A Brief History of Bulgaria

By Tim Lambert

Ancient Bulgaria

From about 400 BC a race called the Thracians lived in parts of what is now Bulgaria. The Thracians were a tribal society and they were superb horsemen. They were also known for making beautiful gold and silver jewelry.

By 100 AD the Romans conquered Bulgaria. The Romans founded the city of Trimontium (modern-day Plovdiv). They also built the city of Serdica on the site of Sofia.

In 395 the Roman Empire split in two. Bulgaria became part of the Eastern Roman Empire (later called the Byzantine Empire). However, Byzantium grew weaker and about 500 AD Slavs settled in Bulgaria.

Then in 680 the Bulgars invaded led by their ruler Khan Asparukh. They were descended from the Huns from Central Asia. They crossed the Danube and founded the state of Bulgaria. They then intermarried with the Slavs.

In 716 the Byzantine Empire recognized the state of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria in the Middle Ages

However, in the late 8th century, Emperor Constantine V tried to destroy Bulgaria – but without success. Then the pendulum swung the other way. From 809 Khan Krum attacked the Byzantine Empire. Led by Khan Krum the Bulgars were victorious. In 811 the Byzantine Emperor, Nicephorus was killed in battle. Krum had his skull covered in silver and used it for drinking. In 813 Krum even lay siege to Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium but he failed to capture it. Finally, in 816 Khan Omurtag made peace.

Then in 846 Boris I of Bulgaria accepted Christianity and his subjects followed. Bulgaria accepted the Eastern Orthodox Church rather than the western Catholic Church.

Bulgaria reached a peak under Simeon the Great 893-927. He called himself ‘Emperor of all the Bulgars and Greeks’. The pope recognized him but the Byzantine emperor did not!

However in the later 10th century Bulgaria declined. In 971 the Byzantines took the capital Preslav along with a large part of eastern Bulgaria. Finally in 1014 after the battle of Belasita, the Byzantines captured 15,000 Bulgars. Out of every 100 men, 99 were blinded and one was left with one eye to lead the others home. In 1018 Bulgaria became part of the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines ruled Bulgaria until 1185. Then heavy taxation provoked rebellion. A new Bulgarian kingdom was founded with its capital at Turnovo. In 1202 the Byzantines accepted the situation and made peace.

Then in 1204, the Crusaders captured Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. The Crusaders claimed that the Bulgars were their vassals however the Bulgars defeated them in battle.

The second Bulgarian kingdom reached its peak under Ivan Asen II 1218-1241. Bulgaria became prosperous and powerful.

However, the Bulgarians had powerful enemies. In 1330 the Bulgarians were defeated by the Serbians at the battle of Velbuzhd. Bulgaria came temporarily under Serbian domination. n From the 9th century to the 15th century a religious sect called the Bogomils flourished in Bulgaria. The Bogomils were probably named after an 8th-century priest named Bogomil.

The Bogomils were dualists. It was a very old belief in the Middle East that there were two gods, one good and one evil. The evil god created the material world while the good God created the spiritual one. This belief entered Bulgaria and took on some Christian elements. Bogomils believed that Satan created the material universe while God made the soul.

Bogomils did not believe in the incarnation (the doctrine that God became a man – Jesus). They did not believe in infant baptism or in the Eucharist (sharing bread at mass). They also rejected the whole organization of the Orthodox Church.

The leaders of the Bogomils led austere lives. They abstained from marriage, eating meat, and drinking wine. However, their followers did not have to live such strict lives.

The Bogomil sect spread to the Byzantine Empire and other parts of Southeast Europe. However, it died out after the Turks conquered the area.

In the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks were a rising power in the region. In 1393 they captured Turnovo. All Bulgarian resistance to the Turks ended in 1396. Bulgaria was under Turkish rule for nearly 500 years.

Nevertheless, the Bulgarians had to pay taxes to the Turks. They also had to surrender their sons. At intervals, the Turks would take the cream of Bulgarian boys aged 7 to 14. They were taken from their families and brought up as Muslims. They were also trained to be soldiers called Janissaries.

In 1688 the Bulgarians around Chirpiest rose in rebellion. However, the rebellion was crushed. Nevertheless from the late 17th century onward, the Turkish Empire went into inexorable decline.

Then in the 19th century nationalism became a powerful force in Europe including Bulgaria and the ideas of the French Revolution spread. There was a growing interest in Bulgarian culture and history and a growing resentment of Turkish rule.

Finally, in April 1876, some Bulgarians rose in revolt. However, the Turks easily crushed the rebellion.

Independent Bulgaria

Then in April 1877, Russia declared war on Turkey. In January 1878 the Russians captured Sofia. Then on 3 March, the Treaty of Stefano ended the war. The treaty created an independent Bulgaria. However, the British and Austro-Hungarians were afraid that this new Bulgaria might be a powerful ally for Russia and they insisted the treaty be revised.

By the treaty of Berlin, July 1878 Bulgaria was split in two. The northern half was not allowed to be totally independent. Instead, Bulgaria was to be a vassal state of Turkey called a principality. It was to be ruled by a prince with a parliament called the Sobranie.

The southern half of Bulgaria was made only semi-autonomous within the Turkish Empire. It was given the name Eastern Rumelia.

The Bulgarians would not accept this solution. In 1885 people in Eastern Rumelia staged a coup and they united with the northern half of Bulgaria. However other countries intervened again. In November 1885 the Serbians declared war. However, they were crushed at the Battle of Slivnitsa.

The great powers then drew up a new agreement. The two halves of Bulgaria were not allowed to completely unite. Instead, they remained two separate entities but the Prince of (northern) Bulgaria was made ‘governor-general’ of Eastern Rumelia.

This arrangement was only a stopgap measure. In 1908 the Bulgarians overturned it. On 5 October Prince Ferdinand announced the complete independence of Bulgaria. He became King Ferdinand of Bulgaria.

Meanwhile at the beginning of the 20th century Turkish rule in Europe was crumbling. The Turks were faced with rebellions. The Balkan states feared that the great powers might intervene. They wanted to liberate the territories still held by the Turks – and impose their own solutions. So they formed a triple alliance of Serbia, Bulgaria, and Greece.

In October 1912 the three countries invaded Turkish territory in Europe. However, the great powers did interfere. They insisted that an independent Albania be created. The three allies could do what they wanted with the rest of Turkish territory.

However the allies soon quarreled and on 29 June 1913, Bulgaria attacked Serbia and Greece. However, Romania intervened and Bulgaria was forced to make peace. Bulgaria was forced to surrender some of its territories.

Then in 1914 came the First World War. In October 1915 Germany persuaded Bulgaria to join its side promising territory as a reward. However, an allied blockade caused severe shortages in Bulgaria and eventually near starvation. Then in September 1918 French and British troops entered Bulgaria and on 29 September 1918 Bulgaria signed an armistice. On 3 October 1918, Ferdinand abdicated. His son Boris III replaced him.

In 1919 Bulgaria was forced to sign the treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine. She lost significant parts of her territory. Furthermore, Bulgaria was not allowed to have more than 20,000 men in her army and she was forced to pay reparations (a form of compensation for the war). However, the reparations were canceled in 1932.

In the elections of 1919, those parties who had supported Bulgaria’s entry into the war lost votes while those who had opposed it (The Communists and the Agrarian Party) gained them.

In December 1919 the Communists and the Social Democrats joined forces and called a general strike in Bulgaria. However, Prime Minister Stamboliyski arrested the strike leaders and the strike was called off on 5 January 1920.

Despite its troubles in 1920 Bulgaria was allowed to join the League of Nations, the first of the nations on the losing side to do so.

However democracy in Bulgaria gave way to an authoritarian regime. In 1922 some disaffected army officers formed an organization called the Military League. In 1923 a group of conspirators including members of the Military League seized power in a coup. Prime Minister Stamboliyski was murdered.

A new government was formed by Aleksandar Tsankov. Then in 1925, the Communists exploded a bomb in a Sofia cathedral. Afterward, thousands of Communists were arrested and many were executed.

However, in 1926 Tsankov was replaced by Andrei Liapchev. He removed some of the restrictions imposed by Tsankov. Trade unions were allowed to form and in 1927 the Communist Party was allowed to reform. In 1931 elections were held in Bulgaria.

However, in the early 1930s, Bulgaria suffered severely from the depression. Peasant incomes fell by half and in the towns unemployment rocketed. Then in May 1934, a group of officers carried out a coup.

However, the new government was split over what to do with the king. Their leader Colonel Damian Velchev was a republican but in January 1935 his opponents managed to force him out of office. In 1936 Boris dissolved the Military League and promised to return to constitutional government. Elections were held in 1938.

When the Second World War began in 1939 King Boris was, at first, determined to keep Bulgaria neutral. However, from March 1941, he agreed to allow German troops to pass through Bulgaria on their way to Greece. As a reward, Bulgaria was given territory in Thrace and Macedonia. However, although some anti-Semitic laws were passed in Bulgaria the Bulgarian Jews were not deported to concentration camps. King Boris died in August 1943.

By the summer of 1944, Germany was obviously losing the war and the Russians were approaching Bulgaria. Russia declared war on Bulgaria on 5 September 1944. Bulgaria declared on Germany on 7 September 1944 (with effect from 8 September). However, on 8 September 1944, Russian troops entered Bulgaria.

In 1942 the Fatherland Front or FF was formed. It consisted of Communists, Social Democrats, and Agrarians. On 9 September 1944, the FF staged a coup and formed a new government. Crucially in the new cabinet, the Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Justice were Communists. (They were also helped by the fact that Russian troops were stationed in Bulgaria).

The Communist takeover of Bulgaria was gradual. From the start, they controlled the radio and many newspapers. However, the Communists removed their opponents one by one. New Peoples Courts were formed under the Ministry of Justice to try ‘war criminals’ and ‘collaborators’. All the supporters of the old regime were rounded up and executed or imprisoned in labor camps. They included not just politicians but priests, teachers, and policemen. Furthermore, they removed ‘unreliable’ officers from the army. Eliminating all right-wingers made the Communists even more powerful.

The Communists then turned on their fellow left-wingers in Bulgaria. They managed to cause splits in the Social Democratic Party and the Agrarian Party between pro and anti-Communist factions. In both cases, the Communist-controlled Ministry of Justice decided that the property of the parties belonged to the pro-Communist factions.

Meanwhile, in 1946 the Bulgarian army was purged again. This time about 2,000 officers were removed. In September 1946 a referendum on the monarchy resulted in Bulgaria becoming a republic. In an election in November 1946, the Communists insisted that all FF candidates should form a single list. Previously the votes had been able to vote for individual parties (Communist, Agrarian of Social Democrat). Now they would only be able to vote for the FF or against it. The FF gained most of the seats in the National Assembly.

However, most of the FF seats were taken by Communists rather than Social Democrats or Agrarians (far more than support for the Communists among the voters would justify). In this way, the Communists gained control of the Assembly.

Finally, in June 1947 Nikola Petkov (1889-1947), the leader of the anti-Communist part of the Agrarian Party and the leader of the opposition to the Communists were arrested. He was executed in August 1947 after a show trial. Then in 1947, the Communists introduced the Dimitrov Constitution. It was named after Georgi Dimitrov, leader of the Communists after 1945 and it brought in a full Communist regime in Bulgaria.

The Communists nationalized industry and collectivized agriculture in Bulgaria. They also persecuted the Orthodox Church.

Finally, after imposing Communism the Communist Party turned on its members. After the anti-Communist uprising in Hungary in 1956, there was a purge in Bulgaria in which many communists were expelled from the party. Some were sent to labor camps.

So for many years, Bulgaria was burdened with a totalitarian regime, slavishly obedient to the Soviet Union.

From 1954 it was ruled by Todor Zhivkov. He reigned until 1989. n During the communist era attempts were made to increase industry in Bulgaria but it remained a mainly agricultural country.

In 1985 Zhikov tried to ‘Bulgarianize’ the Bulgarian Turks. Bulgarian Turks were ordered to choose from a list of Bulgarian names. If they refused one was chosen for them. Troops were sent to enforce the law but the Bulgarian Turks continued to resist. Finally in the summer of 1989 Zhikov announced that the Turks could leave Bulgaria and go to Turkey if they wished. Many of them did.

Modern Bulgaria

Finally, in the late 1980s, the Communist tyranny in Bulgaria began to crumble. On 10 November 1989 Zhikov was deposed. In April the Communists renamed themselves the Bulgarian Socialist Party. The totalitarian regime was dismantled. On 6 March 1990 strikes were made legal. However multi-party elections were not held until June 1990. The Bulgarian Socialist Party continued to hold power.

However, state socialism was scrapped in Bulgaria. From 1991 controls on prices were removed and industry was privatized. Collective farms were dissolved. A new constitution was introduced in July 1991 and after further elections in October 1991, the Socialist Party lost power.

Bulgaria was a relatively poor country and it suffered badly in the recession of 2009.

However, Bulgaria recovered, and today the economy is growing steadily. Today tourism is a rapidly growing industry in Bulgaria. Tourists are attracted by the beautiful architecture and beaches in Bulgaria. Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and Bulgaria joined the EU in 2007. In 2024 the population of Bulgaria was 6.4 million.

Church, Sofia

Last revised 2024