Situated between Liege and Brussels, the Belgian University town of Louvain (or Leuven) fell to the German First Army on 19th August 1914 as German forces moved through Belgium on their way to attack France.
Leuven/Louvain was relatively peaceful under its German occupiers until 25 August when German units camped on the approaches to the city were attacked by an initially successful Belgian force advancing from Antwerp. The German troops withdrew under fire and great confusion to Louvain.
Rumours abounded among the German troops that they had been attacked as they withdrew from behind by Belgian civilians located within the town.
Either in response or to teach a lesson that dissent would not be tolerated the Germans burnt and burned the town over a period of five consecutive days from 25th August. Both the University and its library of ancient manuscripts was burnt and destroyed. The church of St. Pierre was similarly badly damaged by fire. Citizenry of Louvain were subject to mass shootings, regardless of age or gender.
In this article, Mark Derez, Archivist at the University Archives and Art Collection, Leuven, details the series of controversies surrounding the destruction and subsequent reconstruction of the Louvain University Library:
BEFORE THE war Germany was held in great esteem in Belgium. Belgian Catholics had little confidence in the France of the Revolution and of Napoleon nor in the republican, secularized France of the turn of the century and its loudly anti-clerical government.
Belgian Catholics saw Germany as a familiar place, a prosperous land of law and order with an emperor at its head and with even Catholics in the governing Zentrum party.
The Leuven professors regularly sent their most brilliant students to Berlin and Leipzig in order to specialize. They came back, their heads full of German science and scholarship and their hearts fascinated by Heidelberg romantics (die alte Burschenherrlichkeit). Back in Leuven, they founded new laboratories and German speaking student societies.
The pre-war ties between Germany and Belgium were close. There was always cross-border trade and in the winter of 1913-1914 German technicians installed new metallic bookshelves in the university library.But events in August 1914 were to change all that.
The detailed circumstances of the German invasion of Belgium are beyond the scope of this article and are dealt with elsewhere in this section. But on the night of August 25th to 26th 1914, German soldiers set fire to the fourteenth century University Hall in Leuven and its eighteenth century library wing. The burning and pillaging were part of the punishment of Leuven as a whole, an act of pure terrorism against residents in repayment for what the occupying German forces believed to have been a snipers’ attack. As a result of the German action over a five day period 248 persons died in Leuven – most of them by shooting; more than 2000 houses were reduced to ashes.
The attack, which came to be known worldwide as Le sac de Louvain (The Sack of Leuven) had a great repercussions on international public opinion, particularly in England and the Netherlands, to which countries a great many Belgian refugees had fled.
In the events that followed, reports from journalists had much to do with garnering sympathy for Belgium.
One such was the novelist and playwright Richard Harding Davis, a star in the Milky Way of American war correspondents, as he was termed by historian Barbara Tuchman.
On August 27th 1914 Davis reached Leuven, travelling in a German troop train. From his compartment, locked in by the Germans, he witnessed the arson which had reached the area near the station. The smoke which he saw rising up from the citizens’ houses would be front-page news in the New York Tribune the very next day.
Although initial reports on events in Louvain had been reported in the German press, as the story began to gain international credentials, the Germans sought to play down the harm that had been caused by their original exultation over the punishment meted out to Leuven.
German propaganda began to lash out against so-called “franc-tireurs” – a phrase which has its origins in the French irregulars who had fought against Germany in the Anglo Prussian war of 1870-71.
According to Germany the 1914 version of the “franc-tireurs” were fifth columnist citizens of Leuven including women and children who, hoping for a swift liberation, were supposed to have shot at the occupying troops after consultation with or in concert with the Belgian military leaders. This version of events was first placed on record in a German White Book of 1915.
In the wake of the destruction and in challenge to the German propaganda, the Belgium authorities repeatedly urged that an independent investigation should be undertaken by an international commission at all levels but to no avail. Indeed the systematic manipulation of German public opinion by official propaganda regarding the alleged “franc-tireurs” did not stop at the end of the War and was a continued presence in stories related by German veterans. Indeed the legend of the franc-tireurs, although continuously rejected and definitively refuted by German historians in recent decades, has demonstrated its persistence by turning up in (German) publications many times since, most recently in the 1996 edition of the greatly respected Brockhaus Encyclopedia.
Few if any historians now believe that Leuven was destroyed as a reprisal for sniper attacks, rather that its destruction served the purpose of intimidation, utilising terror as a means of securing maximum civilian cooperation and minimum civilian resistance, a view supported by a statement made by a German officer to Hugh Gibson (1883-1954), First Secretary of the American embassy on August 28th at a time the attacks were still taking place:
“It is necessary that Leuven will serve as warning and deterrent for generations to come, so all that might hear of its fate might learn to respect Germany… We shall make this place a desert. It will be hard to find where Leuven used to stand. For generations people will come here to see what we have done. And it will teach them to think twice before they resist her.”
The lapidary threat, Nicht ein Stein a dem anderen, – not one stone left upon another – was carried out; and yet the deterrent example of Leuven spectacularly backfired.
Instead of exacting respect, Germany reaped nothing but world-wide indignation. From Copenhagen to Rome, protests rained down upon the German embassies.
The Belgian government sent a delegation of three to Washington – in that typical Belgian way comprising a Catholic, a Liberal and a Socialist Minister to which the Kaiser responded by seeking to diffuse their credibility by sending a telegram to Wilson lamenting the fate of Leuven, and by way of excuse alluding to the atrocities which Belgian women and priests had supposedly inflicted on German soldiers.
The Belgian envoys were received in the White House with due courtesy, but it was at New York’s City Hall, and at Harvard and Columbia Universities that they were greeted with stirring speeches and enthusiasm for the Belgian cause. President Woodrow Wilson may have remained non-committal and wanted to keep his options open, but the American public had no doubts as to who the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ were.
‘Poor little Belgium’ entered the phrasebook and became a moral argument in which ‘the flames of Louvain’ were always prominent.
The Louvain name became world famous and a global talisman: ‘Louvain shall be our Battle Cry’ became the name of a popular march in England. The then current form of the town’s name, Louvain, became so famous, and was so emotionally loaded, that girl babies born in England in the autumn of 1914 were christened Louvain; a ship was re-named in honour of the martyred town and a stone from the University Hall was later shipped to Canada where it was reverently inserted in a war memorial; in the United States knives and forks and tea-sets were sold under the popular trade-mark Louvain.
The destruction of Leuven had not been unique – in four Belgian provinces, 18,000 houses were destroyed and 5,000 Belgian civilians were killed in the war – but Leuven offered something more: its status as a seat 0f academia which had been trashed in a seemingly brutish attack resonated with academics globally, except seemingly in Germany where a group of 93 intellectuals grouped together to sign a declaration:
“Es ist nicht war, dass unsere Truppen brutal gegen Löwengewütet haben… (It’s not true that our troops have acted with undue force in Leuven). This group unreservedly supported the German franc-tireur hypothesis and the right to reprisal, and they concluded that if it had not been for German militarism, German culture would long ago have been swept away.
Somewhat surprisingly the intellectuals made no reference to the destruction of Leuven’s University Library. It is striking that of all the atrocities committed in Belgium, what appealed most to the public imagination in Belgium and abroad was not death and destruction – which was becoming an increasing commonplace even as early as September 1914 – but was the cultural atrocity of burning a library and its books.
A famous anecdote concerns the Rector of Leuven’s American College, Mgr. Jules deBecker (1857-1936), who had been forced to leave Leuven, and who was describing the destruction of the city to the American ambassador, Brand Whitlock (1869-1934). The houses of his father and brother were burnt, a cousin had been shot. But when he came to the burning of the library he could not bring himself to utter the French word for library (la bibliothèque). He kept on stumbling at the first syllables, ‘la bib…’, and could go no further.
The library, which had been the repository of the University’s Bull of Foundation, of a thousand manuscripts, eight hundred incunabula and a quarter of a million books, all now in ashes, became pars pro toto symbolic of the threat to Europe’s cultural heritage.
The Philadelphia Inquirer of September 2, 1914, for example, devoted much space to the burning of the library, which this Republican paper likened to a crime against humanity. The much-respected New York Times, it too Republican oriented, said that in contrast to the Germans, Napoleon may have stolen works of art from Italy, but at least he did not demolish them. In the Times Sir Arthur Evans, discoverer of the Palace of Knossos, wrote of a sin against history and future generations and about the Prussian sacrifice of fire, describing it as a ‘holocaust’, a term which has today much heavier connotations.
As the actual value of what was lost could never be measured, it was at times somewhat overestimated in the hyperbole of Allied rhetoric whereas the Germans, conversely, systematically undervalued it.
The Leuven library was of course not a treasure-house on the scale of the great national libraries. But in the domain of cultural history it was of tremendous importance for the Low Countries. The collection had grown organically in close connection with the university, mirroring its development.
The library itself was the reflection of Netherlandish intellectual history with its various movements and controversies such as Humanism, the Reformation, the Counter-Reformation and Jansenism.
German scholars not only underestimated the value of the collection but also the value of the building. Elsewhere in this section Professor Cornelissen tells us that Karl Hampe briskly observed that the loss of the library building was not a real loss ‘due to reasons of taste’ (aus geschmackliche Gründen). German scholars nowadays presume that the City Hall of Köln has been modelled after the Leuven Drapers’ Hall.
The problem was that University Hall is a rather curious complex of buildings in different styles with a baroque storey on the top of the gothic first floor. This has made the building look massive. (Not only the German historians but also their Belgian colleagues were critical. The previous generation of art historians were uniformly critical, because they swore by the gothic style).
But as for the symbolic value, that can scarcely be overestimated. Set side-by-side, the photos before and after the fire (above) of the magnificent eighteenth century library gallery were a wartime propagandist’s dream. Reproduced on postcards they went around the world.
Here was an archetype that raised the age-old spectre of library burning. The analogy with the destruction of Alexandria’s library by the ‘Saracens’ was obvious to the classically trained intelligentsia.
A young Jesuit in Leuven, Eugène Dupierreux, is said to have been shot by a firing-squad on 27th August because he had written this comparison in his notebook. And as time went on, this simile would keep recurring as with the statement by American President Warren G. Harding (1865-1923): ‘The burning of this ancient and distinguished library was like the burning of the great library in Alexandria an irreparable loss to scholarship.’
In the meantime the Germans had proceeded to begin shelling Rheims cathedral on September 20, 1914. And in November 22nd the Drapers’ Hall of Ieper (then known as Ypres) was blown to bits.
Henceforth Leuven, Rheims and Ieper would be seen to form the line of demarcation between the spheres of influence of Western European civilization and a German Kultur which seemed to attach little or no importance to monuments, cultural heritage and artistic treasures.
In those early days of the war Leuven and Rheims were already the main divas on the cultural scene. In England at that time you could buy pieces of soap sold for the benefit of Belgian refugees. On the one side of the soap the ruins of Leuven were represented in a fine relief; on the other side there were the ruins of Rheims. So even in the popular culture and everyday life, the cathedral of Rheims and the university library of Leuven stood for the threatened cultural heritage of Europe.
Louvain and Rheims were frequently conjoined in propaganda, and their names quickly became familiar as a symbol of German brutality worldwide. Until then the war had been viewed principally as a political-military conflict, but the attacks on but the attack on the Library in Leuven and the Cathedral in Rheims allowed it to be interpreted as a battle of cultures, a clash of civilizations.
In the Belgian context, this conflict between ‘culture’ and civilisation was complicated by two local components, the religious and the national lines of demarcation. The University of Leuven was seen as an outpost of Western civilisation – all the more since the university town was likened to a Latin island in a Germanic sea, une île latine dans une mer germanique, as the American architect Whitney Warren later said. In this perception the Walloons belonged to the Latin civilisation, while the Flemish were on the “wrong side”, of Germanic Kultur.
And apart from the national interpretation there was a religious one. Filled with polemic zeal,those defending the cause of Leuven went so far as to equate civilisation with a Latin and Catholic Western Europe in opposition to the Middle Europe of the Reformation. Leuven’s neo-Thomistic philosophers placed the blame on Kant and his autonomous morality. Such things did not sit well with sympathisers in America who were mainly or the Protestant persuasion, starting with the principal benefactor, Herbert Hoover, a Quaker.
It must be said that the Germans themselves had contributed to the religious interpretation. Among the standard ingredients in the legend of the franc-tireurs it was were not only women who poured boiling oil on the Germans and castrated the wounded; the theory also included Catholic priests, who were labelled by German propaganda as enragésen soutane.
Such anti-popery, with its roots in Prussian Protestantism, may well have contributed to the victimisation of the Pfaffen-Universität, or clerical university, of Leuven.
The problem for the academic authorities was that the invaders and perpetrators of war crimes were protestants, while after the war the benefactors were protestants as well.
Later on, in 1928, at the moment of the opening of the new library, the American ambassador (Brand Whitlock) wondered (in his diary): “And why should American protestants build up a Roman Catholic seat of learning, even though it were destroyed by the Furor Germanicus? Did Roman Catholics anywhere on this planet, ever give a penny towards building up a protestant institution?”
The religious interpretation apart, the partition of civilisation and culture seemed to fit in with the legacies of the Enlightenment and Romanticism. Thomas Mann (1875-1955) sketched this pair of controversial concepts in his Gedanken im Kriege (Thoughts during War)(1914), presenting them as opposite poles, with Kultur standing for magic, genius and art, and civilization signifying reason, scepticism and morality.
The concept of morality brought an ethical dimension to this somewhat academic discussion. The democracies of Western Europe prided themselves on a political discourse in which moral values were pre-eminent, quite in line with the traditions of the Enlightenment.
In stark contrast, the amorality of das Militär not only survived the war but re-emerged in the Weimar Republic, only scantily, scarcely disguised as völkisch anti-humanism.
I certainly agree with Professor Cornelissen who concluded in his final analysis that the debate needs to be integrated in the wider war of cultures (between 1914 and 1918 and even beyond).
In any event, following the notorious manifesto in which German intellectuals justified the devastation of Leuven, it did seem as though the entire German cultural world was defending Prussian militarism. The traditions of German intellectual life were tarnished thereby, and Kultur became a sarcastic slogan in Allied propaganda.
Now the elite of Western Europe seemed to be taking its revenge on the German intelligentsia who had swaggered about on the European cultural stage, flaunting self-assured superiority, in the years of La Belle Epoque prior to the war. A wedge had been driven into the European cultural world. The burnt-out library of Leuven exemplified the tragic dichotomy: Kultur, it was said in so many words, has destroyed Leuven.
In Leuven itself, quite early on, someone had devised the chronogram, ICI FINIT LA CVLTVRE ALLEMANDE (here ends German culture), and after the German withdrawal in 1918 it was affixed as a slogan to the ruin that had been the University Hall.
Illustrious visitors such as President Wilson, who came in June of 1919, and the Japanese Crown Prince Hirohito, in 1921, passed reverently beneath it. Wilson had made a detour into Belgium from Versailles, and he was decidedly impressed by his visit to Leuven. There he was made an honorary Doctor of Law in the midst of the sinister setting of the University Hall. He recalled: “I think that one of the most poignant memories of my whole visit to Europe will center about that little ceremony in the ruins of the library of the University of Louvain.”
The outrage at the burning of the Leuven library, at this assault on an irreplaceable cultural patrimony and on academic immunity produced a worldwide stream of solidarity. While the war was still on, twenty-five committees were formed in neutral and Allied countries to collect money and books.
Concurrently, humanitarian programs for food aid and for sheltering orphans were started. The Dutch took the lead with their Leuvensch Boekenfonds. In Paris the Oeuvre internationale pour la reconstitution de l’Université de Louvain, a coordinating committee, was set up in 1914. This international committee was officially inaugurated during a solemn academic session in Le Havre on 26 August 1918, exactly four years after the destruction of the library.
The Allied High Commanders, General Pershing, General Haig and Maréchal Pétain, were busy with military actions in the field, but they formally expressed their full support for this undertaking.
By the end of the war, 239 institutions were cooperating, and in this manner an international flood-tide of books began, giving Leuven university’s library one of the richest collections in the period between the two World Wars, and also one of the most curious.
As for Germany, after the war article 247 of the Treaty of Versailles stipulated that the Germans were to supply the University of Leuven with books and manuscripts for reconstituting its library. The Belgian delegation to the Peace Conference had first insisted that a clause be inserted into the Treaty obliging the Germans to provide manuscripts and incunabula of a value equal to those that had been burnt in 1914. During a tea-break, a member of the delegation suggested to the British delegate that the term ‘books’ should be added to ‘manuscripts and incunabula’ because of their importance for academic research.
The Englishman was John Maynard Keynes, who was to acquire fame as an economist after the Wall Street Crash made the addition regarding books and also added ‘and prints’.
It was the American delegate, John Foster Dulles, later Secretary of State and prominent in the Cold War who put the final touches to Article 247, including the clause on the books.
It had been a question of a minor addition, casually mentioned during a break, but for Leuven’s library it was of major importance. Thanks to Versailles, Leuven could replace books for a sum of a good four million gold marks.
The Germans carried out the duty imposed on them admirably, gründlich und pünktlich. They only interrupted deliveries of books in 1923 as a protest against the occupation of the Ruhr by Belgian and French troops. In fact, monthly book deliveries continued right up to 1943, when most of the reconstituted collection was again obliterated.
But of all the supporting committees, the National Committee of the United States for the Restoration of the University of Louvain attracted the most attention. The Americans also stole the show by offering a new library building.
The idea of reconstituting the library had arisen in Paris, within the Institut de France. It was one these brilliant French ideas, but the French were so gallant as to let the execution and the financing to the Americans. Construction and fund-raising were completely in American hands, hence the flying of the Stars and Stripes from the library tower each year on Independence Day.
The connecting link was the American architect Whitney Warren (1864-1943), a colourful figure, who was a personal combination of French culture and American capital.
Like many of his generation, Warren had studied in Paris, at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. A member of the Institut de France, he was also an admirer of d’Annunzio, the self-proclaimed Francophile. (Warren shared not only his Parisian lady-friend, the diva Cécile Sorel, with d’Annunzio, but also political views that were as confused as they were reactionary).
During the war he had written many a pamphlet urging America to intervene on the European battlefield. In the United States Warren was recognized as an exceptionally successful architect who knew how to turn his artistic talents to financial advantage. He had made his name by building the gigantic Grand Central Station in New York which, in its time, was the world’s largest and costliest railway terminal.
The Leuven proposal came along just when Warren had been suspended by the American architects’ association for unprofessional conduct. Thus the famous architect, who was in a tight spot in New York, found that an excursion to Europe would not be wholly unwelcome. He accepted the invitation extended by the French Institute which was looking for American financing to bring into being what had originally been a French project.
Warren came from the land of libraries, where the New York Public Library, completed in 1912, was considered the ne plus ultra of library buildings. The elongated form of the Leuven reading-room was borrowed by Warren from the New York model.
From the outside Warren’s architecture made an impact because of its site, size and style. However much the university may have been prominent on the Leuven scene previously, Warren’s new library sought to overshadow everything else.
The Library Warren built was in fact quite a modern building, but which adopted a double disguise: at one level it appeared akin to a Flemish Drapers’ Hall in neo-renaissance style, referring to the golden age of the university; but it also carried in its decoration a War Memorial which referred in turn to Belgian patriotism and the German terror, to the Allied victory and to American generosity.
The war memorial aspect of the Library is very much in evidence on the exterior. There is a bas-relief atop the central peaked gable that depicts the burning of Leuven. The Allies are represented by their heraldic flora and fauna where there is a whole zoological garden present: the American eagle, the Italian she-wolf, the Belgian lion, the English unicorn, the French cock and the Japanese lion of Fo have all found places on the stepped gables. Others had to be content with a spot at the rear.
Political and religious symbols intermingled. Take, for instance the infamous Madonna: the Queen of Peace has become Our Lady of Victory wearing the helmet of a French or Belgian soldier and she is piercing the head of a Prussian eagle with her sword.
The generosity of America was certainly not to be overlooked in the construction. The walls and pillars of the ground floor contain commemorative stones bearing the names of more than 300 donors, primarily American educational institutions,but also the police department of New York (there must have been many book friends at that time).
The carillon in the tower is a memorial to the American engineers who died on the European battlefield. (After its restoration, this carillon with its sixty three bells was the largest in Europe. Then in 1987, Berlin outstripped Leuven with a carillon of sixty eight bells).
And finally there is the remarkable history of the inscription.
The monumentality of the library building is further enhanced by the Latin inscriptions. The ultimate inscription, the one that was to express in the most explicit wording what lay behind the whole project, was never put in place.
After many heated arguments, grotesque incidents and a regrettable lawsuit between Rector Ladeuze and architect Warren, the controversial inscription was omitted.
The text in question was: FURORE TEUTONICO DIRUTA, DONO AMERICANO RESTITUTA, freely translated, ‘Demolished by German fury, reconstructed with American gifts’ (in Dutch: door Duits geweld geveld, met Amerikaans geld hersteld). It was aimed at castigating the arson committed by the Germans, much as a large commemorative tablet on the ruins of Heidelberg Castle censured the French villains of 1693.
Architect Warren intended to place this inscription on the balustrade, running like a banner along the whole length of the facade.
The years passed, however, and in Locarno in Switzerland a gentle breeze began to blow. At the peace conference there in October 1925, a relaxed atmosphere developed between neighbours which was fostered by American diplomats. Dawes, an American banker, had managed to soften the reparations payments required of the Germans. The Dawes Plan included conditions with regard to the Leuven library that were favourable to both sides.
Reconciliation and rapprochement were no longer unthinkable. Germany was to entered theLeague of Nations and the ten-year old intellectual boycott was discontinued. In August 1928, at about the time that the Leuven library was fully functioning, the Briand-Kellogg Pact had outlawed war.
By then the university’s Rector, Mgr. Ladeuze, had long abandoned the idea of following Warren’s proposal for it would stand in the way of resuming normal relations with German universities. The rector could not allow German guests to bump their heads against this stone inscription for ages to come. As for the American donors, they wanted not so much an anti-German monument as a memorial that would highlight America’s friendship. The Americans proposed that the inscription be softened to read: In Bello Diruta, In Pace Restituta, roughly, ‘destroyed by war, reconstructed in peace’.
The Rector found that this did not fit the facts. Leuven was not destroyed in a battle; the burning of the library was not collateral damage; it was no accident de parcours, and the war in general was not a natural catastrophe in which there was no difference between attackers and victims.
A Belgian patriot found no better inscription to adorn the library than the national motto of Belgium, L’Union fait la force (in Dutch, ‘Eendracht maakt macht’, meaning something like ‘Unity produces strength’). Much later, in the sixties, at a time when the university was being split in two if that motto had then stood on the library building it would have made the proceedings going on inside, the dividing up of the books, even more farcical and the farce would have been complete.
Eventually it was the Rector who had the last word: there would be no inscription and the balustrade was to retain its neutrality.
Just about then there came adverse winds from Berlin. Throughout the 1920’s German diplomacy had contested the Treaty of Versailles, whose Smach paragraphenas the Germans called them (the insulting paragraphs), were formulated in terms of guilt. The German Reich was not only accused of Schuld am Krieg for violating Belgian neutrality, but even more so of Schuld im Kriege for waging war with such barbarism with for instance the ‘reprisals’ against the civilian population of Belgium. In the twenties Belgium demanded not only reparation payments, but also moral redress.
The Weimar Republic dusted off the arguments used by the Reich during the war, especially the matter of the Belgian franc-tireurs. Discussion dragged on. The crux was the existence or non-existence of the franc-tireurs, and the stakes were the Treaty of Versailles, whether it should be respected or revised.
Germany maintained its innocence, making the ambush of the snipers the alibi for those who had set fire to Leuven, the snipers as the pretext for arsonists, war crimes disguised as reprisals.
In 1927 an investigative committee set up by the Reichstag at last concluded an inquiry, begun in 1919, into the events of August 1914. In its final report all the grisly tales (Gräuelmärchen) of the ferocious Belgians again emerged. The controversy reached its international climax in 1928 when Christian Meurer, a German Professor of international law, crossed swords with Professor Fernand Mayence of Leuven in the American journal Current History.
All this was of course grist for the mill of those wanting to put a forcefully anti-German inscription up in Leuven. The Germans, it seemed, were prepared to sink Locarno. Warren was no longer a voice crying in the wilderness. He could count on the support of a few professors, and especially of the ordinary citizens in Leuven who were understandably still quite ready to accommodate anti-German sentiments.
On a more national scale he was also supported by veterans who, in an excess of emotional patriotism, went so far as to accuse the rector of being a traitor. The day before the official opening of the library, the country was plastered with posters summoning all patriotic Belgians to come to Leuven and jeer at the rector. During the ceremony on the 4th of July1928, a small plane circled above the scene of the celebration and was dropping pamphlets. The leaflets it released bore the forbidden text Furore Teutonico ….
Two weeks later, Felix Morren, a construction worker who was in charge of the workmen, smashed the neutral balusters down to the pavement. Morren had been wounded at age sixteen when the invading Germans entered Leuven, and had witnessed the (German) acts of brutality in August of1914.
Five years passed and then, in June of 1933, Morren repeated his stunt. This time he was protesting against the persecution of the Jews then beginning in Germany, and he smashed the balustrade, now termed the Hitler balustrade, to smithereens.
Three years later in 1936, it was at last possible for Felix Morren to erect with his own hands the rejected first part of the inscription. Furore Teutonico Diruta went to Dinant, where it was incorporated into a memorial for the 674 citizens shot by German soldiers on 23 August 1914. Four years later, in May of 1940, the Wehrmacht blew the monument and its inscription to pieces.
The library in Leuven did not fare any better, even without the inscription. At that moment it looked as though the supporters of the inscription, and those who opposed Locarno and the spirit of Munich, were right.
Their agitating against appeasement was viewed in a different light: German propaganda after the First World War had proclaimed the country’s innocence and, in effect, this could be seen to be closely connected with preparations for the Revanchekrieg which ultra-right nationalists had been looking forward to ever since the days of the Weimar Republic.
Looking back today, from the distance so necessary to history, it would seem that when the academic authorities rejected a condemning and vigorous anti-German inscription, they adopted the only commendable attitude possible, though it did not protect the library from being burnt a second time.
According to one story, at the time of the 1940 invasion, German officers were said to be making inquiries about the American library and its anti-German inscription. In any case, the library was shelled on 16 May 1940, and when German troops overran the city the next morning, the library and its books, nearly a million of them, were ablaze.
Perhaps the controversial inscription on Teutonic violence and American money was the cause, for it had created much bad feeling in Germany as well. Less than twelve years after the library had been reopened, it was once again devoured by flames.
The moral of the story? It’s perhaps not such a good idea to disguise a library as a war memorial.Paige Doyle profile on Google+