After World War I, Bulgaria had one of Europe’s strongest peasant and worker movements. Within a decade, the Bulgarian left was in shambles, crushed by a brutal military coup and led by the Comintern into an honorable but ill-conceived uprising.

Portrait of Alexander Stamboliiski as prime minister of Bulgaria. (Photo 12 / Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“Today there are only two interesting social experiments: Lenin’s and my own,” said Alexander Stamboliiski, the leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU), which ruled the country after World War I. He had high hopes for his government. It succeeded in passing far-reaching land reforms and changes in health care, education, taxation, and the judiciary — all in favor of the peasantry who, at the time, made up around 80 percent of the population. This peasants’ party attempted not a socialist experiment but a third way between capitalism and Bolshevism. Yet this definition of its ends also brought worsening relations with the rival formation on the left, namely the communists. Ultimately, it precipitated a huge counterrevolutionary wave, mounted by the opposition parties.

A hundred years on, we remember the tragic collapse of this experiment. Indeed, this year marks the centenaries of the counterrevolutionary military coup that brought down Stamboliiski on June 9, 1923, and the abortive September Uprising that followed, often celebrated — even if with some exaggeration — as one of Europe’s first “anti-fascist” insurrections. The fallout was bloody and marked the beginnings of a de facto civil war in Bulgaria, which lasted until the end of World War II.

BANU had been the major antiwar party in World War I and was the dominant force in Bulgarian politics after the Central Powers’ defeat in 1918. In postwar elections it won 28 percent support in 1919, 39 percent in 1920, and 54 percent in 1923, with a majoritarian electoral system giving it absolute control of parliament and the freedom to impose its ideology of a peasant dictatorship. Its economic and social policies engendered powerful opposition. Yet remarkably, the leaders of the June 1923 coup did not dare cancel out most of these reforms, even after BANU itself was disbanded. Also preserved was its original experiment introducing labor as an alternative to military service.

One powerful factor in Stamboliiski’s demise was his foreign policy. Especially problematic was his détente with the new South Slav kingdom (later Yugoslavia), perceived as a betrayal of Bulgaria’s territorial claims in Macedonia. His estate theory, which divided society into productive classes (peasants, workers, entrepreneurs) and parasitic groups (the military, the church, lawyers), also created natural enemies. His only potential ally — the Communists, the other antiwar party and the second biggest power in parliament, with 20 percent of the vote — was treated as a rival and adversary. The excesses of the Orange Guard (BANU’s peasant militia) also contributed to its unpopularity, although they pale in comparison to the carnage of the subsequent dictatorship.

The king, while formally standing aside, gave the green light to the coup, even though the republican Stamboliiski had not threatened the monarchy. The coup, which came to “save” the country from one dictatorship, created another. It was successful and relatively bloodless, although there should be no illusions about its legality: it led to a violent showdown, crushed the largest party, and imposed a dictatorship of the city over the village in an overwhelmingly rural country.

Rival Narratives

Almost immediately, two narratives took shape that are reproduced to this day, depending on the setting and the position of the narrator.

The first elevates the state as its main pillar and declares that the coup and the subsequent suppression of the September Uprising saved the country from chaos, arbitrariness, and dictatorship. Implicitly, this narrative is theoretically underpinned by Max Weber’s famous formula (dating back to Jean Bodin) of the legitimate state monopoly over the means of violence. This narrative was dominant in the interwar period and is today hegemonic after the fall of state socialism in 1989. In this view, all resistance, including the anti-fascist guerilla struggle during World War II, was the action of mere terrorists.

The second narrative elevates resistance as its central pivot, considering the coup an assault on constitutional democracy and the rights of the masses. This narrative is explicitly inspired by the ideas of the French Revolution (and all subsequent ones, including the October Revolution), and declares revolutionary resistance and violence as legitimate (in the name of another type of statehood). This narrative was dominant during the communist period and has existed in subaltern form since 1989. According to it, September 1923 was the world’s first anti-fascist uprising, the result of piled-up discontent which found leadership in the Communist Party.

Let us not forget that in the interwar period the label of fascist was pejorative only in the ideology of the Left, while the bearers of fascist ideas proudly carried and imposed them until the end of World War II.

The latter narrative has been slightly toned down by left-leaning scholars — especially the spontaneous and anti-fascist character of the uprising — in an overall climate that denies the existence of fascism in Bulgaria, aside from some fringe groups who never came to power. It is true that the label “anti-fascist” was added after 1945, when fascism was a shameful brand. But the coup of 1923 unequivocally sympathized with Mussolini’s fascists, and let us not forget that in the interwar period the label of fascist (and soon after Nazi) was pejorative only in the ideology of the Left, while the bearers of fascist ideas proudly carried and imposed them until the end of World War II. Conversely, not only Communist Party members, but the Left in general, were glad to call themselves communists and Bolsheviks practically until 1989, when these terms became pejoratives. In this sense, the characterization of September 1923 as an anti-fascist uprising is not so absurd.

Narrow and Broad

Social democracy in Bulgaria was split after 1903, exclusively on tactical grounds, between the “narrows” who were a typical Kautskyan party and the “broads” who advocated alliances with other parties, more in line with Eduard Bernstein’s vision. Both parties were members of the Second International and both were revolutionary in the sense of espousing radical social transformation, but neither pursued this transformation through illegal means.

The “narrows” voted against war credits on the eve of World War I, while the “broads,” infected by the nationalist bacillus, even accepted ministerial posts in the wartime governments. In fact, the “narrows” were one of a tiny honorable foursome of Socialist parties in Europe who voted against war credits — together with their Italian and Serbian counterparts, as well as the left-wing coalition in the Russian Duma — whereas the rest of the Second International adopted “national defensism.”

This position of the “narrows,” the only antiwar party in Bulgaria apart from BANU, brought them immense prestige, and their membership swelled from about 3,500 in 1915 to close to 40,000 in 1920. In 1919 they joined the Third International and renamed themselves the Communist Party (BCP). In the words of a contemporary:

The Narrow Socialist party until the wars avoided active involvement in the political life and focused on educational and propaganda work. All of a sudden, it was forced to start political struggle on a grand scale, moreover not simply with its small but well-disciplined old cadres, but with large resentful and undisciplined masses. It was utterly unprepared for such a struggle and allowed itself to be carried along into the abyss. Renamed a Communist party, the Narrow social-democratic party joined the newly formed Communist International and nominally adopted the methods of Bolshevism.

Until the September Uprising in 1923, however, it remained a social-democratic party that, in its attempt to retain the impatient masses, mostly rural and petty bourgeois, transformed its former sober educational work into an empty revolutionary demagogy, filled with impossible promises of an imminent social revolution.

Following the June 1923 coup against BANU, the BCP proclaimed a policy of neutrality. The official explanation was that this was a skirmish between two bourgeois camps — town bourgeoisie versus peasant bourgeoisie. But within the ranks of this basically unarmed party, it was understood that any militant move against an effective army which had just accomplished a successful coup would be suicidal.

Even the “broad” socialists supported the coup and the repression of the abortive September uprising. They participated in the subsequent dictatorships, much like the German Social Democrats who led the counterrevolution after 1919, although in the Bulgarian case they assumed only secondary roles. Still, the Communists’ neutrality was an unfortunate formulation, and if its motivation was to conceal their own powerlessness to stop the military coup, this was all the more hapless given they had spent the past two years constantly asserting that they would resist any overthrow of the government.

Following the June 1923 coup against the peasant BANU government, the Communists proclaimed a policy of neutrality.

The BCP’s decision met with strong disapproval from the Comintern, and Karl Radek delivered a scathing critique, accusing the BCP of narrow sectarianism and announcing that it should be thoroughly reorganized. Their complicity, he said, was “the greatest defeat ever suffered by a Communist Party.” Radek’s report is a curious (not to say sinister) mixture of dogma and voluntarism. He blamed the Bulgarian Communists for not making the move from propaganda and agitation to practical opposition and taking power. His analysis pointed to Bulgaria’s social structure, with a small working class but one of the best organized parties in Europe: of around 100,000 workers, 40,000 were members of the BCP. He claimed that a union between Communists and BANU could have prevented the coup, and accused the Communists of indecisiveness in their attempt to win over or at least split the agrarian party.

“Our fault,” in the Comintern, Radek concluded, “was that we were afraid to meddle in the internal affairs in a longstanding Communist Party.” He was eager to correct this fault. Comintern president Grigory Zinoviev dispatched Vasil Kolarov, already a member of the BCP Executive Committee, to implement the line for an armed rebellion. This was rejected by the Bulgarian party’s council in July, by a vote of forty-two to three.

Abortive Revolution

By August 1923, with party leader Dimitar Blagoev ailing and absent, and four new members installed on the Central Committee, the Comintern line was reluctantly adopted. In September, Kolarov and Georgi Dimitrov unilaterally decided on an armed uprising and forced it through a rump Central Committee over the strong objections of the then–organizational secretary, Todor Lukanov. Amazingly, this decision was taken just a few days after the mass roundup of 2,000 party members on September 12, including Blagoev.

What followed was an abortive revolt, exclusively in rural areas and small towns, without the participation of the working class. In no major city was there an uprising, and only Ferdinand, a small provincial town in northeast Bulgaria, was held for a few days by the insurgents. Northeast Bulgaria was deliberately chosen as the center of the uprising by its leaders, who prudently moved themselves close to the Serbian border and within five days of the bloody defeat emigrated to Yugoslavia, and subsequently to Vienna and the USSR. From there they dictated a permanent “course for armed struggle” culminating with a major terrorist act in April 1925, the bombing of the Sveta Nedelja cathedral. The idea was to stir revolutionary enthusiasm, weaken the ruling regime, and prepare the ground for the worldwide socialist revolution.

Agrarian Bulgaria was most likely seen by the Comintern as a subsidiary that could be used to create geopolitical destabilization, for the sake of the real battle that was to be fought in Germany.

In this light, the September Uprising of 1923 and the bombing in 1925 can be seen as the last practical implementation of the Comintern-inspired concepts of “exporting the revolution” and “permanent revolution.” These would subsequently endure only at the level of theory, and served as a justification for the White Terror and periodical Red Scares.

The concept of “permanent revolution” was developed for Russia by Leon Trotsky and Alexander Parvus in 1905 but then extended by Trotsky to the so-called “undeveloped countries.” He wrote specifically about China, India, and Spain, and argued that the social-democratic perspective was a utopian fantasy, as these countries’ weak bourgeoisie would be never able to replicate the achievements of the bourgeoisie of the advanced countries. He accordingly advocated for a direct proletarian revolution — in alliance with the peasantry but under the hegemony of the working class — and against the two-stage theory of revolution (first bourgeois-democratic, then proletarian). In the 1929 introduction to The Permanent Revolution, Trotsky wrote:

The socialist revolution begins on national foundations—but it cannot be completed within these foundations. The maintenance of the proletarian revolution within a national framework can only be a provisional state of affairs, even though, as the experience of the Soviet Union shows, one of long duration. In an isolated proletarian dictatorship, the internal and external contradictions grow inevitably along with the successes achieved. If it remains isolated, the proletarian state must finally fall victim to these contradictions.

The first proletarian revolution in the former Russian empire was understood as the catalyst for global revolution. This theory was adamantly opposed by Joseph Stalin and Nikolai Bukharin: the concept of “socialism in one country” was already promoted by Stalin by 1924, theorized by Bukharin in April 1925, and adopted as the USSR’s official state policy in 1926. Practically from the middle of 1921 until his death at the beginning of 1924, the ailing Lenin did not participate in the leadership of the country and in these disputes, but the advice that he gave to the Bulgarian Communists in 1921 and 1922 in private meetings is known from their memoirs. Lenin warned against hasty “leftist” actions that would only produce hopeless clashes and pointless death, thereby weakening the communist parties.

The result of implementing the policy of permanent revolution for Bulgaria was the physical annihilation and emigration of tens of thousands, the decimation of the Communist Party, and its disappearance from the political scene for a considerable period.

Yet, by summer 1923, Bulgaria also played a role in a wider Comintern plan. The Comintern leadership had persuaded the Russian politburo to exploit what they saw as a revolutionary situation in Germany following the French military occupation of the Ruhr, and the wave of strikes and mass unrest especially affecting Bavaria, Thuringia, and Saxony; Radek himself was dispatched to Germany.

Industrial Germany, with its mighty social-democratic tradition and strong Communist Party, was always seen as a prerequisite for a world revolution. For Trotsky, revolution in Germany would complement the agrarian economy of the Soviet Union and save it from the “isolated proletarian dictatorship.” None of this was communicated to the Bulgarian Communists — or at least it does not appear in any of the available documentation. Agrarian Bulgaria was most likely seen as a subsidiary that could be used to create geopolitical destabilization, for the sake of the real battle that was to be fought in Germany — no matter what the cost.

The result of implementing the policy of permanent revolution for Bulgaria through the September Uprising was the physical annihilation and emigration of tens of thousands, the decimation of the Communist Party, and its disappearance from the political scene for a considerable period. The underground BCP passed entirely into the hands of the ultraleft who declared the Blagoev-era party opportunistic and demanded that “narrow socialism” be uprooted. Only with the rise of Georgi Dimitrov in the Comintern and the adoption of the popular front strategy were the “left sectarians” removed from the leadership after the mid-1930s. But by then, the old guard and its worldview were gone for all practical purposes.

A few days before his death in May 1924, Blagoev revised his famous formula expounded in several earlier pamphlets: that the revolution depended three quarters on external circumstances, and only one quarter on internal ones. He warned that the revolution in individual territories like Bavaria, Hungary, and the Ukraine was doomed, and that for Bulgaria a socialist revolution was possible only as part of a general Balkan revolution. Now, he said, the three quarters should count for nine tenths!

Blagoev died crushed, lamenting that “they destroyed my beautiful party.” This became the epitaph to the experience of Bulgarian social democracy from its founding in 1891 until its demise in the 1920s. Had he lived another two years, he would have probably agreed with the remarkable Amadeo Bordiga’s speech at the Sixth Plenum of the Comintern in 1926, when he parted ranks and confronted Stalin and Bukharin (after all, Italy’s “liberal-parliamentary capitalist State” was less than twenty years older than the Bulgarian one):

Russian development does not provide us with an experience of how the proletariat can overthrow a liberal-parliamentary capitalist State that has existed for many years and possesses the ability to defend itself. We, however, must know how to attack a modern bourgeois-democratic State that on the one hand has its own means of ideologically mobilizing and corrupting the proletariat, and on the other can defend itself on the terrain of armed struggle with greater efficacy than could the Tsarist autocracy. This problem never arose in the history of the Russian Communist Party.

Generational Split

It might be exaggerated to shift the entire responsibility to the Comintern and explain the events in the 1920s solely through outside manipulation by Moscow. There was indeed an already radicalized cohort in Bulgaria as a result of consecutive wars and the example of the Russian revolution. In fact, one can speak of a serious generational rupture in the ranks of the Bulgarian social democracy, and the crystallization of two political generations.

Already in the early 1920s a bitter debate started within the newly created Communist Party, between the “old” and “young.” At the first inaugural congress in 1919, a group of so-called “left communists” called on the party to abandon legal activities. They refused participation in elections, advocated the creation of soviets (or workers’ councils), and embraced armed struggle. They were soon expelled from the BCP but continued their attack against Blagoev and the leadership as blind followers of the Western European countries and legal forms of struggle. Blagoev and the “old” responded with a vehement critique against the “narrow socialists with anarchic heads,” warning against “the blindest and most uncritical following of the Russian and Hungarian Bolshevism and German Spartakism.”

The political generation of the “old” was made of activists socialized in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. This period surely saw socioeconomic conflicts, bitter political animosities and reprisals, and dictatorial encroachments on democracy. Yet the Bulgarian state that gained de facto independence in 1878 was above all characterized by peaceful existence and an intense political life dominated by a general feeling of the possibility for progress within an imperfect but still functioning parliamentary system.

By contrast, the “young” political generation was molded by its adolescence during the Balkan Wars and World War I. In general, the Great War in Europe produced a radical break in mentality and behavior between the prewar political generation and those who came of age during the interwar period, who had not experienced the prewar peacetime political scene. This was amplified by the example of the Bolshevik Revolution, which immensely broadened the horizon of expectations almost to the point of delirium, expecting the revolution to arrive “tomorrow.” The generation socialized during the war shifted its allegiances from its own, prewar vanguard toward the new prophetic vanguard of the Bolshevik revolution, which had opened up a boundless (if surely also teleological) perspective. This perspective offered not immediate earthly hopes and goals, but a fabulous, heavenly “horizon of expectation.”

The Great War in Europe produced a radical break in mentality and behavior between the prewar political generation and those who came of age during the interwar period, who had not experienced the prewar peacetime political scene.

By the mid-1920s, after the September Uprising and the cathedral bombing in 1925, when a de facto civil war began in Bulgaria, it was this generation that took over the leadership of the Communist movement and enacted its so-called Bolshevization. This generational shift was no local peculiarity: it happened elsewhere in Europe, too, and often showed brutal disregard for the movement’s traditions and its older layer of activists. This was not only a characteristic of the Left. Large segments of this generation were impatient with — and disappointed by — parliamentary institutions and were radicalized in the interwar period, to the point of advocating and imposing right-wing dictatorships or monarchical authoritarian rule (from the right) or revolution and proletarian dictatorship (from the left).

And yet, without the outside push and the willingness of the new Bulgarian Comintern operatives to stir the people who had been critical of the party’s policy of neutrality and were ready to take up arms together with the agrarians, the uprising would not have happened. If cast as terrorists by the state, these people all died as heroes for their ideas, and most of them were young. To this day, the numbers killed are disputed. Immediately after the defeat, the victors suggested somewhere from 2,000 to 5,000 casualties in 1923 alone. When Belgian social democrat Émile Vandervelde visited Bulgaria in 1924, the government figure he was given was 1,500, the agrarians claimed 16,000, and members of the diplomatic corps considered 10,000 a reliable estimate.

The army — especially the paramilitary forces, Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization groups, and the White Russian troops stationed in Bulgaria — indulged in a White Terror that increased after April 1925, targeting and annihilating members of the intelligentsia, from poets to writers and journalists. A 1925 police report put the number of emigrants at 60,000. Another from 1927 reported that 20,000 were killed in 1923–25. This was an exaggerated figure, as was the number of 30,000 that often appeared in the historiography of the 1950s and later popular works. Equally, the present officially accepted number of 5,000 is a low guesstimate. The comparison with the Hamburg uprising in October 1923 is telling of its real scale: in that famous episode of the German Revolution, twenty-four communists and seventeen policemen were killed.

As an old Bulgarian communist, whose memoirs could be published only posthumously after 1989, wrote, “We are always ready to glorify heroic acts, even when they are in the name of noble but unattainable goals. It is however our duty to inquire whether the idealism, enthusiasm and bravery of the best in our party did not simply serve as a pretext to slaughter so many fine people? It was a dearly paid lesson in Bolshevism.”

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