Destruction Of Louvain
( Originally Published 1918 )
IN September a procession of refugees from Louvain arrived at Malines in a frenzy of terror with the news that the town of Louvain had been set on fire by the Germans and that the whole city was a heap of ruins. The wildest stories added to the horror of the tale. It was said that there had been a wholesale massacre of men, women, and children, and that hundreds of priests, and especially Jesuits, had been singled out for murder. Many of the stories proved to be without any foundation. But when all the exaggerations had been discounted there remained a body of substantial facts that were enough to send a thrill of indignation through Europe.
Two certainties emerged from the chaos of conflicting evidence. First, there had been indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and looting of property. Secondly, the Germans, armed with incendiary fuses and obeying the order of the military authorities, had methodically burned the whole section of Louvain which extends from the station in the centre of the town, including the University and the church of St. Pierre.
Since the destruction of the hapless University town other atrocities have followed in almost daily succession, Termonde, Aerschot, Malines, Antwerp. The world has almost got accustomed to them. There has been nothing like this mad fury of destruction in the whole history of modern warfare. Reims has outdone even Louvain, and the ruin of the Cathedral of Reims is an even greater loss than the destruction of the old Belgian Catholic University.
Still Louvain remains the one crowning infamy. German casuistry may at least find some extenuating circumstances in the fact that Reims was a fortified town, and that the Cathedral tower might have been used as an observation post for the French armies. For the crime of Louvain no extenuating circumstance can be urged. Louvain was undefended. It was a peaceful city of students, priests, and landladies. It was in the occupation of the Germans. Its destruction, therefore, was both a wanton and a cowardly act of cruelty, and being both wanton and cruel, it will stand out as the typical atrocity of German militarism.
Only those who are familiar with the history of Belgium and Brabant, and with the history of Belgian Universities, know what Louvain and the University stood for. Founded in 1425, in the days of Petrarch, Froissart, and Chaucer, it was one of the oldest and most illustrious seats of learning in Europe. It was the seat of Pope Adrian VI, the tutor of Charles V. It still remained the most famous Catholic University in the world. It still attracted scholars from every country. It was still the nursery of Irish, English, and American priests.
And not only had Louvain 500 years of learning behind it, it was also a city with a magnificent municipal tradition. The town hall, one of the gems of Gothic architecture, was a glorious monument to that municipal tradition. By the destruction of Louvain the German soldiery have wiped out five centuries of religious and intellectual culture and of municipal freedom.
Any final account of the tragedy must necessarily be premature. Details are still wanting and cannot be filled in while the German occupation lasts. We can only examine the meagre evidence before us. But, such as it is, the evidence is more than sufficient to formulate a judgment and to allocate the responsibilities.
We must first deal with the German apologia. Wherever the Germans have perpetrated some atrocious crime they have used the same thread-bare excuse the shooting of German soldiers by civilians. Civilians fired on German soldiers at Visé, therefore Visé was razed to the ground. The fourteen-year-old son of the Burgomaster of Aerschot killed a German officer, therefore the whole city of Aerschot had to be destroyed. Similarly, it was to avenge the murder of German soldiers that Louvain was burned. It is the civilian population of Louvain who must ultimately be held responsible.
On the face of it, the German version is an incredible invention. Louvain was in the occupation of German troops. All the arms had been handed in days before by the civil population. The authorities had posted placards re-commending tranquillity to the population, and warning them that any individual act of hostility would bring down instant vengeance. Those placards could still be read on the walls on the day of the destruction of Louvain. Under those circumstances, is it credible that a few peaceful citizens should have brought down destruction upon themselves and upon their fellow-citizens by their own deliberate act, which they knew would be met with instant and ruthless retribution ?
But even assuming that individual Belgians had been guilty of firing on the German troops, supposing a civilian exasperated by the monstrous treatment described in the narrative of Mr. Van Ernem, the Town Treasurer.
The German General with his état-major then came to the town hall to confer with the Burgomaster, councillors, and myself as treasurer of the town.
These were the stipulated conditions.
First : That the town should fully provide for the invaders, in consideration of which no war contributions would be exacted.
Secondly : The soldiers not billeted in private houses were to pay cash for all goods obtained ; also, they were not to molest the inhabitants under any circumstances.
These stipulations, agreed to On both sides, were most scrupulously kept by the Belgians, but not by the Germans. On certain days, for example, the Germans would exact why should these individual deeds have been visited on thousands of innocent and inoffensive people ? Why should those deeds have been 67,000 lb. of meat, and would let 20,000 lb. of it rot, although the population were suffering from hunger.
On Monday, August 24, towards to P.M., the Burgomaster a respectable merchant, sixty-two years of age was arrested in his bed, where he was lying ill. He was forced to rise and marched to the railway station, where it was demanded of him that he should provide immediately 250 warm meals and as many mattresses for the soldiers, under penalty of being shot. With admirable dispatch the inhabitants rushed to comply with the German demand. In their solicitude and pity for their aged chief, and their anxiety to save his life, they gave their own beds and their last drops of wine.
The Germans acted without the slightest consideration or regard for the faithful promises of their état-major. The troops rushed into private houses, making forcible entrances, and taking from old and young, many of the latter already orphans, whatever they fancied, paying for nothing except with paper money to be presented to the " caisse communal" at the end of the war.
The promise of exemption from contribution to a war levy was violated, like every other contract. Failing to find enough money in the treasury, the Germans in authority ordered the immediate payment of 100,000 francs.
This large sum could not be gathered from the inhabitants, and nearly all the banks had on the first warning of the approach of the enemy succeeded in transferring their funds to the National Bank.
Finally, after much bickering, the officer in command of the German troops agreed to accept 3000 fr., to be paid the next day. But with the next morning came a further demand for 5000 fr. The Burgomaster vigorously protested against this new exaction ; but nevertheless I, as treasurer of the town, visited on monuments of brick and stone ? Why should treasuries of learning and shrines of religion be destroyed ? Why should the six was held responsible for collecting 5000 fr. With the greatest difficulty I succeeded in procuring 3080 fr., and after considerable bickering this sum was accepted by the enemy, and the horrors of reprisals were delayed. The population, conscious of the terrible risk which they ran, submitted with calm resignation to the inevitable. As a functionary of the city, I can vouch personally for the absolutely dignified and passive attitude of the whole population of Louvain. They understood perfectly well their grave individual responsibility, and that any breach of their promises would be instantly met by crushing action.
The position of affairs was minutely explained to the inhabitants in several printed proclamations, and they were personally warned by our venerable Burgomaster. Good order was so rigorously maintained that the German authorities praised the exemplary conduct of the inhabitants.
This attitude was all the more laudable because the invaders, immediately upon entering the city, liberated nine of their compatriots who had been incarcerated before the war for murder, theft, and other felonies.
At last, on the Tuesday night, there took place the unspeakable crime, the shame of which can be understood only by those who followed and watched the different phases of the German occupation of Louvain.
It is a significant fact that the German wounded and sick, including their Red Cross nurses, were all removed from the hospitals. The Germans meanwhile proceeded methodically to make a last and supreme requisition, although they knew the town could not satisfy it.
Towards 6 o'clock the bugle sounded, and officers lodging in private houses left at once with arms and luggage. At the same time thousands of additional soldiers, with numerous field-pieces and cannon, marched into the town centuries of European history be destroyed because of the acts of a few patriots acting under the impulse of terror or indignation to their allotted positions. The gas factory, which had been idle, had been worked through the previous night and day by Germans, so that during this premeditated outrage the people could not take advantage of darkness to escape from the town. A further fact that proves their premeditation is that the attack took place at 8 o'clock, the exact time at which the population entered their houses in conformity with the German orders consequently escape became well-nigh impossible. At 8.20 a full fusillade with the roar of the cannons came from all sides of the town at once.
The sky at the same time was lit up with the sinister light of fires from all quarters. The cavalry charged through the streets sabring fugitives, while the infantry, posted on the footpaths, had their fingers on the triggers of their guns waiting for the unfortunate people to rush from the houses or appear at the windows, the soldiers complimenting each other on their marksmanship as they fired at the unhappy fugitives.
Those whose homes were not yet destroyed were ordered to quit and follow the soldiers to the railway station. There the men were separated from mothers, wives, and children, and thrown, some bound, into trains leaving in the direction of Germany.
I cannot but feel that, following the system they have inaugurated in this campaign, the Germans will use these non-combatant prisoners as human shields when they are fighting the Allies. The cruelty of these madmen surpasses all limits. They shot numbers of absolutely inoffensive people, forcing those who survived to bury their dead in the square, already encumbered with corpses whose positions suggested that they had fallen with arms uplifted in token of surrender.
As I said, the whole truth cannot yet be revealed. It is difficult to disentangle the facts even from ocular witnesses, from terrorized victims who were present at the ghastly crime. I have cross-examined some of those witnesses. I have read private letters from my cousin, Professor Albert Nerincx, at present Acting-
Others who have been allowed to live were driven past approving drunken officers by the brutal use of rifle butts, and while they were being maltreated they saw their care-fully collected art and other treasures being shared out by the soldiers, the officers looking on. Those who attempted to appeal to their tormentors' better feelings were immediately shot. A few were let loose, but most of them were sent to Germany.
On Wednesday at daybreak the remaining women and children were driven out of the town a lamentable spectacle with uplifted arms and under the menace of bayonets and revolvers.
The day was practically calm. The destruction of the most beautiful part of the town seemed to have momentarily soothed the barbarian rage of the invaders.
On the Thursday the remnant of the Civil Guard was called up on the pretext of extinguishing the conflagration ; those who demurred were chained and sent with some wounded Germans to the Fatherland. The population had to quit at a moment's notice before the final destruction.
Then, to complete their devastation, the German hordes fell back on the surrounding villages to burn them. They tracked down the men some were shot, some made prisoners and during many long hours they tortured the helpless women and children. This country of Eastern Brabant, so rich, so fertile, and so beautiful, is to-day a deserted charnel-house.
Burgomaster of Louvain, who assumed office when the civic authorities had left, and whose heroic conduct is one of the few bright spots in the tragedy. Comparing and collating all the evidence at our disposal, we may take the following version given by the Belgian Commission of Inquiry as substantially correct :
" On Tuesday evening a German corps, after receiving a check, withdrew in disorder into the town of Louvain. A German guard at the entrance of the town mistook the nature of this incursion and fired on their routed fellow-countrymen, mistaking them for Belgians.
" In spite of all denials from the authorities the Germans, in order to cover their mistake, pretended that it was the inhabitants who had fired on them, whereas the inhabitants, including the police, had been disarmed more than a week ago.
" Without inquiry, and without listening to any protests, the German Commander-in-Chief announced that the town would be immediately destroyed. The inhabitants were ordered to leave their dwellings ; a party of men were made prisoners and the women and children put into trains the destination of which is unknown. Soldiers furnished with bombs set fire to all parts of the town."
An Oxford student who visited the scene of the disaster with Mr. Henry Fürst, of Exeter College, Oxford, on August 29, gives the following description of the awful picture :
" Burning houses were every moment falling into the roads ; shooting was still going on. The dead and dying, burnt and burning, lay on all sides. Over some the Germans had placed sacks. I saw about half a dozen women and children. In one street I saw two little children walking hand in hand over the bodies of dead men. I have no words to describe these things. I hope people will not make too much of the saving of the Hôtel de Ville.
" The Hôtel de Ville was standing on Friday morning last, and, as we plainly saw, every effort was being made to save it from the flames. We were told by German officers that it was not to be destroyed. I have personally no doubt that it is still standing. The German officers dashing about the streets in fine motor-cars made a wonderful sight. They were well-dressed, shaven, and contented-looking ; they might have been assisting at a fashionable race-meeting. The soldiers were looting everywhere ; champagne, wines, boots, cigars, everything was being carried off."
But let it not be thought that Louvain was destroyed in vain. To the Belgian people it has meant more than a glorious victory. To the Germans it has been more disastrous than the most ignominious defeat. Until Louvain neutral peoples might still hesitate in their sympathies. Pacifists might still waver as to the justice of the cause. After Louvain any hesitation or doubt became impossible. The destruction of Louvain was needed to drive home the meaning of German culture. The crime of Louvain branded the German rulers and the commanders of the German armies as the enemies of the human race.