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015 Carol I and a crowned night’s rest

Carol I

Carol I

Romanians pass by Hohenzollern

It is Sunday 4 October 1914. It is the 15th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

Both warring parties in the west try to manoeuvre around each other as if they are involved in a Race to the Sea.

The allies in Cameroon take the initiative.

The German cruiser Emden is mooring on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. Its inhabitants are not even aware there is a war going on.

Antwerp has to surrender to the Germans and British marines commanded by Winston Churchill hurriedly leave the town.

A new flood of a quarter of a million Belgian refugees starts to move towards France and the Netherlands.

The Austrian offensive in Galicia comes to a standstill.

The Boer general Manie Maritz sides with Germany, but other South African leaders such as Louis Botha and Jan Smuts remain loyal to the British.

The French general Ferdinand Foch takes on the defence of Flanders.

In the Pacific Ocean Japanese forces conquer the Marshall Islands, part of German New Guinea.

During the cabinet crisis in Italy war minister Grandi resigns.

And in Romania a native German breathes his last, king Carol I.

In the opening phase of the First World War it becomes painfully clear to the king of Romania that he and his people are not on the same line.

Carol I is of German descent, as betrayed by the architectural style of Peleș Castle, the summer residence which he had ordered to be built in the high mountains. Carol I even has Hohenzollern behind his name, just like the emperor of Germany. It is obvious then that Carol’s sympathy goes to the Central Powers, whereas the still young Romanian nation is to a large extent culturally influenced by France. Besides Romania has a disagreement with the German ally Austria-Hungary. This disagreement is called Transylvania. It is part of Hungary, but ethnically to a great degree Romanian. So a border readjustment would be quite welcome to Bucharest.

Without any publicity Carol has strengthened the bonds with Austria-Hungary in the preceding years. A treaty, secretly concluded in 1883, was prolonged in 1913 without ratification by parliament. In any case Vienna and Berlin count on Bucharest. But just like Italy Romania will not suit the action to the German word. We can only guess if this has initiated Carol’s death on 10 October 1914. There is no doubt, however, that this has spoilt his final days considerably. It is rumoured that he even thought of abdicating when he was 75, but his death came sooner anyway.

In August 1916 Romania will take part in the First World War after all, be it on the allied side. By then Carol I has been wrapped in eternal sleep within the monastery walls for a long time. The plunge into the global bloodbath receives the blessing of Ferdinand, Carol’s far less wayward successor. Just as Bulgaria chooses for the Central Powers because it wants Macedonia, Romania reports to the allied countries hoping to get Transylvania. It is land grab of a dubious nature. Leaders of government of second-class countries do not consider the European carnage as a reason to maintain neutrality. Romania will pay a high price when it is trampled underfoot by German boots, but in the end it will haul in the loot it has been after. In Versailles in 1919 Transylvania is transferred from Hungary to Romania.


Let us proceed now to the House of Hohenzollern, the one of the German emperor and the Romanian king. The name Hohenzollern reminds one of Prussia, but the cradle of the family can be found in the south of Germany. The castle of Hohenzollern is located high up near the town of Hechingen. After various illustrious kings of Prussia, Frederick the Great being the most prominent one, eventually in 1871 a Hohenzollern becomes emperor of the finally united Germany. It is Wilhelm I, grandfather of Wilhelm II. The Second Reich is born.

The first empire, the Holy Roman Empire, had existed for almost a millenium when Napoleon put an end to it in 1806. ‘Holy’ referred to the papal assent, which had not always been taken for granted. ‘Roman’ referred to the Romans. But the Holy Roman Empire was certainly not the powerhouse that had once been built in Rome. It was definitely not an empire, but a patchwork of small and slightly bigger states. An emperor was at the head. For the past few centuries it had always been someone  from the Austrian house of Habsburg. But the central power of this emperor, who was always elected by prince-electors, was limited.

The Holy Roman Empire had no uniform legislation. Each emperor imposed his own taxes. And there was no question at all of a united holy-roman army. The French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire is the spiritual father of the apt characterization that the Holy Roman Empire was not Holy and not Roman and certainly no Empire.

After the Holy Roman Empire was shut down, the German discord remained intact for a considerable part of the nineteenth century. The call for German unification came, strange as it may sound, from left-liberal circles. Conservative forces held on to their  princedoms, which were often governed autocratically.

In this colourful German family the Prussian nephew got the upper hand in the nineteenth century. The proclamation of the Prussian king as German emperor in 1871 was the climax of this success story. Also the branch of the family that had remained closer to the South German cradle, the Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen region, had passed on its sovereignty to the distant relative in Prussia.

Then the throne in Spain had become available. Leopold, a Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, was to be pushed forward by the Iron Chancellor Otto von Bismarck in 1870 as the new Spanish king. That will never happen, a German in Madrid, said the French emperor Napoleon III. All the fuss appeared to be enough for Leopold to give up Spain. But Bismarck was not interested in the vacancy in Madrid. The diplomatic conflict was to him a reason to start a war against France and to get all Germans under one banner after the Prussian victory, that of the Hohenzollerns.

Leopold had a brother who did become king four years earlier. That particular brother was Carol I. A cheering crowd of people greeted him in Bucharest in 1866. A nation in the making deserved a fresh monarch and Berlin had one on offer. It had been quite a job for Carol to reach Romania. In 1866 the war between Austria and Prussia was raging. Bismarck needed this war for his big plan, just as he had needed the war with the Danish two years earlier. In this Danish conflict Carol had taken an active part on the side of the Prussians and the Austrians. Then, in 1866, the two German tribes had fallen out with each other.

Therefore the German Karl Eitel Friedrich Zephyrinus Ludwig von Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen had to make the train journey across Austrian territory incognito in order to settle at the head of Romania. The country had only four years earlier been formed from Wallachia and Moldova. Alexander John Cuza had centralistically carried through a series of liberal reforms in the style of Napoleon III. To the dissatisfaction of the middle classes and the large landowners his new Romania, however, gradually got into financial problems. Cuza was forced to sign his abdication as monarch, after which he disappeared into captivity.

In 1866, the year when Karl was welcomed as Domnitor and changed his name into Carol, Romania was still under the influence of the Ottoman Empire. The primacy of foreign policy was in Constantinople. This would be ended at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Bismarck convened this congress to reshuffle some cards in Europe after a war between the Russians and the Turks. Romania, which had secretly been rubbing against the Russians in the preceding years, presented itself afterwards as a fully fledged player on the world stage.

Carol I, whose Romanian troops had joined the Russian army, was recorded in history as the founding father of modern Romania. Now his popularity could use a shot in the arm. In the Franco-Prussian war he had submitted to Bismarck’s party. And even then this German predilection was not favourably received by all Romanians. Their language was not related to German but to French.

Meanwhile internally corruption was rampant. Despite an abundance of oil the country had not succeeded in building an infrastructure according to western standards. Without a doubt Bucharest had its charm, but there were slums everywhere along streets that had no pavements. There was an atmosphere of oriental lawlessness. Both men and women were dedicated users of cosmetics. The orthodox church allowed three divorces, as long as both parties were in agreement.

Carol, the German, must have felt a stranger in his own kingdom. What kind of man was he? Severe, conscientious and dutiful. According to his wife he slept with his crown on his head, but this must have been poetic freedom from her part. Elisabeth zu Wied, who was also of German descent, had a career as a poetess, whose pen name was Carmen Sylva. She easily wrote in German, Romanian, French and English. Elisabeth was an excentric character, who confided to her diary that a republic was to be preferred to a monarchy. She had been offered Albert Edward, Prince of Wales, as marriage partner, but the British heir to the throne had pushed her aside on the basis of photos shown to him.

The marriage to Carol which she then contracted was far from  happy, though towards the end of it they must have come to some sort of understanding. But they were complete opposites. Her only child Maria, lovingly called Mariechen, had died of scarlet fever at the age of three. Elisabeth had the admonition of Jesus from Luke’s gospel put on Mariechens grave: ‘Stop crying, for she is not dead, but asleep’. Romania’s throne was not to be granted to Maria anyway. The constitution from 1866 was generally speaking quite liberal, but only permitted succession by paternal descent.

It was Carol’s firm intention to anchor his dynasty tightly in Romanian soil. His brother Leopold’s son Ferdinand came on the screen for this purpose. At some stage Elisabeth decided to pair him off with Elena Vacarescu, one of her ladies-in-waiting. It turned into an affair, for the law required a monarch to find a wife outside Romania. For punishment Elisabeth was sent into exile in Germany. Ferdinand was to marry Marie of Edinburgh, a granddaughter of the British Queen Victoria.


A native German Carol I had led his Romanian subjects for no fewer than 48 years, sometimes with the utmost severity. The liberal reforms of his predecessor and the sympathy for social-democracy which his wife had felt were unknown to him. He had crushed a peasant revolt in Moldova in 1907 at the expense of thousands of lives.

In 1914 he could not get his people on his side on the road to Germany. Whatever way you look at it, this was finally a good moment to give in.

Next week: Sir Robert Borden

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)


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