- The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I, and: La Belgique et la Première Guerre mondiale
In August 1914, in the very first days of the German attack on France via Belgium, atrocities were committed against Belgian civilians by German troops. During the first months of the fighting, matters went from bad to worse, with, among others, the burning of the medieval library of Louvain University, the murder of hundreds of civilians and the major destruction of property in the Walloon (French-speaking) towns of Dinant and Tamines. For Belgium a period of occupation began, in which the small country was thoroughly looted, deprived of its industrial capacity and even part of its labour force. In many ways the four years of German occupation of Belgium can be seen as a foreshadowing of things to come in the Second World War.
Zuckerman wants to point out in his study that Belgium was not just a victim of atrocities but, worse still, of "routine terror and the mind-set that condoned it" (p. 1). He explicitly states that "occupied Belgium was a forerunner [End Page 1149] of Nazi Europe" (p. 2). He blames the Allied powers and the United States for taking this too little into account. They did not lift a finger to help Belgium restore itself after the war and did not in any way help with the prosecution of German crimes. A better handling of the excesses of the four years of occupation could have made us better prepared for dealing with the Nazi crimes a quarter of a century later. Zuckerman calls his account the "untold story" of World War I. He really takes too much credit for this. In its use of sources and depth of analysis, Zuckerman's book remains behind some other studies on the subject that should be mentioned here.
The first question that needs to be addressed is why the Germans, from the start, used excessive force against civilians or against what they called franc-tireurs. Zuckerman describes the role played in this by German memories of the war of 1870 against France, when invasion led to a popular uprising, and the German interpretation of the usages of war. This analysis is superficial and not really new. It is a pity that Zuckerman could not have used the excellent study of Isabel Hull, Absolute Destruction: Military Culture and the Practices of War in Imperial Germany (2005), which demonstrates that Germany's use of excessive force against civilians was rooted in the practices of her colonial armies in Africa. In addition to dated interpretations, there is the problem of inadequate sources. No German archival materials were used by the author, or any sources in the Dutch language. Thus, the authoritative book on this subject in English remains the 2001 study of John Horne and Alan Kramer, German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial. With this book already in circulation for three years before Zuckerman's appeared, it is difficult to accept his claim that the "story" of Belgium's suffering was "untold."
Another reason for doubting the "untold story" thesis is the existence of the excellent work of Sophie de Schaepdrijver under review here. The book actually made its first appearance as long ago as 1997, in Dutch (De Groote Oorlog), to much acclaim, and rightly so. At last the book has been made available to a larger audience through its translation into French. De Schaepdrijver's strength lies in her lively way of writing, using well-chosen details, her mastering of all aspects of life under the occupation and the way she deals with the various myths that arose out of the events of the time. Like Zuckerman, she deals with the dismantling of Belgian industry, the deportation of tens...