The Romanian Campaign 1916/17 – Experience and Memory - Conference Report

Deniza Petrova Announcement
Subject Fields
Eastern Europe History / Studies, European History / Studies, German History / Studies, Military History, Humanities

International Conference: The Romanian Campaign 1916/17 – Experience and Memory

(September 26-28, 2016, University of Veliko Tarnovo - Ss. Cyril and Methodius)


Conference report by Lisa Mayerhofer (Munich, Germany)


Nearly 100 years after Romania's entry into World War I, an interational conference took place at the Ss. Cryil and Methodius University in Veliko Tarnovo. Organized by scholars from the Free University of Berlin and the Konstantin Preslavsky University of Shumen, the Conference focused on the Romanian Campaign  of 1916/17. Not only were seven war parties involved in this campaign, but it garnered much attention by contemporaries, partially because it was connected to a change in the German High Command from Erich von Falkenhayn to Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff. By the end of the campaign, the occupation encompassed two thirds of the Romanian state. The supply of oil and grain from the controlled regions consequently allowed the Central Powers to hold out for two more years. During the Romanian Campaign and even after the war's end, as the members of the Central Powers faded into obscurity, the Campaign remained an important component of the memory culture, to some degree certainly because of the massive border changes that followed the peace agreement.

The conference provided a platform to present new research on this topic, with a focus on the war experience and its memory. The broad, interdisciplinary thematic selections and the internationality of the participants, who came from nearly all countries involved in the campaign, facilitated a fruitful treatment of the subject with vital multi-perspectivity. The program focused on three topics in particular: the military leadership of the coalition, the relationship between the military and civilian populations and the culture of memory.


1. The Military Leadership of the Coalition

The conference began with a presentation from DR. GERALD VOLKMER, who examined the attitudes of the Romanian Kingdom's political and cultural elites towards the Central Powers, particularly Bulgaria. Thus, the conflict between the Romanian National Movement in Hungary and the Budapest Government, as well as the 1913 military dispute between Romania and Bulgaria, played central roles. The following presentation by DR. JAN VERMEIREN looked at the relationship between Germany and Austria-Hungary through the perspective of diplomatic history. It became clear that the Habsburger Monarchy, despite growing asymmetric relationships between its allies, was still able to preserve its freedom of action. This was demonstrated, for example, by the futile attempt to prevent a Romanian entry into the war on the side of the Triple Entente.


In his presentation, MAG. BERNHARD BACHINGER addressed the various feedback effects of the newly opened theater of war on the German-Bulgarian Salonika Front following Romania's entry into the war. The focus was on the management of the coordinated war effort and the inter-allied relationships. Due to the military campaign in Romania, a necessary restructuring  eventually led to a growing estrangement between the partners. The next presentation from DR. DANIEL MARC SEGESSER directed attention toward motives and perceptions, which were important for the decision-making of three military operations on the southern borders of the Central Powers. With the aid of a few case examples (the 1915 landing of the Triple Entente in Gallipoli, the 1915 Italian „Intervento“, and the 1916 entrance of Romania into the war), the question pursued was the extent to which the motives and perceptions of the warring countries and the neutral countries differed concerning one another.

DENIZA PETROVA, M.A., in her presentation, clarified how varying strategic goals as well as numerous other factors--such as differing military cultures, traditional models of perception, or divergent viewpoints concerning the war--helped create potential for conflicts among the allies.  The example of Bulgaria and Germany showed how military cooperation functioned, failed, or was sometimes even knowingly torpedoed by the allied partners. In her analysis, DR. TAMARA SCHEER examined a selection of autobiographical sources of several Habsburg officers. In so doing, she examined how the Austro-Hungarian military administration experienced the Habsburg-Romanians before the outbreak of war, and what the administration expected from them in the first months of the conflicts. Furthermore, she questioned whether their position shifted towards the side of the Triple Entente following the Romania's participation in the war. DR. AXEL BADER's presentation explored the war experience of the German Military in Romania in 1916 through the example of the Würtremberger Mountain Battalions. Emphasis was placed on the experience of the Romanian space, the diet, and the view of the civilian population, as well as the feedback effects on the relationships of the campaign participants. It was demonstrated that through the German troops' quick advances, the long sought-after wish for a mobile war could become reality. At the same time, the physical strain caused by winter weather, hard mountain marches, day and night long skirmishes and insufficient supplies rose immensely.

Reconstructing the war experiences from the Romanian perspective – as a reality on the front as well as a trauma in society – was the goal of the analysis from DR. CLAUDIU LUCIAN TOPOR. The focus was, on one side, the dimension of otherness – the constructed pictures of the enemy and the ally. On the other side, it was on an internal dimension – the relationship between the commanders and the troops. By the end of the war, as Romania stood on the side of the victor despite the failed campaign, the experience of the war received a symbolic meaning: the resistance on the Siret front decisively contributed to the fulfillment of a national illusion. In his lecture, DR. VASILIJ KASHIRIN outlined the progression of Russian involvement on the Romanian Front. The Russian military command, in conjunction with the Russian government administration, had to solve difficult problems including logistics, troop provisions, and the relationship with the local population. The Russian troops in Romania, like other parts of the Russian Army, were influenced by the February Revolution, but proved to be less vulnerable on foreign territory and without contact with the events back home. This allowed them to successfully cooperate with the reorganized Romanian Army during the large-scale Summer Battle of 1917. DR. DANILO ŠARENAC addressed in his presentation the Serbian Volunteer Corps, which took part in the fighting in Dobruja  in 1916/17. By looking at the central unit of the Corps, a Serbian Volunteer Division that was established in Odessa in April 1916, the enormous broadening of geographic horizons through the war as well as contemporary notions of national and/or imperial belonging were highlighted in a global and comparative perspective. The presentation from DR. OLIVER SCHULZ concerned the involvement of Bulgarian and Russian soldiers in the battles during the 1916 Romanian Campaign, as well as the static war on the Siret. It examined the everyday life of the soldiers as well as their war experiences. Here, questions of the perseverance and the view of the enemy stood at the forefront.


2. The Relationship Between the Military and Civilian Population

On the second day, DR. GUNDULA GAHLEN gave the opening lecture pursuing the question of what image the German soldiers had of the Romanian civilian population. She looked at how the German soldiers in their personal accounts reflected on the blurred lines between the military and civilians in the Romanian Theater. Upon examination of the often-assumed brutalization of the German war participants in their perception of and in their conduct towards the civilian population one thing becomes clear. The thesis that World War I was a “school of violence” on the eastern and southern fronts does not hold true in the Romanian example. PROF. DAVID HAMILN, in his lecture, dealt with the occupying force's perception of the rural occupied areas of Romania against the backdrop of local poverty. The economic exploitation of occupied Romania, the plans for which had already begun in October 1916, was of central importance in this relationship. As such it led to a successive devaluation of Romanian peasants, through which the standards of acceptable behavior sank to exploitation.
The presentation from DR. OLIVIA SPIRIDON undertook a content analysis of reports and memoirs from the Transylvanian-Saxon and Romanian side in order to work out the pattern and features of the perception and interpretation of the war, as well as actions during the war. It was made clear how Romania's brief occupation of Transylvania was seen from the Saxon perspective as a disturbance of their “sense of fortress,” or their confidence in their ability to defend themselves. She also analyzed how the Saxons subsequently presented themselves when handling new conflicts in a multi-ethnic environment. By contrast, the presentation of DR. DANIEL CAINS aimed to reconstruct the image of the Bulgarian “occupiers” in Romanian society on the basis of testimonies and diplomatic correspondence from 1916 to 1918. Due to fresh memories of the horrors of the Balkan Wars and out of fear of a Bulgarian retribution, a topos developed in which the Bulgarians were associated with “hatred” and fanaticism. This led many Romanians to flee and the Bulgarian population in Dobruja was treated as a potential enemy.

Next, the presentation of DR. LISA MAYERHOFER briefly described the framework of the occupation administration in territories controlled by the Central Powers. Then it addressed the competitive situation between the allied Germans and Austro-Hungarians with the example of fixing the exchange rate of the occupied currency. In a definitive comparison to other regions occupied by the Central Powers in World War I, the characteristics of the Romanian case example made clear how plans for the anticipated post-war period determined the configuration of the occupying regime. The presentation of DR. HARALD HEPPNER, on the other hand, dealt with Austria-Hungary as an occupying power in Walachia. Three “fronts” were identified. Austria-Hungary had to struggle against German policy for a place within the German military administration. At the same time, the Imperial and Royal Foreign Ministry had to battle to newly establish itself with certain (ire. civilian) bodies in the occupied areas. The third and final “front” grew out of the fact that as an occupying power, not only did Austria-Hungary have to ensure peace, order, and the support of Walachia, but they also had to try to counteract the negative propaganda from a belligerent Romania against the its Habsburg neighbors. In the subsequent analysis from DR. VALENTIN SPIRIDONOV, the allies of the  Central Power coalition were more closely considered in relation to the so-called Dobruja question. The occupation of Dobruja resulted in opulent spoils of war for the Central allies, though they couldn't agree on how to distribute them, until finally north Dobruja had to be put under the joint control (condominium) of the allied partners. Then DR. STEFAN MINKOV considered the German rear echelon administration and the Bulgarian policy in north Dobruja from 1916-1918. He indicated how the German rear echelon administration became an arena for conflicts of interest between the Central Powers, and how the ethnically diverse population structure in the occupied regions inflamed conflict between Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire

3. Culture of Memory

The third theme opened with a lecture from DIMO GEORGIEV M.A., in which concrete examples were used to illuminate patterns of construction and ritualization of the memory of fallen Bulgarians in the Romanian Campaign during and immediately following World War I. The focus centered around original propaganda posters, the concrete measures taken to preserve and care for war gravesites and memorials, as well as on their existence in the post-war period. The question of the connection between modern and pre-existing practices, which were deeply rooted in the local culture of grief and memory, was also posed. In his presentation, DR. DIETER STORZ considered the portrayal of the Romanian war theater in German war books by means of the novel Infanterist Perhobstler: Mit bayerischen Divisionen im Weltkrieg, and the journal of Bogislav Tilka, which was published in 1930 under the pseudonym Gerhard Velburg with the title, Rumänische Etappe: Der Weltkrieg wie ich ihn sah. While Schneider's work focuses more on conditions within the army with Romania serving as the backdrop, Tilka describes his role as an occupying soldier in the rear echelon administration from a consciously subjective perspective, which is very unusual. RALF GNOSA, M.A., dedicated his presentation to the most notable and, with a circulation of 100,000 copies, most widespread literary account of the Romanian Campaign in the German language: Hans Carossa's 1924 war book, Rumänisches Tagebuch. Special attention was directed to the reception of this atypical war book, whereby both the impact and the acceptance of the book were considered on two different levels. Contemporary reviews and essays were taken into account, as well as the impressions of contemporary readers, especially Carossa's literary colleagues.
DR. ROMANITA CONTANTINESCU's lecture opened the final section of the conference on Romanian culture of memory. In it, she sought to reconstruct the possible grounds for the banishment of the Romanian army's devastating defeat in Turtucaia/Tutrakan from collective memory in the post-war period, and to analyze the consequences of this silencing, with the example of writings of George Topârceanu. MIHAI-OCTAVIAN GROZA, M.A., focused his presentation on the memories of prisoners who were detained in German and Austro-Hungarian P.O.W. camps. Major themes were the prisoners' first contact with the prison camps, the treatment of the P.O.W.s during their internment, their every day life, the food, the relationships between prisoners of different nationalities, as well as the prisoners' contact with their families by means of letters. The contribution of DR. SERINELA PINITILIE considered how the Romanian Campaign was handled in history classes and schoolbooks in the interwar period as well as during the Communist era. After the respective historiographic stereotype of the war was transferred into the schoolbooks, the methods were thereby thematized.


DR. OLIVER JANZ summarized the most important insights of the conference. The prehistory of the Romanian entrance into the war can serve as an example for the geographic dissolution of the war as a pan-European conflict. The parallelism of the development between Italy and Romania becomes clear in this context. It appears that the Triple Entente had a structural advantage over the Central Powers because they were not confronted with irredentist claims within their territories. Aside from this, the examination of the German-Bulgarian relationships within the military coalition was particularly instructive. These can be arranged in a broad panorama to show which factors influenced the coalition's operation. Besides the specifics of warfare in southeastern Europe compared the western front, questions of occupation were posed in a comparative perspective. In this regard, a comparison between the German, Austro-Hungarian, and Bulgarian occupied zones could bring further helpful insights. Arranging the Romanian Campaign into a global history of the war further clarifies that, for the Central Powers, the occupation of Romania was to be seen as part of a strategy to offset the lack of access to global resources. By contrast, from the Bulgarian perspective the Campaign was a regional conflict that meant to serve the purpose of winning back regions which were previously lost to Romania.


It is hoped that the conference, as well as the centennial of Romania's entry into WWI, will provide an impetus for further research into the heretofore culpably neglected topic of the First World War in southeast Europe. The international and interdisciplinary approach pursued at this conference turned out to be particularly successful and should be pursued further.


Lisa Mayerhofer

Contact Information

Deniza Petrova, Freie Universität Berlin

Contact Email