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 		 [One year after the Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in
World War I, revolutionary soldiers in Bulgaria forced their
government to do the same. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 THE REVOLT IN THE TRENCHES   [https://portside.org/node/19063] 

 

 Jana Tsoneva 
 January 6, 2019
Jacobin
[https://jacobinmag.com/2019/01/world-war-bulgaria-army-soldiers-revolt]


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 _ One year after the Bolsheviks ended Russia’s participation in
World War I, revolutionary soldiers in Bulgaria forced their
government to do the same. _ 

 1st Sofia Infantry Regiment in the Serbian campaign, World War I,
1915. , Bulgarian State Agency Archives / Wikimedia 

 

World War I
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/07/lenin-trotsky-russia-1917-war-wwi] was
the first modern, industrialized slaughter and the first “total
war” in which combatants and civilians alike were regarded as
legitimate targets. An imperialist war that exploded the
contradictions between the global empires, it had a profound effect in
reshaping European politics. It brought both deep traumas, but also
new openings.

This was true even within the socialist movement. The outbreak of war
in 1914 blew open the mounting tensions within European Social
Democracy
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/07/second-international-bernstein-rosa-luxemburg-unions-world-war],
as some went along with the nationalist fervor while others vehemently
opposed it. The Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/05/dilemmas-vladimir-lenin-tariq-ali-russian-revolution-democracy],
urged socialists to seize the political opportunity and turn the
imperialist conflict into a revolutionary civil war
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/04/april-days-lenin-russia-world-war-one].

In Russia, this did indeed play out, with the February
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/03/february-revolution-strike-tsar-lenin/] and October
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/11/october-revolution-china-mieville-bolsheviks] revolutions
of 1917. Yet rather less well-known are the events in the tsardom of
Bulgaria. A peripheral, overwhelmingly agrarian state, Bulgaria’s
rulers had sought to use the war to fulfill their own territorial
aspirations by joining in the larger conflict between the great
powers. The result, however, was an explosion of social tensions.

Revolt on the Front

Having just suffered two exhausting Balkan wars in 1912 and 1913, the
prospect of a third conflict had been deeply unpopular among the
Bulgarian population upon the outbreak of the war in 1914. The
government, led by a coalition of three liberal parties, assured
Bulgarians that plans for war mobilization merely sought to prepare
for the unlikely event of an outside attack. Meanwhile, both the
Allied and Central Powers enticed Bulgaria to fight on their side with
promises of territorial gains in Macedonia, Romania and northern
Greece. Bulgaria signed a treaty to join the Central Powers on August
24, 1915 and began mass mobilization, before declaring war against
Serbia two months later. 600,000 men were drafted, but at the peak of
the fighting almost 900,000 — one-fifth of the total population —
were enlisted.

Riots and more tacit forms of insubordination accompanied the war from
the outset. In fall 1918, antiwar agitation and sporadic mutinies in
the trenches culminated in a full-blown uprising. The decisive moment
came with the so-called “Battle of Dobro Pole” on September
14–15, when the Bulgarian army was crushed by English, French, and
Serbian forces and forced to beat a chaotic retreat. Many soldiers —
the vast majority of whom were peasants — returned to their
villages. Nearly 15,000, however, embarked on a perilous journey to
the capital city Sofia, energized by revolutionary calls to overthrow
the monarchy and punish those responsible for Bulgaria’s
catastrophic wartime adventures. “Our enemy is not across the
trenches,” they murmured, “the real enemy is in Sofia. Go back!”

Their first stop was the town of Kyustendil, occupying army
headquarters before continuing onward. By the time they reached their
next destination, the town of Radomir, the panicked tsar freed the
leaders of the Bulgarian Agrarian National Union, Aleksandar
Stamboliyski and Rayko Daskalov, who were imprisoned for their
opposition to the war. Stamboliyski and Daskalov commanded respect
among the peasant soldiers and the tsar hoped they would calm down the
troops. But they instead joined the uprising and became its leaders.

A Narrow Approach

At first the Bulgarian Workers’ Social Democratic Party’s
so-called “Narrow Socialist” faction, a left-wing Marxist current
that broke with the party in 1903 and later became the Communist Party
of Bulgaria, refused to support or provide leadership to the uprising.
Its official position was one of neutrality. Stamboliyski went to
party leader and founder of Bulgarian socialism Dimitar Blagoev the
day he was released from prison and urged him to “raise the urban
army, the proletariat. We control the peasant army and together we can
take down the regime.” Blagoev refused, citing the incompatibility
of the Agrarian Union’s politics with his party’s own. The Narrow
Socialists had traditionally derided the Agrarians as a party of
“peasant socialism,” who mistrusted their own demand for
collectivizing land. Stamboliyski promised Blagoev that the Agrarian
Union would accept the entire Narrow Socialist program except for the
nationalization of small-scale farms, yet Blagoev refused. He viewed
the uprising as a spontaneous eruption of an “elemental peasant
mass,” unworthy of support from a tightly organized and
ideologically hardened proletarian party.

This was a rather puzzling decision. With its own army turned against
it, there could hardly have been a more opportune time to take down
the regime. Moreover, the Narrows’ newspaper _Rabotnicheski
Vestnik_(“Workers’ Daily”) was the most widely read paper in the
trenches. Army command did what it could to censor and limit its
influence among the rank and file but failed. At its peak around the
time of Russia’s October Revolution the paper’s circulation topped
25,000, more than half of which went to the front. The Narrows had
thus helped to radicalize the soldiers but refused to assume political
responsibility and join them.

Lenin was a keen observer of events in Bulgaria. He supported the
uprising and celebrated “this little peasants’ republic”
[https://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1918/nov/06a.htm#sect2] in
a major speech to the Sixth All-Russia Congress of Soviets. He cited
the uprising as one of the earliest examples of October’s
internationalization, and now “most countries within the sphere of
German-Austrian imperialism are aflame (Bulgaria, Austria, and
Hungary). We know that from Bulgaria the revolution has spread to
Serbia. We know how these worker-peasant revolutions passed through
Austria and reached Germany. Several countries are enveloped in the
flames of workers’ revolution. In this respect our efforts and
sacrifices have been justified.” Unsurprisingly, Bulgarian army
command agreed with Lenin’s characterization of the uprising as an
instance of “Bolshevism.”

Daskalov proclaimed a Bulgarian republic in Radomir on September 27,
1918. The next day the republican army, enraged by government forces
massacring a train full of maimed and wounded soldiers returning to
Sofia, entered the village of Vladaya only a couple of kilometers from
the capital. There, the insurgent army prevailed over government
troops and entered Sofia. Unfortunately, despite vastly outnumbering
government forces (which consisted of a few hundred Bulgarians and a
German division that rushed to the embattled monarchy’s defense),
the soldiers were defeated and pushed back all the way to Radomir,
where they were crushed again and eventually dispersed. The military
defeat occurred in a matter of days, but the government still needed
over a month to “pacify” the country.

Blagoev would admit his mistake years later, a change in party line
that is reflected in official histories of the uprising produced
during the state-socialist system. Historians “adopted” the
uprising but took a simplistic view, depicting it as a mere
internationalization of the ideas of October. Though the Bolshevik
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/11/bolsheviks-russian-revolution-october-lenin]uprising
in Russia certainly did inspire many Bulgarian revolutionaries, a look
at the writings and recollections of the participants themselves
reveals an uprising rooted in soldiers’ deprivation and exploitation
on the front, occurring independently of any “Bolshevist”
agitation.

Class War in the Trenches

This uprising had, in fact, also owed to internal, Bulgarian causes,
if ones linked to the war. As the conflict intensified, so too did the
already explosive situation and unbearable conditions facing regular
people both on the front lines and at home. In early August 1918 Prime
Minister Aleksandar Malinov informed the tsar that the Bulgarian army
only had 50–60,000 uniforms and 20,000 pairs of shoes to supply its
877,392 soldiers. A cable from the commander-in-chief mentions cases
of soldiers leaving the front line having to lend their boots to
incoming troops. Many soldiers fought in the trenches barefoot.

Food supplies were no better. Though the state’s requisition
committees bled the countryside dry, army food rations were regularly
slashed as most foodstuffs were either exported to Germany or
circulated on the black market. One soldier recalls how their
standard-issue white bread gradually switched over to bread made of
corncobs. Hunger strikes broke out in protest, while one division took
a different approach: they slaughtered the milk cows and shared the
meat equally.

In addition to public agitation during meetings, the soldiers
documented their degradation and propagated the revolutionary mood
with letters, leaflets, and even a handwritten newspaper
called _Pravda_, suggesting the existence of something like a
“public sphere” of the trenches through which revolutionary
propaganda percolated. These documents are available to us today
because the army command actively censored them, confiscating and
archiving the most “incendiary” ones.

We normally associate the word “strike” with workplace situations,
but this is the exactly how the soldiers understood their place in the
war. Soldier-produced agitational materials from the time often
include calls to “strike” and “refuse to work.” One army
company did so by lying down and smoking idly while their superiors
walked by, expecting a greeting that never materialized. A cable
reporting the incident states that the same soldiers took a
provocative picture of themselves holding copies of the _Workers’
Daily_. There were also less peaceful kinds of insubordination:
shooting officers during riots was also common.

The soldiers rebelled not only against the quality and quantity of
their rations, but also for more pay and vacation. As the war ground
on, vacation and recuperation time was cut short to make up for the
loss of life, desertions, and the army’s collapsing ability to
fight. War literally became interlinked with struggles over working
time. A note from the time illustrates the soldiers’ grievances:
“Look at the salaries the officers and sergeants receive. The
division boss earns 200 lev, the sergeants — 400 lev, only to watch
us sit here.” Meanwhile, soldiers eked out a meager 16 lev a month,
which forced many to ask their families to take out loans and send
them the cash.

And aren’t we who are stuck in the trenches working? But we toil
with the lowest quality food, shoes and clothes. Those who are
satiated with first quality food and wages will never know the burden.
The war is only for us, the simple soldier-workers.

Another leaflet asks: “Comrades, is it fair that a lousy division
officer earns 700 lev, sits warm and hasn’t smelled the trenches,
while three servants cater to him?” Another unceremoniously states
“let he who gets a good salary defend the state. The people are
always slaves.” Yet another leaflet concludes its revolutionary
appeal with a symbolic identification with colonized subjects: “Long
live the black slaves like us. Hurrah! Turn back!”

The soldiers shifted the direction of the battle (replying to the
generals’ “forward” with “go back!”) but also redrew the
lines of conflict. The real enemy was not across the trenches but
behind them: their own superiors, and the monarchical bourgeois regime
in Sofia. In addition to placing the conflict in unapologetic class
frames, one soldier’s writing exposed and repudiated the nationalist
Greater Bulgaria agenda:

They selected us only from the ranks of the simpletons’ class, as
they see us slumber and think we will never wake up. Everyone needs to
know that we do not liberate anyone but enslave and cause pogroms
wherever we pass. Why must some live off our blood and get rich, while
we die? What are we doing [in the occupied territories]?

An anonymous soldier’s leaflet from May 1918 urged soldiers to rise
up in the following way:

Our children and women are worked to death and we stay here like
idiots and will stay probably for three more years waiting for the war
to end in vain. If we slumber on, we will keep fighting on the side of
Germany, naked, barefoot and hungry, while the Germans will sell our
own food to us dearly.

Nothing angered the soldiers more than news from their families who
complained of brutal requisitioning, sexual abuse, and hunger.
Women’s bread and anti-requisition riots, which became a daily
occurrence throughout the country towards the end of the war, inspired
the soldiers to engage in direct action. The rebellions on the front
and at home constantly cross-pollinated. For example, a soldier
recalls the requisition as the cause of a division riot: “our
village mayor … ” at which point the officer interrupts him and
asserts: “listen, the war is such a thing … some will get poor and
others – rich!” “Yes, sir,” replies the soldier, “we’ve
been saying this all along.” The irony here, of course, is that the
officer defended this arrangement, while the soldier decried it.

Indeed, the notion that Bulgarian capital was profiting from the war
was by no means just the subjective perception of one soldier. Between
the founding of the Bulgarian state in 1878 and the outbreak of World
War I, 190 joint-stock companies were active in the country. 151 more
were registered during the war, and their total capital expanded
seven-fold. Meanwhile 182,000 people died of famine and disease in
1918 alone — more than Bulgaria’s entire World War I death toll
(115,000).

Broken Army

Rekindling “the spark of hope in the past”
[https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/benjamin/1940/history.htm] should
in no way be conflated with condoning the atrocities committed in the
name of national unification. Rather, it shows that class antagonisms
can rend apart even one of the primary tools and sources of
nationalism, the army itself.

The mounting insubordination and open rebellions which upended
Bulgaria’s war machine show that the army was not just a tool
wielded by the ruling classes to suppress and divert class struggle.
Rather, it was itself a site of this same struggle. Thus, while
October 1917 in Russia had undeniable influence (the chief conduit of
which was the _Workers’ Daily_), the uprising can be better
understood as rooted in the tangible degradation of soldiers’ lives
wrought by the war. The Russian Revolution
[https://www.jacobinmag.com/2017/12/russian-revolution-bolsheviks-social-democracy] gave
the soldiers’ justified anger, coherent ideological frameworks, and
even political direction, yet was not itself the cause of the revolt.

The uprising did not manage to get rid of the monarchy. But did
achieve its most immediate goal: ending Bulgaria’s participation in
the war. Contemporary historical revisionism celebrates only elite
peacemaking, but in reality it was the uprising of the soldier masses
that forced the government to sign an armistice and seek a separate
peace. Letters exchanged between government officials and generals
during the battle of Dobro Pole, seeking to escalate repression
against the uncontrollable waves of desertion, attest to the fact that
the ruling class had little intention of ending the war.

Bulgaria’s sudden exit from the war also had a wider importance:
shocking and disorienting Central Powers, it helped precipitate their
inevitable defeat. Bulgaria would not have its own October Revolution.
But much like the events in Russia, the uprising had hastened the end
of the slaughter that so devastated Europe.

_Jana Tsoneva is pursuing a PhD in sociology at the Central European
University in Budapest. She works in the fields of political and
economic sociology and is a member of the Collective for Social
Interventions, Sofia._

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