In working on my iPad book (which had some technical errors and needed to be re-submitted – should be ready soon!), I was reminded of the curious fact that Iaşi was the capital of all of Romania from 1916-1918.
That’s an interesting piece of trivia but quite frankly I never knew why the government left Bucharest for two years and moved en masse to Iaşi. Obviously those years are in the middle of World War 1 but what exactly happened?
And so while digging through some historical archives (that are maintained beautifully online in this miraculous age), I found this letter from General Field Marshal Anton Ludwig August von Mackensen of the Imperial Germany Army, written on December 6, 1916:
AN DIE EINWOHNER DER STADT BUKAREST
Die Stadt Bukarest ist von meinen Truppen besetzt; sie steht unter dem Kriegsrecht.
Wir fuhren den Krieg nur genen die rumaenische und russische Armee, nicht gegen das rumaenische Volk.
Wer meinem Herre keinen Widerstand entgegensetzt und sich den Anordnungen der militaerischen Befehlshaber und ihrer Beauftragten willig unterwirft, dessen Leben und Eigentum ist in Sicherheit.
Wer es aber unternimnt den mir unterstellten Truppen Nachteil zuzufugen oder dem rumaenischen und russichen Herre, gegen das wir kaempfen, Vorschub zu leisten, wird mi dem Tode bestraft.
Fuer jeden Widerstand, der meinen Truppen von seitzen der Zivilbevoelkerung einschliesslich der Zivilbemten entgegengestzt wird, wird die Stadt Bukarest zur Verantwortung gezogen und hat die schwersten Zwangsmassnahmen zu erwarten.
In case your German is a little rusty, the above text was a notice that Field Marshal Mackensen had posted all over the city of Bucharest saying that the city is now occupied by his troops and is under martial law and if non-combatants follow orders then they’ll be okay but if anyone resists they’ll be “severely punished”.
Rewinding the clock, it must be remembered that at this time the country of Romania consisted solely of Moldova and Wallachia and that Transylvania was still an autonomous part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (if you love lengthy posts about Romanian history, you might like my article Szabadság).
Right before World War 1 began, Romania was in a strange and difficult position. It had a German-speaking king named Carol who was the absolute ruler of the land, presiding over the absolutely awful new constitution of 1866 (original text at link) which, among other things, said that only Christians were citizens of the country (article 7). Carol was of the Hohenzollern branch of royalty and was thus directly related to the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
The king, despite reigning for 48 years, didn’t speak more than a dozen words in the Romanian language and lived in an isolated cloud of opulence, separated from his people. You can see the evidence of his imperial grandeur at the castle in Peles, which cost the equivalent of hundreds of millions of euros to construct at a time when most of his subjects were illiterate serfs.
So while the king sat up in his mountain retreat, his ministers down in Bucharest began to see the troubles unfolding that eventually led to war. This eventually involved the “Triple Alliance” (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy) versus the “Triple Entente” of Britain, France and Russia. The king was sympathetic to his German-speaking cousins but most Romanians saw that their fortunes lay with the other side, especially as they desperately wanted Transylvania. So for a while there was quite a dilemma as to what Romania would do.
There’s plenty of dry and factual material on Wikipedia for anyone to peruse but in my research, I stumbled on the most wonderful first-hand account of a remarkable diplomat, a man named Charles Vopicka, who sadly doesn’t even have an entry in Wikipedia at all. In the last 10 years, the United States has sent a number of idiotic and stupid toadies (such as Daddy Mark) to be the ambassador to Romania but in 1914 this country was truly blessed to have Charles Vopicka here as the official representative of the American government.
Not only was Vopicka a kind and generous man but he had originally been born in what is now the Czech Republic and spoke a number of languages fluently, including German. He was able to thus converse freely with King Carol (and later his son Ferdinand) and other members of the Romanian royal court.
As the United States did not enter the war until April 1917 and was officially neutral in 1916, on the day that German troops occupied Bucharest and imposed martial law, Charles Vopicka was one of the few people there to witness it without risk of imprisonment, execution or other mistreatment by the German Army. He and his staff were also probably the only English-speaking people left in the city as almost all of the foreigners and even Romanian citizens had left, leaving (according to Vopicker) just 15,000 people; mostly women, children and the elderly.
Old King Carol had died in 1914, still mostly undecided about entering the war but after his death Ferdinand saw much more clearly that Romania had no choice but to roll the dice and ally itself with Russia against both the Austro-Hungarians (who held Transylvania) as well as the Bulgarians, who were eager to make encroachments against Dobruja (Ro: Dobrogea).
The Germans initially were quite successful, taking Bucharest and all of the rest of Wallachia (including the oilfields at Ploesti, which were being drilled by Standard Oil, now known as Exxon-Mobil) and of course the royal residences in Sinaia. The Romanian government and the royal family all fled to Iaşi and did their best to re-organize and train the army, with particular help from several French generals.
Vopicker got to see all of this first-hand, writing in the dry and yet gripping style that was more common in that era. He used the American embassy in Bucharest to dole out food, milk and fuel to the poor Romanians who had been left behind in the capital as the German soldiers (like soldiers everywhere in wartime) took what provisions they needed first and left the civilians to fight over what was left.
Eventually, Vopicker’s generosity in helping the Romanians angered General Mackensen and Vopicker was thrown onto a train and sent to Berlin and from there to Washington, where he met with (American) President WIlson and briefed him on what was going on in that “far away” part of the world during an age when television and the internet did not exist and it was difficult to get real-time information from distant parts of the globe.
Wilson sent him back to Romania but because the Americans had entered the war against Germany, Vopicker had to go the long way around, and I do mean the long way. He sailed west out of San Francisco and was making his way across the entirety of Russia on his way to Iaşi when he got caught smack dab in the middle of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Luckily for him, it took a couple of years before that revolution was completely consolidated, and so he made it through Russia and all the way to Iaşi and resumed his duties.
Now all of this is fascinating but what was absolutely thrilling for me was to read the amazing story of General Dmitri Shcherbachev (his last name is almost impossible to write with a Latin alphabet, the Russian being Щербачёв). I’d never heard of this man in my entire life and found literally only two mentions of him (via a Google search) in Romanian. And yet this man Shcherbachev saved Romania and should be a national hero in this country.
Both Google results in Romanian quote a professor named Gica Manole and you can read one his papers on the subject of World War 1 here (PDF). Of course Professor Manole mostly downplays the role that General Shcherbachev played and instead (understandably enough) focuses on the bravery and exploits of the Romanian Army.
So let’s review the timeline. In December of 1916, the German army has occupied Bucharest and all of Wallachia and the Romanian army, government and royal court has all moved to Iaşi. The Romanian Army (along with allied Russian troops) lose several battles to the Germans (and separate battles with Bulgarians and Turks) and there is a severe danger that the Triple Alliance is going to take all of Moldova and wipe Romania off the face of the map.
Then in 1917 there is a horrifically bloody engagement (approximately 80,000 Romanian soldiers killed) now known as the Battle of Mărăşeşti in which the Romanians famously declared pe aici nu se trece (they shall not pass) and withstood a brutal German assault and ended up victorious. It was a key battle in that it was the first time the Germans had been stopped and the victory had largely been the result of Romanian troops (as opposed to Russian ones) and so it was a major boost to Romanian morale.
Incidentally, it was also in this battle that Ecaterina Teodoroiu was killed, probably the most amazing Romanian woman who ever lived. I personally think it’s a goddamn shame that her portrait has never been on the money here. In a time when most women could not vote (even American women didn’t get that right until 1920), Ecaterina was a front-line commander. She was in the trenches with the troops, firing guns and suffering artillery barrages and was promoted by popular accord.
Every time a Romanian guy makes a stupid misogynistic remark (and there were plenty that came out recently when Alexandra Stan was beaten up) I want to smack them in their face and remind them of the bravery of Ecaterina Teodoroiu, who showed unbelievable courage and ability.
So the Romanians managed to halt the Triple Alliance at the Battle of Marasesti and America had entered the war and things were looking pretty good for Romania. But then at the end of 1917 came the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and virtually overnight a loyal ally in the war (with half a million troops in Romania and Bessarabia) was now run by the Communists who wanted nothing to do with more war. The Communist government in fact signed a separate peace (concerning the war in Romania) with Germany by the end of 1917.
Russia might be “out” but the Germans and Austro-Hungarians were definitely not and French and British (or even American) armies were all far away and of no help to little old Romania. At this point it looked like Romania was finished. Once the orders came in from Moscow that the war was over, hundreds of thousands of Russian troops essentially became unemployed without transportation home and there are horrific stories of the plundering, raping and destruction that occurred (especially in Bessarabia, now the Republic of Moldova) as they made their way back to the motherland.
And this is where General Shcherbachev showed true bravery and why he should be a national hero in Romania. It turns out General Shcherbachev was not a fan of the Bolsheviks at all and indeed hated them. And so when the orders came down from Moscow that the war was over and to return home, he simply ignored them.
He had greatly admired the fighting spirit of the Romanian troops and got along well with the King Ferdinand and his court and so made the Romanians (and via Vopicka, the Americans) the offer of a lifetime.
Shcherbachev estimated that he had some 200,000 Russian troops under his command who were also anti-Bolshevik and if the Entente could find the money to pay and feed the soldiers, he would use them to both continue to fight the Germans and their allies (Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria, etc) as well as fight the Bolsheviks.
Vopicka writes in his journal about how he sent an urgent telegram to Washington to get this money as it was a unique and invaluable opportunity. Vopicka estimated that he had about two weeks to get the money before the Russian soldiers would start dispersing and writes about how he was crushed when it took Washington a staggering 15 weeks before the reply came back authorizing the funds.
Sadly, by that time it was too late as a most of Shcherbachev’s troops had dispersed. But Shcherbachev stayed in Romania with a smaller force and continued to hold off both the Germans as well as the Bolsheviks until the end of 1918, when the war ended. Vopicka writes in great detail about Shcherbachev’s bravery, even once foiling an assassination attempt by Bolsheviks in Iaşi as they tried to gun down Shcherbachev in the middle of the street.
In 1918 the war ended, with Romania’s allies prevailing. The German troops all went home and Romanian nationalists met in Alba-Iulia on December 1 and proclaimed the unification of Transylvania with Wallachia and Moldova, still commemorated every year here as Ziua Nationala (National Day).
As I documented here, the Romanians successfully lobbied the Americans (with lots of help from Vopicka, I am sure) to arrange the terms set forth in the Treaty of Trianon, formally awarding Transylvania (as well as Crisana, the Banat and Maramures) to Romania, which is why the city I live in now (Cluj-Napoca) is governed from Bucharest instead of from Budapest.
And King Ferdinand did not forget the vital assistance that General Shcherbachev had provided at Romania’s hour of need. I can’t find a single reference to it in either English or Romanian but via Russian sources I see this brief snippet:
В 1920 году переехал в Ниццу, где жил на пенсию, назначенную ему румынским правительством.
Which says that in 1920 he moved to Nice (in France) to retire in a home given to him by the Romanian government.
An amazing story and it’s a shame that it’s apparently never been told before.
BUT NOW YOU KNOW!