I was there. There’s every reason to talk about anti-Semitism.
Your stewards, Mr. Dimitrov, in black paramilitary uniforms and combat boots, had to censure at least one marcher for doing a Hitler salute.
One of your fellow marchers said, "It wouldn't be a problem" if the eponymous WWII General Hristo Lukov was anti-Semitic.
And some of those "big delegations" of far-right nationalists from other countries, as one of your spokespersons proudly told me in an email a few weeks ago, are pretty open about their anti-Semitism. I mean, some of their German brethren once asked their city’s mayor for the addresses of all Jews in their city.
Do you need any more reason to talk about anti-Semitism?
The Lukov March has been held every February since 2003 in honor of Hristo Lukov, a Bulgarian general who led a pro-Nazi, pro-fascist political party until he was assassinated by communist partisans in 1943. Lukov had connections to several top Nazi brass and pushed hard for Nuremberg-style laws that, in 1940, forced Bulgaria’s 50,000 Jews to wear yellow stars.
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On the closest Saturday to the date of the assassination, the fringe far-right Bulgarian National Union organizes an annual torchlit march through the streets of Sofia. The evening ends with a quasi-religious wreath laying ceremony at the general’s former home where he was slain.
The Lukov March has no shortage of domestic and international detractors. Sofia’s mayor herself has tried to ban the march the last two years, but appeals by the organizers mean the neo-Nazis and friends have marched on.
Some of those detractors were in a nearby park a few hours before the Lukov March kicked off. Several hundred counter-demonstrators met there and marched past the city’s synagogue – the largest still standing in the Balkans – and Sofia’s centuries-old mosque, with a giant banner reading "No Nazis in our streets!"
A few hours later the Lukov March participants began to assemble outside the Sveta Nedelya church. As guides led tourists circuitously around to show them Roman-era ruins, some of the neo-Nazis and fellow travellers circled the square, glared menacingly at bystanders and not-so-subtly took photos of those, including me, who apparently didn’t look on the level. They never asked if I was a journalist.
The march eventually started after a delay that included a man shouting into a microphone in equally incomprehensible Bulgarian and English. A few twentysomethings in black paramilitary uniforms ran around, shouting and trying to organize the ragged hundreds into a disciplined column.
I noticed a few familiar flags as they marched past. Up front were the flags of Nordic Resistance, a group whose founding members were members of White Aryan Resistance. Some of Nordic Resistance’s members, active in Sweden, Finland and Norway, are currently in prison for bombing a refugee housing center in Gothenburg, Sweden’s second-largest city.
Flying the black, white and red Reichsflagge (the Nazi flag of 1933-35 sans swastika, the go-to flag of choice for German neo-Nazis as it's not illegal in Germany) were members of a German neo-Nazi group who once asked the city of Dortmund’s mayor to give them the addresses of all Jewish people in the city (she refused).
Members of Hungary’s 64 Counties Youth Movement (HVIM) were also there, a "xenophobic and anti-Semitic organization" whose official newspaper once urged Hungarians to "take back our country" from the Jews who were "sucking on our blood."
As they marched, the black-shirted men, booming through bullhorns, led them in a series of call-and-response chants. They ran frantically up and down the column, screaming into their bullhorns.
"Hristo Lukov - our General!"
"Bulgaria, wake up!"
"All Communists - to court, to court, to court!"
Incidentally, one of Lukov’s assassins, Communist partisan Violeta Yakova, was Jewish. It’s something the Lukov March organizers really like to point out.
The marchers seemed a bit sluggish with their chants, and it might have been because they were partying too hard the night before. With help from international neo-Nazi network Blood and Honor, the organizers invited a former member of Russian white power band Kolovrat to play Friday night.
Don’t know any of Kolovrat’s songs, like "Our Symbol – Swastika," or "Nazi Ska?" That last one features lyrics like "We hate the Jewboy, yeah."
These men - and they are mostly men - will meet again. A quick glance through their websites shows they regularly meet up on each other’s turf. Many of them will likely be hanging out in Poland for a concert on April 20 - Hitler’s birthday. It’ll be organized by groups with ties to Blood and Honor, just like in Sofia.
But these groups won’t ever have much mass appeal. While some media reports estimated that up to 1,000 marchers attended this weekend’s Lukov March, I’d say it couldn’t have been more than 500, with maybe half of the marchers from outside Bulgaria.
Regardless, it was nowhere near the 1,500 to 2,000 the organizers were hoping for – and a fraction of the numbers of participants other far-right, nationalist marches have mustered across eastern Europe recently.
The fact that very few Bulgarians have time for this kind of extremism should be seen as a silver lining in what often seem like dark clouds in this part of the world.
But that’s no reason to be complacent. These guys don’t need mass public support, in Bulgaria or beyond. And they’re not interested in democratic debate or playing by the rules.
They’re interested in pushing the bar past what’s acceptable in a liberal democratic society. They’re interested in violence. They’re interested in intimidation. They’re interested in making not just Jews, but everyone from Muslims and Roma to LGBT people and refugees, feel unsafe in the streets.
And a torchlit march through a European capital - one that’s currently hosting the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, no less - is everything they want.
Michael Colborne is a Canadian freelance journalist who covers central and eastern Europe for Haaretz, Coda Story, Foreign Policy and others