11 NOVEMBER, 1919: What’s Our Excuse?

Today is the anniversary of the armistice that ended fighting on the main European battlefronts, and the centenary of the first anniversary.  That first anniversary was marked in various ways in various countries, and associated events drew large crowds in the victorious nations, but the British monarchy is generally accepted as providing the blueprint for subsequent official ceremonies all over the world.   British King George V had issued an appeal to the population to observe a two-minute silence at eleven in the morning on 11 November, and the silence formed part of a ceremony on that morning in the grounds of Buckingham Palace, attended by the King and French President Poincaré.   Armistice Day was celebrated on 11 November until the Second World War, when official events were moved (as an aid to production) to the Sunday nearest that date, a day subsequently known as Remembrance Day (in the British Empire and France) or Veterans’ Day (in the US).

London, 11 November 1919. That’s a pretty good turnout.

Use of the poppy as a remembrance symbol took inspiration from the flower’s battlefield growth in Flanders, as depicted in a 1915 poem by Canadian physician John McCrae.  Facing early competition from a number of alternatives, notably the white daisy preferred by many US groups in the immediate post-War period, the poppy has only ever been fully established as a national emblem in Britain (which instituted the first official Poppy Day in 1921), Canada, Australia and New Zealand.  Some organisations and groups in the US, France and former British imperial outposts wear poppies, but they have never been used by any of the nations defeated or destroyed during the First World War.

That’s it for the anniversary of the day, because I want to jump forward a couple of weeks to late November and the long-term condition of one of those defeated nations, Bulgaria.

I’ve been thinking about racism more than usual during the last few months, and about my approach to racism.  The realisation that I’d kept far too quiet on the subject during a five-year rant about the First World War has something to do with that, as has the obvious need to address its relevance to current political debates in Britain, where I live most of the time.  Racism has also returned to front and centre in another place I inhabit, body and soul, and that’s the football field.

I play and watch what is without doubt the most popular sport in the world, and I’ve been doing both for more than half a century, so I’ve seen the tide of racism in British football rise, fall and mutate on the pitch and on the terraces.  I’m a white Brit, so I’ve only seen it from a distance, and only really been viscerally involved when the battle got in my face – usually when someone nearby was suffering racist abuse.  For a boy living in one of the rich, developed democracies of the West – through an era characterised by steady but slow progress towards genuine racial equality, and by a constant chorus of white, middle-class self-congratulation – that has been a pretty comfortable option.  It’s taken a long time, but I’m finally clear that it’s been much too comfortable.

Footballers have been saying it, and my (few) black friends have always been sure of it:  not being a racist isn’t enough, because racism is a disease lodged so deep inside modern humanity’s learned psychology that only active anti-racism can hope to defeat it.  This is an important lesson for all us nice, white, liberal people.  We need to take a look at the racism that lurks all around everyone, take a good look at how we’ve been tolerating it, stop patting ourselves on the back and start getting into the fight.  All of which brings me back to Bulgaria.

Football is currently a focus for one of Britain’s periodic national debates about racism, and Bulgaria has been firmly in its spotlight following manifest racist abuse of black English players in Sofia.  For all that we were being told by our non-white populations that we had a lot of work to do before we got righteous, the British reacted to Sofia with a festival of finger-pointing at the naked racism displayed in Bulgaria and several other Eastern European societies.  Well, yes, naked racism is deplorable and action against it is necessary – but we’ll never beat it without understanding it.  Treating Bulgarian racism, for instance, as something separate from our own traditions and practices amounts to simple denial, of both our true condition and our shared responsibilities for the condition of others.

I realise that may sound like gobbledygook, poppycock even, but I’ll try to explain myself and even throw in some history.   As for our traditions and practices in Britain, it’s really not so long ago that the kind of racist behaviour seen in Bulgaria was public and commonplace on British streets and in British homes.  It may be less commonplace now, but it’s definitely still there, as the tones of our Brexit angst, not to mention a far right fed by the Internet’s dead-eyed PR, are demonstrating on a daily basis.   As for shared responsibilities, 27 November marks the centenary of the Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine, the document by which Britain, France and the United States shaped – or failed to shape – the future of Bulgaria.

Bulgaria was by no means a haven of liberal values before, during or after the First World War.  Born from a nationalist revolution against Ottoman control in 1878, it was ruled by a constitutional monarch, a self-styled Tsar from 1908, but although the country’s parliament could exercise a veto over royal legislation, it was permanently dominated by a landowning class that supported the Tsar all the way, all the time.

Said landowning class was very nationalist, very ambitious, very right-wing and very militarist, its ambitions dominated by a visceral desire to absorb Macedonia into the Bulgarian nation.  Macedonia remained the focus of Bulgarian nationalist ambitions through the Balkan and First World Wars, but by late 1918 the gamble on alliance with the Central Powers had left Bulgaria a helpless wreck at the mercy of the victors .

Sofia in 1919 – just so you know what it looked like.

Tsar Ferdinand I, who had presided over the gamble, abdicated in on 4 October 1918, leaving his son, Boris III, to cope with an eruption of revolutionary activity from Russian-sponsored and peasant-lead socialists.  Boris kept his traditional power base happy by appointing Teodor Teodorov, a staunchly pro-Entente figure seen as the best hope of a fair deal from the peace process, as premier in late November 1918.  Meanwhile,  the new Tsar staved off revolution by cooperating with Alexandar Stamboliiski (spellings vary, a lot), leader of the agrarian rebels, who was released from prison almost at once and joined the coalition government in January 1919.  Stamboliiski  became premier of an agrarian-socialist coalition in October, after the unavoidable realities of the peace process had forced Teodorov’s resignation… and then came the peace treaty.

Tsar Boris III was only 25 when he took the throne, and still in charge when he died in 1943.

The Treaty of Neuilly blew away any faint hopes – and they were always faint – that the Paris Peace Conference would treat Bulgaria in accordance with the liberal principles outlined in Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points.  Official Bulgarian delegates had been refused any kind of access to the conference, and nobody in Paris paid any attention to a welter of delegations sent by Bulgarian political, cultural or regional groupings.  When the full-formed Treaty emerged from the rumour mill it was something of a botch job – cobbled together by diplomats in a hurry, from the blueprint of the Versailles Treaty imposed on Germany – but was no less brutal for that.

Farmer’s son Aleksandar Stamboliiski could hardly have looked more like a peasant revolutionary leader.

Bulgaria lost all the territory claimed by its neighbours, ceding Thrace to Greece, the Dobrudja region to Romania and its share of Macedonia to the new Yugoslav state.  This could have been worse, had not the Entente powers been making a feeble effort to promote balance of power in the Balkans, but it was accompanied by a massive reparations bill, including cash amounting to about £100 million (of which only about 8% was ever paid) and vast stocks of raw materials, mostly coal and cattle.  Bulgaria was also required to maintain occupying troops for the duration, and to cut its armed forces to the bone, keeping 20,000 troops, 10,000 gendarmes and 3,000 border guards, but no aircraft, warships or heavy artillery.

Most maps showing Bulgaria’s territorial losses in 1919 are complicated and incomprehensible to Anglophones. This one’s very simple and easy to understand.

Needless to say, the treaty prompted outrage in Bulgaria, but Stamboliiski was required to sign it anyway, cementing his demon status among right-wing and nationalist elements.  His Bulgarian Agrarian National Union (BANU) party still won the next election, in March 1920, convincingly enough to govern without a coalition, and for the next three years the regime promoted socialist experiment, while its nationalist opponents, including most of the country’s military and cultural elite, promoted popular fury at the ‘diktat of Neuilly’.   Though the monarchy stayed in place, it was in no way the dominant force it had been before the War, and was powerless to control a political landscape that was being radicalised and polarised amid social and economic crises, worsened by a steady influx of refugees from the lost territories.

Stamboliiski was assassinated in June 1923, bringing to an end Bulgaria’s post-War flirtation with socialism and ushering in a long period of increasingly nationalist, authoritarian government.  In ever closer diplomatic and economic harmony with Germany, the only other extant victim of the vindictiveness and destabilisation delivered by the Paris Peace Conference, Bulgaria would go on to pick the wrong side in the Second World War, and for fifty years after that its economic, social and cultural development would be dictated by the Soviet Union.

In other words, most Bulgarians have, throughout the nation’s history, been denied access to the liberal pathways that enabled most Western Europeans to overcome, albeit slowly and never completely, the ignorance and fear that feed prejudice and propel it to violence.  The one, fleeting window of opportunity for Bulgarians to change the narrative came amid the chaos after the First World War, when genuinely popular politics had their day in the sun.  The casually punitive nature of the treaty imposed at Neuilly discredited the much-vaunted liberal values of the victorious democracies, encouraged the survival and resurgence of aggressive nationalism in Bulgaria and cut the economic ground from under reformists.

It would be ridiculous to blame the western Allies for Bulgaria’s gloomy political history – the country’s social and political elites laid the groundwork and the Soviet Union made sure the lights stayed off – but that’s no excuse for ignoring our part in the story.  We still have a major problem with racism after more than a century of relatively free access to liberal ideas and systems, but Bulgaria’s journey to what we consider civilised values only began in the 1990s and the delay was partly our fault.  Condemn racism in all its forms and, even better, act against it as a matter of course – but point the finger, portray the problem as something intrinsic to a people and scream for sanctions, you’re an outraged British hypocrite.  Bulgarians are in a process of education that calls for time, tolerance and understanding.  What’s our excuse?