy to achieve balance and progress.


Here, another commemoration could help. These days Bulgaria is celebrating 20 years since its soccer team took fourth place in the 1994 World Cup in the United States. Paradoxically, the team of Hristo Stoichkov and Emil Kostadinov embodied the national consensus that World War I had damaged. Educated in the disciplined, state-sponsored system of communist sport, these boys enjoyed the first wave of freedom and opportunity that an opening to the West provided, with clubs like FC Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Bulgarian players surprised the world with their feel-good approach and their sheer pleasure in togetherness.


Is it possible to repeat this not just in soccer, but in everyday life? Bulgarians doubt it, but I am perhaps the country’s last optimist. True, perhaps no Bulgarian leader will again achieve such fame as to have his name inscribed on the Hofburg gate, but surely an economic upsurge to rival the pre-World War I years is possible. If only the past serves as a template for a better future.

Boyko Vassilev is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.

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