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Review: The Fragility of Goodness by Tzvetan Todorov 
11th-Aug-2012 05:56 pm
The Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the HolocaustThe Fragility of Goodness: Why Bulgaria's Jews Survived the Holocaust by Tzvetan Todorov

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their Jewish populations. (The other being Denmark.)[Edited to add: mrissa has pointed out to me that the preceding statement a) omits Finland, which also did not deport its Jewish population and b) in using the word "aligned" to try to describe the rather different situations of Bulgaria and Denmark during the war, implies that Denmark's cooperation with Nazi Germany might have been something other than forcibly coerced. I probably should have just said that Bulgaria and Denmark were both notable in their success in preserving their Jewish populations from deportation in the face of considerable German pressure, and left it at that.] It's a particularly dramatic story, because Bulgaria had deported nearly 12,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled Macedonia and Thrace (of whom 12 survived the war), and the Bulgarian government had actually gotten to the point of arresting large numbers of Jews and preparing to load them onto trains for Poland before the whole thing was abruptly called off.

The first part of the book is an essay in which Todorov lays out his explanation for how this happened. As his title implies, his thesis is that it was highly contingent - a number of things had to be true simultaneously for the outcome to be reached. Some of the things that Todorov highlights:
* Bulgaria had neither a particularly strong tradition of anti-semitism, nor a particularly strong narrative of Bulgarian national superiority. Bulgaria's Jews didn't live in ghettos, spoke Bulgarian, and were mostly artisans and small businessmen with a sprinkling of educated professionals like lawyers. This meant that a lot of Nazi propaganda about the Jews didn't really resonate with a lot of Bulgarians. (Lots of the contemporary documents reproduced in the book contain some version of, "Have you seen our Jews? They're poor.")

* The fact that Bulgaria's king, Boris III, was primarily focused on his own political power and Bulgaria's national interest rather than any anti-Jewish ideology. It's kind of hard to figure out what side Boris was on, because he was great at telling everyone what they wanted to hear. Nevertheless, Todorov is convinced that the king was powerful enough that if he'd wanted Bulgaria's Jews deported, they'd have been deported. The king managed to keep the Germans convinced for ages that he was completely in agreement with their Jewish policies while failing to implement the deportation. (There is an account in the book of a rather hilarious-sounding conversation between Boris III and von Ribbentrop, in which Boris tried to convince von Ribbentrop that Bulgarian Jews were different because they were "Spanish" (he meant Sephardic). von Ribbentrop was unconvinced.)

* Finally, the most critical element was a well-timed and well-orchestrated piece of parliamentary politics by vice-chairman of the Bulgarian National Assembly, Dimitar Peshev. This is the part where I wish the book were longer, because I don't really completely understand the nuances of parliamentary politics in wartime Bulgaria. Peshev wrote an eloquent letter of protest against the deportation of Bulgaria's Jews, and managed to get a fairly large percentage of the members of the governing party in the Assembly to sign it. The immediate result was that Peshev was censured and stripped of his post as vice-chairman, which doesn't sound like a resounding political success. But it seems to have done the trick in persuading the government that the deportation would buy them more trouble domestically than it would be worth in support from Germany.

The longer part of the book consists of reproductions of various contemporary documents - letters, newspaper reports, and diaries related to the events surrounding the attempted deportations. The documents shed a particularly interesting light on the claim that you sometimes hear that people didn't know what was happening to the Jews in Nazi Germany. I don't know what people knew in other places, but the documents make it pretty clear that everyone from writers of articles in Communist newspapers to Bulgarian government ministers knew that if they sent the Jews to Poland they were going to die horribly.

Overall, the message of this book seems to be that if good people want to stop evil from happening, they need not only to be passionate and vocal but very very good at operating the levers of political power. Food for thought.

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[Minor edits made to correct the name of the king of Bulgaria, which I'd somehow bobbled from "Boris" to "Basil". Since the most famous Basil in Bulgarian history was "Basil the Bulgar Slayer" this seemed particularly inept.]
12th-Aug-2012 01:49 am (UTC)
A short but fascinating book trying to explain why Bulgaria was one of only two German-aligned countries during World War II that didn't deport their Jewish populations. (The other being Denmark.)

1) Apparently you are counting Finland as co-belligerent as distinct from aligned. This is sensible by some metrics but unusual.

2) "Aligned" is a very funny word for occupied. Did Norway deport its Jewish population? Norway was also occupied. Denmark was never anything more friendly than militarily occupied under great duress, and you will get Danes throwing things at your head if you imply otherwise.
12th-Aug-2012 03:38 am (UTC)
You do me entirely too much credit on my omission of Finland. There I'm guilty of uncritically accepting a claim made in an article I read about Todorov's book (and I hasten to add, not made by Todorov himself). And 'aligned' was a spectacularly poor choice of word. I've amended my post to clarify.

Norway seems to think that it deported its Jews, since the prime minister apologized for it earlier this year. Although since nearly 2/3 of Norway's Jews escaped to Sweden, that does seem to indicate a certain lack of efficiency and enthusiasm in the whole operation.

12th-Aug-2012 03:39 am (UTC)
Okay, as long as we're talking about partial, inefficient, ineffective versions counting. Good to know.
12th-Aug-2012 04:26 am (UTC)
If you were a Jew living in Bulgaria, Denmark, or Finland at the start of WW II, you had a nearly 100% chance of not being deported to a death camp. If you were a Jew living in Norway, your chances were closer to 66%. That's a significant difference.

I don't mean to imply that this reflects badly on Norway. It was an occupied country and acquitted itself better than many. What set Bulgaria apart was not some moral superiority on the part of the population or the government*, but that at the very point that the government was rounding up 20,000 Jews to send them to Poland, a small group of people were able to mount an effective political action and stop the operation in its tracks. Had circumstances been different, the same thing might have happened in Norway. Had circumstances been different, Bulgaria might now bear the ignominy of having wiped out its entire Jewish population.

*Indeed, even Peshev, the hero of Todorov's story, sounds like a pretty unpleasant character in many ways.
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12th-Aug-2012 06:35 am (UTC)
In 1942, Bulgaria passed a law decreeing that all citizens of occupied Macedonia and Thrace were to become Bulgarian citizens unless they specifically opted out, but the law specifically excluded Jews, except for Jewish women married to non-Jews, who were granted their spouse's citizenship. Todorov is strongly of the opinion that had the Bulgarian government recognized the Thracian and Macedonian Jews as citizens in 1942, it would have had much more difficulty in deporting them later.
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12th-Aug-2012 12:43 pm (UTC)
Oh, Occam's Razor. So unnecessary for when you have someone for whom this is a major interest and also highly personal family history. I have an entire book just on how folklore and jokes were used by the Norwegian resistance to undermine the Nazis, for example.

Norway is a very different country than the Netherlands. Distaste was evident and the Norwegian underground was strong, but not only was there a neutral border, we need to not underestimate the woods and mountains. People--Jewish or Gentile--who didn't make it as far as the Swedish border had a more than reasonable chance of survival in Norway itself in WWII, outside the population centers. A lot of them did it. No, really: a lot. There were lots of upland pasturing huts and weird mountain caves where you could stash people indefinitely. If you read The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia, he talks a lot about how mountain regions serve as an outlet for empires all the time in Southeast Asia, France, Appalachia--well, Norway is basically nothing but that region. Contrast with Holland, where not only is there no border with a neutral country, there's nothing to hide you in the countryside if you stay in your own occupied country. Settled farmhouses are easily searched by these standards. Holland is flat. Poland is flat. France is not universally flat--France has its own issues but is far more culturally dissimilar from Norway than Holland in this regard. But I would like to find a book that goes into regional success of the French resistance, because what I know so far indicates that geography has a lot going on there.

The other thing with this discussion is that flattening out the distinction between allies and other voluntary co-belligerents and conquered nations is going to obscure some major differences. We talk about neutral Sweden. Guess who else took in Jewish refugees? Finland. The same Finland that was co-belligerent with the Nazis. (The difference between allied and co-belligerent is that Finland didn't declare war on anyone but Russia and was not under any treaty obligation to do so. Finland was fighting its own, separate but contemporaneous war--which was, incidentally, a war of Russian aggression--and which had to be ended with a separate peace.) There were former German Jewish army officers who went and fought for the Finns. This is a very, very different situation from being a conquered country. Comparing the two is completely unfair and misleading. Finland didn't have any stage of the war (until the very end, when things got complicated) when German troops were killing any of its citizens or when Germany was allowed to set any of its policy. This made the experience of these northern nations vastly, vastly different, and it made the means available to them in protecting their Jewish citizens vastly different.

Denmark? Conquered. Bulgaria? Not conquered. Also not co-belligerent. Actively allied. Major differences. Yes, both succeeded in protecting their Jewish populations, and yes, that's important. But Bulgaria did so from the perspective of a nation that was at least theoretically Hitler's little buddy, not from the perspective of a nation that had just had troops steamroll over every crevice of it. So the pressure Hitler was applying was not the same kind as the pressure he applied to the loyal Danes he shot in the streets of their own country. I'm glad that Bulgaria tried to sign on for a limited amount of the worst evil. I'm glad someone demonstrated it could be done. But it really changes the dynamic, how much depends on geography, how much depends on the structure of the original government, etc. I feel like grouping countries separately makes a lot of sense here. Bulgaria's main comparison here is Hungary--and with the re-rise of right-wing politics and their attendant anti-Semitism in Hungary, it's pretty damn timely. I wish it wasn't.

Someone in Hungary put pig trotters at the foot of one of the memorial statues of Raoul Wallenberg last week. Pig trotters. I read that in The Economist and cried. Oh, Hungary.
12th-Aug-2012 03:55 pm (UTC)
How odd, it was not last week, but The Economist only reported it last week.
12th-Aug-2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
But you want to talk about geography and the safety of Jewish populations? Three words: Danish. Fishing. Boats. Which is also, incidentally, how one of my Swedish cousins-in-law survived to become one of my Swedish cousins-in-law instead of being one of the little Austrian Jewish girls who died in a concentration camp. Denmark didn't have mountains, but it's surrounded by water on all sides, and you cannot possibly get all the Danes off the water for the entire duration of the war. You'd have restless starving populations. Bad business all around. So instead you let the Danes putter around in their tiny little boats, and if they keep coming back with one or two fewer fishing hands than they departed port with, gosh, what careless Danes.

Another, non-geographical factor: the King of Denmark, God bless him, was foursquare and solidly behind Denmark's Jews, overtly rather than Boris of Bulgaria's possibly maybe we think secretly. He made it clear that loyal Danes would support and protect their brothers and sisters who happened to be Jewish and would hide them if it came to that. Haakon VII up in Norway followed his example, and for a Norwegian to admit that a Norwegian followed a Dane's example is really something. I was raised making the H7 of the Norwegian resistance as a default small symbol along with a star and a heart. But Christian X was a heckuva guy.
13th-Aug-2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
It occurs to me that I did not say this in so many words, and should: when I said that "aligned" was a "spectacularly poor choice of word" what I meant was "frankly offensive and I'm sorry I used it."
13th-Aug-2012 12:06 pm (UTC)
Thank you.
12th-Aug-2012 05:15 am (UTC)
Thanks for reviewing this. This is a bit of history I've never encountered before, and now I want to read the book.
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