by Dimana Trankova; photography by Minjatur/Nasjonalbiblioteket

Norwegian helps thousands of Bulgarians after the Great War

Fridtjof Nansen.jpg

Sofia's streets are generally named after those who have played a significant role in Bulgaria's past, and they often act as a crash course in the country's history. Among the kings such as Simeon I and Ivan Asen, the clerics such as Patriarch Evtimiy and the revolutionaries like Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev and Georgi Rakovski, there are a few foreigners too. One of the main streets in the city is called Tsar Osvoboditel, after the Russian tsar who fought the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish war, and the name of the Irish journalist and advocate of Bulgarian independence, James Bourchier, adorns a boulevard.

In this company, near the NDK, is the Norwegian Fridtjof Nansen (1861-1930). For most people who walk along this street every day it is just a name like any other, more an address than a real person.

Obviously, there is a connection between Fridtjof Nansen and Bulgaria, though it may not immediately come to mind, overshadowed as it were by other more memorable events in the life of this remarkable man.

Considered to be among the greatest explorers of polar lands, Nansen succeeded in crossing Greenland in 1888 and, from 1893 to 1896, he heroically, though unsuccessfully, tried to reach the North Pole. His biology research led him to become one of the founders of modern neurology. In the early 20th Century, he emerged as a major diplomat and humanitarian.

From 1905 to 1907 Nansen successfully mediated the separation of Norway from Sweden, and the subsequent international endorsement of this move. During the Great War he managed to secure a life-saving food shipment for his motherland which, though neutral, was suffering from shortages because of the blockade of merchant shipping routes. After the conflict ended Nansen became one of the chief supporters of the proposal for Norway to join the League of Nations, and in 1920 was appointed High Commissioner of the International Committee for the Prisoners of War. This proved to be a huge task, as there were more than half a million POWs of all nationalities around the war-devastated world, and they were desperately in need of help.

This was not all that he devoted himself to in the following years. Nansen sought aid for the people starving in the Russian famine of 1921, and he developed a special type of identity document – later named the Nansen Passport – that allowed stateless people to travel. He came up with a plan to exchange populations between the Balkan countries, which he hoped would be a way of preventing territorial claims later.

In 1922 Nansen was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

However, most Bulgarians know very little about how much Nansen's work helped to save the lives of their compatriots after the Great War. Having lost the war, some territories and hundreds of thousands of ethnic Bulgarians, the country faced another problem. After 1920, several hundred troops and officers had been taken prisoner on the southern Greek islands and in Corsica, often surviving in appalling conditions. Some thousands of former citizens wanted to leave their native areas, which were now in Greece and Turkey. Thanks to Nansen's work, the POWs managed to return home and the refugees to cross the borders without problems.

Nansen visited Bulgaria in 1922, arriving on a brief mission to research the situation of the Bulgarian refugees from the former Bulgarian territories.

All of this was illustrated in a very interesting exhibition organised by the Norwegian Ambassador, Tove Skarstein, the Bulgarian National Archives and the Bulgarian Red Cross.

The exhibition displayed for the first time important documents that chronicle Nansen's work for relieving the plight of Bulgarian POWs in Greece and in Corsica, as well as that of Russian POWs in Bulgaria. The exhibits featured the correspondence between the Bulgarian representatives at the League of Nations and the Prime Minister Aleksandar Stamboliyski and the 1921 decree of King Boris III that Nansen should be awarded the Great Cross for Civic Services for his contributions to the Bulgarian people. There was also Nansen's long letter of thanks for this honour, written in French. The 1922 decision of the Bulgarian government that transferred the former military hospital at Shumen to a Nansen Committee, which turned it into a psychiatric hospital, has also been preserved.


    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

If you have stayed in Bulgaria for more than a week and have conversed with Bulgarians of a certain age beyond business transactions and polite small talk, you have probably heard them reminisce about something from their youth that you might f

Rory Miller's book Eyeball It: Village Culinary Adventures is a funny, warm and sometimes poignant exploration of rural Bulgarian life, and its food and people in the 2020s.

Overcrowded, overdeveloped, simply put overwhelming: in summertime, Sozopol is the definition of a place you must avoid if you are looking for some semblance of tranquillity at the Bulgarian Black Sea coast.

What happened in Bulgaria during the Second World War?

As even the most enthusiastic diners in Sofia have discovered, bad restaurants in the capital outnumber good ones.

The first historians and archaeologists to survey this nation's past. The builders of some of Sofia's most prominent landmarks. The creators of some of Bulgaria's finest gardens. Artists whose paintings captured the soul of Bulgaria.

A new book, Bulgaria Under Communism, published by Routledge in 2018, fills the gaps for English speakers.

A beautiful princess is given by her brother, the king, as wife to the very man who is conquering their lands: The story of Bulgarian princess Tamara Maria and her marriage to Ottoman Sultan Murad I in 1371, as part of a treaty with her half-brother King Iv

Balkan traditional music has the peculiar quality to move even people who are anyway not much into what used to be called world music.

Seventy years after the Second World War the Bulgarian government is adamant in its denial that the Kingdom of Bulgaria did anything wrong in the territories – now in northern Greece, southern Serbia around the town of Pirot, and the former Yugoslav republi

A country increasingly difficult to understand even by its own citizens, Bulgaria stands unique in Eastern Europe in at least two respects: it is arguably the least reformed former Warsaw Pact state and – if international surveys and indices are anything to

The Bulgarian Eva Quartet joined some 50 musicians from four continents on Hector Zazou's posthumously-released album, The Arch.