The National Museum of Military History is a good place to learn about war, peace and Bulgarian history
Issue 45-46, June-July 2010
by Gergana Manolova; photography by Anthony Georgieff
The five wars that Bulgaria fought in the period 1878-1945 provide most of the exhibits at the National Museum of Military History. But there are others as well – objects from the whole history of the Bulgarian lands, starting with an ancient Greek helmet that might have come from the Iliad, and on through weapons from Bulgaria's medieval period, ending with the peacekeeping missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The idea for a museum of military history dates from the time of the First World War. One of the army commanders, General Pravoslav Tenev, saw an opportunity to collect the artefacts scattered all over Bulgaria, held by the regiments and exhibited in regional museums. The army headquarters agreed, and promised rewards to those who cooperated – and penalties to those who tried to hide them.
The general supervised the organisation of the museum, and thanks to him most of the exhibits arrived with a detailed provenance and history. He proclaimed that "future generations shall find all the valuable objects and documents from the present war, great in its success and first in its diversity..." At the time of writing, June 1916, Bulgaria already boasted a few victories and territorial acquisitions in Serbia and Romania, but it now found itself on the losing side – that of the Central Powers. The long war and mounting losses exhausted the economy and brought about a national catastrophe after 1918. It put an end to the ideal of uniting "all ethnic Bulgarian territories," as the nationalists put it. These territories covered half the Balkan peninsula.
Partly because of the financial chaos following the war, the Military Museum opened its first exhibition in 1937 on 15 Moskovska St. During the Second World War the Ethnographic Museum sent some of its exhibits over, including the manacles of the national hero Vasil Levski (1837-1873), which he wore before being hanged. One interesting object related to Levski is... a curl of his hair cut when he tried to become a monk in 1858.
The Ethnographic Museum was destroyed in 1944 by Allied bombs.
Just a few months later, on 9 September 1944, the tables were turned – the Communists took over, and Bulgaria joined the Red Army. Until May 1945 the newly-renamed Bulgarian People's Army helped the Soviets go through Yugoslavia, and progressed into Hungary and Austria. Evidence of this is on display in the museum, including the personal effects of some captured Germans and a Nazi flag.
Significantly, Bulgaria's Communist period, which stretched for the better part of the late 20th Century, gets a bare mention. When the commissars took over, the army structure was completely overhauled. The top brass were appointed according to party loyalty rather than professional excellence. Some of them were Soviet officers of Bulgarian origin while others lacked even military training.
For the next 45 years the Soviet Union was the sole provider of arms, munitions and know-how. The Moscow supplies trickled to an end after 1990, when deliveries of spare parts for Russian weapons ceased. That Soviet hardware went into the museum after Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004. Now it constitutes the open-air exhibition of 220 objects on 10 acres, possibly the biggest of its kind in the Balkans. There are transporters, artillery, aeronautical, naval and missile machinery, some of it dating back to the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878. The exhibits are signposted in Bulgarian and English.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers