It was the high summer of 1943 in Eastern Europe, and World War II was going decidedly against the Third Reich, which had just suffered massive twin defeats on the Russian Front at the Battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, which many historians now believe turned the tide of war irrevocably against Nazi Germany.
Already, the bad news from the East had helped to cause the overthrow of Adolf Hitler’s main Axis Pact ally, Fascist Italian Duce (Leader) Benito Mussolini. The Fuhrer’s greatest fear was that his various Balkan allies, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, would next rush to desert him to possibly save their countries and, not incidentally, their own regimes from the onrushing Red Army steamroller of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.
Indeed, Hungarian Regent Admiral Niklos Horthy was already thinking along these lines, which in the autumn would cause Hitler to launch a commando operation against his well-fortified castle in Budapest, the Burgburg.
Now, too, the Fuhrer was having trouble with one of the few men, and the only reigning monarch, whom he admired, the leader of a small Balkan kingdom who had apparently managed the impossible on a continent still occupied by Nazi troops. While every other Axis Pact signatory had been forced to send combat troops to aid the Germans in their all-out assault on the Soviet Union, only tiny Bulgaria had not.
The reason was the personal relationship of mutual respect and firmness between two very different men—-the brutal Hitler and the quiet, shy, but unflappable King of Bulgaria, Boris III. But after an unexpectedly harsh meeting with the Fuhrer at the latter’s East Prussian military headquarters, Wolf’s Lair, at Rastenburg, the anxious monarch returned to Bulgaria and, soon after, died suddenly. Accusations of poison and murder quickly surfaced on all sides, with the most accusatory finger being pointed, both inside and outside the Axis structure, at the Germans.
Chief among the Allied accusers was Britain’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who charged in a speech soon after the King’s mysterious death, “What happened to King Boris will also happen to others who side with Germany!” Churchill conveniently overlooked the fact that the English, too, had a motive for wanting the King’s early death. That motive was the further erosion of the Axis Pact in the Balkans, an area in which Churchill was acutely interested.
In any event, the outcome was extremely unhappy for the Bulgarian royal family and people as a whole, for all that the king had earnestly sought to avoid now, indeed, came to pass. Substantial German armed forces were already in the country as Boris’s funeral cortege passed through a sea of mourners in the streets of Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital. There was no prospect of a unilateral withdrawal from the Axis without Allied help, and the Allies were not interested in Bulgaria.
Murdered by the Italians?
The new regime, a regency for Boris’s six-year-old son, King Simeon II, was unable to halt the expected Soviet invasion of August 1944, a year after the death of King Boris, and the royal rule was swept away. The old king’s brother, Prince Kyril, was executed by the Communists in February 1945. Boris’s widow and successor fled abroad into exile. After the end of World War II, Boris’s beloved Bulgaria was ruled by a Communist regime behind the Iron Curtain. Thus, it would seem that both the Soviet and Bulgarian Reds had a motive for the disappearance from the political scene of the neutralist King Boris III, a man who constantly sought a middle path between East and West, his signing of Hitler’s pact notwithstanding.
After the war, it became apparent that the Nazis were just as mystified as anyone else by the sudden death of the King and that they suspected the culprits of a possible murder plot to be their own former allies, the Italians.
On September 10, 1943, two days after the Italians had switched sides and joined the Allies against Germany and two days before the Fuhrer’s paratroopers rescued the ex-Duce from an Italian mountaintop prison, Hitler’s Propaganda Minister, Dr. Josef Goebbels, made a surprising entry in his private diary. The entry was one that remained unpublished until after both Goebbels and Hitler were dead.
The entry reads, “The Fuhrer told me that it must now be regarded as certain that he was killed by snake poison. It is not yet known who mixed the poison. The German doctors wanted to perform an autopsy; the Bulgarian government agreed, but the Royal Family refused. I would not regard it as impossible that the poisoning was engineered by the Italians. After their latest act of treachery, I am ready to credit the Badoglio regime and the Italians generally with anything!”
The next day, the viperish Dr. Goebbels added, “The Fuhrer intends to transmit to Prince Kyril the findings of the German doctors on the poisoning of King Boris, which he believes in all likelihood inspired by the Italian Court, for it is very suspicious that Princess Mafalda, the worst wench in the entire Italian Royal House, was on a visit in Sofia four weeks before King Boris’ death. It will be remembered that she is a sister of the Bulgarian Queen…The Fuhrer thought (Mafalda) capable of having expedited the journey of her brother-in-law Boris to the hereafter. It was also possible that the plutocratic clique administered poison to Mussolini, for Mussolini’s illness, too, was somewhat mysterious…”
The reference to the ex-Duce was off the mark, as Mussolini had suffered normal stomach cramps since 1938 (which the Nazis knew from their spies), but they exacted their vengeance against the Italian House of Savoy anyway.
Boris’s father-in-law, Italian King Victor Emmanuel III, who had always loathed Hitler, feared kidnapping by a Nazi paratroop unit much more than capture by the Allies. At one point, Hitler had seriously contemplated kidnapping the Italian monarch, even going into the sacrosanct Vatican to get at him if necessary!
The long arm of Hitler’s revenge did ensnarl Princess Mafalda in its tentacles, however, as noted by King Boris’s biographer, Stephane Groueff, in his magnificent study, Crown of Thorns. He writes, “Princess Mafalda, who was married to Prince Philip of Hesse, arrived in Bulgaria only after King Boris’ death to attend the funeral, as all newspaper reports and photographs can attest. Hitler’s allegation that she came to Bulgaria before the King’s illness is completely false … Princess Mafalda died tragically in the Nazi prison camp of Buchenwald on Aug. 28, 1944.”
But could Hitler have been right? Was his fear of a Savoyard plot so far-fetched, even given that Mafalda’s own sister, Queen Giovanna, was married to the young, popular Boris? What would have been the motive?
Actually, there was a motive, the same as in the internal overthrow of Mussolini before an Allied invasion and German occupation of Italy took place—to save the country from destruction and the Italian dynasty from extinction. Even if the Italian royal family had plotted to deliver Bulgaria also to the Allies as they had Italy in 1943, they failed in their ultimate goals. Italy was devastated by both war and civil war during 1943-45, and the Savoyard monarchy was voted into exile in 1946 by the Italian people themselves in a plebiscite election.
If neither Hitler nor Goebbels was guilty of plotting the swift demise of Boris III, there were, however, other top Nazi leaders who had an interest in Bulgarian internal politics. These were men who were bitter rivals within the hierarchy of the Third Reich and each of whom had their own agents in Sofia reporting back to them.
These suspects included Nazi Germany’s number two man, Reich Marshal Hermann Goring, commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop, both of whom had hosted Boris during his many hunting and diplomatic trips to the Reich. As it turned out, the King liked the gregarious Goring but despised the foreign minister as a man he considered overly vain, pompous, and stupid.
Indeed, on August 29, 1943, Adolf-Heinz Beckerle, an SA Obergruppenfuhrer (lieutenant general) and German ambassador to Sofia, in the face of the official explanation of the King’s death, coronary thrombosis complicated by an infarct, sent this top-secret report to his boss, von Ribbentrop:
“I asked the German doctors—deCrinis, Eppinger and Sajitz—to come and see me. They told me that they were sorry that during all this time they were unable to get in touch with me. They felt that they were kept, so to speak, prisoners at the palace, in order to prevent any news from leaking out. Even yesterday, after the King’s death, they found it impossible to come here. They understood that King Ferdinand (the King’s father and predecessor on the throne) and the Italian Royal Family had to be notified first.
“I Have the Impression That, in Spite of the Limited Scientific Hard Evidence, the Doctors are Privately Convinced of a Violent Death.”
“In addition, the entire diagnosis had been left to them. The Bulgarian doctors stayed in the background … The King was aware of the gravity of his condition and believed that … he would not live. The King thought that he had angina pectoris. He attributed it to the strains of an excursion to Mount Moussala, which he had undertaken the previous Wednesday.