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ICI FINIT LA CVLTVRE ALLEMANDE
August 25, 2014 1:50 PM   Subscribe

On this day one hundred years ago, Imperial German soldiers who had peacefully arrived in the Belgian city of Leuven (Fr: Louvain), having taken hostages and accepted the parole of its mayor on behalf of its citizens, without warning set fire to the city and massacred its inhabitants forever altering the city, its university's library, and the course of the war.
  • Belgian Judicial Report on the Sacking of Louvain in August 1914
  • The destruction and rebuilding of the Louvain Library: claim and counterclaim

  • The five day orgy of violence was likely touched off by nervous sentries shooting at each other having been spooked by a successful but halted Belgian cavalry charge from the Northwest in Malines (Fl: Mechelen) rather than excitable Belgians. Once the first shot was fired however, the 10,000+ armed teenagers who had been bombarded with rumors of francs tireur (Francophone minutemen) snipers behind every bush began to systematically burn everything of value that they could not loot or drink to punish the town including the university's ancient library filled with its whole collections of unique books and uncopied mediaeval manuscripts. One German officer speaking outside of an official capacity to the American diplomat Hugh Gibson while the sacking was still continuing said
    “It is necessary that Leuven will serve as warning and deterrent for generations to come, so all that might hear of its fate might learn to respect Germany… We shall make this place a desert. It will be hard to find where Leuven used to stand. For generations people will come here to see what we have done. And it will teach them to think twice before they resist her.”
    This retrospective judicial report on the incident is euphemistically circumspect about the fate of women in Leuven, and what exactly the largely protestant Germans did to Catholic priests, in the style of the time.

    For the 'other side' of the story, this is the official German statement on what happened and a telegram to Wilson by the Kaiser that mentions it, as well as a written debate held after the war.

    The incident, with the fates of the other Martyr cities Aarschot and Dendermonde, was a large part of what brought the US into the war and kept it popular in the UK. Pieces of soap were sold for the benefit of Belgian refugees with the burned University library on one side and the intentionally shelled Cathedral at Rheims on the other, such that as you used it the ruins would wash away, and Louvain became a popular name for girls. The sacking was so damaging to global opinion of the German war effort that it features significantly in the "Proclamation To The Civilized World By Professors of Germany" also known as "The Manifesto of the Ninety-Three" as it was signed by the 93 most prominent German academics ("The 93 Today" published in 1923 after the war).

    The burning of the library was also kept in mind when war finally ended, where one of the reparations listed in the Treaty of Versailles was money and books from German Universities to rebuild the library. After the collapse of the German economy and the rampant inflation caused by the rolling default on war loans as well as the more substantial reparations, what ended up being available was no where close to enough, but luckily, societies had already formed in America to fund the rebuilding within weeks of the sacking. Whitney Warren, architect of the Grand Central Station and the Biltmore Hotel in New York, was hired to build a beautiful library with largely American money and books largely donated by American universities, but conflict arose as the library neared completion.

    While the library itself was already not exactly thematically neutral, decorated as it was with the American eagle, Italian she-wolf, Belgian lion, British unicorn, and French cock, as well as the German Eagle getting stabbed by the Virgin Mary with a sword, university officials quickly became administratively inclined to get on with the business of collaborating with German colleagues and leave the war behind them in the spirit of the new peace. They ended up coming head to head with young student veterans and American donors over an inscription that was planned from the beginning for the banister of the main staircase: FURORE TEUTONICO DIRUTA, DONO AMERICANO RESTITUTA roughly translated from Latin, ‘Demolished by German wrath, rebuilt with American gifts.’ As a neutrally blank banister was being installed, Felix Morren, a young student foreman working on the site lifted up the massive stone work and threw it to the floor, shattering it. Then, five years later in 1933 as Hitler ramped up his persecution of German Jews he returned to the site and threw down its blank replacement in protest. However, even all of this effort by administrators to separate the library's function as a memorial from its function as their library was not enough to save the it during the next war, now filled again with priceless American and German books. Even though books were still being delivered from German universities during the war, right up until the point it was destroyed, the German army again fired it with everything still inside after they entered the city. After the war in the 40s and 50s, the library was rebuilt yet again with more American money, using the same plans - gorgeous flammable woodwork, big beautiful delicate windows, and all - and filled again with more rare and priceless books from many of the same universities.

    Marie Legrand of Leuven remembers the Fire of Leuven (slow clear French with Flemish subtitles)

    If any of you come to Belgium I'd be happy to show you around to where the good fries and the good beer are.
    posted by Blasdelb (13 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite

     
    I almost forgot! Here is a time lapse of 50 volunteers laying out a carpet of 150,000 begonia flowers in the Grote Markt of Leuven in commemoration of the event this morning.
    posted by Blasdelb at 2:06 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


    Das Land der Dichter und Denker verkommt zum Land der Richter und Henker

    Thanks for this post. I had no idea.. It is scary to see how a nation obsessed with militarism and power can loose all it's sense of humanity.

    Today, it isn't the Germans. But it is still here
    posted by mumimor at 2:28 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


    Das Land der Dichter und Denker verkommt zum Land der Richter und Henker

    Thanks for this post. I had no idea.. It is scary to see how a nation obsessed with militarism and power can loose all it's sense of humanity.

    Today, it isn't the Germans. But it is still here


    Not really much of a comparison between any current day state and Imperial Germany when it comes to militarism and power. One needs only read German War Aims by Fritz Fischer to see that.
    posted by Ironmouth at 2:31 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


    Ironmouth, can you expand on that? I will certainly follow your book recommendation, but right now, I have 2000+ pages to read for work, so a brief summary would be helpful
    posted by mumimor at 2:37 PM on August 25


    You know, with what went on during WWI and WWII, sometimes I'm surprised that Germany wasn't completely obliterated at the end of WWII.
    posted by Mitrovarr at 3:18 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


    a brief summary would be helpful

    A (rightfully) self-flagellating ex-Nazi, not content to blame Germany for WWII, decides Germany was completely unique in its territorial ambitions in the dawning years of the 20th century and WWI was all its fault.
    posted by entropicamericana at 3:20 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


    > Das Land der Dichter und Denker verkommt zum Land der Richter und Henker

    I didn't know that was a german phrase. It puts a little more weight behind the novel we read in second year German.
    posted by benito.strauss at 3:27 PM on August 25 [1 favorite]


    >sometimes I'm surprised that Germany wasn't completely obliterated at the end of WWII.

    There were plenty of people who thought it should be allowed to starve and reduced to a set of agrarian tribes. However, the realisation of what that would do to Europe in general, let alone with all the potential resources sitting within grabbing distance of the USSR, made it a non-starter.Even bfore such high-falutin' considerations as the progress of civilisation and what the hell it was that everryone had been fighting for anyway.
    posted by Devonian at 3:52 PM on August 25 [2 favorites]


    The incident, with the fates of the other Martyr cities Aarschot and Dendermonde, was a large part of what brought the US into the war and kept it popular in the UK.

    This is wrong. Everyone knows that the US goes to war with European powers when ships sink. We went to war with England because of the Chesapeake. We went to war with Spain because of the Maine. We went to war with Germany because of the Lusitania and we went to war with Germany again because of Pearl Harbor. QED.
    posted by ennui.bz at 4:56 PM on August 25 [5 favorites]


    Fascinating article, I hadn't read that much detail about that moment in history. It also dovetails rather nicely with the fact that exactly 70 years ago today the Reich was well and truly bounced out of Paris.
    posted by TDavis at 6:59 PM on August 25


    Devonian: "There were plenty of people who thought it should be allowed to starve and reduced to a set of agrarian tribes. "

    Morgenthau Plan

    posted by Chrysostom at 8:42 PM on August 25




    One needs only read German War Aims by Fritz Fischer to see that.

    Which was one of the most important books for German historiography, and well worth reading. It's just that one shouldn't stop there, as it came out in '61 and has its issues...

    Someone once said that wars aren't like an Agatha Christie novel, where you can point out the weapon and the perpetrator at the conclusion. Although there is Murder On The Orient Express…
    posted by pseudocode at 1:40 AM on August 26 [1 favorite]


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