Bulgarian Defence Ministry official publicly apologises for Hitler salute photograph

Ivo Antonov, the Bulgarian Defence Ministry official whose appearance in a photograph showing him giving a Nazi salute compounded the controversy around the nationalist United Patriots’ involvement in Boiko Borissov’s government, has issued a public apology.

Antonov issued the apology in an open letter from the Military Medical Academy in Sofia, where he was admitted after a heart attack amid public outrage in Bulgaria about the photograph, which shows him giving a Hitler salute next to a Second World War German Maybach tank in the grounds of the Military History Museum.

According to Antonov, who is head of the social affairs directorate of the Bulgarian Defence Ministry, he “deeply regrets and apologises” for the “immature, ill-considerated and unmotivated action”, adding that he had already suffered the consequences three years ago and again was doing so now.

Three years ago, he was nominated to become a deputy defence minister. The emergence of the photograph scuttled that.

The photograph again gained public prominence in recent days as Bulgaria was seized by controversy about officials linked to the United Patriots, the grouping of nationalists and far-right parties that is a minority partner in the Borissov government sworn into office in early May.

The first incident, of a photograph of Pavel Tenev giving a Hitler salute to wax effigies of Nazi officers in a museum in Paris, in what Tenev claims was a “joke”, cost him his post as a deputy minister.

The scandal was compounded by United Patriots co-leader Valeri Simeonov allegedly making light of the issue of Buchenwald concentration camp, in comments that Simeonov denies making. The controversy was the subject of condemnation by Jewish organisations in Bulgaria, which pointed out that the Holocaust is no laughing matter.

Antonov, in his open letter, said that he was firmly against any totalitarian ideology, whether Nazism or communism.

He noted that there had been “good assessments” of his professionalism, by the President and the Defence Minister.

Antonov said that he hoped that his public apology would bring to an end “this long-term harassment”.

His open letter came a day after President Roumen Radev said that there should be universal condemnation of Nazism and underlined that talk of professionalism was irrelevant to the issue. Radev, who became head of state after a 2016 election victory on a ticket backed by the opposition socialists, has sharply criticised the Borissov government’s performance on the “Nazi salute” issue and said that apologies are in order.

The issue of the Nazi salute photographs has been seized on by opposition parties the Bulgarian Socialist Party and the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF). They have demanded the resignation of Simeonov as deputy prime minister, which he has declined to give.

For the MRF, the controversy has been a vindication, because the party made much of the inappropriateness of a far-right political grouping being involved in the governance of a European Union country (notwithstanding the effective alliance it had with Volen Siderov’s Ataka in the failed ruling axis of 2013/14).

For the BSP, the Nazi salutes controversy also has been a gift, after a week earlier there was prominent coverage in most of the Bulgarian-language media of the conflict within the party because of manoeuvres by its leader, Kornelia Ninova.

As to Antonov, Defence Minister Krassimir Karakachanov, a United Patriots co-leader, has not complied with the wishes of Prime Minister Borissov for the official to be dismissed.

Indicating reluctance to dismiss Antonov, Karakachanov underlined that the official was in hospital because of the heart attack brought on by stress, had 18 years’ service and, according to Karakachanov, could not be fired because this would not be in line with Bulgarian labour law.

Borissov’s party won 95 out of 240 seats in the March election. His return to power, for a third time, was made possible by an agreement with the nationalists, whose MPs provided just enough additional votes to enable Borissov to again become Prime Minister.

The agreement between Borissov’s centre-right GERB party and the United Patriots specifies that the government should serve a full four-year term, which spans Bulgaria’s holding of the rotating presidency of the EU in the first half of 2018.

Volen Siderov, leader of Ataka – the third partner in the United Patriots coalition – said on May 21 that there were “no Nazis” in the United Patriots. Siderov earlier said that he had known Simeonov since they were students and Simeonov was not a Nazi supporter.

In 2005, TV station Skat, owned by Simeonov, was the subject of a complaint by human rights groups for reportedly referring to Roma people as “cockroaches” and suggesting sending them to “camps”.

Siderov’s book The Boomerang of Evil has been described by critics as anti-Semitic. The same year, critics said that the book called on “Orthodox believers” to take revenge on the “murderers of Jesus”.

The Hitler salutes controversy has been of considerable embarrassment to Bulgaria, which in 1943 was unique in its opposition to Hitler’s Germany – with which it was allied – in a movement by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, some politicians and civil society standing up to refuse to accede to Bulgarian Jews being deported to the Nazi death camps in which more than six million Jews were mass-murdered.

This courageous stance by the Bulgaria of the time has earned a number of Bulgarians from those days a place among the Righteous of the Nations at the Yad Vashem museum, and a contemporary movement to confer a Nobel Peace Prize on the Bulgarian Orthodox Church.




Clive Leviev-Sawyer

Clive Leviev-Sawyer is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of The Sofia Globe. He is the author of the book Bulgaria: Politics and Protests in the 21st Century (Riva Publishers, 2015), and co-author of the book Bulgarian Jews: Living History (The Organization of the Jews in Bulgaria 'Shalom', 2018). He is also the author of Power: A Political Novel, available via amazon.com, and, on the lighter side, Whiskers And Other Short Tales of Cats (2021), also available via Amazon. He has translated books and numerous texts from Bulgarian into English.