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Writing on the Wall: Graffiti and Neo-Nazis in Bulgaria


Fig. 1. A man wearing a jacket featuring a
swastika, eagle, and German cross.
(January 2016, Pernik.)

I started counting the swastikas sometime in December. Most days I would see at least one, but usually there were more. There were two between my apartment and my favorite bakery, and four on the way to my dance class. More than five visible through the bus window on the ride between Sofia and Plovdiv. Eleven in the first two hours of the drive north through the mountain pass toward Veliko Tarnovo. There are other neo-Nazi, white supremacist, and ultra-nationalist symbols, too. At an international folk festival I encountered a man wearing a Nazi jacket with impunity, police presence be damned (Figure 1)[1]. In February, I began to take the long way home to avoid the swastika that was freshly painted on my own building. The paint was red like the blood of history.

What do these symbols mean, though? What are the ideas promoted by the people who paint them? What does the all but complete lack of response from political figures, law enforcement, and community members imply about Bulgarian society? Of course, my research into these issues has necessarily been shallow, both because it is outside of the scope of my project and because learning the Bulgarian language has been a great struggle for me, which would impede both textual research and field interviews. But in my free time, the nights and bits of weekends when I am not occupied with my primary studies, these questions have become almost an obsession.

I think it was November when I saw the first swastika. It was black and painted atop a red heart in the midst of several other graffiti slogans. Retrospectively, it seems a bit incredible that I didn’t notice other swastikas earlier. This is probably because I spent the majority of my time that first month on the pedestrian boulevard and in the Old Town, both of which are kept relatively clean of graffiti (to appease the tourists?), and any time I ventured out from the center I was buried in my map. I saw my second one a few days after the first, drawn on the forehead of a politician on a campaign poster just across the Maritsa River. Before long I was seeing them everywhere. They far outnumber the anarchy symbols and the hammer and sickle, the latter of which I only encountered twice. Not only all over Plovdiv, but in the Soviet-era apartment bloks in northern Sofia, along the route to Burgas, in Pernik, in Kotel. So this could not just be a few kids in a geographically isolated incident[2].

At first, I assumed that I hadn’t noticed them before because they only appeared for a few days at a time before being removed or painted over. But as the days stretched to weeks, and the weeks to months, and I kept walking past the same patterns of paint, I came to a realization that felt like even more of an assault than the swastikas themselves – nobody cleans them up. I was at once appalled, outraged, confused, and afraid.
 


Sign and Signification

I asked a few of my Bulgarian contacts about the symbols and the lack of cleanup. The common response I got was the equivalent of a verbal shrug. The rebellious youth who painted them, I was told, didn’t really know what they mean; they don’t mean it that way. The paint remains because of the same complacency that stands in the way of clean sidewalks, a contact answered as she gestured toward the two centimeters of packed snow-gone-ice impeding our walk. “I don’t really notice them any more. You get used to them after a while,” another – a feminist activist – told me. “Besides, most of them are old. There are fewer than there used to be.”


Fig. 2. Building with swastikas, SS lightning bolts, Celtic cross,
"Blood Honour," and the number 18. (January 2016, Plovdiv)

Each of these explanations has puzzled me in turn. First was the claim that the swastikas are historically and politically de-contextualized, more a symbol of youthful rebellion than anything else. After making note of the other graffiti surrounding the swastikas, I cannot accept this explanation. The symbols are often accompanied by the Celtic cross, itself a well-known symbol of white supremacy[3]. The double lightning bolt of the Schutzstaffel (SS), an infamous Nazi paramilitary organization responsible for running the concentration camps during the Holocaust, is not uncommon. In various combinations, I have also seen the numbers 18, 88, and 14, which stand for Adolf Hitler, Hail Hitler, and "We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children,” respectively, based in the first two cases on the letters’ place in the English alphabet and in the latter on the 14 words that make up the white supremacist slogan. “HH” clearly stands for “Hail Hitler,” assuming the characters are the Latin ‘H’ instead of the Cyrillic ‘Н.’ The inscription “Blood Honour” (see Fig. 2) is most likely a reference to the neo-Nazi network Blood & Honour that has actually been illegalized in Germany. “Nazi Terror” is fairly self-explanatory. The vandals, at least a good number of them, are clearly not ignorant of the symbol’s meaning; swastikas and these other symbols are drawn from well-documented vocabularies utilized by neo-Nazis internationally.

Another symbol that I have frequently seen linked with the swastikas, often painted on the same walls and in the same handwriting (though it also appears independently), is not from the symbolic repertoire of international neo-Nazi movements. Rather, it is a Y with an additional vertical line drawn on each side of the letter’s stem, the logo of a particular Bulgarian nationalist organization (Fig. 7). So far I have encountered this symbol in Plovdiv and in Sofia, the group’s headquarters, but the group appears to also be quite active elsewhere. I may have never found out more about them if I hadn’t discovered a URL scribbled on the wall next to one of the symbols. Thanks to help from Google Translate, I have been able to piece together an idea of who the Bulgarian National Union (BNU)[4] are and what they want. There is a lot to say about the group, so I will hold off on that until a bit later.
 


Symbol and Sport


Fig. 3. Graffiti linking a swastika to the football
club PFC Levski Sofia. (February 2016, Plovdiv.)

In addition to the symbols I have already described, the swastikas have also been paired with dates and names that I believe are associated with Bulgarian football (soccer) clubs. This association would have been quite surprising to me a year ago, but there seem to be sports clubs in many parts of Europe with strong links to the far-right scene. I don’t exactly understand yet how these links manifest themselves, let alone the specifics of the case in Bulgaria, but there is a clear trend. For example, this recent article about the men who intended to attack suspected asylum-seekers in Stockholm back in January mentioned, “The men… have been reportedly linked to football hooligan gangs.” Or, in Germany in the same month, “a group of far right extremists and football hooligans went on the rampage in the largely left-wing district of Connewitz.”

Specifically, I have seen the name “Levski” written next to swastikas in both Plovdiv and Sofia. At first I was quite confused by this pairing; Vasil Levski, though considered a Bulgarian national hero for his part in the fight for independence from the Ottoman Empire, promoted ethnic and religious equality and human rights (at least from my understanding). However, I have since learned that Sofia has a football club by that name, PFC Levski Sofia, that was founded in 1914. New graffiti I spotted in Plovdiv just before I started writing this post (Fig. 3)  tied together all three elements: the year, the name, and a swastika, which confirms my suspected link[5].

The other names and dates I have seen spray-painted repeatedly (1912 – Botev, 1926 – Lokomotiv, and ЦСКА without a year) were not explicitly tied to neo-Nazi symbolism in the graffiti I photographed. In one place, ЦСКА did have 1488 written over it, but I could not tell whether the two writings were by the same person. I would not be surprised if they were, though; last year the team made international news when fans displayed a banner featuring a swastika during a game.
 


Public Response


Fig. 4. Translation: "Hitler was right!"
(February 2016, Plovdiv.)

Okay, so this seems to be counterevidence to the common refrain that it’s just kids who don’t know any better (which is itself ageist/paternalistic, in addition to its doubtful validity). So on to the second issue, that of complacency. My political belief is that inaction implies complacency which is itself a form of implicit support. If nobody is doing anything about the swastikas, that must mean they agree on some level with the symbolic meanings. Otherwise, there would be public outrage, right?

I have come to realize that structural particularities in the former Eastern Bloc somewhat complicate the matter. Let us put aside for a moment the fact that the graffiti is painted in the first place. Once it is on the walls, who is responsible for cleaning it up? The answer to this brings up two of the contentious issues of the post-1989 “transition” process: civil society and privitization.

In its broadest sense, the expression “civil society” refers to any part of society that does not fall under government or business. So that can include family and private life, NGOs, NPOs, religious institutions, clubs, voluntary and activist organizations, and other social and political groups. In much of “post-communist” Eastern Europe, the presence of particular manifestations of civil society are seen as markers of progress away from the repressive, dictatorial regimes of the recent past. Even today, few people participate in these activities – there is little pre-existing infastructure, financial resources are scarce, and I have also been told that many people are reluctant to engage in their communities after a time during which such “voluntary” labor was mandatory. In addition, I would also venture to guess that institutional corruption and bureaucratic inefficacy leave people feeling helpless about the potential to provoke change. So this could be a structural factor that informs the lack of organized community-based response.

If there aren’t community organizations looking to “keep the neighborhood clean” or to organize more specifically against the proliferation of Nazi imagery and ideologies[6], isn’t there at least someone who takes care of each building? As a result of the manner in which apartments were privitized following “the changes” of 1989, the bloks do not have an overall owner who is held responsible for keeping the building looking nice and welcoming. Instead, each blok appoints a resident, to whom the other apartment owners pay minimal dues, who is in charge of building maintenance and cleanliness. Without pressure from other residents, however, the apointee has little incentive (or funding) to do more than what is considered the bare minimum, like hiring someone to mop the stairs.


Fig. 5. BNU stencil crossed out by Antifa activist.
(January 2016, Plovdiv.)

These sociohistorical contexts of civil society and privitization may serve as partial explanations for the lack of response, but I do not consider them legitimate excuses. If civil society is present in the form of those who paint the graffiti in the first place, why is there no opposing group to serve as a foil? Even if the privitized buildings have no overall owner, how can residents themselves feel comfortable living in a space that has been defiled by violent and hateful symbology?

Before you completely lose all hope, there has been some, albeit limited, response to the swastikas in the form of what I might call “graffiti skirmishes.” One day in January, as I walked to my dance class on the other side of town, I performed a compulsory check of the swastikas along that route, despite the fact that I had long given up hope that they would ever disappear. Passing the location of the swastika that had been my first, the one atop that red heart, I stopped short and almost laughed out loud. Someone had painted a blue heart completely concealing the original image. Who knows – maybe that red heart was a response to a previous swastika, and the two sides will continue painting over one another in what is literally a symbolic battle... As of the end of February, when I left Plovdiv, the blue heart had not yet been defaced, though I nervously checked every time I walked along that street.

In a couple of other places, the BNU logo and slogan, painted in black with stencils, have been crossed out with pink graffiti (Fig. 5). Underneath one of these instances was the signature “ANTIFA,” the name of a leftist, anti-fascist movement active throughout much of Europe. Another wall, a 15-minute walk away and just a few meters outside of the Tsar Simeon Gardens, has a swastika, the BNU logo and acronym, and the grammatically imperative “ANTIFA DIE” all written in the same handwriting (Fig. 8). These examples seem to indicate that there is some response coming from the left, and maybe even enough that the BNU feels threatened. However, it is hard to know the extent of any active Bulgarian Antifa movement or whether the BNU affiliates are primarily responding to the group’s international noteriety. Regardless of these small exceptions, the predominant imagery I have encountered is still overwhelmingly neo-Nazi and nationalistic.
 


Anti-Semitism

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “How can Rachel be almost 2500 words into a piece about swastikas and neo-Nazis, and yet she has still not mentioned anti-Semitism?” Many Bulgarians use the fact that the country did not hand over its Jewish population[7] to the Germans during World War II as a get-out-of-jail-free card on anti-Semitism[8] – supposed proof that the phenomenon has no part in national culture. And I would agree that anti-Semitism in Bulgaria is less vitriolic than Islamophobia (see here and here) and anti-Roma sentiment, perhaps because there is such a small Jewish population (the 2010 census counted 2,000 Jewish people, which was about 0.03% of the country’s population), but it is definitely still present. Teens post about Jews-are-running-the-world conspiracy theories on their Facebook pages. Jewish people have all the money, all the power, they own all the means of production... you know, the usual rumors. A teacher colleague of mine had increased difficulty with classroom management after his students learned he is Jewish. There might not be graffiti that says “Fuck Jews!” the way there is about Muslims, but that is not the only way for these sentiments to manifest themselves.
 


Bulgarian Nationalism

Bulgaria is quite far away from Germany, so it is interesting to consider how a symbol most strongly associated with the Third Reich made it to the opposite side of the continent to play a role in Bulgarian nationalism. In general, Nazi imagery does not refer exclusively to its historical German instantiation, but rather is used by many groups all around the world (ie: neo-Nazis) who promote the Nazi brand of fascist ideology. Thanks to a train of events that dates back to World War I, the symbol may be particularly appealing to groups in Bulgaria also because of its link to that particular history.


Fig. 6. Effects of the Treaty of Neuilly on Bulgarian territory.

After the First and Second Balkan Wars in 1912-1913, Bulgaria’s territory stretched all the way south to the Aegean Sea (now part of Greece) and westward into parts of what are today Serbia and Macedonia. However, since Bulgaria was one of the Central Powers who were on the losing side of the first World War, the 1919 Treaty of Neuilly stipulated that Bulgaria cede certain of its former territories to Yugoslavia and Greece (see Fig. 6 at left). Following this, in 1941, Tsar Boris III of Bulgaria allied himself with Hitler after the latter promised a “return” of those territories. Thankfully the Axis Powers lost the war (though not before Bulgaria had switched sides[9]), so the agreement was never fulfilled.

The Treaty of Neuilly is still today a rallying cry for nationalist groups in Bulgaria. In late November, I happened to be leaving a restaurant along Plovdiv’s pedestrian boulevard just as a group of at least a hundred demonstrators bearing torches and chanting slogans walked past. I found one article, from an un-trustworthy source, that counted 300 people. One of my companions explained to me that the marchers were calling for a rejection of Neuilly and a return to Bulgaria’s old borders, an explanation that later research confirmed (the treaty itself was signed on November 27 in 1919, so the event marked an anniversary). According to a post about the event on the BNU website, the event was organized by the neo-Nazi network Blood and Honour and, for the first time in the decade that the annual march has been held, there was international participation involving people from Croatia, Hungary, Germany, and other European countries. It is unclear whether all of the international participants were physically present in the march or whether some only expressed solidarity from afar.
 


The Bulgarian National Union

I have now mentioned the Bulgarian National Union (BNU) several times in this post, so it’s about time I explain my understanding of what they stand for as an organization and the type of support and networks they have. They are first and foremost a nationalist organization, founded in 2001 and transfixed on what members see as the great Bulgarian Nation of generations past. They hope to restore Bulgaria to greatness through a strong and centralized federal government that is only lead by “true” Bulgarians, a revival of industrial and agricultural production to eliminate international economic dependence, compulsory military training for all men, and various social and environmental[10] policies. They write on their website,

“Now we live poor[11] and foreigners are watching us with contempt, but soon that will change. We are a proud and strong nation. Our ancestors were born masters and as such built the powerful Bulgarian state... We remember this and must revive Bulgarian empire of Khan Kubrat, of Khan Asparuh, of Khan Krum the Terrible, of Tsar Simeon the Great, of Emperor Ivanitsa, of kings Ivan and Assen and the thousands of others who died for narod[12] and Fatherland.” (links and annotations added by the author)


Fig. 7. The BNU logo. (January 2016, Plovdiv.)

The organization considers homosexuality to be a “perversion” and the annual PRIDE parade in Sofia to be “a form of cultural terror”[13]. But they go beyond rhetoric – for at least four years they hosted a summer camp with military-style physical training.

Though they claim to be inclusive of all religions, specifically naming Christians, Muslims, and atheists in their FAQ, I find it significant that they omit Jews from the list. In addition, due to their emphasis on elevating “true” Bulgarians, their conviction that Roma people[14] are not Bulgarian and are “social parasites,” and the Islamophobic vitriol they spit out in their blog, I would guess that their inclusion of Muslims could be for one of three reasons. It could be a defense against (legitimate) accusations of Islamophobia, a claim specific to Muslims living abroad rather than those in Bulgaria, or a statement that refers to members of the Pomak minority, Slavic Bulgarians whose ancestors converted to Islam during the reign of the Ottoman Empire. The BNU’s statement against “any privileges on ethnic or religious basis” likely refers to an intention to eliminate targeted support and protections for ethnic and religious minorities.

The “What We Want” section of their website also lists many aims like these:

  • “Land, businesses and farms can be owned only by Bulgarian citizens or companies with predominantly Bulgarian participation.”
  • “All print and electronic publications and broadcasts in Bulgaria must be in the Bulgarian language.”
  • “Prohibition of parties and organizations that work against national interests or ruin the Bulgarian morale.”
  • “Adoption of Bulgarian children by foreigners is a dirty trade and should be discontinued.”
  • “The state will solve the demographic problem with measures promoting birth rate among Bulgarians.” [15]

The other section of their website that I have explored extensively is their blog. In addition to posts describing the biographies of important figures and events from Bulgarian history, the articles cover political actions, international collaborations, and current events. Since the beginning of 2016, their actions have included an event recognizing the anniversary of the Siege of Adrianople (March 13, Sofia), a conference and torchlight procession for National Day (March 2-3, Stara Zagora), a torchlight procession in honor of the memory of Vasil Levski (late February, Lovech), a torchlight march to commemorate General Hristo Lukov[16] (February 13, Sofia) (they must really like those torches), and the annual installation of a plaque in honor of Mara Buneva (January 10, Skopje). If the blog is to be believed, in the month of March alone, the BNU hosted in-person meetings with representatives of the Russian Imperial Movement (March 2), the Sixty-Four Counties Youth Movement[17] (March 20), and the Nordic Resistance Movement[18] (March 25-28)[19].

Predictably, the primary focus of their coverage of current events has been the refugee situation and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, which they see as inevitably connected. In October, the BNU described “the vast majority” of incoming refugees as “men in their prime” who are “radicalized Muslims.” The post mentioned an incident in which an Afghan man was shot and killed by police near the border. According to official reports, an officer fired a warning shot that ricocheted and killed the man, but the BNU says that the “aggressive” refugees had attacked the police, who then fought back. Welcoming refugees, the organization says, amounts to “national betrayal.” Later in October, the group advertised “Refugees Are Not Welcome” stickers that could be purchased in a pack of 100 for 5 lev (about €2,50). In at least two separate posts, the BNU says that welcoming refugees amounts to “genocide” against the European race.


Fig. 8. A swastika, the BNU logo, and text that translates to
"ANTIFA DIE." (January 2016, Plovdiv.)

The BNU is by no means an insignificant group of youthful rebels. It takes a lot of organizational infrastructure to support such frequent events and international collaborations. When I started writing this article in February, the BNU had 6,644 “likes” on Facebook. Now, three months later, that number is up to 6,867, which is an average of over two new fans each day - a lot for a country with a population of about 7.3 million. Of course, some of these fans may be international allies, but this is clearly not some raggedy street gang that drinks rakia and makes mischief.

The BNU is not the only far-right organization in Bulgaria; it only became a particular focus of my attention because of the huge prevalence of their graffiti in Plovdiv. Two similar but smaller organizations are the Български Младежки Патриотичен Съюз (Bulgarian Youth  Patriotic Union) and Отечество (Fatherland). The officially recognized political party Ataka[20] is much better known for espousing ideals in this vein, and you can read more about them here and here. There is also the Organization for Protection of Bulgarian Citizens (Организация за закрила на българските граждани), which made international news in early April for supposedly unintentionally stumbling across a group of refugees and notifying the border police. Other groups have been established purely with the paramilitary intention of patrolling the Turkish border to stop refugees. A graffiti signature “Youth Group” or “Y.G.”, which I saw in many places around Plovdiv (and sometimes associated with swastikas), might be another group – or it could just be a graffiti tag. There are also likely many organizations that I have yet to stumble across.
 


Neo-Nazism

Neo-Nazi movements and organizations have certain defining characteristics: use of Nazi symbols, praise of Hitler and other fascists (Fig. 4), ultra-nationalism, ideologies of racial purity and superiority, militarism, xenophobia, statism, suppression of dissidents, and an overarching theme of palingenesis, which is the hope to return a nation from its “tarnished” current state to a supposedly great national past. In an article about the Greek neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, political scientist Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou adds, “The Nazi variant [of fascism] includes a fixation on the 'People', i.e. the 'Nation', which is represented by the Nazi movement, is personified by the Nazi leader, and embodies the state.” My observations in Bulgaria as described above indicate that there is an active and visible neo-Nazi scene asserting power by claiming public space in the country, and that the general public is not actively and visibly condemning these ideologies in response.

What began as an attempt to find answers about the graffiti I passed on a daily basis quickly became an investigation into Bulgarian history, the social and political climate, and international networks of neo-Nazi organizations. In a single week before I started writing this, three new swastikas appeared in my usual stomping grounds – in different colors and handwritings – on walls where before there had been none; this is not a problem of the past that is fading as buildings and older generations begin to decay. The past 16 months have seen a rise to prominence of far-right organizations and political parties around the globe, and in many places they are gaining a frightening degree of political power. Graffiti is not just a game, and symbols are not simply paint on the wall.


Author's note: The research for this article was primarily conducted in January and February 2016, while I was still living in Plovdiv, BG. Most of the writing was completed after I left the country, and it is possible there have been new developments since that time.

[1] Article 108 of the Criminal Codex prohibits the promotion of fascist ideologies.

[2] Despite this widespread geography, the descriptions in this post take place in Plovdiv unless otherwise noted.

[3] The benign origins and alternate uses of both swastikas and Celtic crosses are beyond the scope of this post.

[4] Not to be confused with the political party “Bulgarian National Union – New Democracy,” which is a separate organization.

[5] Another potential overlap, between PFC Levski Sofia and the BNU, is suggested by an article on the BNU website in which one of the organization’s members is holding a BNU flag while wearing a hat with the year 1914 printed on its side.

[6] At least that I have been able to find in Plovdiv.

[7] See Tzvetan Todorov’s book The Fragility of Goodness.

[8] It is important to note, though, that the Bulgarian government did send the Jews in Bulgarian-occupied Macedonia to the Treblinka extermination camp (see here).

[9] From my understanding, Bulgaria’s change of alliance was at least partially a result of loss of faith in Hitler’s contract after he broke the non-aggression pact with Russia via Operation Barbarossa. Plus, apparently there was a leak of a Nazi map that showed the Neuilly territories as only “temporarily” Bulgarian.

[10] In what may seem an interesting twist to those involved with environmental justice in the USA, right-wing nationalists in Bulgaria tend to feel strongly about protecting the environment; the natural beauty of the landscape is seen as a point of national pride. As an example of this, a friend of mine who was in the Peace Corps in Bulgaria a few years ago was cleaning out a stream with a group of volunteers when one of them took off his shirt to show off the tattoo of Adolf Hitler’s face he had on his stomach.

[11] Bulgaria is the poorest member state of the European Union, with an estimated per capita GDP of just $18,400 in 2015, according to the CIA World Factbook and adjusted to reflect purchasing power parity. For comparison, the United States had a per capita GDP of $56,300 in the same year.

[12] The Bulgarian word “народ,” translated most simply to “people,” has a complex set of connotations, similar to the German term “Volk.” During the Soviet era, the word was used in its adjective form to describe any number of state institutions to insist that they were “national” and “of the people” in that specifically communist sense. It is still used to refer to folk traditions like the music and dance I studied during my time in Bulgaria. In the quoted context, it clearly brings to mind an idea of an ethno-nationalist Bulgarian people.

[13] Which, according to a blog post, is of course funded in part by American sodomites.

[14] In the 19th Century, most Roma people in Bulgaria were Muslim. After several governmental campaigns, including forced Christianization of many of Bulgaria’s Muslim Roma in the early 1900s and forced immigration to Turkey during the 1950s, roughly half of Roma people in Bulgaria are still Muslim (I have been unable to find definitive numbers, partially because, according to the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, many Muslim Roma people claim to be Turkish on the census because of stigma).

[15] Looking at what other countries have done throughout history to address this concern (for example, Romania under Ceausescu), here they could be implying an intention to illegalize birth control and abortion.

[16] A supporter of Nazi Germany who was known to be anti-Semitic.

[17] A Hungarian far-right movement.

[18] A Swedish political party.

[19] I am not sure whether it may be significant that these groups – including the BNU – were all invited to be a part of the newly-founded World National-Conservative Movement, particularly since a) I have no way of independently verifying this source and b) the WNCM’s facebook page has only 9 likes and does not appear to be particularly active.

[20] Some graffiti names this organization, but not nearly as much, and I have not seen the name associated with swastikas.

Comments

Thank you for your intelligent and interesting article that I discovered when trying to find out about this horrible phenomenon widely experienced on my first trip to Bulgaria.

landed in sofia in mid 2017 and was shocked at how prevalent and prominent the nazi graffiti is.

Any leftist or opposition graffiti either looked old or was crossed out and painted over.

This post was extremely helpful in filling in the gaps of my knowledge