Gundula Gahlen, Deniza Petrova, Oliver Stein, Freie Universität Berlin
The Central Powers'Romanian Campaign 1916/17.
Coalition war, experience, preception
and commemoration from German and Bulgarian perspectives
Source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain
Created by the Department of Military Art and Engineering,
at the U.S. Military Academy (West Point)
|Authors||Gundula Gahlen, Deniza Petrova, Oliver Stein|
|Theme(s)||World War I|
The end of August 2016 will mark the 100th anniversary of the 1916/17 Romanian Campaign. This campaign, waged by the Central Powers German, Bulgarian, Austro-Hungarian and Turkish troops, against the Entente Romanian, Russian and Serbian troops is, like the subsequent trench war, almost forgotten in the public memory of the Western world. This finding stands in contrast to the contemporary perception of the Romanian campaign. Especially in Germany, the success against Romania was considered to be of decisive significance for the further course of the war, and the individual operations were reported in detail following the devastating defeats of the Brusilov offensive, at Verdun and the Somme. The beginning of the Romanian campaign caused a domestic political crisis and occasioned the replacement of Falkenhayn in the Supreme Command by Hindenburg and Ludendorff. The victories that led to the occupation of two thirds of the Romanian territory by early 1917 inspired Wilhelm II's peace offering to the Entente on December 12th, 1916. As this was rejected, the war was able to continue for another two years largely due to the fact that the occupying forces in Romania were able to organize grain and oil deliveries to the Central Powers. The war was finally lost in the West, and the players of the Western Front drove the entire Eastern and Southeastern Fronts into oblivion. Only in recent years has there been an interest in the First World War as an equitable global conflict, and a focus in this long-neglected research area. The situation is different in Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary. For all three countries, the events of the Romanian Front continue to have decisive importance for national cultures of memory and remembrance, having left deep and far-reaching footprints in politics and society. Boundless violence, displacement and forced migration, as well as changing borders, made for a long lasting war heritage. Until now, historians, art and media have created and conveyed memories and interpreted the events that flowed into the state memory politics and collective memory, and remained active in different political contexts. 100 years later, the memory of the Romanian campaign has revived interest; not only among the professional community of historians, social or cultural scientists, but also among the general public, there are new perspectives on continuity and ruptures in the historical, political and social contexts and discourses facing the First World War in the Balkans.
In the Central Powers’ campaign against Romania in 1916/17, German soldiers fought together with Austro-Hungarian, Bulgarian and Turkish forces against Romanian and Russian troops. The Romanian Campaign was a crucial military operation for both opposing alliances, as the Allies hoped for a breakthrough with coordinated Russian and Romanian offensives in the East, and an Anglo-French offensive on the Salonica Front. Romania joined the Allies on August 27th, 1916 and invaded Transylvania. Germany and Austria-Hungary had to stop the Romanian advance in Hungary, while Bulgaria’s original war aim was to regain the territories in Dobrogea it had lost to Romania in the Second Balkan War in 1913.
Army Group Mackensen, named after their leader, was stationed in Dobrogea and on the Danube. In addition to the Bulgarian Third Army, the group included further German, Bulgarian, and Turkish divisions. In the Transylvanian Carpathian Mountains, General von Falkenhayn commanded the newly assembled 9th Army, containing both German and Austrian-Hungarian troops. This group was then flanked by the similarly mixed First k.u.k. Army under General Arz von Straussenburg. Later, the Ninth Army and the group of the Danube Army (52nd Corps), now called Army Group Mackensen, participated in the offensive in Wallachia. German and Austro-Hungarian commanders demanded that the Central Powers’ Bulgarian-German-Turkish troops, under German Field Marshal August von Mackensen, cross the Danube River towards Bucharest. The Bulgarian High Command gained approval for the Bulgarian plan: Mackensen’s troops, Bulgarian in their majority, would attack the Romanian province of Dobrogea. Bulgaria declared war on Romania on the first of September 1916. In a major offensive in Dobrogea, Bulgarian, German and Turkish divisions engaged Romanian, Russian and Serbian troops and succeeded in pushing them back after heavy fighting. Three months later, the Romanian capital Bucharest was taken. In the East, the Sereth-Front was established and existed until 1918. Nevertheless, increasingly open and frequent disagreements within the coalition in the so-called Dobrogea Question prevented the allies from making the most of the military success. The Romanian Campaign became an incomplete victory for the Central Powers.
Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire - four powers that could hardly have been more different - partook in the campaign against Romania. Each of these allies brought their own political and military agenda, as well as their own specific military culture to the table. This heterogeneity had an effect on all levels of relevant decision-making and command. One of the resulting consequences for the coalition warfare was the establishment of conflict resolution strategies, which placed Germany, Austria-Hungary and Bulgaria at the center of focus. The Ottoman Empire had to assume a rather limited role due to the small number of its troops, involved in the campaign. Beginning in the early summer of 1916, before Romania’s entry into war and while the first plans and arrangements for a military procedure against Romania were being made, the Allies’ operation planning and implementation was contingent on, and often impeded by, different or even opposing political and cultural factors.
The military command, in particular the German High Command (OHL), had the task of creating war plans and coordinating the collective proceedings in Romania’s three theaters of war, while the implementation of these plans was left to the stationed commanders. After the consensus of the Supreme War Command on September 13, 1916, the leadership role of the German High Command (OHL) was markedly strengthened. Despite this, the collective military command naturally remained a dynamic, interactive process, in which the powers’ roles had to constantly be brought into balance. Beyond the purely militaristic target agreement - namely the swift defeat of the enemy - it was not just the individual visions for an optimal approach that differed considerably, but also the concrete political self-interests and the economic interests fueling them. The common coalition goal was broken in the prism of nation-specific goals and perspectives.
Auswärtiges Amt, Signatur 901: R 901/82143, R 901/86220, R 901/82277, R 901/85684, R 901/83990.
Politische und wirtschaftliche Lage im Ausland - 1914-1918: N2329/88 Rumänien
N787/26 Nachlass Fritz Ortlepp, Bd. 19-45, particularly useful Bd. 19 "Die Politik Rumäniens vor der Kriegserklärung und der Eintritt Rumäniens in den Krieg", S. 266-396; Bd 20. "Die Deutsch-Bulgarische Offensive in der Dobrudscha", S. 96-197, "Die Ereignisse in Siebenbürgen bis zur Schlacht bei Hermannstadt [Sibiu]", S. 198-250, "Die Bildung der Deutschen 9. Armee und ihr Aufmarsch", S. 251-356.
RM 5/2763 "Rumänien" 1918
PH 5-I-11 Heeresgruppe Mackensen: PH5-I/18 und PH5-I/68
Militärverwaltung in Rumänien 1917-1918 PH 5-I/73 und PH5-I/74
Infanteriedivisionen (WK) 5197, 5208 "Rumänien", 09.1916-12. 1916
Infanteriebrigaden (WK) 5446
Kriegsakten Rumänien 12.05.1916-05.03. 1917
фонд 237K, Никола Жеков/fond 237K, General Nikola Zhekov, Bulgarian Commander-in-Chief 1915-1918
фонд 313K, Васил Радославов/fond 313K, Prime Minister Vasil Radoslavov
Фонд 1 - Военно министерство/Fond 1, Ministry of war; Фонд 58 - 1-ва пехотна дивизия/Fond 58, 1st Infantry Division; Фонд 742 - 4-та пехотна дивизия/Fond 742, 4th Infantry Division; Фонд 740 - 3-та армия/Fond 740, 3rd Army
Дигитален архив, документи, свързани с обявяването на войната срещу Румъния, с участващите български войски и обособяването на съвместна окупационна административна област 1916-1917/Digitized archival collection, archival documents, related to the Bulgarian declaration of war, the Bulgarian troops participating in the Romanian Campaign and the establishing of the Bulgarian-German military administration in the occupied Romanian teritory 1916-1917
After Carol I, a descendant of the Hohenzollern dynasty, ascended the throne, regional and cultural studies predominantly described the Romanian elite as westernized and modern. German regional studies and travel accounts assessed foreign policy quite positively when Romania joined the Triple Alliance. The German press generally viewed Romania’s territorial demands as being justified and saw the Romanian army as being the most powerful in the Balkans.
While German assessments of the Romanian elite and foreign policy in the First World War markedly changed, the image of Romania’s rural population remained largely constant until the beginning of the World War Two. In this image of Romania, prevalent in regional studies before the First World War, farmers were the essence of the country and would preserve old customs. They led a simple life - their undemanding lifestyle seen in their diet, clothing, and homes.
With Romania’s entry into the war, a comprehensive change took place in Germany’s evaluation of the Romanians. After several years of uncertainty, the once allies in 1916 became the “traitors”. The press especially disseminated this image and, going further, made the blanket insinuation that the Romanian people were exceedingly deceitful and cruel.
Aside from offering these interpretative frameworks, the press reacted with a flood of articles about Romania’s “Land and people” and established a new image of the Romanian elite. Now they were perceived as being frenchified, decadent and effeminate.
During the First World War, in which Bulgaria aligned itself with the Central Powers, a downright flood of writings about the new allies was set into motion. German governmental authorities had a great interest in the popularization of Bulgaria, which was promoted not only through the printed word, but also through associations like the German-Bulgarian society. While a politically motivated ‘Friendship propaganda’ (‚Freundschaftspropaganda‘) set the tone in the German Reich, the alliance in the Balkans occasioned many first-time direct encounters between Germans and Bulgarians. With this, Germany’s Bulgarian image, no longer simply shaped by journalistic mediation, was given a new component. Thousands of German soldiers’ and officials’ direct contact with Bulgarians gave rise to a broad spectrum of experiences that were characterized by both particular individual presuppositions and group-specific premises. With Bulgaria’s withdrawal from the alliance and the following war defeat, the interest in the Balkans ended suddenly. However the images of the Bulgarians that emerged before 1918 developed a long-term formative power. In the 1930s, as Bulgaria became once again interested in Germany for political reasons, these images could be taken up again and further built upon.
The Romanian campaign was characterized by the great brutality of its warfare. The ethical mélange in Transylvania and in Dobrogea promoted loyalty conflicts, distrust, reprisals and ultimately terror. The Romanians, as the Bulgarians, murdered and exercised great cruelty on members of the civilian populations, as well as on wounded and captive soldiers, including German military members. Moreover, the Germans frequently perceived the Romanian minority in Transylvania as potential spies and partisans with whom, it was believed, one could only negotiate with using utter severity. Thus emerged, to some extent, a warfare without boundaries, in which the differences between military and civil spheres were blurred and which was largely foreign to many German soldiers.
The German military administration in Romania was primarily consisted of Landsturm troops. The occupying army experienced even better provisions as the troops on the front. At the beginning of this occupation, many German soldiers described Romania as a paradisal land. The Romanian image then transformed once again in keeping with the changing interests: after the Romanian campaign the image of the traitorous nation no longer played a dominating role. Much more so, the idea began to be asserted that the Romanian government and the corrupt Bucharest upper class had led the Romanian army into this war - a war that the simple people did not actually want. This then explained the civilian population’s cooperation with the German military administration. The goal of the German occupation was to get as much as possible from the country and to maintain a dominant role after the war. The German occupying army, which was chronically shorthanded, was instructed to cooperate with a willing elite in order to carry out administrative work.
Contrary to the particular attention paid to Romania in wartime, the Romanian mission did not play a substantial role in German commemorative culture after 1918. In the literature on the subject, the Romanian theater of war is seen as being secondary, as a sideshow.
Despite the limited attention paid to the campaign in the commemorative culture, academic literature often analyzed the Romanian campaign. On the one hand, the preoccupation with the German operations in Romania served to justify and glorify the German war method in the First World War, which came to its full fruition in this theater of war. On the other hand, the Romanian campaign was viewed as a lesson for future operations with its successes in maneuver warfare.
While the alliance’s obligations and Romania’s ‘betrayal’ were especially emphasized during the campaign, the image of the threatened German minority in Transylvania shifts to the center of focus during the Weimar Republic. The Second World War once again effectuated re-framings of the German Romanian mission in the First World War. In 1940, Germany forged an alliance with Romania under General Ion Antonescu. First World War had given one clear insight to the German military leadership: without Romania’s oil resources, it would not be possible to sustain a longer war. After 1945, the war in the east and southeast between 1914 and 1918 vanished from public memory. The Second World War and the contemporary events on the Eastern and Balkan Fronts ultimately superimposed the occurrences in these areas during the First World War .
In Bulgaria, however, the memory of the First World War proved itself to be long-lived. At the moment, in view of the 100th anniversary of the Romanian campaign in 2016, the event belongs to the nation’s current themes addressing the politics of memory. The Bulgarian war commemorative culture, similar to that in Germany and Romania, experienced a transformation bounded to the particular political context.
Plans for commemorating the fallen soldiers were already being drawn up during the conflict. Although the main goal of the state memorial policy was to commemorate the fallen Bulgarians as national heroes - concentrating on nationality, military war effort, self-sacrifice and bravery as pivotal values - the local population buried and mourned the fallen despite their religion or nationality.
|Military cemetery near Tutrakan, Bulgaria. The cemetery was established in September 1916, after the battle of Tutrakan/rum. Turtucaia.There are above 8000 Bulgarian (also of jewish and turkish origin), Romanian and German soldiers buried in this cemetery site. © Deniza Petrova|
After the war, the Region of Dobrogea again became part of Romania, so that until 1940 the fallen of the Romanian campaign were remembered on anniversaries in the Bulgarian capital city and garrison towns. Veterans’ associations or relatives of individuals killed in the conflict initiated the construction of war monuments. A war memorial was built in almost every town and village. Countless servicemen had died without family funerals or did not have a marked grave, and therefore local memorials served as both familial and national sites of mourning.
In the historiography, the media and literature from this period demonstrate that the main issues included not only the ultimate sacrifice made by the fallen soldiers, but also the relations with former allies and rivals. Prominent military leaders and politicians wrote their memoirs, and common service men, mostly well educated, published war diaries or journals. In the interwar period, military historians mainly concentrated on writing regimental and divisional histories, histories of crucial battles of the Balkan and the First World Wars, and overviews on newly adopted tactical or technological developments.
Confronted with mass death in modern warfare, the Bulgarian High Command established a war grave commission in 1917 that registered and maintained Bulgarian war cemeteries and monuments. After 1925 it developed into a Department of military museums, monuments and graves within the Ministry of War. After 1940, this department, in conjunction with the local municipalities, maintained the war cemeteries and monuments for the fallen of all nationalities in Tutrakan and Dobrich.
Фонд 39, Отделение "Военни музеи, паметници и гробове"/Fond 39, Department of military museums, monuments and graves.
The early years of Communist rule in Bulgaria were marked by a significant break with the existing practices of scholarly research and commemoration of the fallen. The First World War was considered a forbidden topic in Bulgarian historiography. The war alliance between Bulgaria, Germany and Austria-Hungary had to be forgotten. The victims of the First World War, now called “imperialistic”, were thus marginalized. War memorials and cemeteries were destroyed or removed and replaced with the memorials of partisans and Bulgarian or foreign communist leaders. In the late 70’s and during the 80’s, as the communist regime tried to fuel and exploit nationalistic aspirations, attempts were made to restore war cemeteries and memorials and to make them popular once again.
In the following decades after the collapse of the communist regime, an increasing number of initiatives focused on the remembrance of the “Wars for national unity” and particularly on remembering the First World War. The Bulgarian Ministry of Defense published a register of war memorials that listed not only Bulgarian, but also German, Russian, Austrian, Romanian and Turkish war monuments and graves. In research, there is a chance to overcome national perspectives by looking at the losses suffered by the other side and, in this sense, a chance for attaining a common European form of remembrance. In the words of the German historian Oliver Janz “while public remembrance is likely to remain nationally segregated, research is already arriving at a trans-national view”.
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1. See Glenn Torrey, "The Rumanian Campaign of 1916: Its Impact on the Belligerents", Slavic Review 39, 1 (1980): 27–43.
2. Ministry of War / General Staff of the Bulgarian Army / Commission for Military History (eds.): Bŭlgarskata armiia v Svetovnata voyna 1915-1918. Voynata sreshtu Romŭniya prez 1916. Podgotovkata na voynata i Tutrakanskata operatsiia [The Bulgarian Army in the First World War 1915-1918. The Campaign against Romania in 1916. The Preparation for war and the Tutrakan Operation], Vol. 8 (Sofia: Dŭrzhavna pechatnitsa, 1939), 60–67.
3. See Stefan Minkov, “Der Status der Nord-Dobrudscha im Kontext des deutsch-bulgarischen Verhältnisses im Ersten Weltkrieg“, in Der Erste Weltkrieg auf dem Balkan: Perspektiven der Forschung, edited by Jürgen Angelow, Oliver Stein and Gundula Gahlen (Berlin 2011: Be.Bra Wissenschaft Verlag), 241-255.
4. This aspect constitutes the chief subject the article written in the framework of this research project „Wer das nicht mitgemacht hat, glaubt es nicht.“ Erfahrungen deutscher Offiziere mit den bulgarischen Verbündeten 1915-1918, in: Der Erste Weltkrieg auf dem Balkan, hrsg. von Jürgen Angelow unter Mitarbeit von Gundula Gahlen und Oliver Stein, Berlin 2011, S. 271-287.
5. On Romanian commemorative practices see Maria Bucur: Heroes and Victims. Remembering War in Twentieth-Century Romania, Indiana University Press, Bloomington/USA 2009.
6. David Crossland, ”Remembering WWI: German hopes for centenary may be dashed” in Spiegel Online International, accessed January 11, 2015.