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History Has Been Weaponized

References to Bulgaria in the Christchurch massacres have poisoned our national debate. We must disarm the radicals by removing history from their hands.

by Boyko Vassilev 22 March 2019

Sometimes shock is an understatement. To receive news of the murder of 50 people, including children, while at prayer; to learn that the killer had inscribed part of your history on his murderous weapon; and to find out that he had even visited your country just months before the atrocity – this brings the suffering in Christchurch, New Zealand, chillingly close to us, on the other side of the world.


Mention of Bulgaria in this sad context has fed into the Balkan nation's most recent and most fiery political debate – that of liberals vs. conservatives, or internationalists vs. nationalists.


In Bulgaria, public commentary and reactions came swiftly, but were often utterly misguided.


“Bulgaria has again been pinpointed as a source of evil; this is the start of a new anti-Bulgarian campaign!” some cried out. This is wrong. Nobody blames Bulgaria. And the Bulgarian references on the killer’s gun lie alongside references to people and places in Serbia, Montenegro, Armenia, Georgia, Canada, Vienna, medieval Venice, Romania, and other places.


“The killer had a consistent message and a plan for the Balkans!” This is also wrong. And even if it were true, it would be wrong to lend credibility to the intentions of a deranged and wicked mind by analyzing them.


“The visit to Bulgaria in November 2018 radicalized him.” This is wrong, too. Yes, he rented a car and visited about 10 Bulgarian towns. However, this was not an initiation, but rather an already-prepared, carefully executed pilgrimage. So far, the Bulgarian police have not been able to find any evidence of substantive contact with any local people. In a small country, it is impossible that this could have passed unnoticed.


We have also heard: “Only a Bulgarian nationalist could have told him about the three Bulgarian realia he inscribed: Shipka Pass, 1877-78 (where Russian troops and Bulgarian volunteers stopped an Ottoman advance), the Battle of Bulair, 1913 (a Bulgarian victory over the Ottomans in the Balkan Wars that preceded World War I), and Konstantin and Fruzhin (two Bulgarian princes, defeated by the Turks by the River Temska in 1408).”


We still do not have all the facts but this also rings false. Of the three “Bulgarian” events referenced by the killer, the last two would never have been the first to spring to mind, even for the most hardened Bulgarian nationalist. For one thing, they lie outside the borders of modern Bulgaria (Bulair is in Turkey and Temska in Serbia), and there is no evidence that he visited these places. Moreover, Temska was a defeat – and not even half as glorious as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, which is a rallying cry for Serb nationalists.


In other words, these Bulgarian historical connections are likely the result of a simple Google search, and I would hazard a guess that the same would apply to 90 percent of the killer’s historical “research.”


A possible exception might be the influence, on this Australian-born individual, of Australia's radical Balkan diaspora, which was inflamed by the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s. This could explain the murderer’s sympathy with war criminals like Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.


Let me be clear that we in Europe still bear the consequences of these wars, which had an immense human cost. These wars gave birth to the Balkan mafia, even in countries like Bulgaria, which had nothing to do with the fighting. The wars inflamed ancient hatred, without later easing that hatred with any acts of real catharsis, or even remorse.


In fact, all of these factors – wars and nationalism and white supremacy – all feed a psychology that did inform this killer: the great conspiracy mindset. Those affected by this mindset feel weak, as though they are mere victims of evil powers, but at the same time special, as though everyone in the world desires their land, their riches, their country. Conspiracy theorists see the world as a setting for sinister plots, and history as a never-ending fight between good and evil. This worldview then becomes the justification for aggression and violence.


This process is so old, so familiar, so proven – from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion forgery to Hitler’s mad quests for the Holy Grail. But today it is amplified by the power of the internet, through which a deranged person can easily find simplified history, like-minded fools, and inspiration for conspiracy.


What can we do? Not very much, I fear. However, we should strive to do our best. We should not feed the conspiracies. We should mock and discredit the conspirators. We should refrain from engaging in depth with their ideology, their intentions, their dreams.


We should preserve Balkan history in all its complexity. We should not simplify and use it for everyday politics and elections, let alone hand that history over to bigots.


And we should not call the thugs by name, just as I have not spoken the name of the killer of Friday, 15 March 2019. May Google remember his name. I will not.

Boyko Vassilev
 is a moderator and producer of the weekly Panorama news talk show on Bulgarian National Television.
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#PragueMediaPoint Conference for journalists, media professionals, and scholars

‚ÄčThe 2019 edition of Prague Media Point will highlight these types of inspiring examples and more. We will offer a mix of scholarly presentations, including keynote addresses; sessions with innovators explaining their solutions; and networking opportunities to promote the exchange of know-how. As in years past, the conference will have a special regional focus on Central and Eastern Europe, though we look forward to covering cases and trends from other parts of the world.



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This innovative approach to story telling gives voice to ordinary people and takes the reader on the virtual trip across Moldovan rural and urban landscapes. 

It is a unique and intimate map of the nation.


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