Bulgarian nationalism emerged in the early nineteenth century under the influence of western ideas of liberalism and nationalism that trickled into the country after the French Revolution, mostly via Greece. The Greek revolt against the Ottomans, which began in 1821, influenced the small Bulgarian educated class. But Greek influence was limited by the general Bulgarian resentment of Greek control of the Bulgarian Church, and it was the struggle to revive an independent Bulgarian Church which first roused Bulgarian nationalist sentiment. In 1870, a Bulgarian Exarchate was created by a sultan’s edict, and the first Bulgarian Exarch (Antim I) became the natural leader of the emerging nation. The Constantinople Patriarch reacted by excommunicating the Bulgarian Exarchate, which reinforced their will for independence.
Vasil Levski (1837–1873) was a Bulgarian revolutionary, ideologist, strategist and theoretician of the Bulgarian national revolution. He was executed for his role as leader of the struggle for liberation from Ottoman rule.
In April 1876, the Bulgarians revolted in the so-called “April Uprising.” The revolt was poorly organized, started before the planned date, and was largely confined to the region of Plovdiv. The uprising was crushed with cruelty by the Ottomans who also brought irregular Ottoman troops from outside the area. Countless villages were pillaged and tens of thousands of people were massacred, the majority of them in the insurgents’ towns of Batak, Bulgaria, Perushtitsa and Bratsigovo in the area of Plovdiv. The massacres aroused a broad public reaction led by liberal Europeans such as William Gladstone, who launched a campaign against the “Bulgarian Horrors.” The campaign was supported by a number of European intellectuals and public figures.
Picture 1: Battle between Ottomans and Bulgarians
The strongest reaction, however, came from Russia. Having its reputation at stake, Russia had no other choice but to declare war on the Ottomans in April 1877. The Romanian army and a small contingent of Bulgarian exiles also fought alongside the advancing Russians. The coalition was able to inflict a decisive defeat on the Ottomans at the Battle of Shipka Pass and at Battle of Pleven, and by January 1878 they had liberated much of the Bulgarian lands.
Following the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) and after the Treaty of San Stefano of March 3, 1878, an autonomous Bulgarian principality was proclaimed. The treaty was immediately rejected by Great Powers for fear that a large Slavic country on the Balkans would serve Russian interests. This led to the Treaty of Berlin (1878), which provided for an autonomous Bulgarian principality comprising Moesia and the region of Sofia. The first Bulgarian prince was Alexander von Battenberg. Most of Thrace was included in the autonomous region of Eastern Rumelia, whereas the rest of Thrace and all of Macedonia was returned under the sovereignty of the Ottomans. After the Serbo-Bulgarian War and unification with Eastern Rumelia in 1885, the principality was proclaimed a fully independent kingdom in October 1908, during the reign of Ferdinand I of Bulgaria.
Ferdinand, a prince from the ducal family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, became the Bulgarian prince after Alexander von Battenberg abdicated in 1886 following a coup d’état staged by pro-Russian army officers. The struggle for liberation of the Bulgarians in the Adrianople, Vilayet and Macedonia continued throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries culminating with the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising, organized by the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO) in 1903.
In 1912 and 1913, Bulgaria became involved in the Balkan Wars, entering into conflict with Greece and Serbia against the Ottoman Empire. The campaign was a success for the Bulgarian army, but unfortunately the allies clashed over the division of Macedonia. A second Balkan war followed against its former Balkan allies in a desperate effort to achieve national unity. After being defeated in the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria lost most of the territory conquered in the first war, as well as Southern Dobruja.
Picture 2: Central Powers monarchs (Ferdinand on the right)
During World War I, Bulgaria found itself fighting on the losing side after its alliance with the Central Powers. The defeat led to new territorial losses; the Western Outlands to Serbia, Western Thrace to Greece and the re-conquered Southern Dobruja to Romania. The Balkan Wars and World War I led to the influx of over 250,000 Bulgarian refugees from Macedonia, Eastern and Western Thrace and Southern Dobruja.
In September 1918, Tsar Ferdinand abdicated in favor of his son Boris III in order to head off a revolution. Under the Treaty of Neuilly (November 1919), Bulgaria ceded the Aegean coastline to Greece, recognized the existence of Yugoslavia, ceded nearly all of its Macedonian territory to the new state, and gave Dobruja back to the Romanians. The county was forced to reduce its army to 20,000 men and pay reparations exceeding $400 million. In Bulgaria, the results of the treaty are popularly known as the Second National Catastrophe.