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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter III. “National projects” and their regional framework

Book of the Bulgarians

Anton Strashimirov
Traduction de Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova

Texte intégral

1Title: Кнuƨa зa бъπƨapume (Book of the Bulgarians)

2Originally published: Sofia, Πeчatницa нa Boeнния жypнЛ, 1918

3Language: Bulgarian
The excerpts used are from the edition Кнuƨa зa бъπƨapume (Sofia: бия, 1995), pp. 161–167.

About the author

4Anton Strashimirov [1872, Varna – 1937, Sofia]: writer, essayist and political activist. After the premature death of his father during Strashimirov’s youth, he led the life of a vagabond. Later, however, he began working as a teacher in eastern Bulgaria. In 1895 he left for Switzerland, where he was influenced by the work of writers such as Ibsen, Strindberg and Maeterlinck. In the late 1890s he became a follower of Jane Sandanski, one of the most important paramilitary leaders of the Macedonian movement. Later he joined the liberal Young Democratic Party of Naycho Tzanov. He was three times elected deputy (1902, 1911 and 1929). In 1901, he became the editor Haω Жuбom (Our life); then, in 1902, he became the co-editor of Дeмoкpamuчecкu npeƨπe∂ (Democratic review). During the First World War, he adopted a pro-German and nationalistic position only to become a radical critic of his previous allies immediately after the end of the war. After the outbreak of political terrorism following the 1923 peasant revolt instigated by the communist party, he was one of the leading and most fervent critics of Alexander Tzankov’s right-wing authoritarian regime. In this period he actively contributed to the radical left-wing magazine Ππaмък (The flame), edited by the leading avant-garde poet Geo Milev, who was assassinated by the secret police in 1925. Strashimirov’s most famous literary work, the novel Xopo (The dance), one of the chef-d’oeuvres of Bulgarian expressionism and avant-garde literature, deals primarily with the violent period in question. A figure with multiple identities and often controversial ideas, he was the author of some ultra-nationalistic and pro-German papers and essays, while producing some of the most radically leftist texts (in both political and artistic terms) in Bulgarian literature during the first half of the twentieth century.

5Main works: Baмnup [Vampire] (1902); Кнuƨa зa бъπƨapume [Book of the Bulgarians] (1918); змeŭ [The dragon] (1919); Hawuяm нapo∂ [Our people] (1923); Xopo [The dance] (1926).


6The ‘Macedonian question’ became the quintessential element of Bulgarian nationalism after 1878. The political emancipation of Macedonia, which remained in the Ottoman Empire according to the decisions of the Berlin Congress, and its incorporation into the autonomous Bulgarian principality were the ultimate aims of Bulgarian foreign policy. In the next century, Macedonia became the main point of contention among Bulgarian, Serbian and Greek nationalisms. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Montenegro and Greece signed an alliance and declared war on the Ottoman Empire (the First Balkan War). As a result of the defeat of the Ottoman troops, Bulgaria gained a large part of Macedonia and most of Thrace. This ephemeral victory was perceived as an accomplishment of the Bulgarian national project and provoked enormous patriotic enthusiasm. However, the First Balkan War was immediately followed by the Second Balkan War, in which an alliance against Bulgaria was formed between Serbia, Montenegro, Greece, Romania and the Ottoman Empire. This time Bulgaria was defeated. Southern Macedonia was captured by Greece, north-western Macedonia by Serbia, and southern Dobrudja by Romania. The Bulgarian position in the First World War was to a large extent determined by this painful defeat. Both the Entente and the Central powers promised territorial gains to Bulgaria. The Central Powers offered the Serbian part of Macedonia, and, eventually, in 1915, Bulgaria entered the war on their side. The same year, Bulgarian troops occupied Macedonia. The occupation did not last long, though. In September 1918 the Entente troops started an offensive. On 29 September, Bulgaria signed an armistice. On 3 October, King Ferdinand abdicated. On 27 November 1919, the Treaty of Neuilly was signed, according to which Bulgaria had to cede all occupied territories in Macedonia and Western Thrace to Greece, and several border regions to Serbia. Many refugees from Macedonia and Western Thrace flooded into Bulgaria.

7The ‘Book of the Bulgarians,’ published in the period of Strashimirov’s nationalistic sentiments, constitutes an elaborate essay in national charac-terology, which, in a period of the war, has obvious political implications. The genre of national characterology (нapooncuxoπoƨuя) had an important impact on the debate on the national identity in Bulgaria since the late nineteenth century. Many influential intellectuals from the first half of the twentieth century, including Boyan Penev, Konstantin Petkanov, Konstantin Galabov and Ivan Hadzhijski, participated in the debate. In the typical case, the national characterology creates a homogeneous national type, or stereotype. Nevertheless, Bulgarian national characterology has a tendency to conceive the ‘Bulgarian type’ as a heterogeneous construction or synthesis of different principles. Boyan Penev, for instance, saw in the Bulgarian a synthesis of the positive features of the large European nations. From this perspective, Strashimirov’s point of view is peculiar. He stressed the internal heterogeneity of the Bulgarian people, composed by regional types (if not ethnic sub-groups) with pronounced, and often incompatible features: Mysians, Thracians, Shops, Macedonians and Rupians. The emphasis on the diversity of Bulgarian types was a common element in the ethnography of the nineteenth century, which even took into consideration physical differences. However, in Strashimirov, this exploration of differences is put into a powerful ideological framework. In the period of modern nation-state building, the heterogeneity of the Bulgarians turned out to be an important problem which needed to be solved by the imposition of a strong national culture. This need was especially pressing after the national catastrophe in the Second Balkan War, which was considered to mark the failure of the Bulgarian unification project. In the context of the First World War, when Bulgarian troops reoccupied Macedonia, Strashimirov’s characterology had one crucial ideological dimension: it provided an argument that the Macedonians were not simply one of the Bulgarian regional types, but in fact the most ‘exemplary.’

8The final chapter of the book, ‘Pro Domo Sua,’ could be seen as a representative sample for the Bulgarian nationalist view on Macedonia. The concrete purpose of the text is to answer and oppose Serbia’s war-time claims over the Macedonian legacy, something which unavoidably acquires the character of military propaganda. The chapter recounts a conversation with the Austrian humorist Roda Roda, during which Strashimirov presents arguments in favor of the thesis that the Macedonians are one of the most important components of the Bulgarian cultural, political and military elite. To the Serbian claims that their own political leaders (Nikola Pašić for instance) were Macedonian Serbs, Strashimirov answers by using genealogical and historical arguments, that they included not only Macedonian Bulgarians, but also ‘simple’ Bulgarians (since Pašić’s family originated not from Tetovo but from Teteven in Central Bulgaria), hence symbolically assimilating the ‘enemy.’

9With its nationalist intensity Strashimirov’s essay was close to the emerging late-modernist tendencies of ‘national ontology’ (see Dimo Kyorchev, Our Sorrows). However, it was far from its metaphysical longing for the transcendent ‘soul of the motherland.’ Nevertheless, ‘national ontology’ developed as a real genre in its own right, gradually dominating the public debate on national characterology. During the communist regime, the genre of national characterology was fully discredited, together with the nationalist claims over Macedonia. Quite symptomatically though, it reemerged in the late 1970s and 1980s as a consequence of the late nationalist turn of the communist regime and the reintroduction of the national question into public debate. The interest in the reflexive potential of the genre of national characterology was stimulated in the years after communism by the anthology 3aщo cмe maкuea? (Why are we like that?), edited by Ivan Elenkov and Rumen Daskalov (1994).


Book of the Bulgarians

Pro Domo Sua

  • 1 Alexander Roda Roda (pen name of Sandor Friedrich Ladislaus Rosenfeld, 1872–1945): Austrian author (...)

11The great German humorist, the well-known Mr. Roda Roda,1 took me aside, fixed me with his laughing eyes and whispered:

12“Now tell me, for goodness’s sake, how much of the population of Macedonia is Serbian?”

13I chuckled; the good writer had grinned as if he intended to tell me the funniest of his impressions of our country. But my involuntary laughter set the tone of our conversation.

14“What’s the joke?” he laughed back.

15“There are no Serbs in Macedonia, mister, none at all,” I answered.

  • 2 Nikola P. Pašić (1845–1926): Serbian politician, leader of the People’s Radical Party. He was perh (...)

16“Oh really? Except, perhaps, Prime Minister Pasic,2 who comes from Tetovo in Macedonia?”

  • 3 Teteven was one of the important economic and cultural centers in the central part of the Balkan M (...)

17I had never before heard the legend that Pašić was from Tetovo. I spread the map of the Balkans in front of the humorist and showed him Teteven— right in the middle of Bulgaria, in Stara Planina.3

  • 4 The author is referring to the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by the Russian Empire in 1783.

18“Tetovo and Teteven sound similar, right?” I laughed once more. “The Serbs are joking, my friend. In the first years of the last century the Russian armies pulled out a hundred thousand Bulgarians from the Vidin region to populate their South Tartar provinces.4 The then depopulated Vidin attracted settlers from the densely populated Troyan Mountain (from in and around Teteven). They took the whole Koula and Zajčar districts. And Wallachians, whom the Turkish landowners attracted from the Carpathians, peopled the depopulated Vidin and Negotin districts. Here, around Negotin, the pashas also brought a dozen Serb villages from behind the Kopaonik Mountain. These Serbs are the only ones in Moravia. One of these villages is in Bulgaria—Brackevtsi. To this day the population on both sides of the Timok regards this village as Serbian and never marries with its people…”

19“OK, right, but how about Pašić?”

20“His parents come from Teteven in Stara Planina, not from Tetovo in the Shar Mountain. Pašić himself was born in Golemi Izvor, near Zajčar and doesn’t hide the fact that he’s Bulgarian. When Zajčar rose in the 1880s, Pašić escaped to Bulgaria, settled in Vidin and went to Teteven, where he found his relatives…”

21“Nein… Now that’s a good joke!” laughed the good-natured humorist in his turn. “So the Serbs are good American journalists,” he chuckled. “Lie, and there’ll always be someone to take the bait!”

22“There have to be,” I retorted. “There are no Macedonian-born Serb notables, just because there are really no Serbs in Macedonia.”

23“That sounds interesting.” The German sobered and sat with his notebook at the table. “Would you please tell me something… non-professorial, something so vivid that would make truth burst forth like… you know, like laughter!”

24“Well, that’s something only you can do! I will give you the raw material. Now write. Among the Slavonic tribes we are what Swedes are for the German world; we boast Simeon the Great in our past. Like them again, we alone among the Slavs put the definite article behind nouns and adjectives. Maybe that’s why Bulgarians, wherever they may live, search for Bulgaria and come back to it. […] A whole group of lawyers, engineers, architects, financiers and many more state and municipal officials in Bulgaria were born in Macedonia. To count them, we would have to resort to help from our Department of Statistics…”

25“Please don’t,” the humorist jumped. “My notebook is full. It seems that all educated people in Bulgaria were born in Macedonia?”

26“Not all, but the better half, yes. As the most mountainous of all Bulgarian regions, Macedonia gives birth to the shrewdest Bulgarians. From time out of mind, they’ve been traveling ‘round the world, looking for a livelihood, educating the nation. The Bulgarian national movement, the Bulgarian schools, literature and printing, all started in Macedonia (Ohrid, Skopje, Doiran, Tik-vesh, Tetovo). […] You wanted something non-professorial, right? Here’s some more: half a century ago, when there was no Bulgarian state, some Serbian teachers went to Macedonia. But finding no Serbs there, they became Bulgarian, took part in Bulgarian uprisings and their grandchildren are now among our writers and professors…”

27“Aye, how odd!” The German was astounded, but then he cut a comic face and whispered, “This can be checked, can’t it?”

28“Fortunately, yes. These people are alive, they are here, in Sofia…”

29“Aye, aye… But then… did the Serbs never succeed in tearing anyone from Macedonia?”

  • 5 The author refers to the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885.

30“Never. We beat them at Slivnitsa,5 so they sought revenge in the cultural field: they attracted to Belgrade University forty graduates from Bulgarian high schools in Macedonia. They attracted them with state scholarships, but only after allowing them to declare themselves Bulgarian in the heart of Belgrade. Yet this only lasted a year. The next year the professors in Belgrade ordered their Bulgarian students to declare themselves Serbs or leave the university. So the whole group of forty students left Belgrade en masse and came to Sofia.” […]

31The two nations—the Serb and the Bulgarian—are so alien to each other that after three decades of systematic propaganda in Macedonia, the Serbs have no Macedonian-born officers in their army. I do not doubt that this is due to the higher mental culture of the Bulgarians—our people are older and their historical experiences have left denser and more lasting attitudes. The Bulgarian is disparaging, even proud towards the Serb, without hating him, whereas we hate the Greeks but as soon as we fall among them we learn their ways and are assimilated. Yet I couldn’t explain this essence to my interlocutor—the great German writer: I was wary of sounding immodest. […]

32My colleague was no longer laughing. Instead, he said quietly:

33“After all this there’s but one thing that puzzles me: if the better part of the educated people in Bulgaria are Macedonians, how come they haven’t organized themselves and voiced a declaration to the people of Europe?

34I was surprised: this had never occurred to any of us… perhaps because our educated people do not feel Mysian, Thracian or Macedonian. So I said:

35“Only the Serbs argue about Macedonia! And that’s why we beat them. Otherwise nobody here feels different, nobody is a Mysian, a Thracian or a Macedonian, so there’s no way the Macedonians in particular can come out to defend their region!”

36“Yes, sure, but it’s one thing to hear that from the Macedonians, and another to hear it from you!”

37“Oh yes?” I bent down to the ear of the good German. “But, my dear colleague, I am from Macedonia, too!”


1 Alexander Roda Roda (pen name of Sandor Friedrich Ladislaus Rosenfeld, 1872–1945): Austrian author and humorist. Son of a Jewish landowner, he grew up in Zdenci, Slavonia, and consequently he most likely was well-informed about the ethnic heterogeneity of Macedonia. Strashimirov was either unaware of Roda Roda’s nationality and origin or deliberately “Germanized” him in order to maximize the effect of his anecdote.

2 Nikola P. Pašić (1845–1926): Serbian politician, leader of the People’s Radical Party. He was perhaps the most important political figure of the modern Serbian state and served several times as a prime minister of Serbia as well as of the Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

3 Teteven was one of the important economic and cultural centers in the central part of the Balkan Mountains (Bg. Stara Planina) since the mid-eighteenth century, when the town experienced its ‘golden age’.

4 The author is referring to the annexation of the Crimean Khanate by the Russian Empire in 1783.

5 The author refers to the Serbo-Bulgarian War of 1885.


Zornitsa Dimova-Hristova (Traducteur)

© Central European University Press, 2010

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