It had been a matter of curiousity for me for years, the reason why – in film subtitles and texts of television reports – the D-Day landings had been rendered in Bulgarian as the word “desant” – десант.
Like all histories, the history of the Second World War is a matter of perspective. In Bulgaria, for long decades under the thrall of communist rule, victory at the end of the Second World War was a victory won by the glorious Soviet Red Army, a liberation bought with their unquestionable sacrifice.
Speak to Bulgarians of a certain generation, brought up under that communist rule, as I have done, many times. Partly because of my compelling interest in the Second World War, partly because I constantly seek to understand the country in which I live.
Of the D-Day landings, little was spoken and little acknowledged. Something of a sideshow, this opening of the Second Front which Stalin for so long had demanded. Speak to those Bulgarians, those of a certain age; perhaps they may even recall being told of US Army soldiers, at the close of that Second World War, aggressively intoxicated on Coca-Cola.
Bulgaria began to emerge from the cloaking, asphyxiating, hold of the communist era at the beginning of the 1990s. Since then, through videos and films online, through documentaries on the internet, perhaps through some translated history books, a wider perspective on the history of the Second World War has been possible.
A historian, a good friend of mine, once told, nay, more than once, that the First and Second wars were not a popular topic for discussions among Bulgarians. Too embarrassing. In both, Bulgaria allied with Germany, in the latter case, Hitler’s Nazi Germany. In both wars, Bulgaria chose its cards, and slammed them loudly on the table, in both cases playing a losing hand. Not much of a subject for reminiscence. Not even when, in the case of the Second World War, Bulgarian clergy, intellectuals, some politicians and ordinary people stood up in the extraordinary act of heroism to oppose the deportation of Bulgarian Jews to the death camps of the Holocaust.
Bulgarian popular and political culture obsesses about other things. The five centuries of Ottoman rule; the decades of communism; the trauma of the emergence from communism to a reality that has proven in equal measures full of uncertainty, financial catastrophe, challenge, freedom, opportunity and a new hope, in a Europe meant to have learnt the lessons of its 20th century wars. The peculiarities of military history to the west, and the millions involved in those accomplishments, not so much.
Utah, Gold, Omaha, Juno and Sword. For those of us who grew up in the lore of the British Commonwealth, to say nothing of the admirable grit of the US forces, these are names that represented heroism, courage, sacrifice, liberation. In popular culture, Kenneth More’s naval officer in the Longest Day (based on a true character) exuding sang froid in combination with the halcyon deliberate urgency of his officer’s commands to keep matters on the beach moving along.
In communist lore, in the city of Sofia in its former communist iteration where I sit to write these words tonight, 75 years on from the D-Day landings, something of a minor sideshow. Little wonder, even tonight, as the BBC and western European media rightfully bestowed on the commemorations blanket coverage, the three major Bulgarian television channels conferred only the most cursory, superficial reports.
Yet, in their reports, there was that word again – desant, десант. It seems that it is not a Bulgarian word at all, with no Slavonic roots, nor any from a number of other languages from which the Bulgarian language has acquired loan-words. It is English, a corruption of descent, in the sense of landing. Descent brings to mind the paratroopers, they of the honoured red berets who did so much to free Europe of Hitler and his evil. Landing brings to mind the familiar image of the steel-helmeted men of the US, of Britain and of all the Commonwealth countries honestly deserving of recognition, who breasted the waves and braved the gunfire to hand us the Europe that it could be today.
A descent, a landing, and in no language can any word describe the significance of that D-Day, and perhaps one may understand why it never has become in the Bulgarian language, literally, Д-Ден. Somehow, that code phrase, literally again, robs it of its meaning.
Bulgaria, like many other countries, disputes its own history. In Bulgaria, on the anniversary of September 9, some of a particular political persuasion commemorate the Soviet invasion as a liberation. Others, as the advent of decades of repression. Some hail the heroism of the Soviet armies; others revile their legacy. In Bulgaria, truth be told, few take cognisance of that desant, that landing, that did as much as anything else to bring liberation. Some who had fought their way on those sands would go on to liberate the death camps of the Holocaust (as, advancing from the opposite compass direction, Soviet troops would do too), and be part of the narrative of telling the story of the worst excesses of a humanity that failed itself, deliberately and grossly. Others never made it to the shoreline.
To venture a historical truth, beyond the interpretations of Hollywood, of Ealing Studios, of Soviet and Russian propaganda: The defeat of the Nazis in the Second World War was the result of the combined efforts of the Allies. Acknowledgment of the heroism of the D-Day landings takes nothing away from the grim struggle that was Stalingrad, and many other places where the allies to the east paid their price in oceans of blood against Hitlerism. Of what came after the end of the Second World War, historians, politicians and journalists are free to debate. Every man and woman who fought the Nazis bought that freedom for them.
The final question must be, to use the Bulgarian word for this day’s commemoration, the descent, the landing; in 2019, as some commemorate and others abuse or neglect the meaning of the D-Day Landings, to look not just on this country Bulgaria, and its remove from the history of those landings; and its terminology, but to look on Europe, and history, and decide what the future should be. A desant that abuses the heroism of June 6 1944, or one that honours it?