Bulgaria's Dream of Empire

By T. Lothrop Stoddard

[The Century Magazine, June 1915]

In current discussions as to the attitude of neutral powers to the European War, Bulgaria generally plays a minor part. We hear a great deal about Italy and Rumania and much concerning Greece, but Bulgaria is usually put quite in the background. The main reason for this seems to be the prevailing idea that Bulgaria was "crushed" in the Second Balkan War—so crushed as henceforth to be disregarded as a relatively negligible quantity. However, as a matter of fact, this "crushing" of Bulgaria was one of the cleverest hoaxes ever perpetrated upon an unsuspecting world, and Bulgaria today holds the key to the eastern European situation. Such being the case, it would seem of vital importance to ascertain the true condition of things, and to deduce there from Bulgaria's probable course of action.

First, as to the Second Balkan War. As soon as it broke out, Bulgaria, by her mere geographical situation, was at once cut off from the outside world. Her enemies controlled the wires, and forthwith proceeded to give the world that story of the struggle which has ever since remained the accepted version. This story ran briefly as follows: the Bulgarians made a sudden attack upon the unsuspecting Servian and Greek troops, but were ignominiously routed, and the phantom of Bulgarian invincibility having thus been dissipated, first Rumania and then Turkey flung themselves upon the tempting prey. At the Peace of Bucharest Bulgaria emerged discredited, ruined.

Such is the accepted version. Now let us examine the facts. A few weeks before General Savoff's famous "surprise attack" upon the Servian lines on June 29, 1913, the Bulgarian army had begun a secret concentration toward Macedonia. This movement was in full swing when the Czar of Russia sent his mediation telegram. Not daring to flout Russia by an immediate attack, Ferdinand of Bulgaria halted military operations for a considerable time, and, when resumed, these operations were rather political than strategic in character, Ferdinand's aim apparently having been to seize the disputed territories and then resume negotiations with all the trumps in his hand. However, by this time Servia and Greece had learned what was up, and had begun counter-preparations. When Savoff finally made his attack—on necessarily unsound strategic lines—the Servians repulsed him, while the Greeks fell upon the weak Bulgarian garrisons of the south and drove them from the Aegean coastlands. Then something very extraordinary took place. Despite a vicious preliminary concentration and serious initial reverses, the Bulgarians reformed on sound strategic lines and soon quite reversed the situation. Checking the Servian counter-attack, the Bulgarians broke through the Servian lines farther to the north and struck savagely for Nish, the key to the Servian lines of communication, on which hung the very life of the Servian armies in Macedonia. Farther south the Bulgarians were in even better case. A Greek army 50,000 strong was trapped in the rugged defiles of the Struma and appeared doomed to certain destruction.

It was at this moment, when Bulgaria seemed to have both Greece and Servia strategically beaten, that the blow from behind fell. Furious at Bulgaria's defiance and determined to save her Servian protégés, Russia incited Rumania to fall upon the Bulgarian rear, and Rumanian armies were soon sweeping over the Bulgarian plains, entirely denuded of troops. Terrible as was this sudden blow to their high hopes, however, both Ferdinand and his people recognized that the game was up. No vain struggle against hopeless odds was attempted, and Bulgaria stoically took her bitter medicine at the Peace of Bucharest. As Ferdinand announced in his proclamation to the army, "Exhausted, but not vanquished, we have had to furl our glorious standards in order to wait for better days."

This is not bombast; it is a plain statement of fact. Diplomatically speaking, there had been a collapse; militarily, there had not been even a disaster. From the crisis the Bulgarian army emerged intact, with unbroken spirit and in possession of its artillery and other material of war. In other words, Bulgaria had not been "crushed," and was quite capable of again "unfurling her standards" on the advent of "better days."

That Bulgaria would try to tear up the Treaty of Bucharest as soon as she possibly could, all the world knows and has known from the first. The Bulgarians themselves, from Ferdinand down to the humblest of his subjects, have made no secret of their intentions. The Treaty of Bucharest means far more than the lost territories and populations of the statistical tables; it lays down principles which cut at the deepest well-springs of the Bulgarian race soul, and to overthrow these fatal principles the Bulgarian people is willing to risk its very existence. The reason for this attitude is revealed by an analysis of Bulgaria's past and of her future aspirations.

Modern Bulgaria is one of the most extraordinary phenomena of human history. Less than forty years ago the Bulgarians were wretched serfs, exploited to the limit of human endurance and triply enslaved—slaves of Turkish militarism, Greek ecclesiasticism, and Russian Panslavism. The Russo-Turkish War of 1877 broke the Turkish yoke, and though the Berlin Congress handed back the Macedonian Bulgars to Ottoman rule, the bulk of the race was definitely freed from Turkish dominion. Nevertheless, the Bulgarians were as yet by no means masters in their own house. At the time of the Turkish conquest, five centuries before, the Bulgarians had fallen under the spiritual domination of the Greek Patriarchs of Constantinople, and since the patriarchate was as zealous for Greek nationalism as it was for Christian propaganda, it made every possible effort to Hellenize the Bulgarians by implanting the Greek language and Greek ideas. All the higher ecclesiastics in Bulgaria were either Greeks or Hellenized Slavs, to whom everything Bulgarian was a menace to civilization—that is, Hellenism. Any one who knows what a vital part religion plays in all eastern European national questions can appreciate the necessity for a truly Bulgarian church in any Bulgarian national revival. This was finally accomplished by the creation of the Bulgarian exarchate, which gave the Bulgarian race a national clergy from top to bottom. True, the Greek Patriarch was obdurate, and promptly excommunicated the new exarch and all his adherents; but this merely added the fury of religious schism to the fires of race hatred. In Macedonia, where the two stocks were inextricably intermingled, chronic warfare began, the Bulgar-feeling population seceding to the exarchate, the Greeks and Hellenized Slavs cleaving to the Patriarch of Constantinople. In Bulgaria proper, however, the victory was decisive, and save for a few Greek town colonies, Hellenism was quickly eradicated.

During this same epoch the Bulgarians were freeing themselves from the third obstacle to their national development Russian Panslavism. No one should minimize that generous enthusiasm of the Russian people for the liberation of the "Little Brothers of the South" which fired the Russian armies with crusading fervor in the Russo-Turkish War. The Russian Government, however, looked at things from a far less idealistic point of view. Not dreaming that these downtrodden peasants could, after five centuries of combined Turkish and Hellenic domination, possess an intense national consciousness, official Russia saw in the Bulgarians only an amorphous Slav mass easily moldable into "neo-Russians," faithful marchmen of the empire, much as the Cossacks had once been. It was for this reason that Russia mapped out the "Big Bulgaria" of the Peace of San Stefano, and it was for this same reason that England never rested until she had broken "Big Bulgaria" to pieces at the Congress of Berlin.

The Bulgarians soon showed the world the fallacy of the neo-Russian idea, based as this was upon utter ignorance of both their historic past and their ethnic composition. During the Middle Ages the Bulgarians had cut a prominent figure on the Balkan stage, building up a powerful empire that threatened even Greek Constantinople. Of course this was long ago, and it is not surprising that a world which had almost forgotten the Byzantine Empire should have entirely forgotten the Bulgarian one. Nevertheless, in the retentive minds of the Bulgarian peasants the memories of their old tzars lived fresh and green, and when the hour of liberation struck, the glories of the medieval Bulgarian Empire were trumpeted forth over the land, rousing the folk like a clarion-call to a great destiny.

This was much, but there was more behind. The Bulgarians are normally classed as Slavs. So they are—partly. Yet the world too often forgets that the primitive Bulgarians were not Slavs at all, but an Asiatic people of Turanian stock who in the seventh century burst upon the primitive Slavs recently migrated south of the Danube, and settled down as masters. Less numerous than their subjects, the conquerors were soon absorbed, losing their speech and peculiar identity. Nevertheless, the blood was a potent one, for these Turanian Bulgars left behind far more than their name: they stamped upon the new folk traits which set it distinctly apart in the category of Slav peoples. A moment's analysis will clearly prove this. Your typical Slav, whether he dwell on the Russian plains or the Servian hills, is an idealist, prone to lose sight of hard facts in day-dreams. Capable of great accomplishment when under the stimuli of his enthusiasms, in ordinary times the Slav is an easy-going, improvident, open-handed person, essentially likable, but lacking that practical characteristic, efficiency. How different the Bulgarian! Restrained, sober, dour; with occasional outbursts of passion, but usually taking even his pleasures sadly; intensely practical and hard-headed; without a trace of mysticism; frugal to the point of avarice; so solicitous about the future that this frequently becomes an obsession; above all, possessed of a dogged, plodding, almost ferocious energy translating itself normally into unremitting labor—such is the folk. "The Bulgar on his ox-cart," says the national proverb, "pursues the hare, and overtakes it."

With such basic facts it is not strange that the neo-Russian dream soon ended in a rough awakening. Those Russian officers sent to mold the infant state according to Muscovite plans suddenly saw arise from this land, still smoking from the torches of bashi-bazouks and the fire of pitched battles, a nation aware of itself, jealous of its rights, grimly resolved upon its future. Russian bullying merely roused fierce resentment. These half-articulate peasants promptly produced a leader, Stambuloff, who roundly defied Russia and, turning to the Muscovite's arch-rival, Austria, took for Bulgaria's sovereign that Ferdinand who still sits upon the throne. Russia learned once and for all that the "Little Brothers of the South" cared not a fig for Panslavism except in so far as it smoothed their path of destiny.

And that destiny? It was, first, the reunion of the whole Bulgarian race from the Black Sea to the Albanian mountains, and from the Danube to the Aegean. Then, strong in its dominant central position, this "Big Bulgaria" would force the other Balkan peoples to acknowledge its hegemony. Finally, a united Balkan Christendom would expel the Turk from Europe, and a new Bulgarian Empire seat itself at Constantinople, always significantly known to Bulgarians as "Tzarigrad," the "City of the Tzars." Grandiose almost to absurdity appeared this ideal of the devastated little peasant state created by the Congress of Berlin. But, if Bulgaria's dreams were great, her waking hours were long, and all were given up to strenuous endeavor and rigid self-denial. These high hopes became part of the national consciousness. They braced every Bulgar to gigantic efforts. Before long a whole series of startling successes showed this folk to be possessed of a somber power and reckless courage which undoubtedly made the goal seem less impracticable.

The Berlin Congress had split the race into three parts: Bulgaria proper, Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia. The first, save for a shadowy vassalage to the sultan, was independent; the second was an autonomous Ottoman dependency ; the third was under absolute Turkish rule. In 1885, Bulgaria took advantage of a favorable moment to seize Eastern Rumelia. Servia, already alarmed at her rising neighbor, interfered, but was promptly beaten by the raw Bulgarian army, which here earned its reputation. At one blow Bulgaria had become the largest and most powerful of all the Christian Balkan States. But there was no resting upon her laurels. The whole energy of the nation was thrown into fresh preparations. At home production was increased, railways were built, an army was created, which, for its size, was the most formidable in the world. Abroad the Macedonian Bulgars were lavishly supported against their Greek and Turkish enemies, while Ferdinand's clever diplomacy coquetted alternately with rival Austria and Russia and extracted favors from both. The Young-Turk Revolution of 1908 gave Ferdinand the chance to renounce his shadowy vassalage to the sultan and declare Bulgaria's independence. His assumption of the proud title of tzar went much further: it proclaimed to the entire world Bulgaria's will to empire. The Young-Turk political bankruptcy and the Italian stroke at Tripoli sounded Bulgaria's hour. Early in 1912 she formed the "Balkan League," and before the year was out the spoils of European Turkey lay at the leaguers' feet. Then came the quarrel, the Second Balkan War, and the Peace of Bucharest.

This peace is, as we have already seen, utterly intolerable to Bulgaria from every point of view. Its salient features are of course the condemnation of Bulgarian Macedonia—the "irreducible minimum" of Bulgaria's whole national evolution—to ruthless Greek and Servian rule, and the growth of these rivals to territorial equality in place of their marked inferiority previous to the Balkan wars. But it is the dicta laid down in this treaty that are most intolerable to Bulgaria. These dicta are the principle of Balkan equilibrium and the assertion of Rumania's right to a voice in the settlement of all Balkan questions. At first sight these pronouncements do not look very formidable, but a closer view shows that they are absolutely fatal not only to Bulgaria's dream of empire, but even to her hopes of ever reuniting the Macedonian brethren. "Balkan equilibrium" means in practice that when one Balkan State gains, all the others must gain too. This cuts like a scythe, mowing down any head rising above the dead level of Balkan equality. Obviously there is here no place for hegemony, no room for the mighty tzardom of Bulgaria's dreams. Furthermore, now that Rumania claims the right to Balkan compensation, Bulgaria could purchase Macedonia only by cessions of more home provinces to her northern neighbor, since Rumania, by her geographical situation, can expand Balkanward only at Bulgaria's expense. In the light of all this it is easy to see that the Bulgarian people will risk anything rather than permanent submission to a status which robs them of the fruits of all their past sacrifices and which ruins every future hope.

Given this key to Bulgaria's policy, we can judge more accurately both her diplomatic manoeuvers since the autumn of 1913 and her attitude toward the present and the immediate future. On the morrow of the Bucharest Treaty Bulgaria's prospects were not over bright. Her three despoilers, Rumania, Servia, and Greece, realized that the recent settlement would last only as long as Bulgaria feared to break it. Accordingly, community of interest led them into a close understanding which held their vengeful adversary as in an invisible net of steel. Ferdinand, it is true, tried a flirtation with Rumania; but the Bucharest statesmen knew that their recent action had roused in the breasts of the Bulgarian people a malevolent hatred of truly frightful intensity. Wherefore, however sincerely a cool-headed diplomat like Ferdinand might renounce the lost Silistrian province for Macedonian gains, Rumania's statesmen felt that if they abandoned Greece and Servia to Bulgarian vengeance, their own turn would soon come. Seeing the impossibility of moving Rumania, Ferdinand turned to the one other possible Balkan ally. Incongruous enough this ally at first sight appeared, it being none other than Turkey, not merely the hereditary foe, but the recent ravisher of Adrianople, Bulgaria's chief prize in the First Balkan War. Nevertheless, it was not Moslem Adrianople, but Bulgarian Macedonia, for which Bulgaria had fought that conflict, and since Turkey hated the Greeks as cordially as did the Bulgarians themselves, the alliance of the despoiled against the spoilers was soon constituted.

Whether Bulgaria would have joined Turkey in an attack on Greece if last year's Greco-Turkish crisis had ended in war is impossible to say. Bulgaria had even by that time accomplished marvels in army reorganization, but her new strategic railways are scarcely begun and cannot be completed under two years. The European War undoubtedly came too soon for Bulgaria, a fact having much to do with her present reserved attitude. Still, it is plain that in this titanic struggle, which may settle the Balkan status for generations to come, Bulgaria must be prepared to grasp her opportunity. The question now remains, On which side does Bulgaria stand? This can be made clear by a brief survey of her relations with the warring great powers, which in practice means her relations with Russia and Austria.

Down to the Second Balkan War these relations, at least outwardly, had been a policy of balance, leaning first toward one and then toward the other, while extracting favors from both. However, beneath all this diplomatic coquetry there lay the enduring fact that Bulgaria's ultimate aims might be furthered by Austria, but could never be favored by Russia. Austria and Russia have long coveted the Balkan Peninsula. The reason why they have not fought over it till now is because up to a generation ago they thought it divisible between them. Russia's Balkan goal has always been Constantinople; Austria's, Saloniki. The famous "Interview of Reichstadt" preceding the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 was really a partition agreement by which Russia granted Austria Bosnia-Herzegovina, with further recognition of the whole western Balkan as her sphere of influence, while Austria gave Russia a free hand to the east.

The Berlin Congress, however, ended in an immense Russian disaster. A strong non-Slav state, "Latin" Rumania, barred Russia's march to Constantinople, and this barrier became unbreakable when Bulgaria, Russia's destined outpost, flouted her protector and displayed imperialistic aspirations of her own. On the other hand, Austria still remained in direct touch with Turkey, and only weak and anarchic Servia stood between Austria and Saloniki, her heart's desire. It is from this moment that the irreconcilable Austro-Russian feud begins. Realizing that her own Balkan dream was over, Russia determined that Austria's should never come to pass. Whence Russia's sudden interest in Servia, till then indifferently abandoned to Austria's tender mercies. This, however, merely added another link in the chain binding Bulgaria to Austria. We have already seen the necessary base for Bulgarian imperialism to be the absorption of Macedonia, the dominating point of the Balkans. Now, the Macedonian Slavs are a much-disputed ethnic quantity, claimed by both Bulgars and Serbs for race brethren. As a matter of fact, they seem a mixture of both, and while most of them to-day appear to feel themselves Bulgarians, there can be little doubt that fifty years of either Bulgar or Serb rule, accompanied by wholesale expulsions of refractory elements such as are now taking place, would settle the question for good and all. Knowing this, as soon as Russia began to back the Serb rival, Bulgaria took alarm, and since Servia was the common enemy of both Bulgaria and Austria, community of interest drew the two still closer together.

For what was true of Macedonia was even truer as regards Bulgaria's ultimate aspirations. Now that Russia's path was blocked, Bulgaria substituted herself as residuary legatee to Constantinople. But Russia could never willingly see a great Bulgarian tzardom seated beside the Golden Horn, whereas Austria might witness such an eventuality with perfect equanimity, since Bulgaria could never defy her and Russia at the same time. Accordingly, an Austro-Bulgarian entente for the delimitation of spheres of influence, perhaps even for a territorial partition of the Balkans, was for years in the air. Even the "Balkan League" of 1912, with its high-sounding formula, "The Balkans for the Balkan peoples," was not the radical breach with the past which was generally supposed. We now know that there never was a genuine league; only a military coalition, with no thoroughgoing political agreements for the future. All the contracting parties had their diplomatic mental reservations, and certain significant evidence, particularly Austria's famous "Berchtold Proposal," made shortly before the First Balkan War, shows that the wily Ferdinand had a trump-card up his sleeve. Turkey's collapse in that conflict should not blind us to the fact that this was by no means an expected event. In case of defeat, Ferdinand had provided a really masterly second string. Austria was to have intervened as mediator, insisting on an autonomous Macedonia and Albania. Under the conditions then existing, this would have meant a Macedonia under virtual Bulgarian tutelage, and Bulgaria in return would have seen to it that Austria got the free use of the commercial routes to Saloniki. Thus Austria and Bulgaria would have controlled the Balkans, with Russia checkmated, and Servia so isolated and encircled that she would have had to give up politics and cultivate her material interests by entering Austria's economic sphere. Of course this scheme was immediately nullified by subsequent events; nevertheless, it throws an illuminating side-light on the closeness of Bulgaria's relations with Austria.

And these relations have undoubtedly become much closer since the Second Balkan War. Bulgaria knows that it was Russia who loosed Rumania upon her in that supreme hour, and outspoken hatred of Russia is wide-spread in Bulgaria today. Never was Panslavism at such a discount. "Call us Huns, Turks, Tatars, but not Slavs," exclaimed a prominent Bulgarian shortly after the Peace of Bucharest. The feud has lately been envenomed by tactless Russian press utterances since the outbreak of the European War threatening Bulgaria with nothing less than extinction if she fails the Slav cause in its hour of peril. "I have begotten thee: I will kill thee!" recently exclaimed that leading Russian organ "Novoye Vremya," quoting the phrase of the Tolstoyan hero. This is, however, scarcely the proper language to employ toward a dour, stubborn folk like the Bulgarians; it merely increases their fears of a future cramped between a victorious Russia seated at Constantinople and a Greater Servia, Russia's obedient protégé. The big Austro-German loans to Bulgaria show both her close understanding with the Teutonic powers and her thoroughgoing preparations for future eventualities.

Of course English, French, and Russian diplomacy have made strenuous endeavors to change Bulgaria's attitude; but all these efforts have been shipwrecked on that jagged rock, Macedonia. It is possible that if Bulgaria could get Macedonia, she might sever her Teutonic connections and pass over to the Allies' camp; but the more one examines the problem, the more impossible appears any such solution. Macedonia now belongs to Servia and Greece, and both regard its cession as unthinkable. They look upon these territories as genuine Serb and Hellenic ground, and the abandonment of their Macedonian race brethren to Bulgarian vengeance would to them be as intolerable as the present fate of the Macedonian Bulgars now is to the Bulgarians. We must not forget all the bloodshed, massacres, and persecutions of the last two years, with their horrid legacies of unslaked hatred and revenge, when we dally with clever compensation schemes of Austrian provinces for Servia or Greek acquisitions in Asia Minor, particularly when such compensations are still firmly held by powerful and unconquered enemies. How impossible are any amicable readjustments of Macedonian borderlines appears from the fate of a recent "feeler" put out by Allied diplomacy providing for Servia's cession of those purely Bulgarian districts lying between the present Bulgarian border and the Vardar river in return for Bulgaria's adhesion to the Allied cause. Leaving aside the probability that these districts are far too unimportant to induce Bulgaria to reverse her entire foreign policy, we should note that Servia immediately declared the scheme impracticable, on the ground that Bulgaria would then dominate the Vardar valley and its railroad, Servia's life-line to Saloniki and the outer world. Indeed, both Servia and Greece openly regret the fact that at one point (the Strumitza district) Bulgaria already approaches dangerously near to the Vardar, and hint that their common safety might demand Bulgaria's ceding Strumitza rather than any further Bulgarian advance in the opposite direction.

Such being the case, it seems a practical certainty that if a new Balkan conflagration breaks out, Bulgaria will strike in on the side of the Teutonic powers. She will obtain powerful aid from Turkey, who has four picked army corps echeloned over Thrace in anticipation of just this event. As to the strength of the Bulgarian army, we have already seen that it is far more powerful than is generally supposed. Unbroken by the late Balkan conflicts, still possessed of that formidable artillery which did good service at Kirk Kilissé and Lulé Burgas, its chief deficiency in 1913 (lack of ammunition) has undoubtedly been long since repaired, while gaps in the ranks have been mostly filled from the hosts of Macedonian refugees burning with fanatic hatred of the Greek and Serb despoilers of their former homes. The internal condition of Bulgaria is excellent; like France after 1870, thrifty, frugal Bulgaria has displaced reserves of economic strength which have astonished every foreign visitor since the Peace of Bucharest. The government finances were, it is true, considerably involved at that time, but the $45,000,000 of German money received or en route, together with still larger sums pledged in the near future, have relieved pressing necessities, while the latent wealth of a patriotic population makes possible the floating of large domestic loans.

Supposing that Bulgaria enters the war, who will be her opponents and what their effective strength? Servia and Greece she will fight as a matter of course. Servia, however, has been so bled and exhausted by the terrible struggle against Austria that she is only the shadow of her former self. The outbreak of war in the Balkans would undoubtedly mean a fresh Austrian invasion of Servia, this time probably stiffened by German troops, while the recent Albanian raid shows the danger of a diversion of Servia's western flank, which the Albanians' high fighting qualities and their numerous colonies settled in the new Servian territories would render a serious matter. Furthermore, a Bulgarian invasion of Macedonia would inevitably be followed by a general rising of its Bulgar population. Of course Greece would exert all her energies to save Servia from collapse, and on paper Greece seems to-day about as powerful as Bulgaria. Nevertheless, Greece's new provinces are so wasted by war and contain so many hostile race elements that they are by no means the sources of strength indicated by territorial statistics or a glance at the map. Against a combined Turco-Bulgarian attack, Greece would, if unsupported, probably succumb.

The crux of the matter would be the attitude of Rumania. We have seen that immediately after the Peace of Bucharest, Rumania, Servia, and Greece formed a general understanding against a Bulgarian attempt to upset the status then laid down, and in a straight-out Balkan conflict Rumania would undoubtedly strike Bulgaria at the first move against Servia or Greece. The European War has, how ever, introduced so many conflicting elements that Rumania's attitude toward a fresh Balkan conflagration is to-day by no means a foregone conclusion. A Rumanian attack on Bulgaria would automatically provoke war with Austria and Germany. Now, even if we disregard certain political considerations indisposing Rumania to a conflict with the Teutonic powers, this would mean that Rumania could not exert her full military strength against Bulgaria. Austrian Transylvania, like a huge mountain fortress, dominates every portion of the Rumanian plain, and unless the Russians succeed far better than they have thus far done, Rumania would not dare to send any large portion of her armies southward. In fact, should Russia suffer any really crippling defeats, Rumania would probably have to let Balkan events take their course, no matter how distasteful these might be, since to provoke a victorious Austro-Germany would be to imperil her very existence.

So stands Bulgaria at this fateful hour. Despite cruel humiliation and heavy loss, the tough fiber of the race is still unimpaired. If ever her day dawns, she will strike savagely for the fulfilment of her ambitious dreams.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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