Germany’s Traditional Partner (II)

Already since its independence, Bulgaria’s history has been closely linked to Germany’s. The country was allied to Berlin in both World War I and II.

BERLIN/SOFIA (Own report) – A party founded and formed in close cooperation with Germany’s CDU/CSU is leading in the run-up to next Sunday’ parliamentary elections in Bulgaria. The GERB party of former Prime Minister Boyko Borisov can expect up to a quarter of the votes. Currently GERB is, however, largely isolated due to corruption allegations. Bulgaria can look back on a long history of close collaboration with Germany, dating back to the era of the German Empire. Already at that time, the political as well as economic ties had been were very close. Bulgaria participated in World War I on the side of the Central Powers. After the war, leading Bulgarian military commanders and state representatives fled into exile in Germany. At the time, segments of the German right had praised Bulgarian politicians for their open resistance to the peace treaties (“Paris Dictate”). Soon, bilateral relations regained momentum, particularly mediated initially through the rapid restoration of German-Bulgarian economic relations, which also formed the basis for Bulgaria’s cooperation with the Nazi-Reich.

A German Czar

On October 5, 1908, the hitherto ruling German Prince of Bulgaria Ferdinand Maximilian Karl Leopold Maria of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, proclaimed his country’s independence from the Ottoman Empire and himself Czar of Bulgaria. The Bulgarian state allied itself closely with Germany. In 1912, 15.6 percent of Bulgaria’s exports were to the German Empire and 20.4 percent of that Balkan state’s imports came from Germany.[1] In 1914, relations intensified when the Bulgarian government was seeking a credit from western European financiers. British and French banks had offered credits to Bulgaria’s parliament and government in exchange for a stake in the proceeds of Bulgaria’s lucrative tobacco trade. On pressure from the foreign ministry in Berlin, the Disconto-Gesellschaft – which merged into Deutsche Bank in 1929 – granted Bulgaria a credit, which was not linked to proceeds from tobacco exports. In return, Sofia conceded to Germany a leading role in the country’s industrialization.[2] Under the aegis of the British American Tobacco company, Bulgarian tobacco exports came to a halt with the beginning of WWI in the summer 1914. In the years thereafter, the country exported mainly tobacco to the two Central Powers – Germany and Austria-Hungary instead.[3] This strengthened ties even further.

Ally in World War I

After having received territorial commitments in tobacco-rich Macedonia from the Berlin and Vienna governments, Bulgaria entered the First World War on October 14,1915 on the side of the Central Powers and participated in its new allies’ Serbian campaign. The intervention forces were able to conquer the country rather quickly.[4] In addition to the successful 1916/17 Romanian campaign, the Bulgarian army’s main task was to tie down Entente soldiers on the Macedonian front, stretching from Albania to what is today Northern Macedonia and close to the borders of the Ottoman Empire. At the time, the Entente had dispatched around 300.000 soldiers to Greece to attack the Central Powers in the Balkans.[5] After years of battles that claimed heavy losses, Bulgaria’s finance minister at the time traveled to Salonika in September 1918 and negotiated an armistice with representatives of the Entente. Overall, during the First World War, Bulgaria lost nearly 20 percent of its males, which is about 10 percent of its total population.

Political Exiles

In the fall of 1918, with the end of combat in large areas of Europe, leading Bulgarian politicians fled to Germany in exile. On October 3, 1918, Ferdinand I fled to the German Reich by train. The former czar settled in Coburg, where he regularly attended the Bayreuther Festival and became a member of the German Academy of Natural Sciences, Leopoldina. His son Boris III took the throne; Bulgaria continued to be ruled by the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. Vassil Radoslavov, who had served as Bulgaria’s Prime Minister, initially from 1886 to 1887 and then again from 1913 to 1918, also fled into exile to Germany, where he lived for the rest of his life, receiving a German pension.[6] In addition, Nikola Shekov, the Commander and Chief of the Bulgarian army from 1915 – 1918, spent also a couple of years in German exile following the armistice.


Immediately following World War I, Erich Ludendorff and Paul von Hindenburg recorded their interpretations of the course of the war in books they had authored. At the head of military command, both had de facto ruled the German Reich as military dictators from 1916 to 1918.[7] Ludendorff declared in his work, entitled “Meine Kriegserinnerungen” (“My War Memories”) published already in 1919, that the top military command had not been able “to heed every call for help” and in the course of the war, had called for “Bulgaria to also do something, or we would be beyond help.”[8] Hindenburg, for his part, wrote in 1920, disparagingly, “the Bulgarians” had allegedly “left the fighting up to” the Germans.[9] Leading representatives of the German right ignored Bulgarian victims of World War I and attributed to them partial responsibility for the Central Powers’ defeat.

Temporary Alienation

Immediately following the end of World War I, experts in the German foreign ministry judged the situation in Southeast Europe to mean that Germany would temporarily have no way of maintaining its traditional influence in Bulgaria. Instead, Berlin should focus on long-term options, as well as cultural contacts, to again strengthen its position.[10] For the moment, the Netherlands was standing in as diplomatic representative for German interests in Bulgaria.[11] In 1919, the national revolutionary agrarian Aleksandar Stamboliyski came to power in Sofia. He set the accent on a sharp dissociation from Germany, even though, like so many of Bulgaria’s top politicians at the time, he too had studied in Halle and in Munich.

Modeled after German Right-Wingers

Following World War I, the greater Bulgaria-oriented rebel and terror organization, the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO), had taken direct control of the Bulgarian area of Macedonia. In this region – also known as Pirin Macedonia – the IMRO was quasi a “state within the state.”[12] Petritsch, close to the border with Greece, served as the capital. At the time, the IMRO was comprised of 9,000 paramilitary personnel. Pirin Macedonia’s main export item, and therefore the main source of revenue for this secessionist region had been tobacco export.[13] Segments of the German right, looked up to Bulgaria due to IMRO’s violent actions in the 1920s, because – unlike the allegedly “timid” politicians in Berlin – the Bulgarian politicians were resisting the “Paris Dictate” and were taking action with arms in hand against the borders set by the peace treaties.[14] In the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Bulgaria was forced to relinquish access to the Aegean Sea and the areas of Macedonia and Dobruja it had conquered.

Return through Trade

In spite of the initial political alienation in the immediate aftermath of World War I, German companies were able to rapidly regain a foothold in Bulgaria. Already in 1922, the majority of Bulgaria’s imports were from Germany.[15] The Weimar Republic was also gradually growing in importance as a destination for that Balkan country’s exports. At the beginning of the 1920s, German enterprises began taking over many of the economic positions that had previously been held by Austro-Hungarian companies prior to World War I. They had reaped handsome profits even in completely new fields of business. Following its founding, in 1927, Bulgaria’s first Airlines, Bunavad, acquired its first plane from the German company Junkers.


German-Bulgarian relations continued to intensify during the 1930s – even up to collaboration during World War II. will soon report.


For more information on this theme, as well as on the close cooperation between the CDU/CSU and former Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and his GERB Party, see Deutschlands Traditionspartner.


[1] Hans-Joachim Hoppe: Bulgarien – Hitlers eigenwilliger Verbündeter: Eine Fallstudie zur nationalsozialistischen Südosteuropapolitik, Stuttgart 1979, S. 24.

[2] Adam Tooze/Martin Ivanov: Disciplining the 'black sheep of the Balkans': financial supervision and sovereignty in Bulgaria, 1902–38, in: The Economic History Review, Jg. 64 (2011), Nr. 1, S. 30–51 (hier: S. 34).

[3] Mary C. Neuburger: Balkan Smoke – Tobacco and the Making of Modern Bulgaria, Ithaca (NY)/London 2013, S. 74.

[4] Richard C. Hall: Bulgaria in the First World War, in: The Historian, Jg. 73 (2011), Nr. 2, S. 300–315 (hier: S. 304).

[5] Ebenda, S. 315.

[6] R. J. Crampton: Bulgaria, Oxford/New York (NY) 2007, S. 218.

[7] Sebastian Haffner: Die deutsche Revolution 1918/1919, Berlin 2002, S. 19/20.

[8] Erich Ludendorff: Meine Kriegserinnerungen, Berlin 1919, S. 577.

[9] Paul von Hindenburg: Aus meinem Leben, Leipzig 1920, S. 371.

[10] David X. Noack: Germany’s Influence along the Black Sea Rim in the Wake of the First World War: Official German Foreign Policy Views on the Black Sea Region in the “Shadow of Versailles,” November 1918 – March 1921, in: Sorin Arhire/Tudor Roşu (Hgg.): The Paris Peace Conference (1919-1920) and Its Aftermath: Settlements, Problems and Perceptions, Newcastle upon Tyne 2020, S. 133–158 (hier: S. 140).

[11] Hoppe: Bulgarien – Hitlers eigenwilliger Verbündeter, S. 26.

[12] Andrew Rossos: The British Foreign Office and Macedonian National Identity, 1918–1941, in: Slavic Review, Jg. 53 (1994), Nr. 2, S. 369–394 (hier: S. 374).

[13] Neuburger: Balkan Smoke, S. 122.

[14] Stefan Troebst: Von den „Preußen des Balkans“ zum „vergessenen Volk“: Das deutsche Bulgarien-Bild, in: Europa Regional, Jg. 11 (2003), Nr. 3, S. 120– 125 (hier: S. 121).

[15] Klaus Thörner: »Der ganze Südosten ist unser Hinterland« – Deutsche Südosteuropapläne von 1840 bis 1945, Freiburg 2008, S. 322.