27 June 2006

The Fate of Bulgaria's Jews during the Holocaust

Bulgaria illustrates the influence of prudent realpolitik at the highest levels of decision making and the absence of the impact of loss. Additionally, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church protested even the earliest introduction of anti-Jewish legislation....

Prudent realpolitik nevertheless was evident in the Bulgarian governmental decision to propitiate Nazi Germany in the hopes of immediate gain. And these hopes were realized. On February 15, 1940, the German-educated and strongly Germanophile Bogdan Filov was appointed premier by King Boris III, replacing the earlier moderately pro-Western Georgi Kyoseivanov.... Between August and December, the Law for the Defense of the Nation was prepared in the National Assembly and officially promulgated on January 23, 1941. The law defined precisely who was a Jew and proceeded to limit Jewish participation in the professions, property ownership, and even places of residence. During this period, the Germans interceded on behalf of Bulgarians in Vienna on September 7, 1940, at which time the Bulgarians received southern Dobrudja from Romania. In March 1941, Bulgaria ... assumed control of Thrace and Macedonia. As Nissan Oren comments: "In the main, the Law for the Protection of the Nation was to pave the way for the fast developing rapprochement with Germany and solidify Bulgaria's position within the Axis."

King Boris III, virtually the absolute authority since 1934, actually suggested the Law of the Defense of the Nation, remarking that such legislation had been imposed in Romania, Hungary, "and even France." ... Thus, with Nazi Germany in the political and military ascendancy throughout Europe, Bulgaria, a small, militarily insignificant country, demanded a prudent realpolitik in its foreign policy, lest it be overwhelmed by the much stronger European great power. In that event, the plight of the Jews would be far worse than the mild application of the Law of the Defense of the Nation. The territorial rewards were ample and the safeguards were significant.... Later in the war, in March 1943 after the massive German defeat at Stalingrad, Boris responded positively to the plight of the Jews, effectively preventing their deportation.

How did this state of affairs come about? More precisely, in addition to the diminishing threat of Nazi Germany and a required corresponding change in prudent realpolitik, what were the domestic circumstances that allowed Boris to essentially thwart Hitler's intention to eradicate Bulgarian Jewry?

The Bulgarian National Assembly is said to have been influential in mustering a protest against the deportations that led to their postponement and ultimate cancellation.... Boris was obviously influenced by this protest from a substantial portion of his own party's deputies. But even more important, and consistent with the demands of prudent realpolitik, the king "needed as much support as possible. He had to convince the Germans that his decision to stop or delay deportation was the result of a series of strong protests that ... could not be ignored."

At the same time, recent scholarship has shifted to an emphasis on one member of the National Assembly in particular, its vice chairman, Dimitar Peshev. It was he who organized the petition signed by one third of the government's own party members. When he heard of a roundup of Jews in his own electoral district, the town of Kyustendil, he acted....

Nevertheless, ... this is not the whole story.... When Bulgarians in Kyustendil heard of the arrests, they quickly made plans to send forty of their number to the National Assembly in Sofia. After deliberation, they chose only four, all non-Jews, to plead the case of their Jewish townspeople. Although Peshev had already heard of the arrests through other avenues, he was heartened by the concern of his non-Jewish constituents. Thus, in addition to the basic decency of the man and his supporters in the National Assembly, we must consider the milieu that made it possible. Why, in contrast to France and Romania, not to mention Germany, was Bulgaria so free of anti-Semitism that it could yield Peshev's success?

One answer, of course, is the absence of territorial loss and its accompanying refugee influx. Without the large numbers of refugees of like ethnoreligious identity, sympathy can actually be extended to others of a different identity, who, through no fault of their own, are subject to deportation and probably death.
In the end, Bulgaria's 45,000 Jews were not deported and survived the war, although Bulgaria had earlier deported 11,393 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia to Poland, where almost all perished. The demand for the earlier deportation was agreed to on 2 February 1943, before the news of the crushing German defeat at Stalingrad had been widely disseminated.

SOURCE: The Killing Trap: Genocide in the Twentieth Century, by Manus I. Midlarsky (Cambridge U. Press, 2005), pp. 326-330

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