Bulgarian resistance movement during World War II

Bulgarian resistance movement during World War II

The Bulgarian resistance movement was part of the Resistance during World War II. It consisted of armed and unarmed actions of resistance groups against the Wehrmacht forces in Bulgaria and Kingdom of Bulgaria's authorities. It is mainly, but not only, Communist and pro-Soviet. A participant in the armed resistance is called "partizanin" (a partisan) and one of the helpers - "yatak" (a supporter, someone who provides cover for someone else).


Nazi forces entered Bulgaria as a result of Bulgaria's adhesion to the Axis on the 1 March 1941. The Bulgarian Communist Party(BWP) declared this to be a "fatal move" and once again called for a union with the USSR. The Communists had long despised the pro-German policy of Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and even campaigned in 1940 for political pact with Moscow (Sobolev action). Before the German invasion in USSR, there had not been any armed resistance in Bulgaria. At the start of World War II, the Comintern supported a policy of non-intervention, arguing that the war was an imperialist war between various national ruling classes, but when the Soviet Union itself was invaded on June 22, 1941, the Comintern changed its position. The resistance movement, was set up in August, 1941 by the Bulgarian Communist Party to oppose the pro-Nazi government.


The German attack on the Soviet Union on the 22 June 1941 sparked the rage of the Communists and the Russophiles in Bulgaria. The same day the BCP spread a brochure among the people urging "to hinder by all means the usage of Bulgarian land and soldiers for the criminal purposes of German fascism". Two days later, on the 24 June, the BCP called for an armed resistance against the Wehrmacht and the Bogdan Filov government. In the first year of the resistance the BCP used mainly its combat groups. They carried out a number of sabotages - arson and demolition of arms, clothes and fuel warehouses, of communications, factories and transport lines. The combat groups assassinated prominent Bulgarian politicians, army and police leaders, Wehrmacht officers. The combat groups' activities impaired the image of Hitler's supporters in Bulgaria but a great number of their members were captured or killed. The first guerrilla detachments were created in the late summer of 1941. They were relatively small and were called "chetas". They were created in the Pirin, Rhodopes and Sredna gora mountains. The first known partisan in Bulgaria is Ivan Kozarev and the first partisan commander - Nikola Parapunov.In September 1941, Bulgarian Communist emigrés arrive on Soviet submarines and aircraft with the main purpose to boost the resistance movement. The 55 experienced Communist fighters are sent, according to one version, by the Foreign Bureau of the BCP. According to another version, they were sent by order of the NKVD, of which the Bulgarian Communists in Moscow were not aware. The landing of the so called "paratroopers" and "submariners" turned out to be precipitate and most of them were captured or killed. On the other hand, the ones who survived became some of the most prominent partisan leaders.

Rise of the partisan force

In the winter of 1941-1942 the Wehrmacht suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Moscow. This busted the myth of the invincibility of the German army and showed that the "blitzkrieg" in the Soviet Union has failed. In April 1942 a map titled "The Danube area" was published in Germany, where the so called "new annexed territories" of Bulgaria in Macedonia and Thrace were described as "territories under temporary Bulgarian administration". This was a failure for Sofia's official propaganda, which claimed to have completed the national unification of the Bulgarians. The above events led to a rise in the partisans manpower and prestige. In July 1942 on the underground radio station "Hristo Botev" Georgi Dimitrov announced the creation of the Fatherland Front(FF). It was a major anti-fascist coalition between the Communists, the Agrarians and the "Zveno" party. The FF demands the non-participation of Bulgarian forces in the war against the USSR, the immediate return of Bulgarian occupation forces from Greek and Yugoslav territory, a breach of the union with Germany, a halt of the grain export for Nazi Germany, friendly relations with the USSR, the United Kingdom and the USA, restoration of civil freedoms, denunciation of non-constitutional laws, cessation of military actions against civil population, dismissal of all pro-fascist organization and eradication of racial hatred. Despite the arrest and later execution of most of the CentralCommittee of the BCP(due to the betrayal of one of the members), the strength of the partisans continued to grow. In August 1943 the Bulgarian Social Democratic Party joined the FF.

Fierce Fighting

Due to the growing number and manpower of partisan "cheti" and detachments, in April 1943 they were organized in People's Liberation Rebel Army(NOVA). NOVA divided Bulgaria in 12 "Rebel Operative Zones" which implied BWP's intention of seizing power. The Bulgarian authorities responded by reinforcing the persecution of the resistance members. Thousands of opposition activists were killed, imprisoned or interned. The government created a special gerndarmerie force which received almost unlimited power to pursue the partisans. The gendarmes became notorious for carrying out atrocities against captured partisans and their "yatatsi". Gendarmerists and police also became increasingly involved in harassment, arson and murders of partisans' families. Partisans staged attacks on railroads and warehouses, used by the German or the Bulgarian forces. When that was possible, they captured villages to organize meeting in support of the FF, destroy police and tax archives and supply themselves with food and arms.

BCP increased its activity among the Bulgarian soldiers. A frequent event was the army's low effectiveness in fighting partisan detachments. A significant number of soldiers desert to join the partisans. Such events were mainly observed in the Bulgarian forces in Yugoslavia and Greece. 7 partisan detachments were created by transformed former army battalions, which organizedly sided with the partisans. Most prominent soldier-partisan commanders were Ditcho Petrov and Atanas Rusev.

In the spring of 1944 the Bulgarian government decided to crush the partisans and mobilised about 100 000 soldiers, policemen and gendarmes, which were thrown in mass actions against the guerrillas. The result is far from the desired - as the Red Army advances towards the Balkans even more people joined the resistance. NOVA grows as a significant military force. In the Tran, Rhodopes, Sredna gora regions the partisans were a constant threat to the government authorities.

Taking over the power

On the 2 September 1944 the pro-German government of Ivan Bagryanov stepped down threatened by the Red Army's advance towards Bulgaria's borders. A pro-Western government of the former legal opposition came to power. It ordered the army not to resist advancing Soviet forces, demanded that the Wehrmacht leave, broke the union with Germany and started negotiations with NOVA commander Dobri Terpeshev. The right wing Agrarians, who controlled the government, offered the FF some minister seats. In the meantime, the police and the army continued to pursue the partisans, unchecked by thecivil power. Advancing Soviet troops gave the Communists self-confidence and they reject the right Agrarians' offer.

Between 6 and 9 September 1944 170 Bulgarian towns and villages were captured by the partisans. On the 9 September Terpeshev ordered all partisans to descend from the mountains and seize power in all of Bulgaria - '"All brigades, battalions and cheti of the people's liberation army are to capture the villages and towns and install FF committees in them"'. In Sofia, "Zveno" mobilised its influence in the military and strong army detachments, including the Tank brigade, sided with the FF and staged a coup in the night of 8/9 September.

Soon after FF's seizure of power the partisans became the first forces to resist the attempted return of the Wehrmacht in Bulgaria on its western and northwestern border. Bulgarian partisans also participate in the liberation from Nazi occupation of some towns and villages in Serbia, Kosovo and Greece. After the 9 September and prior to Bulgaria's army joining the Allies' fight against the Axis, former partisans were placed on key positions in the Bulgarian military to ensure its loyalty. Former partisans also build up the new People's Militia, which replaced the Bulgarian police. They allegedly participated in mass retaliation which took the lives of thousands of former civil servants, policemen and gendarmes.

Partisan force's scale

The ultimate number of the partisans remains controversial. According to official historiography under Todor Zhivkov, the NOVA numbered around 30,000. A post-democratic changes research points out a number around 9,900. At the eve of the seizure of power by the FF, the functioning partisan units were one partisan division, 9 partisan brigades, 37 partisan detachments and an unknown number of "cheti" and combat groups. In the clashes with government and German forces and as a result of torture and executions 9140 partisans and 20 070 "yatatsi" died between 1941 and 1944. 1590 people were sentenced to death for revolutionary activity.

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