Grenzgeschichte DG - Autonome Hochschule in der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft



The Belgian population under German occupation, 1914-1918 

“In the Turmoil of the World War” [1]

The causes of the First World War and its military development per se are of no concern to us here. Germany was faced with the politically self-inflicted dilemma of a war on two fronts. The plan drawn up at the beginning of the century by the then Chief of Staff, von Schlieffen, envisaged a quick, decisive strike again France from the north via neutral Belgium, in order to overthrow France using the blitzkrieg method and then strike Russia with the full force of the army.

After Luxembourg had been taken by German troops overnight from 1st to 2nd August, German soldiers marched into Belgium in the early hours of 4th August. The border was initially breached in Gemmenich, near the quadripoint [2] and close to Aachen, with the bulk of the 25th Aachen Infantry Regiment (Lützow) following twenty cavalry. Most of the Belgian military was still assembled at the Meuse river, so the astonished Belgian customs officers had no other choice but to defiantly point out, "C'est la Belgique ici" (“This is Belgium”)[3].

“No quarter will be given”

Although contact with the enemy was infrequent, attacks on civilians soon started. More than 6000 completely innocent people [5] would lose their lives in these attacks over the next four weeks [6]. As early as 6th August a bachelor, Joseph Beuven, was shot and killed in Gemmenich and his house was razed to the ground. The German troops marching into the area had been provoked by the ostentatious spectacle of the Belgian flag [7]! On the evening of 7th August at Garnstock, just a few metres from the Prussian border near Eupen, members of a Hanover regiment forced their way into a monastery, claiming that somebody had shot at them from inside the building. Were it not for an orderly from nearby Eupen, who happened to be passing by and vouched for the monks as being completely harmless, even the fact that they were German nationals would not have saved them from being shot [8]. In the night of 8th-9th August seventeen civilians were shot and killed in Overoth and Baelen, just two kilometres from the aforementioned monastery. The victims included a 13-year-old girl, two women aged 24 and 62 and thirteen men aged between 30 and 68 [9].

The uncontrollable, marauding German soldiers continued to carry out these ferociously violent attacks on the civilian population throughout August and into September. Mass executions of civilians were the order of the day: villages and towns such as Battice, Herve, Visé, Andenne, Tamines and Aerschot were devastated. The most well-known event was in Leuven. Between 25th and 28th August, not only were 209 members of the public killed, but the world-famous university library was set on fire [10]

The worst German war crime committed in Belgium during the First World War was probably in Dinant, close to the French border, where 671 of the town’s 6000 inhabitants were killed by German soldiers in the final week of August 1914. Among the dead were babies and elderly people. Several hundred more people were forcibly removed to a camp at Kassel [11].

Francs-tireurs and snipers

What, then was the reason for this completely unjustified behaviour towards Belgian civilians, particularly during the first few weeks of the war? As early as the beginning of August, when Liege had just been captured, the censored German press told of appalling attacks on German soldiers by Belgian civilians. According to newspaper reports, devious Belgians had readily offered accommodation to German soldiers and had then murdered and brutally mutilated them during the night. But the perfidiousness of the Belgians did not end there, according to the newspapers. It was also claimed that non-uniformed individuals had shot at German soldiers from inside houses and from behind hedges. Even German businessmen and German holidaymakers in Belgian cities and coastal resorts had been assaulted by enraged mobs and, in some cases, even murdered, according to the German press [12].

In fact, the German troops’ advance into Belgium in early August did mean that the Schlieffen Plan had been implemented successfully. While the Belgian army did not meet the Germans in open battle, the Germans were confronted by small, fast mobile Belgian units – often equipped with bicycles – who managed to weaken the German army via an extremely successful series of small but harmful actions, which delayed the German advance considerably. Such attacks were often carried out at dusk or at night, when it was difficult for the German soldiers to spot the enemy. Sometimes advancing German units shot at each other due to their unfamiliarity with the terrain and the poor visibility conditions

Among the soldiers marching into Belgium there was, in fact, widespread fear of partisan attacks, a concern that was only intensified by the aforementioned press reports. Perhaps some soldiers, consumed by a certain sense of guilt, could imagine that the citizens of this small, neutral country that had been ambushed might attack the more powerful aggressor in a despair-driven rage. After all, it was no different to what Andreas Hof had done to the French in Tyrol in 1809 and he was celebrated as a national hero in Germany! Moreover, in the Franco-German war of 1870-1871 after Napoleon was defeated and the army of the Republic was set up, units known as francs-tireurs led guerrilla warfare behind the German lines [13]. They often wore plain clothes and were not identifiable as fighters.

In Belgium in 1914, civilians were blamed if shots were claimed to have been fired by an unseen enemy. Gunfire was often heard even when no guns had actually been fired, as was the case at the Garnstock monastery near Eupen [14]. And the above-mentioned massacre in Overoth/Baelen was apparently triggered by a ladder being knocked over, which made a loud crash as it hit the floor [15]!

Massacres of this kind were, to a certain extent, carried out by the German military leadership and were as brutal as possible in order to intimidate the locals and dissuade them from taking an oppositional stance against the troops. Almost every soldier was needed to implement the plan of attack, so few were able to stay behind. This is why there were often attacks in places that were already behind the lines in the Etappe, such as Visé. This town was captured on the first day of the war but was not set ablaze until 15th August [16]! The francs-tireurs propaganda also influenced the German people living in the border regions. For example, in Eupen on 18th August 1914 a rumour spread like wildfire: it was said that 5,000 (! H. R.) Belgian francs-tireurs had gathered in nearby Hertogenwald, on the Belgian side of the border, and were about to attack Eupen, from which most of the German soldiers had departed [17]. Panic swept through the town [18] and even the town’s major was not immune. Soldiers were immediately redeployed from Aachen and the nearby border station of Herbesthal to Eupen. That night, the gas lamps went out and around midnight the alarm was sounded, but there was no sign of the (non-existent) francs-tireurs!

The Eupen inhabitants’ state of fear seems understandable, since they had first-hand experience of the incidents that had played out almost on their own doorstep, whether they had witnessed the events themselves or heard other people’s accounts. In addition, the smear campaign by the German press seemed to have worked. Perhaps people even felt somewhat guilty, which only served to heighten their fear of retaliation!

The attacks on Belgium’s civilian population not only led to furious protests from those countries waging war against Germany, but also triggered an outpouring of indignation from neutral countries, particularly the USA. Germany was denied the right to continue to consider itself a cultural nation and high-level committees were set up to provide aid to Belgium’s civilians, such as the Commission for Relief in Belgium, founded by Herbert C. Hoover, who would later become President of the USA

In 1915 the government of the German Reich, put on the defensive before the global public, tried to substantiate its guerrilla warfare theory by publishing a white paper that mainly contained witness accounts by German soldiers in Leuven, Dinant, Tamines and Aarschot. During the Weimar Republic and especially during the National-Socialist period this theory was clung to, the official view being that an admission of guilt by Germany would be an additional obstacle to the desired revision of the Treaty of Versailles [19]

It was not until 1956 that a commission made up of well-known Belgian and German academics concluded that the German white paper and, consequently, the semi-official German works from the interwar period that were based on it should not be considered credible sources, "because it is untenable in terms of its basic theories, and many of the witness accounts which constitute it are demonstrably questionable and were systematically falsified" [20].

On the other hand, the horrific acts perpetrated by Germany offered the Allies an easy way to justify a propaganda campaign against their enemy in 1914-15. For example, both during and after the war cheap, mass-produced brochures were used not so much to inform people as to stir up feelings of hatred towards the enemy [21]. On 5th December 1914 the French weekly broadsheet newspaper L' Illustration published a caricature by FM Roganeau in its centrefold. It showed a completely devastated Belgian town, with fires still burning, a pile of corpses in the middle of the scene and, above it all, an avenging angel draped in a Belgian flag. It bore the slogan L'Holocauste (The Holocaust) [22]!

Further repression of civilians and mass departure

From the first day of the war, the brutal attacks by German soldiers on the civilian population led to a mass exodus over the border to the Netherlands. Following the fall of Antwerp in October 1914, there were, at one point, one million Belgians in the Netherlands. The General Governorate in Brussels, which was instituted on 25th August 1914, tried with all its might to prevent people from leaving the country illegally. The border was closely guarded by third-class infantry. It was not just the old and frail going to the Netherlands to be interned there; many young men also travelled there because they wanted to carry on towards the front in Flanders. The neutral Netherlands were also a convenient destination for spies, career smugglers, prisoners of war and German deserters.

In 1914 an electric fence had already been installed along the German side of a section of the Swiss border, in order to prevent young Alsatians completely lacking in German patriotism from fleeing into the neighbouring country. At the beginning of 1915 the General Governorate in Belgium decided to erect a similar barrier along the Belgian-Dutch border [23]. Construction began in April 1915 and on 23rd August the first eighteen-kilometre stretch from Aachen towards the Meuse river was completed. A few weeks later the whole facility was up and running. Conservative estimates put the number of people killed by the fence, whose voltage ranged from 500 and 2000 volts, at 3000. This figure does not include those escapees who were caught alive as they crossed the border and were then executed elsewhere [24]. Records show that during the period from January 1916 to September 1918 eighteen people were killed in the border district of Gemmenich, including sixteen Russian prisoners of war [25], who had worked under the most horrific conditions to build the rail line from Aachen via Gemmenich and Visé to Tongeren, a route of vital strategic importance [26].

During the years that followed, the regime of occupation was extremely tough for the people of Belgium [27]. In autumn 1914 a contribution of 40 million francs was already imposed on the country. This was illegal under international law. The contribution was increased in November 1916 to 50 million and finally to 60 million in May 1917 [28]. When the German authorities did not manage to find a sufficient number of voluntary workers to move from Belgium to Germany, they proceeded to force workers to move from October 1916 onwards [29]. Until February 1917 approximately 60,000 Belgians were transported to Germany, often in unheated cattle wagons. On arrival they were taken to so-called ‘distribution points’, which were affiliated to camps for prisoners of war or civilian prisoners, although the responsible authorities attached great importance to making sure that these camps were not described as concentration camps in public [30]. In Belgium these measures made people even more furious and the courageous Primate of Belgium, Cardinal Mercier [31] did not refrain from making his views on this matter very clear to the occupying power. Eventually, virulent protest, particularly from neutral foreign countries, led to the discontinuation of deportations from the General Governatorate in February 1917, but deportations continued from the Etappengebiet (the area behind the lines) in East Flanders, which was controlled directly by the army, and the area around the front in West Flanders.

Flemish groups who spoke out in favour of breaking away from Belgium enjoyed favourable treatment by the occupying power. These collaborators were earmarked by Germany as allies for a political post-war solution.

[1] Im Schlachtgetümmel des Weltkriegs (‘In the Turmoil of the World War’) is the title of a book by Georg Geliert, Berlin (n.d., approx. 1915). It was a “publication by the Deutsche Gesellschaft zur Verbreitung guter Jugendschriften und Bücher (‘German Society for the Dissemination of Good Works and Books for Young People’)”, whose honorary president was Chancellor Fürst von Bülow. The military actions of 1914 are structured around a framework plot, the main aim of which is to evoke public support for Germany’s brutal actions in Belgium. Hence, the Hellwig family in Belgium witnesses atrocious attacks on defenceless German civilians and soldiers by an out-of-control mob. This propaganda treatise culminates with a description of the shooting of a Belgian aristocrat who is seeking to kill unwitting German soldiers. In the end, thanks to German magnanimity, a plan to burn down the stately home is stopped so that the young (and now, orphaned) daughter can hold on to her inheritance.

[2] The quadripoint near Aachen was where the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany and the area of Neutral-Moresnet – which existed until the Treaty of Versailles came into force – converged; on the history of the quadripoint see e.g. Ruland, Herbert: “Arbeiterbewegung im Gebiet von Neutral-Moresnet (Altenberg, Kelmis-La Calamine)”, in: idem.: “Zum Segen für uns Alle. Obrigkeit, Arbeiterinnen und Arbeiter im deutsch-belgischen Grenzland (1871-1914)”, Eupen 2000, particularly p. 225-238 and p. 315-318.
[3] See Vanneste, Alex: “Kroniek van een dorp in oorlog. Neerpelt 1914-1918. Het dagelijks leven, de Spionage en de elektische draadversperring aan de Belgisch-Nederlandse grens tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog”, Deel 1: 1914-1915, Deurne 1998, p.14
[4] Kaiser Wilhelm II in his infamous ‘Hun Speech’ as he bid farewell to the German Expeditionary Force to China (who were going to fight the so-called Boxer Rebellion) on 27.7.1900.

[5] See Petri, Franz/ Schöller, Peter: “Zur Bereinigung des Franktireurproblems vom August 1914”, in: Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte, Heft 9, 1961, p. 234.
[6] For the most detailed contemporary account, which appears to list all of the places where civilians were attacked in August and September 1914, see: Cuvelier, Joseph: La Belgique et la guerre, Part II: L'invasion Allemande. Preface de Henri Pirenne, recteur de l'universite de Gand, Brussels 1921. For a list that is detailed but does not mention all of the places where German soldiers killed Belgian civilians during the 1914-1918 occupation, see: Lyr, Rene: Nos Héros. Morts pour la patrie. L'épopée belge de 1914 à 1918 (Histoire et Documentation). Tableau d'honneur des officiers, sous-officiers, soldats, marins et civils tombés pour la défence des foyers belges, extended issue, Brussels 1930, quatrième partie (part 4), p. 1-35.
[7] Verbal information provided by Mrs Netty Drooghaag-Bütz to the author.
[8] See Hermanns, Leo: Die Eucharistiner vom Garnstock, in: Geschichtliches Eupen, Eupen 27. Jg. 1994, Sölf. A Prussian citizen, a joiner by the name of Jean Dadt, also died in the massacre mentioned in note 10. The wife and daughter of the farmer Joseph Miessen, who was also shot and whose body was only found 14 days later in his burnt-out house, were taken to Eupen hospital with serious injuries, since they were also Prussian citizens. See idem.: Eupen im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Geschichtliches Eupen, 33. Jg. 1999, here p. 59.
[9] See Massenaux, Guillaume: Baelen-sur-Vesdre. Village aux marches de la Francité. Témoignages de son évolution au cours du dernier siècle. L'expansion de la langue française, suite aux deux guerres, Baelen 1981, p. 55-59.
[10] On the events in Leuven see Schivelbusch, Wolfgang: Die Bibliothek von Löwen.
Eine Episode aus der Zeit der Weltkriege, Munich, Vienna 1988.
[11] See i.a. Dietrich: Die Belgier, op. cit., p.258-261; Donat, Helmut: Wer sich uns in den Weg stellt...- Aus einem dunklen Kapitel deutscher Geschichte: der Überfall auf Belgien im August 1914, in: Donat, Helmut/Strohmeyer, Arn (Ed.): Befreiung von der Wehrmacht? Dokumentation der Auseinandersetzung um die Ausstellung Vernichtungskrieg - Verbrechen der Wehrmacht 1941 bis 1944 in Bremen 1996/97, Bremen 1997, p. 93.
[12] Reports of this kind can be found in all German daily newspapers from the first weeks of August 1914. Almost all of the articles were based on censored reports by the semi-official news agency WTB, so at first the same communiqués were reproduced in almost all newspapers. Only when the censor was relaxed and war reporters were permitted at the end of August did the reporting become more varied, though it was still far from truthful. In the Eupen local press, which was studied here, there were particularly harrowing accounts by unnamed people allegedly living in Eupen who experienced the outbreak of war in Belgium. The destruction of towns and villages close to the border and civilian massacres were also reported, though the journalists believed that those affected only had themselves to blame due to their underhand behaviour towards the German soldiers.

[13] e.g.: Lindner: op. cit., particularly p.102f.

[14] Hermanns: Erster Weltkrieg, op. cit.

[15] ibid.
[16] See e.g. Cuvelier: L'Invasion Allemande, op. cit., p. 82-86.

[17] See Kreuer, Hubert: Eupen beim Einzug der Deutschen nach Belgien, in: Vom Krieg und von Daheim, special edition of the Eupener Nachrichten, no.5 of 24.12.1914, p. 33f, partly reproduced in Hermanns, Leo: Eupen im Ersten Weltkrieg, op. cit., p. 61-63.

[18] “'The Belgians are plotting their revenge!' they said, “They organise gangs of francs-tireurs, who are only waiting for the right moment to pounce on us", went the rumours /.../ And the most fearful inhabitants waited in trepidation. What will become of us? To be attacked by francs-tireurs – how awful! Mutilated, defiled, murdered, the houses set on fire! Oh God, how will this end? And our poor children!. Some families are packing feverishly so that they can flee as quickly as possible...", Kreuer, ibid., p. 33.

[19] See Wieland, Lothar: Belgien 1914. Die Frage des belgischen Franktireurkrieges und die deutsche öffentliche Meinung von 1914 bis 1936, Frankfurt/Main, Bern, New York 1984.

[20] Quoted in Donat: Wer sich uns.., op. cit., p. 100.

[21] See e.g.: D'Ars, C.M.L.: La Fureur Boche à Namur, Antwerp, n.d.; Prouvaire, Jean: Sac et massacres de Louvain, Antwerp, n.d.

[22] L’Illustration, Journal Universel, 72. Jg. 1914, Nr. 3744 of 5.12., p. 432f.
[23] Although the construction of the electric fence on the Belgian-Dutch border was another significant event in the lives of the inhabitants of the occupied country and likely claimed the lives of several thousand people, there is almost no memory of it now. Strangely enough, even specialised Belgian literature from between the wars, which tried to paint as dramatic a picture as possible of the occupation, usually only mentioned the fence in passing or in the footnotes. In German publications from this period the fence, if mentioned at all, is usually only depicted as the location of tense clashes between allied spies and German counter-spies e.g. see Binder, Heinrich: Spionagezentrale Brüssel. Der Kampf der deutschen Armee mit der belgisch-englischen Spionage und der Meisterspionin Gabriele Petit, Hamburg, Berlin, Leipzig, 1929; Vanneste: Een Dorp, op. cit., Parts I and II. Pages 287-292 in Part I contain the facsimile of an original map that shows the course of the fence from Aachen to the Scheide river; Herzog, Martin/Rösseler, Marko: Der große Zaun. Ein bizarres Kapitel aus der Terrorgeschichte des deutschen Militärs im Ersten Weltkrieg, in: Die Zeit, 16.4.1998, p. 82. The author of this text also examines the effects of this border fence on the lives of the inhabitants of the Meuse-Rhine Euregio in more detail. See Ruland: Die tödliche Elektrofalle. Der 2000-Volt-Zaun zwischen Belgien und Holland fing in Aachen an, in: Aachener Nachrichten, 10.8.1999, Euregio section.

[24] Vanneste cited in Herzog/Rösseler, ibid.
[25] See Emunds, Paul: Rauchfahnen, Streikfahnen, Staubfahnen auf Rothe Erde über Eilendorf, Forst und Nirm, Beiträge zur Wirtschafts- und Sozialgeschichte einer Arbeiterwohngemeinde, Schriftenreihe Band 2, Aachen 1989, p. 145-147.
[26] The actual line from Germany to Antwerp, which branches off to southern Belgium and northern France, ran through the Dutch province of Limburg and since this country was neutral, it was not available to Germany during the First World War. Around 1000 Russians are believed to have been deployed for the construction of the new line. See Bovy, Armand: La Ligne 24. Tongres-Vise-Gemmenich, n.p., 1998, p. 65-67,144 and 180. Excavation work on a former Russian encampment in Moresnet strongly supports the theory that Russians were forced to work here, too. The author will examine this.

[27] An informative account of everyday life during the occupation: Rency, Georges: La vie materielle de la Belgique durant la guerre mondiale. La Belgique et la guerre, Vol. l, Brussels,1920.

[28] See Dietrich, op. cit., p. 262 on this and for a summary of what followed.
[29] In particular see Thiel, Jens: Belgische Zwangsarbeiter in Deutschland im Ersten Weltkrieg, (unpublished Magister degree thesis), Humboldt University, Berlin 1997.
[30] The October 1916 communication by the Prussian war ministry referring to this read, “Actual concentration camps for forcibly transferred Belgian workers are not to be set up, and the expression ‘camp’ is to be avoided. Instead the term ‘accommodation sites’ shall be used for industrial workers”, ibid., p. 106.

[31] On the role of the Primate of Belgium in the First World War, see Meseburg-Haubold, Ilse: Der Widerstand Kardinal Merciers gegen die deutsche Besetzung Belgiens 1914-1918. Ein Beitrag zur politischen Rolle des Katholizismus im 1. Weltkrieg, Frankfurt/Main, Bern 1982.
[32] See Wieland: Belgien, op. cit., particularly p.95-105; Donat: Wer sich uns in den Weg stellt, op. cit., p. 98-101.
[33] In Eupen- Malmedy, in contrast to other areas where the Treaty of Versailles prescribed referenda, there was no plebiscite under the most neutral possible control, i.e. the League of Nations, but rather a ‘consultation of the people’ under Belgian supervision, with a predictable result. In both of the main towns registers were made available. Anyone who wished to remain part of the German state was required to add their name to a register. The rural population, in particular, had great difficulty travelling into the towns. Many people who went to the polling stations found them closed or they were prevented from signing. In a state of panic, often heightened by pro-Belgian propaganda, most of those affected feared that if they voiced their sympathies for the Reich they would be cast out of their ancestral home, lose their property and be unable to change their German money – which was rapidly becoming more worthless as inflation increased – into Belgian francs. Many industrial workers were also worried that the so-called ‘trilingual stamp’ in their passport would be deleted. It was this stamp that allowed them to work over the border in nearby Germany, given the dearth of employment options where they lived. In addition, the Belgian government did not tell the people that a referendum on which country the region should belong to was happening, and the severely censored newspapers could only report what was permitted by General Baltia’s special administration, which had its headquarters in Malmedy and was furnished with dictatorial powers. For a long time the people were not fully aware of the result of the referendum, either. In the end just 271 individuals put their names to the protest list, most of them civil servants who moved to Germany with their families in order to keep their status. See observations in Doepgen, Heinz: Die Abtretung des Gebietes von Eupen-Malmedy an Belgien im Jahre 1920, Rheinisches Archiv. Veröffentlichungen des Instituts für Geschichtliche Landeskunde der Rheinlande an der Universität Bonn, Bonn 1966.

[34] See e.g. Dietrich: Die Belgier, op. cit., p. 294-339 on developments in Belgium between the wars.




Koordination der „Aktionstage Politische Bildung“

Demokratieerziehung in Brüssel

Vertretung der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft in der „Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research“

Vertretung der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft im pädagogischen Beirat des „Jüdischen Museums der Deportation und des Widerstandes in Mechelen“

Vertretung der Deutschsprachigen Gemeinschaft im Verwaltungsrat der Gedenkstätte Breendonk



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