Larry Zuckerman. The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I. New York: New York University Press, 2004. xi + 337 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-9704-4.
Reviewed by Jonathan S. Epstein (Department of History, John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Saint Peter's College)
Published on H-War (October, 2006)
Belgium's No Longer Overlooked Suffering
As the subtitle of this excellent work indicates, German treatment of Belgium, especially after the front settled down on the Yser River, is at least an "untold story of World War I" if not the "untold story," especially in the English-speaking world. Most of the attention paid to Belgium has focused on the early German barbarism and the resulting propaganda campaign, especially by the British, aimed at justifying the war at home and at winning support abroad. There is very little else in English on Belgium in the Great War, so this book fills a gaping void. However, Larry Zuckerman has a larger aim as well. He argues that if Belgian suffering had been truly appreciated and if the perpetrators had been punished in war crimes trials, the horrors of the German occupations in World War II would have been cut short by an earlier, more robust Allied reaction, because the German atrocities, especially the Holocaust, would have been recognized for what they were--a reprise of their behavior in occupied Belgium. The war crimes trials would also have knocked down the German defense of "necessity" by which they justified their acts in the Great War and by which they would justify their acts in World War II (pp. 2, 274-275). Unfortunately, these larger arguments are far from compelling. During World War II, the Allies, in possession of information about the Holocaust, did not go out of their way to stop the genocide when they could have bombed the death camps, the concentration camps, or the train tracks leading thereto. If they did nothing when they were winning and had complete air superiority with plenty of bombers, it is hard to imagine them acting earlier and more robustly when they had fewer bombers and desperately needed to hit the German war effort. Any intervention by ground troops would have been impossible. It is also hard to imagine the Nazis being deterred from the "Final Solution" or, say, partisan warfare in Yugoslavia by being legally unable to use "necessity" as a defense.
In the spirit of Zuckerman's larger aims, the United States comes in for harsh criticism for its almost total inaction in defense of Belgium. American President Woodrow Wilson, the architect of America's neutrality, is especially castigated. "Had Woodrow Wilson wished above all to make the world safe for democracy, he would not have ignored Belgium for almost three years while lecturing both sides about morality" (p. 2).
The Rape of Belgium is far from dispassionate. Zuckerman is clearly acting as an advocate for Belgium and for moral standards in wartime. He pleads Belgium's case, and does it very well. He argues that, as horrific as the German atrocities in the wake of the German army were, even worse was how the Germans made the terror a routine and believed they were justified in so behaving (p. 1). Where necessary, he also explains how the German justifications held no water. He chronicles German crimes from the first--the very invasion of neutral Belgium--to the last. Belgium never recovered from the German depredations. It had been the sixth-greatest industrial power in the world before the war, but under the German occupation its industrial plants were looted or wrecked in a conscious, and successful, attempt to eliminate a competitor (p. 1). This history is written in an easily readable narrative style.
The first chapter is about Belgium on the eve of the Great War. Zuckerman describes, based on the notes of one of the participants (although no minutes were taken), the Belgian cabinet meeting in response to the German ultimatum demanding free passage through Belgium to attack France; they decided that the invasion would be a violation of international law, that it would be against Belgian honor to acquiesce, and that it would be a violation of Belgium's duty to Europe (p. 18). On August 4, 1914, the Germans committed the first of their war crimes, declaring war on a Belgium whose neutrality Prussia had guaranteed in 1839. The German chancellor freely admitted in the Reichstag that it was "wrong," but that it was justified by "necessity." He later described the 1839 treaty as "a scrap of paper"--a phrase that would come back to haunt him (p. 20).
Chapter 2 looks at the atrocities carried out by the German soldiers as they advanced through Belgium. The Germans justified these crimes by claiming that they had been fired on first by Belgian francs-tireurs (civilian snipers), when in fact they had been shot at, if at all, by other jittery German soldiers.
Chapter 3, which does not fall in chronological order, looks at how German behavior in 1914 (and the attitudes the Germans used to justify that behavior) resulted from the Franco-Prussian War and the very real French francs-tireurs. The Germans developed a doctrine of "necessity" (Kriegsraison) in which they were allowed to violate "the laws and customs of war" if such violations would facilitate the achievement of a strategic goal or save the state from danger. This interpretation of "necessity" went far beyond that of other countries pondering the same question at this time (p. 39). The Germans feared encirclement and saw attack as the way to break the chains. "Necessity," plus the perception in Germany that Belgium was failing in its duty of neutrality by building forts against them and not against the French, justified the Schlieffen Plan (p. 41). Added to that was a contempt towards the Belgians on the part of German planners and theoreticians (pp. 42-43). Similarly, the German Usages of War (1902), the most important of the pre-war German manuals on military behavior, was designed to avoid the problems of 1870, especially those of francs-tireurs, by giving the soldiers wide latitude to do anything they felt was necessary for victory, including shooting civilians, bounded only by the conscience of the officer in charge (p. 47). Zuckerman argues that one reason for the German behavior in 1914 was the tension of trying to make the Schlieffen Plan work in the face of unexpected Belgian resistance. He notes there does not seem to have been a high-level order to commit the terror, but that, at the same time, it did not come "out of the blue" because the German soldiers saw the Belgians as irrationally trying to thwart their drive to break the chains of encirclement (pp. 60-61).
The fourth chapter looks at the first maladroit Belgian attempts in 1914 to gain American support by means of a delegation sent to tour America to plead the Belgian case. Chapters 5 through 11 detail the increasing exploitation and oppression of occupied Belgium, including the deportation of forced laborers to Germany and northern France, and the deliberate policy, known as Flamenpolitik, of playing the Germanic Flemish off against the Gallic Walloons, while favoring the former. Zuckerman examines the effects of these policies, as well as violations of the Hague conventions and other international laws, on the Belgian population. Chapter 7 discusses the first demands for the postwar punishment of Germany for its war crimes. These demands were spurred on by the so-called "Bryce Report," a lurid British account of the German atrocities in Belgium, aimed at both the British and the Americans, which earned British propaganda its reputation for sensationalism and which, after the postwar debunking of many of the stories, contributed to world reluctance to believe similar stories about the Germans in the World War II. Zuckerman suggests that Viscount Bryce and his committee accepted questionable allegations, although not tangibly false ones, out of a fear that if accusations of "gruesome" German atrocities were not backed up the public would acquit the Germans of all guilt (p. 134).
The last three chapters relate to the Allied abandonment of Belgium after the war. Despite their wartime rhetoric, the Big Four were unwilling to fairly compensate the Belgians (in the opinion of Belgians inside and outside of the government) or to hold the extensive war-crimes trials urged by Belgium and France. This book is very well researched, drawing on primary and secondary source documents from Belgium, Germany, Britain, France, and the United States. The bibliography is impressive. It would be a useful addition to the library of anybody interested in World War I, Belgium, or both!
. Following Zuckerman, I will refer to Belgian place-names and rivers by the names used by and familar to English-speakers in 1914 (p. xi).
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Jonathan S. Epstein. Review of Zuckerman, Larry, The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I.
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