Sofia welcomes the Red Army in September 1944.
In the summer of 1943 the war was at a critical juncture for Bulgaria as for other powers. In the west Italy was facing collapse and was soon to surrender, whilst in the east the relaxation of German pressure on the Caucasus gave Turkey greater freedom of manoeuvre and made it more likely that it would join the allies. Towards the end of the year the war was brought to Bulgaria itself in the form of allied bombers. There had been some light raids on Sofia and other towns earlier in the war but in November the capital experienced its first heavy bombardment; on 9 January 1944 there was an even larger raid and in March Sofia was subjected to a series of incendiary attacks, culminating in a huge onslaught on 30 March. The raids had been intended to produce social chaos and push Bulgaria towards changing sides. At least in the first objective they were successful; after the January raid many Sofiotes fled in terror and the government had to order civil servants back to their posts.
By this time Bulgaria’s urban population was facing privation similar in kind if not in intensity to that endured during the First World War, and for much the same reasons. Food shortages were causing inflation and a flourishing black market where in early 1944 goods were nine times their pre-war price. The shortages were caused by over-enthusiastic requisitioning, by German soldiers sending home more than they should have done, by peasants refusing to hand over to the official procurement agencies produce which they knew would command a much higher price on the black market, by widespread corruption, and by the general dislocation of the distribution system.
Within the political establishment the feeling that Germany had lost the war and that Bulgaria should therefore seek an accommodation with the western allies had been current since before Boris’s death; indeed, Boris himself had shared that view. After his death approaches were made to the Americans in October 1943 but their terms were too harsh: unconditional surrender, the evacuation of all occupied territory, and an allied occupation. The allied raids on Sofia strengthened the desire to escape from the war. In February and March 1944 further approaches were made to the western allies but their terms were unchanged. National Assembly President Bogdan Filov and Prime Minister Bozhilov continued to believe that the nation would not tolerate the loss of Macedonia and Thrace and that, in any case, there was no possibility of unconditional surrender with German troops still in the country. Bulgaria, said Bozhilov, would join the allies when the allies joined Bulgaria by landing in the Balkans. That illusion was finally dispelled on 6 June 1944 when the allies landed not in the Balkans but in Normandy.
By then Bulgaria had come under increasing pressure from the Soviets. They had refused a Bulgarian request to intercede with the allies for a cessation of the air bombardment, and instead launched a diplomatic offensive in Sofia. Notes from Moscow arrived in the Bulgarian capital on 1 March, 17 April, 26 April and 18 May, insisting that Bulgarian territory cease being used by anti-Soviet forces. The Bulgarians were prepared to make some concessions over the construction of naval vessels in Varna and they also decided to turn down a German request that German troops be withdrawn westwards via the Bulgarian railway system. In April there were further concessions to the Soviets when Sofia accepted in principle their demands that Soviet consulates be opened in Burgas and Ruse´. The consulates were the subject of the next Soviet note, that of 18 May, and this time Moscow threatened the breaking of diplomatic ties if the consulates were not opened, said Filov.
Soviet pressure, backed as it was by the rapid advance of the Red Army through Ukraine, raised the ultimate nightmare of the Bulgarian administration: involvement in the Russo-German war. What the Soviet pressure amounted to was that if Bulgaria did not break with Germany she would suffer Soviet occupation. But if she obeyed the Soviets and broke with Germany she would suffer German occupation; the experience of Hungary in March 1944 proved that beyond reasonable doubt.
Seeing these dangers Bozhilov resigned on 1 June 1944 to be replaced by Ivan Bagryanov, who had been educated in Germany and had served with the German army in the First World War, but who was generally regarded as pro-western. He was anxious to secure an armistice with Britain and the USA and to placate the Soviets before relations with them deteriorated any further. In the meantime a direct break with Germany could not be risked. Beckerle was informed on 18 June that Bulgaria would fulfil all its obligations under the tripartite pact but in order to avoid complications with the Russians the Germans should remove their troops from Varna. The Germans, suggested Sofia, could surely not wish another front to be opened in the Balkans by the Soviets, or by the Turks who were now pouring armour into Turkish Thrace. This was an argument which struck home and on 13 July the Germans signified their willingness to remove their steamers and hydroplanes from Varna to make it easier for Bulgaria to pursue ‘a policy of peace, friendship and loyalty vis-a`-vis the Soviet Union’.
As an indication of his goodwill to the allies, on 17 August Bagryanov declared strict neutrality, granted an amnesty to all political prisoners, repudiated the policies of his predecessors, and repealed all anti-Jewish legislation. It was too late. On 20 August the Red Army crossed into Romania and three days later King Michael locked Marshal Antonescu in a safe containing the royal stamp collection and changed sides. At a stroke the Russians were on the lower Danube and astride Bulgaria’s northern frontier.
The pressures from the Soviets were now overwhelming and the Bulgarian government had to bend to them. On 25 August Sofia demanded the evacuation of all German troops and the following day the Bulgarian armies were ordered to disarm German forces arriving from the Dobrudja; there was little resistance and by 7 September over 14,000 German personnel had been interned in Bulgaria. The Soviets were not to be placated. On 30 August the Kremlin announced that it would no longer respect Bulgarian neutrality. Bagryanov was defeated and resigned to make way for Konstantin Muraviev, an agrarian.
Muraviev knew that he had to make the final concession to Moscow. On 5 September, therefore, whilst German troops in Bulgaria were still being disarmed, the Bulgarian cabinet decided to break off diplomatic relations with Berlin, though the war minister successfully argued for a delay of seventy-two hours to enable him to bring Bulgarian forces back from the occupied areas. At around 15.00 hours on 7 September the last German vehicles crossed the border and three hours later Bulgaria declared war on Germany with effect from 18.00 hours on 8 September. But by then the Soviet Union had declared war on Bulgaria which for a few chaotic hours was therefore at war with all the major belligerents of the Second World War except Japan.
On the same day, 8 September, Soviet troops crossed the Danube and entered Bulgaria to a wildly enthusiastic welcome. Their arrival greatly encouraged the FF, whose partisan units had grown considerably in the chaotic summer months, as had their support amongst the population as a whole, particularly the intelligentsia. On 4 September a series of strikes had been staged to put pressure on Muraviev to break with Germany, and when he did so on the following day there were massive desertions from the army to the partisans. But, contrary to the post-1944 communist school of history, the action which brought the FF to power on 9 September was not carried out by partisans but by units of the army loyal to the war minister Marinov. He it was who, with those practised coupsters Georgiev and Velchev, arranged for the door of the war ministry to be unlocked so that the rebels could take this key point in the city. With no resistance the Muraviev government was deposed within a few hours and a new administration formed by the FF. The new cabinet, which was led by Kimon Georgiev, consisted of five zvenari, four agrarians, three social democrats and four communists. The communists held the key ministries of the interior and justice.
In October, after Marshal Tito had withdrawn his prohibition on Bulgarian troops entering Yugoslav territory, Bulgaria continued fighting, this time on the allied side. Its army joined with Marshal Tolbukhin’s Third Ukrainian Front and fought with that army through Hungary and into Austria. Thirty-two thousand Bulgarians died in this campaign.