- Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914
The German invasion of Belgium in August 1914, with the hideous atrocities against the civil population that accompanied it, has become the focal point of a small historical debate. It centres around the behavior of a highly disciplined army in a small country it needed to cross quickly to reach its operational goals and the [End Page 598] more fundamental question of the continuity of brutal acts against civilians by the German Army. Was 1914, to put it more bluntly, a rehearsal for the more appalling cruelties of the Second World War? Lipkes takes a firm position on this. For him the deaths of 6,000 Belgian men, women and children – intentionally burned, executed, slaughtered - and the wilful destruction of 25,000 houses, churches and the university library of Louvain (Leuven) "were part of a deliberate campaign of terrorism ordered by military authorities" (back cover). Lipkes argues that especially in the Anglo-Saxon world, these crimes did not and do not receive the attention they deserve and he raises serious objections to John Horne and Alan Kramer's German Atrocities (2001). In Lipkes' eyes these scholars focus too much on the franc-tireur (sniper) theory, thereby missing the point.
In the first 542 (!) pages of his study Lipkes gives an impressively detailed description of the German killing, looting, burning and raping in August 1914, based on contemporary sources. Next, he analyses the explanations for this behavior. Lipkes argues that the franc-tireur theory does not suffice as an explanation, pointing to the fact that no Belgians were ever accused of guerrilla activities by the German occupiers, and that the "terror campaign" was the German response to Belgian refusals to cooperate with the invaders (p. 544). He also stresses that it defies logic for a franc-tireur to shoot from his own house and not offer any resistance when the Germans subsequently enter that house. Moreover, he rejects the notion that the franc-tireur experience of the Franco-German war of 1870-1871 was well known throughout the German army of 1914.
Lipkes' arguments are well considered, but they do Horne and Kramer some injustice. Their in-depth study on German military atrocities offers a much broader explanation than only the fear of franc-tireurs dating from 1871. Lipkes could have taken into account Isabel Hull's work Absolute Destruction from 2005 and Alan Kramer's Dynamics of Destruction from 2007. These scholars argued that brutal actions against civilians and cultural property sites were tolerated, not only within the German but also some other European military cultures during World War I. Hull and Kramer, however, respond more hesitantly to the argument that German atrocities in World War I can be seen as a step towards the crimes of Nazism. Lipkes is less reserved in this respect. For him the German "terrorism" of 1914 was merely a rehearsal.
Lipkes' study of the horrible events in Belgium in August 1914 offers a wealth of valuable material. He poses important questions, but neither with regard to the explanation of German behavior nor the continuity from World War I to Nazism does he offer any new insights. On the other hand, he analyses quite well, why in the Anglo-Saxon world accounts of these crimes were toned down as being propaganda.