Bulgaria and Austria – a Story of Myths & Markets, Sanctuary & Secret Files

by Pavel Naydenov & Mariya Tsaneva

You may tell this story as a fairy tale. It is one about mysterious forests, tribes, princes and kings. Others may say it is more like cliché telenovela – a playground of love, betrayals, nepotism. Crime novels could be another way to present it – dissidents, double agents, shady businesses, kidnapping attempts. It is difficult to say what exactly the story of the Bulgarians and Vienna looks like, but we could try to define a timeline of it.

Wienerwald Was “Bulgerewalt”

“The Bulgarian national doctrine is that in our lands there were Bulgarians before there were people,” jokes political scientist Ivan Krastev. Bulgarians often talk this way about themselves – an answer of a kind to the widespread narratives and national myths from Bulgarian history, which can be traced back to the first tribes that settled on Bulgarian territory.

Let’s start from the very beginning. If you have been living in Vienna for a while, you’ve been on a hike around the Wienerwald. Exactly there, we can find the very first trace of Bulgarians in Vienna. In a 2019 paper, Die historischen Hintergründe der Nibelunge nôt: Baierischer Bulgarenmord, Karl des Großen Awarenfeldzug und die Ungarn, Heinrich Kunstmann reveals the earlier name for the Wienerwald, the “Bulgerewalt.” We know this is definitely today’s Wienerwald, because on page 28, Kunstmann quotes the Saxon World Chronicle (Sächsische Weltchronik) of 1229 describing the area from The River End (near Linz) to the Bulgarian Forest (old German: Bulgerewalt).

During the years 791-803 Charlemagne had several battles with the Khaganate (union) between Bulgarian and Pannonian Avars, and conquered the Bulgerewalt at the latest in 803 and some Bulgarians became assimilated. Another key event was the visit of Khan Boris near Tulln, where he concluded an alliance with King Louis the Great in 864.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire & the Bulgarians

Austro-Empirical history long thought of Bulgarians as medieval folk who vanished in the late 14th century – with the First Bulgarian Empire 681–1018 and the Second Bulgarian Empire 1185–1396. This ended when Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottomans and almost all institutional traces disappeared. This had changed in the 18th century when European scholars became interested in the Slavic folks in the Ottoman Empire, while the Bulgarian people too entered a period of national “rebirth.”

A pivotal moment was the third Austro-Turkish war that came to an end with a subsequent trade agreement between Austria and the Ottoman Empire (1718). The industrialization of Austria and Germany embraced the need for raw materials and goods, which turned their cities into marketplaces. The Bulgarians and other ethnic communities in the Ottoman Empire turned their trading from local to export. Merchants established offices in Vienna, mainly at Fleischmarkt. Here, Bulgarians were trading in leather, cotton, tobacco and rose oil and were importing hardware, tools and textiles.

In 1829, the First Danube Steamboat Shipping Company was established in Austria, whose ships connected Central Europe with the Lower Danube, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Bulgarian cities on the Danube like Ruse, Vidin, Svishtov became important cultural centers, spreading western ideas through the Bulgarian lands. Here, the architecture of central Europe spread, dominated by Austrian architects and their students.

The improved trading connections changed the economic situation in the Ottoman Empire and led to a revolution in social and political consciousness and the self-confidence of the Bulgarian community. The needs of handicrafts and trade led to a cultural boom in which the merchants and the new bourgeoisie in Vienna supported Bulgarian culture. The Habsburg capital was a meeting point for intellectuals from across the region, where Bulgarians had the chance to meet with leading scholars and Slavists. The cultural exchange and research on the medieval origins of Bulgarian language and folklore played an important role in the Pan-Slavism and Austro-Slavism movements and evolving Bulgarian identity.

The defeat of the anti-Ottoman coalition in the Battle of Nicopolis in 1396 was the final blow leading to the fall of the Second Bulgarian Empire. Following the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-8, a new Bulgarian state was established in the Treaty of San Stefano in 1878. (C) Wikimedia Commons

Vienna as a Cultural Bridge

The most important spur to the development of Bulgarians’ self-consciousness was the chance to publish. The first books in modern Bulgaria were printed in Budapest (1806), in Brasov (1824) and in Vienna (1845). Merchants who came to the city took these books home with them.

Leading Bulgarian intellectuals Yanko Kovachev and Hristo Danov joined one of Vienna’s best private printing houses for its time, Leopold Sommer & Comp, where, between 1825 and 1878, about 250 Bulgarian books were printed. When they were finally granted a license, they opened an independent Bulgarian Printing House Yanko S. Kovachev and Co at Florianigasse 48. The printing houses outside of the Ottoman Empire allowed them to evade government censorship and became crucial to the Bulgarians’ fight for independence. After the liberation, Kovachev and Danov moved the printing house to Plovdiv, Bulgaria.

The merchants created a strong community in Vienna, funding Bulgarian students’ education outside of the Ottoman Empire. In 1863, the Society for Support of Teacher Candidates of Bulgarian Nation Napredak (Progress) was founded in Vienna with official approval. Later, the cultural society Slavyanska Beseda (Slavic lecture) was established in 1862, and the student society Saglasie (Consent) in 1876.

The Bulgarians who were based in Vienna were united in their support for the national movements in the Bulgarian lands fighting for ecclesiastical and political independence. The national fights culminated in 1878 with the Russo-Turkish War and the Treaty of Berlin, which was followed by the establishment of an autonomous state, the Principality of Bulgaria, within the Ottoman Empire (full independence was declared in 1908).

After the liberation of Bulgaria, attention shifted toward Central Europe. Vienna became a cultural bridge for European influence on the Balkans and in Bulgaria. The connections with Austria led to the entry of Austrians into positions of influence in the young country. In 1887, Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, (the youngest son of the German Prince Augustus I of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army (born in Palais Coburg in Vienna), was elected as a prince of the Principality of Bulgaria. History tells that in 1886, Bulgarian Prime Minister Stefan Stambolov came to Vienna in search of a new king after Alexander of Battenberg had been forced to abdicate following a pro-Russian coup. Rumor has it that the meeting with the future prince took place in Café Landtmann on Universitätsring.

Philologist and historian Konstantin Jireček was born in Vienna in 1856. He played a major role in the development of the new Bulgarian state and also served as minister./(C) Wikimedia Commons

Another person who played an essential role in the development of the new state was Konstantin Jireček, a philologist and historian born in 1856 in Vienna. Already an associate professor at Charles University in Prague at age 25, and author of the dissertation History of the Bulgarian People (1876), he was invited to be secretary-general at the Ministry of Education and Science in 1879, and later minister. Jireček was received in Bulgaria with great honors and high hopes to contribute and improve the life of the Bulgarian people.

Jireček found the work in Bulgaria a great adventure, especially because his workplace – the National Assembly – was opened only days before his arrival. During his stay in Bulgaria (1879-1884), he collected his very first opinions about the Bulgarians and shared them in diaries and published as Travels in Bulgaria and The Principality of Bulgaria. Today, Jiricekgasse in the 21st district holds his name. In Bulgaria, his name has been given to a street in central Sofia as well as two villages, several schools and the country’s sixth-highest peak (2,852 m).

With the strengthening of ties, the number of Bulgarian students in Vienna increased. Between 1878 and 1918, about 920 Bulgarians studied at Austrian universities. Attracted by the high reputation and favorable conditions, the number of students continued to grow, reaching a record number of 2,000 in 1922. The students who returned to Bulgaria contributed a lot to the modernization of the country. Nevertheless, it was a very challenging task. For instance, the young musicians who returned – composers, conductors, singers, instrumentalists – needed to develop a new music scene competitive with the other European countries, to introduce the classical music they learned in Vienna to the profane and untrained audiences in Bulgaria. They tried to keep the authenticity of the traditional folklore music, making arrangements of it in European classical music style.

On September 9, 1944, the old government in Bulgaria was overthrown and a new pro-Soviet one installed, followed by the establishment of the Eastern Bloc in 1947. From then on, Bulgaria and Austria became part of two different political projects limiting diplomatic relations for a long time.

During the communist period, the influx of Bulgarian students stopped. The Bulgarian Student Association in Vienna was also suspended. By 1959, there were no more than 39 Bulgarian students in Austria, and those who managed to come were closely monitored by the Bulgarian Embassy.

King Boris III ruled the Kingdom of Bulgaria from 1918 to 1943, when he died under mysterious circumstances./(C) Wikimedia Commons

On April 16, 1925, the Bulgarian Communist Party organized a terrorist attack to kill King Boris III (1894-1943) to create conditions for political change. The attack failed, but some 200 people died and more than 500 were injured. The terrorists had hidden explosives in a church where the King was expected to attend a funeral. It was well-organized, and many wondered how the Communist Party had had the resources for it. It was later revealed that, while supported by the USSR, the financial help came from communist circles in Vienna. Mark Friedman, the highest-ranking of the accused, admitted that the organization was funded through the socialist network in Vienna.

Vienna and the Bulgarian Dissidents

The reign of King Boris III could be read as controversial, especially his politics abroad, and his decisions during World War II were heavily criticized in left-wing circles. After his mysterious death in 1943, the Communist Party organized a political coup and the beginning of communist rule in Bulgaria. The “takeover” on September 9, 1944, led to political repression and murders, and the nationalization of private property and businesses. Intellectuals and regime critics found themselves in prisons or work camps. The crimes began almost overnight: The new Ministry of Interior searched out and executed former government officials, targeted as enemies of the nation. In the first few months alone, tens of thousands of people were executed without trial, some estimates as high as 25,000, with another 2,000 missing.

Many Bulgarians risked their lives trying to find a safe haven in Vienna. Following the takeover, Vienna became a center for Bulgarian dissidents. Here, they were able to meet, talk politics and try to find a way to instigate change from afar. Propaganda materials were printed in Vienna and sent by secret channels back to Bulgaria, including books and music that couldn’t be found back home. Vienna was like an open window to the world for those who dared to come here.

The Bulgarian Communist Party was aware of the intensity of the dissidents in Vienna and organized tracking channels. Following the examples of the USSR, they created a network of secret services around the city. Operating very carefully, the agents of the National Security Agency tried to mingle with the local Bulgarian dissidents, creating a lot of mistrust within the Bulgarian community.

Emigration was criminalized as a treason against the state, with emigrés facing imprisonment if they returned home. This is the story of 92-year-old Ivan Sirakov. Now back in Sofia, he spent more than 30 years in Vienna. He had been sentenced to eight years in jail, but the Supreme Court annulled his sentence in 1991. In Vienna, Sirakov became a successful entrepreneur, founding a factory for fine mechanics and production of coded keys and other items encrusted with Swarovski crystals. The Bulgarian National Security Agency (NSA) monitored him for years as his “file” shows: “Sirakov is against our country; he is in touch with many fugitives in Vienna, and wrote slanderous materials for the emigré press.” His pseudonym in the file on NSA was “ADVENTURIST.”

Slavcho Zagorov was director of the National Statistical Institute in Bulgaria. As a former minister of trade, industry, and labor under the previous political system, Zagorov was sentenced to death and never returned after September, 1944. He was a professor in Germany, and lectured at Stanford University and worked for the Ford Foundation. He finally settled in Austria in 1955, teaching at the University of Vienna, where he founded the university Electronic-Computing Center and was awarded a Gold Medal for his scientific achievements. He died in Vienna in 1970 at the age of 72.

Bulgarian Ambassador H.E. Dr. Ivan Sirakov and his wife (left) visit Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen and his wife in the Hofburg – before the pandemic made mask-wearing mandatory.

The Transition Is Not Complete

It took decades before the “Wind of Change” blew over Eastern Europe. But by the late 1980s, people began to say it was just a matter of time. And on November 10, 1989, it happened. People were on the streets, smiling and hugging each other; the political spring had finally arrived. The kids born in 1989 are called “The Kids of Democracy.” But the taste of joy lasted only a short time. The “Kids of Democracy” got a new name: “Kids of the Transition” – a political transition that has never been completed. For a lot of Bulgarians, it seems that reform never happened. Soon, our parents’ generation found out they have been betrayed again, and that the so-called “new politicians” were just the same old ones, just rebranded.

The years that followed were a catastrophe for the economy. Now that moving around was much easier, a huge wave of people in their 30s left the country to start a new life in the “normal” world of the West. One of their destinations was Vienna.

But Vienna was also in the sights of the less savory. In the last decade of communist regime, the party had been busy creating a backup plan, and money accumulated by corruption and contraband would stay in the hands of the party members. The foreign companies with Bulgarian participation from the communist years became a central topic of debate after the changes in 1989 – along with the fate of hundreds of millions of dollars of state funds. Like many other sectors of the economy, the activity and management of foreign companies as part of the foreign trade system had been top secret and became public only after the collapse of the totalitarian system. For the period 1961–1991, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria established the largest list of companies abroad of any of the satellite countries. Together, they represented the biggest foreign investment under communism, at least $712 million.

Vienna was one of the cities in Europe where so-called “red money of communism” was circulating and multiplying. Some of those companies still exist and are still accumulating. Independent journalists from Bulgaria have been dedicating years of work to follow the money trail, and that of the murky records of the people behind it.

It will probably take another decade to uncover the ties between Vienna’s businesses and the original “donors” of the starting capital, and how these relations affect the political climate in both Bulgaria and Austria.