The introduction to the ”military“ had a educating-civilising effect on the ”primitive“ farming people of Bulgaria, whose political elite could only be called its (too) soon matured “outgrowth”, as is evident from Mackensen’s exposition about the qualities and mission of the Bulgarian Tsar, who was of German descent:
“It may not always have been easy for the highly educated, sensitive and farsighted ruler to accept the customs, mistrust and primitive narrowness of the Bulgarian peasantry and its political hothouse plants of Sofia, but he had become an educator of his people. The Officer School in Sofia was one of his instruments for this.“ (Mackensen. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, p. 250)
From the point of view of Mackensen and other German officers on the conditions in the Balkans, the military was deemed to be a synonym for order, culture, civilization; opposed to this was the stereotype of the “warlike” and “primitive”, which stood for asymmetry, violent encroachments, chaos and lack of culture.
Mackensen’s and Seeck’s view of the Balkan theatre of war, the coalition war, the allies, the local population and finally also the (war) landscape was shaped by multiple factors. Thus, Seeckt’s interest in ancient literature, art and philosophy as well as his earlier travel experiences in the European south, Egypt and India played a role. The private character of his correspondence necessitated the intent to entertain of the letters, the captured impressions purely expressed the personal perception of the foreign. In this way, he tried to escape the one-sided view induced by the war:
”I just cannot get out of the habit of beholding land and people and viewing these as a product of nature and of trying to see not only battlefields in mountains and expanses, but also a piece of world’s beauty.“ (Seeckt, Aus meinem Leben, p. 230)
Nevertheless, he was aware that the war brought together these “here so involuntarily converging worlds” (Seeckt, Aus meinem Leben, p. 141), the involuntary stands, here, at the same time succinct and telling, for the dark side of the (war) travel experience. Orientation was provided for both authors through expectations and predispositions that were not always connected to their own immediate lived experience. Thus emerge, in Mackensen, views that were formed and solidified long before the war, that, according to his account, were taken from reports he read, and that he connected to the contemporary friend-foe opposition in the Balkans, for example when he compared the Romanians and the Bulgarians:
”They have very little in common as people, have very different characteristics […]. Morally, the Bulgarian is far above the Romanian. But these have progressed further culturally. The Romanian is for appearance, the Bulgarian for being. The Europeanisation of the former is therefore more external, in the case of the Bulgarians only beginning, but seeking the basis. The Romanian has Parisian passions, the Bulgarian German [ones].“ (Mackensen. Briefe und Aufzeichnungen, p. 324)
For both writers, however, the foreign-own opposition, which underlay both Mackensen’s and Seeckt’s impressions, was constantly present. In the end, on the (war) trip, one yearned finally for return: “Someone said recently, we would all long for the beauty of this country again. […] not I, I would long for sand and pines […]” (Seeckt, Aus meinem Leben, p. 362).
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Petrova, Deniza: „Not a Central European Theatre of War“: The Balkans as a Cultural and Travel Experience in the Notes and Letters of August von Mackensen and Hans von Seeckt 1915-1918 (2015), URL: http://www.mwme.eu/essays/index.html
Translated by Brier Field (Freie Universität Berlin)
Deniza Petrova, M.A. (Freie Universität Berlin)
Mrs. Petrova is writing a dissertation at the Freie Universität Berlin. She researches the Bulgarian memory culture surrounding the First World War through the example of the Tutrakan fortress.