Destruction of the Thracian BulgariansThough somewhat obscure today, the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians refers to the systematic expulsion of the native Christians (Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians) in Eastern Thrace. These atrocities occurred during and after the Second Balkan War of 1913. Additionally, it involves some of the figures later complicit in the Armenian Genocide of World War One. Historians increasingly view the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians as a prototype for subsequent Ottoman campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

Today, the descendants of Thracian Bulgarian refugees remain attached to their Thracian heritage. Amazingly, this is despite gradual assimilation into the dominant culture of Bulgaria. The Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians remains a point of contention between the governments of Turkey and Bulgaria.

9 Facts About the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians

  1. Although the Ottoman census of 1906-1907 indicated a Muslim majority in five of Eastern Thrace’s counties, non-Muslims possessed numerical and cultural significance. Moreover, both Muslims and non-Muslims occupied positions across the empire’s social strata from peasant farmers to imperial administrators. Therefore, despite Ottoman claims to the contrary, Eastern Thrace’s character transcended a single religion and ethnicity.
  2. The Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians consists of mass deportations and atrocities against Thracian Bulgarians, Greeks and Armenians. This arose from the late Ottoman Empire’s suspicion of non-Muslim minorities. The transformation of Eastern Thrace from a core to a peripheral territory occurred following the Balkan wars of independence. Ottoman officials saw ethnic minorities as a liability to the cohesion and security of the state. In place of deported or massacred Thracian Christians, the Ottoman state settled Muslim refugees from the western Balkans.
  3. With the expulsion of Bulgarian forces and the Ottoman reoccupation of Eastern Thrace during the Second Balkan War, non-Muslims faced accusations of disloyalty and subversion. Locals and officers alike singled out Thracian Armenians in particular as untrustworthy. These assumptions played on ethnic prejudices that precipitated the 1906 Adana massacre. They would reach a fever pitch during the Armenian Genocide of World War One. Thus, in Malgara, occupying Ottoman forces accused the local Armenians of appropriating property from Muslims, which incited a mob to murder 12 Armenians and raze 87 houses.
  4. On July 14, 1913, the recapture of Rodosto (present-day Tekirdag) from Bulgaria by Ottoman volunteer forces occurred. Local Christians and Jews were told they must surrender “government” property. In framing local non-Muslims as unjust appropriators of property, this stirred volunteers arriving by an Ottoman battleship. Further, they despoiled the town’s unarmed non-Muslim inhabitants, killing 19 people in the process and displaced others. This constitutes one of the most serious massacres of the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians.
  5. Mass expulsions of Thracian Bulgarians and Greeks, punctuated by intermittent killings, characterized Ottoman policy in Eastern Thrace. This occurred even after the September 29, 1913 peace treaty between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Where voluntary deportation proved unfeasible, the Interior Ministry resorted to tax and labor levies to coerce emigration. The government signed three population exchange agreements between 1913 and 1914. These agreements were biased in favor of Muslim refugees from Balkan countries and against Christian refugees from Ottoman Thrace. This granted de facto legitimacy to a long-established reality arising from the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians.
  6. Enver Pasha played a role in fomenting violence against the Bulgarians and Greeks of Western Thrace across the Ottoman-Bulgarian border. Later, Enver Pasha became one of the architects of the Armenian, Assyrian and Greek genocides. Led by Enver Pasha, a coterie of fighters forded the Maritza river and razed 22 Bulgarian villages to the west of the Maritza river. Reportedly, these forces killed thousands of Bulgarians. However, the Ottomans did not regain Western Thrace.
  7. The process of resettling refugees in the wake of the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians placed a strain on the Bulgarian state and people. The experience of property expropriation without compensation left the refugees initially reliant on the assistance of the Bulgarian government and people. Substantial aid only arrived in the 1920s when the League of Nations provided loans to permanently house the refugees (incidentally, the first methodical policy of its kind).
  8. Attempts to preserve the cultural uniqueness of the Thracian Bulgarians spurred the formation of the Thracian organization. This organization protested the 1925 Agreement of Friendship between Bulgaria and Turkey. The agreement essentially validated the uncompensated appropriation of Thracian Bulgarian territory by the newly-established Turkish Republic. Though the post-World War Two communist regime suppressed Thracian associations, the fall of communism promoted their resurgence. Today, the associations seek to maintain the Thracian culture within Bulgaria and Turkey without advocating for an explicit right of return.
  9. In 2011, the Bulgarian Parliament voted for a proposal urging Bulgaria and Turkey to negotiate compensation for property expropriated during the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians. Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan displayed a willingness to negotiate over the matter in October 2010. The issue of compensation remains unresolved.

Although it transpired over a century ago, the legacy of the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians persists. Descendants of those directly affected especially recognize the importance of this history. The role as the prototype for the genocides of the Armenians, Greeks and Assyrians during World War One is also key. Further, this confirms that the Destruction of the Thracian Bulgarians is anything but peripheral to an understanding of the twentieth century’s upheavals.

– Philip Daniel Glass
Photo: Wikimedia Commons