13 May 2013

Axis or Allied?

Textbook history on the Second World War is inclined to unceremoniously designate belligerent nations as either Axis or Allied. This is not necessarily invalid. However, such designation sometimes leaves out so much nuance that in the sense of actually understanding the past it may be nearly useless. This point is easy to demonstrate. Consider the participation in the Axis and Allied war effort of Denmark and of Bulgaria. The former an Allied and the latter an Axis power.


When war broke out in Europe in 1939 Denmark attempted to remain neutral and stay out of it. But when German invasion forces poured across its borders anyway, its government capitulated on the same day. Consequentially the Germans allowed the Danish government to remain in place and to continue to administer the country albeit under certain constraints. The Danes grumbled, but ultimately went along with this. Danish politicians who left occupied Denmark for exile in Britain found themselves marginalized and without influence in the country.

Thus Denmark was — by the virtue of having been victimized by Germany which deprived it of its external independence — in the Allied imagination on their side of the World War as one of the "overrun nations" of Europe. There is justification for this view in the moral sphere, since Danes overwhelmingly resented the German occupation and sympathized with the allies.

In the material sense, however, the Danes were not doing much about it. The wartime government in Copenhagen which was cooperating with the Germans was not installed by the occupation from political forces on the margins of Danish political life. It was instead a national unity government of all the parties that could boast mainstream popularity before the occupation. Nor was there much armed resistance to the occupation, of the kind that could significantly diminish the economic benefit the Germans derived from their control of Denmark. The fact Danes rooted for the allied side in the war, nonetheless did not influence the fact their manufacturing and agriculture stood at the disposal of the Nazi Empire and the German war machine at essentially full capacity.  

Similarly, actually more Danes lost their lives fighting alongside the Germans, rather than against them. Fatalities of Danish fighters on the allied side include 850 deaths among anti-German resistance fighters (of which a minority in actual combat), the deaths of sixteen soldiers during the initial German invasion of 9th of April, 1940, as well as a further one hundred deaths of Danish soldiers in Allied service. On the other hand more than 1500 Danish volunteers fell in German service, majority of which in the Waffen-SS and on the Eastern Front.*

Danes who entered German service were far less representative of mainstream Danish aspirations than were those of their co-nationals who entered into Allied service instead. This, however, does not change some basic math. Ultimately Danish nationals were the most likely to participate in combat action in German uniform. And so in terms of blood shed, the Danes taken as a whole, through the disproportionate sacrifice of a small pro-Nazi segment of the population in the end actually shed more blood for the Germans against the Allies, than the other way around.


Bulgaria became a co-signatory of the Tripartite Pact on March 1st 1941. Prior to that Germany had established its mastery in Europe, when it had brought about the fall of France in June 1940. Also in September 1940 German backing for Bulgarian demands had been decisive in forcing Romania to hand over Southern Dobruja to Sofia, which Romania had acquired from Bulgaria in 1913.

In exchange for aligning its foreign policy with Berlin Bulgaria hoped to gain territories on the Aegean it had contested with Greece in 1913, and those it had lost to it in 1918. Bulgarian forces did not move into Yugoslavia and Greece until April 19th, when the outcome of the Axis invasion was no longer in question. This, however, is a moot point since the fact that Bulgaria had allowed its territory to be used as a staging ground for the German military was instrumental in the downfall of both countries.

Later on Bulgarian occupying forces in Greece and Yugoslavia proved ruthless in suppressing resistance and exacting reprisals for it where it arose. Furthermore they took part in joint Axis attempts to crush the local resistance movements well outside their own occupation zones. In offensives against the Yugoslav partisans for example they, under the German wing, operated as far as Bosnia.

After Germany did so, Bulgaria alongside Romania and Hungary in December 1941 declared war on the United States, as well as Great Britain. As a result thereafter Bulgarians had to contend with and fight Anglo-American bombing raids. Unlike Romania and Hungary, however, Bulgaria did not declare war on the Soviet Union and was absent from the Eastern Front.

Albeit initially inactive, once Germany attacked the Soviet Union, the Bulgarian Communists moved to organize in support of the Allied cause. In a reproduction of the popular front tactics of the 1930s they courted non-Communists for a united effort against the German-aligned government. The result was the Fatherland Front (Otechestven Front), a heterogeneous anti-government coalition, with meaningful non-Communist participation. Pro-Allied orientation proved to have appeal throughout the political spectrum, so that the various left and right-wing groupings making up the Front together technically outnumbered the Communists. On the ground, however, almost all of the actual physical resistance was being organized by the communist Bulgarian Workers' Party.

Later on in Communist-ruled Bulgaria the impact and the significance of this insurgency movement, the People's Liberation Insurgent Army (NOVA) would be greatly exaggerated. Thus the estimates of its size were in the tens of thousands. In fact more recent research suggests that on September 1944 the partisan movement could boast no more than between nine and ten thousand fighters. Additionally, up until that time it had sustained some 3,000 dead who had been executed, died in prisons, or fell in fighting.

In the relative sense, in the context of the largest war that was ever fought, these are small numbers, but on the other hand they do nonetheless mean that the Fatherland Front was up until October 1944 more active than a number of resistance movements in German-occupied countries. This is perhaps all the more significant since the latter battled a foreign aggressor, whereas the Bulgarian pro-Allied insurgents had rose up against the authority of their own government.

There were no foreign occupying forces in Bulgaria to rally against, and at the least in terms of its own territorial aggrandizement Bulgaria had little reason to resent the rise of the German order in Europe, having profited from it. On the back of German victories it now, for a very small expense in blood, held virtually all of Macedonia which it had fought over for in vain 1912 and 1913 and again during 1915-1918 and at a great loss of life. Nonetheless, through a determined effort of a relatively small number of pro-Allied activists, largely Communists, Bulgaria featured as the only Axis power with a domestic insurgency problem.

In addition to Bulgarian anti-government partisans inside the country, there was a small number of Bulgarians who fought on the allied side before September 1944 beyond Bulgaria proper. Hundreds of Bulgarian soldiers who defected, or had been captured by the Yugoslav partisans then fought in the National Liberation Army of Yugoslavia's (NOVJ) Bulgarian partisan battalions, of which three — battalion "Hristo Botev", battalion "Vasil Kolarov" and battalion "Vasil Petleshkov" — were set up.

If Denmark had put up almost no resistance against the German invasion in 1940, the situation was much the same when the Red Army crossed the Bulgarian border on September 8th 1944. The government in Sofia, which had anyway been looking for a way out of the war since sometime in late 1943, instructed the Bulgarian army not to resist the Soviets. Instead it delivered a formal declaration of war against Germany. The very next day it was toppled by the pro-Allied Fatherland Front which was able to secure a truce with the Soviets within hours of its ascent to power.

The Fatherland Front government encouraged Bulgarians to greet the Soviet troops as liberators. The Soviets in turn regarded the Fatherland Front Bulgaria as a welcome ally. The Bulgarian army was promptly adjoined to the Soviet forces and put under the command of the 3rd Ukrainian Front. This should have theoretically opened up the opportunity for Yugoslavs and Bulgarians in Macedonia and Serbia to together significantly interfere with the German pull out of its Army Group E from Greece.

In reality, however, the troops of the 5th Bulgarian Army who had been enforcing the Bulgarian occupation of Macedonia and sothern Serbia were in poor spirits and regarded their war over. They could not be compelled to continue to fight, now against the Germans, but desired to return home. In most cases they left themselves be disarmed by either their former allies, or else the Yugoslav partisans and then promptly retreated to Bulgaria proper. In all of September, only two regiments of the 5th Army briefly fought alongside the Yugoslavs in their attempt to disrupt the retreat of the strong German forces from Greece.

The Bulgarian army entered the fighting against the Germans in earnest in early October, by which time it had received an influx of officers from the ranks of former anti-government insurgents, and was receiving its orders from Soviet forces. Its path in the war eventually took it from Serbia to Hungary and Slovenia. Along the way it sustained some 10 thousand dead and 22 thousand wounded.

Throughout the fighting against the Germans in 1945 and late 1944 NOVJ personnel complained on numerous occasions about the Bulgarians' lack of elan and tardiness of maneuver that made them less useful than their paper strength would indicate. However, even the Yugoslavs concede that on many other occasions Bulgarians were handy, and took part in heavy fighting and gave a good account of themselves.

There were Bulgarians who were on the opposite side of the war from their government after September 1944, just like there had been when Bulgaria had been in the Axis. The Germans organized a volunteer "anti-tank" regiment of the SS mainly from Bulgarians who had been in Germany when official Sofia switched sides. Albeit nominally a regiment, the unit with its seven hundred members, was actually battalion-sized. Also, there is no evidence the formation ever saw front-line action, but likely only ever performed training and garrison duties.


As said, to speak of nations which took part in the Second World War as having been Axis or Allied may be perfectly valid. After all no national government could have been simultaneously in both camps, but, if aligned, was either in the one or the other. Likewise most peoples who were plunged into the war ended up contributing much more to one side than the other.

The problem arises when this status as Axis or Allied is understood to grant one nation (or one people, or movement for that matter) moral high ground over another, not just in the past, but even today. If that should be the case, the very least that can be done is to firstly acknowledge the rationale by which they ended in alignment with either of the coalitions. And secondly to also acknowledge the extent of their actual contribution to the camp they are generally associated with, as well as the extent of their contribution to the opposite camp.

Examining World War II histories of Denmark and Bulgaria is useful in driving home this point, because  in some ways they are pronouncedly ambiguous and therefore showcase the shortcomings of simplistically labeling nations as either Axis or Allied and leaving it at that — all the while insisting this hints at the greater moral righteousness of the latter, and a lesser one of the former.

Denmark, like most other small power on the European continent in the 1930s, which ended up in the Allied camp had no intention of doing so. It, on the contrary, desired strongly to stay out of the coming European conflagration and pursued policies that fit this goal. It ended up symbolically a part of the Allied camp through no fault of its own, when Hitler decided Danish independence did nonetheless not suit him and moved against it, without having been provoked by the Danes in the slightest.

Having been deprived of the full extent of their independence by Germany, the Danish resented Berlin and rooted for its defeat in the World War and the restoration of their previous status as an independent power. Simultaneously it suited the allies to uphold Denmark as one of the overrun, occupied nations of Europe to highlight their own moral high-ground over the super-aggressive Nazi Germany. Yet if the allies were in part effectively fighting to free the small nations of Europe, it was a fight which did not include the Danish government. The latter never actually adjoined the United Nations coalition, so that unlike the other occupied nations Denmark was not even technically enlisted into the Allies.

Bulgaria was induced into the Axis in 1940-41 by the promise of territorial gains against Greece. This is to say its interests were local. It did not harbor sympathy for Hitler's Germany other than as a power in alignment with which it may realize its aim of coming on top of Athens and Belgrade in its longstanding dispute with them over territory. Nonetheless it predictably turned out that if Bulgaria could indeed use Germany, it would be itself used by the latter to an even greater extent.

Its declaration of war against the United States and Great Britain in December 1941, which brought upon it the carnage of allied bombing, was made for reasons that went beyond its narrow interests, for the benefit of the senior partner in the alliance. Thus through its engagement in the Axis Sofia had realized territorial gains against its neighbors, but at a cost of partial loss of independence, earning it the fury of any Bulgarians who did not believe the Nazis would win in the global struggle, or did not wish they did.

There were some Danes who made a personal contribution to the Allied cause at a great risk to themselves. It is the case, however, that this contribution is probably exceeded by the contribution other, pro-Nazi Danes willingly made to the opposing cause, at an even greater risk to themselves on the Eastern Front. On the whole few Danes fought, for the benefit of either camps, so that the most accurate generalization would be that Danes were passive, and in the realm of actions not really with either the Allied or the Axis powers. What they were for the most part were the victims of Nazi Germany which had deprived them of their independent state and had, by exploiting Danish production capacities to its ends, made them the unwilling, but nonetheless fairly obedient, contributors to the Axis war effort.

Bulgaria entered into a deal with Germany for its own purposes, but if it could do so it was only because their purposes aligned. Its contribution to the German cause therefore was real. By occupying a large part of Yugoslavia and Greece it freed up German troops from the same task which could therefore be used elsewhere. Bulgarians had not been made victims of the German order in Europe, in the manner of the Danes, but there nonetheless arose in Bulgaria a pro-Allied insurgency more significant than the Danish resistance. So while official Bulgaria was aiding the Axis it could gradually only do so at the price of introducing elements of a civil war into the Bulgaria proper.

If Bulgaria did not join the Axis out of sympathy for Nazi Germany, neither did it switch sides out of antipathy for the power or the order it had imposed on Europe. Aside from those who were acting out of strong ideological conviction, Communists chief among them, pro-Allied Bulgarians resented the Axis orientation of Sofia, because they believed the Axis camp would lose the war. Therefore any gains Bulgaria now made in alignment with Berlin would be only temporary, and the only lasting legacy of its linking up with Germany would be the reprisals it would suffer after the war as a defeated power.

After the changing fortunes of war proved it right, the pro-Allied Fatherland Front took over power in September 1944 and offered up the capacities of its nation to the Allies. Even officials, such as army officers, who had earlier worked with the Germans understood the necessity of their policy. The more Bulgaria appeared to do for the Allies, the lesser the weight of reprisals for its earlier alignment with Germany.

However the reason why Fatherland Front Bulgaria fought the Axis is judged, its contribution to the fight was perhaps greater even than that of nations which had seemingly more obvious reasons to fight, but were not as well positioned to. As much of its army marched north across the Balkans alongside the Soviets and the Yugoslavs it was taking part in fighting quite beyond anything being offered to the Germans by the smallish resistance movements in some of the occupied countries, particularly in the West. Also unlike the overseas forces of the exile governments, such as the Free French or the Polish Armed Forces in the West, the forces Sofia contributed were supplied and equipped by Bulgaria from the beginning. Bulgaria then did not just contribute men and the will to fight that still needed sustenance from provisions of their other allies to operate, but instead the fighting formations with their logistics.

Needless to say, even so Bulgaria never attained Allied status. As far as the United Nations coalition was concerned Sofia was not their ally, but the government of an occupied country whose armed forces they had put under the command of the Red Army. At most its military had a kind of adjoined Allied status, but not the country itself. Correspondingly it was kept out of the Organization of United Nations until 1955 when it joined it along with it Finland, Hungary, Romania and Italy. Denmark joined the UN in 1945.


The point of this text is not to condemn Denmark, or to rehabilitate Bulgaria, but to remind a designation such as Allied or Axis nation may be less than useful, especially as a moral category. Though Denmark is associated with the Allies and Bulgaria with the Axis in reality their nationals simultaneously made willing contributions to both, so that there was an element of civil war to the their Second World War experience. Also where more Danes fell fighting against the Allies than did fighting with the Allies, with Bulgarians the opposite is true. It is more than likely more Bulgarian soldiers were killed fighting the Germans, than had been in enforcing the occupation of parts of Yugoslavia and Greece. Additionally among those who were killed fighting the forces of Axis governments there were more Bulgarians than Danes. So that since the Bulgarians were more likely to fight, they in the physical realm made a greater willing contribution than the Danes to both the Axis, and the Allied camp.

Another ambiguity arises from the difference in geographic vantage point. Since Bulgarian Axis forces operated against Greek and Yugoslav partisans (and Anglo-American bombers), and Bulgarian pro-Allied forces operated in support of Soviets and Yugoslavs, it is perfectly understandable if the role Bulgaria played in the Second World War appears much more sinister to the Greeks than it does to the Soviets, with whom the Bulgarians had made a point not to enter into a war with, which did not go unnoticed or unappreciated in Moscow. Likewise since Danes in Allied service invariably served with the Anglo-Americans, while the Danish Waffen-SS units fought in the Soviet Union (and Yugoslavia) it is understandable if Russians are more cynical about Danish Allied credentials than are Americans.

* About 7000 Danish citizens carried rifle in German service. Of these three-quarters were Danes (as opposed to Schleswig Germans). Of the seven thousand, six thousand enlisted in the Waffen-SS, of which 2,000 did not survive the war. See: Christense, C.B., Smith P.S., Poulsen N.B., (2003) The Danish Volunteers in the Waffen SS and their Contribution to the Holocaust and the Nazi War of Extermination, The Danish Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

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