The European Capital With a Swastika Epidemic

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A swastika outside a Levski Sofia supporters’ bar and shop in central Sofia. Google Street View images suggest it has been here since at least June 2015.
A swastika outside a Levski Sofia supporters’ bar and shop in central Sofia. Google Street View images suggest it has been here since at least June 2015.Credit: Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne
Michael Colborne

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.

A swastika across the street from a school and near Sofia’s Jewish House of Culture.Credit: Michael Colborne

“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.

“We hate Roma” graffiti next to SS sig runes. According to Google Street View, this has been left on the wall for at least three years.Credit: Michael Colborne

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.

Neo-Nazi graffiti less than two blocks from Sofia’s only synagogue.Credit: Michael Colborne

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.

Neo-Nazi slogans spray-painted on a building. Google Street View images suggest it has been here since at least June 2015.Credit: Michael Colborne

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.

Others are surrounded by stylized Cyrillic Ls (the club’s logo), all in the same shade of blue worn by the club. There’s even a swastika, in full view, outside a supporters’ bar and shop a short walk from the city’s main metro station.

Levski’s most extreme supporters have a long history of racist behavior. The club was fined in 2012 when some supporters taunted FK Sarajevo with a banner praising war criminal Ratko Mladic (aka the Butcher of Bosnia). And it was fined the following year when some supporters flew banners at a match on Hitler’s birthday, saying “Happy birthday” and “He was right.” And this summer, the club was hit with a spectator ban for racism and crowd violence – only months after making international headlines in May when two preteen fans were photographed daubed with swastikas and giving Hitler salutes.

Levski Sofia did not reply to requests for comment for this article.

A swastika bearing the name of a notorious group of Levski Sofia ultras. It is situated in view of a playground.Credit: Michael Colborne

But activist Ivancheva stresses it’s not only Levski supporters who are responsible. Ultras of other clubs in the city, including CSKA, are also responsible for some of the graffiti and aren’t above using neo-Nazi images either, she says. One British soccer blogger, attending a Levski-CSKA clash earlier this year, recounted how he found a series of swastika stickers bearing the CSKA club name in an unofficial shop near the club’s stadium, less than 100 meters (330 feet) from the stadium entrance.

Dr. Shimon Samuels from the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s European office says that while ultras using neo-Nazi imagery is a problem outside of Bulgaria as well, efforts to stamp out racism in soccer have been more successful elsewhere. It just doesn’t appear to be very high on the Bulgarian soccer authority’s list of priorities, he says, noting the local governing body “has done very, very little” to address the problem.

‘For the tourists’

There have been some efforts to remove the hateful graffiti around the city center in recent months. One Saturday in September, over 100 volunteers took to the streets as part of an initiative organized by the Sofia municipality and Shalom, the organization representing Bulgaria’s 2,000 Jews. It was part of an initiative called “Let’s Clean Hatred off the Streets of Sofia,” and followed the launch of a local manifesto against hate speech and intolerance.

A swastika covered with white paint on a building in central Sofia.Credit: Michael Colborne

But local activists are not overly impressed.

“From what I’ve heard about that particular event, it was mostly a PR campaign in central locations,” one activist told Haaretz, speaking on condition of anonymity. The activist described the event as “for the tourists, basically.” The activist also claimed that the group had removed anti-fascist graffiti as well as neo-Nazi graffiti, which participating activists considered the opposite of the initiative’s slogan.

“‘Cleaning’ the hate doesn’t make it go away,” the activist added.

Observers on all sides say much more remains to be done. In a statement to Haaretz, the Israeli Embassy in Sofia stressed that “the Bulgarian government is committed to fighting anti-Semitism.” It also noted that the Bulgarian government has, among others things, appointed a national coordinator for combating the phenomenon.

Still, the embassy added that “in-depth education on the subject of the Holocaust” is required in Bulgaria, alongside more aggressively targeting “groups and individuals such as far-right soccer fans [and] combat against right-wing racist groups that, among other things, produce hate speech.”

In the absence of strong government action to combat the graffiti and hate speech, says Ivancheva, it falls to local activists to try to stamp it out. Most swastikas and neo-Nazi graffiti are crossed out, vandalized or graffitied over by local activists, not the municipality. It is an activity, Ivancheva says, that comes at great personal risk to those activists choosing to do it.

A swastika spray-painted on a gate across from a playground in central Sofia, September 2018. It has been there since at least February. Credit: Michael Colborne

“It’s the same 100 or so individuals that are doing really high-risk activism,” Ivancheva says. “They’re always afraid they will one day be brutalized by the neo-Nazis.”

And activists admit to being scared. The person who spoke to Haaretz on condition of not being identified explained why they insist on anonymity: “I don’t want to risk becoming a target of the hate groups we’re talking about.”

It’s why Ivancheva argues that it’s time for “the authorities to intervene and sanction,” she says. “They don’t do it.”

The activities and rhetoric of the far right has even become “normalized,” Ivancheva adds, pointing to February’s Lukov March, when hundreds of neo-Nazis and extremists marched through the city center in honor of the Bulgarian nationalist. While Sofia’s government did try to ban the event, marchers obtained a court order allowing it to proceed.

‘Toothless’ response

Some international observers don’t expect much to be done to tackle the problem – especially from the Bulgarian government, which includes the United Patriots, a coalition of three far-right parties. One of these, Ataka (“Attack”), is led by Volen Siderov, who has referred to the Holocaust as a “plot” and said that “Western talmudic circles, headed by the Rothschild family,” are responsible for a “genocide” against predominantly Orthodox countries like Bulgaria.

Graffiti saying “'Gypsies' into soap” and a swastika on a street in central Sofia.Credit: Michael Colborne

“They’re hardly going to launch a crackdown on themselves,” says Graeme Atkinson from Hope not Hate, a U.K.-based advocacy group that monitors hate speech across Europe. Legislative responses to hate speech issues not just in Bulgaria but across Eastern Europe have generally been “toothless,” Atkinson adds.

As the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Samuels stresses, Sofia’s swastika problem and the prevalence of far-right imagery is hardly just about Jews, who make up a tiny minority in Bulgaria. It is the country’s other minorities, especially Roma, who bear the brunt of the far-right fringe’s hate, he says. “As my mentor Simon Wiesenthal told me, what starts with the Jews never ends with the Jews,” says Samuels.

Racist graffiti on a wall in Sofia. The original graffiti has been there since at least June 2015.Credit: Michael Colborne

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