Recently I picked up a favorite book, What Am I Doing Here? by Bruce Chatwin, to re-read after many years of its sitting on the shelf. Something caught my eye in an essay on André Malraux: “His flair for personal publicity never deserted him; haranguing meetings of the Front Populaire; dashing with [André] Gide to Berlin to plead for the Bulgarian Communists falsely accused of lighting the Reichstag fire; or irritating a conference of Marxist writers in Moscow with his liberal opinions.”
Wait, Bulgarian Communists, Reichstag fire, I know this story. But how did André 1 and 2 get into the picture? Before I met my Bulgarian husband, learned Bulgarian, and lived in Bulgaria, I imagined all that would happen about 1400 miles west of Sofia in Paris and spent many years unsuccessfully trying to learn French in preparation for living in France. As did, by the way, my Bulgarian husband. And now the French seem to have entered into Bulgarian history in a way I hadn’t expected.
“Curiosity is only vanity. We usually only want to know something so that we can talk about it.”—Blaise Pascal, Pensées
So I had to know more so that I could talk about it.
I knew that in the aftermath of World War I, then known as the darkly hopeful “war to end all wars,” there were many coalitions formed to prevent another such calamity. Anti-militarist, anti-fascist, progressive, leftist, communist sympathizer, Worker’s International member, Communist Party member—adherents of incredibly disparate causes joined in ever evolving, breaking apart, and reforming organizations between the wars.
Malraux (November 3, 1901–23 November 23, 1976) and Gide (November 22, 1869–February 19, 1951) were a generation apart, but fellow travelers both and they had a lot of company.
Henri Barbusse (May 17, 1873–August 30, 1935) was a French novelist and an actual member of the French Communist Party. In January 1918, he left France and moved to Moscow, where he married a Russian woman, joined the Bolshevik Party, and later worked for the Comintern.
Romain Rolland (January 29, 1866–December 30, 1944) was also a French novelist. The length of his epic work Jean-Christophe, perhaps the principal reason he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1915, makes Tolstoy look like a writer of novellas. Of himself, Rolland said, “In politics, he has always been a republican with advanced Socialist sympathies, and internationalist at heart, and, as they said in the eighteenth century, a ‘citizen of the world.’” So he moved to neutral Switzerland in 1914 and did not return to France until 1937.
Malraux, Gide, Barbusse, and Rolland led the World Committee against War and Fascism with prominent thinkers from around the world. When and how Georgi Dimitrov met these men, I haven’t yet discovered, but the relationships he developed were strong enough to call upon from a Nazi jail.
On February 27, 1933, the Reichstag was set on fire and nothing in Germany was ever the same. One month later, Adolf Hitler was the dictatorial sole leader of Germany, the Reichstag arson having paved the way. Georgi Dimitrov was arrested on March 9, 1933. He was 51 and already in declining health. Dimitrov had lived in Germany for ten years. He wrote articles for the Communist International Press Correspondence magazine (1921-1938), published in French, English, and German. He was known, but the Nazis who determined to use him and two other Bulgarian Communists in a pro-Nazi show trial ended up making Dimitrov an international star.
Dimitrov began writing his friends immediately. On April 5, he explained his predicament to Henri Barbusse—the arrest, the ill-health, and “no means to buy the much-needed extra food.” He asks that Barbusse pass on the information to Romain Rolland before signing off “with most cordial comradely greetings.” On April 22, he wrote to Marcel Cachin (September 20, 1869–February 12, 1958), founder of the French Communist Party and Member of Parliament representing Paris and its immediate suburbs. He reiterates his hardships and gives directions for sending him money.
On May 10, he sent a letter to his mother Paraskeva Dimitrova and sister Magdalena Barumova. Religion may well be, as Karl Marx famously stated, “the opium of the people,” so it is a little surprising that hardcore Marxist Dimitrov wrote, “I—like Apostle Paul…—will bear my cross with the necessary courage, patience and fortitude.”
He also felt “rather dejected at being unable to learn anything about the situation in my country. I do not see any Bulgarian newspapers, of course. I read the German papers from time to time, but usually they don’t write anything about Bulgaria.” Ah, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same), I feel similarly when seeing the news here in the United States.
On August 31, he thanked Romain Rolland, expressing his “sincere gratitude for [Rolland’s] categorical statement in defense of [Dimitrov’s] innocence.”
Dimitrov correctly suspected any lawyer assigned to him by the German court to be more danger than help, and his French friends came through hiring lawyers for him. But the court refused to accept French lawyers and Dimitrov famously defended himself. It is often said that a man who is his own lawyer has a fool for a client. But Dimitrov’s Leipzig trial was heard around the world and in the end he and his Bulgarian co-defendants were acquitted. He cross-examined Joseph Goebbels. He quoted the law to the judge. He highlighted who benefited from the fire and suggested how and why it was truly set. His concluding speech at his 56th court hearing on December 16 is as full of Communist propaganda as he could possibly fit in. Still, on December 23, Dimitrov was acquitted.
Acquitted, but not released. On February 2, 1934, he was moved to the Gestapo catacombs in Berlin, but allowed visitors. On February 5, he recorded in his diary snippets from an interview he gave to an unnamed American correspondent:
Q: The world is very interested. In America a film is even being made, and so forth. Are you healthy and being treated well?
A: I give no interviews, no explanation, for I am not a free man. I am a prisoner of war; I am a hostage.
Q: Have you given up your Bulgarian citizenship?
A: No! I will never give it up!…I will live another twenty years and fight for communism and then die peacefully.
While still being held by the Gestapo in Berlin, Dimitrov gave an interview published in the February 7, 1934 issue of London’s Daily Express in which he predicted further legal woes, this time in his own country. “When set free,” explained Dimitrov, “I shall not go to Russia. Russia is the motherland of every revolutionary, but I have not lost my Bulgarian citizenship, and I wish to go to my own country. I sent a letter to the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Moushanov, but do not doubt that he will have me arrested at the frontier…”
- On February 15, the Soviet government responded to the international Communist hero’s plight by granting him Soviet citizenship. The Nazis, by now wishing only to get rid of him, bundled Georgi Dimitrov off to the airport and sent him to Moscow. He expressed delight upon arriving and Bulgaria promptly took away his Bulgarian citizenship.
- Henri Barbusse first came to fame with the publication of his novel Le Feu (Under Fire (Penguin Classics)); it won the Prix Goncourt. However, it was published years prior to the Reichstag Fire and was instead about the conflagration of World War I. He died in Moscow having just published a book defending and glorifying Stalin, but is nevertheless buried in Paris’s famed Père Lachaise Cemetery.
- Shortly before Marcel Cachin died, this “Grandfather of the Communist Party” became the first foreigner to receive the Order of Lenin, the highest decoration bestowed by the Soviet Union.
- Georgi Dimitrov did not live 20 more years, but only 15. This, however, was enough to return to Bulgaria and model his own repressive dictatorship on the Stalinist cult of personality model.