Systematic Extraction: Exploitation of Romania during the First World War

by Brian Jenkins

Source: Wikipedia

Queen Marie visits a hospitalized soldier, 1917.

“There is no suffering that my people have not been called upon to endure, no fear, no sorrow, no pain–every misery, both moral and physical, had to be borne at once.”
-Queen Marie of Romania

Sitting helplessly by as her home and capital city fall to the rule of foreign armies, Queen Marie of Romania laments the agony of her people: an agony that reaches every corner of the country, and touches every part of the human existence. Occupation of eastern European territories by the Central Powers through the course of the First World War involved a series of despotic abuses, including forced migrations, economic exploitation, and cultural hegemony—not to mention the profound personal impact of loved ones lost and homes destroyed. In occupied Romania, such maltreatment included the systematic extraction of the people’s resources, mostly oil and grain, to fuel the German war machine. It is this story of abuse, theft, and exploitation that I hope to share with you. Romanians’ experiences under occupation ultimately show a lack of agency; indeed, Romanians were ill-equipped fighters and helpless perpetuators of the German war effort as their resources were coercively extracted from the country. In full view of this injustice, however, a story of solidarity and the progression of Romanian national consciousness also emerges.


To understand the significance of Romania’s unity in wartime, it is pragmatic to observe the progress of Romanian national consciousness in a broader context. A useful source for this is the book War, Revolution, and Society in Romania: The Road to Independence edited by Ilie Ceausescu (Boulder, CO: Social Science Monographs, 1983). Though the majority of the text discusses the evolution of the Romanian nationalism in a military context, much of the book is useful in understanding the prolonged emergence of Romanian identity and solidarity through shared hardships. The most significant chapter for our current perspective is titled “The Romanian Army and Society, 1878-1920” by Stefan Pascu (pp. 241-259). In addition to his analysis of Romanian military strategy, Pascu highlights many of the societal and economic aspects of Romania’s World War I experience, including the rising Romanian nationalism in Transylvania (a region occupied by Austria-Hungary prior to and during the First World War) and the country’s financial and economic exhaustion incurred during occupation (p. 251-252).

For the case of Romania, and I daresay many other countries, the newly published Cambridge History of the First World War, edited by Jay Winter, provides an impressively comprehensive and balanced account of the great conflict (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014). Diving beyond political and military developments, this three-volume work highlights many aspects that other overviews miss, including the Romanian nation’s nuanced political convictions and its economic devastation.

There are three sections of the Cambridge History that are most useful in exploring the Romanian account of World War I: “The Eastern Front” by Holger Afflerbach, “Diplomacy” by Georges-Henri Soutou, and “Neutrality” by Samuel Kruizinga (vol. 1, pp. 234-265; vol. 2, pp. 495-541; vol. 2, pp. 542-575, respectively). Together, they tell of a cautious Romanian nation, poorly equipped and mostly uninterested in—even fearful of—entering the war. Each explains the country’s tenuous relationship with Austria-Hungary, a strained diplomacy involving both supportive treaties and second-hand sabotage that made Romania’s ultimate stance with the Triple Entente simultaneously profound and unsurprising  (Romania had joined the Triple Alliance in 1883, but Austria-Hungary supported Romania’s enemies during the second Balkan War in 1913; see vol. 2, p. 546). When the vast majority of Romania fell to the Central Powers only a month after the country’s declaration of war, heedless imperialism and abuse of resources began.

Continuing trends initiated by modern historiography, some recent scholarship on Romania in the First World War successfully explores the experiences of the average Romanian, including their economic experiences. Rather than focusing exclusively on the roles and actions of events’ major players (an ancient practice and the shortcoming of so many historians), many modern historians have made an intentional shift toward the perspective of the everyman. One such historian is David Hamlin.

Perhaps the most concise and comprehensive source available on the wartime exploitation of the Romanian nation is David Hamlin’s article titled ’Dummes Geld’: Money, Grain, and the Occupation of Romania” (Central European History 42 (2009): pp. 451-471). Hamlin chronicles Romania’s shift from obstinate reservoir, to unwilling supplier, to forced donor. In 1914 and 1915, Romania refused to sell substantial quantities of grain to Germany. By the beginning of 1916, the ostensive momentum of Central Powers’ campaigns led to the Romanians’ agreement to contacts amounting to 2.7 million tons of grain (p. 453). Even then, however, Germany required more to prevent a detrimental famine. Hamlin exposes the Central Powers’ vulnerable position, with Austria Hungary on the “verge of capitulation” and Germany facing a “troubling” resource shortage (p. 451). This is the stage on which Romania declared war. Following the Romanian military’s swift defeat, however, Germany readily enacted its proactively drafted “orderly exploitation” of the country (p. 456). Hamlin’s source is a unique and notable change of pace for most scholarship on the exploitation of Romania because he explains this “orderly exploitation” in detail, chronicling the Germans’ rigorous and meticulous extraction of Romanian resources through deception of the Romanian population, while most historians who study the topic tend to focus on the German abuse of oil reserves. Hamlin explains that Germany had proactively established an “Economic Staff” that determined how Romania could be most exhaustively exploited, and proceeds to expose the significance of Germany’s role in the Romanian bank system. German officials forced the Romanians to print more of their own currency, with which Germany (sometimes) paid for its imports. Indeed, Hamlin’s account shows exactly how the breadbasket of eastern Europe found itself entrenched in famine (p. 470).

Click here to read this NYT article on ProQuest.

Scanned title of original NYT article.

Across the Atlantic

In 1918, the New York Times published two articles that bear witness to Romania’s difficulties. On March 15, 1918, the Times published a letter written to the paper’s editor by Senator of Romania Gogo Negulescu, under the title, “Peace Terms for Rumania: Central Powers Conspire to Crush the Small Nation by Heavy Penalties Imposed” (accessed 19 November, 2014). Both the content and the audience of this article are intriguing and valuable. Addressing an American audience, Negulescu explains Romania’s dire situation and almost defends its reasons for accepting the Central Powers’ abusive and undesirable peace terms. Negulescu implies that Romania’s agency has been brutally stripped away: If Romania is a man, Negulescu says, then the Central Powers have cut off his hands. In light of the Romania’s “unforeseen circumstances”—military defeat drastically exacerbated by famine—Romanian officials were “forced” to accept the terms offered.

Click here to read this NYT article on ProQuest.

Scanned title of original NYT article.

Another New York Times article, titled “Rumanian Spoils Equal Indemnity: Grip on Future Harvests,” reports on statements from Germany’s Foreign Secretary regarding the advantage achieved through abuse of Romanian resources (accessed 19 November, 2014). Published on May 25, 1918, after the signing of the exploitive peace terms Negulescu addressed, the article quotes German Foreign Secretary Dr. von Kühlmann, who claims that the German extraction of Romanian grain gives him some “confidence” that the German food shortage would be resolved. In pursuit of Germany’s health and military advantage, Romania would bear the burden of famine in Germany’s stead. The labor and food of the Romanian population fueled the German war machine while Romania itself starved. Indeed, Romania’s defeat and subsequent exploitation prolonged the Great War.


Click here to see this image on Wikipedia.

Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg, Chancellor of Germany.

An indispensible source for understanding the Romanian perspective during World War I (or almost any country, for that matter) is The Great Events of the Great War, edited by Charles F. Horne (published by the National Alumni, 1920; publication city not given). It’s a comprehensive record of statements from the “chief officials” and “eminent leaders” of many European states through the course of the war, offering a unique compilation of compelling primary sources. Most significant to the Romanian story of exploitation are the sections titled “Rumania Joins the Allies (Aug. 27): Her Army Invades Hungary” and “Rumania Rallies in her Mountains (Dec. 6): The Capture of Bucharest,” which can be found on pages 314-322 and 391-403, respectively.

In the former, Chancellor of Germany von Bethmann-Hollweg writes of Romania’s apparent indebtedness to Austria-Hungary for three decades of “political security” and “wonderful economic development,” which ostensibly necessitates Romania’s support of the Central Powers. This could help explain some of the Central Powers’ motivations–or excuses–for engaging in such drastic abuse of the Romanian economy.

In the latter, a striking source from the well-liked Queen Marie of Romania illuminates the deep hardship experienced across the country during occupation. Recounting the pangs of defeat and occupation as she experiences them in tandem with her people, Marie’s account from just a few months after the fall of Bucharest is a unique and fascinating perspective. The Queen claims that she has travelled wherever possible in the country to grieve with her people and visit with soldiers on the front lines; this source is a culmination of those journeys and her latest concerns. Queen Marie states that Romania is “completely isolated” from its allies and has been forced to endure “unheard-of” hardships. In the months immediately following Romania’s military defeat, Queen Marie writes that “hunger came and sickness and death in every form” just as “all our stores, our hoarded treasures, our food, corn and oil had been torn from us by the rapid advance of the foe” (p. 397). One development that the Queen sees as immensely powerful and encouraging, however, is the unification of the Romanian nation as it endures such difficulties together.

Closing Thoughts

As the closing battles of Europe’s Great War raged across the continent, the Romanian population experienced drastic economic abuse by the Central Powers. Led by Germany, Romania’s enemies extracted agrarian resources and oil while also manipulating the country’s currency. Results of such exploitation were more than economic; Romania, once the breadbasket of eastern Europe, was driven into widespread famine by its German oppressors. Though the Romanians experienced deep hardships brought on by the Central Powers’ abuse, their difficulties encouraged unity and produced a more potent national consciousness. I hope you’ll explore these sources further, and discover within them other valuable stories worth remembering.