This February the Bulgarian government banned the annual neo-Nazi Lukov March, which was set for February 25 in the capital city Sofia. The cancellation was due to pressure from foreign embassies, international Jewish organizations and several of Bulgaria’s own political ministries and parties.
The parade dates from 2003, when neo-Nazis from around the world began marching in a torchlit parade honoring Hristo Lukov, the former leader of the pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions (UBNL) during World War II. Prior to leading the UBNL, Lukov served as a lieutenant-general during World War I and Minister of War from 1935–1938. In these capacities he fostered close ties with senior Nazi officials in Germany. The parade’s organizers, the Bulgarian National Union-New Democracy Party (BNU-ND), insisted that Lukov was neither an antisemite nor a neo-fascist but a war hero and patriot. Although the far-right party described the march as a celebration of Lukov’s military service, its Facebook page for the event suggested otherwise. The now deleted social media page was regularly filled with antisemitic comments and posts. According to the anti-fascist group Antifa Sofia, the “Lukov March has become the trademark event of fascist organizations in Bulgaria.” For several years Antifa Sofia has organized a “No Nazi on Our Streets” counter demonstration on the same day as the march.
Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova and former Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov have sought to ban the march since 2015, but their repeated attempts were blocked by the courts. Even after the courts approved the ban in 2021, the organizers ignored it and continued as planned in 2022. After reviewing the newest appeal, the Supreme Administrative Prosecutor’s Office ruled in Fandakova and Borisov’s favor and called on Sofia’s mayor and the interior minister to “ensure the preservation of public order and protection of the rights of the public.” The ban went into effect mere hours before the march was set to take place.
Once again BNU-ND tried to ignore the ban and continue as planned. This time, however, the police blocked the roads in order to prevent marchers from following their intended parade route. They also barred people from getting close to Lukov’s house, which had become a popular gathering place to pay tribute to and eulogize the Nazi collaborator.
The embassies of the United States, the United Kingdom and the State of Israel, organizations such as the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and the American Jewish Committee (AJC), and the Bulgarian Foreign and Interior Ministries, the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and the Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria (GERB) Party condemned the march and applauded the Bulgarian government for banning it. The WJC praised the Bulgarian government for sending “an unequivocal message that antisemitism, racial hatred and all other forms of xenophobia and intolerance have no place in contemporary Bulgaria.”
Bulgaria’s earliest Jewish communities can be traced back to the 8th century, during which many Jews fled persecution in the Byzantine Empire. In 1915 Bulgaria joined the Central Powers and fought alongside Germany, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire during WWI. After its defeat, it was forced to sign the Treaty of Neuilly, which required it to demilitarize, return its occupied territories, cede additional territories and pay heavy war reparations. In consequence, some Bulgarians treated minorities, specifically Jews, as scapegoats for the deteriorating state of military, political and economic affairs. This antisemitism permeated both society and politics. In 1941, the government joined the Axis powers and passed the Law on the Protection of the Nation, which implemented numerous legal restrictions on Jews. According to the WJC, it “prohibited Bulgarian Jews from voting, running for office, working in government positions, serving in the army, marrying or cohabitating with ethnic Bulgarians, using Bulgarian names, or owning rural land.”
After the government agreed to deport Bulgarian Jews to Nazi extermination camps, public outcry from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and wider society forced it to renege on the original arrangement. Instead the government, with support from Lukov and the Union of Bulgarian National Legions, offered to deport all the Jews from Bulgarian-occupied regions of Greece and Yugoslavia. This counteroffer spared Bulgaria’s 50,000 native Jews but resulted in the deportation of more than 11,000 Jews from Macedonia, Thrace and Pirot to the Treblinka death camp.
In the immediate post-war years, about 90 percent of Bulgarian Jews emigrated to Israel. Today there are only about 2,000 to 6,000 Jews in Bulgaria. Yet, despite the loss of numbers, the Jewish community has stabilized and reintegrated into every facet of Bulgarian life. The Organization of Jews in Bulgaria, “Shalom” commended the Bulgarian authorities for successfully reinstating the ban. The organization said that “The fight against hate speech and xenophobia should be fought persistently and consistently, with the collective efforts of civil society and the state institutions. Only in this way can we be sure that our children will live in a society devoid of prejudice and hatred of those who are different.”
Top Image: Emer Iglesias from Pixabay