The 1812 Peace Treaty of Bucharest

A Presentation by Heinz Fieβ Relating to the Theme of the [Bessarabian] Bundestreffen [June 17, 2012]

Fieβ, Heinz. "The 1812 Peace Treaty of Bucharest." Mitteilungsblatt, August 2012, 6-9.

Translation from the original German-language text to American English is provided by Alex Herzog, Boulder, CO.

May 28, 1812: a very significant date for the Bessarabia Germans.

If we transport our minds back to the timeframe around 1800, we arrive at a period of extreme unrest, a time marked by revolution and political, economic, and religious reforms. Innumerable military clashes were spreading all over Europe, resulting in related territorial changes on a grand scale. As a consequence of the Enlightenment and the expanding missionary spirit of the French revolution, the so-called “Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation” and its system of social stratification, which had existed since 962, had outlived itself and ceased to exist by 1806 when the Hapsburg Emperor Franz II laid down his imperial crown. To most people, especially the agrarian ones living in Europe of that time, the impositions of war, requisitions and bad harvests brought dire poverty and suffering and engendered a strong longing for a better existence.  

Considering the powerful changes that characterized those times, the 1812 Peace Treaty of Bucharest concluded between the Russian and the Ottoman Empires and between their rulers Tsar Alexander I and Sultan Mahmud II appears to be a less spectacular event, yet for thousands of people willing to emigrate, it opened up an unexpected and hopeful prospect. For us Bessarabian Germans this was a decisive date in our history.

Let us now address some questions about the historical backdrop.

For a very long time, standing in the way of Russia’s drive to expand toward the Black Sea had been the Ottoman Empire, whose mighty spread during its most  powerful time around 1683 is demonstrated on the map below.

During that year, however, after the second siege of Vienna, the Ottomans were defeated in the Battle at Kahlenberg.

Russia and the Ottoman Empire

Even Tsar Peter the Great (1672 - 1725) had dreamed early on of a harbor on the Black Sea. This dream was hardly realizable, given the existence since 1300 of the Ottoman Empire (as of 1453 with its capital of Constantinople) and its vassal states (see the map above). Only temporarily had he succeeded in bringing the fortress of Azov on the Sea of Azov (part of the Black Sea) under Russian control. Russia’s expansionist drive to the South and to the Black Sea led to a large number of bloody wars (a total of eleven wars between 1568 and 1878). At times Russia had even been allied with the Habsburg Empire, which was very much interested in maintaining its areas but also in expanding eastward (e.g., Galicia and Bukovina).

It was not until Catherine II (the Great), via two Russo-Turkish wars (1768-1774 and 1787-1792), that Russia succeeded in gaining access to the Black Sea and conquering broad coastal regions (the Province of New Russia). The second Russian-Austrian-Turkish War (1787-1792) was triggered indirectly by the Russian occupation of Crimea in 1783. Since the Ottoman Empire had to figure on Austria entering the war, the annexation of Crimea by Catherine’s favorite, Potemkin, did not lead to war at first.

During Catherine’s munificently conducted journey to Crimea in 1787, the Habsburg Emperor Joseph II, who had traveled there incognito, conferred with her about a renewed war against the Ottoman Empire. The time seemed right because the Prussian King Frederick II had died in 1786 and thus there was no expectation of danger from the Prussian side.

According to plans of the allied Russians and Austrians, the Ottoman Empire was to be broken once and for all, while Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina were to fall to Austria, and the principalities of Moldova and Wallachia were to be fused into one state.

This war should be seen in connection with a plan hatched in St. Petersburg. This, the so-called Greek Plan, became known even to the Ottoman Empire. The intent was that subsequent to smashing the Ottoman Empire, the Byzantine Empire (which had gone under in 1453) would be re-established as an independent Empire, but closely allied with Russia and under a representative of the Russian Tsarist house. It was to be comprised of the remaining European Turkey (Bulgaria, Macedonia, Thrace and Greece, eventually also Moldova and Wallachia) and, especially, Constantinople.

Sweden’s entry into the war (Swedish-Ottoman Alliance of 1788) and, finally, the exit by Austria under pressure from Prussia (Prussian-Austrian Alliance of 1790), and Prussia’s and Austria’s common preparation for war against France led to the failure of the plan for the time being. Still, even into the 19th Century the same idea would be pursued again and again.

By 1806, Selim III, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, glimpsed an opportunity, given the backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars. Since Russia and Austria had been beaten severely during the so-called Battle of the Three Emperors (Napoleon I, Tsar Alexander I and Emperor Franz I) at Austerlitz in 1805, the Sultan dared once again to enter into war against Russia. Following Selim’s removal and murder in 1807, his cousin Mahmud II continued to pursue the war. Napoleon’s looming 1812 Russian campaign caused Alexander to accede to the Treaty of Bucharest. That peace accord of 1812 saw Russia gaining territories in the Caucasus as well as half of the principality of Moldova (east of the River Prut), which was later to become Bessarabia.

As of 1812 the border between the Ottoman and Russian Empires no longer followed the Dniester River, but 200 kilometers westward, along the Prut. In gaining this territory, Russia ceded the Ottoman-occupied Danube principalities of Moldova (west of the Prut) and Wallachia.

Notes Regarding the Principalities of Moldova and Wallachia

The principality of Moldova was founded in 1314 as a vassal state of Hungary, and a few years later came under Polish sovereignty. Under the Moldovan Prince Stephan the Great, it experienced a boom time during the second half of the 15th Century. But after the fall of the Ackerman and Cilia fortresses, it was forced to yield the southern part of the area to the Ottoman Empire. Moldavia became a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire, and the Ottomans called this area the Budzhak.

By the second half of the 18th Century, the region of the Moldovan principality came to the attention or the spheres of interest of the three great regional powers, the Ottoman Empire, the Russian Tsarist Empire, and the Habsburg Monarchy. Increasingly, in its clashes with the Ottoman Empire, Russia strove to gain the economically important access to the Mediterranean Sea.

1812 Treaty of Bucharest, the Ottoman Empire ceded roughly the Eastern half of the principality of Moldova, and the Budzhak. The area henceforth was given the designation Bessarabia and became a Gouvernement of the Russian Empire. 

The Concurrent Situation in Württemberg

The historically concurrent situation in Württemberg is of significance to the topic of this presentation. In 1797, Friedrich II became Duke of Württemberg. By 1800, French troops under Napoleon occupied Württemberg and forced it into an alliance with France. With Napoleon’s blessing, in 1806 Friedrich became King Friedrich I of Württemberg, and during that same year Württemberg joined the Rheinbund [Rhine Alliance] under Napoleon’s protectorate – essentially a military alliance of German states with France. A consequence of this alliance of Württemberg with France was that soldiers had to be provided for Napoleon’s wars. Württemberg troops participated in Napoleon’s campaigns against Prussia in 1806 and 1807, against Austria in 1809, against Russia in 1812, and against Prussia, Russia and Austria in 1813. Fighting during the Russian campaign of 1812 were some 12,000 Württemberger soldiers, of whom only a few hundred came home. Between 1792 and 1813, the population of Southern Germany suffered as a whole and to an immense degree under the burden of the Napoleonic wars. Huge debts were incurred through war expenditures and destruction. Additionally there came many other levies which increased enormously the number of the impoverished, beggars, and vagrants.

Between 1810 and 1817, food prices rose three- to-five-fold, due mainly to the destruction of fields through war activities as well as some extraordinarily severe climatic catastrophes. The 1815 eruption of the Tambora Volcano in Indonesia was the largest one ever, with ash deposits as far as 1300 kilometers [840 miles] away, with skies darkened for two days within 600 kilometers [360 miles], with an explosive power estimated at 170,000 Hiroshima bombs, and pressure waves being felt as many as 15,000 kilometers [9,000 miles] away. In the vernacular, the subsequent summer of 1816 was dubbed “the year without summer,” the coldest summer recorded since official records had been kept. Numerous European states experienced total crop failure, famine, and economic crisis, a situation which convinced many people to emigrate. People at times were forced to feed themselves with grass, roots and hay. Between 1816 and 1822, these and other intolerable living conditions caused some 44,000 Württembergers to leave their homeland (according to Wikipedia). Religious groups such as the Pietists did not agree with contemporary developments of enlightened interpretations in ecclesiastic circles. They were also unwilling to go along with changes in the liturgy or in church hymns. The Chiliasts in particular, in view of the dire conditions of the times, were strengthened in their belief that the end of the world was imminent, and that the Millenial Kingdom, with the return of Christ, was about to occur in the Caucasus. Religious causes such as these convinced many to emigrate. Since many wished to seek their fortunes in foreign lands, but Württemberg, as a member of the Rheinbund, was still obliged to provide soldiers, Friedrich I decreed a ban on emigration from 1807 until the end of his reign in 1816.

The letter printed below from a citizen of the Swabian village of Hanweiler near Winnenden, which he had written to relatives who had already emigrated to Bessarabia, demonstrates the immense poverty, but also the hopes of the population of that time. (The letter is from the private archive of Werner Schäfer),

Tsar Alexander I – a Stroke of Good Fortune for Those Desiring to Emigrate

Much has been said – and often -- about the emigration to Bessarabia, so I can therefore be brief at this point. However, I would like to summarize the historical situation of the settlers in Poland.

In the context of the three partitions of the great power of Poland-Lithuania by Prussia, Austria and Russia toward the end of the 18th Century, many South Germans, especially Württembergers, but also settlers from Pomerania, the lower Vistula and Silesia followed the call from Prussia to settle in the new Prussian Poland and to work the land there. It was primarily for economic reasons that they had left their homelands. However, political turmoil and power struggles made it impossible for them to find the hoped-for better life in Poland.

The devastating defeat of Prussia by France at the double battle of Jena and Auerstädt in 1806 brought about a territorial restructuring of the Polish region. Alexander I, too, had gotten himself involved in favor of Prussia, and after several battles and a heavy defeat near Friedland in 1807 decided to negotiate with Napoleon. Via the Peace of Tilsit of 1807 (see the accompanying painting) Alexander I accepted the original founding of the French satellite state of the Duchy of Warsaw, which Napoleon excised from Prussian territory, fully intending it to be a buffer between Russia and Austria.

With the establishment of the Duchy of Warsaw, the colonists lost all privileges they had obtained earlier from Prussia and they experienced much suffering under the large property owners of Poland and the Catholic clergy. 1812 again brought a break in political relations between Napoleon and Alexander, and Napoleon dared to undertake the campaign against Russia. This campaign twice affected the Duchy of Warsaw in a very negative way. It was during that particular dark situation that the people received the welcoming invitation from Alexander I to emigrate to Bessarabia.

Shortly after acquiring the territory of Bessarabia via the Treaty of Bucharest, Tsar Alexander I, grandson of Catherine the Great, nephew of King Friedrich I of Württemberg, and married to Luise von Baden, had issued the Ukase of November 29, 1813, which invited people to emigrate and offered the following well-known, extremely tempting privileges – among others:

  • Ten years free of any special and general taxation
  • Allotment of sixty desyatines (66 hectares [ca. 162 acres]) of land to each family
  • Unlimited exemption from military service
  • Religious freedom

Since for the Württembergers the ban on emigration issued by Friedrich I in 1807 was still in effect, it was primarily the Warsaw colonists who at first migrated to Bessarabia from 1814 on. Only by 1816, under Friedrich the First’s successor, his son Wilhelm I, were the immigration-eager Swabians from Württemberg able to follow. Swabians from Bavaria also joined them.
This text was composed from my own knowledge from Bessarabian historical writings as well as information from Wikipedia. All maps and photos are from Wikipedia

Heinz Fieβ

The letter:

Dearly beloved brother-in-law, friend and brother, along with your wife and children,
I am quite willing to join you, but I ask you that you might tell me truthfully when you write … about the actual conditions of your area and your life in general. I wish to tell you plainly that we and other citizens of Hanweiler have the clear desire and will to emigrate to Russia. If only it does not look there as it does here – the only thing we do is to fulfill our obligations and to pay the royal tax. We are no longer able to earn food and clothing for our bodies. I spend my days either toiling for the feudal lord, or trying to get some income in order to be able to pay for our daily needs. Still and again, the collector keeps coming to demand every kreutzer we have earned. Whatever we do, even if we have a little bit of fruit or cherries, it simply doesn’t last. Try as we might to save, it isn’t enough for even a single piece of clothing for our body, and even if you work day and night, nothing helps. That is why living and life in Hanweiler is so intolerable and insufferable.

Meeting between Napoleon and Alexander I in 1807 (Peace of Tilsit) on a pontoon boat on the River Memel near Tilsit. Historic painting.
Napoleon during his retreat from Moscow. Historic painting.
Tsar Alexander I, who reigned between 1801 and 1825. Portrait by Franz Krüger.
King Friedrich I of Württemberg in his crowning robes. Portrait by Johann Baptist Seele.
Geographical terms: Tara de Sut – Highlands; Tara de Jus – Lowlands; Basarabia [sic] – Budzhak.
1812, subsequent to the Treaty of Bucharest.
Today – the Republic of Moldova.
The Moldova principality with borders of the period 1776 – 1812.
Sultan Mahmud II, with whom Alexander I concluded the Treaty of Bucharest in 1812.
Sultan Selim III, who reigned between 1789 and 1807.
Map from Wikipedia, in English.
Heinz Fieβ during his presentation in the Theater Hall.

Our appreciation is extended to Alex Herzog for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller