Wednesday, 23 July 2014

Louvain: German "frightfulness"

When the German invasion of Belgium began on 4th August, 1914, civilians began to be rounded up and shot in order to persuade the Belgian army to surrender. Now, this was definitely not playing fair, not even playing by the rules - rules laid down by the Hague Convention, a sort of predecessor of the Geneva Convention, to which Germany was a signatory.

But the German army decided to put that piece of paper to one side, just as they had done with their promise not to violate Belgian neutrality. Within a week, over a thousand innocent civilians had been murdered.  Wherever German advances were frustrated, officers would report that civilian snipers (called francs-tireurs) had been firing on them, and "reprisals" were carried out.

But there was nothing defensive about these actions.  They were the stamping of an iron boot-heel on a population, a method to quickly terrorize them into supine complicity. In the university town known to Flemish speakers as Leuven and to French speakers as Louvain, a library of ancient manuscripts was reduced to ashes and 250 inhabitants shot.

By the year's end, thousands of innocents had been singled out: men women and children, publicly murdered to show the rest not to mess with the Kaiser's boys. I say "murdered," because although the perpetrators were wearing uniforms, they were breaking the law – and they knew they were.



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