Author: Venelin I. Ganev Venelin I. Ganev obtained his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Chicago in 2000. After a year as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Notre Dame University, in 2001 he joined the Department of Political Science at Miami University of Ohio; since then he has also been a faculty associate of the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies. His main fields of interest are postcommunist politics, democratization studies, constitutionalism, and modern social theory. His publications have appeared in East European Constitutional Review, American Journal of Comparative Law, Journal of Democracy, East European Politics and Societies, Communist and Postcommunist Studies, Slavic Review and Europe-Asia Studies. He has also contributed chapters to several volumes that explore various aspects of institution-building in contemporary Europe. In 2003-4 Professor Ganev was a National Fellow at The Hoover Institution, Stanford University. His first book, Preying on the State: The Transformation of Postcommunist Bulgaria was pubslihed in June 2007 by Cornell University Press.
Communist hegemony in Bulgaria began on September 9th, 1944, when several hundred army officers and communist militiamen deposed the country’s government and handed power over to an anti-fascist coalition called the Fatherland Front (FF). The key factor that determined the success of this conspiracy was the presence of the Soviet Army, which had already entered Bulgarian territory on September 5th; it was the Soviet presence that also allowed the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) to emerge from relative obscurity and stake a claim for an absolute power.
Formed in 1903 after a schism between moderate social democrats and radical Marxist revolutionaries, BCP had failed to assert itself as an important player on the Bulgarian political scene. Its efforts to generate significant electoral support were unsuccessful, and its parliamentary influence never matched that of agrarian, social-democratic and nationalist parties. The leadership’s repeated calls for armed struggle against the “capitalist system” went largely unheeded, and even during the Second World War the total number of communists involved in clandestine anti-German activities did not exceed several thousand (compared to hundreds of thousands in neighboring Yugoslavia). All of that changed on September 9, 1944.
Nominally, the FF government represented a broad coalition that included, in addition to communists, agrarians, social-democrats and independents. In practice, however, the communists, buoyed by the logistical and political support of the Soviet Army, immediately took complete control over the state’s coercive mechanisms and began to terrorize their political rivals. Some of BCP’s leaders –like Georgi Dimitrov and Vulko Chervenkov, were in Moscow, while others like Traicho Kostov and Anton Yugov were in Sofia. But all communicated to their followers a simple and compelling message: the time had come to get rid of the “bourgeois scum.” By the end of November 1944 approximately 5,000 Bulgarians were killed, including teachers, priests, civil servants, writers, journalists and civic leaders.
The next stage of the communist takeover began in December 1944, when the government installed special People’s Courts authorized to prosecute “fascists.” Similar tribunals were established in every European state that was occupied by or collaborated with Nazi Germany; in Bulgaria, however, the purges were of a magnitude unseen elsewhere. In Hungary or Czechoslovakia individual members of parliaments and governments were indicted – whereas in Bulgaria the government put on trial all members of all governments and all parliaments between 1941 and 1944. Each one of these individuals was sentenced to death – 2800 death sentences overall – and the verdicts were carried out immediately. In contrast, People’s Courts in Hungary handed out 322 death sentences 176 of which were commuted.
The term “fascist” was applied to anyone who had opposed the communists in the past or might oppose them in the future. In addition to the judicial and extra-judicial murders, “fascists” were subjected to imprisonment (the People’s Court sentenced to life imprisonment more than 2,000 defendants), deportations (5,000 families were sent into internal exile), and incarceration (by the end of 1945 approximately 10,000 people languished in concentration camps).
Despite the terror, pro-democracy forces in Bulgaria refused to surrender. The communists were able to lure or intimidate some of their rivals into joining the BCP, but by the summer of 1945 several parties – the most popular of which was the Bulgarian Agricultural National Union (BANU) – had left the FF and declared themselves an opposition to the communist government. Nikola Petkov, BANU’s Chairman, became the main spokesman of the democratic resistance. The destruction of the opposition became a top priority for the BCP, and this murderous campaign was carried out under the guidance of the party’s most prominent leader, Georgi Dimitrov.
Having spent his early years as a radical activist who futilely tried to organize a Bolshevik-type coup in Bulgaria, Dimitrov became an instant celebrity when the Nazi government arrested him in Berlin in 1933 and charged him as a co-defendant in the Reichstag fire trial. He refused to hire a lawyer and handled his own defense – a task which he performed with remarkable courage and efficiency. Dimitrov was acquitted in 1934 and moved to Moscow where Stalin appointed him a General Secretary of the Comintern. In 1945 he returned to Bulgaria to preside over the effort to refashion his native country into a replica of the one-party Stalinist regime.