During the period of Romania’s neutrality (July 28, 1914- August 27, 1916), Germany and Austria-Hungary made constant efforts to determine the government in Bucharest to join the Central Powers. These efforts were hindered not only by Romanian public opinion, which was strongly anti-Austrian, but also by the refusal of the government in Budapest to grant rights to the Romanians living in Transylvania.
The relations between Romania and the Central Powers, especially Austria-Hungary, gradually deteriorated during the period of neutrality (1914-1916). As the situation in Transylvania, a province with a majority Romanian population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, became more and more tense, Vienna concentrated more and more troops on the border with Romania. Despite all the assurances given by the Central Powers that these measures were not directed against Romania, the government in Bucharest took several steps to counteract a possible aggression.
The request of the Central Powers to allow the transport of munitions destined for Turkey on Romania’s territory at the beginning of 1915 was rebuffed by Romanian Prime Minister Ion I.C. Brătianu and by King Ferdinand I. The pressure exerted by Berlin and Vienna eventually paid off in May 1915, when Brătianu had to accept the transit of weapons and munitions on Romanian territory.
Vienna was worried about a possible Romanian attack as Italy declared war on Austria-Hungary on May 23, 1915. Hungarian Prime Minister István Tisza considered that this danger could be avoided by concentrating Austro-Hungarian troops on the border with Romania and by giving indications to Bulgaria on how to “rein in the Romanians”. Tisza was convinced that Bulgaria’s attitude could also influence Romania’s attitude, and if the latter remained neutral it would have been considered a “victory” for Austria-Hungary. The only concessions that Tisza was willing to make to Romania, if Bucharest decided to join the Central Powers, were the granting of territories not belonging to Austria-Hungary.
Budapest’s aggressive policy towards Romania did not have the expected effects. The proposals made by the Austro-Hungarian ambassador to Bucharest, Ottokar Czernin, were turned downed by Brătianu, arguing that he cannot go “against the whole country”, as Romanian public opinion was dominated by a strong anti-Austrian sentiment. Following the straining of relations between Romania and the Central Powers, Vienna withdrew its offer to surrender territories to Romania, on the grounds that Bucharest did not provide an answer. At the same time, Romania’s ambassador to Vienna, Edgar Mavrocordat, informed Bucharest that “in the Romanian regions of Hungary the fortification of the most important positions continues”. Under these circumstances, Brătianu decided to halt the transit of weapons and munitions to Turkey.
The Austro-Hungarian authorities tried to have the liberal government in Bucharest replaced with a conservative one, headed by Alexandru Marghiloman, a known philo-German. Czernin told Marghiloman that Austria-Hungary could no longer negotiate with a liberal government, only with a conservative one, and promised that Tisza was willing to give the Romanians living in Hungary more rights in return for their loyalty.
The closure of Romania’s borders and the concentration of troops at the border with Austria-Hungary
Bucharest responded to the actions of the Central Powers by closing the borders in September 1915 and by concentrating troops at the border with Austria-Hungary. Disgruntled, Marghiloman protested to the King, who replied that “it would have been worse if nothing was done”. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador in Bucharest asked for an audience with King Ferdinand I to protest Brătianu’s decision and to assure the Romanian sovereign that the Austro-Hungarian troops were not concentrated in Transylvania against Romania but to counter possible actions by Russia. During the meeting with King Ferdinand I, Czernin said, to the surprise of the Romanian sovereign, that in Vienna and Berlin no one trusted Brătianu anymore.
Even though the liberal government in Bucharest assured it would withdraw its troops from the Austro-Hungarian border, in reality it refused to do so, despite the pressure exerted by the Central Powers and by the conservatives. Irritated, Czernin called for a new audience with King Ferdinand I asking him to use his position as supreme commander of the army to immediately withdraw the troops. Unhappy with the discussion he had with Ferdinand, the Austrian ambassador informed Vienna that he did not believe that the troops would be withdrawn by the king, because the sovereign’s authority was weak.
The actions of the Romanian government also dissatisfied Berlin, who in turn tried, through his ambassador in Bucharest, to sway King Ferdinand I into removing Brătianu from power. The German ambassador’s actions proved as unsuccessful as those of his Austrian counterpart. Under these circumstances, Berlin tried new forms of pressure. Romania was informed that the proposal of Octavian Goga and Vasile Lucaciu, two Romanian Transylvanian leaders, as deputies in the Romanian Parliament and the signing of a contract for the delivery of wheat in the UK would be considered hostile actions against Germany. In order to avoid possible retaliation from Germany, Goga and Lucaciu’s candidatures were withdrawn.
Vienna’s suspicions regarding Romania were reinforced by the Russian offensive of June 1916. During this military action, a Russian detachment entered the territory of Romania. Brătianu’s promises that steps will be taken to strengthen the eastern border, so that incidents of this kind will not be repeated, did not convince Vienna. At the end of June 1916, Czernin reported to Vienna that Romania’s aggression against Austria-Hungary was not imminent, but the situation could change depending on the success of the Russian offensive.
Czernin’s opinion would soon change. In a report dated June 29, 1916, the Austro-Hungarian ambassador stated that in a previous conversation with the Romanian Prime Minister, the latter showed “unbelievable cynicism”. Czernin told Brătianu that he knows that Romania is negotiating with the Entente and preparing its troops. In turn, Brătianu replied that Romania would not be able to remain passive in the case of an Austro-Hungarian dissolution and that “Transylvania could not remain Hungarian”.
Even if he received assurances from Brătianu that Romania would remain neutral, Czernin was convinced that the Romanian prime minister thought that Austria-Hungary would be defeated and expected the right moment to enter the war, but the Austrian ambassador could not assess when it would be happening. Indeed, following the decision of the Crown Council at the Cotroceni Palace in Bucharest on August 27, 1916, Romania decided to enter the war against the Central Powers.
Victor Atanasiu, Atanasie Iordache, Mircea Iosa, Ion M. Oprea Paul Oprescu, România în Primul Război Mondial [Romania in the First World War], Military Publishing House, Bucharest, 1979.
Gheorghe Platon (coord.), Istoria Românilor [The history of the Romanians], vol. VII, tome II, Encyclopaedic Publishing House, Bucharest 2003.
Florin Constantiniu, O istorie sinceră a poporului român [A sincere history of the Romanian people], Encyclopaedic Universe Publishing House, Bucharest, 2008.
Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa