Jeff Lipkes. Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 2007. 832 pp. $55.95 (paper), ISBN 978-90-5867-596-5.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Chipps Smith (School of Social Sciences, Northwestern State University)
Published on H-German (July, 2008)
German Atrocities in World War I Revisited
For much of the twentieth century, historians largely dismissed reports of German atrocities committed against Belgian civilians during the 1914 invasion as mere Allied propaganda. Beginning in the 1990s, however, a careful examination of evidence from Belgian, French, and German sources enabled historians, most notably John Horne and Alan Kramer, to establish irrefutably that the German armies engaged in a substantial campaign against civilian targets, including massacres of nearly 6,000 men, women, and children, pillaging and burning of homes as well as historical and cultural sites, and the destruction of entire villages. Historical debate has thus shifted away from the question of whether or not "atrocities" happened, but why they happened. Were they part of a deliberate policy of terror orchestrated by the military and even sanctioned by the leadership of the Kaiserreich or can these actions be attributed to an unorganized outburst of paranoia among officers and soldiers responding to rumors about the Belgians engaging in a "franc-tireur" campaign? Jeff Lipkes is the latest historian to engage this debate, in which he gravitates toward the former thesis. However, Lipkes is not a German historian, but a specialist in the history of British economic thought. In the acknowledgments, he explains how he "strayed into the August 1914 combat zones of eastern Belgium" as a response to questions asked by students in his European and world history classes about the civilian impact of World War I (p. 9). He also affirms in his epilogue that his book was "conceived as a simple narrative history, not an argument" (p. 674). The result is a frequently engaging, albeit graphic depiction of German actions and behavior in Belgium geared mostly for popular audiences. It will be a more problematic read for German historians.
Lipkes provides an extremely detailed account of the actions of German forces in the Belgian towns of Liège, Aarschot, Andenne, Tamines, Dinant, and Leuven. When Germany invaded Belgium as stipulated in the Schlieffen Plan, the High Command expected that its forces would encounter little or no resistance from the Belgian military. Instead, the Belgians engaged in significant resistance and (with French assistance) produced military setbacks for the Germans. Lipkes points out, however, that resistance came from the regular Belgian military, rather than from civilian "franc-tireurs," as the Germans alleged. As a result of this belief, German officers ordered their soldiers to engage in a systematic campaign of "terror" against civilians as retribution for resistance as well as deterrence against future attempts. In chapter after chapter, Lipkes recounts various horrific actions the Germans committed, often providing extensive citations of eyewitness testimony to eliminate any remaining doubts or historical skepticism as to what took place at the beginning of the war in August 1914. The largest single massacre took place in and near the village of Tamines on August 22, when almost 400 men, women, and children were shot, bayoneted, burned to death, or asphyxiated when soldiers set fire to their homes. These killings, Lipkes reminds us, represented the "largest mass murder of civilians committed by Germans until 1939" (p. 251). Wanton destruction of historical and cultural monuments is also depicted. Lipkes singles out in particular the burning of the university library of Louvain, which dated from the fourteenth century. "At a time when books were more valued than today," Lipkes writes, "this act represented the sine qua non of barbarism" (p. 444). Such is the general pattern Lipkes establishes as he visits the aforementioned towns throughout his first twelve chapters (and the bulk of his book).
When Lipkes shifts from narrative account to historical analysis, however, his book makes for a more problematic and at times somewhat frustrating read. First of all, Lipkes makes no attempt to conceal his general contempt for early-twentieth-century Germany (as well as Germans), making references to "sinister types in the Kriegsministerium" whom he contrasts with a certain General von Manteuffel, "part Colonel Klink, part Sergeant Schultz" (p. 439). At Liège, when the Germans "perversely" chose to billet their occupying troops in the university, "it was not out of a reverence for learning," Lipkes emphasizes (p. 110). Lipkes poses the question of what particular characteristics about Germany led its military to engage in such monstrous acts against civilian targets on the Western Front, whereas the Allied powers seemed to conduct their war effort in a more restrained fashion. Lipkes makes two basic points here. The first is that German culture was pervaded by "militarism, nationalism, and materialism" (p. 564) that obviously affected the behavior of officers as well as soldiers under their command. It seems likely, however, that similar claims might be made about the culture of imperial Britain, and the brutality of the Boer War anticipated in certain respects the new face of modern warfare that came to Europe's shores beginning in 1914. His second and more perplexing point involves Germans' supposed hostility toward religion, which he links to the fact that the German occupiers burned churches and victimized priests: "Christianity, after its revival in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, constrained nations as it did individuals. It taught charity and empathy. That the contempt of German officers and soldiers for religion was a proximate cause of the August massacres is not an entirely far-fetched proposition" (p. 574). Evidence is not offered in support of this doubtful proposition, and at this level of generality it does not distinguish Germany from France (a location of intense anti-clericalism) or Belgium (where a Catholic, Leopold II, presided over the brutal deaths of some ten million Congolese slave laborers).
The issues of comparison that Lipkes suggests without discussion are significant. It is unclear how he would compare German policy in Belgium with other civilian casualties of the war, such as the genocidal campaign against the Armenians that resulted in roughly one million deaths; Russia's deportation of hundreds of thousands of Poles, Jews, and Baltic peoples in the wake of its 1915 retreat in the East; and the killing of more than two thousand Serbs by the invading armies of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. These events would seem to make the Belgian invasion less a manifestation of the Kaiserreich's supposedly frightful exceptionalism. In sum, the general reader interested in the Western Front will certainly find Lipkes' narrative informative and engaging, and historians will also be able to make good use of Lipkes' extensive citations of Belgian accounts of the activities of the German army in their territory. For historians of Germany or World War I overall, however, Lipkes' book would seem to have significant limitations.
. John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities 1914: A History of Denial (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2001).
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Jeffrey Chipps Smith. Review of Lipkes, Jeff, Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914.
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