1925: The Sveta Nedelya bombers

Add comment May 27th, 2015 Headsman

Three perpetrators of Europe’s most spectacular terrorist attack were hanged on this date in 1925 in Bulgaria’s capital Sofia — after each stood on the gallows for forty minutes while the names of their victims were read to them.

Those 40 minutes of victims had unknowingly begun their path to Calvary two years before, when the Bulgarian military overthrew the post-World War I civilian government.

Though the Communist party stayed out of this putsch — it was a peasants‘ party that was toppled from power — the reds responded a few months later with their own countercoup: the September Uprising.


Septemvri 1923, by Ivan Milev. Perhaps topical to the horrible events yet to come in this post, also check out his 1926 Our Mothers Are Always Dressed In Black.

The eventual Cold War Communist government of Bulgaria would officially regard September 1923 as “the first anti-fascist uprising” — an ex post facto interpretation that would be aided by the Bulgarian dicator‘s eventual affinity for the World War II axis, and by the “White Terror” unleashed by the military after it routed the Communist revolt.

Harried and hunted, and their underground leadership succumbing to assassinations, the Communists conceived a punchback as devastating as it was contrary to the standard Leninist line on terrorism.

On April 14, 1925, a Communist agent assassinated Gen. Konstantin Georgiev.


Memorial marker for Konstantin Georgiev. Photograph by Miko (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0].

Shocking as this murder was, it was only the overture — and Gen. Georgiev was only the bait.

Two days later — Holy Thursday — a huge crowd turned out for the general’s funeral in Sveta Nedelya Church, perhaps Bulgaria’s most important cathedral. Unbeknownst to them, they shared the sacred vault with 25 kilograms of explosives packed into a column under the church’s dome.

When detonated during the service, it brought the dome down on the congregation.

“A tremendous explosion occurred and all became dark,” a former War Minister told the London Times correspondent. “Fortunately, I was standing almost below a pair of arches and I escaped without injury, not even losing my balance. A minute later the fumes began to disperse and, with six or seven others, I found myself standing while every one else was lying on the ground. Fragments of masonry were falling from the walls and the roof.”

One hundred fifty people died and another 500 were injured when Sveta Nedelya’s roof fell in — though amazingly, none of the many top state officials attending were killed. (And Tsar Boris III was not even in attendance.)


Sveta Nedelya after the explosion.

Like Samson, the bombers brought the walls down on their own heads, too.

Already none too lenient with the subversive element, the dictatorship directly implemented martial law and began rounding up suspected fellow-travelers, “disappearing” hundreds in the process. (One notable victim was poet Geo Milev, who never returned from a May 15 police interview; his remains were discovered 30 years later in a mass grave.)

The lucky ones managed to escape to Yugoslavia and thence to the Soviet Union. But three men* implicated in the plot remained to face the more decorous vengeance of the judiciary: Lieutenant-Colonel Georgi Koev, Marko Fridman, and Petar Zadgorski. The last of these was a sexton at Sveta Nedelya whose role as the inside man was essential to infiltrating the deadly package into the sanctuary.

* There were actually eight death sentences at this proceeding, but five of them were delivered in absentia … an absentia caused, for three of the five, because they had already been murdered during the post-bombing crackdown.

Part of the Themed Set: Terrorism.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Terrorists

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1949: Traycho Kostov, Bulgarian purgee

Add comment December 16th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1949, leading Bulgarian communist Traycho (Traitcho, Traicho) Kostov was hanged in Sofia.

A journalist and agitator from way back, Kostov was a casualty of the postwar political chasm between east and west.

He’d been the number three man in Bulgaria’s communist hierarchy at the time of his fall in January of 1949, but had also been considered close to Yugoslavia’s independent socialist leader Josip Broz Tito. Like Tito, Kostov was a little too into his own country’s national economic sovereignty as against the purported greater good of a Soviet-dominated eastern bloc.

Stalin had overtly split with Tito in 1948. Over the next few years, Soviet satellites in eastern Europe would systematically eliminate perceived Titoist elements — and submit to economic integration on Moscow’s terms.

So a propagandist could write, comparing Kostov to the Hungarian minister who had swung for Titoism just weeks before, that

[i]f Laszlo Rajk could be regarded as the right arm of Tito’s plans for Eastern Europe, Traicho Kostov, member of the Bulgarian Politburo and Deputy Premier, was certainly his left arm. I sat in a crowded court in Sofia in December, 1949, heard and watched Traicho Kostov and ten other accused and dozens of witnesses testify to a Yugoslav plan for Bulgaria every whit as diabolical and bloodthirsty as that for Hungary. In reality there was only one overall strategic plan with “Operation Rajk” and “Operation Kostov” as tactical moves.

Specifically, “Operation Kostov” entailed spying for western (plus Yugoslavian) powers and plotting to overthrow the People’s Republic.

Although his enemies had browbeaten Kostov into political self-denunciation at party summits, the man stoutly repudiated guilt at trial — which was not necessarily the norm in the show trial genre.

Kostov’s ten fellow defendants received prison terms rather than the rope, and some of them were alive to enjoy the official rehabilitation that followed Stalin’s death.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Russia,Torture,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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1947: Nikola Petkov, “a dog’s death”

Add comment September 23rd, 2010 Headsman

At midnight as the calendar turned over to this date in 1947, anti-communist Bulgarian politician Nikola Petkov was hanged in Sofia’s central prison.

Petkov was a principal in a still-extant peasant party that briefly held state power in Bulgaria in the early 1920s.

His anti-fascist activities did him no favors as Bulgaria’s aligned with the Axis, and he spent the war touring his country’s internment camps.

The anti-fascist Fatherland Front that Petkov co-founded — allying with the Communist party in what would prove to be a Faustian bargain — had become the government by the end of the war, with Petkov in a ministerial role.

Unfortunately for Petkov, greater ministers of greater states were even then carving up spheres of influence in the postwar world. In the process, the Bulgarian statesman would get carved right out.

Here’s the blog of this critically acclaimed novel’s author.

With Bulgaria slated for the Soviet bloc and all its scary political purges, the Fatherland Front was soon controlled by the Communists. Petkov mounted brave but futile opposition as a Member of Parliament — until he was arrested in the parliament building itself, an apt image for Bulgaria’s entrance onto the Cold War chessboard as a red pawn.

The show trial and resultant death sentence “for having tried to overthrow the legal authority and restore Fascism in the country by conspiring with military organisations” briefly exercised western diplomats filing appeals and high-minded talk about justice during the summer of 1947.

Which stuff earned the derision of Bulgarian Premier Georgi Dimitrov, so Soviet-aligned that he was a Soviet citizen.

In this menacing speech to the Social Democrats the next January, his Don’t-Mess-With-TexasBulgaria umbrage at outside actors for having the temerity to object stands in ironic contrast to Dimitrov’s own history as a prewar international cause celebreback when he was unjustly accused in Nazi Germany for the Reichstag Fire.

So sauce for the goose-stepper is sauce for the dialectical materialist?

Negatory.

As you remember from this rostrum I many times warned your political allies from Nikola Petkov’s group. They did not listen to me. They took no notice of all my warnings. They broke their heads, and their leader is now under the ground. You should now think it over, lest you share their fate … When the trial against Nikola Petkov began you said “The court will not dare to sentence him to death. It would be too horrible. Both Washington and London will rise against it in order to stop it.” I said then: “Nobody can stop it. Those who may try to intervene from abroad will only worsen the position of the accused and his friends.’ What happened? What I said would happen. The court fulfilled its role, fulfilled the will of the people and sentenced the traitor to death.

Then you said: “If they execute the death sentence, the glass of patience will overflow. The whole world will rise against it, and all its wrath will fall on the back of the Bulgarian people.”

Of course, if there had been no interference from abroad, if they had not tried to dictate to the sovereign court, the head of Petkov could have been saved Yes, it could have been saved. His death sentence could have been commuted to another sentence. But when they tried to blackmail the Bulgarian people and question the authority of a sovereign court, it became necessary for the death sentence to be executed. And it was executed.

What happened then? Who rose against it in the country? Where were the demonstrations, the mutinies with which we were threatened? Nothing like that happened.

And what happened abroad? Not even decent diplomatic notes were delivered, which could have been expected. No one raised a hand in defense of Petkov. Some people in the West shouted for a while, but soon quietened (sic) down … The whole incident was soon forgotten.

The Balkans In Our Time

Hard to say Dimitrov was wrong about that: just one week after Petkov’s execution, the United States officially recognized a Bulgarian state dedicated (so the U.S. State Department had only just declared) “to remov[ing] all save a purely nominal opposition and to consolidat[ing], despite its professions to the contrary, a totalitarian form of government.”

“To a dog, a dog’s death,” sneered the official trade union council about Petkov — a taunt liberally repeated by Radio Sofia.

The “dog” was posthumously rehabilitated in 1990, and now has the requisite post-Soviet public monuments.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Treason

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1890: Major Panitza, by Stefan Stambolov

Add comment June 28th, 2010 Headsman

Sophia, June 28, 1890

With reference to my telegram of this day’s date, I have the honour to report that this morning Major Panitza was conducted from his place of confinement in town to the camp of Bali Effendi, close to Sophia, where the troops are quartered for the summer, and in presence of the whole brigade drawn up in military file he was shot by a peloton of twenty-four soldiers.

Major Panitza fell uttering the cry, “Long live Bulgaria.”

After the execution, Major Marinoff, the Commandant of the Sophia garrison, addressed a short speech to the troops, in which he said that Major Panitza had met his death in just punishment for treason against his Prince and country, and that a similar fate would be dealt out to whosoever should prove a traitor to the interests of the Fatherland.

The troops maintained a perfectly impassive attitude throughout the proceedings, and the execution of the condemned in the presence of the garrison shows that the Government wished to make an example which should be a warning to the officers to refrain from the political intrigues that had during the last few years become so prevalent, and that were dangerously undermining the discipline and loyalty of the army.

British and foreign state papers, vol. 83

Having recently gained independence by backing its Slavic brethren against its longtime Ottoman master in the Russo-Turkish War, Bulgaria was enjoying all the perquisites of being a minor power pressed between major powers.

The leading concern of its able, authoritarian, and justifiably paranoid leader* Stefan Stambolov — “the only Prime Minister in Europe who receives his visitors with a revolver lying next to the ink-stand on his desk,” in the New York Times’ description — was the interest of Bulgaria’s “benefactors” in St. Petersburg in turning this breakaway Ottoman province into an ever more pliant Russian instrument.

Whether it was the coreligionists or their coin who inspired it, many in Bulgaria felt sincere loyalty to Russia; in an age of empires, it wouldn’t have been unreasonable statecraft to opt for the security of dependency.

With that object in mind, Major Panitza hatched a dangerous plot to overturn the Bulgarian government. His plot conjured an equally dangerous reprisal from Stambolov — who was determined to keep as much independence as Bulgaria could sustain.

Despite fairly widespread sympathy in the army and the populace for Panitza’s plot, and of course in the face of entreaties of Russia, Stambolov had the execution carried out with impolitic dispatch just weeks after the court-martial did its work.**

Many outside of Bulgaria saw statesmanlike quality in Stambolov, but his severe rule exemplified by his unpopular ruthlessness towards Major Panitza made him many enemies at home. Stambolov was himself assassinated shortly after resigning from government in 1895, and his corpse abused en route to its resting place.

* Generally transliterated “Stambouloff” or “Stambuloff” during his own lifetime, this gentleman got control of the state by mounting a counter-coup against a Russian putsch. Since the Russians still succeeded in definitively dethroning the sitting Bulgarian king, Stambolov’s hand alone guided the unsteady Bulgarian ship of state for a time.

Stambolov eventually installed an Austro-Hungarian noble as Prince Ferdinand I (the two came to hate each other). Later titled “tsar”, Ferdinand was the grandfather of Simeon II, who achieved the unusual distinction of becoming Prime Minister of Bulgaria through democratic election in 2001.

** Panitza’s co-conspirators got various prison terms, including the former Commandant of the Sofia garrison, a gentleman sporting the Strangelovian moniker Lieutenant-Colonel Kissoff.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Treason

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