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World War I Belgium German Atrocities:-Distruction of Cultural Treasures--Louvain

German atrocities in Belgium destruction of cultural treasures
Figure 1.-- Here is what was left of Louvein after the Germabns were done with it. The Germans began killing innocent civilians. Civilians were shot or bayoneted, homes were set on fire, and some bodies showed signs of torture. The bodies were dumped in ditches and construction trenches. The Germans arrested the mayor of the city and the rector of the university and summarily executed them. Remember, all of this was not going on in some isolated village, but not only in the city center within sight of the German commanders in the city from their new offices in the towering town hall.

The Gemans also engaged in the destruction of cultural trasures without any realtion to the War or fighting. Unlike World War II, this does not appear to have been a planned campign by the German Govrnnment, but there vwer serious incidents. And it is important to note that most of these incidents did not occur during the fighting and urban warfare. The destruction of Belgian cities and the cultural treasures housed there occurred after the front line had passed and the Germans were in full possession of the cities. The gallant little Belgisn Arnmy did not make major stands in the cities. The single most serious incident of the Germans destroying culrural reasures was the destruction of Louvain. Louvain is the internationally known name of the town which in the Flemish-speaking part of Belgium, where it is known as Leuven. It should be noted when viewing the destruction in Louvain, that German occupation policies in both World Wars were to favor the Flemish for cultural and racial reasons. The city center was leveled except the town hall which the Germans appropiated for their military headquarters. The destruction included Leuven University and its priceless library which contained irreplaceable medival manuscripts. The Library was burned to the ground. We have considerabkle detail on what occurred. Thedestruction was apparently not ordered, butthe German General Staff by not taking any displinary action made it clear that such actioins were considered within the acceotablr range vod actiins by Army commanders. Subsequent German claims that Belgian franc-tireurs, or irregular militiamen, had opened fire on their soldiers are highly improbable, as no claims of organized guerrilla activity anywhere in 1914 Belgium have been successfully substantiated.

August 1

The German invaded Belgium (August 1, 1914). It was the execution of the Schliffen Plan. This anounted to the beginning of what at the time was called the Great War, now known as World War I. Unexpectly, the small Belgian Arny resisted. While there was no way the Belgian Army could stop the massive German offensive. They did slpw down the German advance. The Belgian resistance was entirely conducted by the Army. The Germans got it into their heads fairy quiuckly that Belgian franc-tireurs (free shooters), or irregular militiamen, were attacking their soldiers. There is no real evidence that this was occurring. No claims of organized guerrilla activity anywhere Belgium during 1914 have been successfully substantiated.

August 3

Britain declared war (August 3). The small prefessional Britiish Expeditionay Force was rushed to Belgium. It was also not string enough to stop the Germans, but like the Belgian Army also helped slow the Germnan advanve. This was also not what the Germans expected. The Germans were hoping that the British would not enterr the fight and if they did not think they could get troops to Belgium before it was over run. Not only did they get there fast, but although small put up a real fight. Kaiser Wilhelm sneered that it was a 'pitiful, little army'. In fact the BEF and the Belgians would slow the Germans advance just enough to make the Miracle on the Marne possible.

August 19

The German First Army had reache and occupied Louvain without a fight (August 19). The Belgian Army abamdoines the city and withdrew. Louvain is a city east of Brussels in central Belgium. The Germans had expected to reach Louvain and Brussels before this. Louvain is a beutiful late-medieval city. It was known promarily for its breweries. On a central square is the town hall, with its tall spires dating to the 15th century. The building the vpride of the city, lavishly decorated with hundreds of statues of local figures, biblical characters and saints. Opposite the town hall is the late-Gothic St. Peter’s Church which contains a 'Last Supper' by the Flemish Primitive painter Dieric Bouts. Close by is the Oude Markt, aa long square lined with bars and cafes. KU Leuven, the country largest university, has its flagship campus in Leuven, which has been a university city since 1425.[3] This makes it the oldest university city in the Low Countries. The Belgian Govrnment and city authorities warn the citizens of Louvain not to provoke German reprisals by acts of resistance.

August 24

Belgian 6th Division counterattacked. Retreating German troops were pushd back into Luevan in the evening and were apparently misidentified by nervous sentries. This esulted in a confused and escalating exchange of fire. There were friendly fire, casulties.

August 25

The German Army took out its frustration on the vslow advance it was expeiencing through Belgium. Virtually the entire city center was systematically destroyed by the German occupyers. The vattle had long since passed by. Virtualkly the entire city center was destroyed, eccept the town hall which the German occupation force was using as their head quarters. The fire set by the Grmjans destroyed more than 2,000 buildings and 248 civilians were killed, most murdered by German troops.

8:00 AM

The destruction of Louvain began in the morning (about 8:00 AM). Sporadic rifle fire was reported in the city. This was German troops firing their weapons. What provked this is not known in may have been friendky fire incidents the previous evening.

9:00 AM

Germans troops fairly early realized that there was no serious attack and began taking out their friustrtion as a result of the casualties, not fully understanding that they were friendly fire. They began killing innocent civilians. Civilians were shot or bayoneted, homes were set on fire, and some bodies showed signs of torture. The bodies were dumped in ditches and construction trenches. The Germans arrested the mayor of the city and the rector of the university and summarily executed them. Remember, all of this was not going on in some isolated village, but not only in the city center within sight of the German commanders in the city from their new offics in the towering town hall.

11:30 AM

German soldiers broke into the library at the Université catholique de Louvain (about 11:30 AM). Louvain University was the earliest university to be established in what is now Belgium. It was founded (1425). Some oif Europe's great thinkers were educated there. They included theologian Saint Robert Bellarmine, the philosopher Justus Lipsius and the cartographer Gerard Mercator. The university aswas common in Eurioe, was comprised of separate colleges (there would eventually be 46), each of these colleges established book collections during the late-Middle Ages. A central library was founded (1636). This centralized library was located in the 14th-century Cloth Hall near the Town Hall. (Cloth or textiles was the foundation of the economy in the Low Countries.) It was thus a noted library with important special collections, including ireplaceable medieval manuscripts and books. It was widely recognized as one of Europe's great libraries. This cerntral library grew over the subseqwuent centuries, increasing in size through both purchase and donation. Louvain was a comparatively rich university and thus the Library was well funded. The Library was one iof Beklgium's cultural jevels. It had survuved the Dutch War of Independencre, the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars abd Belgium's own Revolution. There were 300,000 volumes in its collection, and a group of special collections regognized thriufgout Eirope. The importance of the library could be seen in its glorious baroque buildings. The Library's holdings reflected Belgium's very ntionl cultural identity. They documented the intellectual contribution of the greatest minds of Low Ciuntruies and helped preserve the university’s strongly Catholic cultural flavor. It was also an important national resource, serving as as a library of legal deposit (much like the Librry of Congress in America). Although a university library, it was open to the public. Especially important were almost a thousand volumes of manuscripts, mostly classical authors and theological texts, including the early Church Fathers. There were also books on medieval philosophy and theology. There was also held a sizeable collection of incunabula (early printed book, especially one printed during the 15th century). There were uncatalogued collections of oriental books, and one of kind manuscripts in Hebrew, Chaldaic and Armenian. The Germans set all of thus ablaze. Within hours, the library and its collection were completely destroyed. The fire fuekd by books and tiners continued to burn for several days. Mmore than 230,000 book were described, including 750 medieval manuscripts. Personal libraries and the papers of notaries, solicitors, judges, professors, and physicians were also destroyed. A yoiuthful Louvain Jesuit Eugène Dupiéreux wrote in his diary, " Until today I had refused to believe what the newspapers said about the atrocities committed by the Germans; but in Leuven I have seen what their Kultur is like. More savage than the Arabs of Caliph Omar, who burnt down the Alexandrian library, we see them set fire, in the twentieth century, to the famous University Library."


The Grerman troops were also killing staff of the library and univresity. Brand Whitlock, the U.S. MNinister (Lesser amnbasadorial rank) to Belgium manged to rescue the rector of the American College of Louvain. He took notes on the rector’s account of 'the murder, the lust, the loot, the fires, the pillage, the evacuation and the destruction of the city'. This included the deliberate incineration of the library’s incunabula. Whiutlock had been appointed minister to Belgium by President Wilson hust a year earlier. When the Germans invaded, his responsibilities were increased as he was given representation for seven additional countries duriung the war. e. His position was important after the German occupation of Belgium. He was a neutral observer of the brutal German occupation. The Germans were in a bind, they could not restrict his activities as they wanted to maintain good relations with America. His highhly professional performance of his duties in the office was a model of diplomtic professonalism submitting reports unvarnished by British propaganbda. Whitlock played a key role in the massive humanitarian effot to save the starving Belgians. The Germans has seized Belgium's food supplies. He ensured food aid sent by the Committee for Relief in Belgium went to Belgian citizens abd not the Germnn Army. [Tager, pp. 152-53.}


Killings and raes continued on into the night.

August 26

German troops continued to kill, rape and commit other brutal ctions the nect day. Ther were also artlery shells lobbed into the city.

Nest Few Days

By August 27, German troops had totally pillaged. Officers and men particioated in mass plunder of money, wine, silver, and other objects of value, killing any one who put up ant resutance. Most of the city’s 42,000 residents were forcibly exiled into the countryside,. Some were forced out their homes at gunpoint. Some 1,500 citizens of the town, including women, children, and four of the hostages, were deported to Germany in railway cattle wagons.


The German distruction and killings in Louvain and the cultural destruction resulted in worldwide outrage. In the end, Grmany woulkd pay a heavy otice for its brbrous cts in Blgium nbd other coiuntries. The distructionm of Louvasin was one of the first incidents that changed how other countrues, including Americans, viewd Germany. Americans before the War viewed Germany has a cultured country, a nation producing scholarship, scenmce, mathematics, and music. This was a factor in the American public opinion and opposition to entering the War. The Lusitania sinking (1915) was more important Aneruicab vuews, but the steady drip of these reports would eventually lead to the Americm declaration of war (1917) and Germany's defeat. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith in Briutin wrote that "the burning of Louvain is the worst thing [the Germans] have yet done. It reminds one of the Thirty Years’ War … and the achievements of Tilly and Wallenstein." Irish nationalists, led by John Redmond, condemned the German atrocities Intellectuals and journalists in Italy who might have campaignd against entering the war condemned the German act. It was a factor in Italy not maintaining its allince with Germany and Austria. The Daily Mail om England called it the 'Holocaust of Louvain'. Rection in mahny countries had only limited impact. The reaction in Aneruca woukddetrmine th outcome of the War. .


Denry, Fabien. E-mail message (July 15, 2014)

Horne, John and Alan Kramer. German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2002).

Tager, Jack (1969). The Intellectual as Urban Reformer - Brand Whitlock and the Progressive Movement (. Cleveland Ohio: The Press of Case Western Reserve University: 1969).


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Created: 6:53 PM 4/10/2022
Last updated: 6:53 PM 4/10/2022