SOFIA – They had planned to march through the center of the Bulgarian capital to honor a Nazi collaborator, chanting, holding torches aloft and waving flags of far-right movements. But less than 24 hours before Bulgaria’s annual Lukov March was supposed to begin last Saturday, the several hundred extremists who had come to the city from across Europe and beyond heard some bad news.
The organizer of the Lukov March, the far-right Bulgarian National Union, announced Friday evening it had been shown a court ruling upholding a ban on the march from Sofia’s mayor. The group added that it had been told by the authorities that members would be arrested if they tried to march the following day.
Instead, the Bulgarian National Union and friends were only permitted to gather and lay wreaths in front of the former home of Hristo Lukov – the pro-Nazi Bulgarian general who was assassinated in 1943 by two communist partisans. One of those partisans, Violeta Yakova, was Jewish.
Instead of the expected 2,000 people marching through Sofia’s streets, as happened in 2019, a few hundred neo-Nazis and friends were confined to standing still on a small side street. Earlier in the day, several hundred anti-fascist demonstrators had gathered for a countermarch called “No Nazis in our Streets!”
Lukov was head of a wartime fascist movement in Bulgaria and had a close relationship with Nazi leaders, even reporting to Hermann Göring through the German Embassy in Sofia. He was also an advocate for Nuremberg-style laws in Bulgaria that would strip the country’s Jews of their rights and backed the deportation of over 11,000 Jews from Bulgarian-controlled territories to their deaths in Treblinka.
Many in Bulgaria and elsewhere have long called for Sofia’s mayor to ban the Lukov March. Much of that effort has been led by Jewish organizations, including the World Jewish Congress and Shalom (an organization that represents Bulgaria’s tiny Jewish community, estimated at no more than 2,000 people. Most of Bulgaria’s 50,000 prewar Jews moved to Israel after World War II). A few weeks after last year’s Lukov March, more than 1,500 people attended a counter march organized by the WJC, Shalom and Sofia City Hall to stand against intolerance and anti-Semitism.
“The municipality will categorically not permit, support, allow or tolerate any events that violate [our] harmony and tradition,” Sofia Deputy Mayor Todor Chobanov told Bulgarian media at the time. Behind the Lukov March, Chobanov said, “is an ideology of hatred sold with black uniforms and torches that is harmful, disruptive and destructive to our tradition of harmony and tolerance.”
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The Bulgarian National Union claims that the march, held every year since 2003, is a simple commemorative event for someone they regard as a Bulgarian hero. One of its leaders, Plamen Dimitrov, claimed in 2018 that “there is no reason to talk about anti-Semitism” in relation to the Lukov March.
However, a closer look at the far-right group, its supporters and those attending the marches, reveals that anti-Semitism – in particular, an extreme, conspiratorial form of anti-Semitism – are at their core.
Among those who have joined them are far-right groups that, while small and not representing anything but a tiny sliver of their country’s populations, espouse violence and terror against Jews and other minorities.
The group’s festivities for the Lukov March began Friday night, with a concert featuring the founder of German neo-Nazi band Flak, who also played as part of a far-right event in Budapest earlier this month. The band’s catalog includes songs such as “AJAB” (the neo-Nazi acronym “All Jews Are Bastards”). “We have a motto / And it’s ‘AJAB,’” its lyrics proclaim.
One of the reasons the Lukov March was allowed to go ahead for so many years was the way its organizers carefully presented it to the Bulgarian public. “They are not calling for violence. They do not openly propagate fascism or Nazi ideology. They do not carry around well-known Nazi symbols like swastikas,” Radoslav Stoyanov, from human rights organization the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, tells Haaretz. “They are not that stupid.”
Nazi symbolism, however, isn’t hard to find in Sofia. Graffitied swastikas and other neo-Nazi symbols continue to adorn side streets in the city center, often accompanied by symbols of local far-right soccer gangs. The logo of the Bulgarian National Union is occasionally also spray-painted nearby.
And despite the claims that its main event every year has absolutely nothing to do with anti-Semitism, the Bulgarian National Union’s own public statements suggest otherwise.
“The problem is that there are people with too-long noses like you, who are burning with desire, snooping where they don’t belong,” the organizer of Lukov March’s Facebook page posted in 2018, in response to criticism from the World Jewish Congress.
The group has claimed that the “Zionist lobby” is behind “attacks” on it and even referred to international Jewish organization B’nai B’rith as a “masonic lodge” – a clear reference to fringe anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
The Bulgarian National Union makes further references to the “Zionist lobby” and “freemasonry” on its website as several of a number of “anti-national forces,” claiming that “total liquidation of [their] influence is necessary.”
“They must be seen as a threat to the security and survival of our peoples and treated accordingly,” the group’s manifesto reads in Bulgarian.
When Haaretz asked the Bulgarian National Union what it meant when using terms like “Zionist,” “Freemasons” and “masonic lodge,” its response was dismissive. “You can check the definition in the dictionary,” a spokesperson said. “Those are lobbyist groups pushing [a] political agenda that is harmful to the nation and national interests.”
Stoyanov says the march has long functioned as a recruitment activity for the Bulgarian National Union and its efforts to lure young Bulgarians (in particular) into the far right. It is the organization’s main event every year and is the only way most Bulgarians are even aware of its existence.
A few days before the march was scheduled to take place, anti-fascist activists organized a discussion at Sofia University on the “revival of fascism.” They tell Haaretz that Bulgarian National Union leader Plamen Dimitrov and other Lukov March organizers disrupted their event, before being escorted out of the building by police.
One far-right individual claimed he had a weapon and threatened to attack the activists with it outside, they say.
But if Lukov March organizers generally use coded language in their anti-Semitism, the march’s supporters don’t bother trying to hide it at all.
Weeks before the planned march, commenters on the official Lukov March Facebook page left plenty of obscene anti-Semitic comments. Bulgaria’s politicians “[kiss] the ass of the United States and the long-noses,” one person wrote, while another wrote that [Bulgaria’s “attorney general follows the kikes’ instructions and does what he’s told.” Another even wrote: “A rope for the Jewish bitch Fandakova,” in reference to Sofia Mayor Yordanka Fandakova (who is not Jewish).
Also in attendance at the wreath-laying on Saturday were members of a small, far-right Bulgarian group called White Front. Details about this group first surfaced in 2017, when two individuals claimed – on Iron March, a since-shuttered neo-Nazi website – to be forming a new “fascist organization” in Bulgaria.
White Front is much more open about its anti-Semitism and its links to the violent, U.S.-based white supremacist group Vorherrschaft Division. White Front has even published a post about “Jewish Satanism” on its website, where it unironically quotes from the fabricated anti-Semitic tract “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
“The only possible re-education of juden [sic] includes ropes, bogs, chambers, bullets, gasoline, poison or whatever you feel like,” one of the group’s anonymous co-founders wrote on Iron March in 2017.
The co-founders also stated on Iron March that they have a long history with the Lukov March – one of them even claiming they made one of the Bulgarian National Union promotional videos for the 2017 march.
The orange-and-black flag of White Front was not only visible at Saturday’s wreath-laying event at Lukov’s former home, but was also prominently displayed near the front of last year’s march.
Leaked Iron March posts and messages also show that White Front’s co-founders corresponded with individuals connected to neo-Nazi terror groups. They sought advice from Brandon Russell – one of the founders of American neo-Nazi terror group Atomwaffen Division, currently serving a five-year prison sentence on weapons charges.
One of the group’s co-founders also reportedly communicated with Nicholas Waugh, a Scottish man recently revealed to have been involved with National Action – a neo-Nazi terror group banned by the British authorities in 2016.
At last Saturday’s wreath-laying ceremony, a police cordon not only protected the event but also prevented most international journalists from gaining access or being able to photograph anywhere but at a distance.
The Bulgarian National Union and its Bulgarian supporters weren’t alone at the event, with representatives of overseas far-right groups also present. For instance, Haaretz identified several representatives of German far-right group Die Rechte were in attendance, after initially being prevented from leaving their homeland by German police. Individuals from these groups also posted on social media from the event.
At a similar neo-Nazi event in Budapest earlier this month, Haaretz heard a Die Rechte representative quote from a Nuremberg rally speech of Hitler’s that was featured in the 1935 Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.”
The organizers of the Hungarian event – the far-right Légió Hungária – were also in attendance in Sofia. Légió Hungária made the news last October when dozens of its members vandalized a Jewish community center in Budapest.
France’s Les Nationalistes were also in Sofia. That group’s leader was ejected from France’s far-right National Front in 2011 after stating he was “anti-Zionist, anti-Semitic, anti-Jewish.”
Also in attendance was a member of the Rise Above Movement, the California-based, white supremacist fight club, as well as a representative of the Nordic Resistance Movement – a neo-Nazi group that has been banned in Finland pending a court ruling on its legality.
While they may have been dealt a blow by the cancellation of this year’s Lukov March, it is clear that fringe far-right groups like the Bulgarian National Union, Die Rechte and Légió Hungária aren’t about to stop. They are in it for the long haul, trying to slowly make their societies more receptive to their ideas.
“There is little chance that we will ever be leaders in our countries,” Légió Hungária leader Béla Incze told a far-right Hungarian website in January. “But that’s not what we are trying to achieve.”
A veteran of Hungary’s far right, Incze once stated that he was fighting for a world without Jews. “Our long-term goal,” he added in January, “is to have nationalist groups organized in our respective countries, to act as societal forces for national destiny, exercising metapolitical influence.”