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Bulgaria’s Long War Lesson

In this season of World War I remembrance, can the country finally reap a harvest of common sense, grown out of its 20th-century defeats?

by Boyko Vassilev 22 November 2018

This is the war Bulgarians should not have forgotten.


World War I brought disastrous consequences for almost every European country, but Bulgaria had an additional disadvantage in being among the losers. The Balkan country lost territory, over 100,000 men, and 2.25 billion gold francs in reparations. It faced hundreds of thousands of refugees and ruined relations with almost all of its neighbors.


And this was not all. Bulgaria saw its national dream broken, its Revival brought to a halt and its economic boom stymied. Substantial military victories in the wars after the country's liberation – in 1885, 1912, 1913, and 1917 – were nullified by unfortunate strategic decisions during World War I. The nation's energy had been dissipated. A deep inner rift opened, kicking off with a soldiers’ mutiny in 1918, and – some historians claim – starting a civil war which has lasted a hundred years and is still going on today.


These are things to remember. However, Bulgarians did not bother. The centenary of the end of World War I passed quietly, almost unmarked.


Maybe the reason is simple: defeats are difficult to commemorate, unless you are Germany. In the Balkans, one glorifies defeats only if they mystically turn into victories, such as the Battle of Kosovo Polje in 1389, where – according to legend – the Serb King Lazar chose victory in heaven instead of on earth.


However, at least Bulgarians did not see World War I as justification for “revanchism.” Later, in World War II, they also chose – or were forced to choose – the wrong side, so they could not celebrate that defeat, either.


The optimistic interpretation is that Bulgarians have learned their history lesson the hard way. After losing four wars in a row – the Second Balkan War in 1913, World War I, World War II, and the Cold War – and despite deriving both military success and fallen heroes from these wars, they understood the meaning of their own proverb: “Not everything which flies is to be eaten.”


It is well worth emphasizing the results of this lesson. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, Bulgaria defied nationalist passions and egoism. It was the first to recognize the independence of Macedonia – which was, incidentally, what Bulgaria fought for in World War I. Sofia actively supported every peaceful solution in the Balkans, without thinking of any benefit to itself. Later, after many defeats, EU membership came as a well-deserved victory. No surprise that Bulgarians are among the biggest Euro-optimists on the continent.


Yet they are not great optimists when they look at themselves. This is the negative legacy of World War I, that “Great War” which was never called “Great” in Bulgarian. Perhaps defeat in 1918 inflicted the pessimism which is typical of Bulgarians but which is otherwise difficult to explain.


Bulgarians lead in the polls for doom, and this is a real disadvantage in a world of enthusiasm, self-promotion, and the pursuit of happiness. Bulgarians are disproportionately inclined to emigrate, and if they don't, they tend to disavow the state, the system, and their future within it.


Perhaps this is just geopolitical fatigue. In World War I, Bulgaria allied itself with the Ottoman Empire and fought Russia, just 40 years after the later helped liberate Bulgaria from the Ottomans. That seemed to teach Bulgaria the lesson that robustly opposing Russia was wrong, and this was a line which Bulgarian society more or less followed through the 20th century; the Balkan country felt somehow ill at ease being allied with the West.


Enter now the country's inner conflict, a left-right dichotomy – or, more precisely, Russophiles versus pro-Westerners. Many countries have gone through this, from Spain to Greece. Yet the Bulgarian conflict has proven particularly virulent, infecting every generation with the same question: “Which side will prevail?” In a rare attempt to draw some lessons from the end of World War I, Bulgarian's current president, Rumen Radev, recently tried calling for unity. Yet the potential for substantial discussion was gradually lost in the debate over the political meaning of unity.


Additionally, Balkan countries have never dared to design a remembrance ritual comparable to the one first performed by France’s Francois Mitterrand and Germany’s Helmut Kohl at Verdun in 1984 – a ritual replicated this November by Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel at Compiegne. This is a pity. The Balkans have many things to forget and even more to commemorate.


But history is still fresher here than further west – and perhaps because of that, it does not make good headlines or nice family photos.


In all of this, perhaps there is something for Bulgaria to commemorate – its skepticism. Why not? Paid for through blood and defeats, this accumulation of common sense could be a matter of national pride. In the age of low expectations and high fliers, a history lesson, well learned, would definitely be worth celebrating.
Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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