Bulgaria in World War II
In Bulgaria’s muggy capital of Sofia during August 1939 Tsar Boris III thought about his future and that of his Balkan nation. Bulgaria is small and weak; how do we stay independent? How does Bulgaria recover territories lost earlier in the century? And how do I stay in power?
He ruled jointly with a popularly elected parliament, but who or what was popular in Bulgaria was far from certain in 1939. Elites and the military favored ties with Nazi Germany. The people felt closer to Russia. The nationalists and communists each sought power. Everyone wanted revenge.
Boris could lose his throne if he chose the wrong power or lost his internal support, but if forced to choose, he would bet on Germany. Why couldn’t Germany and the Soviet Union just be friends? And then they were—or at least they signed the German-Soviet nonaggression pact in late August. World War II broke out in Europe days later when Germany invaded Poland.
The Western Allied powers, France and England, exerted pressure on Bulgaria, demanding that the Tsar declare neutrality, which he did on September 16th. The fall of France in June 1940 brought an end to Allied pressures, but created new ones. Germany had not hesitated to invade neutral Belgium, a nation with an army about the size of Bulgaria’s but better equipped, and Bulgaria could no longer point to Italy as an example of a pro-German neutral.
Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov in late June demanded the return of lands lost to Bulgaria’s neighbor Romania. When Hitler sided with Molotov, Romania, without a friend in the world, was forced to give in.
Like Molotov, Tsar Boris wanted the return of lands lost to Romania, which had taken Southern Dobruja, part of the coastal region between the mouth of the Danube River and the Bulgarian city of Varna, in 1919. If Bulgaria’s claim remained unsettled, Boris might not stay in power. He threatened to have Moscow force the Romanians to give up Southern Dobruja if the Germans did not do so first. Hitler made the Romanians sign a treaty with Bulgaria in September 1940, however, and amid cheering crowds, Bulgarian infantry and cavalry occupied the territory without firing a shot. Bulgarian support for the Axis grew.
In November, Tsar Boris traveled to Germany where Hitler urged him to join the Tripartite Pact. The Tsar played for time, making excuses about upsetting the Soviet Union and Turkey and pointing out Bulgaria’s weak armed forces, but he worried that Hitler would not continue to honor Bulgarian neutrality.
The Soviet Foreign Ministry countered by offering to support Bulgarian claims to Greek Thrace and much of European Turkey. The Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) distributed handbills and urged popular support for the Soviet proposal. Resenting the intrusion, Boris moved farther from the Soviets.
The war moved closer and closer to Bulgaria that fall. Italy invaded Greece but soon bogged down in the Greek mountains. The Tsar allowed a few German engineers to enter his country to make logistical preparations for a German invasion of Greece via Bulgaria, and Luftwaffe personnel in disguise set up observation posts. Finally, reluctantly, Boris joined the Axis on March 1, 1941.
He brought little to the table: twenty-five infantry divisions comprised the bulk of the Bulgarian army, with few tanks to support them; the tiny navy was obsolete, and so was the air force, except for some Bf109E models supplied by Germany.
In joining the Axis, Boris hoped Yugoslavia would join as well, even if it retained Macedonia and gained Greek Thrace as a condition of signing. Yugoslavia did sign, but its people immediately overthrew the government.
Hitler invaded both Yugoslavia and Greece on April 6, 1941, with his Twelfth Army using Bulgaria as a springboard, and crushed both nations. Though Bulgaria’s military took no active part in the invasions, Bulgarian troops occupied zones in both Macedonia and Greek Thrace, a territory Bulgarians called Belomorie. Macedonians initially welcomed their fellow Slav Bulgarians, but the new arrivals proceeded to “Bulgarize” the region, causing mass resentment.
Bulgarian occupation in Belomorie proved much harsher than in Macedonia. The 10th Infantry Division initially occupied Belomorie, joined by the 16th a few months later, plus some small artillery and cavalry units. Greeks who refused “Bulgarization” were deported or murdered. The Bulgarians took over businesses and brought in Bulgarian settlers for confiscated lands.
The Greeks revolted after just a few months. Executions were employed to put down the revolt—estimates run as high as 15,000—and Greeks fled in exodus to German-occupied portions of Greece. Conspiracy theorists claim Bulgaria instigated the revolt.
Bulgarian rejoicing ended with Hitler’s invasion of Russia in June. Tsar Boris turned down Hitler’s request to form a volunteer Bulgarian Legion; declaring war on Russia might set off a mass rebellion. Boris also rebuffed the Fuhrer’s request that Bulgarian volunteers join the SS. He did send a medical team to the Eastern Front. The BKP made some small efforts at assassination and sabotage, but Boris remained in full control of Bulgaria.
Under pressure from Hitler, the Tsar implemented a number of anti-Semitic measures, sending over 11,000 Jews living in Bulgarian-occupied territories of Macedonia and Belomorie to the Nazi concentration camp of Treblinka, where almost all perished. Hitler also wanted Bulgarian Jews, however. The Tsar placed them in labor camps and villages from which they were to be deported, but the deportation never occurred. Most sources credit the Tsar and his wife, Princess Giovanna of Savoy, for preventing it, saving some 50,000 Jews.
Bulgaria and the Soviet Union maintained diplomatic relations, and Russian diplomatic missions in Bulgaria served as intelligence centers. Russia attempted to infiltrate agents into the country, but alert police captured most of them and arrested much of the BKP leadership.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hitler demanded that Bulgaria declare war on the United States and Great Britain as Germany had done. Boris did so reluctantly and grew despondent. He considered abdicating or even committing suicide, but he soldiered on and convinced Hitler that the Bulgarian Army should remain in the Balkans as a counter to Turkish threats or a Soviet invasion of Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast.
Bulgaria and Italy disputed their respective occupation zones in Macedonia. Clashes occurred in August 1942 between Italian troops and elements of Bulgaria’s 14th Infantry Division. Negotiations did not resolve the matter, and Bulgaria occupied the disputed territory when Mussolini’s government fell in 1943.
The German defeat at Stalingrad brought a sea change. Various Bulgarian representatives clandestinely put out peace feelers to the Western Allies but insisted on keeping the country’s territorial gains, a non-starter with the Allies, who insisted on unconditional surrender.
Hitler knew about the peace feelers but did nothing. He wanted and got Bulgaria to move an additional two divisions into northern Greece and Albania to free up German troops for the Eastern Front.
The weak Bulgarian Air Force could not help the Luftwaffe repel Allied bombing of Romanian oilfields that started in 1943, but Bulgarian flak gunners shot down three Allied bombers returning from the first raid on Ploesti.
The Tsar faced a growing internal threat by mid-1943. The Russian-backed BKP started partisan activities, and the government responded harshly, offering rewards for the heads of partisans. The Bulgarian Fifth Army in Macedonia dealt mercilessly with partisans, as well.
On August 28th, the 49-year old Tsar Boris died, two weeks after returning from a meeting Hitler had summoned him to. Conspiracy theories abounded, but none could be proven, and most likely the cause of death was an embolism. He was replaced by a regency representing the underage Tsar Simeon II.
Allied air raids on Sofia began in earnest in late 1943. Bulgarian pilots flying mostly obsolete fighters were no match for Americans piloting P-38s. A strike by almost 100 B-25s created a panic in Sofia. Raids over the next several months killed over a thousand Bulgarians, and many fled the capital. Citizens cursed the government and regretted joining the Axis. Small scale BKP partisan activities grew and spread to the countryside.
The Allied bombing caused Bulgaria to intensify its secret peace efforts. The government expected to keep its territorial gains and wanted Western forces to occupy Bulgaria to prevent German reprisals. The Allies were happy to have German forces tied up in Bulgaria, however, and insisted on unconditional surrender. The Bulgarian government decided to wait and see if a better offer would be made. It never was.
The situation grew dire as the Soviet Army drew near. Bulgaria ceded to Soviet demands to reduce cooperation with Germany, ordering German ships to leave Bulgarian ports. The Germans attempted to shore up the Bulgarian Army with a shipment of assault guns and Mark IV tanks in the hope that it would help defend the Balkans.
The Russian Army tore across the Romanian border on August 20th, 1944, and Romania’s fascist government was overthrown in a coup within days. Bulgaria, seeing clearly which way the hurricane was blowing, announced it was leaving the war. The Gestapo was expelled from the country, German stragglers from Romania were rounded up, and all German troops were ordered to leave Bulgaria by the end of August.
The Germans continued withdrawing from Bulgaria, but on September 4th they surrounded and forced the surrender of most of the Bulgarian Fifth Army in Macedonia. Only two units offered brief resistance, and Bulgarian troops not captured quickly withdrew from the region.
Bulgarians went into collective shock when Russia declared war on September 5, 1944. The Soviet Union planned to occupy Bulgaria and create a communist state. The BKP and their sympathizers came out of the shadows. Some small army units joined BKP partisans, and strikes broke out across the country. With German troops still in Bulgaria and no declaration of war on Germany, it was easy for the BKP to label the Bulgarian government as fascist.
Bulgaria broke diplomatic relations with Germany on the 7th and declared war on the Nazi state the next day, but it was too little, too late. When Russian troops crossed into Bulgaria on the 8th, the government ordered the army not to resist. Some units such as the 4th Border Brigade stationed in Varna, defected to the BKP. Others revolted, including the 24th Infantry Regiment.
The government no longer had anyone’s confidence. With the Soviet forces halted outside Sofia, the BKP, supported by defecting soldiers and partisans, seized power, giving the appearance that the government’s overthrow was a popular rebellion instead of a Soviet-backed coup.
The BKP extracted its revenge, executing thousands of Bulgarians. The army’s rank and file were spared, as the Russians wanted a Bulgarian army to fight the Germans in the Balkans. The army, which had not done much fighting, now fought—political commissars equated willingness to die with fealty to the cause. Bulgaria lost 10,000 soldiers by the war’s end, from a population of just over six million.
Bulgaria lost all the occupied territories except Southern Dobruja, and suffered the misery of communist domination for over 40 years.
Tsar Boris managed to maintain his country as an autonomous state, unlike most other nations in Hitler’s Europe, but he was holding a losing hand. The West could not guarantee his country’s security in 1940—they barely were able to protect their own—nor could Russia guarantee it. Maintaining neutrality would have meant German occupation, would have sealed the fate of Bulgaria’s Jews, and might have also been the death of other Bulgarians, who were, after all, mere Slavs in Hitler’s eyes.
Boris played the hand he was dealt as well as he could and bought Bulgaria some time—but it was still ultimately a losing hand.
Hans Johnson is a freelance writer who lives in Florida.