Chapter Eight

American Plots in Bulgaria

The trial of the Bulgarian pastors which followed by one month that of Cardinal Mindszenty, was a very different affair to that in Budapest. The Protestant pastors were much smaller fry and represented no real forces inside the country. They were a closely knit corporation of spies, working directly under the orders of American intelligence, well-paid in dollars converted into Bulgarian currency at black market rates by American commercial interests in Bulgaria.

Mindszenty did represent the Catholic Church in Hungary, a powerful hierarchy to whom two-thirds of the population looked for guidance. He controlled a vast political organisation masquerading under the cloak of religion, not responsible to any rules of ballot box, but able to influence a politically ignorant people in a dozen different ways from pastoral letters signed by the Cardinal to rumors and threats by the parish priests. Although Mindszenty was only accused and sentenced for specific, documented crimes of conspiracy and black marketeering, his wider crime was that of consistently opposing every move made by the government to lift the people out of the mire of economic and cultural misery into which they had been plunged for centuries.

The Catholic Church in Hungary as in Spain at the other end of the Hapsburg Empire had always sided with the oppressors against the people, whether they were Royalists, Fascists or Nazi. The situation was quite different in Bulgaria where the great mass of the population belonged to the Orthodox Church, which supported the people in its revolts against the Turks. Throughout the 500 years of Turkish occupation the Orthodox Church kept a tiny flame of Bulgarian culture flickering. After the liberation by Russian troops in 1878, the church remained relatively aloof from politics. During the German occupation as during the revolt against the Turks, many priests took up rifles and fought side by side with the partisans. Since the end of the war, the church has collaborated loyally with the government in building a new life for the Bulgarian people. The Bulgarians in general are not very religious. For the majority of the population, churches are something to visit on special holidays or occasionally for a wedding or a. funeral.

The Bulgarian United Evangelical churches which included the congregational Methodist, Baptist and Pentecostal churches had a combined following of 14,000, in a country of 7,000,000. By themselves they were an insignificant factor in the country and were out of touch with the masses of the population.

They were a shady set of characters who filed into the court on February 25, 1949, to face charges of espionage and high treason. The trial was open to the public. The American and British Legations sent along observers and British and American journalists came from Berlin, London and Vienna to represent the news agencies, New York Times and London Times. All evidence was recorded and broadcast to the Bulgarian public. Telephone booths were installed in the courtroom so that correspondents could telephone their despatches to whatever European capital they wanted, as soon as the proceedings warranted a despatch. My own calls were always made in the evening from my hotel room. Contrary to some reports published in the West, there is no censorship in any of the People's Democracies.

What were they up to, the "innocent" pastors who looked so humble and ashamed of themselves when they were escorted into the People's Court? The meat and bones of the conspiracy was to reverse the traditional role of the Church which is to persuade people to accept their hard life on earth and wait patiently for the reward in the afterworld. They pledged themselves instead to try and foster discontent to a point where riots and disturbances would give American forces a chance to intervene to turn Bulgaria into another Greece, torn with civil strife with American men and arms ushering in the new Paradise. That was the central point of their treason. By close-knit military espionage, spotting the movement of Russian and Bulgarian troops, types of equipment, location of airfields, they prepared to make the America intervention an easy task.

To understand fully the role of the pastors one must remember that even after the failure of Mr. Churchill’s plan to create a Second Front in the Balkans to suppress all revolutionary movements in Eastern Europe, the British and Americans had a plan carefully worked out for a bloodless occupation of Bulgaria. When Hitler's armies were reeling back across Eastern Europe in 1944, and it became apparent that they would soon be thrown out of Bulgaria, negotiations took place with the Western Allies at Cairo with a view to making a separate peace with Bulgaria and occupying the country immediately with Anglo-American forces before the Soviet armies arrived.

Bulgaria had declared war on the Western Allies, but public opinion was so strongly pro-Russian that despite a strong German pressure the Bulgarian government did not declare war against the Soviet Union, nor did one Bulgarian soldier go to the Russian front, despite German demands that volunteer battalions be raised. The Soviet Union, apprised of the Cairo negotiations, declared war on Bulgaria in September, 1944, and crossed the frontiers before the Western Allies had time to act. A revolt immediately broke out throughout the country, soldiers mutinied, shot their officers where necessary, and together with the Soviet Army chased out the Germans. A Bulgarian Army was formed which later fought its way through Yugoslavia and Hungary to Austria. The Western Allies met up with the Bulgarians in Klagenfurt in Southern Austria and not in Bulgaria as they had hoped.

As the Pastor's trial proved, however, the Americans did not give up their idea of securing another Balkan bridgehead in Bulgaria.

Chief accused was Pastor Vasil Ziapkov of the Congregational Church, a weak-looking, dark moustached man, who wept copiously and hypocritically as he gave his evidence.

"Yes, I am guilty," he said, "I was a spy. I only want to confess before you, before the Bulgarian people for my crimes." His voice became stronger as he started to relate his actions against the young republic.

"It is quite easy for a young Evangelical pastor to become an American or English spy," he said. "As a graduate of their schools he is susceptible to their influence." And he described the hard life of youths from poor families in Bulgaria, with a sudden new vista opened by the generosity of English and American missionaries. He was sent to England to study. When he returned from England in 1926, an American Professor, Floyd Black, president of an American college, enlisted him as an agent. He was to prepare lists of all pro-American Bulgarians. Black later arranged a scholarship for him to study Christian Ethics at Columbia University, a bizarre training for a future highly specialised spy. Professor Black next turned up on the stage as a U.S. Intelligence Officer attached to the American Consulate in Istanbul, the centre for U.S. espionage in Bulgaria.

After Bulgaria's liberation on the 9th September, 1944, Ziapkov was visited by a Mr. Burt Andrews of the British Legation, who after a few preliminary inquiries, asked him bluntly whether he would do espionage work for the British. "For a start," Ziapkov said, "Mr. Andrews said he would be grateful for data about crops, industry, state of railway lines, new constructions and food supply." A few months later, in December, 1944, he was contacted by Cyril Black, son of the professor, and Secretary at the U.S. Legation in Sofia, who immediately enrolled him again as an American agent. Asked whether the British knew he was working for the Americans as well, he said:

"The British knew that I was giving information to Black, but Black did not know I was working for the British." He drew pay from both. Andrews was not very satisfied, however, with the first reports.

"He told me I must organise my work better and mentioned three points: (a) data should be grouped according to subjects and should give an overall picture and not just that of one region or town; (b) information should be classified as referring to industrial or military objectives; (c) information should concern major objectives of national importance."

Black put him in touch with two other pastors already recruited by the Americans to help in the work. Andrews suggested other trusted names. Bit by bit the network was built up until it included all the members of the Supreme Council of the Evangelical Churches. Black wanted a precise list of Soviet ships at the ports of Varna, Burgas and Lom on the Black Sea, the strength and movements of troops towards the frontiers.

The pastors were unimportant people compared to the accused in the Mindszenty trial, but they were much more effective as spies.

They provided data on every facet of the country's life and seemingly more accurate information than that provided by the priest Bela Ispanky in Hungary.

After Ziapkov's first meeting with Andrews and Black, he called a meeting of the Supreme Council and had a resolution passed delegating two of the pastors, Mihailov and Ivanov to call at the American Political Mission and insist in "the name of the. Bulgarian people" on the despatch of U.S. armed forced to Bulgaria. (They represented a total of 14,000 adherents to their combined churches.) First Secretary Black promised them intervention could be arranged but only if disorders could be started. "The U.S. government," he said, according to Pastor Ivanov, who took part in the meeting, "wants an opposition in the country, but we must have real manifestations of unrest before we can intervene openly."

Black and a Colonel Thompson outlined how they should work to bring about such dissatisfaction and assured them that all expenses would be defrayed by the American authorities. They must spread rumours of an impending war between the United States and Soviet Union to make the peasants hoard their grain, they must speak of atom bombs on Bulgaria unless the gates were opened first to American armies.

They enlarged their circles by contacting purged officers from the Fascist Army, dispossessed factory owners and families whose members had been punished for collaboration with the Germans. (Several of the accused fifteen pastors had worked as German agents before the war and worked for the Gestapo in Bulgaria and Germany itself during the war.) Above all they must try and poison the traditional pro-Russian and pro-Soviet attitude of the population by blaming all Bulgaria's economic difficulties on to the Soviet Union.

In 1947, the year of the American declaration of the "cold war," the tempo of U.S. espionage in Bulgaria took a more aggressive form, as it did all over Eastern Europe. Ziapkov recounted a conversation at the U.S. Legation. "In May, 1947," he said, bursting into tears again, "I had a traitorous conversation with Beck. I gave him data that Pastor Vassov had sent me from Lom about Soviet ships in that port and the types of cargoes they were discharging. Pastor Neichov sent me similar information about the port of Varna and about the wheat harvest in the Dobrudja. Pastor Drianov had sent me data about the naval academy at Varna and, the textile factory there. Popov reported on the activity in the port of Burgas, about Soviet ships and their cargoes. After I had given all this to Beck he asked me if I knew of any groups of malcontents. I told him I did, and he said to me: 'Establish the closest contact with them, for these people can be useful to us. Sow fresh troubles in the breasts of these malcontents, that's the best possible work for the moment. The greater the number the greater the obstacles this government is going to find. We are not going to tolerate Markos in Greece much longer,' Beck told me. 'One fine day he will be liquidated and the Greek-Bulgarian frontier will no longer be controlled by Partisans but by a regular Greek Army. A great number of refugees from Bulgaria can be accepted there, they can be mobilised, armed and sent back inside the country to cause real trouble!' "

Ivanov gave the Court some details of how payments were arranged.

"During the interviews, Robert Strong (from U.S. Legation) told me that he had given orders to have remitted to me 1,000 dollars for a start and later another 1,500 so that up to the end of 1946 I would receive about 2,500 dollars. This would be changed by a Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer representative at the rate of 1,000 leva to the dollar (four times the official rate.)"

Later, the pastors put their heads together and demanded twelve thousand dollars a year for the work of the four leaders of the group, but the Americans cut this back to 6,000 dollars. The money was mostly changed by Reverend Larin Popov, described in the indictment as a "degenerate and homosexual." It was established during the court proceedings that he had cheated his fellow pastors, by giving them a rate much lower than that at which he sold their dollars on the black market. When things began to get hot for them towards the end of 1948, one of the band paid about 400 dollars for a false passport and visa and fled the country, another one, Pastor Chernov, was caught trying to cross the frontier illegally. Altogether about 43,000 dollars passed through the hands of the pastor during their four years' activities. As every cent of it was exchanged on the black market, this represented for each of them a fortune in Bulgarian money.

Several of the pastors, as they concluded their evidence, paid tribute to the way in which they had been handled by the Security Police.

"I would like to say," said Mihailov, "that the State Security Service, whose job it is to keep an eye on those engaged in espionage, is a real school of political re-education. How shall I describe it? The routine is strict, but it is just and human. They told me that a foreign radio station said I had been killed. I stand here before you as a living denial of their inventions." (Needless to say it was the 'Voice of America which announced Mihailov had died under "torture.")

. Reverend Yanko Ivanov, one of the four chief accused completed his evidence, adding: "Thus I come to the end of my testimony about my espionage activities which I carried out until the day of my arrest. To my great regret I know that it will be difficult to find mitigating circumstances for me in view of what I have told you.

"When I was arrested, I expected to be handled by people who would be hard and cruel. However, the time I have passed with these people has helped me to see things clearly. What impressed me was that although in their eyes I was a criminal, their attitude was not to bully or annihilate me, but to help me...

"All these facts have made me realise that the Fatherland Front and the Communist Party does not threaten our churches and our religious liberty as I had thought at first. I have come to the conclusion that they are people with principles who defend and will defend theliberties proclaimed by them. I am convinced that they are sincerely human people.

"I must say, being in full possession of my faculties, and quite sincerely, that no moral or physical pressure was exerted on me. Everybody, starting with the militiaman who arrested me up to the most important officer with whom I had contact, behaved extremely correctly towards me."

Several others made similar statements. As far as one human being could judge another, they made these statements sincerely. And one of the two who was acquitted, Father Angel Dinev, as related in a previous chapter, assured me at some length, that he stood by his statement in court, that after his first contact with Communists he was convinced they were sincere people with whom he could work.

If there had been tortures or some insidious drugs which could make an accused give the right answer to every question likely to be put to him in court – and fellow accused, witnesses, counsels for defence and state prosecutors, all have the right and frequently did put questions to the accused – surely one of the seven in the Mindszenty trial or one of the fifteen accused in the pastor's trial would have had the courage to jump up in court and say so. One knows of the tortures and beatings that Communist leaders like the late Bulgarian leader Dimitrov and the Hungarian leader Matyas Rakosi suffered before their trials. Yet each turned the table on his accusers; used the courtroom as a propaganda platform as a man who believed in his cause should. There were no confessions during Rakosi's sixteen years' imprisonment.

The difference can partly be explained by the fact that Rakosi and Dimitrov and thousands of other Communists and trade union leaders over the whole of Europe, were put on trial for their faith as leaders of the working class. They defended themselves with the courage and passion of men fighting for noble convictions.

But what did Mindszenty and the pastors have to fight for? Their faith was not on trial. What sort of a noble speech can an accused make in defence of trying to plunge his country into war? What noble defence can be put up for black-marketeering by men whose business it is to look after the spiritual welfare of their fellows?

With the knowledge of the dark traditions of Balkan police methods and with their guilty conscience to prick their imagination I have no doubt pastors and priests expected tortures and beatings. Several of the pastors had worked with the Gestapo and knew the routine. But life has changed in the People's Democracies. It would be surprising if police methods were not reformed along with the other sweeping, revolutionary economic and social changes. The new broom of socialism has swept away the dark practices of the past, but the pleasant surprise of the pastors, who had never contacted Communists in their lives before, was doubtless sincere when they were treated as human beings.

A few days before the Pastor's trial started, a trial was held in the United States Zone of Germany of a Czech accused of espionage. The trial was in a U.S. Military Court, neither public nor correspondents were admitted while evidence was being heard. Correspondents eventually complained to the American Military Governor, General Clay, and were admitted to the Court to hear the verdict read. The Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, of February 18, 1949, reported the scene in the court-room as follows:

"The 31-year-old defendant Frantisek Klecka weaved back and forth as the sentence was pronounced. Three American M.P.'s stood at his back and placed handcuffs on Klecka immediately after he was sentenced. Klecka turned to correspondents standing at the rear of the court-room and shouted: 'I am not guilty. I am innocent. It's not possible that I should get 20 years for this,' he said in tears as he left the court-room."

In that trial no one except eight court members, two prosecutors and two defence attorneys, all Americans, knew what the charges were, or what evidence was offered but by the brief description of Klecka's appearance one has some idea what methods were used to try and get a confession. And Klecka never confessed.

A more precise insight into methods used by the Americans to extract evidence was contained in a report issued by the U.S. Army's Justice Review Board in March, 1949, following repeated complaints by prisoners in court that they had been beaten. Specific methods cited were condemning men to death in a mock court and sending a mock priest to the "condemned" cell to hear their confessions; standing them against a wall and shooting at them – pieces of hair snicked away by the bullets were found embedded in the walls of the cell; beatings in the face, stomach and below the belt. After quoting evidence by the U.S. Army dentist that he had treated "about 15 or 20" German prisoners for injuries to the mouth and jaw "apparently inflicted by blows," the Justice Review Board's report concludes with a laconic statement that, "physical force was not systematically applied."

Prisoners subjected to this treatment often broke down under the beatings and made confessions, but just as often they denied them in open court and described the methods used against them.

The question of keeping an accused in jail during the period of investigation is not permitted in British or American courts, unless sufficient evidence has been produced in open court to commit the accused for trial and application for release on bail has been refused. This is not, however, the custom in Europe. The Viennese press at about the time of the Mindszenty and Pastors' trials, for instance, carried a story about a former Austrian Attorney-General, Dr. Paul Pastrovich, who had been held by the Austrian government in "Untersuchungshaft" (investigation arrest) for fifteen months. An appeal was lodged on February 22, 1949, to have him released on bail of 5,000 schillings. The State Prosecutor opposed the request, it was referred to the Supreme Court which supported the Prosecutor. Investigations were not completed in the case.

The Mindszenty and Pastors' trials closed one more agency by which the British and Americans hoped to regain their old influence in Central Europe and the Balkans and restore the old reactionary regimes, which so easily became pawns in the hands of the Western powers. It was hard for them to see these countries gradually building up solid economies, guided by solid regimes who could win the support of the peoples by promising and giving them real independence even if it meant a hard life without the glitter of Marshall Plan aid.

There were dozens of plans docketed away in Whitehall and the White House for restoring British and American influence in the People's Democracies. Their plans were not always the same, nor did each always take the other into his confidence. Churchill's Balkan Second Front plan was defeated by Roosevelt who was interested only in getting the war won quickly. Churchill then switched to another tactic, also disapproved of at that time by the Americans. The invasion of Greece and the long-range deal made with Tito was carried out against the wishes of the Americans. Roosevelt saw the war as a military problem to defeat the Nazis. Churchill saw it primarily as a political problem, even before the Russians turned the scale at Stalingrad – to prevent the establishment of post-war left-wing governments in Eastern Europe. The British were in continuous touch with King Boris in Bulgaria and pinned their faith after the war in a right-wing regime, built around the King and. composed of the same anti-popular elements which had collaborated with the Germans, as they installed in Greece. King Boris's death, the swift advance of the Soviet Army and the seizure of power by the Bulgarian people, upset their plan.

In Bulgaria the Fatherland Front, in Hungary the People's Front, a coalition of parties excluding the Nazi or Fascist collaborators representing all interests of the community, were set up. British, and fairly soon American policy was aimed at splitting off some parties from the Fronts and if that failed, splitting one of the parties in the Front and setting up a legal opposition party, which could act as a spokesman for Western interests, with leaders susceptible to the idea of Western intervention.

Such parties and such-leaders were indeed found, with Petkoff in Bulgaria, Ference Nagy, Zoltan Pfeiffer and others in Hungary, but they were soon discredited. The Popular Front remained as the basis of the administrations, with the Communist Party gaining increasingly in prestige and power.  (In Bulgaria it must be remembered that in elections in 1920 and 1921, the last free elections before Professor Tsankoff took over as Fascist dictator, the Communists twice gained one quarter of seats in parliament.) When the British and Americans found that no reliance could be placed on legal opposition parties, another set of reserves were marched up to the front, the pastors and priests, but these proved less reliable and even weaker than the political leaders.

The Americans especially, were able to convince their agents of the imminence of war with the Soviet Union, they dangled the atom bomb in front of people's noses, warned them the only way to avoid having it dropped on Hungary or Bulgaria was to have the American armies in those countries first. But the politicians failed them and the priests failed them. They were forced to abandon their early plans for direct intervention by British and American armies and draw on their last card, an ace which they had hoped they would not have to play. That ace was Marshal Tito.

If they could not rule the Balkans directly, better at least have it in the hands of somebody in opposition to the Soviet Union, somebody who appreciated the magic of dollar aid and was willing to grant concessions in return. And Tito's men and their followers in other Communist parties were men hardened and tempered in the heat of political struggle. They would not be weak reeds who fled the country like most of the opposition political leaders; they would not blab everything in court like the priests and pastors; they were used to illegal work. The Americans eagerly took over Mr. Churchill's long range plot and added their own improvements, after the Truman Doctrine was announced and Cold War had got under way.

In the courts in Budapest and Sofia, one would like to have seen the real leaders of the plots, the military attaches and first secretaries from the Western Legations who promised that it was only a matter of hanging on a little longer, just a little more organisation, just one little riot or disturbance and American troops would come rushing across the frontiers as "liberators." Ziapkov described how the Americans kept up the "morale" of the Bulgarians and told them publicly in a language that a child could understand, that America was about ready to "liberate" the country.

An American missionary, Markham, who had been for many years an agent of U.S. intelligence in Bulgaria, a former president of the American College, was invited to preach at Ziapkov's church. He chose as his text a verse from Isaiah: "After the dark night there always follows the dawn of resurrection, so let us mobilise our moral and material forces to build that which the new day will bring."

Markham spoke in parables about the days of the Babylonian yoke, and the subsequent liberation by the prophet Isaiah, and it was clear to everybody that it was not the German yoke or the Soviet Army he was speaking about but Bulgarian Communists and the U.S. Army.

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