On February 1, 2013, Bulgaria celebrated the official “Day of Homage and Gratitude to the Victims of the Communist Regime” for the third time since the government created the holiday in 2011.[1] The date marks a decision by a Bulgarian communist “People’s Court” on February 1, 1945 to summarily execute three regents of the young Bulgarian king, 67 members of parliament, 22 cabinet ministers and 40 military generals and senior officers of the Bulgarian Royal Army, as well as a number of other political figures.

One article in an English-language Bulgarian newspaper reported that on this day “Bulgaria’s former political and military elite was liquidated at a single stroke.” Sending out a story about the 2013 commemoration over the newswire, the Associated Press (AP) reported that, “The victims memorialized . . . include many political opponents of communism executed after September 1944, when Bulgaria’s communists seized power in this tiny Balkan country.”

The AP story was published and republished on news websites around the world under the headline, “Bulgaria honors victims of communism.” Nowhere was it mentioned, however, that these “victims” were part of a government that had allied itself with Hitler.

Prior to 1944, Bulgaria was far from a parliamentary democracy. Rather, it was an autocratic monarchy that sided with Nazi Germany during World War II and issued declarations of war against the United States and Great Britain. As an Axis power, Bulgaria occupied large parts of Northern Greece and Vardar Macedonia, which remained under Bulgarian administration until September 9, 1944 when the communists overthrew the monarchy.

The government of King Boris III was responsible for the arrest of over 11,000 Macedonian and Greek Jews on the night of March 10, 1943, who were subsequently deported on Bulgarian trains through the countryside to Nazi death camps in Treblinka.

On the 2013 anniversary of Homage and Gratitude to the Victims of the Communist Regime, a few Bulgarians laid wreaths at a monument tucked away in a park in front of Sofia’s National Palace of Culture. The monument contains the following message engraved in stone:

Bow before this wall, fellow Bulgarians! It contains the suffering of our people. This memorial has been erected for our compatriots, victims of the communist terror: those who lost their lives, those who vanished without a trace, those who were shot by the so-called “people’s tribunal.” It commemorates the concentration camp prisoners, the political prisoners, those who were interned, those subjected to political repression, and their ill-fated families and relatives. May the memory of the innocently shed blood burn in our hearts like an eternal flame. May the past never repeat itself!

Lord, give peace to the souls of your martyrs, grant them your justice. Accept them as our guardians, holy and immortal—now and forever. Amen

Who Are These Victims?

In an emotional speech on the 2013 anniversary, then-Bulgarian Vice President Margarita Popova declared: “No one has the right to falsify history or to rewrite it, and no one can take away the memories of the people whose relatives were massacred.”

There is no doubt that the communist regime persecuted political dissidents and sent innocents to work in the labor camp at Belene. But the victims who are honored each year on February 1st and to whom gratitude is bestowed were representatives of Bulgaria’s Nazi-allied government. In these contemporary commemorations of this historical event, there is no mention, whether by government officials or global news outlets, that some victims were themselves responsible for heinous crimes.

For instance, Petar Gabrovski, who was Bulgaria’s Minister of Interior during World War II, signed the actual warrants authorizing the deportation of Jews from occupied territories. But, on the VictimsofCommunism.bg website, (maintained by the American Research Center in Sofia), his name is listed among those who were “politically oppressed” by the communist regime.

A truly extreme case is that of General Hristo Lukov who served as the Bulgarian Minister of War until his assassination on February 13, 1943, well before February 1, 1945. Lukov was an extreme right-wing politician who led the Union of Bulgarian National Legions (the Legionnaires) and called for the racial and ethnic purity of the Bulgarian people, during both World Wars I and II. Like Gabrovski, Lukov’s name can be found these days among the victims of communism.

Each year since 2011, Bulgarians gather to honor and express their gratitude for Lukov.

In fact, for Bulgaria’s neo-Nazis, Lukov has become an inspirational figure. As the poorest member of the European Union, with a living standard less than half that of the EU average, Bulgaria has a growing right-wing nationalist presence. As some Bulgarians self-immolate to protest miserable economic conditions, Syrian refugees have been flowing into the country, straining already beleaguered state budgets and fueling xenophobia in this small Balkan country. The Bulgarian NGO HoRa (People Against Racism) has accused participants of the Lukov marches of staging beatings of Roma, LGBTQ populations, leftist activists, and certain foreigners. Inspired by the example of Lukov, Bulgaria’s growing nationalist parties have also set up civil patrols to control the influx of Syrian refugees into Bulgaria’s capital.

In 2013, the European Network Against Racism (enar) issued a press release asking the mayor of Sofia to ban an impending “Lukov March.” The letter protested the annual permit sanctioning the march, which is organized by a coalition of nationalist forces in Hristo Lukov’s name. According to the press release, “The Lukov March is the most important public event of [right-wing] groups in Bulgarian society, which have showed open or covert adherence to fascist, neo-Nazi and ultra national-populist ideas. [The] Lukov March is especially dangerous for its impact on young people, promoting authoritarian and anti-democratic ideas under the guise of patriotism and reverence for the national war heroes.”

Ignorance, Incompetence, or Malice?

What could possibly lead Bulgaria’s leaders to declare Nazi allies and heinous criminals to be “our guardians, holy and immortal”? What could prompt global, corporate news organizations to report on such commemorations without a single mention of the fact that many of those being honored were Hitler’s supporters? Is this merely a display of astonishing historical ignorance, or is something else at work? And why is this happening now – more than twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall?

The creation and celebration of the Day of Homage and Gratitude to the Victims of the Communist Regime in Bulgaria reflects wider trends across Eastern Europe. On June 3, 2008, a group of conservative Eastern European politicians and intellectuals gathered together in the Czech parliament and signed the Prague Declaration on European Conscience and Communism. Signatories to this Declaration proclaimed that the “millions of victims of Communism and their families are entitled to enjoy justice, sympathy, understanding and recognition for their sufferings in the same way as the victims of Nazism have been morally and politically recognized.”

The signatories addressed their demands to “all peoples of Europe, all European political institutions including national governments, parliaments, European Parliament, European Commission, Council of Europe and other relevant international bodies.”These demands included the creation of a supranational “Institute for European Memory and Conscience” as well as increased support for memorials, museums, and national historical institutes charged with investigating the crimes of communism. Finally, the Prague Declaration demanded the “adjustment and overhaul of European history textbooks so that children could learn and be warned about Communism and its crimes in the same way as they have been taught to assess the Nazi crimes.”

Between 2008 and 2013, European leaders instituted many of the Prague Declaration’s recommendations. In 2009, the EU created a new holiday to be marked each year on August 23: the European Day of Remembrance for Victims of Stalinism and Nazism. The Organization of Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) supported this new holiday in their 2009 Vilnius Declaration, which also instructed the nations of Europe to create a collective policy on “the world financial crisis and the social consequences of that crisis.”

2009 also marked the launch of the VictimsofCommunism.bg website. The site includes over seventeen thousand names, and instructs Bulgarians never to forget the evils of their communist past. The project description on the site’s original homepage stated: “The 20th century created two monsters: nazism [sic]and communism. While no educated, humane, and democratically minded person today would defend nazism, many still justify communism, a regime responsible for the death of over 100 million people worldwide. In 1944 communism was forcefully introduced in Bulgaria. Terror followed overnight and lasted a very long time. Thousands were murdered or sent to prisons and concentration camps for being wealthy, educated, skilled, politically ‘dangerous’ or for no pretext whatsoever.”

In 2011, central European politicians established The Platform of European Memory and Conscience in Prague, a consortium of conservative institutes and organizations to document and disseminate information about the suffering of East European populations that lived under communism. The platform was a direct result of the Prague Declaration. By 2013, this new consortium of NGOs and research institutes had forty-three members from thirteen European Union countries as well as from the Ukraine, Moldova, Iceland, and Canada. The United States is home to two organizations that are members of the European Platform for Memory and Conscience: the Joint Baltic American National Committee and the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, the latter of which is headed by Lee Edwards, the Heritage Foundation’s “Distinguished Fellow in Conservative Thought,” and “a leading historian of American conservatism.”

To be sure, controversial institutions dedicated to the victims of communism existed before 2008. The Museum of Genocide Victims in Lithuania, The House of Terror in Hungary, and the Museum of Communism in the Czech Republic have all done their part to highlight the crimes of communism, while downplaying the terror unleashed by Nazism. But the number of events, and explicit support from the EU , has increased since the beginning of the global financial crisis.

He Who Controls the Past…

As an ethnographer researching in Eastern Europe for the better part of two decades, it is hard for me to understand how the politicians, academics, and advocates behind these new and increasing commemorations could either be so incompetent or remarkably uninformed about their own history. Could it be these commemorations are a deliberate response to growing social unrest and red nostalgia throughout the former communist world?

At the very moment when capitalism is experiencing the worst global shock since the Great Depression, and wealth inequalities grow exponentially, political and economic elites appear to think it is more important than ever to preach about the evils of leftist alternatives. Historical subtleties concerning the victims of communism—alliances with Hitler, fascist ideals, and deportation of Jews—can apparently be obfuscated or simply ignored.

The contemporary politics of memory and commemoration in Eastern Europe reminds us that history is as much about today as it is about seventy years ago. Our interpretation of the twentieth century will inevitably define the path of the twenty-first. As George Orwell once observed: “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.”

[1] The Day was also celebrated on February 1, 2014, but received less international media attention.

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