by Dimana Trankova

Was King Boris III a man of the people or just a Balkan quisling?

king boris meets people

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom. It lost them all, one way or another. Thousands of men had been killed, significant chunks of land were forfeited, and an influx of refugees overwhelmed the larger cities. More was to come, as the treaties ending the Great War were yet to be signed. Bulgaria's political life was in turmoil, and a loss of confidence in the established parties forced voters into the embrace of the radical BZNS, or Bulgarian Agrarian People's Union, and the Communists. King Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, the overconfident ruler who had led Bulgaria into what would later be dubbed two national catastrophes, realised that his time at the helm was over, and abdicated. 

Who was the man who would succeed the flamboyant Ferdinand on the Bulgarian throne? Until 3 October 1918, Boris, the heir apparent, had kept a low profile – the complete opposite of his father. Aged 24, he seemed much too young for the gargantuan task of ruling over a nation in a deep moral, economic and political crisis. Would he be as reckless as his ascendant? 

Boris III (1894-1943), the last crowned king of Bulgaria, turned out to be a cautious politician, probably because he was too scared of replaying his father's mistakes. To what extent his political decisions benefited the nation is a question that historians still ponder on, and ordinary Bulgarians continue to argue about. 

History is a very divisive topic in Bulgaria and the figure of King Boris III illustrates it well. Under Communism, he was vilified as a Nazi. The Communists even coined a term, "monarcho-fascist," to tag his rule with. Later he would just be ignored and sentenced to oblivion. 

Communism collapsed in 1989 and the Bulgarian perception of history was quick to change. According to the more or less official post-Communist narrative, under Boris III democracy flourished, the economy boomed and modern infrastructure was built. The personal regime that he established in breach of the Constitution was a necessity, the only way out of the vicious cycle of political violence in the 1920s and the 1930s. Boris III regained some of the lands his father had lost, without a single shot being fired. Even when "geopolitical forces" pushed him into a (supposedly) reluctant alliance with Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, the king never sent Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front. He never broke diplomatic ties with the USSR and even saved Bulgarian Jews from deportation to death camps. By joining the ungodly alliance with Germany he also saved thousands of Bulgarians from dying on the frontline, or from hunger and torture under Nazi occupation. 

King Boris III with his family

King Boris III with his family

The more or less mainstream post-Communist narrative is very similar to the Communist-era talk in that, though the polarity is reversed, it explains things with outside forces and calamities beyond Bulgarian control. Boris III's failings were incurred by circumstances he had little sway over. Bulgaria's geographical location and its desire to revise the Paris peace treaties, a legacy of Ferdinand, predetermined its alliance with Germany. Russia's role in Bulgaria's liberation from the Ottomans in 1878, and its subsequent meddling in Bulgarian affairs, forced Boris to tread carefully when dealing with Stalin, despite his fear of a Bolshevik revolution at home. He did his best to make some sensible if uneasy choices, but there was no room for "good" decisions in the Second World War in the Balkans. If he had sided with the Allies, he would have risked a German occupation. The Soviets would have invaded – or liberated – Bulgaria no matter which horse it had backed. 

The opposing narrative is that Boris III was not a saviour, but a scheming tyrant. The coalition with Nazi Germany was not only because of geopolitics and revanchism – under his rule the Bulgarian economy, culture and politics had become entangled with Germany to the point of dependency. Democracy did not flourish under Boris III either. Political parties were all but abolished and the parliament served as the rubber stamp for his administration. His efforts to avoid conflict backfired with tragic consequences. The "symbolic war" that Bulgaria declared on the United States and Britain, in 1941, resulted in heavy Allied bombings of Bulgarian cities two years later. Boris's efforts not to cut ties with the USSR did not stop Soviet ships from bombarding Bulgarian ports and Soviet submarines from sinking Bulgarian boats. In early September 1944, Stalin declared war on Bulgaria and the Red Army entered the country, providing crucial support for the subsequent Communist coup. 

As for the so-called salvation of the Bulgarian Jews, critics point out that while no Jews were actually sent out of Bulgaria proper, over 11,000 Jews in Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia, which Bulgaria governed as a Nazi ally, were deported to the death camps. None of them survived. 

Where does the truth lie? With Boris III, it is often hard to say. 

young prince simeon postcard

Salvador Dali reportedly used a Bulgarian postal stationery envelope issued to celebrate the birth of King Boris III's son, Simeon, as an inspiration for his infamous 1939 Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat (bellow)

The last Bulgarian king was a gingerly politician. He left few written traces to explain his motivation, machinations and feelings. His personality is known mainly from official sources, which were often propaganda, and from unreliable or uninformed sources such as the diaries and memoirs of his family, associates, political friends and foes. This makes any attempt to write an objective account of Boris as a person and a ruler an almost impossible task. 

Bulgarian Child Eating a Rat

Boris's life seemed predestined for compromise and political manoeuvring. He was born in 1894 to Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha and Princess Marie Louise of Bourbon-Parma, and was baptised a Catholic at his mother's family's insistence. The Tarnovo Constitution, which stipulated that the Bulgarian ruler should be Eastern Orthodox, was amended to accommodate this, but in 1896 Boris was baptised into the Eastern Orthodox Church anyway, to smooth Bulgaria's strained relationship with the Russian Empire. A decade earlier, Russia had objected to the unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia, and had organised a coup against the then Bulgarian prince, Alexander of Battemberg, and openly disapproved of his replacement, Ferdinand I. 

When Boris III acceded to the throne in 1918, he was aware of his youth and lack of experience, of the gravity of the moment and the fears of his subjects. In his inaugural speech to parliament he reassured Bulgarians that he would be a careful ruler: "The Fatherland is in danger, but it will not perish. Dear sirs, be my most honest advisor! I want to know all the desires and sorrows of my people, as this is the only way in which we, here, can be of help." 

After that, Boris III took a back seat in the state's affairs and left the acting politicians to clean up the mess. 

The post-First World War years were dark and violent. From 1919 to 1923, the BZNS governments paved the way for economic recovery and introduced some much-needed social reforms, but their brutality antagonised the economic, political, military, cultural and even the clerical establishment. In June 1923, a group of disgruntled officers staged a coup.

Did the king approve? He seemingly knew about the putsch in advance and supported both sides, waiting in the sidelines to see who would prevail. 

The new government of the Democratic Alliance coalition did not restore democracy. The brutality with which it crushed a Soviet-backed pro-Communist rebellion in September 1923 started a de facto civil war between the government and the Communists. The king himself almost became a victim. 

On 14 April 1925, a group of anarchic Communists attacked Boris III's car at Arabakonak Pass and tried to kidnap him. The attempt failed, but two members of Boris's retinue were killed in the melee. 

The next day, the Communists assassinated a prominent general. On the assumption that Boris III would attend the funeral in the St Nedelya Church in Sofia on 16 April, they placed a bomb in the dome. The blast killed 134 citizens and wounded 500, the biggest terror attack in Bulgaria's history. The king was not harmed as at that time he was at the funeral of one of the Arabakonak victims. 

Eventually the Bulgarians grew tired of political violence, and in early 1926 a new government, led by a more moderate wing of the Democratic Alliance, took over. 

It was not to last. The 1929 Great Depression wrought not only economic, but also political havoc in Europe. Radical and authoritarian ideologies demanding a larger say in all spheres of public life proliferated. Bulgaria was on the bandwagon. The shift in the public attitudes coincided with – and probably encouraged – Boris's desire to play a more prominent role in Bulgaria's political life. 

In 1930, he married a woman he loved deeply – the Italian princess Giovanna, a daughter of King Victor Emmanuel III. The marriage also had a political purpose – to strengthen the ties with Italy that, like Bulgaria, wanted a revision of the Paris peace treaties. 

Ties with Germany were also getting stronger, as the country had always been one that Bulgarians aspired to emulate. The fact that all Bulgarian rulers after 1878 were of German descent played a role, too. In the late 1920s and the 1930s Bulgaria's economy became deeply entangled with that of Germany. Agrarian Bulgaria found in Germany a good market for its grain, tobacco, vegetables, fruit and meat. In return, it received much needed industrial goods and technology. German investment multiplied. By 1934, German goods made up 40 percent of Bulgarian imports, and Bulgaria exported 43 percent of its produce to Germany. 

Against this background, political tensions in the country were running high, culminating in street fights between the far left and the far right, in the winter of 1933-1934. The democratically elected People's Bloc government seemed unable to bring stability. In May 1934, Zveno, or Link, a far right group supported by the army, toppled the government, banned all political parties, dismantled the parliament and suspended the Constitution. 

King Boris III with his ally, Adolph Hitler

King Boris III with his ally, Adolph Hitler

What did Boris think of this? His decision to appoint one of the coup's leaders as defence minister suggests that he might have been trying to defuse the coup in its infancy. Later it was revealed that the plotters had envisaged killing him and his family in case he objected. 

Boris III did not denounce the coup, but he slowly sidetracked Zveno's most radical supporters. A year later he declared he would rule Bulgaria "directly," through royal decree. Under the king's regime, political parties and the parliament were restored, but in name only. As prime minister he appointed the chairman of his personal administration, Ivan Kyoseivanov. 

The following years are often represented as a halcyon time for Bulgaria: a thriving economy, a vibrant cultural life, developing infrastructure, optimism. Behind the scenes, Boris III had to maintain a difficult balance between three powerful, centrifugal forces and their international supporters. As for the army, the left wing followed the bidding of the USSR, and the right wing looked up to Nazi Germany. The Second World War loomed, and Bulgaria would soon be caught up in it. The time to pick sides wisely was coming, and the king was anxious to hedge his bets. 

But the time for neutrality was running out. In 1940, Boris III replaced Kyoseivanov, who gravitated towards Britain, with Bogdan Filov, a German-educated archaeologist and a Nazi supporter. The new government soon introduced anti-democratic laws, most notably the anti-Semitic Defence of the Nation Act. Modelled on the Nuremberg set of laws, it severely restricted the rights of Jews in Bulgaria. 

Was Bulgaria turning into a Nazi state under King Boris III? During Communism, the king's regime was officially labelled as monarcho-fascist. Today, Boris's policies are usually explained as a brave and clever manoeuvre to endear Bulgaria to Hitler's Germany without fully committing to the Nazi cause. 

However, Hitler needed Bulgaria as a stepping stone for his advance in the Balkans. He did find a way to push his agenda. In September 1940, under German pressure, Romania peacefully returned southern Dobrudzha, which it had taken after 1919, to Bulgaria. The German carrot, of course, came with a big stick attached. Boris III was aware that if he did not let the German army through Bulgarian territory, it would enter anyway – as an invader. 

On 1 March 1941, Bulgaria officially joined the Axis. Soon afterwards, Bulgarian troops entered parts of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace, which were then in Nazi occupied Yugoslavia and Greece. Theoretically, Bulgaria only administered these lands, but the Bulgarians were enthusiastic about the change. Finally, they believed, the lands lost because of Ferdinand's fiasco had been regained. 

But more trouble was to come. After Germany attacked the USSR in June 1941, King Boris had to do his best to eschew sending Bulgarian troops to the Eastern Front. However, when the United States joined the war, in December 1941, Bulgaria did declare a "symbolic" war on the the Allies. The decision seemed sensible at the time – Britain was still recovering from the Blitz and the United States was far away across the seas. 

And there was the Jewish Question. A special government body took care of the Defence of the Nation Act. Jewish men were sent to labour camps. In the spring of 1943, Bulgaria agreed to deport to Nazi-occupied Poland 20,000 Jews – over 11,000 from Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia, and about 9,000 from Bulgaria. The Bulgarians were quick to act. Bulgarian troops and police herded 11,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews onto Bulgarian State Railways cattle cars. Then they shipped them across Bulgarian territory to the Bulgarian port of Lom on the River Danube, whence they would be transported to Treblinka and Auschwitz. None survived. In contrast, the 9,000 Jews living in "Old Bulgaria" and earmarked for deportation never left their homes. Their planned deportation was halted after Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of parliament, raised the alarm, and the bishops, Kiril and Stefan threatened civil disobedience. 

The role that Boris III played in this remains a matter of debate. Some say that the only aim of the Defence of the Nation Act and the labour camps was to create the illusion that Bulgaria was doing something about the "Jewish Question" without doing anything of significance at all. It was just a tool in the game of political smoke and mirrors that Boris III played so well. This tactic, if such it was, did succeed for the Jews in Bulgaria proper, but, sadly, nothing was done for the Jews in Aegean Thrace and Macedonia. 

fascist newspaper bulgaria

The front page of the Bulgarian Fascist newspaper lauding the policies of King Boris III

However, critics claim that the king never intended to save anyone. The Jews in Bulgaria proper were saved only because Boris III yielded to the pressure of brave men like Peshev and the senior clergy. The Jews in Macedonia and Aegean Thrace could have been saved if Bulgaria – the king – had not refused to grant them Bulgarian citizenship to preclude deportation. 

Despite post-1989 Bulgarian attempts, Yad Vashem has refused to list King Boris III as Righteous Among the Nations. 

The year 1943 was a fateful time for Bulgaria in more than one way. In July, the Allies landed in Sicily, a new frontline – very close to Bulgaria. Mussolini's government collapsed. King Boris started timidly to explore ways of taking Bulgaria out of the war. Hitler was faster. He summoned the Bulgarian king to the Wolf's Lair, the Germans' headquarters on the Eastern Front, on 15 August. No minutes were taken, but historians think that during the meeting Hitler asked for Bulgarian troops to be deployed in Italy and Albania. Boris III allegedly refused. 

The king returned the same day to Bulgaria. On 23 August he fell ill. Doctors could not diagnose the cause, and poisoning, a cardiovascular condition or a gallbladder malfunction were all suggested as probable reasons. On 28 August the king died. According to official documents, he died of thrombosis of the left heart artery, double pneumonia, and a brain and lung oedema. Before this, the king had never been seriously ill. 

The reasons for the demise of the king remain unclear, but many believe that he was poisoned. Fingers have been pointed towards Germany and Italy, Britain and the USSR. No definitive evidence has been uncovered. 

king boris III funeral

King Boris III's state funeral in 1943

Boris III's funeral was a massive event. The Bulgarians grieved. About 400,000 people paid their respect to the king's corpse in St Aleksandr Nevskiy cathedral. Boris III was renowned for his interest in his subjects' wellbeing. The nation that had suffered such heavy losses in the early 20th century wars was thankful that its men were not dying on the frontlines again. King Boris was an avid nature lover and liked to drive trains posing as an ordinary mechanic, travelling incognito with no security, and was said to help random strangers. Stories of chance encounters with Boris III would be told even under Communism, and survive today as modern myths about the good king who always put his people first. 

Boris's sudden death threw the country into a deep crisis. A regency council was set up to rule as his son, Simeon, was underage. While the government was tacitly attempting to withdraw from the war, Boris's decisions came back to haunt Bulgaria. In the winter of 1943-1944 Allied bombings devastated Sofia. On 5 September 1944, the USSR declared war on Bulgaria and on 9 September the Communists took over. Bulgaria was on track to become a Stalinist state – one of Boris's greatest fears had materialised, and so did another. As Bulgaria had again sided with the loser in the world conflict, in late 1944 it sent troops to fight Germany in a bid to mitigate the conditions of the forthcoming peace treaty with the victors. Despite the king's best efforts, Bulgarian men were now dying on the frontlines. 

The royal family also suffered. His younger brother, Prince Kiril, was sentenced to death by the so-called People's Court, in February 1945. A 1946 referendum abolished the monarchy and declared Bulgaria a "people's republic." Boris's mother, wife and two children had to leave the country. The heir apparent, Simeon, returned to Bulgaria only after Communism collapsed. In 2001, he won a general election and became the prime minister. To a significant extent his popularity was due to his father's legacy in the national consciousness. 

The Communists did not spare even Boris III's bodily remains. He was buried in a side chapel of the main church of Rila Monastery. The Communists feared that the church would become a place of pilgrimage and dug out the grave. The remains were moved several times over until they were lost. In the early 1990s, Boris III's embalmed heart was discovered in a Bulgarian Academy of Sciences vault. It was reburied at Rila Monastery. 

The ambiguity of Boris's legacy symbolises the fate of 20th century Bulgaria: a young nation that tried to outsmart bigger and more experienced political players, and failed tragically despite its best intentions and efforts, a victim of geopolitics, circumstances and bad luck. 

Today, the image of Boris III is one of the many dividing lines in Bulgarian society. Ordinary people increasingly believe the story of the good king who always put his duties to the nation first. Leftists still repeat the Communist-era mantra that the king was a fascist. For the right wing, Boris III was a cunning patriot, one who realised that Bulgarians are not good at democracy and might not need it anyway. The new anti-Communists will never fail to expound that his regime was not precisely a tyranny, and that under Communism Bulgarians had it worse in terms of citizens' rights. Everyone is happy to accept that if he did nothing else, he did at least save the Jews of Bulgaria proper. Very few are eager to explore the idea that Boris III, and Bulgaria as a Nazi ally, was responsible for the fate of those 11,343 Jews from Macedonia, Aegean Thrace and southern Serbia.

king boris III grave

King Boris III was buried inside the main church of Rila Monastery. Several years later the Communists dug up his remains for fear the tomb might become a place of pilgrimage. They were moved to various locations several times, and were eventually lost

To a large extent, the perception of the last king of Bulgaria is a result of his careful hiding in the shadows. The Communist coup added to this, as documents that could have shed light on historical events of the time were lost or stolen as a war bounty by the Soviets. Russia still refuses to return the papers and does not allow Bulgarian researchers to access them. Interestingly, the enigma of the last Bulgarian king is being enhanced by the post-1989 anti-Communist. Though they maintain that Bulgaria was a democracy under Boris III, many new anti-Communists will never forgive his son, Simeon, who beat their own Ivan Kostov at the ballot boxes in 2001, thus becoming the first former monarch in history to be elected prime minister. 


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