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The Spectator at war

The Spectator at war: Military execution and the act of ‘Germanism’

2 September 2014

8:30 AM

2 September 2014

8:30 AM

The Giving up of Louvain to ‘Military Execution’, from The Spectator, 5 September 1914:

GERMANY has dealt herself the hardest blow which she has yet suffered in the war. By burning Louvain, killing we know not how many of its inhabitants, and turning the rest (say nearly forty thousand men, women, and children) adrift in the fields and on the pillaged countryside, she has forfeited the consideration of decent men. She has committed a deed which two centuries of exemplary conduct could scarcely efface. “German” must for a long time to come be almost synonymous with those epithets of nationality which we use to denote barbaric behaviour, particularly barbarism directed against a cultured conception of life. Germany must henceforth occupy a place with the Vandals and the Huns. Let us not confuse this piece of Vandalism, or Germanism, with the outbreak of an over-tried, nerve- racked, hungry, or exasperated soldiery. If an ebullition of licence among troops temporarily out of hand had been the cause of the destruction of Louvain, we should have more to deplore than to denounce. As it is, denunciation, flowing from a just but unmeasured anger, rises in the mind, and for the moment anger obliterates every other feeling. For nothing is clearer than that the crime was planned and accomplished deliberately. If the German soldiers had exceeded their orders in burning the houses, there would have been time to stop the terrible deed of civic profanity before it had gone very far. But no attempt was made to arrest the work of destruction. The troops were supplied with inflammable materials and ordered to burn, to destroy, to make an example.

Even now that the truth is only too well attested one searches for some pretext that might have seemed a justification to German minds. It is said in German accounts that Belgians had fired on German troops from the windows of the houses. That is very unlikely to have happened on any considerable scale. But even if it did happen—if isolated Belgians, mad with fury and despair, and willing to sacrifice their lives, did fire—there was nothing approaching an excuse for the wicked holocaust which followed. Another account says that some Germans fired on one another in the dark, and that the outbreak of firing was attributed to Belgians. If this be true, there was still less excuse. We cast our minds back over history for any parallel to what the German Army has done by order of its superior officers. We can think of no modern parallel. Napoleon never destroyed towns wholesale in this manner. He destroyed to some extent, but he generally pillaged for the enrichment of France. He did not destroy cities to create a paralysing terror among conquered inhabitants. We can think of no parallel nearer to our own time than the devastation of the Palatinate by Louis XIV. Those savage days are indeed reproduced in our own era of progress and enlightenment because the German Army is obedient—abjectly obedient—to the instruction of Bismarck that the people of a conquered territory should be kept quiet by fear, and should be left, as he put it, only eyes to weep with. Do we exaggerate in saying that Bismarck’s instruction survives for actual use? Only fourteen years ago the German Emperor himself, addressing his troops, said: “Let all who fall into your hands be at your mercy. Make for yourselves a reputation like that of Attila’s Huns.” And Louvain was just the place to excite the passion of Huns. What a majestic place to destroy! This beautiful city was the capital of Brabant before Brussels rose to great- ness. And even when its wealth and commerce and population declined it made for itself fresh renown as the seat of the most famous University in Belgium. To think of a deed in England comparable with the destruction of Louvain we must imagine the burning of Oxford, of Cambridge, or of Edinburgh. At Louvain was the priceless library in the old Clothworkers’ Hall; the four colleges in which the undergraduates lived; the Hotel de Ville on the public square with its three storeys of pointed windows—one of the most elaborate examples of pointed Gothic in existence, similar to those at Bruges, Brussels, and Ghent, and only less elaborate than that at Oudenarde; the noble church of St. Pierre with its seven chapels; the baroque church of St. Michael built by the Jesuits; the church of Ste. Gertrude with its wood carvings; and all the other historical monuments which made Louvain a place of pilgrimage for students of architecture. If anything is saved, we do not know yet whal it may be. Some reports speaks definitely of the Hotel de Ville and St. Pierre as being preserved; but even if the more notable buildings are safe, thousands of houses full of character and loaded with history are gone. Louvain can never again be what it was. We are reckoning the disaster in terms of architecture; but who can reckon the bitterness, the misery, the suffering, and the starvation of the thousands of innocent persons turned out of their homes, which were set alight by the faggot and the torch? Many houses were fired while the inhabitants were still in them, and there is no doubt that the men of many families were shot down as they ran into the streets.

No condemnation could well be greater than the fact that we have to look so far back as the reign of Louis XIV for a counterpart to this futile wickedness. When Louis XIV and Louvois wanted to maintain for a time a quiet defensive against the Germans, they resolved to interpose between themselves and their enemy a waste land on which no army could live. The scene of operations lay beyond the French fortified places. In 1688 Wurttemberg was ravaged as far as the Danube. Throughout the Palatinate the work of annihilation was conducted on a regular scheme. The French troops marched at night by the light of blazing towns. Heidelberg—castle as well as town—was burned. Mannheim was obliterated. Speier, Worms, and Oppenheim were all razed. At Speier the cathedral went the way of all other churches, and the ashes in the Imperial tombs were dissipated. Such was the work of the “Most Christian Turk,” as Louis was called by Englishmen, who declared that he outdid in barbarism the Turks who were his allies. As an historical parallel it is worth while to notice that report now credits the German Emperor with a desire to have the support of Turkey in the field. Even in the days of the Grand Monarch there were alarmed and horrified mutterings among the French. What could all this lead to? Could such a policy pay in the long run? If the same questions are not asked now in Germany, we hope that they soon may be. Possibly a Professor or two will soon relent. It may be too much to expect that the stomach of the Army itself will turn. Such servile, soulless, and fatal discipline we never expected to see in our own day. The effect of the military yoke on the rather slavish German mind is apparently hypnotic. The troops act as men under a baneful but irresistible spell. We doubt whether British troops would have sacked Louvain, burnt down the houses over the heads of women and children, and driven thousands of them out to wander and starve, even if their officers had stood pistol in hand over them to enforce the order. Perfect discipline need not stifle the still small voice of manful protest. Germanic discipline does. We admire beyond words the discipline in the form that enables dense masses of Germans to oppose their bodies to a storm of bullets, and, as it were, to wear out the torrent of lead by the sheer receiving and resisting power of flesh; but the reverse of this wonderful exhibition of endurance is the unquestioning obedience to the awful policy which has shat- tered Louvain. Napoleon, it has been said, had no hold on the French people except through the one appeal of military glory. When glory failed the bubble had burst. There was nothing left. So we predict it will be with Germany. Even if she should win in this war, an Empire stayed on a servile and abject military subserviency cannot endure, nor even last for very long. We have too much trust in what Stevenson called “the ultimate decency of things” to believe otherwise.

We venture to take this opportunity of again suggesting that President Wilson should approach the German Emperor and ask him for a plain declaration of what his intentions are with regard to all the treaties signed on his behalf at the Hague. Most of those agreements have been shamelessly disregarded, so that no honest man can now place any trust in German promises. Is it pretended by some absurd technical, verbal, or metaphysical jugglery that treaties and agreements have not been violated? Or is it the policy of Germany simply to denounce all the protocols of civilized practice for the bare reason that they impede her way? We only ask to be informed so that we may know exactly where Germany stands. Englishmen, of course, whatever the answer may be, would have no thought of reprisals. “Les represailles sont toujours inutiles,” wrote a distinguished French General at the time of the Indian Mutiny. We believe in the truth of that observation from the bottom of our hearts. There must be no policy of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The lex falionia is not for us. That was a judgment of God in a primitive theocracy, but we live under the new dispensation. That there must be a reckoning with the military cantarilla that gave the order for the burning of Louvain is obvious, but it must take the shape of compensation and amends to Belgium and of eternal disgrace for the instigators, not the shape of physical retaliation. Two wrongs never make a right. But unfortunately Britain has no means of communicating diplo- matically with the German Emperor. Here is Mr. Wilson’s opportunity. The United States is strictly neutral—as honestly neutral towards Germany, we are sure, as towards ourselves. But she is the only neutral Great Power, except Italy, left outside the orbit of the war. We earnestly hope that Mr.Wilson, finding himself in this position—particularly since he represents a nation deeply committed to the principles of the Hague—will boldly and squarely ask the German Emperor to declare his intentions. Mr. Wilson can act, where no one else could, as the spokesman of civilization and human rights. The question to be put to the German Emperor could be asked in a manner that would admit of no misunderstanding or evasion. Does the German Emperor repudiate the Geneva Convention, and—perhaps even more binding—the common understanding of Europe that has grown up in the last two hundred years? Does he repudiate all the Hague Conventions? We ought to know. In our opinion, the United States owes it to civilization to find out for the rest of the world.

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