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Currents of History (Tokovi istorije), issue: 34

/ 2005, pages: 101124

Bulgarian occupation of Northeastern Greece and the

breaking-up of the local institutions in the Church of Greece
Rapprochement between Sofia Berlin in early 1941 occurred when the
Bulgarian government realized that a German attack against Greece was imminent,
since the territorial benefits for Bulgaria would have been significant,
provided they would allow the Wermacht to cross over into the Greek borders.
This rapprochement resulted in the Agreement of April 24th 1941 that was
implemented after the occupation of Greece by the Axis. Thus the regions of
Western and Central Macedonia came under German command for strategic reasons an
d Thessaloniki was chosen as its seat. Eastern Macedonia, namely the
region between the rivers Strymonas and Nestus, and Western Thrace with the exce
ption of the Greek Turkish border area in Evros were ceded to Bulgarian jurisdicti
on with a view to annexation. The German occupational forces and
Berlin, however, did not give in to all the Bulgarian demands since others, even
Germany s allies in the region of Southeastern Europe, such as the Italians and t
he Rumanians, had territorial designs at the expense of Northern Greece. Berlin
endeavored not to displease anyone and so promised a final redistribution of the
Balkans after the end of World War II. However, owing to the gradual weakening
of Italy, Bulgaria was acquiring increasing significance. So, in early July 1943
Bulgarian troops that were now under German command were
assigned Central Macedonia, excepting for the city of Thessaloniki and the Holy
Mount. In order to support this Bulgarian expansionist policy in Northe-
astern Greece, the diplomatic mandarins in Sofia claimed that the Greek State in
the years between the wars had displaced more than a million Bulgarians, who
had to return to their homes but after the greater part of the Greek population
had first been pushed away from Central Macedonia towards Thessaly.2
The Bulgarian command of the occupied territories in Eastern Mace-
donia and Western Thrace abolished the Greek command and installed new
political, military and police authorities. It placed particular emphasis on bul
rizing the ecclesiastical, educational and economic institutions in the region.3
For this reason, they imposed a series of measures concerning the matters of adm
inistration, the Church, education, culture, demography, economy and na-
tionality, namely: the replacement of the Greek organs of state administration
with Bulgarian ones and placed Bulgarian public servants, the churches and schoo
ls were either Bulgarized or were closed down and the Greek clergy and
teachers were persecuted, Greek was abolished as the official language, the sett
lement of Bulgarian farmers that had many children, increase in taxation, the bl
ocking of bank accounts, the seizure of the refugees money, the confiscation
of Greek public land and the properties abandoned by their evicted owner,
food rationing but also permits to practice a profession were issued only after
Bulgarian citizenship was acquired and the conversion of first names and
surnames into Bulgarian ones (with the help of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church4)
and finally a law was passed making it mandatory to assume Bulgarian
citizenship.5 By spring of 1943 at least 122 thousand Bulgarians had settled in
Eastern Macedonia and Western Thrace. 2 ×. ÖëÜéóåñ, ÓôÝììá êáé óâÜóôéêá, vol. 2, Athens 199
3 Î. Êïôæáãéþñãç-ÆõìÜñç, Ç âïõëãáñéêÞ êáôï÷Þ óôçí ÁíáôïëéêÞ Ìáêåäïíßá êáé ôçí
ÈñÜêç , in Åõ. Êùöüò (ed.), Éóôïñßá ôïõ Åëëçíéêïý ¸èíïõò, vol. XVI, Athens 2000, pp. 65-66.
4 Historical Archives of the Holy Synod of the Greek Church (=HASH), Records of
the Holy
Synod (RoHS), 18. 3. 1943.
5 ×. ÖëÜéóåñ, ÓôÝììá , op. cit., pp. 95 and 100.
In September 1941 representatives of the hierarchy of the Bulgarian
Church asked the ecclesiastical advisor of the German Foreign Ministry Ger-
stenmaier and the German Ambassador in Sofia Beckerle to intercede with the
Greek Orthodox Church to persuade the Patriarchate in Constantinople to lift
the Bulgarian schism and to acknowledge the Patriarch of the Bulgarian Church wh
o was to be elected. The Bulgarian metropolitans promised in exchange for
the intercession by the Greek Church to the Ecumenical Throne of Constan-
tinople to display magnanimous treatment towards the Orthodox Greeks and
to avoid oppression of the Greek minority in Thrace. The Germans made the commitme
nt to exert pressure on the Greek Church to lift the Bulgarian schism
but only under the presupposition that the Bulgarian Church would participate
actively in the fight against Communism. The Greek Archbishop Damaskinos,
however, did not yield to German pressure and so he did not satisfy the request
by the Bulgarian ecclesiastical leadership since the latter was actively involve
in the efforts of the government in Sofia to burglarize the Northern provinces o
the Greek state and to annex them with Bulgaria. An example of this fact was tha
t the dioceses of the Bulgarian Church from eleven before World War II
were increased to fifteen after April 1941 and territory belonging to both the G
reek and Serbian states was annexed.
Nevertheless, certain members of the Greek ecclesiastical leadership
initially attempted to adjust to the new circumstances in their dioceses, such a
in Serres, when these came under the occupational jurisdiction of Sofia, by
following a policy of cooperation with the authorities of the Bulgarian Occu-
pation. The refusal on the part of the Bulgarian occupational authorities to
accept the offer of cooperation by the local Greek Orthodox Church was a clear i
ndication that they were not interested in winning over the Greek population but
rather to expel them or to suppress them completely if they were not willing
to give up their right to national self-determination.
We believe that Sofia applied in Northeastern Greece a particularly hard occupat
ional ecclesiastical policy, fully in line with its aim for a national purge in
the region. It may even have been tougher than the ecclesiastical occupational
policy implemented by their German and Italian allies in other regions of
occupied Europe, although they too had aspirations for permanent territorial exp
ansion with a view to acquiring living space , such as in Russia and
According to the plan to expel Greek clergy from Eastern Macedonia and Western T
hrace, first of all the metropolitan-bishops were deported by
summary procedure and in most cases quietly. In contrast, though, physical
assault and mistreatment, the only exception being those ill carried out the
expulsion of the lower clergy and even this was temporary. Living conditions

for the Greek priests became extremely arduous, since they had been left without
a livelihood. Many of them were forced either to abandon their hearths
and immigrate to the German occupational zone or to look to farming to etch
out a living for themselves and their families. But even those who opted for the
latter faced many restrictions and discriminations. The decree for the mandator
naturalization as Bulgarians of all inhabitants in the Bulgarian occupation zone
in Northeastern Greece, which was promulgated in August 1942, included a
chapter with special provisions for priests. According to these, those clergymen
who would accept in future to change their citizenship would also be obliged to
accede to the Bulgarian ecclesiastical schism by recognizing the Bulgarian Exarc
h as their spiritual head and to defect from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Cons
tantinople otherwise they would be deported to the German-occupied areas. In exc
hange for the defection, they were offered posts as civil servants for the Bulga
rian State with the corresponding rank and salary, including food rationing allo
wances and privileges. In the area of Xanthi it seems that very few Greek priest
s who had remained after the expulsions in masses gave in and
accepted the change in citizenship and acceded to the Bulgarian Church, while in
the area of Serres there were even fewer priests who did so. In contrast, in th
region of Kavala even those who had tried to win favor with the Bulgarian
authorities did not escape expulsion.6
According to data published five years after the end of the occupation, the Bulg
arian military and political occupational authorities were held responsible
for 95.7% of the Greek priests who were abused and for 61.1% of the
Greek clerics murdered in Northern Greece. The respective apportionment
attributes to the German and Italian military forces jointly 4.3% of the clerics
abused and 38.8% of the murdered priests.7 We believe that this large dispro-
portion of clerical victims among the occupational forces is one more indication
of the explicit differentiation in their ecclesiastical policy. The target of th
e Bulgarians was to intimidate and terrorize mainly the Greek population in orde
r to transform their national conscience in the distant future, whereas the Germ
and Italians wanted only to impose reprisals and to suppress just to
enforce order in the present.
At the same time when Greek priests were either expelled or exter-
minated, they were being replaced by Bulgarian counterparts, who proved to be
the most ardent supporters of the Bulgarian nationalist propaganda, even from
the pulpit. In the Greek regions that had been annexed, there were no Greek prie
sts available to join the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. However, even those
6 Á. ×ñõóï÷üïõ, Ç Êáôï÷Þ åí Ìáêåäïíßá, vol. 4, Thessaloniki 1951, pp. 26-29, 166-170.
7 Á. Ðáðáåõãåíßïõ, ÌÜñôõñåò êëçñéêïß Ìáêåäïíßáò-ÈñÜêçò. 1941-1945, pp. 10-11, 14-15.
who had been transferred there from Bulgaria were returning to their homeland
as they became disenchanted.8 For this reason many Russian priests, who had soug
ht refuge in Bulgaria after the Russian Revolution of 1917, were appointed.
Bulgarian and Bulgarian-minded priests usually chose the sermon topics from
the national claims of the government in Sofia. Among other things they tried to
praise the just cause of Bulgarian expansionism and to prove that the Macedonian
and Thracian natives were of Bulgarian descent.9 The monthly news-
paper of the Bulgarian Church Spiritual Culture , published in Sofia, moved
along the same propagandistic lines.
The Greek ecclesiastical leadership replied by employing propagandistic
actions to refute the expansionist policy of Sofia at the expense of the Greek
territories. The Metropolitan bishop of Thessaloniki, Gennadios undertook a
campaign to prove that the territorial claims of Bulgaria on Eastern Macedonia
and Western Thrace were without substance.10 This ecclesiastical leader
promoted the official views that the Greek State had formulated to use in its
diplomacy and for propagandistic consumption prior to the Second World War.
His aim was to convince the German occupational authorities quite possibly
even Berlin that injustice was being done to Greeks but also he highlighted the
risks for survival of the Greek population throughout the realm due to the
continued occupation and the possible finalization of the annexation of Eastern
Macedonia and Western Thrace to the Bulgarian state. His arguments, besides
being historical and ethnological, were also economic since these regions
contributed to the total production in Greece by 35%. The loss of these regions
from the Greek realm would constitute further decline in the standard of living
of most Greeks who already prior to the start of the War and the Occupation
were living below the poverty line.
The official protestations of the ecclesiastical leadership were most
intense and remained so even after the change in archbishops. In early June 1941
Archbishop Chryssanthos had lodged a formal protest with the Pleni-
potentiary of the Reich in Greece, Gunther Altenburg regarding the way in
which the Bulgarian occupational forces treated the Greek Church in Nort-
heastern Greece. He denounced their claim that worship be held in the
Bulgarian language and that the Holy Synod of the Church of Bulgaria be commemor
ated in all the Greek Orthodox churches, as well as denouncing the
8 Diplomatic and Historical Archives of Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Greece (
=DHAMFA), Occupational Government 1942-1944, 4 / 2 ( Bulgarian newspapers Zaria
- 30. 11. 1941 and Vecherna Posta - 1. 12. 1941)
9 Áè. É. ×ñõóï÷üïõ, Ç Êáôï÷Þ , op. cit., pp. 170, 251-252.
10 DHAMFA, Occupational Government 1941, 6.
dethronements of the Metropolitans of Sidirokastro and Zichni from their seats.
The imposition of the Bulgarian language, he maintained, was violating law and
the freedom of religious conscience since Bulgarian was completely unknown
to the clergy and the faithful who were all Greek as was their mother tongue. Th
e commemoration of the Bulgarian Holy Synod was entirely contrary to
Canon Law because neither the Bulgarian Church was schismatic and was not
in spiritual communion with any of the other Orthodox Churches nor did it have a
dministrative relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.11 The central admi-
nistration of the Greek Church acknowledged that the essence of the matter was
primarily political. That is why at first, even in the matter of the persecution
against the Greek Church in the Bulgarian occupational zone, they did not consid
er it to be their responsibility but rather it was a secular matter, namely to be
dealt with by the Greek occupational government in Athens.
In about the middle of August 1941 the new Archbishop, Damaskinos, in official s
tatements praised the ecclesiastical policy of the German authorities
in Northeastern Greece and denounced the respective policy of the Bulgarians.
He continued with the same denunciations as his predecessor, in other words,
the Bulgarians had quite openly begun efforts to adulterate the ethnological
composition and change the national conscience of the population but also to
uproot the Greek Church from the Bulgarian occupational zone. To achieve
their goal the Bulgarians imposed a series of measures of suppression. Among
these measures was the commemoration of the Bulgarian Exarch, the Holy
Synod in Sofia and the Bulgarian Bishops who had been appointed in the
region, the mandatory participation of Bulgarian priests in the liturgies in the
churches, the replacement of Greek inscriptions with Bulgarian ones in all
churches, and the abolition of the licenses issued by the Greek metropolitans fo
marriages to be performed. Then, all churches without exception and the
diocesan residences were confiscated and finally, all Greek metropolitans and cl
ergy were expelled. In June 1942 the Archbishop of Athens Damaskinos
stopped denouncing the measures taken by the Bulgarian authorities at the
expense of the Greek Church, not because the ecclesiastical policy of the
conquerors of Northeastern Greece had changed or improved, but because, in his e
stimation, the Greek Church ceased to exist in the regions under Bulgarian
When the Bulgarian occupational forces displaced six metropolitans of
the Greek Church from April until June 1941 from their dioceses, they
incorporated the latter into the Bulgarian Church and appointed hierarchal 11 È. ÓôñÜãêáò,
1972, pp. 2327-2328.
12 HAHS , RoHS, 16. 6. 1942.

wardens for their administration. By the end of the summer of 1942 all churches
and the majority of monasteries had been seized, ecclesiastical property had
been confiscated, and Greek ecclesiastical books had been burned. In all reli-
gious rites the Bulgarian ritual was imposed and the Bulgarian church calendar w
as established, which observed the Julian Calendar13, although the Greek
Church had adhered to the Gregorian Calendar since the 1920s.
When in 1943 the Bulgarian army entered Central Macedonia which
was under the German sphere of administrative responsibility, the Archbishop
of Athens launched an anti-Bulgarian diatribe using arguments based on the histo
rical rivalry and the mutual distrust of the Balkan nationalisms since each
was claiming from the other frontier areas that were inhabited by populations wi
th questionable or vacillating national conscience and mixed national compo-
sition. He warned that Bulgarian provocations were likely to be demonstrated at
the expense of the Greek population, with chain reactions taking the form of con
flicts between the inhabitants and the German authorities and then followed
by retaliation by the latter. He therefore asked the German occupational
authorities to maintain the existing Greek ecclesiastical status and to reject c
ategorically all relevant Bulgarian requests to alter it.
In October of 1943 the Archbishop of Athens, the president of the
Academy of Athens, the rectors of the University and Polytechnic of Athens, the
presidents of the Chambers of Industry, Commerce and Professions and the
General Confederation of Workers in Greece lodged a formal complaint with the Pl
enipotentiaries of Germany and Italy as well as with the representatives of the
International Red Cross. In this protest they denounced the Bulgarian policy of
ethnic cleansing suffered by a population of over seven hundred thousand
Greeks; in Macedonia and Thrace resulting in there being more than 150
thousand refugees. At the same time the representatives of the more significant
institutions of Greek society declared their support and agreement with the
entire policy followed in the previous two years by the ecclesiastical leadershi
concerning this major matter of ethnic cleansing that the Bulgarian occupational
forces tried to impose at the expense of the Northeastern Greek population. In
fact, they indirectly declared their intense disapproval of the nerveless reacti
ons of the occupational governments in Athens against the Bulgarian policy in No
rthern Greece. However, they overlooked the fact that the policy of Greek Church
regarding national matters was essentially encouraged by the first two occupati
onal governments until early 1943 since these two believed that the
appeals of the ecclesiastical leadership to the authorities of the occupational
13 Áè. É. ×ñõóï÷üïõ, Ç êáôï÷Þ , op. cit., pp. 29 and 170.

forces were more effective with the conquerors than were the appeals made by the
ir own political associates.14
In any event, the German occupational forces adopted the viewpoint of
the advisor on ecclesiastical matters of the German Foreign Ministry, Eugen
Gerstenmaier, who considered the anti-Bulgarian denunciations by the Greek
ecclesiastical leadership rather exaggerated but basically sound. He even sub-
mitted a proposal to his department that recommendations be made to Berlin s
Bulgarian allies to display, at least regarding ecclesiastical matters, leniency