Bulgarian resistance movement during World War II
The Bulgarian resistance movement was part of the anti-Axis
Axis Powers
The Axis powers , also known as the Axis alliance, Axis nations, Axis countries, or just the Axis, was an alignment of great powers during the mid-20th century that fought World War II against the Allies. It began in 1936 with treaties of friendship between Germany and Italy and between Germany and...

 resistance during World War II
Resistance during World War II
Resistance movements during World War II occurred in every occupied country by a variety of means, ranging from non-cooperation, disinformation and propaganda to hiding crashed pilots and even to outright warfare and the recapturing of towns...

. It consisted of armed and unarmed actions of resistance groups against the Wehrmacht
The Wehrmacht – from , to defend and , the might/power) were the unified armed forces of Nazi Germany from 1935 to 1945. It consisted of the Heer , the Kriegsmarine and the Luftwaffe .-Origin and use of the term:...

 forces in Bulgaria
Bulgaria , officially the Republic of Bulgaria , is a parliamentary democracy within a unitary constitutional republic in Southeast Europe. The country borders Romania to the north, Serbia and Macedonia to the west, Greece and Turkey to the south, as well as the Black Sea to the east...

 and the Kingdom of Bulgaria
Kingdom of Bulgaria
The Kingdom of Bulgaria was established as an independent state when the Principality of Bulgaria, an Ottoman vassal, officially proclaimed itself independent on October 5, 1908 . This move also formalised the annexation of the Ottoman province of Eastern Rumelia, which had been under the control...

 authorities. It was mainly communist and pro-Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

. Participants in the armed resistance were called partizanin (a partisan) and yatak (a helper, or a supporter, someone who provides cover for someone else).


German forces entered Bulgaria as a result of Bulgaria's adhesion to the Axis on 1 March 1941. The Bulgarian Communist Party
Bulgarian Communist Party
The Bulgarian Communist Party was the communist and Marxist-Leninist ruling party of the People's Republic of Bulgaria from 1946 until 1990 when the country ceased to be a communist state...

 (BCP) 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
Bogdan Filov
Bogdan Dimitrov Filov was a Bulgarian archaeologist, art historian and politician. He was Prime Minister of Bulgaria during World War II. During his service, Bulgaria became the seventh nation to join the Axis Powers....

 and even campaigned in 1940 for a political pact with Moscow (the Sobolev action). Before the German invasion of the USSR, there had not been any armed resistance in Bulgaria. At the start of World War II
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, the Comintern
The Communist International, abbreviated as Comintern, also known as the Third International, was an international communist organization initiated in Moscow during March 1919...

 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 22 June 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 22 June 1941 sparked the rage of communists and Russophiles in Bulgaria. The same day the BCP spread a brochure among the people urging them "to hinder by all means the usage of Bulgarian land and soldiers for the criminal purposes of German fascism". Two days later, on 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 actions, including arson and demolition of arms, clothes and fuel warehouses, communications, factories and transport lines. The combat groups assassinated prominent Bulgarian politicians, army and police leaders, and 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
The Pirin Mountains are a mountain range in southwestern Bulgaria, with Vihren the highest peak, situated at . The range extends about 40 km northwest-southeast, and about 25 km wide. Most of the range is protected in the Pirin National Park...

, Rhodopes and Sredna gora
Sredna Gora
Sredna Gora is a mountain range in central Bulgaria, situated south of and parallel to Balkan mountain range and extending from the river Iskar to the west and the elbow of Tundzha north of Yambol to the east. Sredna Gora is 285 km long, reaching 50 km at its greatest width...

 mountains. The first known partisan
Partisan (military)
A partisan is a member of an irregular military force formed to oppose control of an area by a foreign power or by an army of occupation by some kind of insurgent activity...

 in Bulgaria was Ivan Kozarev and the first known partisan commander was Nikola Parapunov.

In September 1941, Bulgarian communist emigré
Émigré is a French term that literally refers to a person who has "migrated out", but often carries a connotation of politico-social self-exile....

s arrived on Soviet submarines and aircraft to boost the resistance movement
Resistance movement
A resistance movement is a group or collection of individual groups, dedicated to opposing an invader in an occupied country or the government of a sovereign state. It may seek to achieve its objects through either the use of nonviolent resistance or the use of armed force...

. 55 experienced communist fighters were sent by the Foreign Bureau of the BCP , according to one version. According to another version, they were sent by order of the NKVD
The People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs was the public and secret police organization of the Soviet Union that directly executed the rule of power of the Soviets, including political repression, during the era of Joseph Stalin....

, of which the Bulgarian Communists in Moscow
Moscow is the capital, the most populous city, and the most populous federal subject of Russia. The city is a major political, economic, cultural, scientific, religious, financial, educational, and transportation centre of Russia and the continent...

 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, those 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
Battle of Moscow
The Battle of Moscow is the name given by Soviet historians to two periods of strategically significant fighting on a sector of the Eastern Front during World War II. It took place between October 1941 and January 1942. The Soviet defensive effort frustrated Hitler's attack on Moscow, capital of...

. This destroyed the myth of the invincibility of the German army, and showed that the blitzkrieg
For other uses of the word, see: Blitzkrieg Blitzkrieg is an anglicized word describing all-motorised force concentration of tanks, infantry, artillery, combat engineers and air power, concentrating overwhelming force at high speed to break through enemy lines, and, once the lines are broken,...

 in the Soviet Union
Soviet Union
The Soviet Union , officially the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics , was a constitutionally socialist state that existed in Eurasia between 1922 and 1991....

 had 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
Macedonia (region)
Macedonia is a geographical and historical region of the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe. Its boundaries have changed considerably over time, but nowadays the region is considered to include parts of five Balkan countries: Greece, the Republic of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, as...

 and Thrace
Thrace is a historical and geographic area in southeast Europe. As a geographical concept, Thrace designates a region bounded by the Balkan Mountains on the north, Rhodope Mountains and the Aegean Sea on the south, and by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara on the east...

 were described as "territories under temporary Bulgarian administration". This was a failure for Sofia's official propaganda
Propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position so as to benefit oneself or one's group....

, which claimed to have completed the national unification
Greater Bulgaria
Greater Bulgaria is term to identify the territory associated with a historical national state and a modern Bulgarian irredentist nationalist movement which would include most of Macedonia, Thrace and Moesia...

 of the Bulgarians. These events led to a rise in the partisans' manpower and prestige.

In July 1942, Georgi Dimitrov
Georgi Dimitrov
Georgi Dimitrov Mikhaylov , also known as Georgi Mikhaylovich Dimitrov , was a Bulgarian Communist politician...

 announced the creation of the Fatherland Front
Fatherland Front
There have been at least two organisations known as the Fatherland Front:*Vietnamese Fatherland Front*Fatherland's Front *Fatherland Front...

 (FF), on the underground radio station "Hristo Botev
Hristo Botev
Hristo Botev , born Hristo Botyov Petkov , was a Bulgarian poet and national revolutionary. Botev is widely considered by Bulgarians to be a symbolic historical figure and national hero.-Early years:...

". It was a major anti-fascist coalition between the Communists, the Agrarians and the "Zveno
Zveno was a Bulgarian military and political organization, founded in 1927 by army officers. It was associated with a newspaper of that name....

" party. The FF demanded the non-participation of Bulgarian forces in the war against the USSR, the immediate return of Bulgarian occupation forces from Greek
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

 and Yugoslav
Kingdom of Yugoslavia
The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was a state stretching from the Western Balkans to Central Europe which existed during the often-tumultuous interwar era of 1918–1941...

 territory, the repudiation of the union with Germany, a halt of the export of grain to Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany , also known as the Third Reich , but officially called German Reich from 1933 to 1943 and Greater German Reich from 26 June 1943 onward, is the name commonly used to refer to the state of Germany from 1933 to 1945, when it was a totalitarian dictatorship ruled by...

, friendly relations with the USSR, the United Kingdom
United Kingdom
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern IrelandIn the United Kingdom and Dependencies, other languages have been officially recognised as legitimate autochthonous languages under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages...

 and the USA, the restoration of civil freedoms, denunciation of non-constitutional laws, cessation of military actions against civil population, dismissal of all pro-fascist organizations and eradication of racial hatred. Despite the arrest and later execution of most of the Central Committee of the BCP (through to the betrayal by one of its members), the strength of the partisans continued to grow. In August 1943 the Bulgarian Social Democratic Workers Party joined the FF.

Fierce Fighting

Due to the growing number and manpower of partisan cheti and detachments, in April 1943 they were organized into the People's Liberation Rebel Army (Narodoosvoboditelna vastanicheska armija, NOVA). NOVA divided Bulgaria into 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
The police is a personification of the state designated to put in practice the enforced law, protect property and reduce civil disorder in civilian matters. Their powers include the legitimized use of force...

 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 deserted to join the partisans. Such events were mainly observed in the Bulgarian forces in Yugoslavia and Greece. Seven partisan detachments were created by transformed former army battalions, which sided with the partisans. The 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 into mass actions against the guerrillas. The result was the opposite of that desired. As the Red Army
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...

 advanced towards the Balkans
The Balkans is a geopolitical and cultural region of southeastern Europe...

, even more people joined the resistance. NOVA grew as a significant military force. In the Tran
Tran, Bulgaria
Tran |thorn]]") is a small town in Pernik Province, western Bulgaria. It is 27 kilometres away from the town of Breznik and 15 km from the border with Serbia....

, Rhodopes and Sredna Gora regions, the partisans were a constant threat to the government authorities.

Takeover of the Government

On 2 September 1944, the pro-German government of Ivan Bagryanov stepped down in response to the Red Army
Red Army
The Workers' and Peasants' Red Army started out as the Soviet Union's revolutionary communist combat groups during the Russian Civil War of 1918-1922. It grew into the national army of the Soviet Union. By the 1930s the Red Army was among the largest armies in history.The "Red Army" name refers to...

'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 the NOVA commander Dobri Terpeshev. The right wing Agrarians, who controlled the government, offered the FF some ministerial positions. In the meantime, the police and the army continued to pursue the partisans, unchecked by the civil power. Advancing Soviet troops gave the Communists self-confidence and they rejected the right-wing Agrarians' offer.

Between 6 and 9 September 1944, 170 Bulgarian towns and villages were captured by the partisans. On 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 participated in the liberation from Nazi occupation of some towns and villages in Serbia
Serbia , officially the Republic of Serbia , is a landlocked country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, covering the southern part of the Carpathian basin and the central part of the Balkans...

, Kosovo
Kosovo is a region in southeastern Europe. Part of the Ottoman Empire for more than five centuries, later the Autonomous Province of Kosovo and Metohija within Serbia...

 and Greece
Greece , officially the Hellenic Republic , and historically Hellas or the Republic of Greece in English, is a country in southeastern Europe....

. After 9 September and prior to Bulgaria's army joining the Allies
In everyday English usage, allies are people, groups, or nations that have joined together in an association for mutual benefit or to achieve some common purpose, whether or not explicit agreement has been worked out between them...

' fight against the Axis, former partisans were placed in key positions in the Bulgarian military to ensure its loyalty. Former partisans also built 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.

Strength of partisan forces

The ultimate number of the partisans remains controversial. According to official historiography under Todor Zhivkov
Todor Zhivkov
Todor Khristov Zhivkov was a communist politician and leader of the People's Republic of Bulgaria from March 4, 1954 until November 10, 1989....

, the NOVA numbered around 30,000. Research made after the transition to democracy points to 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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