The Bulgarian People’s Court: Injustice Guaranteed

“Bow Bulgarian! On this wall is etched the suffering of our people. The memorial is created in memory of our co-patriot victims of communist terror: deprived of life, disappearing without a trace, sent to be shot by the so-called “People’s Court”. It reminds us of the peoples in the camps, the political prisoners, the hunted, those subjected to political repressions and their hapless families and loved ones. Let the memory of the innocent blood spilt burn our hearts like a ceaseless flame. Let the past not repeat itself! God, calm the souls of your martyrs. Grant them your justice. Accept our protectors, saintly and immortal, now and forever. Amen.” 

On the 9th of September 1944, Bulgaria was effectively at war with both the Allies and Nazi Germany. Its monarch, Tsar Simeon II, was only seven years old and together with his three regents ruled a nation that was at the cross points of its more than millennia-old history. 

After the hectic three-month leadership of the Bagrianov government, power was handed to the democratic opposition led by Konstantin Muraviev. Muraviev was a member of Bulgaria’s largest political force, the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU), but the union had split into factions with many joining the looming spectre of revolution. Muraviev’s government would only last six days, barely taking its first breath, as on the 9th of September 1944 the communist-dominated Fatherland Front (FF), backed by the invading USSR, staged a coup which marked the beginning of the bloodiest phase of the political chaos. A new FF government was established which included members of the communist party (BCP), BANU, the Bulgarian Socio-democratic Workers Party (BSWP) and the right-wing militarist Zveno movement. Upon seizing power in the heat of unimaginable turmoil, one of the first acts of the FF government was passing the “Ordinance-Legislation for Prosecution by a Public People’s Court of Those Guilty of Implicating Bulgaria in the World War Against the Allied Nations and Related Atrocities”. This People’s Court, though in conflict with Bulgaria’s Tarnovo constitution, would mark the beginning of the small Balkan state’s political transformation, leaving a wound at the core of the country which continues to bleed today.

The Bulgarian National Assembly with St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral’s golden domes peeking from behind.

 In 2018, responding to the annual far-right rally which haunts the streets of Sofia in commemoration of the fascist Bulgarian General Lukov, the then socialist Deputy-Speaker of the National Assembly, Valeri Zhablianov, stated that, “the People’s Court was necessary and unavoidable wartime justice”. Zhablianov was subsequently removed, however, Bulgaria was split. Some defended the Deputy-Speaker’s remarks due to resurgent nationalism, while others felt disgusted by the glorification of the intellectual massacre. It is very difficult to be objective about this topic, as the sheer scale of the court means that everyone in Bulgaria has a personal story which explains the court either as a communist ‘Death Star’ or as a savior which stabilised Bulgaria. Nevertheless, after reading hundreds of pages of censored accounts, Orwellian indictments, and chilling telegrams, I hope to shine an objective light on the question: to what extent was the main purpose of the Bulgarian People’s Court of 1944-45 to establish communist political dominance in Bulgaria? The answer is simple and chilling-to a very great extent.

The smallest Axis ally gets the biggest post-war court.

When looking at the scale of the court, it seems that there never was an intention to hide the fact that its primary use was to facilitate political cleansing. This is because the number of sentences given in Bulgaria was immensely disproportionate to Bulgaria’s population, and participation in World War II. The image becomes farcical when compared to the statistics of Germany and Japan:

CountriesSentencesDeath SentencesExecutions
Bulgaria9,5502,7302,138
Germany5,000800500
Japan5,700984900

Though allied to Nazi Germany, Bulgaria had sent no soldiers to the Eastern Front, retained diplomatic relations with the USSR, and famously protected its native Jewish population. Hence, logically speaking, why would Bulgaria require more ‘fascist cleansing’ than the countries which started WWII, and were responsible for the conflict’s greatest atrocities?

The Allies Told Me To!

Those who seek to vindicate the court may argue that the court was not BCP’s choice in the first place. The armistice that was signed on the 28th of October 1944 in Moscow, nearly a month after the People’s Court commenced its proceedings, contained in article 6 a demand for the government of Bulgaria to “cooperate in the apprehension and trial of persons accused of war crimes”. The Paris Peace Agreement three years later reiterated that point in Article 5. However, this begs the question as to whether the Allied powers, or at least those not being run by communist dictatorships, could have ever imagined a process of the People’s Court’s scale?

As far as it concerned the occupying Soviet troops, as Tony Judt eloquently notes in his book Post-War

“the trials and other punishments of collaborators, fascists, and Germans, were always and above all a way of clearing the local political and social landscape of impediments to communist rule”. 

It seems that Bulgaria could very much be characterised as Honecker anticipating a sloppy kiss from Brezhnev; when you witness the Soviet incursion, a passionate red element takes over and you pucker up for the lasting damage.

Where did my political intelligentsia go?

On the 25th of September, 1944, the secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party sent a macabre telegram to BCP’s leader, Georgi Dimitrov, in which he declared that the People’s Court could “be used for the silent liquidation of the most dangerous enemies. The counterrevolution must be decapitated quickly and decisively!”

The court’s head prosecutor assured everyone that the People’s Court would practice its historic mission under the slogan “Death to Fascism”. Well, this was a convenient slogan for the BCP to use after the Central Committee of the FF had classified all political entities outside of the FF as ‘pro-fascist’. Furthermore, under the Ordinance-Legislation for the People’s Court, all who held a ministerial post in Bulgaria between January 1st, 1941 and September 9th 1944, were to be tried. Of course, the FF felt no need to outline each minister’s crimes, as it was much simpler to just lump everyone under the title of “fascist”. Concisely put, what was to ensue was a massacre of Bulgaria’s political future.

The butchery would start with the boy-Tsar’s regents, with all three being sentenced to death and killed amongst a wide selection of Bulgaria’s political elite, in what would come to be known as “Bloody Thursday.” Many, like Professor-Doctor Bogdan Filov, were indicted for allying Bulgaria to the Axis, with no consideration to the fact that the reluctant alliance was compelled by the threat to sovereignty posed by expansionist fascism. Likewise, army officials like General-Lieutenant Nikola Mihov were indicted, regardless that Bulgaria had actively resisted participating on the Eastern Front, as the BCP viewed the Bulgarian army as a future threat to its looming communist regime.

The court also did not shy away from prosecuting those who actively opposed the Axis-alliance. The entire National Concentration was indicted, in spite of the six-day government being specifically created to terminate the Bulgaro-Axis Alliance. Apart from Muraviev, other notable defendants included Nikola Mushanov, who was tried irrespective of the fact that he had been one of, if not the, most outspoken critic of anti-Semitism and the Axis-alliance. His trial was justified perhaps because in 1923 he helped found “The Democratic Union for Stopping the Communist Party Igniting Civil War,” as the communist party actively attempted to ignite civil war, culminating in the terrorist attack on the Tsar at the Sveta Nedelya Church. Likewise, Atanas Burov, who is still one of the most renowned Bulgarian Democrats, was punished for his popularity under the crimson court.

“In memory of Bulgaria’s doctors and medical students who were victims of the communist regime.”  It was not just politicians which were hunted down, doctor’s, student’s, landowners, and the educated elite were all targets.

We all chose it together?

Regardless of the purge of many of the BCP’s rivals, some historians remind us that the entire Fatherland Front, which included members of the BCP, BANU, BSWP, and Zveno, voted in favor of the creation of the People’s Court. It is especially shocking that Nikola Petkov of the BANU voted as such, as the BANU leader would later become perhaps the greatest Bulgarian symbol of resistance to communist authoritarianism, a cause he valiantly took to the grave after condemning the communist regime at his own trial in 1947. Hence, how could the court have been a communist tool when it was not just the communists who had voted for its creation? The FF’s intentions for the People’s Court may have been justice, however, the BCP’s micromanagement of court proceedings twisted its purpose to injustice.

The White Terror

The Third Bulgarian Tsardom will always be admired for its rejection of Hitler’s demands to deport Bulgaria’s 48,000 Jews. Unfortunately, a closer look at Bulgarian Jewish policy does not paint the perfect picture I grew up believing. Bulgaria’s commissar of the Jewish Question was indicted, for his role in ensuring that 11,343 Jews from Bulgaria’s occupied Greek and Yugoslav territories were sent to Nazi camps. Furthermore, Jews in Bulgaria were forced to wear a yellow star, could not carry Bulgarian names, and were not allowed to own property, and the people responsible for these laws were justifiably tried under Panel 7. However, one has to look at the broad picture, and that picture presents us with cases like that of Dimitar Peshev. Regardless that Peshev has since been bestowed with a Righteous Among the Nations honorific by Israel, this being due to his active work in ensuring that Bulgaria’s Jews were not deported, he was nevertheless tried for anti-Semitism.

However, what of the righteous Tsar Boris III? Today, many in Bulgaria idolise the Tsar, perhaps for similar reasons that there has been a rise in the proliferation of Orthodox Christian belief; it constitutes an outright rejection of the imposed secularism of the communist state. Nevertheless, the penultimate Tsar can arguably be viewed as a tyrant, who in 1935 banned all political parties in Bulgaria in the name of combating political extremism.

At the Paris Peace Talks, the BCP proclaimed that the fascist political system had killed 35,000 people. However, this conveys an unfair comparison between the repressions of the 9th of September and the so-called “White Terror”. Estimates of deaths due to Boris’s suppressions are at most 800, while 199 were executed between 1941-44. This is incomparable to BCP’s estimated butchering of 30,000 in a single month before the court had even begun, or the 2,138 executions to the court’s name.

Communist Kangaroo Court

Sofia University St.Kliment Ochridsky, where many of the People’s Court’s trials were held.

The BCP frequently met with the court’s actors to ‘exchange opinions’, or ‘acquaint’ itself with the planned judgments and give ‘instructions’ to prosecutors. One must only look to the court’s judicial panels to understand its true purpose, as most were not lawyers, with only 4 of the first 13 judges being legally trained. The rest were miners, teachers, workers, and others who had lost family in the partisan anti-Tsarist resistance. Meanwhile, the BCP fanned the flames of passion by using its press to bombard Bulgarians with images of partisans beheaded by the tsarist military. They  presented a masterclass in constructing a biased, politically charged, judiciary which would horrify even today’s Eastern European judicial meddlers.

Now, I will allow a quote by Georgi Dimitrov to convey the nature of the defense which the indicted were afforded: 

“A strong defense is impossible. This is because the process must be public so as to have the strongest political effect. Otherwise the accused would use this public trial as a tribune for anti-national goals”. 

Most of the defense attorneys underlined the guilt of their defendants, which, coupled with the fact that the court’s judgements were not subject to appeal or approval, meant that the BCP had at its disposal an extremely effective political weapon.

The Crimson Monarchs.

After the coup of the 9th of September 1944, the BCP began unlawfully eliminating rivals before any court proceedings had even begun. Though it is hard to give an estimate of victims, they range from 625 to 30,000. During the bloodbath, a telegram from the BCP’s Central Committee to Georgi Dimitrov noted that “due to disapproval by our soft allies, we will continue the revolutionary cleansing for one more week, and then the national judges will begin their work and we will bring the cleansing under the law.”  The People’s Court was used to put a legal blanket over the butchery of communist revolution, yet even under this veneer of legality, the murders were vile. The BCP used the court to legally legitimise its oppressive measures in the eyes of skeptical allies, with posthumous trials instituted primarily in order to legitimize savage lawmaking. The communists used the court to legalise their own murders, in effect maintaining that ‘it is legal only because we did it.’ Then the judgments of the court would be used to tear apart families and mark children as ‘enemies of the state’, which would be targeted by the BCP for the rest of their lives, and then for the rest of their children’s lives, and then their children, until the regime collapsed in 1989. The People’s Court allowed the BCP to raise the thin veil of a ‘pro-rule of law’ façade, which was what they needed in order to rise as leaders of a ‘legitimate’ Bulgarian government.

The new people’s monarchy also used the People’s Court as a tool for economically bolstering itself through confiscated property. Five of the sixteen articles of the Ordinance-Legislation for the People’s Court concern themselves with the confiscation of property. The BCP used the court to legitimise their own illegal confiscations of property during the September Coup and until the beginning of the trials, stomping over the Tarnovo Constitution which explicitly stated that the appropriation of property was illegal. Posthumous confiscations were also allowed, as the property of the dead would, in the words of the BCP, “create the first economic blow to the bourgeois and help the fighters against fascism”. Many lost their land in a wave of thievery brought about by a complete disregard for people in the name of property. Landowners were shot, burned, and slaughtered, while the People’s Court stood above and legalised their deaths.

What Now?

The National Palace of Culture

In 1996, the Bulgarian Supreme Court of Cassation, free from communist influence, annulled the judgements of the first panel and 124 of the 126 judgments of the second panel. However, the Court has forever left its scar on Bulgaria. Since its liberation from Ottoman rule, in large part due to the aid of the Russian Tsar Liberator Alexander II, Bulgaria had spent half a century looking west instead of east. However, the People’s Court had pummeled Bulgaria into submission so viciously, that the Balkan nation had become the Soviet Union’s most loyal ally; an obedient communist lap dog which would not bite as other communist satellites rose up in revolt. Today, one cannot help but wonder what life would have been like if not for the communist annihilation of Bulgaria’s intelligentsia.

Today, as I walk down central Sofia, I can see the gloomy concrete carcasses of communist giants all around me, twisting between the neo-baroque architecture of the post-liberation Bulgarian renaissance. At the heart of Sofia stands the menacing National Palace of Culture, a large communist acropolis opened to Bulgarians in 1981, amongst other now-collapsed displays, to mark the 1300 year anniversary of the foundation of the First Bulgarian Empire. Right beside this peculiar building, I see hidden behind the bushes a little church, and in front of it, a somber stone monument. On its cold dark surface, hundreds upon hundreds of names are carved in stone. I search for what seems like hours, and then I find the name of my great grandfather who died when his house was burned down with his children inside it. I then search a while longer, yet I cannot find the name of my great uncle who had been left to bleed out in the dark, shot by faceless gunmen who had decided to kill the first person between him and his brother to walk out from the village bar. 

“And thousands more died in their homes after persecution and violence.”

Thousands died in the most barbaric manner as the red specter loomed, to the point that the American journalist and Truman emissary, Mark Ethridge, asked the Bulgarian government in 1944, “don’t you think that if you continue killing as you have until now, it will be necessary for us to send you a new population from America?”. After the Court, a sputter of resistance would rally behind Nikola Petkov and his hope for western support in toppling the growing communist regime. However, geo-political strategy would not allow this, as the allies had other more important strategic ambitions, abandoning the hopeless democrats as the Soviet bear tightened its suffocating grip on Bulgaria’s liberalism. Bulgaria’s light would not shine again for half a century, and beyond.

Leave a Reply