The National Discourse of the Bulgarian Communist Party on National Anniversaries and Commemorations (1944-1948)

Yannis Sygkelos. Nationalities Papers. Volume 37, Issue 4. July 2009.

During the early post-war years (1944-1948), the newly established communist regimes in Eastern Europe followed the Soviet example. They honoured figures and events from their respective national pasts, and celebrated holidays dedicated to anti-fascist resistance and popular uprisings, which they presented as forerunners of the new, bright and prosperous “democratic” era. Hungarian communists celebrated 15 March and commemorated 6 October, both recalling the national struggle for independence in 1848; they celebrated a martyr cult of fallen communists presented as national heroes, and “nationalized” socialist holidays, such as May Day. In the centenary of 1848 they linked national with social demands. In the “struggle for the soul of the nation,” Czech communists also extensively celebrated anniversaries and centenaries, especially in 1948, which saw the 600th anniversary of the founding of Prague’s Charles University, the 100th anniversaries of the first All-Slav Congress (held in Prague) and the revolution of 1848, the 30th anniversary of the founding of an independent Czechoslovakia, and the 10th anniversary of the Munich Accords. National holidays related to anti-fascist resistance movements were celebrated in Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia; dates related to the overthrow of fascism, implying the transition to the new era, were celebrated in Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria.

Celebrating the Bulgarian Nation

Since the Seventh Congress of the Comintern (1935) the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) employed popular front tactics that aimed to assist the communists in gaining a hegemonic role at a national level. This also involved using a systematic, ambitious, and extensive nationalism. During the Second World War the Bulgarian communists’ desperate need for alliances within the Fatherland Front and for the mobilization of Bulgarian partisans led the BCP to downplay communism, sovietization, and internationalism. Instead, the Bulgarian communists highlighted national themes in order not to “frighten off” the masses. For instance, the founding declaration of the Fatherland Front (1942) involved two sets of goals: the national liberation of Bulgaria from the German yoke and the restoration of democratic liberties and rights. The subject of this declaration was Bulgaria and not the proletariat. Words such as communism or socialism and their derivatives made not a single appearance in the founding declaration of the Fatherland Front. As a result, by the uprising of 9 September 1944, when the communist-dominated Fatherland Front seized power, the Bulgarian communists had already incorporated a whole set of national concepts and notions in their ideology.

During the early post-war years, the Bulgarian communists systematically articulated a worldview which we might call Marxist nationalism, which identified people, nation, and state with the party. This was an all-embracing discourse that was meant to construct an image of national unity and a self-image of the communists as the vanguard of their nation. The BCP downplayed communist reliance on the Soviet Union and the Red Army, legitimized communist projects of modernization and nationalization, and delegitimized and incriminated the opposition by placing them outside the nation as “traitors.” With regard to the international arena, party ideologues propagated Bulgaria’s affiliation to and close relations with the USSR. In order to relieve criticism that Bulgarian communists were merely Soviet stooges, they attempted to make Soviet Bloc membership wholly compatible with national identity by underlining Slav kinship with Russia.

This article aspires to shed light on the national discourse of the BCP in respect of the domain of culture and, more especially, on the topic of anniversaries and commemorations. Within this field, the communist regime presented Bulgarian history as a linear progression towards the new era and the communists as the heirs to great national traditions and the representatives of the best values of the Bulgarian nation. Using anniversaries and commemorations, centenaries and millennial celebrations, the BCP attempted to reinterpret national identity, to reshape collective memory, and to propagandize communist achievements. The national policy of the BCP, as articulated during commemorations and anniversaries, can be detected in party instructions, resolutions and directives, governmental decisions, school circulars and newspaper articles, leaflets and books. The BCP’s national policy is worth exploring. The BCP was a self-proclaimed Marxist institution, a centralized and thoroughly Stalinized party, and its actions were fairly representative of those of other Eastern European parties. What makes the Bulgarian case specific is that party leader Georgi Dimitrov was himself the architect of the popular front and the main developer of the so-called “national line” of the Comintern. Additionally, the Bulgarian communists applied this national policy to a pro-Slav country with traditionally friendly relations and deep-felt emotions towards Russia. This in contrast to other Eastern European states which had often been historically opposed to Russia. All in all, this meant that the BCP’s national propaganda had a greater chance of success than that of other communist parties.

During the Second World War the then clandestine BCP already manipulated anniversaries and commemorations. At the time, the communists had confronted the official appropriation of the past and the selective remembering and forgetting by the ruling elites of the time. On Botev and Levski Days, the Bulgarian communists declared themselves the original and exclusive successors of national heroic ancestors, such as national poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, anti-Ottoman revolutionary Vasil Levski and the bandits of the Ottoman era, the haiduks. They presented themselves as the only credible guardians of the pantheon of national heroes and the only political force that genuinely celebrated the national past. The holiday of 3 March, which celebrated liberation from Turkey in 1878, ideally fitted communist attempts to present Russians as Bulgaria’s liberators and to draw links between the past and the present. On 24 May, the Day of Cyril and Methodius, Bulgarian communists celebrated Slav culture and solidarity.

Such national commemorations became an important phenomenon in the early post-war (1944-1948) public life of Bulgaria. The Agitation and Propaganda (AgitProp) section of the Central Committee of the BCP and the National Committee of the Fatherland Front, often called on the Bulgarian people to celebrate commemorative events. They issued directives and circulars in order to mould and supervise these solemn national celebrations.

On the occasion of each national anniversary and commemoration, a central committee, set up by the Fatherland Front but controlled by the AgitProp section of the BCP, supervised public events and controlled a network of committees countrywide. The role of these committees was to ensure the overwhelming, nationwide participation of all local communities in the national celebration, while at the same time inciting the patriotic emotions of the masses. The BCP envisaged each national celebration as a visible, active embodiment of officially proclaimed values, which individuals were to internalize through participation in carefully organized community celebrations.

Up to a week of preparation and political agitation would precede the main celebration. During that period, a range of conferences, lectures, literary and cultural events and commemorative mornings and evenings would take place in neighbourhoods, factories, faculties, schools, theatres, cultural clubs and military camps. On these occasions, the national anthem, anthems of “friendly” countries and suitably patriotic melodies were sung. During this period of agitation and propaganda, the theses of the Bulgarian communists would be disseminated among the masses in cities and villages.

The most significant event on most national holidays was the parade. Parades were an old tradition, which acquired new forms during the period 1944-1948. On Bulgarian national holidays parades were held in Sofia in an area bordered by the church of Alexander Nievski, the “tsar liberator” statue of Russian Tsar Alexander II and the parliamentary building in Sofia. National and red flags were brandished alike. At some national parades, the army demonstrated the military might and the pride and alertness of the Bulgarian nation. In others, students, pupils, youths, teachers and scholars celebrated education and promised a prosperous future for the nation. Partisans also participated in parades. They recalled the resistance movement and the national strategy of the BCP in the Second World War. Working people, peasants, and the “Septembrists” (the communist organization for children) were also present in parades. Shock workers and outstanding students were considered a source of national pride for Bulgaria, and led the working and educational groups they belonged to during the parade. Representatives of almost all parts of the nation thus passed before the tribunal of leading figures of the BCP and the Fatherland Front government.

Veterans of the so-called saga of the battle of Shipka during the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, where Bulgarian volunteers aided the Russian army, the resistance movement and the Fatherland War (1944/1945) participated in ceremonies on national days. Their presence aimed to recall the struggles of the Bulgarian nation against foreign oppression and to link the national liberation movement of the nineteenth century with the resistance movement of the Second World War. In that way, the BCP also attributed a national character to the resistance movement and its own wartime activities. The veterans of the battle of Shipka were honoured on 19 February (the anniversary of Levski’s hanging in 1873), 3 May (the day of liberation from the Turkish yoke) and 9 September (the day of transition from capitalism to socialism).

Bunting, including flags, portraits, placards, posters, decorative banners and greenery, was placed in the public space. The national tricolour was definitely the most prominent one present. It was accompanied by flags of domestic political and working organizations (e.g. trade union flags) as well as the national flags of “friendly nations” (for instance the flag of the Soviet Union). The national dimension of public decoration was also revealed in the portraits. Although the portraits of Stalin, Dimitrov and Tito predominated, participants also carried portraits of Bulgarian national heroes. These were also displayed in streets, squares and on buildings, and decorated the tribunal of the leading figures of the party and the Fatherland Front. Through the representation of Bulgarian national heroes and contemporary political personalities in a “chain of equivalence,” the BCP attempted to legitimize communist politics on national grounds by demonstrating the continuity of the nation’s past and present.

The Fatherland Front used placards, posters, decorative banners and diagrams as propaganda tools to sell its achievements and to gain the support of the masses. Using public decorations, the BCP and the Fatherland Front also propagated the main political topics of each national holiday such as elimination of the opposition, economic plans or the increase in productivity. In this way, it tried to make a connection between the national symbolism of the commemoration and its own day-to-day politics. The Fatherland Front made full use of the mass media (radio, cinema, and the press). In order to diffuse its own interpretation of national holidays, it broadcast government speeches, addresses and proclamations, and showed films. With regard to the press, the BCP disseminated its views on a particular national holiday through a range of articles and newspapers dedicated to the commemorations and anniversaries. What appeared one day in Rabotnichesko Delo, the official newspaper of the BCP, was likely to appear in Fatherland Front, the official newspaper of the government, on the same day or the next day. Though secondary in importance compared to the above, national holidays also saw the laying of wreaths as well as pilgrimages to important locations. Representatives of the government laid wreaths at monuments. Pilgrimages took place to graves of and monuments to fallen partisans. Both were appropriately decorated for the occasion. In this manner, the Fatherland Front attempted to establish itself as the official holder of the memory of the resistance and the war dead. Communists portrayed the fallen partisans and the Unknown Soldier as national heroes, who sacrificed themselves for fatherland and democracy.

Centenaries and millennial commemorations were celebrated with a nationalist content. The centenary of the birthday of Hristo Botev was one of the most significant of the immediate post-war period. Others celebrated were the Bulgarian national poet Vazov and the first Bulgarian hermit Rilski. A considerable number of activities were arranged on the occasion of such centenaries. For example, for the centenary of Botev’s birth in 1848, the government, on the recommendation of the BCP AgitProp department, announced the setting up of an exhibition. Competitions were arranged for the creation of a bust and portrait of Botev, and the composition of music to accompany his poems. The authorities established Botev monuments in Sofia, Vracha and Kalofer, and commissioned a bibliography and biography. Schools and cultural clubs dedicated special weeks to Botev’s life work, and some important social institutions were renamed “Hristo Botev,” such as the “Hristo Botev Narodna (National People’s) School of reservist officers.”

We can divide anniversaries and commemorations celebrated under the supervision of the BCP between 1944 and 1948 into three categories:

  • Those of plainly national character;
  • Those of national and international character; and
  • Those of a largely socialist character.

During this period, the significance of anniversaries of plainly national character diminished to some degree, with correspondingly greater emphasis, in terms of ceremonial pomp, being given to anniversaries of a largely socialist character. Nonetheless, the latter gained an extensively national character and involved a systematic national discourse. The Bulgarian population was already familiar with the first two categories, since they consisted of old celebrations. The third category included an old celebration previously celebrated only by the political left, and a totally new, socialist festivity.

Anniversaries and Commemorations of Plainly National Character

3 March (Day of National Liberation from the Turkish Yoke)

The Fatherland Front decided to commemorate the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano as the day of Bulgaria’s liberation from the Turkish yoke. The treaty anticipated the establishment of a significantly extended Bulgaria, from the Danube to the Aegean Sea and from the Black Sea to Korche. The Fatherland Front chose this date instead of that of the April Uprising in 1876, that is, the most significant but unsuccessful uprising in Bulgarian history against Ottoman rule, which attempted to found an independent Bulgarian state and was the casus belli for the Russian-Turkish War of 1877/1878. The Fatherland Front could in theory also have opted for the Congress of Berlin (1878), which amended the Treaty of San Stefano at the expense of Bulgaria but gave international recognition to the newly established Bulgarian state. So why did the BCP have a preference for the commemoration of the signing of a short-lived international treaty with irredentist overtones? Most likely because the previous regime had also celebrated San Stefano. The Fatherland Front could not simply ignore half a century of nationalist discourse involving a “syndrome of national loss and shrinkage,” the pining for “unredeemed lands” and national outrage against international injustices against Bulgaria. At the same time, celebrating 3 March in 1946 justified the contemporary Fatherland Front claims on an outlet to the Aegean Sea and the annexation of Western Thrace to Bulgaria.

On the occasion of the anniversary of 3 March, the BCP highlighted the supposed unity of the Southern Slavs against the common occupier of their lands, the Ottoman Turks, and the contribution of the Russian people to the liberation of the Balkan Slavs from the foreign yoke. The commemoration also referred to the Second World War. Russia was celebrated for having imposed the San Stefano Treaty on Turkey. The Germans, by contrast, were presented as the “eternal enemy of all Slav peoples,” and were blamed for the revision of the treaty at the expense of Bulgaria at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Imaginary links, based on the schema “as then, so now,” were drawn between the national liberation of Bulgaria from the Turks and the Second World War. As in 1878, when the Germans had attempted first to divide and then to rule the Slavs, so during the Second World War the Germans attempted to subjugate them. Just as then, the Slavs, united under Russian leadership, had defeated the Turks, so now, under Soviet leadership, they defeated their common enemy, i.e. the Germans. Just as in 1878 the Russian army had substantially contributed to Bulgaria’s liberation from a foreign yoke so now the Red Army did likewise. This schematic overview was openly presented at the First Slav Congress which convened in Sofia on the occasion of the anniversary of 3 March 1945.

2 June (Botev Day and the Commemoration of the Fallen Heroes in the Resistance Movement and the Fatherland War)

This day commemorated the death of Botev and most of the guerrillas of his group in the Vracha mountains. Their resistance to an outnumbered and better equipped Ottoman army gained heroic symbolism. This date had been celebrated since the nineteenth century, while being commemorated by diverse regimes up to 1944. It was also an old tradition for the BCP itself. From the 1920s, the party had proclaimed 2 June as the Remembrance Day of Botev’s death. The BCP took advantage of the fact that Botev was a recognized national hero and an ardent socialist in order to draw links between:

  • Nationalism and socialism;
  • Patriotism and internationalism;
  • The fall of Botev’s group and the partisans; and
  • The national liberation movement and resistance movement.

To prove these links, the party resorted to a strategy of selective remembering and forgetting. Cast into oblivion were Botev’s communitarian and anarchist views, such as his belief that the chief enemy of the people was their government. On the other hand, some of his aphorisms, such as “who falls in the struggle for freedom never dies,” written on monuments erected after Botev’s death, were seen to perfectly suit the communist project to connect Botev’s revolutionary group with the fallen communist partisans of the Second World War. The party emphasized that both had sacrificed themselves for the fatherland.

It was no accident that the BCP celebrated fallen partisans on this national holiday.

During the Second World War the BCP had named some partisan detachments, battalions and brigades after Botev; above all, it had named the Moscow-based clandestine radio station the “Hristo Botev Radio Station.”

On Botev Day a pilgrimage was organized to the place of Botev’s death in the Vracha mountains. As Rabotnichesko Delo reported, thousands of pilgrims departed for a march amidst the sounds of gunfire, church bells and military bugles, singing Botev’s revolutionary poems and carrying flags and placards. It had a double symbolism: first, thousands of pilgrims were supposed to retrace the footsteps of Botev and his compatriots and, second, they would march to the mountains where a few years previously partisans had fought for Botev’s ideals. An imaginary link was thus drawn between Botev’s legend and the resistance movement of the Second World War.

19 February (the Anniversary of Levski’s Hanging in 1873)

The party, as it did in the case of Botev, had recourse to one other traditionally commemorative figure of an uncontested national hero, using this date of commemoration to claim that the Fatherland Front was the natural successor to the Bulgarian renaissance and the national liberation movement of the previous century. In his speech on the occasion of the anniversary of Levski’s death in 1946, Chervenkov, Head of the Central Committee’s AgitProp department, argued that the Fatherland Front represented the same pure patriotism of the people as Levski had done long ago. The partisans of the Second World War and the Fatherland Front activists of the post-war period were presented as Levski’s original descendants. The former had proved it by their devotion to the fatherland during the resistance movement, while the latter had to prove it by fulfilling their day-to-day duties. The Bulgarian communists stressed that the Fatherland Front had followed in the revolutionary tradition and had realized all of Levski’s visions and ideals: the People’s Republic; national independence for Bulgaria; equality and fraternity between all nationalities inside Bulgaria; and, most importantly, fraternity amongst the Southern Slavs.

A particular set of Levski’s views and deeds were highlighted in order to claim communist identification with him. It was argued that Levski was the first to have recognized the practical and political significance of leadership, organization, and of the necessity of centralism for the success of a people’s revolution. Furthermore, it was argued, Levski’s legacy suggested that not only foreign tyrants but also their agents, lackeys and spies should be punished without mercy. Such arguments were used to justify the punishment of collaborators by the people’s courts. The anniversary of Levski’s death was also used to gain support for other topical political issues. At this commemoration in 1945, the party underlined that respect for Levski’s legacy meant supporting the Fatherland Front and its government, acting for the victorious end of the Fatherland War, subscribing to the Liberty Loan, encouraging political proximity to Yugoslavia and eternal fraternity with the Russian people—Bulgaria’s liberator.

In this way, the BCP configured in Levski a national hero whose ideas and qualities could be identified with the party. At the same time, the influence of Giuseppe Mazzini and the French Revolution on Levski’s socio-political thought were forgotten or, at least, their significance diminished.

As shown above, Bulgarian communists used and manipulated symbolic dates, figures and events of Bulgaria’s national past in order to propagate their own ideology. They attempted to capitalize on the national past, reinterpreted commemorative events, and reshaped Bulgarian national identity in their own image. The celebration of 3 March offered links between the Russian contribution to Bulgaria’s independence in 1878 and the Soviet contribution to the collapse of fascism in Bulgaria, which legitimized the Soviet presence in Bulgaria after 1944. Botev Day offered chances for presenting partisans as the successors of national heroes of the national struggle of the 1870s. Levski’s anniversary was used to legitimate communist policies. Apart from shifting the meaning and the content of these old and already nationally respected commemorative events, the BCP celebrated one other old holiday but transformed it into an all-Slav celebration bringing the majority of Soviet Bloc members together.

Anniversaries and Commemorations of National and International Character

Besides commemorating purely national events and figures, the BCP also organized and supervised festivals with an international content. Even here national themes dominated.

24 May (the Day of Cyril and Methodius)

This day had been celebrated as a religious holiday since the nineteenth century. Cyril and Methodius were ideally linked with the Slav alphabet and culture, peace and civilization. This view on the national and cultural prominence of Cyril and Methodius mission emanated from the Comintern national line of the late 1930s, and was in complete contrast with the earlier “ultra-sectarian” leadership of the BCP that in the late 1920s had disdained this holiday as chauvinistic.

After 1944, the religious elements disappeared from this celebration. At the national level the emphasis lay instead on education, culture, youth, the coming of spring and flowers. The importance of education, schooling and the intelligentsia in Fatherland Front Bulgaria was highlighted and contrasted with the illiteracy that had dominated Bulgarian society in the past. Besides these topical issues, the historical myth of the civilizing messianic mission of Bulgarians among the Slavs was disseminated. As propaganda chief Chervenkov pointed out: “the Slav script had firstly developed in Bulgaria, and was later disseminated in Russia.” This celebration was supposed to excite a sense of shared pride among Bulgarians, since their country was considered to be the cradle of Slav literature and culture. The Bulgarian people celebrated Cyril and Methodius as Slav heroes with a Bulgarian origin who had greatly contributed to the common Slav civilization.

Despite their contribution to Slav languages and culture in general, the AgitProp department stressed their contribution to the Bulgarian nation in particular. Not only had Bulgarians avoided assimilation and disappearance during long periods of slavery, but also discovered their national identity thanks to Cyril and Methodius.

During the war, the Bulgarian government had attempted to underline the “Hun” origins of the Bulgarian nation. This gave the Bulgarian communists the opportunity to attack the governments of the Second World War and Tsar Boris as “anti-national.” The BCP accused them of planning to forbid the holiday of Cyril and Methodius and desiring to “Germanize” Bulgaria. The BCP further charged that “German agents” had planned to abolish the Cyrillic script and replace it with the Latin one.

At an international level, Slav culture, pan-Slav unity and solidarity, and, above all, fraternity with the Soviet Union were celebrated and propagated. The nation commemorated its international membership of the family of Slav nations and its adherence to the other People’s Republics, led by the Soviet Union. The rivalry between the Slavs and the Teutonic race was highlighted with reference to two historical events: first, German opposition to the Slav enlightening mission during the time of Cyril and Methodius, and, second, during the Second World War when Slavs had fought against German imperialist expansionism. This project was accompanied by a significant forgetting: first, the fact that the Glagolitic alphabet had been invented by Cyril and Methodius in Moravia and not in Bulgaria, second, that the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I had turned first to Germany in order to secure the adoption of Christianity by his people.

Anniversaries and Commemorations of a Largely Socialist Character

Besides national and international festivals, the BCP also organized and supervised socialist commemorations. Despite their Socialist emphasis these also included a substantial national content.

9 September (the “Transition Day”)

This date commemorated the demise of the old, capitalist and dynastic regime and the takeover by the Fatherland Front in 1944. A day important to the BCP and the Fatherland Front government was converted into a solemn celebration of national pride by all the people.

This date of 9 September symbolized a “date of passage” from fascism to socialism; from a long, humiliating, bloody and devastating fascist, imperialist German yoke to the so-called “free, independent, democratic and powerful Bulgaria,” from a series of anti-national, treacherous governments (who were seen as the lackeys of foreign imperialists), to the patriotic government of the Fatherland Front. On 9 September 1944, it was claimed, Bulgaria escaped a tremendous national disaster and regained its international reputation by shifting its wartime alliance from the Nazis to the Allies. Besides this emphasis on systemic change it was a national holiday and a commemoration of a glorious, national uprising, which brought Bulgaria freedom, independence and the certainty of prosperity. This date became the most important national holiday of the post-war years, since it constituted the founding myth of the new regime and a temporal milestone for the Bulgarian communists. It created a cult of a new beginning. Despite its novelty, 9 September could be placed in a long, revolutionary and insurrectionary tradition. The achievements of 9 September had, the communists argued, been anticipated since the national liberation movement of the nineteenth century, the insurrection of Radomir (1918), the uprising of 1923 and the formation of the People’s Bloc of 1931). Since the entire Bulgarian people were supposed to have supported all these uprisings, 9 September acquired a national dimension. Applying the logic of equivalence and stressing the continuity between past and present, the “victory of the people,” as the uprising of 9 September was called, was supposed to be the culmination of a long national revolutionary tradition.

Within this symbolical framework, the substantial contribution of the Red Army and the Soviet Union to the 9 September uprising was downplayed, to underline the independence of the BCP. At the same time it was not totally forgotten, as it was an opportunity to present the USSR in a positive light. It was argued that, for the second time in history, the Russian people had contributed to the national liberation of their brother Slavs, for the first time in 1878, and now again in 1944. Several slogans of 9 September celebrations concerned the Red Army and the generalissimo Stalin. At the same time, honour was paid to the partisans and the Bulgarian soldiers who had fallen during the war. They represented martyrs to the realization of the September uprising and, thereby, the new Bulgaria.

The day was meant to represent the patriotic unity of the Bulgarian people. According to Rabotnichesko Delo, the official newspaper of the BCP, all social strata (the working people, the peasantry, the intelligentsia, the army, the police, and the patriotic merchants and industrialists) were to rally around the tricolour flag of the Fatherland Front, that is, the national Bulgarian flag. Rabotnichesko Delo also argued that 9 September “should stimulate emotions of pride in any honest Bulgarian, in any Bulgarian patriot, for the collapse of tyranny, savagery and fascism”; it ought to be regarded as a “precious day for every honest Bulgarian heart, for every Bulgarian patriot.” Consequently, anyone who did not celebrate 9 September was not a true and honest patriot or a true and honest Bulgarian. To be an enemy of 9 September, that is, of communist power, was to be an enemy of the nation.

The central themes on 9 September were national liberty, people’s democracy and people’s power, bravery and victory. Besides these symbolic meanings, the anniversary of 9 September also represented a chance for the Fatherland Front government to present its achievements and argue for an increase in productivity and the realization of economic plans. After 1946, the same day became a celebration of the abolition of the monarchy and the establishment of the People’s Republic. From 1947, the People’s Army and the People’s Militia—the means of coercion of the communist regime—celebrated 9 September as their own holiday.

1 May (May Day)

May Day had already acquired the character of a day of protest long before 1944. Though originally a holiday celebrating labour, it acquired significant national characteristics. After 1944, international martyrs and working-class struggles were omitted or forgotten and replaced by slogans on patriotic unity, on modernization, and on promises of a prosperous future for Bulgaria. At the suggestion of Georgi Dimitrov, May Day was to represent the patriotic unity of all social strata of Bulgarian society under the flag of the Fatherland Front. This notion was presented on a poster for May Day 1945, which depicted an image of a soldier, a worker, a peasant, and an intellectual, accompanied with the slogan “Long Life to the 1st May.” This theme also appeared on a sculptural figure established in central Sofia on the occasion of May Day 1946, which stood for unity between the working people, the peasants and the intelligentsia. Besides these representations of national unity, there were slogans and messages expressing gratitude to all the Slavs, the Soviet Union, and Stalin, who were all presented as great national friends of Bulgaria.

Besides these national themes May Day was used to demonstrate and celebrate the modernization of the Bulgarian state. All social strata were asked to work hard and exceed labour norms in order to increase productivity, and successfully fulfil various post-war economic plans, achieve the technological and financial advance of the country as a matter of national pride, and preserve, with all their strength, national freedom and independence. May Day was no longer a protest for better working conditions, as it had been prior to 1944, but a promise that hard work would bring prosperity, development and the modernization of Bulgaria.


As we have seen, the BCP took advantage of national anniversaries and commemorations during the period 1944-1948 in order to capitalize on the national past and to legitimize and underpin the communist politics of that time. As the communist-led Fatherland Front orchestrated celebrations of symbols of Bulgarian history and claimed that the communist regime was the peak in the long, linear course of Bulgarian history, Bulgarians were encouraged to worship a communist view of their society by using national symbols.

The BCP relied on past national celebrations, such as 3 March, 19 February, Botev Day and 24 May, and at the same time introduced new celebrations, their own martyrs and heroes, in order to underpin socialism and glorify their own contribution to Bulgarian society. With this purpose in mind the BCP introduced the celebration of 9 September and commemorated fallen partisans on Botev Day. In this manner old commemorations and anniversaries acquired additional socialist characteristics, while new socialist celebrations acquired national properties. At all these celebrations, the BCP presented its own imagining of the Bulgarian national past. By presenting itself as the natural successor of the national liberation movement and as the leader of the contemporary modernization of Bulgaria, the BCP assumed a national role and took on national characteristics.

National holidays, commemorations and anniversaries constituted a powerful weapon in the political arsenal of the BCP. On national holidays, solemn orators of the BCP and the Fatherland Front spoke about, and in the name of, the Bulgarian nation. To demonstrate national unity, they called on working people, peasants, intellectuals, the army and workers’ militias to rally round the tricolour, the greatest symbol of national identity, and asked them to participate “to the last” in manifestations supervised by the government and the BCP AgitProp department. The Bulgarian communists used commemorations and anniversaries to promote their policies, as national holidays were always connected with contemporary political topics. A significant example is the conducting of the referendum on people’s democracy on 8 September 1946, just a day before the second celebration of the most significant national holiday celebrated by the Front.

Political agitation and propaganda of the BCP aimed to convince the Bulgarian people that the nation as an entity shared a common past and a common future. As we have seen, commemorations and anniversaries underscored this continuity by promoting a sense of equivalence between a selectively constructed and remembered past and the present. The common struggle of the Bulgarian people for liberation from the Turkish yoke, the desire of Bulgarians for democratic rights and national sovereignty and, the uprising of 9 September were all presented as parts of a common national past. At the same time, a bright, prosperous, wealthy new Bulgaria was celebrated on May Day. It was the new socialist society the Bulgarian nation would together develop and advance. Finally, by means of the celebration of Cyril and Methodus on 24 May, Bulgaria was given a place in the international arena, as one of the Slav nations. This national holiday was used to emphasize the eternal fraternity with that big Slav brother and twice liberator of Bulgaria, the Russian people. Bulgarian communists continued to celebrate national and socialist holidays after the onset of the Cold War and the Stalinization of Eastern Europe. Socialist elements of commemorative events were reinforced after 1948, while some of the national themes were diminished. For instance, 3 March ceased to be celebrated as a national holiday from 1947 and lost its significance, as it called to mind the chauvinist tradition of “Great Bulgaria of San Stefano,” which was denounced as unpatriotic. Nonetheless, national discursive elements did not evaporate; they retained their great presence even on socialist holidays. In effect, socialism was being nationalized and nationalism communized.