Did German troops really burn down the Belgian city of Leuven?

Published by carolyn on Fri, 2018-12-28 12:17

Or, even worse, the irreplaceable medieval manuscripts housed in the library there? Those uncivilized barbarians!

The message received by the public almost everywhere except in the German and Austro-Hungarian empires was one which placed the blame for all the horrors of war on the German side. And it remains the overwhelming belief enshrined in the official history of the First World War.

By Carolyn Yeager

THIS IS THE NARRATIVE YOU WILL COME ACROSS by a superficial Internet search on the popular search engines. I knew there was an alternate version of this narrative, but was surprised when I could not find any mention of one with a quick online search. There was not even a reference to it on the relevant Wikipedia pages. So I thought, again: The Internet is being denuded of all 'alternative' versions of history! This is getting to be nuts.

I wanted to know what the Germans had said particularly about the city of Leuven (Louvain in French) which seems to be the best-known example of the alleged “German atrocities” committed by the German Army in Belgium. The most famous incident is the burning of the Catholic University Library (not the medieval library which was no longer in Leuven!). The library story is a ready-made symbol for the myth of uncivilized behavior by Teutonic savages. You can read about it in any number of places online. Always the same version of events. I finally made a breakthrough when I discovered a New York Times news item (click on Download PDF) from Sept. 19, 1914, labeled as an official communication from the German General Staff.

I looked for a White Book, but did not get what I wanted from the German White Book for 1914 because it only covered the causes of the war. So I tried looking for German White Book 1915 and lo and behold, there was one and it covered “The German Army in Belgium.” [PDF here] So armed with these two items, I present the German version of the atrocities visited upon the people of Leuven, and other cities … so often called “The Rape of Belgium.”

Why the German Army was in Belgium

I think I need to begin by remembering that when the Kaiser learned that both France and Russia were mobilizing their troops for war, he knew his only hope was to act quickly in mobilizing his own forces, in alliance with Austria-Hungary in its dispute with Serbia/Russia. This required a passage through Belgium to reach France (because of the strong fortification line defending France from Germany along their eastern border). So Germany nicely requested of 'neutral' Belgium to allow their passage, with compensation, through the country, which was not a particularly unusual request. But Belgium had been in secret discussions with England and France against Germany, and therefore surprised the Kaiser with an unequivocal 'no.' Since time was of the essence and German existence was at stake, it was decided to just march through using whatever force was necessary.

If Belgium, a professed but not honestly neutral country, would have just let the Germans march though to France, there would have been no destruction and no “rape.” Instead, this professed neutrality of Belgium became a big issue allowing England to declare war on the German Empire based on its violation of Belgium neutrality! Thus was WWI underway.

This is from the Preface of the German White Book (1915):

Immediately after the outbreak of the present war, the Belgian civil population began a wild contest against the German troops, which constitutes a flagrant violation of international law, and resulted in the most serious consequences for Belgium and its people.

This struggle of a populace governed by the rudest passions raged during the entire forward march of the German Army through Belgium. When the Belgian Army had retired before the German troops, after obstinate combats, the Belgian civil population in the unoccupied parts of the country endeavoured to hinder the German advance by every possible means; moreover, even in the places which had been in possession of German troops for a long time, the inhabitants had no hesitation in trying to damage and weaken the German forces by cowardly and treacherous attacks.

And from the book's Foreword:

From an a priori point of view it is difficult to believe that German troops, probably the most sternly disciplined and best educated soldiers in the world, should have deliberately gone out of their way to shoot innocent civilians in Belgium and destroy their property for no apparent reason at all. To embroil themselves wilfully with the civilian inhabitants at a time when every minute was precious in their scheme of a rapid advance against the Anglo-French forces was obviously the last thing the invaders would desire. The supposition that the Germans indulged in appalling and indiscriminate acts of terrorism against quite innocent people in order to secure the safety of their lines of communication is ridiculous on the face of it. In short, the current view of “Belgian atrocities,” admirably as it served its purpose as valuable propaganda, contains within itself so many difficulties that no fair-minded historian of the future could accept it as it stands.

Propaganda poster or cartoon of the period in which the British try to influence the USA to enter the war against Germany-Austria, which is portrayed as crossing the Atlantic to ravage America. Could it get any more outlandishly vicious than this?

New York Times publishes 'Germany's version'

Before I looked for and found the White Books, I discovered a single newspaper article (linked to above) published in the New York Times on Sept. 19, 1914. It comes from the ex-Secretary of the German Embassy in Washington, Adolf von Bruening, and gives the German version of why Louvain burned.

Official Communication of the German General Staff

The City of Loewen (Louvain) had surrendered and was given over to us by the Belgian authorities. On Monday, Aug. 24, some of our troops were shipped there and intercourse with the inhabitants was developing in a quite friendly manner.

On Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 25, our troops, hearing about an imminent Belgian sortie from Antwerp, left in that direction, the Commanding General ahead in a motor car, leaving behind only a Colonel with soldiers to protect railroad (Landsturm battalion “nuess.”).

As the rest of the Commanding General's staff, with the horses, was going to follow, and collected on the market place, suddenly rifle fire opened from all the surrounding houses, all the horses being killed and five officers wounded, one of them seriously.

Simultaneously fire opened at about ten different places in town, also on some of our troops just arrived and waiting on the square in front of the station, and on incoming military trains. A designed cooperation with the Belgian sortie from Antwerp [was] established beyond doubt. Two priests caught handing out ammunition to the people were shot at once in front of the station.

Street fights lasted till Wednesday the 26th, in the afternoon, (twenty-four hours) when stronger forces, arrived in the meantime, succeeded in getting the upper hand. Town and northern suburbs were burning at different places and by this time have probably burned down altogether.

On the part of the Belgian Government a general rising of the population against the enemy had been organized for a long time; depots of arms were found where to each gun was attached the name of the citizen to be armed.

A spontaneous rising of the people has been recognized at the request of the smaller States at The Hague Conference as being within the law of nations, as [long] as weapons are carried openly and the laws of civilized warfare are being observed; but such rising was only admitted in order to fight the attacking [forces].

In the case of Loewen the town had already surrendered and the population renounced, without any resistance, the town being occupied by our troops [? clumsy wording]. Nevertheless the population attacked on all sides - and with a murderous fire - the occupying forces and newly arriving troops, which came in trains and automobiles, considering the hitherto peaceful attitude of the population.

Therefore there can be no question of means of defense allowed by the law of nations, neither of a warlike guet-apens (ambush), but only of a treacherous attempt of the civil population all along the line, and all the more to be condemned as it was apparently planned long beforehand with simultaneous attack from Antwerp, as arms were not carried openly, as women and young girls took part in the fight and blinded our wounded, sticking their eyes out.

The barbarous attitude of the Belgian population in all parts occupied by our troops has not only justified our severest measures but forced them on us for the sake of self-preservation. The intensity of the resistance of the population is shown by the fact that in Loewen twenty-four hours were needed to break down their attack.

We ourselves regret deeply that during these fights the town of Loewen has been destroyed to a great extent. Needless to say that these consequences are not intentional on our part, but cannot be avoided in this infamous franc-tireur war being led against us.

Whoever knows the good-natured character of our troops cannot seriously pretend that they are inclined to needless or frivolous destruction.

The entire responsibility for these events rests with the Belgian Government, who with criminal frivolity have given to the Belgian people instructions contrary to law of nations and incited the resistance, and who, in spite of our repeated warnings, even after the fall of Luettich (Liege) have done nothing to induce them to a peaceful attitude.

The New York Times

Published: September 19, 1914

Back to the German White Book of 1915, the Foreword also contains these extracts [8 out of the l6 given] from well-known newspapers in the early days of the invasion (before they were ordered not to publish such accounts) that show the difficult situation the German Army faced:

Nieuwe Gazet, Aug. 8—“The citizens also fire on the invaders. At Bernot the outposts had to fight against the civilians who fired like madmen at the invaders from houses, roofs, and windows. Some women even took part in the struggle. A young girl, eighteen years of age, armed with a revolver, fired at an officer. … The peasants and inhabitants kept up a regular fusillade against the Germans.”

Het Handelblad, No. 190—“The peasants seized their sporting guns and killed the officer who was commanding the detachment and several men.”

Matin, Antwerp, No. 225—“At Dormael the three brothers Sevenans who had fired on the Germans were shot; their bodies were pierced by lance-wounds and their house was burnt down.”

Buergerwelsijn, Bruges, No. 95—“Some 2000 Germans had penetrated as far as the National Arms Factory and were received by a hail of bullets. All the houses, even the smallest, had been transformed into veritable fortresses. […] Women and children brought up the supplies of ammunition. […] The Germans […] sheltered themselves behind a few remaining bushes, for the inhabitants had burned and destroyed everything which could serve as cover.

[The Germans retreated and then mounted an attack]

“Men, women and children open such a frightful fire on the enemy that the first ranks tumbled one on the other. The Germans nevertheless entered the village streets, cavalry in front, infantry behind, while the exasperated populace did not cease to overwhelm the enemy with its fire. The women poured boiling oil and water on the German soldiers who rolled on the ground howling with the pain.”

La Presse, Antwerp, No 213—“Liege is resisting marvellously. The inhabitants uniting with the Garde Civique are fighting in the streets.”

La Metropole, Antwerp, Aug. 8th—“Some of the inhabitants of Liege broke open the window of a gunsmith's shop, seized guns, revolvers and cartridges and pursued the Uhlans [calvarymen with lances] to the outskirts of the town.”

Nieuwe Gazet, Aug. 7th—“Young and old ran to take up arms, and if they were unable to stop the murderous advance of the German cavalry, the inhabitants at least resisted till the last moment. People fired from the houses upon the Germans, who, in conformity with the laws of war, in these cases, accorded no mercy. They penetrated into the houses from which the shots had been fired and shot a certain number of inhabitants found with arms in their hands.”

Nieuwe Gazet, Aug. 8—The paper goes on to tell us that a German Officer assembled the inhabitants round him and was urging them to remain calm. “Scarcely had the officer closed his mouth when a shot suddenly fired at him caused him to fall dead to the ground.”

In the Preface to the White Book, we also find this interesting, though distressing, section:

The chief burden of blame which rests on the Belgian people is, however, their unheard-of violation of the usages of war. In several places, for instance Liege, Herve, Brussels, Aerschot, Dinant, and Louvain, German soldiers were treacherously murdered, which is absolutely against the prohibition which forbids the " treacherous killing or wounding of individuals belonging to the enemy people or army " (Article 23, Section i (b) of the Hague Convention : The Laws and Customs of War on Land). Further, the Belgian population did not respect the sign of the Red Cross, and thereby offended against Article 9 of the Geneva Convention of July 6th, 1906 ; in particular, they did not hesitate to fire upon the German troops under the protection of this sign, and also to attack hospitals in which there were wounded, as well as members of the Ambulance Corps, while they were carrying out their duties. Finally, it is absolutely certain that German wounded were plundered and killed by the Belgian population, and indeed in many cases horribly mutilated; and that even women and young girls took part in these shameful actions. In this way the eyes of German wounded were torn out, ears, noses, fingers, and sexual organs cut off, or their bodies slit open.

In other cases, German soldiers were poisoned, hung on trees, deluged with burning fluid or otherwise burnt, so that they died a particularly agonising death This bestial behaviour on the part of the population is not only absolutely contrary to the express obligation laid down in Article i. Section i of the Geneva Convention regarding the "respect and care of" the wounded and sick of the enemy army, but also to the first principles of the laws of war and humanity.

It's as if the Belgian people, due to their alliance with the English, had the same notion that they were allowed to get away with anything and everything, and were under restriction of no common laws. The vicious savagery against Germans we're familiar with in the Second World War was already taking place in the First War, a fact of which most most of us were not aware. And the compulsion to project one's own shameful behavior onto one's enemy is always present.

Example affadavit from The White Book (1915)

The White Book is largely made up of affadavits taken from soldiers and other witnesses to the attacks by civilians on German troops. I've selected at random one affadavit from Leuven of one Robert Weiss, described as an engineer, in Altona, age 31, Christian, motor-driver:

On the afternoon of August 25th, 1914, we arrived at Louvain. The inhabitants behaved at first more than kindly towards us. Towards the evening I had driven a wounded man to the field hospital near the market-place. The field hospital was established in a monastery. About 9 o'clock I drove the car with Captain von Harnier in it from the monastery back to the market-place, when suddenly firing began on all sides from the houses. I stopped my car and remained unhurt; Captain von Harnier was wounded in the arm; he hurried to the market-place, and I sought cover beneath the car.

I may have remained there about half an hour when a platoon of German infantry came along the road. I called to the leader, and he had the surrounding houses, from which the shooting continued, covered by fire. I then took the car to safety in the yard of the monastery.

When, after a short time, I wished to leave, Captain von Esmarch was carried in, covered with blood. Whilst being carried to the field hospital, he was fired upon from the monastery. I went into the monastery with an infantry-man; we found a revolver, but to save ourselves from being cut off we could not enter the vaults of the monastery into which the people had evidently retired. The Belgian field hospital did not want to bandage Captain von Esmarch; I finally forced a Belgian surgeon, whom I caught by the arm, to apply the bandage.

Subsequently, on driving my car to the market-place, and from there to the station with the General Staff, I saw everywhere on the way burning houses; now and again isolated firing from the houses still took place.

At the station there were no burning houses, and strict orders had been given to set no houses on fire there. After half an hour the firing from the hotels opposite the station began. From that point right to the station there was firing with machine-guns; I could distinctly hear the regular " tak, tak."

It was only then that orders were given to raze the houses in front of the station; they were set on fire, but even from the burning houses, and finally from the ruins, the firing continued briskly. We suffered losses.

Later on, isolated shots were fired.

The citizens who had in any way taken part in the attack were brought to the station square, and, if found guilty, shot according to martial law.

The soldiers, who brought the citizens along, were exhorted — as I have myself heard — to bear witness carefully and conscientiously. The examinations were conducted by officers of the General Staff. Whoever carried loaded arms, in spite of the prohibition issued and announced, was shot at once.

In the town lay several men in clerical garb, shot; at the station, too, several men in clerical dress were shot; all were examined, but I was not present at the examinations. On the following day, too, isolated shots fell upon us from houses.

Read over, approved, signed.

Signed : Weiss.

The witness was sworn in accordance with the regulations.

Signed : Dr. Steengrafe, President.

Signed : Meyer.

I hope you will read both German White Books for yourself - they are not too long, but especially the 1915 “German Army in Belgium.”

So what is the verdict? When all the evidence is in, the German Army was following the agreed-to laws of war (the law), while the Belgians, including some Belgian military, were breaking the laws of war. The argument of the Allies in defense of the Belgians is merely that the attacks by the citizens is being 'exaggerated' by the Germans and it was really a minor occurance. As always, it comes down to who you believe.


Belgium seems to have been created in 1830 specifically to give the British a pretext for getting involved in European wars when they so desired. The original concept must have been to contain France. Belgium of course was allied with the UK for that purpose. The first King of Belgium, Leopold I, was a Saxe-Coburg who had fought Napoleon and married the daughter of George IV. Thus the little artificial Belgian state was created as a British proxy and as an excuse for British warmongering.
Under those circumstances, it becomes clear why the sufferings of the poor Belgians would be greatly exaggerated in British war-propaganda.

With the decisive defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo (located in southern Belgium) in 1815, by the combined forces of England and Prussia, the Vienna Congress was held to provide a long-term peace plan for Europe. The new Kingdom of the Netherlands was created which included former Austrian territory that in 1830, under the First London Treaty, became Belgium. It was the Catholics in this new Kingdom that were unhappy with the treatment accorded them and eventually won their independence. It took 9 more years for the Treaty of London of 1939 to be signed by the two countries.

Some say it was at this treaty, or possibly at the Second Treaty of London (1867) that a secret agreement was signed with London and Prussia to give both right of passage through the new nation, if necessary in time of war, despite Belgium's neutrality requirement, which was insisted upon by Britain. I haven't found any confirmation of this on Wiki pages – it may exist in certain history books. But if this were the case, Belgium was never truly neutral, and the German Emperor Wilhelm II, being also King of Prussia, had unlimited right to march through Belgium without its consent, and even set up fortresses there.

In 1914, Britain brought it's fleet into Belgian harbors, so Britain was not honoring Belgium's neutrality!

I have seen photographic evidence of the violation of German soldiers including Waffen-SS on the Eastern Front comitted by the Bandits behind the front lines. Rear area hospitals were a favorite goal. Simply unbelievable cruelty as you have reported on in Belgium. Only those possesed by demons could mutilate living bodies so.
It is more than well past time to proclaim the righteous defense of the honor of German soldiery!

Yep, Giesler reports in his memoirs how American troops killed or shot the disabled/injured and the wounded along with the doctors in the spirit of onward Christian soldiers marching on.

Very impressive research, my dear friend!! We are indebted to your tenacious spirit and your drive to "bring history into accord with the facts." Thank you, Carolyn!

You can also find translations from the 1915 White Book here -
There is also another item from 1915 called The Neutrality of Belgium by Alexander Fuehr -

Les, I had to redo both your links. You need to get up to speed with that. But thanks for sending them. I tend to forget about JR Books and I don't know why because I love the site. It's truly invaluable.

Will have something to say about this if you don't close the comments.