by Professor Hristo Matanov; photography by Anthony Georgieff, BTA

Caught in a tug-of-war between Russia and the West over kings, constitutions and Macedonia, Bulgaria suffers heavy losses

First Bulgarian parliament met in Tarnovo


Like fish out of water – that's how Bulgarians felt in 1878 when they found themselves citizens of two new countries: the Principality of Bulgaria which included the Sofia plains and territory north of the Balkan Mountains, and Eastern Rumelia which comprised the land south of the same range.

The Treaty of Berlin gave them free rein to create a constitution and set up a government, but after 500 years of Ottoman rule the Bulgarians didn't know where to start. As usual, Russia came over, offering the Principality a draft constitution – one so liberal that Tsar Alexander II wouldn't have touched it with a barge pole. He hoped, however, that this would solidify his influence over Bulgaria. The Constituent Assembly convened in 1879 in the former Ottoman town hall in Veliko Tarnovo.

Before the malls: Sofia shopping in 1890

Before the malls: Sofia shopping in 1890

The first political parties formed during arguments over the Constitution. While Liberals demanded expansive civil rights, Conservatives claimed that Bulgarians were not ready for such freedom. The Liberals eventually prevailed and on 16 April the assembly ratified the so-called Tarnovo Constitution, which guaranteed basic freedoms to all and structured the principality as a constitutional monarchy with a unicameral parliament and Sofia as its capital.

On the following day the Constituent Assembly expanded into the First Grand National Assembly and – following Russia's suggestion – elected the German nobleman Alexander Battenberg as Prince of Bulgaria.

The “Constitution” of Eastern Rumelia was ratified at around the same time. It declared the region an autonomous territory ruled by a governor-general selected by the sultan. Its official languages included Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek, and Plovdiv was its capital.

The Unhappy Prince

Born in 1857 into the famous House of Hessen-Darmstadt, Alexander Battenberg was related both to the Russian and British imperial courts. The Russian empress Maria Alexandrovna was his aunt, while his brother founded the English branch of the family, which later took the name Mountbatten.

Alexander Battenberg

Alexander Battenberg

Alexander's first encounter with the Bulgarians came during the 1877-1878 war, in which Battenberg served as a lieutenant. His stay on the throne was short, however, and his personal life unhappy. Bismarck did not allow Alexander to marry Princess Victoria, the daughter of Kaiser Friedrich II.

After his abdication from the Bulgarian throne in 1886, he became a general in the Austro-Hungarian army, married an actress and died in 1893. According to his wishes, he was buried in a mausoleum in the centre of Sofia.

Prince Battenberg's final wish: A mausoleum in Sofia

Prince Battenberg's final wish: A mausoleum in Sofia


Bulgarians found the division between the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia difficult to swallow, not only because it dashed their national hopes, but also due to the high customs taxes at the common border. Yet unification had to wait until the Bulgarians got used to politics. The Liberals won the first elections, but the prince found the Constitution too democratic and made several attempts to change it. When anarchists killed his uncle, Russian Tsar Alexander II in 1881, Battenberg suspended the Constitution under the pretext that anarchy threatened to reach Bulgaria, too. His attempt to rule single-handedly failed, leaving the new Russian ruler Alexander III with the impression that the Bulgarian prince acted too independently and should be overthrown at the first convenient opportunity.

Propaganda for the unification of Kingdom of Bulgaria (left) and Eastern Rumelia. The crying woman in the background? Macedonia

Propaganda for the unification of Kingdom of Bulgaria (left) and Eastern Rumelia. The crying woman in the background? Macedonia

Meanwhile, in Eastern Rumelia Bulgarians, Turks and Greeks struggled for political dominance. The Bulgarians had barely gained the upper hand when they began to prepare for unification with the Principality. In 1884 Rumelian officers actively participated in revolutionary committees which sprang up in both Bulgarian states. Battenberg knew of these preparations, but turned a blind eye so as not to upset the status quo established by the Treaty of Berlin. On the night of 5 September 1885, a bloodless coup was staged in Eastern Rumelia and on 6 September, the Unification of the two Bulgarian states was declared and Prince Alexander headed to Plovdiv.

The Bulgarians braced themselves for an Ottoman backlash – but to their surprise, the anaemic empire protested only weakly and indicated its willingness to compromise. Worried about Battenberg's growing authority, Alexander III opposed the union, giving the British Empire a reason to support the Unification. Serbia's reaction was the most unexpected of all. Under the pretext that the new Bulgarian state upset the balance on the Balkan Peninsula, it declared war. Bulgaria's western borders had been left almost unguarded since the army had expected an attack from the Ottoman Empire. Given the Bulgarian officers' inexperience, Serbia expected an easy victory.

The Bulgarians rallied in time, however, and after battles near Slivnitsa, Dragoman, Pirot and Vidin Bulgarian troops pushed deep into Serbian territory, stopping only after an ultimatum from the Austro-Hungarian Empire.Bulgaria's borders remained the same. For Bulgarians, however, the Unification and the Serbian-Bulgarian War became the patriotic highlights of their new history. The country became the largest Christian nation in the Balkans in terms of territory and population and experienced an economic and cultural revival. Europeans began to speak of “the Bulgarian miracle,” calling Bulgarians the “Prussians” or the “Japanese” of the Balkans.


Unification turned out to be problematic. The state was on the verge of bankruptcy, and Russophiles and the military demanded reconciliation with Russia. This came at a price: Battenberg. In 1886 the military overthrew the prince in a coup, yet this did little to improve rapport with Russia. Stefan Stambolov, the young speaker of parliament, then organised a successful countercoup. Battenberg, however, refused to retake the throne and abdicated, leaving Stambolov as regent to face the tough task of finding a replacement.

Kaiser Wilhelm (right) and King Ferdinand inspect troops

Kaiser Wilhelm (right) and King Ferdinand inspect troops

The regent had no intention of kowtowing to Russia. He rejected the tsar's protégé, the Georgian Prince Mingreli and broke off diplomatic ties with Russia. Shortly thereafter, in a café in Vienna, Stambolov met a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army who seemed a perfect fit for the Bulgarian throne. In 1887, Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was elected as prince and Stambolov became prime minister.

Stambolov's provocative governing style produced mixed results. Protectionism, the construction of railways and harbours, and new foreign trade agreements led to a remarkable economic boom. To improve the lot of Bulgarians still living within the borders of the Ottoman Empire, Stambolov warmed relations with the sultan, preferring to be in the western Great Powers' good graces.

Stambolov was not particularly concerned with civil rights, however. He violated the Constitution, persecuted his political opponents and earned himself a reputation as a dictator. Prince Ferdinand deferred to his powerful prime minister – but only while preparing the ground for his own regime. In 1894 he forced Stambolov from power, replacing him with the more moderate Konstantin Stoilov. By the end of the century his government had re-established relations with Russia.

By this time, though, the Empire had decisively thrown its weight behind Serbia. At the end of the 19th Century, two seemingly harmless political parties appeared on the Bulgarian horizon – they would dictate the country's history after the First World War. In 1891 a group of intellectuals educated in the West and Russia founded the Socialist Party. At that time Bulgaria did not have a proletariat to fill their ranks. The Agrarian Union, formed in 1899, found itself on firmer footing – despite advances, Bulgaria nevertheless remained an agricultural country.

The Mystery of Stefan Stambolov

Stefan Stambolov first rose to fame during 1875-1876 as both the author of patriotic poems and an organiser of the April Uprising. After Bulgaria's liberation, he led one of the liberal parties and his charisma attracted followers who were nicknamed “Stambolovists”. In 1895 he was assassinated in the centre of Sofia.

The official story claims the killers were Macedonian agents; most Bulgarians believe that Ferdinand was behind the murder.

Stambolov died of his wounds three days after the attack

Stambolov died of his wounds three days after the attack

Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

Known as “The Fox,” Ferdinand founded the last Bulgarian dynasty, which ended with his son King Boris III and his grandson Simeon II, the former prime minister. A polyglot who spoke German, French, English, Italian, Hungarian and Bulgarian, Ferdinand tended towards extremes. In 1907, for example, he closed Sofia University because the students booed him at the opening of the National Theatre.

Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

His contradictory character did not endear him to the Bulgarian public. They blame Ferdinand for the two national catastrophes in 1913 and 1918 and – rumour has it – for fleeing Bulgaria with a rich stash of cultural and archaeological loot, including a golden treasure.


“What about our enslaved brothers in Macedonia?”

This question tormented citizens in both Bulgarian states after 1878. The Treaty of San Stefano had included Macedonia in the freed Bulgarian territories, but the Treaty of Berlin returned it to the Ottoman Empire. Large populations of Greeks, Turks, Albanians, Vlachs and Jews lived in Macedonia and eastern Thrace (the region around Odrin, or Adrianople), yet Bulgarians were convinced that they made up the majority of the population and thus had the right to join the Bulgarian state.

Under the freedom fighters' gaze: Hard at work at the Macedonian National Radio in Skopje

Under the freedom fighters' gaze: Hard at work at the Macedonian National Radio in Skopje

No one was sure exactly how to “liberate” these two regions. Prince Alexander thought they should follow Eastern Rumelia's example from the Unification. Realists, however, felt it was better in the long run for Macedonia and eastern Thrace to first become autonomous, to strengthen their Bulgarian character and only then to think about unification. Bulgarians were not the only ones with claims on Macedonia. Serbian propaganda argued that the region's inhabitants were “Southern Serbs,” Greece claimed Macedonia as its historical and cultural heritage, and Romania pointed out the Vlachs in the region. The Sublime Porte took advantage of this dissension to delay reforms in Macedonia.

At the end of the 19th Century the Internal Macedonian-Odrinsko Revolutionary Organisation, or VMORO, formed within Bulgaria to fight for the liberation of the two regions. In the beginning, bands of fighters crossed over into Ottoman territory with the silent support of the Bulgarian government. Gradually, the “autonomists” established a network of revolutionary cells in Macedonia and eastern Thrace, led by rebels such as Gotse Delchev, Gyorche Petrov and Hristo Tatarchev.

The grave of Gotse Delchev, considered by both Bulgarians and Macedonians to be their national hero, in the St Spas Church in Skopje

The grave of Gotse Delchev, considered by both Bulgarians and Macedonians to be their national hero, in the St Spas Church in Skopje

In April 1903 Salonika, or Thessaloniki, literally exploded when VMORO activists blew up the local branch of the Ottoman Bank and a French ship in the harbour. On 2 August, Ilinden, or St Elijah's day, rebellion broke out in Macedonia, and on 19 August, Preobrazhenie, or the Feast of the Transfiguration, Bulgarians in eastern Thrace revolted. Despite secret support from Bulgaria, the Ottomans brutally suppressed the Ilindensko-Preobrazhensko vastanie, or St Eliah's Day-Transfiguration Uprising. Thousands of Bulgarians fled their homes, turning Sofia into a huge refugee camp.

The rebellion's failure convinced Bulgarians that war was the only path to freedom. This became clearer with each passing day – especially when in 1908 the Young Turk Revolution put a halt to the toothless “reforms” initiated by the Ottoman Empire under pressure from the Great Powers.


Bulgaria began arming itself to the teeth, realising it needed to prepare for war at any cost – even if that meant part of the budget for modern rifles and weaponry disappearing into the pockets of a prime minister and a defence minister. This gave Ferdinand the confidence to take advantage of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1908 and to disturb the Balkan status quo in turn. On 22 September in Veliko Tarnovo, he cast off Ottoman authority and declared himself king. Europe was also preparing for war.

Midia, now Kıyıköy

Midia, now Kıyıköy

The core members of the Entente (France, Russia and the British Empire) and the Triple Alliance (Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire) were already clear – and they were looking for allies in the Balkans. The Sublime Porte had long sympathised with Germany, so the Entente turned its attention to Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece and Montenegro with one goal in mind: to divide the Ottoman territories in the Balkans among themselves.

Despite the fact that the new allies couldn't agree on how to divide up Macedonia, things got off to a good start in 1912. In Bulgaria, Ivan Geshov's government, which until then had insisted on the region's indivisibility, agreed to divide Macedonia and entered alliances and military conventions with Serbia and Greece. In an agreement with Serbia, the majority of Macedonia was defined as a “disputed zone,” whose future would be decided by the Russian emperor following the Entente's victory. Bulgaria concentrated its troops in eastern Thrace, the Rhodope and eastern Macedonia. Serbia held the front in Macedonia, while Greece fought for Epirus, Thessaly and southern Macedonia.In October 1912 the Entente allies delivered a joint ultimatum to the Ottoman Empire to reform its European territories. The Sublime Porte refused and war began.

Bulgarian officers celebrate victory at Odrin, now Edirne, with a well-deserved coffee

Bulgarian officers celebrate victory at Odrin, now Edirne, with a well-deserved coffee

In a few weeks the Bulgarians came within 40 km, or 25 miles, of Istanbul, where they were held off by the fortified line at Çatalca. The Greeks, Serbs and Montenegrins also won battles and the Ottoman Empire faced utter defeat. King Ferdinand, however, dreamed of a triumphant entrance into Istanbul and ignored Turkish offers of peace. Subsequent attacks on Çatalca ended in failure, allowing the Sublime Porte to drag out peace negotiations in London.

To force concessions from the enemy, the Bulgarians stormed Odrin. After losing the city, the Ottoman Empire was forced to make peace and give up its Balkan territories west of the line between Midia on the Black Sea and Enos on the Aegean. Relations between the allies began to deteriorate, however.

Bulgarians felt cheated since they saw the heaviest fighting, yet Serbia and Greece occupied Macedonia.

Demonstrating an extraordinary lack of common sense, Bulgaria attacked Serbia on 16 June 1913. Within days, Bulgaria found itself fighting both Serbia and Greece, while Romania occupied the Bulgarian part of Dobrudzha and the Ottoman Empire took back eastern Thrace. On the verge of utter defeat, Bulgaria sued for peace, keeping part of eastern Macedonia and the Aegean coast between the Maritsa and Mesta Rivers.

Sixty thousand Bulgarians died in the Second Balkan War. The survivors declared it a national catastrophe and swore to do everything in their power to right these wrongs in the next war.

They had no way of knowing that the real catastrophe was just beginning.


The Bulgarians have a saying: Paren kasha duha, or he who gets burned learns to blow on his porridge. Taking this folk wisdom to heart, Bulgarian politicians attempted to choose sides very carefully in the First World War, which began in August 1914.

Bulgarian aviators

Bulgarian aviators

The dream of annexing Macedonia, however, once again overpowered common sense and in 1915 Ferdinand leaned towards Germany which offered more generous territorial rewards. After the Entente's disastrous attempt to land at Gallipoli, the scales tipped decisively in favour of the Triple Alliance. In September 1915 Bulgaria joined forces with Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Ottoman Empire, mobilising 800,000 troops.

Bulgarians participated in the rout of Serbia and extended their authority over the majority of Macedonia. In 1916, however, the region became the so-called Southern Front and they found themselves facing French, English and Serbian troops. At the same time, other Bulgarian detachments joined the offensive against Romania, capturing Dobrudzha, entering Bucharest and reaching the Seret River Valley. In the following year the tables turned.

A British military cemetery near Doiran. In the 1918 battle British and Greek troops fought against the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians won but then retreated

A British military cemetery near Doiran. In the 1918 battle British and Greek troops fought against the Bulgarians. The Bulgarians won but then retreated

Despite Russia dropping out of the war because of the Bolshevik Revolution, the Entente gained the upper hand. Bulgarians began to lose hope – food was scarce, soldiers deserted in droves. In 1918 the king appointed a new government headed by Aleksandar Malinov, known for his sympathy towards the Entente. But it was too late: in September the Entente broke through the Southern Front at Dobro Pole. While the Bulgarian army retreated, supporters of the Agrarian and Socialist Parties tried to organise a Bolshevik-style government in Sofia.

The subsequent chaos robbed Bulgaria of any remaining chance to put up a fight. To avoid occupation, the government signed the Armistice of Salonika which forced Ferdinand to abdicate in favour of his son Boris. At the end of the war, Bulgaria was left with 100,000 dead, 150,000 imprisoned, new waves of refugees, an economic crisis, international isolation, political instability and the definitive collapse of its dream of national unification. Historians call this the Second National Catastrophe.


1881 Anarchists kill the Russian emperor Alexander II

1882 The Standard Oil trust is created in the United States

1894 The Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin founds the Olympic Movement

1896 Athens hosts the first modern Olympic Games

1898 The first hydroelectric turbine is built at Niagara Falls

1899 The International Court of Arbitration at The Hague convenes for the first time

1912 The Titanic sinks

28 June 1914 Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, is killed in Sarajevo, sparking the First World War in August

October 1915 The Entente countries declare war on Bulgaria

1916 British troops use tanks for the first time

April 1917 The United States enters the war on the side of the Entente

October 1917 Lenin leads the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia

October-November 1918 The end of the First World War


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