7 MAY, 1918: Gangster Diplomacy

A century ago today Romania signed the Treaty of Bucharest, a peace agreement with the Central Powers that represented the beginning of the end for something rather unpleasant and much overlooked by modern commentators.  I’m referring to the dishonesty, bribery and bullying employed by European diplomats – above all those of Britain, France and Germany ­– to persuade smaller nations to join their side during the first three years of the First World War.

Some smaller independent countries – Portugal springs to mind – were already little more than client states by 1914 and could to all intents and purposes be ordered into the War by their effective masters, but most needed bribing with promises of territorial acquisition, economic aid and diplomatic support.  These were particularly tempting carrots for ruling elites in small countries at a time when chauvinistic nationalism was a standard position, and they were generally as happy to accept and trust promises as their suitors were to make them.

Entering the War on the basis of promises by either side represented a gamble on two levels.  National leaders were betting on their chosen team winning the fight, and then on the promises being kept.  During the first two years of the War, possibly even the first three, the first bet was a reasonably straight fifty-fifty call, at least potentially worth the risk, but staking a nation’s fate on the promises made smacked of gambling addiction because, for all that great power diplomatic arrangements in wartime were secret, it took a lot of Nelsonian blindness to ignore the strong possibility that they were dishonest.

It really didn’t require hindsight to see, or at least to guess, that German promises could never satisfy both the Ottoman Empire and Bulgaria, each of which cherished ambitions against the other, or that the same problem made the Entente’s promises to Italy, Serbia and Greece impossible to keep.  Falling for the promises was a mug’s game, but if you didn’t join one side or the other you risked being left friendless after the War, out in the cold while the winners arranged what virtually every contemporary observer assumed would be a new world order.

So they fell for the promises, and on the whole paid a very high price in human and other resources – but from the lofty perspective of strategic statecraft these were acceptable, provided the pay-off came at the end.  The Treaty of Bucharest provided the first clear indication that the pay-off wasn’t going to satisfy any of the lesser powers, and that promises made by great powers at war were at best indications of what they would like to deliver, at worst not worth the paper they were written on.

Romania had gambled on a Russian victory in the east and trusted Anglo-French promises of support when it joined the War on the Allied side in 1916 (27 August, 1916: Going, Going, Gone…).  Bad move.  The Russian revival on the Eastern Front was a mirage, and quickly dissipated; the only realistic springboard for direct military support was the Allied force at Salonika, but it was hopeless; and the country’s economic resources, above all its oil, attracted a German-led invasion far more powerful than anything the Romanian Army could hope to stop.  By late 1917, with the war between the Central Powers and Russia effectively over, Romania had been reduced to an embattled rump, with three-quarters of the country occupied by German or Bulgarian forces and no hope of help from anywhere once the Russian Army had collapsed.

King Ferdinand of Romania: he gambled, lost, gambled again, won, and doomed his country to a strife-torn future.

The government of King Ferdinand signed an armistice on 9 December 1917, but was able to delay any serious progress towards a peace settlement as long as Russia carried on frustrating the Central Powers at Brest-Litovsk.  Once those negotiations were complete, Austro-Hungarian foreign minister Czernin convinced Ferdinand that the German supreme command was ready to renew its invasion, and the King gave in.  A pro-German conservative, Alexandru Marghiloman, was installed as Romanian prime minister and a preliminary peace treaty was agreed only two days after the signing at Brest-Litovsk, on 5 March.  The preliminary treaty accepted Romania’s loss of the Dobrudja region and the immediate demobilisation of the Romanian Army’s small remnant… but at this point Germany’s wartime diplomacy came home to roost, because both Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire refused to accept the arrangement as a basis for formal peace.

Bulgaria demanded the full control over the Dobrudja it had been led to expect when it joined the Central Powers in 1915, and Ottoman Turkey wouldn’t settle unless it regained control over Central Thrace, which had been given to Bulgaria as an inducement to join.  It took another two months, but the Central Powers eventually cobbled together a somewhat shaky solution that kept them all happy enough to at least move on.

The formal treaty – as eventually signed at Buftea, a small town some 20km northwest of Bucharest, on 7 May – gave Bulgaria control over the southern part of the Dobrudja, but put the north under joint occupation by the Central Powers and left the Danube delta in Romanian hands (because it was too valuable a bargaining chip for anyone to win).  Austria-Hungary was meanwhile given control over the passes through the Carpathian Mountains as compensation for Germany’s wholesale appropriation of Romanian oil, grain, railways and financial systems.  The Treaty also recognised the union of Bessarabia, part of the Russian Empire in 1914, with Romania.

Blue to Bulgaria, purple to Austria-Hungary, green to the joint administration of the Central Powers and Bessarabia absorbed… Romania after Bucharest.

On the surface it appeared, and was intended to appear, that Romania had done pretty well out of the deal.  The country had, somewhat bizarrely, suffered catastrophic defeat but ended up bigger than it started, and it was spared the kind of client or protectorate status imposed on other nominally independent states within the reach of the German Army in Eastern Europe.  The true picture was a lot less benign, as German civil servants were appointed to every Romanian ministry, given the power to fire ministers or officials, and effectively took over national government. Although the King remained the nominal head of state, by way of keeping resistance to a minimum and making sure Romanians policed the arrangement, trade routes to the Black Sea and the country’s economic planning were fully geared to supply of the German war effort.

So the Treaty of Bucharest took Romania prisoner, broke promises made by Germany to Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire, and forced Austria-Hungary to accept territory in place of the supplies it really needed.  It produced only one winner in Germany, which used its regional military superiority to ride roughshod over the promises of its diplomats, and it was a stark illustration of what other relatively minor belligerents could expect from the post-War pay-off, no matter which side they were on.  Oh, and it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on.

The Central Powers had won the war on the Eastern Front, but their long-term prospects on other fronts weren’t looking good, especially after the German Army’s spring offensive on the Western Front had run out of steam.  Well aware of this, King Ferdinand and his advisors, led by former prime minister Ion Bratianu, took the last gamble in town and stuck with Allies – but trod a lot more cautiously than they had done in 1916.  The King refused to ratify the Treaty of Bucharest in public, and Bratianu waited until 10 November, one day before the Armistice took effect, before denouncing the Treaty and again declaring war on the Central Powers.

Annulled by the terms of the Armistice, the Treaty of Bucharest would eventually be replaced by the Treaties of Neuilly and Trianon, which almost doubled the size of post-War ‘Greater Romania’ and more than tripled its 1914 population.  Products of the Paris Peace Conference (and worth more detailed attention on another day), the treaties were easy giveaways for the western Allies because Romania’s territorial claims were all against defeated enemies or the war-torn Soviet Union.

Romania in 1920 – and it’s huge!

Greater Romania temporarily fulfilled nationalist ambitions to unite all the ‘historic’ Romanian lands, so the country could count itself a winner when the swings and roundabouts of wartime diplomacy finally came to a halt. That didn’t make the diplomacy involved any less criminal or its results any less circumstantial, and from any perspective not warped by the poison of nationalism the price of territorial expansion was ridiculously high.

War and the hardships of occupation had killed an estimated 500,000 Romanian civilians, or more than 6% of the 1914 population, by late 1918, and although the economic effects of wartime occupation could be reversed, the regional tensions exacerbated by wartime and post-War diplomacy could not.  Those tensions would resurface when another war put an end to Greater Romania in 1940, and would be a blight on the country’s history for the rest of the century.  If this ramble has a point to make, it’s that small countries can never really be winners of wars run by bigger ones.

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