Happy ending to fairytale of purity

The Fragility of Goodness
April 5, 2002

As Hannah Arendt noted in Eichmann in Jerusalem , "not a single Bulgarian Jew (was) deported" to the death camps. The Fragility of Goodness by Tzvetan Todorov is a generally accessible attempt to take up Arendt's challenge to "explain the conduct of the Bulgarian people, which is unique in the belt of mixed populations". The truth holds little comfort for either the (neo-) monarchist supporters of the then-ruler Boris III, or the communists. Todorov shows that Boris reversed the planned deportations of Jews from Bulgaria proper in March 1943 for purely tactical reasons. Likewise, the communists played only a small part in the campaign to stop the deportations; and the generally low salience they gave to the Jewish issue was underlined by their merciless persecution of some of the most courageous "bourgeois" protectors after the arrival of the Red Army in the autumn of 1944.

Instead, the decisive factor was a revolt of large sections of civil society against the government's "Jewish policy". Already in 1940, the Law for the Defence of the Nation had provoked furious, if futile, opposition. In March 1943, matters came to a head with the threatened deportations. Unlike the institutional Roman Catholic Church of Pius XII, the Orthodox leaders protested publicly and energetically. Most important, the vice-president of the National Assembly, D. Peshev, led 43 deputies into revolt against the government. Most of this was "hard" opposition: 30 of the dissidents refused to recant under unprecedentedly severe inquisitorial pressure from the government. Faced with this concerted opposition, the government, with much bad grace, suspended the deportations and finally called them off.

This was - as the protagonists themselves recognised - a "single-issue" protest. Rescuing the Jews was not a sideshow of a generalised "anti-fascist" resistance, but the only purpose of the exercise. Indeed, its parliamentary leader was a senior deputy in the pro-government centre-right party; he refused help from respected oppositional figures to dispel any notion that this was merely an opportunist stratagem against the executive. Nor was the protest some sort of sublimated attack on the government's pro-Axis foreign policy: it was enthusiastically endorsed by two rightwing and Germanophile deputies.

Moreover, opposition to the discriminatory Law for the Defence of the Nation and the deportations was rarely tactically motivated. Some, including Peshev, referred obliquely to the dangers of investing too heavily in what might turn out to be the losing side. But in most cases the appeal was to universal values and simple human decency.

For example, the board of the Bulgarian Lawyers' Union saw "no justifiable cause" and "no professional reasons" for such an "attack on our basic legal principles. The Bulgarian constitution expressly forbids the separation of Bulgarian citizens into inferior and superior categories." "Racial purity," one non-communist oppositional deputy told the National Assembly, "is a fairytale. I do not believe in fairytales, and I am not about to draw conclusions of inequality among our citizens on the basis of an ill-founded theory of racism and racial purity." All this was said in late 1940, at the height of Hitler's power after the fall of France. By contrast, the Bulgarians campaigning against the Jews were driven primarily by foreign-political opportunism.

For once, the worst lacked all conviction while the best argued their case with a passionate intensity. This uplifting and in places moving little book challenges long-established assumptions about the Balkans. It should be required reading for those western politicians and diplomats unaware that this contender for admission to the European and western club has stronger democratic and humanitarian pedigree than some of those who have already slipped under the wire.

Brendan Simms is a fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge.

The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust

Author - Tzvetan Todorov
ISBN - 0 297 64670 2
Publisher - Weidenfeld and Nicholson
Price - £16.99
Pages - 197
Translator - Arthur Denner

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