This is one of a series about memoirs, novels, and poems authored by combatants of the First World War. All page numbers shown below refer to Hans Carossa, A Roumanian Diary, New York: Alfred Knopf, 1930.
Hans Carossa’s Roumanian Diary is a somber yet lyrical account by a medical officer with the German army. He was also a published poet, an explorer of deep levels of interior life. The book sometimes frustrated me as I sought external points of orientation. Yet it transported me to a place magically remote that called to mind old-fashioned tales for children, the kind that would have woodblock illustrations of a woodcutter in the forest, a hunchbacked peasant, or a little hut with a puffing chimney beside a stream.
It begins October 4, 1916 in France and ends December 15, 1916 in the mountains of Transylvania. The edition I have, a handsomely printed hardbound, contains no preface. There is nothing to explain why these three months were chosen out of what must have been a longer journal—Carossa noted his perpetual need to leave words behind him as a trail of breadcrumbs. And no background is given about his personal circumstances or about the historical situation of the Romanian campaign of the First World War.
So as I began reading, I felt as though I’d walked into a movie half an hour after it started. I puzzled through the references to “Vally” and “Wilhelm,” finally determining they were Carossa’s wife and son. Adding to the mystery, he often writes about his dreams, so we drift between the real and the unreal. It didn’t help that I knew next to nothing about the Romanian campaign. I consulted history sources and looked at maps. Carossa mentions many place-names. I could find only one or two of them on any maps. This is either because these villages are too small to appear or because the army of Germany, as Austria-Hungary’s ally, used maps with Hungarian versions of place-names since replaced by Romanian.* That is related to the central reason for Romania’s participation in the war: its determination to wrest Transylvania from its place in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Transylvania was populated mainly by ethnic Romanians.
Romania didn’t enter the war until 1916, and it might have fought on either side. When the war started, King Carol I of Hohenzollern wanted to participate as an ally of Austria-Hungary, while the Romanian populace mostly favored an alliance with the Triple Entente.
King Carol died and was succeeded October 1914 by King Ferdinand I, who was married to the Princess Marie of Edinburgh. With her influence added to diplomatic persuasion from Britain, Romania signed a pact with the Allies August 17, 1916, and declared war on Austria-Hungary August 27. In accordance with the cascading effect of WWI alliances, Germany declared war on Romania the next day, and that was swiftly followed by parallel declarations of war by Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. Russia became Romania’s most important ally, providing troops of many origins: Carossa mentions Ukrainians and Kirghiz. Bosnian troops assisted on the Central Powers side.
As Roumanian Diary opens, Carossa is at the Somme with the 19th regiment of the Bavarian Infantry Reserve (as I learned from other sources). A 36-year old physician, he serves as medical officer of his battalion.
The Allies had assumed that Germany would be too involved at the Somme and with the Brusilov Offensive in the Ukraine to send troops to Romania. But after Romania attacked Austro-Hungarian troops in Transylvania, Germany sent in eight divisions and an Alpine Corps under the command of General Erich von Falkenhayn. Bavarian divisions were included because they were considered suitable for mountain warfare.
At the Somme, Carossa receives orders indicating that a transfer is imminent, but the destination is kept secret. The order for innoculations against cholera tips him off that they will shift to the Eastern Front. Soon a rumor circulates that it will be Romania. On roads clogged with troops, they march to Aubigny-sur-Bac, east of Arras, and board a train.
I would have thought that a transfer from Western to Eastern Front would occasion ruminations about contrasts in combat environments, or at least about the immediate escape from the nightmare of trench warfare. But Carossa doesn’t write about that, and he didn’t add anything along those lines when the diary was prepared for publication in the 1920s. He focuses throughout on small daily incidents and personal acquaintances.
One of those acquaintances is a man in his battalion identified only as “Glavina.” We learn that Carossa shares the duty of censoring outgoing letters and has become familiar with Glavina’s thoughts through what he writes home. As the battalion prepares to leave France, Carossa writes in his diary, “No letter can be passed which gives any hint of our coming departure. Almost involuntarily I looked for the bold, clear writing of young Glavina, who often writes such wonderful letters to his friends.” (6)
It gradually becomes clear that Carossa forms a deep attachment to this young man, whom he sees as a kindred spirit, a fellow inquirer into the deeper truths of life. And yet, strangely enough, it is not an actual friendship. Later on, in Romania, Carossa writes, “To-day I could not get Glavina out of my mind; he must be breathing at the bottom of that misty sea [the fog-shrouded valley where they are camped] where the moon penetrates only as a pale silvery radiance. I would like to read one of his sentences again, or to speak with him; but he is inaccessibly shy, and his letters no longer pass through my hands.” (70) Carossa remains a silent admirer, finding something consoling in the very existence of this idealistic young soldier, a brightness that sustains him amidst the ugliness of war.
As I see it, his acquaintance with Glavina, and the latter’s eventual death, form the actual framework of Roumanian Diary. This explains why the published diary cuts off abruptly at a date long before Carossa’s service actually ended.
The Bavarian troops trundle eastward by rail through Germany, Austria, and Hungary, bypassing the cafes and the sights of Budapest, much to the troops’ disappointment. They enter Transylvania at Arad, one of the few recognizable place-names in Carossa’s account. As they continue east, they encounter refugees fleeing the conflict. Three children had found a live hand-grenade and accidentally touched it off, wounding themselves and killing their mother. They are carried in stretchers, trailed by their wailing grandmother. By chance, at that moment, “The sun had all at once cleared the mists, and lit up a high mountain which struck us all with amazement. Its lower slopes were of a bleached green intersected by rocks, then came a narrow girdle of fir trees, which looked as if it had been carefully fitted round, and above that soared a mighty peak of glittering snow… dare I admit that in a second the heart-rending sight of the three wounded children was blotted out?” (26)
In the remote villages of the Transylvanian mountains, the houses are all painted the same shade of blue, with steeply pitched roofs “notched unequally like saws.” (31) The soldiers settle near a village where “people returning from Sunday Mass with enormous prayer-books under their arms came flocking from all sides, the men hesitatingly, the women with an airy and confident step. The latter… suddenly darted into their houses and brought back baskets of fruit and pitchers of milk.” (32) The village men start bartering for tobacco, and “one soldier got a dozen eggs for three cigarettes, and another a fat goose for two packets of pipe tobacco.” (33) To the tune of folksongs played by the regimental band, soldiers and girls dance together on the village green.
But now they approach the furthest extent of hostilities, and they see harsh results of the conflict. An elderly woman, naked to the waist and evidently insane, hurls clods of dirt at them—apparently men in her family, serving as frontier guards, were killed by Romanian troops, and she makes no distinctions between sides in her howling at the world. A bit further on they encounter a wounded Romanian soldier, his face swaddled in bloodsoaked bandages. Carossa stops to give him a fresh bandage, observing that fellow members of his unit cruelly laugh at the man.
By the time Carossa and his comrades arrived at their destination in late October, much had already transpired. The fighting had started immediately upon Romania’s declaration of war with its offensive against Austro-Hungarian border units. Germany swiftly moved in with a counterattack starting September 18, clashing with Romanians at Sibiu and pushing them south to the spine of the Fagaras Mountains. There they battled at the Turnu Rosu (Red Tower) and Vulcan passes. Fighting continued there until late November, when the Romanians were forced into the plains south toward Bucharest. One noteworthy figure present at Vulcan Pass was Lieutenant Erwin Rommel of the Wuerttenberg Mountain Corps, the future field marshal.
Carossa’s battalion fought in the Csik Mountains, further east. You won’t find the name of those mountains anywhere in his book. But it’s possible to deduce from two or three references that they fought at the headwaters of the Maros (Mures) River, near Gymes Pass. They had followed the long course of the Maros from Arad as it winds across Transylvania. Of course, Carossa doesn’t speak of regions or campaigns but prefers to talk about individual mountains and individual soldiers.
Carossa’s mountains offer scenes of beauty, though their scree slopes and forests are filled with corpses. “The mountain we climbed was a mountain of blindness and death…. Like a swarm of hornets the shells dashed against the rocks, tearing the flesh from the limbs of the living and dead.” (90)
His entries for November 25-28 describe a different kind of cruelty. A 15-year-old boy acting as an attendant to the unit is instructed to destroy a motherless litter of kittens in a house where the soldiers are resting behind the lines. He takes them one by one and hurls them against the wall of a shed, then returns to the kitchen whistling a tune, unconcerned. One of the kittens survives, gets up, and totters forward with blood dripping from its chin, eventually arriving at the table where its would-be murderer is eating. The boy sees it and offers it food, suddenly overcome by remorse. Over the next days, a growing circle of people attend to it, now all intent that it should survive. It alternately nibbles at its food and tries to wash itself or to nap, growling softly in its sleep. They give it the name of “Matchka.” Carossa places it next to his feet and watches over it, observing a unique dignity in this insignificant animal. But it dies, and the boy who had earlier tried to kill it kneels beside the small corpse and weeps.
Late one day of fierce battle, Carossa walks the stony side of a mountain, attending to the wounded. He finds Glavina, leaning against a granite block: “He was still breathing, but on his face already was the prescient look of the dead…. Fighting down our sorrow and apprehension, we searched for the wound and found at last a tiny splinter driven into the nape of the neck. Soon his breathing ceased.” Carossa finds next to Glavina “a few closely written sheets of paper, which must have fallen out of his pocket.” (91)
Whenever he has a spare moment, Carossa studies these writings. Glavina had composed a poetic text, a call for the survival of spirit in the face of death. One afternoon as the battalion stops for rest in a village, Carossa sits and quietly murmurs the text to himself as if memorizing a sacred text. Noticing that others are listening, he explains that it was found on the dead soldier Glavina, and reads it from its beginning in a clear voice. Its first line goes: “Let us build up a cairn on the mountain of Kishavas, a trophy to the slain on its icebound floor of rocks and juniper!”
The others listen silently. Continuing for 23 short passages of despair and renewal, it says among its concluding lines: “Faith garnered like star-seed, shall glow with a steadfast light. After moons and years it may strike perchance on the clear crystal of the frozen soul, which remains ice, nor will ever melt, but like a curved glass unwittingly may bend the many-colored rays on to a far-off point, where new flame will start from the ancient earth.” (172)
In an inexplicable fit, one of the soldiers abruptly leaves the room and runs toward a building destroyed by Russian shellfire just hours before. He is struck and killed by a shell fragment. As darkness falls, they bury him and fashion a cross with the soldier’s name and the date. Then they continue on their journey, through falling snow. And there the book ends.
*This seems evident from the frequency of “sz” combinations in Carossa’s place names: “Szentlelek” or “Szekely-Udvarhely,” for example. I see the “sz” combinations in Hungarian words and not in Romanian. The two languages belong to different linguistic families. I should also note that in the Csik Mountains, there is a large minority Hungarian population. Yet I cannot find Carossa’s place names even in that area.