Boris III, Tsar of Bulgaria (30 January [O.S. 18 January] 1894 – 28 August 1943), originally Boris Klemens Robert Maria Pius Ludwig Stanislaus Xaver (Boris Clement Robert Mary Pius Louis Stanislaus Xavier), son of Ferdinand I, came to the throne in 1918 upon the abdication of his father, following the defeat of the Kingdom of Bulgaria during World War I. This was the country’s second major defeat in only five years, after the disastrous Second Balkan War (1913). Under the Treaty of Neuilly, Bulgaria was forced to cede new territories and pay crippling reparations to its neighbours, thereby threatening political and economic stability. Two political forces, the Agrarian Union and the Communist Party, were calling for the overthrowing of the monarchy and the change of the government. It was in these circumstances that Boris succeeded to the throne. He distinguished himself during the Second World War by opposing attempts by Adolf Hitler to deport the Jewish population of his country.
Boris was born on 30 January 1894 in Sofia. He was the first son of Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria and his wife Princess Marie Louise.
In February 1896 his father paved the way for the reconciliation of Bulgaria and Russia with the conversion of the infant Prince Boris from Roman Catholicism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity, a move that earned Ferdinand the frustration of his wife, the animosity of his Catholic Austrian relatives (particularly that of his uncle, Franz Joseph I of Austria) and excommunication from the Catholic Church. In order to remedy this difficult situation Ferdinand christened all his remaining children as Catholics. Nicholas II of Russia stood as godfather to Boris and met the young boy during Ferdinand’s official visit to Saint Petersburg in July 1898.
He received his initial education in the so-called Palace Secondary School which Ferdinand created in 1908 solely for his sons. Later, Boris graduated from the Military School in Sofia, then took part in the Balkan Wars. During the First World War he served as liaison officer of the General Staff of the Bulgarian Army on the Macedonian front. In 1916 he was promoted to colonel and attached again as liaison officer to Army Group Mackensen and the Bulgarian Third Army for the operations against Romania. Boris worked hard to smooth the sometimes difficult relations between Field Marshal Mackensen and the commander of the 3rd army Lieutenant General Stefan Toshev. Through his courage and personal example he earned the respect of the troops and the senior Bulgarian and German commanders, even that of the Generalquartiermeister of the German Army Erich Ludendorff, who preferred dealing personally with Boris and described him as excellently trained, a thoroughly soldierly person and mature beyond his years. In 1918 Boris was made a major general and with the abdication of his father acceded to the throne as Tsar Boris III on 3 October 1918.
One year after Boris’s accession, Aleksandar Stamboliyski (or Stambolijski) of the Bulgarian People’s Agrarian Union was elected prime minister. Though popular with the large peasant class, Stambolijski earned the animosity of the middle class and military, which led to his toppling in a military coup on 9 June 1923, and his subsequent assassination. On 14 April 1925 an anarchist group attacked Boris’s cavalcade as it passed through the Arabakonak Pass. Two days later a bomb killed 150 members of the Bulgarian political and military elite in Sofia as they attended the funeral of a murdered general (see St Nedelya Church assault). Following a further attempt on Boris’s life the same year military reprisals killed several thousand communists and agrarians, including representatives of the intelligentsia. Finally, in October 1925, there was a short border war with Greece, known as the Incident at Petrich, which was resolved with the help of the League of Nations.
In the coup on 19 May 1934, the Zveno military organisation established a dictatorship and abolished the political parties in Bulgaria. King Boris was reduced to the status of a puppet king as a result of the coup. The following year, he staged a counter-coup and assumed control of the country by establishing a regime loyal to him. The political process was controlled by the Tsar, but a form of parliamentary rule was re-introduced, without the restoration of the political parties. With the rise of the “King’s government” in 1935, Bulgaria entered an era of prosperity and astounding growth, which deservedly qualify it as the Golden Age of the Third Bulgarian Kingdom. It lasted nearly five years.
Boris married Giovanna of Italy, daughter of Victor Emmanuel III of Italy, first in a Catholic ceremony in Assisi, Italy in October 1930 (attended by Benito Mussolini), and then at an Orthodox ceremony in Sofia. The marriage produced a daughter, Maria Louisa, in January 1933, and a son and heir to the throne, Simeon, in 1937.
In the early days of World War II, Bulgaria was neutral, but powerful groups in the country swayed its politics towards Germany (with which Bulgaria had also been allied in World War I). As a result of peace treaties that ended World War I – the Treaty of Versailles and the Treaty of Neuilly—Bulgaria, which had fought on the losing side, lost two important territories to neighboring countries: the northern plain of Dobrudja to Romania and Thrace to Greece. The Bulgarians considered these treaties an insult and wanted the lands restored. When Adolf Hitler rose to power, he tried to win Bulgarian King Boris III’s allegiance. In the summer of 1940, after a year of war, Hitler hosted diplomatic talks between Bulgaria and Romania in Vienna. On September 7, an agreement was signed for the return of South Dobrudja to Bulgaria. The Bulgarian nation rejoiced. In March 1941, Boris allied himself with the Axis powers, thus recovering most of Macedonia and Aegean Thrace back to his kingdom, as well as protecting his country from being crushed by the German Wehrmacht like neighboring Yugoslavia and Greece. For recovering these territories Tsar Boris was called the Unifier . Tsar Boris appeared on the cover of Time on 20 January 1941 wearing a full military uniform.
However, despite this alliance, as well as the German presence in Sofia and along the railway line which passed through the Bulgarian capital to Greece, Boris was not willing to render full and unconditional cooperation with Germany. He refused to send regular Bulgarian troops to fight the Soviet Union at the Eastern Front alongside Germany and the other Axis belligerents, and also refused to allow unofficial volunteers (such as Spain’s Blue Division) to participate either, although the German legation in Sofia received 1,500 requests from Bulgarian young men who wanted to fight against Bolshevism.
But there was a price to be paid for the return of Dobrudja. This was the adoption of the anti-Jewish “Law for Protection of the Nation” on 24 December 1940. This law was in accordance with the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany and the rest of Hitler’s occupied Europe. Bulgarian Prime Minister Bogdan Filov and Interior Minister Petur Gabrovski, both Nazi sympathizers, were the architects of this law, which restricted Jewish rights, imposed new taxes, and established a quota for Jews in some professions. Many Bulgarians protested in letters to their government. In March 1941, Bulgaria signed the Tripartite Pact and joined the Axis coalition in hopes of regaining the territories of Macedonia and Thrace. Tsar Boris signed it into law on 21 January 1941.
In early 1943, Hitler’s emissary, Theodor Dannecker, arrived in Bulgaria. Dannecker was an SS Hauptsturmführer and one of Adolf Eichmann’s associates who guided the campaign for the deportation of the French Jews to death camps. In February 1943, Dannecker met with the Commissar for Jewish Affairs in Bulgaria, Alexander Belev, famous for his antisemitic and strong nationalist views. They held closed-door meetings and ended with a secret agreement signed on 22 February 1943 for the deportations of 20,000 Jews from Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia. These were the territories conquered by Germany and legally not under Bulgarian jurisdiction at the time. The Jewish people in these territories were citizens of Greece and Yugoslavia. Several days later, it became clear that the number of Jews in Aegean Thrace and Vardar Macedonia was 11,343, which was short of the 20,000 quota. The revised pact called for sending those 11,343 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia and another 8,000 from Bulgaria proper. The remaining Bulgarian Jews were to be deported later.
The initial roundups were to begin on 9 March 1943. In Kyustendil, a town on the western border, the boxcars were lined up. But as the news about the imminent deportations leaked, protests began throughout Bulgaria. On the morning of 9 March, a delegation from Kyustendil, composed of eminent public figures and headed by Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, met with Interior Minister Petur Gabrovski. Facing strong opposition within the country, Gabrovski relented. The same day he sent telegrams to the roundup centers cancelling the deportations.
In a report of 5 April 1943, Adolph Hoffman, a German government adviser and police attache at the German legation in Sofia (1943–44) wrote: “The Minister of Interior has received instruction from the highest place to stop the planned deportation of Jews from the old borders of Bulgaria”. In fact, Gabrovski’s decision was not taken on his own “personal initiative”, but had come from the highest authority—King Boris III, who at the risk of direct confrontation with the Reich, refused to deport the Jews. Four hours before the deadline, the order was cancelled. While Jews living in Bulgaria proper were saved, 11,343 Jews from Vardar Macedonia and Thrace were deported to the death camps of Treblinka and Majdanek. The Jewish subjects of these new territories were considered exiles under Hitler’s military command and direct jurisdiction. Bulgaria administered these lands, but Nazi Germany did not formally annex them to Bulgaria and their status were to be resolved only after the war.
Still reluctant to comply with the German deportation request, the Royal Palace utilized Swiss diplomatic channels to inquire whether possible deportations of the Jews could happen to British-controlled Palestine by ships rather than to concentration camps in Poland by trains. However, this attempt was blocked by the British Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden.
Aware of Bulgaria’s unreliability on the Jewish matter, the Nazis grew more suspicious about the quiet activities in aid of European Jewry of an old friend of King Boris, Monsignor Angelo Roncalli, then Apostolic delegate in Istanbul and future Pope John XXIII. Reporting on the humanitarian efforts of Roncalli, his secretary in Venice and in the Vatican, Monsignor Loris F. Capovilla writes: “Through his intervention, and with the help of King Boris III of Bulgaria, thousands of Jews from Slovakia, who had first been sent to Hungary and then to Bulgaria, and who were in danger of being sent to Nazi concentration camps, obtained transit visas for Palestine signed by him.”
Nazi pressure on King Boris III continued for the deportation of the Bulgarian Jewry. At the end of March, Hitler invited the king to visit him. Upon returning home, King Boris ordered able-bodied Jewish men to join hard labor units to build roads within the interior of his kingdom. It is widely believed this was the King’s attempt to avoid deporting them. In May 1943, Dannecker and the Commissar for Jewish Affairs Belev headed to plan the deportation of 50,000 Bulgarian Jews, to be loaded on steamers on the River Danube. Boris III continued the cat and mouse game that Bulgarian Jews were needed for the construction of roads and railway lines inside his kingdom. Nazi officials requested that Bulgaria deport its Jewish population to German-occupied Poland. The request caused a public outcry, and a campaign whose most prominent leaders were Parliament vice-chairman Dimitar Peshev and the head of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, Archbishop Stefan, was organized. Following this campaign, Boris III refused to permit the extradition of Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews.
On June 30, 1943, Apostolic Delegate Angelo Roncalli, the future Pope John XXIII, wrote to King Boris III of Bulgaria, asking for mercy for “the sons of the Jewish people.” He wrote that King Boris should on no account agree to that dishonorable action. On the copy of the letter the future Pope John XXIII noted, by hand, that the King replied verbally to his message. The note goes on: “Il Re ha fatto qualche cosa” (“The king did something”) and also noting the difficult situation of the monarch, Mgr. Roncalli stresses once again: “Però, ripeto, ha fatto” (” But I repeat, he has acted”).
An excerpt from the diary of Rabbi Daniel Zion, the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Bulgaria during the war years, reads: “Do not be afraid, dear brothers and sisters! Trust in the Holy Rock of our salvation … Yesterday I was informed by Bishop Stephen about his conversation with the Bulgarian king. When I went to see Bishop Stephen, he said: “Tell your people, the King has promised, that the Bulgarian Jews shall not leave the borders of Bulgaria …”. When I returned to the synagogue, silence reigned in anticipation of the outcome of my meeting with Bishop Stephen. When I entered, my words were: “Yes, my brethren, God heard our prayers …”
Most irritating for Hitler, however, was the Tsar’s refusal to declare war on the Soviet Union or send Bulgarian troops to the Eastern front. On 9 August 1943, Hitler summoned Boris to a stormy meeting at Rastenburg, East Prussia, where Tsar Boris arrived by plane from Vrazhdebna on Saturday, 14 August. At Rastenburg the King asserted his stance once again not to send Bulgarian Jews to death camps in Poland and Germany. While Bulgaria had declared a ‘symbolic’ war on the distant United Kingdom and the United States, at that meeting Boris once again refused to get involved in the war against the Soviet Union, giving two major reasons for his unwillingness to send troops to Russia. First, many ordinary Bulgarians had strong Russian sentiments; and second, the political and military position of Turkey remained unclear. The ‘symbolic’ war against the Western Allies, however, turned into a disaster for the citizens of Sofia as the city was heavily bombarded by the USAAF and the British Royal Air Force in 1943 and 1944. Nevertheless, the bombardments started only after Boris’ death.
Bulgaria’s opposition came to a head at this last official meeting between Hitler and King Boris III in August 1943. Reports of the meeting indicate that Hitler was furious at the King for refusing to join the war against the USSR and to deport the Jews within his kingdom. At the end of the meeting, it was agreed that “the Bulgarian Jews were not to be deported for King Boris had insisted that the Jews were needed for various laboring tasks including road maintenance.” This act of bravery displayed by King Boris saved all 50,000 Jews of Bulgaria. Two weeks later on 28 August 1943, King Boris III died, aged 49.
Shortly after returning to Sofia from a meeting with Hitler, Boris died of apparent heart failure on 28 August 1943. According to the diary of the German attache in Sofia at the time, Colonel von Schoenebeck, the two German doctors who attended the king – Sajitz and Hans Eppinger – both believed that the king had died from the same poison that Dr. Eppinger had allegedly found two years earlier in the postmortem examination of the Greek prime minister Ioannis Metaxas, a slow poison which takes weeks to do its work, and which causes the appearance of blotches on the skin of its victim before death.
Boris was succeeded by his six-year-old son Simeon II under a Regency Council headed by Boris’s brother, Prince Kiril of Bulgaria.
Following a large and impressive state funeral at the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, Sofia, where the streets were lined with weeping crowds, the coffin of Tsar Boris III was taken by train to the mountains and buried in Bulgaria’s largest and most important monastery, the Rila Monastery. After taking power in September 1944, the Communist-dominated government had his body exhumed and secretly buried in the courtyard of the Vrana Palace near Sofia. At a later time the Communist authorities removed the zinc coffin from Vrana and moved it to a secret location, which remains unknown to this day. After the fall of communism, an excavation attempt was made at the Vrana Palace, in which only Boris’s heart was found, as it had been put in a glass cylinder outside the coffin. The heart was taken by his widow in 1993 to Rila Monastery where it was reinterred.
A wood-carving is placed on the left side of his grave in the Rila monastery, made on 10 October 1943 by inhabitants of the village of Osoi, Debar district. The wood-carving has the following inscription: