Europe’s amnesia of Bulgaria’s ‘Revival Process’ and its Turkish victims

 In Blog

While Germany is known for being home to the biggest Turkish diaspora, Bulgaria is home to the largest autochthonous Turkish community in Europe. Bulgaria is the historical land of origin of around 600 000 ethnic Turks, who are also citizens of the European Union by being citizens of today’s Republic of Bulgaria. Historically living in the southernmost peripheries of South-East Europe, the ethnic Turks of Bulgaria have endured a volatile chronology of eras: the rise and demise of empires, the Balkan Wars of the XIX century, the rise of nationalism, the Communist takeover, and decommunization. While the 1990s offered a difficult roadmap towards the full-fledged recognition of their minority status, old ghosts have come to haunt the community.

In Bulgaria, November marks the anniversary of Communist ruler Todor Zhivkov’s resignation and the restoration of the right to keep one’s Turkish name. This had been taken away during the ‘Revival Process’ (Възродителен процес), the largest assimilation campaign implemented in Communist Bulgaria.

The ‘Revival Process’ and its legacy

Between the short period of 1984 and early 1985, Communist authorities persecuted ethnic Turks by forcing them to give up their religious and ethnic identities and to accept new Slavonic-sounding names. The name-changing campaign, which euphemistically alluded to the Bulgarian Renaissance between the 18th and 19th century (Възраждане), was the latest assimilation campaign against minority members in Communist Bulgaria that culminated in the ethnic cleansing of 1989. Around  370 000 ethnic Turks were expelled from the country.

During the late 1980s,  ethnic Turks and Muslims were killed by militias. Many were sent to Belene concentration camp, which had formerly been used as punishment for dissidents of the regime. Those who could not escape the country continued to face persecutions and violence by militia and Party officials.

Although approximately 100 000 ethnic Turks came back to Bulgaria after the collapse of Todor Zhivkov’s regime, their return was anything but smooth. Properties were either in terrible condition after years of abandonment or else occupied illegally. The stigma of ‘unpatriotic citizens’ remained, and the community’s struggle to reclaim their original Turkic names and cultural rights was largely dismissed.

Dismissing trauma in post-Communist Bulgaria

Those who returned could not easily forget what happened during the 1980s. However, as post-socialist labour market integration became a major concern for Bulgarian citizens of all ethnic backgrounds, memories of traumas as a result of the ‘Revival Process’ were dismissed. Ever since, any ceremonies of remembrance have mainly been held at a local level or privately.

Post-socialist Bulgarian institutions have dismissed the opportunity to self-examine and come to terms with the recent past. Following the collapse of the Communist regime, many Bulgarian Turks found themselves caught between a wait-and-see attitude and what researchers have dubbed ‘Stockholm syndrome’. Former members of the Communist nomenklatura restyled themselves as the Bulgarian Socialist Party, and in several elections since have arranged political coalitions with the de facto Turkish minority party, Movement for Rights and Freedom (MRF). It is against this political backdrop that, since the 1990s, memories of the ‘Revival Process’ have become a subject of contestation in political discourse.

As time has passed by, layers of memory in post-socialist Bulgaria continue to unveil a deep division among civil society regarding how to come to terms with the recent past and critically examine Communist Bulgaria. While nostalgia for Communism is on the rise, every civic initiative seems to become hijacked by vulgarism as well as by an uncritical weaponisation of memory politics. Local ceremonies to commemorate the victims of the ‘Revival Process’ take place yearly around a water fountain in the small and isolated village of Mogilyane, only a few kilometres from the Greek border. This village was the scene of one of the cruelest crimes during the Revival Process – the killing of a young Turkish mother with her 17-month-old child, Türkan Hassan, as she protested against the name-change campaign.

Every 1 February, Bulgaria commemorates the victims of its Communist regime in the country. Authorities honour victims of Communist repression, starting with those killed after the 1945 People’s Court decision to hand down death penalties to former royalists. However, no mention is given to the fact that ethnic Turks and other Muslim civilians account for at least a third of all the victims of Communist repression.

Revisionism and scepticism

Today, younger generations of Bulgarians have been fed revisionist versions of what took place in the 1980s. Namely, history textbooks adopted from the early 1990s to mid-2000s have referred to the ethnic cleansing as a ‘Great Excursion’ of tourists. At the same time, Bulgaria’s older generations are often found to be disinterested in remembering these crimes, or else critical of politicians they claim exploit ceremonies of commemorations – namely, the MRF. Meanwhile, neither a single former Communist Party member nor any rank-and-file official has been brought to justice for the crimes committed against the Turkish community during the ‘Revival Process’.

Research suggests that Bulgaria’s Turkish community is skeptical of the European Union and its record on minority rights.  It must therefore be asserted that the ‘Revival Process’ and its Turkish victims are a crucial part of European history. The archive of memories and the legacy of trauma are reason enough.

Who is allowed into Europe’s canon of memory?

While atrocities and persecutions conducted by Communist regimes have been scrutinised and denounced, the crimes of the ‘Revival Process’ have remained largely unnoticed. Europe’s Turkish (and other Muslim) communities have continued to be depicted as a historical alterity, being offered little to no space in Europe’s canon of memory.

After 1945, Europe’s public memory discourse was constructed around the nodal points of resistance against and liberation from Nazi occupation. Accordingly, Nazi atrocities and the persecution of Jews, Romani, homosexuals and disabled people, were commemorated and ceremonies continue to be held in memory of the victims. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, a new web of traumatic memories entered the fray, from the peripheries of the formerly Eastern bloc. The subsequent scrutiny and commemoration of Communist-led atrocities have been able to challenge the Cold-War division between Western and Eastern Europe. It has also enriched the construction of a European memory discourse.

However, throughout this process the crimes against Bulgaria’s Turkish community during the ‘Revival Process’ have remained largely dismissed. The mass-scale expulsion of ethnic Turks from Communist Bulgaria in 1989 and the precedent attempts at removing Turkish culture from Communist Bulgaria have been omitted from Europe’s post-1989 memory discourse.

The ‘Revival Process’ occurred on European soil, yet no space has been offered in the European canon of memory to its Muslim victims. The keepers of its memory – that is, Bulgaria’s Turkish community – cannot be left trapped in the oblivion of Bulgaria’s amnesia, nor foreign to European memory discourse. The trauma of Bulgaria’s ethnic Turks must be fully recognised as a constituent part of European history. Only then can remembrance become a space for reparation, reconciliation and critical examination of the past.

* Originally published in The Scroll – Voices that Matter

Recommended Posts