The descriptions of military life, tactical troop movements and combat occupy the most space in August Dänzer’s personal testimonials. The portrayals of military operations are primarily kept factual and objective, however many include evaluations, and mostly positive ones.
Despite the strains of the advancing winter, long marches and day-long ordnance shortages, August Dänzer, like most of the German military in the Romanian campaign, exhibited a high level of readiness for combat. In comparison to the anonymous, uncontrollable trench warfare of the West, he preferred the fighting in the southeast, a theater of war largely led as maneuver warfare that conceded the soldiers a large radius of action. Dänzer, who served from April to September 1916 on the Western Front and took part in the Verdun Offensive before relocating to Transylvania, spoke with relief to have left the western theater of war behind him.
What is striking is the lack of an enemy stereotype for the Romanians. Romania’s betrayal within the Triple Alliance was emphasized in the German press and the enemy’s image was central to this. However, Dänzer’s construction of meaning around the war included no such concept or stereotype. In his descriptions of the opponents, Dänzer clearly places less importance on their belonging to the enemy nation as on their general identity as soldiers. Accordingly Dänzer demonstrates sympathy, understanding and respect in regards to the adversarial soldiers.
The significant space that the descriptions of combat procedures occupy in the letters and diary entries, as well as the positive evaluations of them, attest to how Dänzer saw maneuver warfare operations primarily as tasks which were to be carried out with skill and precision. According to Dänzer’s perspective, this brought joy in addition to the danger and suspense. The extensive, calculated and tactical entries, the praising commentaries and the hunting metaphors that Dänzer applied to the mobile warfare in Transylvania and Romania speak to this. Additionally, the radius of action in maneuver warfare enabled recognition and honor in the form of medals - Dänzer writes exhaustively about this as he is rewarded with the iron cross 1st class.
Surely the thoroughly positive connotations of combat procedures also had something to do with the fact that the recipients of these letters were none other than Dänzer’s parents, whom he did not wish to frighten or depress. Naturally, then, the few passages in which the brutality of war comes through are found only in diary entries. Yet, even in these descriptions, the approving accounts of combat dominate.
August Dänzer is characterized first and foremost by his marked will to master the task given to him as artillery officer as best he can. This paramount driving force for his conduct manifests itself during the maneuver warfare at Siret from January to April of 1917, when Dänzer’s testimonials exhibit frustration for the first time in an explicit regression to the interpretive pattern of “perseverance”.
Perception of land and people
In addition to combat descriptions, portrayals of landscapes and people figure largely in August Dänzer’s letters, and, to a certain extent, also in his dairies. Dänzer’s personal testimonials show a thoroughly open, touristic view of Transylvania and Romania that avoided generalizations and that was not defined by the common images of the enemy circulated in the press. Still his observations were characterized by the conviction of German supremacy with respect to Romanian circumstances.
It becomes clear that the Romanian campaign opened a new world to August Dänzer, a world to which he previously had no mental or cultural connection to. With Romania’s entry into war, many German members of the military came, for the first time, into direct contact with this region. The conquerors encountered an agrarian population whose language, customs and practices were unknown to them. The troops reacted to these circumstances in their new operational field in accordance with their previous experience on the East and Southeastern Fronts or lack thereof: while some described the arrival as downright culture-shock, the others drew comparisons to the Russian Front and Serbia and often favored the new service area. August Dänzer belonged to this group; in addition to France and Tyrol, he had already been active in Serbia and Macedonia. Dänzer consistently assessed the Romanian circumstances in comparison to those in Serbia, whereby his comparisons repeatedly turn out to advantage Romania. In relation to the settlements of the Transylvanian Saxons, Dänzer primarily drew parallels to his Freiburg home.
August Dänzer fundamentally displays a feeling of cultural supremacy over the population in Romania. In this sense he represents an attitude that was just as common among the German public as well as among the younger officers and teams. This stance, however, was not a hate-infused ideology, but rather a conviction that the peoples were dissimilar from one another. Additionally this was not an attitude that was unique to the Germans, but rather detectable in all western nations at this time. The example of August Dänzer testifies that the feeling of being superior could be reconciled with genuine interest and nuanced observations.
Through their perceptual and interpretative patterns, August Dänzer’s letters and diaries represent some central experiences of German soldiers in Transylvania and Romania during the First World War. Specifically, Dänzer’s testimonials evince his pride about his practice of the art of warfare in the artillery as well as the distinct joy of getting to know new countries within the context of war.
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Glenn E. Torrey, The Romanian battlefront in World War I, Kansas 2011.
Gahlen, Gundula: “It is proceeding merrily down there and the Alps corps in particular has done some nice work.” - The letters and diaries of Lieutenant-Colonel August Dänzer from his time in Transylvania and Romania 1916/17 (2015), URL: http://www.mwme.eu/essays/index.html
Translated by Westrey Page (Freie Universität Berlin)
Dr Gundula Gahlen (Freie Universität Berlin)
Dr Gahlen is a research associate at the Freie Universität in Berlin and currently works on 'Mentally Traumatized Officers of World War One in Germany'. From 2007 to 2011, within the scope of a DFG research project, she analyzed the experience of German soldiers in the Romanian Campaign.