Tag Archives: Reichstag

Fellow Travelers

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.

Andre MalrauxAndre Gide

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 BarbusseHenri 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 RollandRomain 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.

Paraskeva DimitrovaOn 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.”

And Yet It MovesDimitrov 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.






Georgi Dimitrov Mausoleum and Café, Part I

On November 10, 1877, Karl Marx interrupted his work on Das Kapital to write a letter to German journalist, historian, and politician Wilhelm Blos. Neither he nor Engels cared at all about popularity, he wrote. “Let me cite one proof of this: such was my aversion to the personality cult that at the time of the International, when plagued by numerous moves…to accord me public honor, I never allowed one of these to enter the domain of publicity, nor did I ever reply to them, save with an occasional snub.” At that time, little Volodya Lenin was vacationing with his family at their country manor and Joseph Stalin had yet to be born. They were not to have the same aversion.


We are at more than a century’s remove from the October 1917 Bolshevik revolution and the phrase “cult of personality” is familiar and often applied. Kim Il-sung, Kim Jong-il, and Kim Jong-un in North Korea have proven you can use multi-generational hagiography to exert absolute control. But no leader can be too sure of what will follow when he is no longer on watch.

Josef Stalin

On February 25 1956, Nikita Khrushchev in his famous “Secret Speech” quoted Marx’s letter to damn Stalin. “It is impermissible and foreign to the spirit of Marxism-Leninism to elevate one person, to transform him into a superman possessing supernatural characteristics, akin to those of a god. Such a man supposedly knows everything, sees everything, thinks for everyone, can do anything, is infallible in his behavior.” Five years later, Stalin’s embalmed remains were removed from the mausoleum, but Lenin’s stayed firmly put as did his cult. The Soviet Union might have been the first in the 20th century to utilize political canonization, but even the USSR’s arch nemesis, the United States, has not been immune to the draw of the political godhead (Exhibit A: Ronald Reagan). Political canonization deliberately creates an overwhelming presence in a society and invests enormous (albeit manufactured) meaning in everything and everyone attached to him (and to date it is always a “him”). That makes it extraordinarily difficult for citizens to have any perspective on the relative costs of cult maintenance, to say nothing of the impossibility of public debate. How long can a cult of personality be maintained by those benefitting from it? How does a citizenry form an image of society without it?

Georgi Dimitrov mausoleum

When my husband was a young boy in then People’s Republic of Bulgaria, he was taken to visit the mausoleum of Georgi Dimitrov. Very likely, he had his picture taken in front of it. Visitors to the capital Sofia often had their photograph taken there and foreign delegations made sure to put a wreath on the pristine white marble building. I must have passed it in 1987 on my first visit to Bulgaria, but I don’t remember. By the time I was in Bulgaria again, it was 1991, the communists no longer exercised absolute control, and the mausoleum had been gleefully defaced by graffiti. Georgi Dimitrov had left the building.


But Georgi Dimitrov had fit the bill of political godhead admirably. He had impeccable working class roots, was himself a worker, joined the Social Democratic Labor Party of Bulgaria at the age of 21, and was still active when that party affiliated itself with the Bolshevik cause and became the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP). For his revolutionary activities, Dimitrov was forced to flee Bulgaria and wound up in the Soviet Union. He was part of the international delegation that escorted Lenin’s coffin from Gorky to Moscow in January 1924. Five years later, Stalin sent him to Germany where in 1933 Comintern operative Dimitrov was accused of burning the Reichstag to the ground. His star burned all the brighter, and on an international stage, for the accusation.

Whatever the actual origins of the fire were, it served wonderfully to consolidate the for us or against us fundamental conflict and propaganda between facism and communism. The communists used facism (and until the end of World War II, the other way around) as the demon bogeyman forever lurking not only at the borders, but even in the hearts and minds of perhaps your next door neighbor. That dichotomy made it seem all the more unthinkable to question the system and the personality dominating it—it was all that kept the wolf from the door. But it is hard to discern much difference in these two cruel dictatorial systems in terms of the lives of citizens living under them.

Zhelyu Zhelev

Years before he became Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president, philosopher and dissident Zhelyu Zhelev published The Fascism, a book that disappeared from Bulgaria’s bookstores and libraries within three weeks of its publication. The communist authorities’ insistence on banning the book resulted in the scholarly, over 300-page work being widely read in underground samizdat versions in Bulgaria as well as translation into ten languages that garnered it international attention. The Fascism ostensibly analyzed five elements of fascist political systems (of which a single party state with a strong personality cult is one), but the likeness to communist political systems and states was strikingly clear to Zhelev’s readers.


The fascist Nazis exploited the Reichstag fire. They highlighted its purported role in a communist strategy to overthrow the German government and then decreed a state of emergency that effectively took away all rights and freedoms in Germany and established absolute Nazi control of the country. Adolf Hitler himself, of course, was a master in understanding the power of the personality cult; the universality of the Hitler salute being only one powerful example. Dimitrov was arrested and the Leipzig Trial that followed made him a communist hero and an even greater asset to Stalin when Dimitrov was allowed to leave Germany for the Soviet Union. Bulgaria’s response was to deprive Dimitrov of his citizenship.

Dimitrov and Stalin

Dimitrov kept a detailed diary. He documented his musings and declarations about various party factions, Comintern directives and outcomes, counterrevolutionary activities and related arrests, and who was being purged/imprisoned/killed for what. Even as he praised Stalin, Dimitrov illustrated Stalin’s absolute ruthlessness. Sometimes it seems as though Dimitrov is foretelling his own forthcoming fall from grace. “Called J.V. [Josef Vissarionovich Stalin]. Soon as he recognized my voice, he hung up!” But Stalin certainly recognized in Dimitrov a dutiful comrade and one who did not hesitate to demonstrate his own ruthlessness and his political expediency. {to be continued…}