Georgi Dimitrov

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Georgi Dimitrov

Georgi Dimitrov (1882-1949) was a Bulgarian and Soviet Communist leader who served as head of the Communist International (Comintern) from 1935 to 1943 and as prime minister of Bulgaria from 1944 until his death.

Georgi Dimitrov was born on June 18, 1882, in the village of Kovachevtsi, District of Pernik, near Sofia. His parents, poor peasants, came from Bulgarian Macedonia, then under Turkey, where American Protestants conducted successful missionary activities. A devout Protestant, his mother wanted him to become a clergyman, but according to his Marxist biographers, he rebelled against "the religious mysticism in which he was brought up at home" and turned to atheistic socialism. At age 12 he quit school, apprenticing as a printer and working (in 1903) in the printing shop of the American college at Samokov. He became active in the nascent labor union movement and in 1902 joined the Bulgarian Social Democratic Labor Party. As the party split in 1903 into "Narrow" (doctrinaire Marxist) Socialists, led by Dimitrov Blagoev, and "Broad" Socialists, Dimitrov took the side of Blagoev, who used him in the struggle for control of the labor unions. He was elected a member of Parliament first in 1913, serving until 1923. In 1918 he was briefly jailed for antiwar activities.

Blagoev's choice of successor to the leadership of the Narrows early fell on Vasil Kolarov, a lawyer educated in Geneva, Switzerland, and well acquainted with Georgi Plekhanov and European socialist leaders. Through the 1920s Dimitrov remained outranked and largely overshadowed by Kolarov. When the Narrows chose not to ally with the Agrarians of Alexander Stamboliiski in 1918 a bitter enmity developed during Stamboliiski's administration (1919-1923). Together with Kolarov and other Narrows, Dimitrov led the prolonged transportation strike which threatened to turn into an armed clash with the Agrarians. After the establishment of the Communist International (Comintern) and the Narrows affiliation with it as the Bulgarian Communist Party (BCP) it was Kolarov who maintained the liaison by travelling to Soviet Russia. His standing with Lenin and other Soviet leaders became such that he was made the Comintern's general secretary in 1922. Dimitrov's first trip to Moscow was in 1921 to attend the third congress of the Comintern and take part in the establishment of the Red International of Trade Unions, or Profintern.

In the mounting crisis between the Agrarian government and its enemies on the right, ending in its overthrow in June 1923, Blagoev kept the BCP neutral and passive. To straighten out this mistaken course, the Comintern resolved that BCP should make an alliance with the overthrown Agrarians (or a "united front," in Lenin's precept) and stage an armed insurrection. Kolarov was dispatched with full powers to implement the decision. With Dimitrov and other BCP leaders who accepted the Comintern fiat, Kolarov threw the party into a futile insurrection in September 1923 which sputtered for a few days and ended in a bloodbath. He and Dimitrov escaped to neighboring Yugoslavia and thence to Vienna and Moscow where Kolarov resumed his functions at the Comintern and Dimitrov entered the ranks of its operatives.

In the ensuing ten years Dimitrov rose through various assignments involving the Balkan, Austrian, and German communist parties to the post of chief of the underground Bureau for Western Europe of the Comintern, headquartered in Berlin from 1929 to 1933. In that capacity he ran, under various aliases, a vast secret network of operations designed to keep the European communist parties in line with Soviet policies. It was in Berlin that the Gestapo arrested him on March 9, 1933, as it looked for culprits in the arson of the Reichstag (Parliament) building.

The Reichstag fire trial, held in Leipzig and Berlin, catapulted Dimitrov to world prominence. In the courtroom the prosecution tried to make a case against five defendants: Marinus van der Lubbe, a dim-witted Dutch Communist who was caught in the act; Ernst Torgler, the leader of the Communist members of the Reichstag; Dimitrov; and two other Bulgarians, Blagoi Popov and Vasil Tanev. The imperial court, still not Nazified, found only van der Lubbe guilty and sentenced him to death; Dimitrov and the others were acquitted.

After Dimitrov's arrest, the Comintern launched a camouflaged campaign, headquartered in Paris, to mobilize world public opinion against the Nazis. A so-called World Committee for the Relief of the Victims of German Fascism, made up of leftists and well-meaning liberals from various countries, set up a counter-trial in London which succeeded in embarrassing and affecting the German trial. At Leipzig, Dimitrov himself was impressive in his self-defense, especially in the confrontations with Goering and Goebbels, who appeared as witnesses for the prosecution, although he apparently knew, according to Ruth Fischer and Arthur Koestler, that he would be set free under a deal between the Gestapo and the GPU, the Soviet secret police. Indeed, soon after his acquittal he was given Soviet citizenship and taken to Moscow by special plane.

As a reward, and to capitalize on Dimitrov's new fame, Stalin put him in charge of the Comintern. In that capacity Dimitrov enunciated in 1935, at the seventh congress of the Comintern, the new line that Fascism, not the Western democracies, was the enemy and that the tactic to fight it was popular (or united) fronts—that is, coalitions of the Communists with anti-Fascist forces—in various countries. He remained in charge of the Comintern until its dissolution in 1943 and enjoyed a close relationship with Stalin during the tense period of the Great Purge and the years of World War II. From this vantage point of prestige and power he also made himself the undisputed leader of the Bulgarian exiles in the USSR and of the BCP in Bulgaria.

Dimitrov's chance to govern Bulgaria came after the Soviet Union declared war on the country in September 1944 and a coalition of BCP, Agrarians, and other anti-Fascist elements (the "Fatherland Front") took power. He returned from the Soviet Union in November 1945 amidst a mounting crisis between the BCP and the Agrarians led by Nikola Petkov and others in the coalition over BCP's drive, with Soviet support, to establish a Soviet system in Bulgaria. In November 1946 he became prime minister and presided over the destruction of all opposition and the Sovietization of Bulgaria by the harshest methods of the Stalin era. Among the victims was Petkov, who was put through a sham trial and executed; in its protest the U.S. government pointed to the contrast in Dimitrov's role in the Reichstag fire trial and the judicial murder of Petkov. In foreign policy Dimitrov toed Stalin's line and, while Stalin approved it, pursued the old Marxist vision of a Balkan federation of socialist states which was to be implemented by first federating Bulgaria and Yugoslavia. With the break between Stalin and Tito in 1948 Dimitrov abandoned the idea and took his place dutifully behind Stalin. He died on July 2, 1949, at the Borovikha Sanatorium near Moscow. His body, like Lenin's in Moscow, is on public display in a mausoleum in Sofia.

Further Reading

The main sources, Georgi Dimitrov: biografiia, by V. Khadzhinikolov and others (Sofia, 1982), and Georgi Dimitrov: letopis za zhivota i revoliutsionnata mu deinost, by E. Savova (Sofia, 1982), are not available in English; an earlier biography by the same authors, Georgi Dimitrov, 1882-1949 (Sofia, 1972) is. Useful for context are J. D. Bell, The Bulgarian Communist Party from Blagoev to Zhivkov (1985); two books by N. Oren, Bulgarian Communism (1971) and Revolution Administered (1973); and F. Tobias, The Reichstag Fire (1964). The best bibliography is by E. Savova, Georgi Dimitrov: bibliografiia (Sofia, 1968), which lists materials in various languages and editions of Dimitrov's works.

Additional Sources

Mukerjee, Hirendranath, Georgi Dimitrov, titan of our time, New Delhi: Vision Books, 1982.

Mukherjee, G., Georgi Dimitrov, a leader of working class, New Delhi: Northern Book Centre, 1983.

Radenkova, Petra, Georgi Dimitrov: a short biography, Sofia: Sofia Press, 1982. □

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Georgi Dimitrov