How tree root systems will respond to increased drought stress, as predicted for parts of Central Europe, is not well understood. According to the optimal partitioning theory, plants should enhance root growth relative to aboveground growth in order to reduce water limitations. We tested this prediction in a transect study with 14 mature forest stands of European beech (Fagus sylvatica L.) by analysing the response of the fine root system to a large decrease in annual precipitation (970–520 mm yr−1). In 3 years with contrasting precipitation regimes, we investigated leaf area and leaf biomass, fine root biomass and necromass (organic layer and mineral soil to 40 cm) and fine root productivity (ingrowth core approach), and analysed the dependence on precipitation, temperature, soil nutrient availability and stand structure. In contrast to the optimal partitioning theory, fine root biomass decreased by about a third from stands with >950 mm yr−1 to those with <550 mm yr−1, while leaf biomass remained constant, resulting in a significant decrease, and not an increase, in the fine root/leaf biomass ratio towards drier sites. Average fine root diameter decreased towards the drier stands, thereby partly compensating for the loss in root biomass and surface area. Both δ13C-signature of fine root mass and the ingrowth core data indicated a higher fine root turnover in the drier stands. Principal components analyses (PCA) and regression analyses revealed a positive influence of precipitation on the profile total of fine root biomass in the 14 stands and a negative one of temperature and plant-available soil phosphorus. We hypothesize that summer droughts lead to increased fine root mortality, thereby reducing root biomass, but they also stimulate compensatory fine root production in the drier stands. We conclude that the optimal partitioning theory fails to explain the observed decrease in the fine root/leaf biomass ratio, but is supported by the data if carbon allocation to roots is considered, which would account for enhanced root turnover in drier environments.