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Just like many great duos throughout history, Bulgaria and Germany have a fascinating (though uneven) relationship. In today’s episode, we’re going to take a closer look at the impact of politics on economies as we trace this history of Bulgaria and Germany following World War II, and examine the ways capitalism, and communism, impacted their economic strength today.


Getis, Bjelland, and Getis. Introduction to Geography, 15 ed. McGraw-Hill Education. 2017. ISBN: 978-1-259-57000-1

Gregory, Derek, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, eds. 2009. The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Willey-Blackwell. ISBN: 978-1-4051-3288-6

For a free and open source option for Intro to Human Geography, see:

For a free and open source option for World Regional Geography, see:

Cracking the AP Human Geography Exam: 2020 edition. The Princeton Review.

Sofia and Bulgaria General History


Bulgaria Economy

German Bulgaria relations

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There have been some truly great duos throughout history and pop culture, doing everything from solving mysteries to judging baked goods to tracking down an emperor they accidentally turned into a llama. If we look closer at these pairs, we'll often find that some of the best ones are a mix of opposites. In fact, their success might even be because they're so different. We love to see a straight-laced fuss budget deal with an agent of chaos or a, well, now that I think about it, that one comes up a lot. Take Holmes and Watson, or Ernie and Bert, or any character duo Tina Fey and Amy Poehler bring to life. Or even Bulgaria and Germany!

Wait, okay, so I might have let my geography nerd brain run a little wild there, but geopolitically, Bulgaria and Germany have a long history. In the early 2020s, they have a close relationship and pass things like cars and precious metals back and forth with relative ease. From a distance, they look like BFFs, but, just like in many of our duos, it's an uneven relationship. Germany is more important to Bulgaria than Bulgaria is to Germany.

I'm Alizé Carrère, and this is Crash Course: Geography.

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Over the last few episodes, we've talked about how power moves to form and maintain countries, and we briefly mentioned how things like the strength of an economy is one aspect that affects the coherence of the state. Economics, or the study of scarcity, decision-making, and how people respond to incentives around resources impacts everyone's lives, whether we're aware of it or not. How we make a living and consume material goods is part of what shapes how we interact with the world.

So to understand what makes Bulgaria and Germany such a good pair, particularly at trading goods back and forth, we can use the frameworks of economic geography, which is a branch of human geography concerned with where and how people earn a living. But our economic activities are also tied with the power systems we live in, so human geographers study both power and economics, because understanding our relationship with power and material wealth helps explain human patterns on the global scale, from how population size is related to economic opportunity, to resource use,

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to migration trends, to the way our cities are laid out.

In geography, looking at economics and politics together and studying how they interact is called political economy. Geographers trained in political economy argue that both political and economic move unevenly across the landscape, and that power shapes the way people work and live. That means we study things like how trade policy impacts where goods are produced and where they are sold, like we saw on the Silk Roads, and, as economic geographers, we want to understand how wealth was formed in spice-rich places, who actually amassed that wealth and who didn't in the region, and what political structures, like empires or tribes, reinforced trade patterns and maintained those structures.

But there are a lot of people who study this with a lot of different definitions. At its core, economic geography tries to describe the distribution of material wealth in the world, and, spoiler alert, that wealth is usually distributed unevenly. As geographers, we wanna know why that unevenness exists and understand why people have different economic opportunities.

Since the 1990s, Bulgaria's economy has continued to strengthen, though, in the 2020s, it's still less wealthy than Germany and some of its other neighbors. Like all geographers, economic geographers will think spatially about something like wealth. We also think about economic work as being grouped into three main categories. A truly healthy economy needs to have all three economic activities, and they often overlap and exist in the same spaces.

In the 2020s, a large chunk of Bulgaria's economy is a primary economy based on extracting raw goods. Their largest exports to Germany are primary goods like raw copper ore and other precious metals. Anything that comes from the land, like agriculture, mining, logging, or hunting, are all primary activities, and primary production is important, because it's how we get the basic materials we need to live, like food, minerals, and cloth.

Every government system has some sort of primary production, but primary production tends to not generate very much wealth on its own. Like, let's think about that classic geography example, the banana. As we learned way back in episode one when we started this journey,

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the people who grew those bananas didn't make very much money, but the companies who owned the plantations did. A secondary economy is based on manufacturing, or refining those primary goods, which adds value to them and makes a profit for the owner. So the plantation owners didn't really change the bananas, but they did process and package them and bring them to the U.S., where they could be sold for a lot more money.

And in the 2020s, Germany has a booming industrial, or secondary, economy. There's a saying in geography: its not enough to have the stuff. Places with resources often find their wealth is extracted away to other places that make money by processing the raw goods to make tons of other products.

But ultimately, it's the different routes that Germany and Bulgaria have each taken on their economic paths that have helped create their modern day political, economic, and even cultural landscapes. Historically, as manufacturing became easier in North America and Europe during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the people who owned the factories started to make a lot of money off the labor of those doing the manufacturing work. Around this time is when capitalism started to resemble the system you're probably familiar with today.

Capitalism is a political economic system that's dominated by earning a profit with private business ownership and where both wages and production are guided by the free market. Now, a market isn't necessarily a physical place. It's more like a relationship we enter into when buyers and sellers exchange goods and services and negotiate those prices, like how much someone is willing to pay for a wiener schnitzel or what the going rate is for a Gadulka player. And it's called a free market, but there are allowances for economic regulation from governments at national and international levels.

Though, this form of capitalism, known as a mixed capitalist economy, wouldn't be recognized by its most famous proponent, Adam Smith, who mostly talked about it in theory, and there are so many other types, too. For example, democratic socialism still sells goods and services on the market but creates buffers and boundaries on how labor is treated. The government is democratically elected, and the fiscal policies they enact are a result of those elections, but, instead of markets being where the cost of goods and services like healthcare or education are determined, the state sets policies that prevent swings in costs

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or type of service a person can access. The state redistributes wealth from things like taxes to ensure a minimum access to things like healthcare, education, food, and water resources. Many European countries follow some variation on this idea, and a lot of experts would say 21st century Germany is one of them.

One contribution geographers have made to political economy is noting just how variable capitalism is. Capitalism looks different in different places, because how markets work depends on how governments facilitate them and regulate them, which tends to shift with different democratic structures, and, as a discipline that wants to understand why we see some features in one place but not another, studying capitalism has been a key part of economic geography.

So, the politics of a place can make a difference in how markets are regulated. Most places have access to at least some natural resources, capable people to do good work, and some way to get their goods and services to the people who want to buy them, but which countries have access to markets is definitely uneven, and how goods can move is a political decision.

For instance, how goods have moved through the area that we now call Bulgaria has changed over the years. Throughout the 20th century, Bulgaria followed Germany's alliances and, by the end of World War II, found itself behind the Iron Curtain with East Germany. This meant it also became an ally of the Soviet Union and, less directly, a communist state from the mid-1940s until 1990s.

Communism is an idea that was proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels to address the inequalities they saw that grew from capitalist economic practices. Marx wrote about the masses of people doing the work eventually rising up and demanding that wealth be distributed more fairly. In theory, communism is a type of political economy that strives to replace private property and a profit-based economy with public ownership and communal control of all resources. 

And much like how the capitalism that Adam Smith wrote about doesn't look like what capitalism has become, the communism that Marx developed doesn't look like what communism turned into, either. So, yes, there actually was a revolt and civil war in Russia, but it wasn't what Marx had in mind. It wasn't led by the working people, and, in the end, power and wealth didn't transfer to the laborers. Instead, it went to the leaders of the revolution.

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There was then a wave of communism that spread out from the Soviet Union in the form of dictatorships, or political systems where one leader has the power and that power is distributed at their discretion, so pretty much the opposite of what Marx was writing about.

One of the places communism spread to at the end of World War II was Bulgaria. Bulgaria became part of the Eastern Bloc and, like other communist countries, had what was called a planned economy, meaning that the government planned everything, like how much of a good needed to be produced and where it would be produced, along with the prices for goods and wages. They could also prioritize social goals over economic ones, so that means they could decide how many nurses would work in a clinic just based on how many they wanted to have work there, not necessarily because of demand.

Bulgaria's economy during their communist days also relied heavily on primary activities, and, even with detailed government planning and control, there was still uneven access to wealth, because the decisions were being made in a central place without the will or desires of the people or signals of supply and demand to guide them.

But not all formerly communist states had the same types of economic activity. East Germany, while also communist, had more secondary production. This created a space for more economic productivity. West Germany was even more economically productive than East Germany, thanks to international investment and support to create a highly productive capitalist economy to help form a buffer against communism. When both parts of Germany were unified in 1990, the strength of the Western economy helped smooth the transition for East Germany, and so, when in 1989 the Soviet Union and its control in the region began to unravel and the Berlin Wall came down, countries like Bulgaria stopped being communist and adopted other political economic systems, in this case capitalism.

In 1990, Bulgaria held democratic elections, meaning that the next leaders were voted in by the people, and went through a years-long process of transitioning from a closed market controlled by the state to an open market participating in free trade, which means goods could be bought and sold between any countries with goods to sell, not just the countries the state pre-approved.

But whether it's capitalism, socialism, or communism, these economic practices are rarely uniform. Wherever they're in practice,

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there are other economies also in practice. In fact, the majority of employed people in the world actually work in what's known as the informal economy, which is the diverse kinds of jobs, businesses, and other economic activities that aren't regulated or protected by the state or market.

And this isn't necessarily bad or secretive. Anything that isn't part of the market, like the neighborhood babysitter, the community garden co-op, or the friend that comes over to cut your hair can be part of an informal economy, but because informal economies aren't regulated or taxed by governments, they can also include activities that try not to be seen, like human trafficking or drug trade.

Tertiary economies are also woven throughout every economic type. This is anything that counts as a service and is the largest growing sector worldwide. It includes activities like healthcare, education, and government, all jobs that have existed everywhere for a long time.

Whether it's Bulgaria, Germany, or somewhere else, wherever we live, there's usually a combination of economic activities that connects us to the things we buy, the jobs we do, or the money we save. And, on a larger scale, states experience that, too. They form relationships that can be uneven, whether that's a friendship with a long history or something more painful like the colonial relationship, which we'll discuss more next time. Until then, as another famous duo once said, be excellent to each other.

Many maps and borders represent modern geopolitical divisions that have often been decided without the consultation, permission, or recognition of the land's original inhabitants. Many geographical place names also don't reflect the indigenous or aboriginal people's languages. So we at Crash Course want to acknowledge these people's traditional and ongoing relationship with that land and all the physical and human geographical elements of it. We encourage you to learn about the history of the place you call home through resources like and by engaging with your local indigenous and aboriginal nations through the websites and resources they provide.

Thanks for watching this episode of Crash Course: Geography, which is filmed at the Team Sandoval Pier Studio and was made with the help of all these nice people. If you want to help keep Crash Course free for everyone forever, you can join our community on Patreon.

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