SOFIA – It’s not a side of the capital city that Bulgarian tourist officials are about to start promoting.
Take a short walk from Sofia’s main streets into the former Jewish quarter, near the city’s only synagogue, and you’ll find swastikas, Celtic crosses, SS sig runes and other neo-Nazi and far-right imagery and hate speech spray-painted all over. And this is only one of several places you will find such images.
It’s far from a new trend. Observers say far-right, neo-Nazi graffiti has been a problem in Sofia for over a decade. And it doesn’t help that some of the graffiti – from multiple swastikas near playgrounds and schools to violent hate speech against minorities – has remained for years, untouched by the municipality.
It’s a problem that some observers think has no parallel across the Continent.
“It’s exceptional for a European capital,” argues Eastern European historian Tom Junes. A member of a nongovernmental think tank in Sofia, Junes can’t think of another European capital where he has seen so much hateful graffiti, including even inside the elevator of a municipal administration building.
“It also seems as if nobody seems to mind that such racist and far-right symbols are proliferating in plain sight,” add Junes.
Cleaning up the hate
He is hardly the only foreign observer to have noticed the phenomenon. One local anti-racist activist told Haaretz that at a recent meeting in Sofia, one presenter told the meeting he had been to 70 countries around the world and had never seen as much neo-Nazi graffiti as he’d witnessed in Sofia.
The municipality has responded to some high-profile incidents, including arresting four individuals in 2014 for spray-painting a swastika and anti-Semitic graffiti on Sofia’s only synagogue. There have also been recent publicized efforts – including efforts led by the local Jewish community and Israeli Embassy in Bulgaria – to clean up the hate.
Still, hate symbols are still not hard to find in the capital – or in other Bulgarian towns and cities either. Haaretz found dozens of pieces of far-right graffiti, from swastikas and other symbols, all within walking distance of Sofia’s synagogue. And a review of Google Street View images indicates that many of these have been up since at least June 2015.
It’s far from empty symbolism, say local activists. Some warn that violent far-right figures are able to operate with impunity and that the authorities are not doing enough to stop it.
Far-right graffiti has been part of Sofia’s local landscape for at least the last decade, if not longer, says anthropologist and activist Mariya Ivancheva. “We have had a strong skinhead movement active since the 1990s,” she says. “Some of its members and sympathizers are part of the organized parties on the extreme right.”
In the early 2000s, more overt far-right, neo-Nazi symbolism began to be seen amid Bulgaria’s soccer hooligan subculture. Swastikas, SS sig runes and other images began to appear regularly at the ends of stadiums where “ultras” – clubs’ most hard-core and often aggressive fans – would gather.
This certainly wasn’t a trend limited to Bulgaria. Neo-Nazi symbolism has long been used by far-right ultras across Europe – from far-right followers of Rome’s Lazio and France’s Paris-Saint Germain (PSG), and Croatia supporters even mowed a swastika into the field before the national side played Italy in 2015.
But there’s something unique about the use of neo-Nazi, far-right symbolism in Bulgaria, says Ivancheva. It’s rooted in Bulgaria’s peculiar World War II history and the country’s contradictory relationship with the Holocaust – shrouded in both heroism and villainy that, ironically, leaves many Bulgarians rather blasé about swastikas, she notes.
Bulgaria was an ally of the Nazis during the war. Figures like Gen. Hristo Lukov and his pro-Nazi Union of Bulgarian National Legions exerted tremendous influence on the government, pushing hard for Nuremberg-style laws in 1940.
In 1943, however, a host of Bulgarians, including the Bulgarian Orthodox Church and King Boris III himself, resisted Nazi pressure and refused to let Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews be deported to the concentration camps – but did nothing to stop the deportation of more than 11,000 Jews in Bulgarian-occupied parts of Greece and what are now Macedonia and Serbia.
The Soviet Army entered Bulgaria in September 1944 and the country spent the rest of the war on the Allies’ side. In the years following the war, almost all of Bulgaria’s Jews left for Israel, leaving a minority of barely 2,000 Jews in the country and only two functioning synagogues.
With barely any Jews or history of organized anti-Semitism in the country, symbols like the swastika, while acknowledged as a hateful symbol, doesn’t necessarily arouse the same emotion as it does in other European countries, argues Ivancheva. As a result, there is little public interest in removing them from Sofia’s streets.
An eternal problem
The symbols weren’t hard to find in September when crosstown soccer rivals Levski and CSKA Sofai faced off in the vechno derbi (“Eternal derby”).
Walking by fans of both clubs before the match, Haaretz saw supporters with neo-Nazi tattoos, including the kolovrat (a variation of the swastika, sometimes dubbed the “Slavic swastika”). Others were openly wearing T-shirts bearing the SS Totenkopf (or death’s head), and at least one supporter sported a Skrewdriver T-shirt – the British “white power” band from the 1980s that remains popular among neo-Nazis (the band’s songs include lyrics like “We will never be enslaved by the Zionist master plan”).
After the match, a black British man was reportedly taunted with racist chants, assaulted and beaten unconscious by ultras, in an act the man’s lawyers say is an obvious hate crime.
Even on quieter days when there is no big game, the graffiti around the city speaks volumes. And it’s not hard to figure out who’s likely responsible for a lot of it.
Many of the swastikas feature stylized logos bearing the names or initials of some of Levski Sofia’s most notorious fans. Others feature “1914” – the date the club was formed and also, coincidentally, a nod to the number 14, which is a common piece of neo-Nazi symbolism.