24 September, 2023
The book ”The insincere ones” was published in 2018 (photo: Vladimir Mitev)

Interview with the researcher from the Institute for Research of History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences about his book “The insincere ones”, which researches the relations between Romania, Bulgaria, Germany and Austro-Hungary on the eve of World War I and about the Romanian-Bulgarian relations today

Vladimir Mitev

Vladimir Zlatarsky (photo: Vladimir Zlatarsky)

Associate professor doctor Vladimir Zlatarsky is a researcher at the Institute for Research of History at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. He studies the history of Bulgaria from the end of the 19th century until the middle of the 20th century through the prism of the international relations. He is a specialist in history of Bulgarian-German and Bulgarian-Austrian relations and in Balkan Studies. He is the author of the monographs “The Reich and the Kingdom. The German presence in Bulgaria (1933-1940) (published in 2014) and “The insincere ones. Bulgaria, Romania and the Central Forces (1913-1914) (published in 2018).

Mr. Zlatarsky, your book “The insincere ones” studies the unsuccessful attempt of Germany, Austro-Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania to create an alliance on the eve of the World War I. As the book’s title suggests, an important reason for the loss of time in the bilateral relations and the unsuccessful connection of the four players is the spirit of mutual distrust, skepticism, fear, suspicion, the different prejudices between nations and most of all between their rulers. What is the vision of the German-speaking countries for the relations between Romania and Bulgaria in 1913-1914? To what extent does a German custodianship over the two countries existed then?

Bulgaria and Romania have a long history of bilateral relations. The first period covers the time from the Liberation of Bulgaria (1878) until 1940, which I call “period of bilateral antagonism”. The modern Romanian state is created a few decades before the Bulgarian state and plays an important role in the liberation struggle of Bulgarians. The activists of the Bulgarian national liberation movement found refuge in Romania. When Bulgaria is established as a tributary state in 1878, a competition between the two countries began. It was weaker as far as Bulgaria is concerned, because Sofia looked in other directions in order to pursue its union vision.

But namely the vastness of the lands, populated by Bulgarians created fear in Romanians, because a Great Bulgaria would have surely been a regional hegemon. This was a role, which the Romanian state wanted to play. Furthermore, Romania wanted a correction of its border in Dobruja. In other words, it wanted expansion in Bulgarian lands. Romanian policy got fixed on Bulgaria, whose rapid ascension created fear in north of the Danube. There was another greater reason for these sentiments, apart from the regional one. Romania was pressed between two empires – the Russian and the Austrian. That is why for Bucharest the Bulgarian-Russian relations were litmus for the attitude towards Sofia. When these relations were bad, the Bulgarian-Romanian relations were good and vice versa. This was explained by the fear Bucharest had felt towards Russia for decades. It is a grounded fear, which has historical reasons, related most of all to the loss of Bessarabia, which was annexed by the Russian empire in 1878. That is why starting from 1883 Romania became secretly a part of the security system of the future Central Forces Austro-Hungary and Germany (only a small circle around the king Karol I knew that).

That is how I reach the second part of your question. I want to refute a myth: that long before the World War I Germany looked for ways to integrate Bulgaria in its sphere of influence. Nothing like that! The German archives show very clear that until the summer of 1914 Berlin wanted no engagement with Bulgaria. Only the looming perspective of war changed this hard-entrenched notion of the German politics. Only then did Germany start to open for the signs, which the Bulgarian government started to emit after its failure in the Second Balkan War. That is why there can be no talk of “German custodianship”, as you called it, with regard to the Bulgarian case. As far as Romania is concerned, it was formally in a secret alliance with Germany and Austro-Hungary. But in the decade before the World War I a major shift in social and political attitudes took place. The idea for return of Bessarabia was replaced by the desire to own the rich and populated mainly by Romanians Transilvania, which was part of Austro-Hungary.

That is what determined the graduate shift of Romania from the Central Forces to the Entente. The insincere Bulgarian-Romanian relations, which were marked by mutually exclusive interests, didn’t matter for the two European blocks of countries. What mattered for them was the determination of both countries after the war has started.

The facts you have gathered show unambiguously that Germany has had a naive and short-sighted politics towards the Balkans before the World War I. Berlin didn’t realize until the last moment that Romania had been moving to the Russian orbit and that it had been disconnecting itself from the military alliance with the Central Forces. Apart from that, the alliance between Greece and the Ottoman Empire, which Berlin tried to achieve, had been utopian for anyone, who knew the region. On the other hand, Austro-Hungary oriented well in the events in South-East Europe. Why did the Germans let themselves be so easily manipulated by the Romanian statesmen and why did they treated so skepticall the Bulgarians in 1913-1914? To what extent the German-speaking world had a correct evaluation for what is going on in the region of South-East Europe then?

In the German-speaking world of those times Vienna was the capital, which had the knowledge and the experience how things worked on the Balkans. Bismarck once said that the problems of the South-East must be resolved by the Austrians, while Germans should support them. On the eve of the World War One the situation was different. There was a complete misunderstanding between Vienna and Berlin on the Balkan problems, especially after the summer of 1913.

Given that Germany was the strong party in the coalition, it lead the common foreign policy in a way, which was a total disappointment for the Dual Monarchy. Berlin put all it hopes on an illusory understanding with Great Britain and pursuing this utopia, they failed to notice a lot of things. Vienna had a clear view: Romania had been irrevocably disconnecting itself from the Central Forces and had been moving towards the Entente, while Sofia, which had suffered disappointment from the lack of Russian support in the Balkan wars was ready to replace Bucharest.

The Vienna diplomacy had been trying to convince kaiser Wilhelm II and the German foreign ministry for months in the need to support Bulgaria, but Berlin rejected, putting its hopes blindly on the Romanian or the Greek option. The development of the World War I showed the correctness of the Austrian evaluations and the fallacy of the German evaluations.

The reason for this confusion was not only the influence of the personal views and preferences of the kaiser, but also the institutional weakness of the foreign ministry in the time, when the state secretary Jagow conducted it. These circles believed in what they wanted to hear and for a long time this situation had been bringing success to the Romanian diplomacy. At the same time the calls of experienced German diplomats for a sober realism remained without effect.

Your book points at an ironic fact from the eve of the World War One. In 1913 and 1914 the Romanian leadership suspects all the time that Sofia, which follows a foreign policy line in support of the Central Forces, will shift the allegiance and will connect with Russia. At the end of the day Bucharest attached itself to Moscow, while Bulgaria remained true to its announced aspirations towards the Central Forces. Both then and today there are strong russophobic attitudes in Romania, but at the end of the day the attachment to the Entente gave Romania the triumph of the big union, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated in 2018. What do Romanians don’t understand correct about Bulgarians and where do Bulgarians make mistake with regard to Romanians, when we speak about politics – one hundred years ago and today?

Both in 1914 and today Bulgaria and Romania are two countries of the European South-East, which have important location, but don’t have the scale to achieve their goals alone. Bulgaria’s attempt to resolve its problems with one hit in 1913 against the warnings of the international community ended in a catastrophe. Romania was pressed by the neighbouring empires and it was unthinkable to undertake alone any action. In order to achieve their goals Romanians and Bulgarians needed international support. They needed to find the niche in the relations between the Great Powers, which will let them resolve their issues.

As I already said, a change of attitudes took place in Romania on the eve of the World War I: the Transilvanian issue replaced the Bessarabian one. That is why Romania joined the block, which promised it Transilvania, and in August 1916 it entered in the war on the side of the Entente. Bulgaria wantsed to return what it had lost in Macedonia and chose the block, which promised it – the Central Forces. The country joined them in September 1915. So both Sofia and Bucharest acted in accordance with their national interests, in order to make this difficult choice.

We can’t judge the events only by the final result. It is the task of the historian to try to look through the prism of the people, who have taken decisions in the respective period, and not to be led by what happened. At the end of the day, Romania turned out to be on the winning side. But until the autumn of 1918 nobody dared to think that. Then Romania was occupied, it had signed a catastrophic peace treaty. Bulgaria was in the other extremity then: it had accomplished its goals, being united in its ethnic borders. A month later everything was reversed, because the war was resolved by the Great Powers.

What hinders the countries of South-East Europe to realise massive cross-border cooperation today? In the last years the leaders of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece make regular summits, where they wish for the development of infrastructural connections, but never announce concrete projects with provided funds or deadlines for their completion…

We have great traditions of “not-liking” the other on the Balkans. The stereotypes are very strong here, including because the states themselves support this line. The history of the Balkans is a symbol. It is the source of national self-confidence for the people here. Given that the mutual connections in history have been predominantly those of violence and injustice, distrust has strong place in the collective memory. It is difficult to overcome that completely. But let us not forget something else: today connectedness, openness and freedom, which are given by the European Union, are a given for the generation, which is growing will not want to lose these givens. Bulgarians and Romanians travel easily through the Danube. They know each other with their own eyes and not through the prism of somebody else. This is a natural development. Today the Bulgarian-Romanian relations are good, including because the territorial problems between the two countries were resolved in a just way. But history remains important, because it gives the frames and the lessons. People want to know it and should to that in order to have orientation. This is the task of my book “The insincere ones”.

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