Men in Black in Sofia’s Streets

Last February in Sofia, the “Lukov March” took place, an annual event organized for almost twenty years by the Bulgarian National Union – Edelweiss (BNUE). The march commemorates the memory of a pro-Nazi Defense Minister of the thirties, assassinated by Communist resistance fighters in 1943. Every year, the great and good of the European neo-Nazi movement like to gather there. The journalist Emmy Barouh, author of several books on the history of Bulgarian Jews and the memory of the Shoah in her country, posted up on the streets of Sofia that evening. She examines for K. the history and continued relevance of this event.

 

Lukov March, Sofia, February 2021 © Phelia Barouh

 

They are dressed in black. They are marching in formation. Were it not for their burning torches, they would look like a paratrooper battalion. The thud of their boots – heard even on the snow-clad streets of Sofia in February – sounds like a dissonant military parade. They have a commander who is shouting commands through a megaphone. They are chanting the same slogans over and over again. The air resounds with the name of the general and variations on the popular formulation «Bulgaria for the Bulgarians”.

The name of the general is Hristo Lukov – a minister of war (1935–1938) who resigned from the interwar government, retired from the army, and joined the Union of Bulgarian National Legions in 1940 in order to fulfil his political ambitions. He became the leader of the Union in 1942. According to historian Stefan Detchev, it the Union of Bulgarian National Legions (also known as the Legionnaires) began in 1940 to talk more and more about “the pure Bulgarians” versus “non-Christians and non-Bulgarians”, “aliens and foreigners”, “the slavery of plutocracy”, the “perfidious and vile Jewry” that “corrodes the Bulgarian body”, and “the predatory capitalists, Judeo-Masons and Bolsheviks who are ruling Bulgaria today”. Lukov was assassinated on 13 February 1943 on the orders of the then-underground Communist Party so as to prevent “the possibility that Bulgaria’s government being taken over by forces which were in favour of even-closer ties with the Third Reich, with General Lukov inevitably being seen as their leader,” the historian explains.

This is the history, this is the person who, since 2003, has appeared as the unifier of people who often know nothing about his life or about the political programme during the Second World War of the organization he headed. A poll conducted two years ago showed that the majority of participants in the annual Lukov March did not known who the general was. They are young. The majority of them were born after the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is hard to say exactly how they were taught history at school in a country were concepts like “left” and “right” do not correspond to their would-be equivalents on the European political spectrum; in a country which has not yet reconsidered its past in a way that reconciles various sectors of society, and where historical memory has turned into a contested terrain used for political ends.

According to the demonstrators, General Hristo Lukov is a Bulgarian national hero who should be honoured and respected. This is the message of the organizers of the Lukov March, the Bulgarian National Union Edelweiss (BNUE) association – an organization with a paramilitary structure whose members use military uniforms in the group’s public actions.

Torchlight parade on the streets of Sofia

The first Lukov March, held in 2003, was attended by 15 people – hardly anyone would have guessed then that 18 years later their number would exceed 2,000… All the more so in a country where there were no anti-Semitic pogroms during the Second World War; in a country where the story of the salvation of the Bulgarian Jews from deportation to the Nazi death camps has been for years the most exploited cliché in attempts to promote its international image. How and why this was done is a long story. The truth is that Bulgaria turned out to be the only Nazi-allied country whose Jewish population not only did not disappear but actually increased by more than 3,000 during WWII. It is also true, though, that 45,000 of the 50,000 Bulgarian Jews saved from deportation immigrated to the new-born State of Israel after the war. They carry Bulgaria in their hearts, cherish the memories of their lives there, and would find it hard to believe that such odious misanthropic speech could be heard in their first homeland today. Nowadays many of those who remained in Bulgaria would say that there are more instances of anti-Semitism than their grandparents experienced back in the past. Undoubtedly, the organizers of the Lukov March are an ample source of such claims.

Various organizations have reacted – some more timidly, others more strongly against the commemoration of General Lukov since the very first staging of this parade of nationalist groups. Calls for a ban by human rights activists and Jewish organizations and letters to Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova and Bulgaria’s Ombudsman demanding the cancellation of the neo-Nazi torch procession date back to the first event 20 years ago. At the end of November 2017, the Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, “Shalom” and the World Jewish Congress launched a petition campaign against “the counting of Bulgarian fascists” better known as the Lukov March which was to be held during Bulgaria’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union. Regardless of the reactions of a number of Jewish organizations, non-governmental organizations, and public figures, which insisted that the Bulgarian authorities take measures against the organizers of the Lukov March, every year followers of the erstwhile Legionnaires gather outside Lukov’s former home to listen to their leaders’ appeals. According to Bulgarian Member of Parliament Dzheyhan Ibryamov, a member of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS)the Lukov March is modelled on the Nazi torchlight parades held during Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, the task of the young men clad in black being to sow fear and demonstrate strength and influence.

Lukov March, Sofia, February 2021 © Phelia Barouh

Last year, for the first time in its history, the Lukov March did not take place. After it was banned by the Sofia Municipality, it was pared back to a rally in front of Lukov’s house. The ban, however, was appealed and overturned in court. Almost the same happened this year: due to administrative procedures [1] and missed deadlines for public comment, and despite the opinion of the municipality, the march was held under increased “control” by the police[2]. The Prosecution Office applied to the Sofia City Court to de-register the Bulgarian National Union Edelweiss for organizing anti-constitutional actions and propagating hate speech.

Here are some of the findings of the Prosecution Office:

– In the last ten years, the association has organized actions that contravene Article 44 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic of Bulgaria, which bans organizations whose activity [….] incites racial, national, ethnic or religious enmity or an encroachment on the rights and freedoms of citizens; as well organizations that establish clandestine or paramilitary structures or seek to attain their aims through violence.

– The inquiry found numerous public statements by members of the leadership and activists of the BNU Edelweiss to be incitement to violence based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender, anti-Semitic propaganda, etc.

Despite this, on 18 February 2021, the day the European Commission sent a letter of formal notice to Bulgaria for failing to fully or accurately apply EU rules on combating racism and xenophobia by means of criminal law, the Sofia City Court dismissed a motion by the Prosecution Office to de-register the organizers of the Lukov March, Bulgarian National Union Edelweiss.

“Our nations, our Europe”

“Honouring the said Bulgarian national hero” is a convenient pretext for a rally of banned organizations from different countries. Traditionally, the Lukov March’s ranks are filled out by far-right and neo-Nazi organizations from Romania, Spain, Germany, Austria, Italy… This includes fans of football (soccer) firms, skinheads, far-right extremists – confused men looking for their identity in such events, and organizations whose members are unlikely to easily find Bulgaria’s place on the European map.

Last year the German police stopped nine far-right extremists from boarding a flight from Dortmund to Sofia, where they had intended to take part in the Lukov March, as German daily Die Zeit reported. Dortmund’s far-right extremists have been among the main participants in the Sofia parade for years. One of the regular guest speakers is Christoph Drewer, a notorious German neo-Nazi sentenced to 13 months in prison for hate speech and for inciting violence against people of another ethnicity and religion. Christoph Drewer is at the centre of paramilitary neo-Nazi organizations in Germany and has been monitored by the German security services for years now.

Here is yet another international dimension of the activity of the Bulgarian National Union Edelweiss: Almost two years ago, the organization hosted an international meeting of far-right groups from Europe. On the day of Adolf Hitler’s birthday, they founded an alliance called “Fortress Europe”. Their motto is “Our nations, our Europe”.

In addition to the Bulgarian National Union Edelweiss (BNUE), the alliance was co-founded by the party Die Rechte, (The Right, Germany), the movement Les Nationalistes (The Nationalists, France), Légió Hungária (Legion Hungary), Národní a sociální fronta (National and Social Front, Czech Republic), and Szturm (Assault, Poland). “With some of these organizations,” the BNUE website reads, “we have more than 10 years of joint cooperation, others have been created recently but the people behind them are national activists with a serious track record and friends of ours with whom we keep in contact.”

Until a few years ago, Bulgarian parties – some of which are coalition partners of the ruling party at present – shared the same views as the organizers of the Lukov March. One of them is VMRO (Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization). According to its leader and now Defence Minister, Krasimir Karakachanov, General Lukov is “the banner of anti-communism” and “it is absurd to declare the Union of Bulgarian Legions a Nazi organization”. Karakachanov is not the only representative of the ruling political elite whose public statements are peppered with controversial – from the point of view of democratic norms – claims. Nationalist rhetoric has been gaining ground in Bulgaria – even, at the highest level. Here are several examples:

Speaking in Parliament in 2015, Valeri Simeonov, the incumbent Vice-President of the National Assembly, called the Gypsies “ferocious hominids”, and their wives “women with the instincts of stray bitches”.

Another figure of the Bulgaria far right – Volen Siderov, leader of the party Ataka -is the author of explicitly anti-Semitic books: “The Power of Mammon” (2004) and “The Boomerang of Evil” (2002). In “The Boomerang”, Siderov denies the Holocaust, claiming that the notorious gas chambers were fabricated. According to him, the Holocaust is a lie from which the Jews have benefited greatly. In February 2021 the European Court of Human Rights convicted Bulgaria of ignoring Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism in Siderov’s public statements. Bulgarian courts had found that speeches made by Siderov some 15 years ago, when he was elected an MP for the first time, were not discriminatory.

Volen Siderov did not take part in this year’s Lukov March. Today’s political elite is cautious because no other event of this kind in contemporary Bulgaria has triggered such a wave of international criticism – ranging from Jewish organizations to statements by embassies condemning its holding and welcoming the intervention of the judiciary.

This year, both left-wing and right-wing parties demanded that the procession be cancelled. The procession, however, took place. The placard at the front read: “We do not capitulate”.

Lukov March, Sofia, February 2021 © Phelia Barouh

Every year, on the same day, when boys and girls dressed in black march grimly and threateningly in formation with burning torches, some arms raised in what resembles a Nazi salute, chanting “Bulgaria for the Bulgarians”, another group of people –fewer in number – also demonstrates in the streets of Sofia. Among them are members of an organization defining itself as “a group of people with predominantly anarchist and anti-authoritarian ideas who oppose traditional parties, structures and organizations”, as well as members of left-wing parties and organizations, human rights and civic movements, university lecturers and activists. Their slogan is “No Nazis on our streets”.


Emmy Barouh

 

Freelance journalist, exhibition curator and documentary filmmaker Emmy Barouh is the author of The Jews in the Bulgarian Lands. Ancestral Memory and Historical Destiny (IMIR, Sofia, 2001), Beyond Utopias: Bulgaria, the Balkans and Europe – Visions for the Future (Deutsche Welle, 2002), History and Memory – Bulgaria and the Holocaust (OSF, 2003). Currently she is the president of the FotoFabrika Foundation (www.fotofabrika.org), hosts the program “Facts and Fixions” on the Bulgarian National Radio and is doing research on the survivors of the Shoah.

 

Notes

1 The provisions are as follows: no permission is required from the municipality, only coordination of a submitted notification.
2 In аn op-ed published on the eve of this year’s Lukov March, Ronald S. Lauder, President of the World Jewish Congress, wrote the following: “Last year, when the Lukov March was canceled, we hoped that this disgusting spectacle was over forever. Sadly, this was not the case, because the cancelation was based on a technicality. This week, to the dismay of the world, the disciples of Hitler will once again embarrass Bulgaria’s past and threaten its present. […] This march has also become a flashpoint, not only for homegrown Bulgarian thugs, but also for neo-Nazis and white supremacists from other countries, who converge on Sofia to broadcast their noxious views across the European continent.”

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Thanks to the Paris office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation for their cooperation in the design of the magazine’s website.