First published in 1922, the Forest of the Hanged is one of the most important novels in the history of Romanian literature. The novel written by Liviu Rebreanu is inspired by the tragedy of his brother, Emil Rebreanu. He was a lieutenant in the Austro-Hungarian army, sentenced to death and executed in May 1917 by hanging, for trying to cross the front and join the Romanian army.
The novel describes in detail a world dominated by the oppressive atmosphere of the First World War and the prospect of death by hanging. The author analyses the moral dilemma of the character Apostol Bologa, a young Romanian officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, sent to fight on the Romanian Front against his fellow countrymen. A hesitant character, inclined towards philosophical meditations, Apostol Bologa is torn by the conflict between his military duty and the feeling of belonging to the Romanian nation. After witnessing the execution of the Czech officer Svoboda, whose name means “freedom” in the Czech language, Apostol Bologa begins to understand the injustice of the war and starts having a troubled conscience, which will lead to his tragic end.
Translated into over twenty foreign languages, the novel The Forest of the Hanged was made into a film by director Liviu Ciulei, and won the award for Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1965.
“In memory of my brother, Emil”
The novel was dedicated to the writer’s younger brother: “In memory of my brother, Emil, executed by the Austro-Hungarians, on the Romanian Front, in 1917”. One of the younger brothers of the writer Liviu Rebreanu, Emil was born on December 17, 1891, in the village of Maieru in Transylvania, where their father was a teacher.
In 1913, Emil Rebreanu worked as a notary in the village of Cătina and was a student at the Faculty of Law in Cluj. In the village of Cătina he met Cornelia Dănilă, the daughter of the Orthodox archpriest Ieronim Dănilă. The two fell in love and through their correspondence, we can see that Emil was a young man marked by profound emotional feelings, in a difficult historical context.
In the summer of 1914, Emil Rebreanu was incorporated into the Austro-Hungarian army and sent to the Officer Military School in Târgu Mureș. Emil Rebreanu wrote to Cornelia, his letters illustrating the oppressive atmosphere of the period:
“Last night, I was confronted with the departure of the reservists from the 62nd Regiment… All these soldiers were married, with their wives by their side. What was going on in their hearts, which seemed to be full with the bitterness of a funeral? Indeed, this sad parade was like a funeral, without even the sound of a bell…”.
On March 23, 1915, Emil Rebreanu was sent to the Galician Front. He will continue writing to Cornelia, but very few letters survived from this period.
Apostol Bologa, the main character of the novel The Forest of the Hanged, shares a lot of his character traits with Liviu Rebreanu’s brother. The novel realistically describes the atmosphere of the First World War. The author’s psychological analysis presents the drama of the young Transylvanian Romanians, forced to fight against their own people. While fighting on the fronts of Galicia and Italy, Emil Rebreanu was an exemplary soldier, who distinguished himself on the front and was even decorated. But his conscience prevented him from fighting when he was sent to the Romanian Front.
The conditions in which Emil Rebreanu was executed are only known through the novel written by his brother. The death of Emil Rebreanu was announced by Croatian Jovan Kurici, his orderly, which sent three letters, to ensure that at least one would reach its destination, due to the difficult conditions on the front. All three letters eventually reached their destination.
Liviu Rebreanu, Pădurea Spânzuraților [The Forest of the Hanged], Cartea Românească Publishing House, Bucharest, 1922.
Nicolae Balint, Drama unui intelectual ardelean [The drama of a Transylvanian intellectual], in the Historia magazine, no. 58, October, 2006.
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.
Translated by Laurențiu Dumitru Dologa