From burning books to exterminating races

September 28, 2007

It is time, says Alan Kramer, to revisit the role of cultural destruction in the first great conflict of 20th-century Europe

Late in the evening of August 25, 1914, German troops broke into the university library of Louvain and set fire to it. Over the next three days, flames consumed the 14th-century building and almost the entire collection of 300,000 volumes, including early printed books, medieval manuscripts and the university archive. News of this extraordinary act of cultural destruction spread rapidly around the world; and it instantly became a symbol of the "German atrocities". The Illustrated War News described it as "The Oxford of Belgium burnt by the German 'Huns'".

After the war, however, with the "pacifist turn" in Britain and America in the 1920s, this and the other stories of German atrocities were widely dismissed as fabrications to manipulate public opinion, in part because they had featured so prominently in Allied wartime propaganda. Research that I have carried out with my colleague John Horne shows that the core of the allegations was sound - German troops deliberately killed at least 6,400 civilians during the invasion of Belgium and northern France.

The burning of Louvain University's library is a good starting point for a discussion of the role of culture in war. Cultural destruction reflected something more sinister than vandal-like pleasure in the despoiling of venerated treasures. Not only soldiers, but also German intellectuals condoned this act and the shelling of Rheims cathedral; some openly rejoiced at the destruction of the enemy's symbolic places of cultural memory.

Because the library was deliberately targeted, it is possible to identify motivations. Louvain University was renowned not only for its prime place in the cultural heritage of the Low Countries but also as the intellectual seat of Belgian Catholicism. Today it is forgotten how imperial Germany in 1914, in the aftermath of the Kulturkampf against the Catholic Church, was dominated by an aggressively Protestant-nationalist ruling caste in the state apparatus, political parties, and especially the army. Externalised anti-Catholicism was a powerful element in German militarist nationalism's will to subjugate enemies. This violently anti-Catholic animus thus produced the destruction of a rival cultural symbol and also the widespread arrest and beatings of Catholic priests, whom the troops suspected of inciting popular resistance to the invasion. At least 47 clergymen were executed.

However, anti-Catholicism was only one of several powerful forces that produced the extraordinary explosion of violence in the invasion. In almost every case in which German troops killed civilians, they alleged that the victims had taken up arms and fought as francs-tireurs (the contemporary term for guerrilla fighters). This was seldom other than an illusion, derived from German military culture going back to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 and training that led the troops to expect civilians to fight. The inexperienced, nervous and often exhausted German men thus interpreted unidentified shots as francs-tireurs firing, although in reality most came from mobile units of French and Belgian troops, or, as at Louvain, from panicky "friendly fire". The summary executions and widespread incendiarism that followed were backed by explicit orders given by army commanders to "burn down villages and shoot everyone".

War on the culture of the enemy and the mass killing of civilians were thus one facet of a "war of annihilation", in which almost any means were deemed acceptable to secure rapid victory. The aim was to intimidate the enemy population into quiescence and demonstrate cultural as well as military hegemony. In the partly realised German plans for the long-term, colonial style occupation of Belgium, its material and human resources would be ruthlessly exploited, German capital would take over Belgian trade and industry, and the state would be divided along ethnic lines by encouraging Flemish nationalism.

Likewise, in the east, German rule meant replacing the (none too benevolent) Tsarist empire with Germany's dream of empire: a vast Grossraum stretching from the Baltic to Turkestan and providing grain, oil and cotton. Here, too, German cultural hegemony would prevail, with the practice of forced labour and nascent notions of racial superiority and population redistribution along ethnic lines.

Other belligerent nations had their own versions of cultural warfare. French, British and Italian intellectuals justified the war as a "holy struggle" and used the language of racism and social Darwinism. By 1918, not only Germany but almost all the belligerents were convinced of the necessity of massive destruction of the enemy, harbouring visions of aerial warfare, and promoting revolutionary insurgency. The potential for cultural war to spill over into genocide was first seen with the massacre of the Armenians in Turkey, while the Russian revolution led to a seven-year nightmare of mass killing perpetrated by both sides in the name of ideology that overlaid deep-rooted social conflicts. Military culture, cultural war and mass killing in the Great War were thus inextricably linked.

Alan Kramer is associate professor of history at Trinity College Dublin. His book Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War is published by Oxford University Press, £18.99.

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