The Bulgarian premier was one of the more colourful figures at Lausanne. John Paul Newman explains how Aleksandur Stambolyski sought to bring stability after a torrid ten years marked by impressive advances and sharp reversals.
John Paul is Associate Professor in Twentieth-Century European History at Maynooth University.
The decade before Lausanne began auspiciously for Bulgaria. In 1912 the Bulgarian national state, allied in the Balkan League with Serbia, Montenegro, and Greece, mobilized a mass conscript army and fought a successful war against the Ottoman empire. That victory was an indication of just how far Bulgaria had come since achieving independence in 1878. In just a few decades the new state had formed a conscript army with a professional officer corps capable of defeating the Ottomans. That army’s victories were impressive: its soldiers swept through Thrace, captured the city of Edirne, and threatened Istanbul itself.
Yet within months, Bulgaria had broken with its former allies over competing territorial claims in Macedonia, suffering a defeat that cost it virtually all the gains of 1912. That defeat set in motion a chain reaction that would determine the fate of Bulgaria for the next forty years. The chance to rectify this ‘First National Catastrophe’ (the defeat of 1913) enticed Bulgarian leaders into joining the First World War on the side of the Central Powers in 1915. Much-coveted Macedonia was taken “back”.
This triumph too was short-lived: Bulgaria became the first Central Power to fall when Franchet D’Esperey’s ‘Army of the East’ broke through the Balkan front (September 1918). The élan of 1912 was now very far removed; in 1918 the Bulgarian army’s soldiers were acutely fatigued, in disarray, and, in the city of Radomir, in open revolt against the political and military leaders who had brought them to this ‘Second National Catastrophe’. Alongside the mutinies King Ferdinand abdicated, and waves of refugees from Macedonia and Thrace sought shelter within the state’s reduced borders.
The new king, Boris III, turned to Alexandur Stambolyski, the leader of the Bulgarian Agrarian Peasant Union (BANU) to take the country out of this turmoil. Stambolyski had been languishing in jail, on account of his opposition to the war. He now emerged as virtually the sole political figure in the country untainted by the debacle of 1918. A leader of immense popularity amongst peasant soldiers, and perhaps the only person who could quell a potentially revolutionary scenario of the kind unfolding in Russia.
Stambolyski was attempting nothing short of a revolution in Bulgarian national life: to re-forge a state whose elites viewed territorial expansion as its raison d’être. Revolutionary too was the social transformation he hoped to achieve within the country: prioritizing the peasant and the countryside in economic, political, and cultural life, and punishing larger cities such as Sofia, where BANU’s popularity was minimal.
This spirit of reconciliation was certainly evident in Stambolyski’s approach to the proceedings at Lausanne. He nonetheless recognized that the transformations taking place in Turkey might create some attenuated leeway in the settlements that had been imposed upon his country at the end of the First World War. He reiterated his support for the autonomous status of Thrace, but insisted that if the eastern parts of this territory were now to go to Turkey, Bulgaria should be allowed to claim the western, and a much-prized outlet to the Aegean sea.
Eleftherios Venizelos scoffed at this apparent turnaround, noting that the Entente had made similar offers to Bulgaria in 1915, to entice the country into war, only for Bulgaria to side with the Central Powers. It was a rather unfair dig, given Stambolyski’s position during and after the war.
The Bulgarian delegation attended relatively few of the formal negotiation sessions at Lausanne. Stambolyski’s unconventional demeanour nonetheless made an impression. One American journalist noted how his ‘weatherbeaten face’ contrasted sharply with the pale-faced corps diplomatique. As the journalist was Ernest Hemingway,the observation that Stambolyski’s visage stood out “like a ripe blackberry in a bunch of daisies” was doubtless intended as praise. Hemingway believed him to be the “strongest premier in Europe – bar none”. Stambolyski himself would have been pleased, being fond of drawing similar contrasts between his rough appearance and the softness of city-bound politicians.
Premier Stambouliski, of Bulgaria, bulks out of the swinging doors of the chateau, scowls at the crowd and walks off up the hill to his hotel. Stambouliski cannot afford to ride in a limousine, even if he had the money. It would be reported to Sofia and his peasant government would demand an explanation.Ernest Hemingway, The Toronto Daily Star, 27 January 1923.
Strongest or not, the Bulgarian delegation left the conference without their outlet to the sea, and Stambolyski’s reign did not last much longer. In 1923 a powerful consortium of nationalist and paramilitary groups banded together to remove him and his party from power. The violent anti-government coup cost Stambolyski his life when he fell into the hands of the fearsome ‘Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation’. IMRO sent Stambolyski’s head to Sofia in a biscuit tin, as a trophy and as a warning to the incoming government.
What remained of BANU did not recover. The communists too, until then a fairly powerful political force, were crushed when their own attempt at revolution, occurring belatedly and abortively in September 1923, sputtered out. The most influential parts of the Bulgarian national leadership did not relinquish territorial claims on the lands they had ‘lost’ in 1918, driving the state ultimately and disastrously into an alliance with the Axis during the Second World War.
Since its birth in the aftermath of uprising and violence in 1878, the Bulgarian national state had always aspired to more refined and modernized national institutions, a better-educated population, greater civic consciousness – and of course expanded territorial borders. That last aspiration had set it at odds with the post-war status quo in Europe. Stambolyski’s appearances at Lausanne reflected his acceptance of decisions on borders and territory passed down to Bulgaria from the more powerful peacemakers. It was in part that acceptance that made him a target of less moderate nationalists within his own country.
MAIN IMAGE: ALOIS DERSO, STAMBOULINSKY RECLAMANT DEDEAGATCH (DETAIL), FROM DERSO AND KELEN, GUIGNOL A LAUSANNE (1923)