"Isn't it funny how people do not remember that the Bulgarian authorities were the only members of the Axis who refused to hand over their Jews for deportation...The courageous stand of Tsar, Government, Church and People inside Bulgaria proper was not an example I am afraid that a number of 'civilised' countries, and I mention no names, chose to follow."
Misha Glenny, British journalist and Balkans expert
OF course it is very convenient to discuss the role of King Boris III in saving the Bulgarian Jews now when the country is commemorating the Holocaust. But, it should be known that the last Bulgarian monarch was always controversial, just as controversial as the entire modern history of Bulgaria.
Boris, born in 1894, came to power at a time of political, economic and spiritual crisis. Bulgaria's deplorable state largely affected the young ruler's initial agenda, as well as his style of government. Immediately after World War 1 he had to defend the monarchy against two firmly republican political parties - Alexander Stamboliiski's Bulgarian National Agrarian Union (BANU) and the Communist Party.
Boris was cautious and never entered into open conflicts while in power. A reticent leader, he acted by means of political machinations and diplomacy, never developing the ostentation that had been so typical of his father, King Ferdinand. The downfall of the BANU government as a result of the June 9 coup and the defeat of the communists in the September 1923 uprising strengthened Boris's power. He preferred to stay in the background but did his best to gradually become what he imagined was a "people's tsar".
In the wild maelstrom of Bulgarian political life Boris followed the example of his father, binding the generals with the throne and striving to achieve a unity of dynasty and army. It was the army that helped him through the hardships of 1923 and after the coup of May 19, 1934, when he gradually started to develop a personal regime. He was often accused of political intractability, a lack of imperativeness, too great a readiness to take clairvoyants seriously, and excessive slyness. But even his most violent opponents could not deny his intelligence, political skill and ruler's intuition, all of which helped him overcome the vicissitudes of the time.
In the early 1930s Boris slowly imposed authoritarian rule, during which his abilities as a leader became more obvious. It has been much disputed whether his rule was marked by a dangerous predominance of fascist ideas or by his efforts to put an end to inter-party struggles, disorder and political instability.
His foreign policy was characterised by cautiousness and a patient wait-and-see attitude. He stuck to the course adopted by Bulgarian diplomacy: for reasonable and peaceful reconsideration of the Treaty of Neuilly (the peace treaty of Bulgaria after World War 1). He succeeded in regaining Southern Dobrudja from Romania in the autumn of 1940, and that step towards "national unification" gained him the reputation among Bulgarians of "the liberator tsar". His diplomatic talent was also displayed during the negotiations between the Great Powers on the eve of World War 2.
In 1941, Boris officially allied himself with the Axis powers and participated in Germany's war against Greece and Yugoslavia. In his defence it can be argued that he was simply trying to regain the territory lost in the Treaty of Neuilly. On the other hand, he refused to co-operate with Adolf Hitler's anti-Semitic campaign and refused to surrender the country's Jewish population to the Nazis during the Holocaust. Most threatening to Hitler, however, was the tsar's refusal to declare war on the Soviet Union, even at the most critical moment, when the war was turning against Germany.
In 1943, Hitler summoned Boris to a stormy meeting in Berlin. While Boris agreed to declare war on the distant United Kingdom and United States, he refused to get himself involved in a war against the Soviets. Shortly after Boris returned to Sofia, he died of apparent heart failure, though many believe he was poisoned by Hitler in an attempt to put a more fervently pro-Nazi government in place. Boris was succeeded by his six-year-old son Simeon II, the current Prime Minister of Bulgaria.
So Boris, who successfully resisted the pressure of Hitler to deport the Jewish population of Bulgaria to the death camps and to send Bulgarian soldiers to the Eastern front, died in Sofia on August 28, 1943, under suspicious circumstances, just a few days after a meeting Hitler. Was he really the force that managed to stop the deportation of Bulgarian Jews or it was the efforts of the entire Bulgarian society that led to this?
On April 4, 1943, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, after the talks he and Hitler had with Boris in Germany, wrote in a top secret note to the Imperial Main Directorate for Security (RSHA) and the German ambassador in Sofia that Boris was "not going to deport the Jews from the old territories of Bulgaria", while Germany was insisting on the "final solution". Boris countered German pressure with the argument that the Jews were needed in Bulgaria to build roads.
On March 9, 1943, Interior Minister Petar Gabrovski abruptly reversed the prepared orders to the district governors to go on with the deportation. On the next day those Jews already in custody, were released. The German ambassador, Adolf Beckerle, reported to Berlin: "It is more than certain that the interior minister was instructed from the highest level to stop the execution of the planned deportation of the Jews from old Bulgaria."
The deportation was indeed prevented from the highest level - from the palace. Alexander Belev, the head of the Office for Jewish Affairs, was infuriated. He shouted at the Chief Rabbi Asher Hannanel: "You should be grateful that you have powerful supporters behind you! Otherwise I would lock you up, together with your entire congregation this very evening and send you to Germany, not to Poland!" Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, was Apostolic Nuncio in Istanbul. In a letter to Boris he intervened in favour of the Bulgarian Jews. In the letter Roncalli noted, by hand, that Boris had replied verbally to his message. The note continued: "Il Re ha fatto qualche cosa" (the king has acted) and, noting the difficult situation of the monarch, Roncalli stressed once again: "Pero, ripeto, ha fatto" (but I repeat, he has acted).