Left Side of History

The Left Side of History: World War II and the Unfulfilled Promise of Communism in Eastern Europe

2015 Heldt PrizeBest book in Slavic/Eastern European/Eurasian Women’s Studies (Honorable Mention), from the Association of Women in Slavic Studies 

"Written with compassion, conviction, and courage, The Left Side of History tells the story of two communist believers, British officer Frank Thompson who parachuted into Bulgarian-occupied east Serbia to join the Bulgarian partisans and Elena Lagadinova, the 14-year-old Bulgarian girl who was ready to sacrifice her life in the partisan movement fighting the Nazi-allied Bulgarian government.  While Frank Thomson perished in Bulgaria during the war, Elena Lagadinova survived the resistance struggles. As a high-ranking leader of the Bulgarian women’s movement during socialism, she continued to believe in and work for the betterment of human conditions and especially women’s rights. Ghodsee’s moving infatuation with the idealism and bravery of these two people, evident in her captivating prose, serves a larger purpose: the author narrates a complex story about the experience, perception, and memory of communism and the disillusionment with the dreams of democracy and free market economy after 1989.  After the last page of this compelling tale is closed, the reader is left eagerly anticipating Ghodsee’s next chronicle." -2015  Heldt Prize Committee

View the book trailer.

Read the Introduction.

Watch the companion documentary film.

Listen to the author read Chapter 21: "A Moment of Redemption" (abridged)

 "Wonderful.... History looks very different if you fought for national liberation and human progress under the banner of Communism.... To understand ... modern Bulgarians ..., you must enter their world of human self-sacrifice." -Freeman Dyson, New York Times Book Review

Kristen Ghodsee - The Left Side of History

“Ghodsee turns Thompson’s life and the equally heroic story of three Bulgarian brothers and their 14-year-old sister, who were also part of the resistance, into a gentle, reflective exploration of the idealism that drove them, despite the barbarity that many communists had already glimpsed in Stalin’s Soviet Union.” - Robert Legvold, Foreign Affairs 


"Kristen Ghodsee's book about WWII-era Communism in Bulgaria is a fun, character-driven read. " - Kel Munger, Sacramento News and Review

"A moving book.... History meets ethnography, all delivered in an absorbing, novelistic style." - Donny Gluckstein, Socialist Review

"Kristen Ghodsee has written an elegant book on a forbidden topic…. This book connects history and current conditions with a central theme: that there were idealists in the making and governing of communist Bulgaria, and that to some extent their ideals were realized, especially in regard to women’s rights…. The Left Side of History is a stimulating study and a delightful read." - Joan Roelofs, Counterpunch

"The Left Side of History is a remarkable account of Bulgaria’s current history of triumph and despairs, wrapped in the aspirations, hopes, and tragic failures of humans. It is told with astute historical accuracy and striking intimacy concerning the personal stories of Bulgarian communist activists, as well as ordinary people whose lives were indelibly marked by the rise and demise of communism." - Elza Ibroscheva, H-Net Reviews

In The Left Side of History Kristen Ghodsee tells the stories of partisans fighting behind the lines in Nazi allied Bulgaria during World War II: British officer Frank Thompson (brother of the great historian E.P. Thompson), and fourteen-year-old Elena Lagadinova, the youngest female member of the armed anti-fascist resistance. But these people were not merely anti-fascist; they were pro-communist, idealists moved by their socialist principles to fight and sometimes die for a cause they believed to be right. Victory brought forty years of communist dictatorship followed by unbridled capitalism after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Today in democratic Eastern Europe there is ever-increasing despair, disenchantment with the post-communist present, and growing nostalgia for the communist past. These phenomena are difficult to understand in the West, where “communism” is a dirty word that is quickly equated with Stalin and Soviet labor camps. By starting with the stories of people like Thompson and Lagadinova, Ghodsee provides a more nuanced understanding of how communist ideals could inspire ordinary people to make extraordinary sacrifices.

“The marvel of this beautifully written book is to address a complex set of historical questions in intimate and personal terms.  It's stunning as ethnography, but also part memoir--an account of Ghodsee's quest to satisfy her curiosity about the fate of Frank Thompson, a British partisan killed fighting the Nazis in Bulgaria in 1944.  The story she ends up telling is much larger: about communism as an aspiration and a political system; about the economic and social impacts of democracy and free markets after 1989; about the preservation and erasure of public memory; about the relationship of individuals to history.   It's a small story with vivid characters and a very large resonance.  Best of all, it's a gripping and compelling read.”—Joan W. Scott, Institute for Advanced Study

"The Left Side of History bears witness to Kristen Ghodsee's intellectual courage, analytic gifts, and profound compassion. She offers portraits of people for whom communism was a living ideology, a belief system that compelled self-sacrifice and nobility, and she does this by looking at their actions rather than criticizing or deconstructing their beliefs."— Elizabeth Frank, Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer

Video: Who Was Frank Thompson?

Hitler and Boris III

The Left Side of History is an intimate exploration of the lingering influence of the communist ideal in Eastern Europe today.  As free market capitalism and liberal democracy falter in many former state socialist countries, Marxist ideologies are experiencing a renaissance among ordinary men and women whose lives were shaped by the violent upheavals that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. 

The Left Side of History returns to the past to make sense of the present.  The book focuses on two constellations of people, one British and one Bulgarian. The brightest star in the first constellation is the Special Operations Executive officer Major Frank Thompson, elder brother of the great social historian E.P. Thompson, Winchester schoolmate of the controversial physicist Freeman Dyson, and university sweetheart of the famous writer and philosopher Iris Murdoch.  In the late 1930s, Thompson joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and enlisted to fight against Nazi Germany two days before the official British declaration of war.  At the center of the second constellation is Elena Lagadinova, who was fourteen years old when Frank Thompson dropped into her country in 1944 to make contact with the Bulgarian partisans.  After the gendarmerie burned down her natal home, Lagadinova became the youngest female partisan in Bulgaria, and a potent symbol of the antifascist resistance. 

Both Thompson and Lagadinova were united in their fight against the Nazi-allied Bulgarian monarchy. They believed that the ideals of communism could bring freedom, peace and cooperation.  They imagined a new Europe where workers of different nations would join hands and build a common future.  Although they dreamed of a paradise that never came to pass, their faith in the human capacity to change the world emboldened them to fight.  In a contemporary era devoid of heroes, The Left Side of History considers the power of idealism and personal sacrifice – the courage required to believe in utopias even when previous utopian experiments have gone horribly wrong.    


Article about Elena Lagadinova at ForeignAffairs.com: The Left Side of History, April 29, 2015

Academic Minute:  The Left Side of History, May 1, 2015

The Page 99 Test

My book, The Movie

California Governor Jerry Brown with Elena Lagadinova