Friday, November 16, 2018

From False Accusations During WWI to Real Atrocities

"This is how German lands will look like
if France reaches the Rhine" - German WWI propaganda

All's fair in love and war.  Anything to win, right?

German counter-propaganda showing
a German soldier sharing
his rations with French children.
And what is needed to make one win in war, but to turn one's soldiers into killing machines, than to vilify the enemy and turn the others into despicable monsters? No one's innocent in this terrible game. Everyone's guilty.

And so, the German generals during World War I, wanting to move as swiftly as possible through Belgium, while worried about free shooters (kinda like guerrilla fighters), had given orders to execute any suspect, and to terrorize the local populations.

To that effect, the most atrocious lies were spread about the Belgian people, tales transcribed by the Kaiser in his journal:

"...the Belgian population has acted in a most diabolical fashion, if not bestial, not one iota differently from the Cossack. They have tortured injured men, beat them to death, killed doctors and medical staff, fired (...) upon defenseless people while staying hidden themselves [...].
Belgium's conditions shall therefore become immensely more difficult." (1)

The lies worked. Atrocious acts were perpetrated against Belgium. So bad were they that they became part of what is now known as the "Rape of Belgium."

The numbers reported in history (2) are quite telling:
  • 6,000 Belgians killed.
  • 17,700 Belgians dead due to expulsion, deportation, imprisonment, or sentenced to death.
  • 3,000 additional Belgians killed on the electric fences the Germans put up to prevent civilians from fleeing.
  • 120,000 Belgians forced into labor for Germany, half of which were deported.
  • 25,000 homes and other buildings destroyed just in 1914
  • 1.5 million Belgians (20% of the population then) fled the country.
Child of 7 gunned down [by German soldiers]
Anti-German propaganda

University of Leuven Library before and
after the German invasion, 1914
It didn't matter who you were, or how old you were, any excuse was good to have you shot (although the vast majority of those killed were men of military age. Historians state (and probably rightly so) that, in addition to propaganda and their generals' directives, many other elements contributed to these atrocities, namely inexperience, lack of discipline, drunkenness, friendly fire incidents, collisions with Belgian and French troops, rage at the unexpected resistance the Belgians showed (indeed, Belgium was hardly considered a "real" country by the other nations at the time), hatred for the Catholic, looting, etc. (2)

To make matters worse, the Belgian civilians were forced to cheer the Kaiser and Germany (or be executed). While in the meantime the war was being portrayed in German penny papers as being semi-friendly, with violence being used only in emergencies. (3)

"Their way of doing war"
Drawing by Georges Scott
But the lies were on all sides. In France, the newspapers keep praising their own troops (thanks to the censors), erasing defeats or retreats, while calling the Boches (aka Germans) all the foulest names, saying that even their cadavers "smell[ed] worse than those of the French." (4)

(1) Translated  by yours truly from French, passage taken from Max Gallo's 1914-1918 Une histoire de la première guerre mondiale.
(2) The Rape of Belgium article on Wikipedia.
(3) The 'German Atrocities' of 1914 by Sophie de Schaepdrijver
(4) Fact translated from the French article Propagande de guerre et patriotique et censure au cours de la Première guerre mondiale by Léon Belhassen.

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