Economics, Diplomacy, and War: Britain and Bulgaria, 1936-38

Article excerpt

The decision by Bulgarian leaders to join the Tripartite Pact on 1 March 1941 was a product, in large part, of the Balkan state's economic domination by Germany. There was, however, a chain of events and diplomatic policies stretching back to the mid 1930s that led to the particular circumstances of that decision in 1941. The Bulgaria of the 1920s and 1930s did not desire war, nor was the country in any way equipped for a major conflict. The foreign policies of the future Allied states, for all intents and purposes, created the economic conditions in which Bulgaria had little choice but to accept an alliance with the Nazis. Western policies had done nothing to help Bulgaria maintain any freedom of diplomatic movement in the economic arena, nor did they provide any expectation of treaty revisions which had, by the end of 1938, already been achieved by the other defeated powers of World War I, primarily Germany and Hungary. An explanation of Western, and particularly British, inaction despite Bulgaria's strategic importance in the Balkans is the focus of this paper.

Two interpretations have dominated the analysis of Bulgaria's 1941 choice. On one side is the view that Tsar Boris III's government was more ideologically disposed to a Fascist form of government than to the democratic models of the West and therefore that the western powers had little influence in the country. Marshall Lee Miller, in his study, Bulgaria During the Second World War exemplifies this view. As he states, "Great Britain and France had but slight political influence in Bulgaria, although they had some importance elsewhere in the Balkans." (2) He concedes the point that in some sectors the West had its attractions. Bulgarian students traveled to Paris to study, and the British system of government was a model for those advocating an alternative to totalitarianism. However, his point is that neither Britain nor France showed much interest in Bulgarian problems. (3) Miller's reference to totalitarianism reveals his view that the government of Boris was more closely aligned to the German and Italian model than the democracies of the West. The author holds this position in spite of the existence of a Bulgarian parliament and Boris's repeated claims that the democratic form of government was his preferred choice. (4)

The other predominant interpretation is that given the circumstances of 1941--both within Bulgaria in regard to its relations with Germany and the general European situation--the country had little choice but to join the Axis powers. In many studies the decision has been viewed as the lesser of two evils: join with the Nazi state or be subject to occupation. (5) This interpretation has also tended to shy away from characterizing Boris's regime as totalitarian. Nissan Oren makes the point that it is very difficult to define the true nature of Bulgarian politics in this period. (6) It is more the case that "... the circumstances of the Second World War and developments in the larger world converged on Bulgaria and limited its range of choices." (7) The effect of the strangling German economic influence and the desire for territorial revision proved too strong a combination to resist. The decision for war was economic and political, not ideological in Oren's view. As he points out, "... under Boris, Bulgaria did not become a full-fledged totalitarian state." (8) The trend in historical thinking is that the small powers had but few options in the early days of the war. What remains is to determine how matters reached that point. The historiography of British, American and French policy during the interwar period is considerable, but little has been written on these countries' specific policies with respect to Bulgaria. (9)

The period under examination is book-ended by two significant events that had ramifications for Boris's personal rule and the formation of foreign policy: the Zveno coup of 1934, which led to Boris's personal rule and the evolution of the circumstances leading to the decision of 1941 and the Munich agreement of 1938. …


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