previous page: 16-1 Short History of Bulgaria
page up: Bulgaria FAQ
next page: 16-3 Bulgarian Czars

16-2 Bulgarian History


This article is from the Bulgaria FAQ, by Dragomir R. Radev radev@tune.cs.columbia.edu with numerous contributions by others.

16-2 Bulgarian History

(by John Bell)
Ancient Thracian, Greek, and Roman civilizations have each left their mark
on the Bulgarian lands, but the story of the modern Bulgarian people began
with the Slavic migrations into the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th and 7th
centuries. The name "Bulgaria" comes from the Bulgars, a Turkic people who
migrated from the steppe north of the Black Sea, conquered the Slavic
tribes and founded the First Bulgarian Kingdom in 681. The Bulgars were
absorbed in the larger Slavic population, a process that was facilitated by
the adoption of Orthodox Christianity by Boris I in the 9th century. Under
Boris's son, Tsar Simeon I, the kingdom reached the height of its power,
and its capital, Preslav, was said to rival Constantinople in the vigor of
its commercial and intellectual life.

Bulgaria declined under Simeon's successors, and in 1014 the Byzantine
emperor Basil II won a battle over the Bulgarian army after which he
ordered 14,000 prisoners to be blinded. For this Basil II took the title
"Bulgaroktonus," or Bulgar slayer, and Bulgaria was ruled by Byzantium
until 1185. In that year the brothers Ivan and Peter Asen launched a
successful revolt that led to the establishment of the Second Bulgarian
Kingdom with its capital at Turnovo. Under Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-41)
Bulgaria again dominated most of the Balkans, but by the end of the century
the state was weakened by peasant revolt and attacks from Mongols, Serbs,
and finally succumbed to the invasion of the Ottoman Turks.

During the nearly 500 years of the "Ottoman Yoke," Bulgaria's national
customs and values were preserved in the monasteries and in mountain
villages isolated from Turkish influence. In the 18th century Paissy, a
Bulgarian monk of the Khilendar Monastery on Mt Athos, used medieval texts
to prepare a history of his people, calling on them to remember their past
and former greatness. Paissy's history is regarded as the beginning of the
National Revival that was marked by the rapid expansion of Bulgarian
schools and by the achievement of an independent Bulgarian Orthodox
Exarchate in 1870. Six years later Bulgarian revolutionaries launched the
April Uprising, whose brutal suppression created outrage in Europe and
helped to provoke the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78. The war ended with the
Treaty of San Stefano that created a large Bulgarian state, whose borders
were based on those of the Exarchate. The Western Powers, however, feared
that Bulgaria would be a satellite of Russia and insisted on a revision of
the treaty. At the Congress of Berlin in 1879 only the part of the country
between the Balkan range and the Danube was allowed to become an autonomous
principality. The lands south of the Balkan Range were given the name
"Eastern Rumelia" under a Christian governor appointed by the Porte. And
Macedonia was returned entirely to Ottoman administration. A convention
held in Turnovo adopted a constitution for the new state and chose
Alexander Battenberg as its first prince.

In 1885, when the Bulgarians of Eastern Rumelia declared their union with
the north, Serbia attacked. Prince Alexander led the Bulgarian forces to
victory, but abdicated because he had lost the good will of
Russia. Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was elected to the throne in 1887.
In 1908, Ferdinand took the title of Tsar, and his desire to regain all the
lands of the San Stefano Treaty led to the formation of an alliance with
Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece. In the First Balkan War (1912) the allies
forced Turkey to relinquish its remaining Balkan territories. However, they
fell out among themselves and fought the Second Balkan War (1913), which
Bulgaria lost. Bulgaria was also on the losing side in World War I, and had
to give up territory to Serbia and Greece. Ferdinand was forced to
abdicate, and the throne passed to his son Boris III. The government was
then in the hands of Alexander Stamboliski, leader of the Bulgarian
Agrarian National Union, who launched a dramatic series of reforms before
he was overthrown and murdered in 1923. Gradually, Tsar Boris III with the
support of the army established his personal control over the country.

During World War II, Boris was a reluctant ally of Germany. Bulgaria
declared "symbolic war" on Great Britain and the United States, but did not
send its forces into combat and declined to deport its Jewish population to
the death camps in Poland. In September 1944 the Soviet Union suddenly
declared war on Bulgaria and quickly occupied it. In conjunction with the
Soviet invasion, a Communist-led coalition, called the Fatherland Front,
seized power in Sofia. Under Georgi Dimitrov the Communists consolidated
their power, and by the end of 1947 completely eliminated their opponents.

During the Communist era, Bulgaria acquired the reputation of being the
most loyal ally of the Soviet Union, imitating Soviet collectivization and
industrialization policies. The removal from office of longtime leader
Todor Zhivkov on 10 November 1989 began the current era of political and
economic transition.


Continue to:

previous page: 16-1 Short History of Bulgaria
page up: Bulgaria FAQ
next page: 16-3 Bulgarian Czars