IN 1915 a book about the invasion of his country was published in exile by Emile Verhaeren, Belgium’s leading living poet whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were then believed to erase national lines. He prefaced his account with this dedication: “He who writes this book in which hate is not hidden was formerly a pacifist .… For him no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man. And yet, as it seems to him that in this state of hatred his conscience becomes diminished, he dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be.”
Of all that has been written, Verhaeren’s is the most poignant testimony of what war and invasion did to the mind of his time. When the Battle of the Frontiers ended, the war had been in progress for twenty days and during that time had created passions, attitudes, ideas, and issues, both among belligerents and watching neutrals, which determined its future course and the course of history since. The world that used to be and the ideas that shaped it disappeared too, like the wraith of Verhaeren’s former self, down the corridors of August and the months that followed. Those deterrents—the brotherhood of socialists, the interlocking of finance, commerce, and other economic factors—which had been expected to make war impossible failed to function when the time came. Nationhood, like a wild gust of wind, arose and swept them aside.
People entered the war with varying sentiments and sets of ideas. Among the belligerents some, pacifists and socialists, opposed the war in their hearts; some, like Rupert Brooke, welcomed it. “Now God be thanked who has matched us with His hour,” wrote Brooke, conscious of no blasphemy, in his poem “1914.” To him it seemed a time
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary .…
Honour has come back .…
And Nobleness walks in our ways again,
And we have come into our heritage.
Germans felt similar emotions. The war was to be, wrote Thomas Mann, “a purification, a liberation, an enormous hope. The victory of Germany will be a victory of soul over numbers. The German soul,” he explained, “is opposed to the pacifist ideal of civilization for is not peace an element of civil corruption?” This concept, a mirror image of the essential German militarist theory that war is ennobling, was not very far from the raptures of Rupert Brooke and was widely held at the time by numbers of respectable people, among them, Theodore Roosevelt. In 1914, except for Balkan wars on the fringe, there had been no war on the European continent for more than a generation, and in the opinion of one observer the welcoming attitude toward war owed something to the “unconscious boredom of peace.”
Where Brooke was embracing cleanness and nobleness, Mann saw a more positive goal. Germans being, he said, the most educated, law-abiding, peace-loving of all peoples, deserved to be the most powerful, to dominate, to establish a “German peace” out of “what is being called with every possible justification the German war.” Though writing in 1917, Mann was reflecting 1914, the year that was to be the German 1789, the establishment of the German idea in history, the enthronement of Kultur, the fulfillment of Germany’s historic mission. In August, sitting at a café in Aachen, a German scientist said to the American journalist Irwin Cobb: “We Germans are the most industrious, the most earnest, the best educated race in Europe. Russia stands for reaction, England for selfishness and perfidy, France for decadence, Germany for progress. German Kulturwill enlighten the world and after this war there will never be another.”
A German businessman sitting with them had more specific aims. Russia was to be so humbled that never again could the Slav peril threaten Europe; Great Britain was to be utterly crushed and deprived of her navy, India, and Egypt; France was to pay an indemnity from which she would never recover; Belgium was to yield her seacoast because Germany needed ports on the English Channel; Japan was to be punished in due time. An alliance of “all the Teutonic and Scandinavian races in Europe, including Bulgaria, will hold absolute dominion from the North Sea to the Black Sea. Europe will have a new map and Germany will be at the center of it.”
Talk of this kind for years before the war had not increased friendliness for Germany. “We often got on the world’s nerves,” admitted Bethmann-Hollweg, by frequently proclaiming Germany’s right to lead the world. This, he explained, was interpreted as lust for world dominion but was really a “boyish and unbalanced ebullience.”
The world somehow failed to see it that way. There was a stridency in the German tone that conveyed more menace than ebullience. The world became “sore-headed and fed-up,” wrote Mr. George Bernard Shaw in 1914, with Germany’s clattering of the sword. “We were rasped beyond endurance by Prussian Militarism and its contempt for us and for human happiness and common sense; and we just rose at it and went for it.”
Some rose at it with a clear sense of the issues, satisfying at least to them; some with only the vaguest notion of the whys and wherefores, some with none at all. Mr. H. G. Wells was one of the first kind. The enemy, he announced in the press of August 4, was German imperialism and militarism, “the monstrous vanity begotten in 1870.” The victory of Germany, of “blood and iron, flagwagging Teutonic Kiplingism,” would mean “the permanent enthronement of the war god over all human affairs.” The defeat of Germany “may”—Mr. Wells did not say “will”—“open the way to disarmament and peace throughout the world.” Less clear as to issues was a British reservist who in the train on his way to the depot explained to a fellow passenger, “I’m a’goin’ to fight the bloody Belgiums, that’s where I’m a’goin’.” A third kind, happy to fight without any war aims at all, was Major Sir Tom Bridges, commander of the cavalry squadron which killed the first Germans on the road to Soignies. “There was no hatred of Germany,” he said. “We were quite ready to fight anybody … and would equally readily have fought the French. Our motto was, ‘We’ll do it. What is it?’”
Having an old score to settle, the French had no need to explain themselves. The German at their gates was enough. Yet here too was felt the “enormous hope.” Bergson believed that although the ultimate success of the Allies would require “terrible sacrifices,” out of them would come, along with “the rejuvenation and enlargement of France, the moral regeneration of Europe. Then with the advent of a real peace, France and humanity can resume the march forward, only forward, toward truth and justice.”
These were not the public attitudes of statesmen or the group attitudes of masses but the private attitudes of individuals. None were yet as fixed as they were to become. National hatred of Germany had not yet taken hold. Among the first and most memorable of Punch’s cartoons on the war was one that appeared on August 12 labeled “No Thoroughfare!” Brave little Belgium is there, a stern small boy in wooden shoes barring the way to the trespasser, Germany, pictured as a fat old bandmaster with a string of sausages hanging out of his pocket. He is ludicrous, not evil. Otherwise, in the early days, the cartoonists’ pet was the Crown Prince whom they delighted to draw as an exaggerated fop with pinched waist, high tight collar, rakish cap, and an expression of fatuous vacuity. He did not last. The war becoming too serious, he was replaced by the best known German, the Supreme War Lord, whose name was signed to every order of OHL so that he seemed the author of all German acts—the Kaiser. No longer the prewar mischief-maker and saber rattler, he was now depicted as a dark, satanic tyrant, breathing cruelty and malignancy, expressing brutality in every line. The change began in August and progressed from Bridges’ cool statement, “There was no hatred of Germany,” to that of Stephen McKenna, who wrote in 1921, “Among those who remember, the name of a German stinks and the presence of a German is an outrage.” No pseudo-heroic super-patriot but a sober, thoughtful schoolteacher whose memoirs are a social document of the time, McKenna recorded a change of sentiment that was to prevent any negotiated settlement and keep the fighting going until total victory. What wrought the change was what happened to Belgium.
The turn of events in Belgium was a product of the German theory of terror. Clausewitz had prescribed terror as the proper method to shorten war, his whole theory of war being based on the necessity of making it short, sharp, and decisive. The civil population must not be exempted from war’s effects but must be made to feel its pressure and be forced by the severest measures to compel their leaders to make peace. As the object of war was to disarm the enemy, “we must place him in a situation in which continuing the war is more oppressive to him than surrender.” This seemingly sound proposition fitted into the scientific theory of war which throughout the nineteenth century it had been the best intellectual endeavor of the German General Staff to construct. It had already been put into practice in 1870 when French resistance sprang up after Sedan. The ferocity of German reprisal at that time in the form of executions of prisoners and civilians on charges of franc-tireur warfare startled a world agape with admiration at Prussia’s marvelous six-week victory. Suddenly it became aware of the beast beneath the German skin. Although 1870 proved the corollary of the theory and practice of terror, that it deepens antagonism, stimulates resistance, and ends by lengthening war, the Germans remained wedded to it. As Shaw said, they were a people with a contempt for common sense.
On August 23 placards signed by General von Bülow were posted in Liège announcing that the people of Andenne, a small town on the Meuse near Namur, having attacked his troops in the most “traitorous” manner, “with my permission the General commanding these troops has burned the town to ashes and has had 110 persons shot.” The people of Liège were being informed so that they would know what fate to expect if they behaved in the same manner as their neighbors.
The burning of Andenne and the massacre—which Belgian figures put at 211—took place on August 20 and 21 during the Battle of Charleroi. Hewing to their timetable, harassed by the Belgians’ blowing up of bridges and railroads, Bülow’s commanders dealt out reprisals ruthlessly in the villages they entered. At Seilles, across the river from Andenne, 50 civilians were shot and the houses given over to looting and burning. At Tamines, captured on August 21, sack of the town began that evening after the battle and continued all night and next day. The usual orgy of permitted looting accompanied by drinking released inhibitions and brought the soldiers to the desired state of raw excitement which was intended to add to the fearful effect. On the second day at Tamines some 400 citizens were herded together under guard in front of the church in the main square and a firing squad began systematically shooting into the group. Those not dead when the firing ended were bayoneted. In the cemetery at Tamines there are 384 gravestones inscribed 1914: Fusillé par les Allemands.
When Bülow’s Army took Namur, a city of 32,000, notices were posted announcing that ten hostages were being taken from every street who would be shot if any civilian fired on a German. The taking and killing of hostages was practiced as systematically as the requisitioning of food. The farther the Germans advanced, the more hostages were arrested. At first when von Kluck’s Army entered a town, notices immediately went up warning the populace that the burgomaster, the leading magistrate, and the senator of the district were being held as hostages with the usual warning as to their fate. Soon three persons of prestige were not enough; a man from every street, even ten from every street were not enough. Walter Bloem, a novelist mobilized as a reserve officer in von Kluck’s Army whose account of the advance to Paris is invaluable, tells how in villages where his company was billeted each night, “Major von Kleist gave orders that a man or, if no man was available, a woman, be taken from every household as a hostage.” Through some peculiar failure of the system, the greater the terror, the more terror seemed to be necessary.
When sniping was reported in a town, the hostages were executed. Irwin Cobb, accompanying von Kluck’s Army, watched from a window as two civilians were marched between two rows of German soldiers with fixed bayonets. They were taken behind the railroad station; there was a sound of shots, and two litters were carried out bearing still figures covered by blankets with only the rigid toes of their boots showing. Cobb watched while twice more the performance was repeated.
Visé, scene of the first fighting on the way to Liège on the first day of the invasion, was destroyed not by troops fresh from the heat of battle, but by occupation troops long after the battle had moved on. In response to a report of sniping, a German regiment was sent to Visé from Liège on August 23. That night the sound of shooting could be heard at Eysden just over the border in Holland five miles away. Next day Eysden was overwhelmed by a flood of 4,000 refugees, the entire population of Visé except for those who had been shot, and for 700 men and boys who had been deported for harvest labor to Germany. The deportations which were to have such moral effect, especially upon the United States, began in August. Afterward when Brand Whitlock, the American Minister, visited what had been Visé he saw only empty blackened houses open to the sky, “a vista of ruins that might have been Pompeii.” Every inhabitant was gone. There was not a living thing, not a roof.
At Dinant on the Meuse on August 23 the Saxons of General von Hausen’s Army were fighting the French in a final engagement of the Battle of Charleroi. Von Hausen personally witnessed the “perfidious” activity of Belgian civilians in hampering reconstruction of bridges, “so contrary to international law.” His troops began rounding up “several hundreds” of hostages, men, women, and children. Fifty were taken from church, the day being Sunday. The General saw them “tightly crowded—standing, sitting, lying—in a group under guard of the Grenadiers, their faces displaying fear, nameless anguish, concentrated rage and desire for revenge provoked by all the calamities they had suffered.” Von Hausen, who was very sensitive, felt an “indomitable hostility” emanating from them. He was the general who had been made so unhappy in the house of the Belgian gentleman who clenched his fists in his pockets and refused to speak to von Hausen at dinner. In the group at Dinant he saw a wounded French soldier with blood streaming from his head, who lay dying, mute and apathetic, refusing all medical help. Von Hausen ends his description there, too sensitive to tell the fate of Dinant’s citizens. They were kept in the main square till evening, then lined up, women on one side, men opposite in two rows, one kneeling in front of the other. Two firing squads marched to the center of the square, faced either way and fired till no more of the targets stood upright. Six hundred and twelve bodies were identified and buried, including Felix Fivet, aged three weeks.
The Saxons were then let loose in a riot of pillage and arson. The medieval citadel perched like an eagle’s nest on the heights of the right bank above the city it had once protected, looked down upon a repetition of the ravages of the Middle Ages. The Saxons left Dinant scorched, crumbled, hollowed out, charred, and sodden. “Profoundly moved” by this picture of desolation wrought by his troops, General von Hausen departed from the ruins of Dinant secure in the conviction that the responsibility lay with the Belgian government “which approved this perfidious street fighting contrary to international law.”
The Germans were obsessively concerned about violations of international law. They succeeded in overlooking the violation created by their presence in Belgium in favor of the violation committed, as they saw it, by Belgians resisting their presence. With a sigh of long-tried patience, Abbé Wetterlé, Alsatian delegate to the Reichstag, once confessed, “To a mind formed in the Latin school, the German mentality is difficult to comprehend.”
The German obsession had two parts: that Belgian resistance was illegal and that it was organized from “above” by the Belgian government or by burgomasters, priests, and other persons who could be classified as “above.” Together the two parts established the corollary: that German reprisals were righteous and legal, regardless of degree. The shooting of a single hostage or the massacre of 612 and the razing of a town were alike to be charged to the Belgian government—this was the refrain of every German from Hausen after Dinant to the Kaiser after Louvain. The responsibility must “fall upon those who incited the population to attack the Germans,” Hausen protests constantly. There can be absolutely no doubt, he insists, that the whole population of Dinant and other regions was “animated—by whose order?—by one desire to stop the advance of the Germans.” That people could be animated to stop the invader without an order from “above” was inconceivable.
The Germans saw these orders everywhere. Von Kluck claimed that the Belgian government’s posters warning its citizens against hostile acts were actually “incitements to the civil population to fire on the enemy.” Ludendorff accused the Belgian government of having “systematically organized civilian warfare.” The Crown Prince applied the same theory to French civil resistance. He complained that the “fanatical” people of the Longwy region shot at us “treacherously and perfidiously” from doors and windows with sporting guns which had been “sent from Paris for the purpose.” Had the royal travels included closer acquaintance with the French countryside where a sporting gun for shooting hare on Sundays was as normal equipment as a pair of pants, he might have known it did not require guns sent from Paris to arm the franc-tireur.
German accounts of their experiences in enemy territory become shrill with hysteria on the subject of guerrilla warfare. Ludendorff called it “disgusting.” He whose name was soon to become a byword for trickery, violence, and cunning had taken the field, he says, “with chivalrous and humane conceptions of warfare” but franc-tireur methods “caused me personally bitter disillusionment.” Captain Bloem was haunted by the “monstrous thought” that he might be hit or killed by a bullet fired by a civilian, although until a fortnight ago he had been a civilian himself. During an exhausting march of twenty-eight miles in one day, he reports, not one soldier fell out of line because “the thought of falling into the hands of the Walloons was worse than sore feet”—that other great agony of the march on Paris.
Fear and horror of the franc-tireur sprang from the German feeling that civil resistance was essentially disorderly. If there has to be a choice between injustice and disorder, said Goethe, the German prefers injustice. Schooled in a state in which the relation of the subject to the sovereign has no basis other than obedience, he is unable to understand a state organized upon any other foundation, and when he enters one is inspired by an intense uneasiness. Comfortable only in the presence of authority, he regards the civilian sniper as something particularly sinister. To the Western mind the franc-tireur is a hero; to the German he is a heretic who threatens the existence of the state. At Soissons there is a bronze and marble monument to three schoolteachers who raised a revolt of students and civilians against the Prussians in 1870. Gazing at it in amazement, a German officer said to an American reporter in 1914. “That’s the French for you—putting up a monument to glorify franc-tireurs. In Germany the people would not be allowed to do such a thing. Nor is it conceivable that they would want to.”
To put the German soldier in the proper frame of mind, German newspapers were filled from the first week, as Captain Bloem recorded, with stories of the Belgians’ “revolting cruelties … of armed priests at the head of marauding bands of civilians committing every kind of atrocity … of treacherous ambushes on patrols, of sentries found with eyes pierced and tongues cut off.” Similar “ghastly rumors” had already reached Berlin by August 11 to be recorded by Princess Blücher. A German officer whom she asked for verification told her that in Aachen at that moment there were thirty German officers lying in the hospital with their eyes put out by Belgian women and children.
Emotions aroused by such stories made it easy by a single cry of “Snipers!” to set the German soldier off on a rampage of pillage, arson, and murder, uninhibited by the officers. Schrecklichkeit was intended as a substitute for the occupation troops which the High Command could not afford to divert from the march on Paris.
On August 25 the burning of Louvain began. The medieval city on the road from Liège to Brussels was renowned for its University and incomparable Library, founded in 1426 when Berlin was a clump of wooden huts. Housed in the fourteenth century Clothworkers’ Hall, the Library included among its 230,000 volumes a unique collection of 750 medieval manuscripts and over a thousand incunabula. The façade of the Town Hall, called a “jewel of Gothic art,” was a stone tapestry of carved knights and saints and ladies, lavish even of its kind. In the church of St. Pierre were altar panels by Dierik Bouts and other Flemish masters. The burning and sack of Louvain, accompanied by the invariable shooting of civilians, lasted six days before it was called off as abruptly as it began.
Everything went smoothly when Louvain was first occupied. The shops did a rush of business. German soldiers behaved in exemplary fashion, bought postcards and souvenirs, paid for all their purchases, and stood in line with the regular customers for haircuts at the barbershop. The second day was more strained. A German soldier was shot in the leg, allegedly by snipers. The Burgomaster urgently repeated his call upon civilians to surrender arms. He and two other officials were arrested as hostages. Executions behind the railroad station became frequent. The endless tramp of von Kluck’s columns continued through the city day after day.
On August 25 the Belgian Army at Malines, on the edge of the entrenched camp of Antwerp, made a sudden sharp sortie upon the rearguard of von Kluck’s Army, flinging them back in disorder upon Louvain. In the turmoil of retreat a riderless horse clattering through the gates after dark frightened another horse which tried to bolt, fell in harness, and overturned the wagon. Shots rang out, setting off cries of “Die Franzosen sind da! Die Engländer sind da!” Later the Germans claimed they had been fired on by Belgian civilians or that civilians had fired from rooftops as signals to the Belgian Army. Belgians claimed that German soldiers had fired on one another in the dark. For weeks and months, even years, after the event that appalled the world, judicial inquiries and tribunals investigated the outbreak, and German accusations were contradicted by Belgian countercharges. Who shot whom was never established and was in any case irrelevant to what followed, for the Germans burned Louvain not as a punishment for alleged Belgian misdeeds, but as a deterrent and a warning to all their enemies—a gesture of German might before all the world.
General von Luttwitz, the new Governor of Brussels, expressed as much next morning. Visited in the course of duty by the American and Spanish Ministers, he said to them, “A dreadful thing has occurred at Louvain. Our General there has been shot by the son of the Burgomaster. The population has fired on our troops.” He paused, looked at his visitors, and finished, “And now of course we have to destroy the city.” Mr. Whitlock was to hear so often the story of one or another German general being shot by the son or sometimes the daughter of a burgomaster that it seemed to him the Belgians must have bred a special race of burgomasters’ children like the Assassins of Syria.
Already word of the flames at Louvain had spread. Stunned and weeping refugees driven from the city told of street after street set on fire, of savage looting and continuing arrests and executions. On August 27 Richard Harding Davis, star of the American correspondents who were then in Belgium, made his way to Louvain by troop train. He was kept locked in the railroad car by the Germans, but the fire had by then reached the Boulevard Tirlemont facing the railroad station and he could see “the steady, straight columns of flames” rising from the rows of houses. The German soldiers were drunk and wild. One thrust his head through the window of the car where another correspondent, Arno Dosch, was confined and cried: “Three cities razed! Three! There will be more!”
On August 28 Hugh Gibson, First Secretary of the American Legation, accompanied by his Swedish and Mexican colleagues, went to Louvain to see for themselves. Houses with blackened walls and smoldering timbers were still burning; pavements were hot; cinders were everywhere. Dead horses and dead people lay about. One old man, a civilian with a white beard, lay on his back in the sun. Many of the bodies were swollen, evidently dead for several days. Wreckage, furniture, bottles, torn clothing, one wooden shoe were strewn among the ashes. German soldiers of the IXth Reserve Corps, some drunk, some nervous, unhappy, and bloodshot, were routing inhabitants out of the remaining houses so that, as the soldiers told Gibson, the destruction of the city could be completed. They went from house to house, battering down doors, stuffing pockets with cigars, looting valuables, then plying the torch. As the houses were chiefly of brick and stone, the fire did not spread of itself. An officer in charge in one street watched gloomily, smoking a cigar. He was rabid against the Belgians, and kept repeating to Gibson: “We shall wipe it out, not one stone will stand upon another! Kein stein auf einander!—not one, I tell you. We will teach them to respect Germany. For generations people will come here to see what we have done!” It was the German way of making themselves memorable.
In Brussels the Rector of the University, Monseigneur de Becker, whose rescue was arranged by the Americans, described the burning of the Library. Nothing was left of it; all was in ashes. When he came to the word “library”—bibliothèque—he could not say it. He stopped, tried again, uttered the first syllable, “La bib—” and unable to go on, bowed his head on the table, and wept.
The loss, made the subject of a public protest by the Belgian government and officially reported by the American Legation, caused an outcry in the outside world while the fire was still raging. Eyewitness accounts by refugees, reported by all the correspondents, filled the foreign press. Besides the University and Library, “all the noble public buildings,” including the Town Hall and St. Pierre with all its pictures, were said to have been destroyed; only later was it found that, though damaged, the Town Hall and the church were still standing. GERMANS SACK LOUVAIN; WOMEN ANDCLERGY SHOT blazed the headline in the New York Tribune above Davis’s story. Under a subhead, “Berlin Confirms Louvain Horror,” it carried a wireless statement from Berlin issued by the German Embassy in Washington that, following “perfidious” attack by Belgian civilians, “Louvain was punished by the destruction of the city.” Identical with General von Luttwitz’s statement, it showed that Berlin had no wish for the world to misunderstand the nature of the gesture at Louvain. Destruction of cities and deliberate, acknowledged war on noncombatants were concepts shocking to the world of 1914. In England editorials proclaimed “The March of the Hun” and “Treason to Civilization.” The burning of the Library, said the Daily Chronicle, meant war not only on noncombatants “but on posterity to the utmost generation.” Even the usually quiet and carefully neutral Dutch papers were stung to comment. Whatever the cause of the outbreak, said the Rotterdam Courant, “the fact of destruction remains”—a fact “so terrible that the whole world must have received the news with horror.”
The reports appeared in the foreign press of August 29. On August 30 the process of destroying Louvain was terminated. On the same day an official communiqué of the German Foreign Office affirmed that “the entire responsibility for these events rests with the Belgian Government,” not forgetting the usual claim that “women and girls took part in the fight and blinded our wounded, gouging their eyes out.”
Why did the Germans do it? people asked all over the world. “Are you descendants of Goethe or of Attila the Hun?” protested Romain Rolland in a public letter to his former friend Gerhart Hauptmann, Germany’s literary lion. King Albert in conversation with the French Minister thought the mainspring was the German sense of inferiority and jealousy: “These people are envious, unbalanced and ill-tempered. They burned the Library of Louvain simply because it was unique and universally admired”—in other words, a barbarian’s gesture of anger against civilized things. Valid in part, this explanation overlooked the deliberate use of terror as prescribed by the Kriegsbrauch, “War cannot be conducted merely against the combatants of an enemy state but must seek to destroy the total material and intellectual (geistig) resources of the enemy.” To the world it remained the gesture of a barbarian. The gesture that was intended by the Germans to frighten the world—to induce submission—instead convinced large numbers of people that here was an enemy with whom there could be no settlement and no compromise.
Belgium clarified issues, became to many the “supreme issue” of the war. In America, said a historian of his times looking back, Belgium was the “precipitant” of opinion and Louvain was the climax of Belgium. Matthias Erzberger, soon to be appointed chief of propaganda when that unhappy necessity forced itself upon Germany, found that Belgium “aroused almost the entire world against Germany.” The argument of his counterpropaganda, that Germany’s conduct was justified by military necessity and self-defense, was, as he admitted with a certain wry regret, “insufficient.”
It did the Kaiser little good to take the offensive ten days after Louvain in a telegram to President Wilson saying “my heart bleeds” for the sufferings of Belgium caused “as a result of the criminal and barbarous action of the Belgians.” Their resistance, he explained, had been “openly incited” and “carefully organized” by the Belgian government, compelling his generals to take the strongest measures against the “bloodthirsty population.”
It did little good for ninety-three German professors and other intellectuals to issue a Manifesto addressed “To the Civilized World” proclaiming the civilizing effects of German culture and stating, “It is not true that we have criminally violated the neutrality of Belgium .… It is not true that our troops have brutally destroyed Louvain.” However imposing the signatories—Harnack, Sudermann, Humperdinck, Roentgen, Hauptmann—the mute ashes of the Library spoke louder. By the end of August people of the Allied nations were persuaded that they faced an enemy that had to be beaten, a regime that had to be destroyed, a war that must be fought to a finish. On September 4 the British, French, and Russian governments signed the Pact of London engaging themselves “not to conclude peace separately during the present war.”
Thereafter issues hardened. The more the Allies declared their purpose to be the defeat of German militarism and the Hohenzollerns, the more Germany declared her undying oath not to lay down arms short of total victory. In reply to President Wilson’s offer to mediate, Bethmann-Hollweg said the Pact of London forced Germany to fight to the limit of her endurance, and therefore Germany would make no proposals as basis for a negotiated peace. The Allies took the same stand. In this position both sides were to remain clamped throughout the war. The deeper both belligerents sank into war and the more lives and treasure they spent, the more determined they became to emerge with some compensating gain.
The gains Germany expected to win with victory were laid down within the first thirty days of battle in a memorandum presented to the government on September 2 by Matthias Erzberger. Leader of the Catholic Centrum Party and rapporteur of the Military Affairs Committee, he was the Chancellor’s right-hand man and closest associate in the Reichstag. A shrewd and able opportunist who represented whatever opinion was dominant, he combined energy and intelligence with a political flexibility unseen in Europe since Talleyrand’s. It was said of him that he had “no convictions but only appetites.” As he was one day to make himself the bearer of Germany’s plea for an armistice and to serve in the first Cabinet of the Weimar Republic, so now he drew up a list of war aims that would have made the most extreme Pan-German proud. Bethmann, who relied on him, never failed to wonder where Erzberger obtained all his bright ideas when he himself never seemed to have any.
Germany, according to Erzberger, was to utilize victory to gain control of the European continent for “all time.” All demands at the peace table were to be based on this premise for which three conditions were necessary: abolition of neutral states at Germany’s borders, the end of England’s “intolerable hegemony” in world affairs, and the breaking up of the Russian colossus. Erzberger envisioned a Confederation of European States analogous to the later Mandates system under the League of Nations. Some states would be under German “guidance”; others, such as Poland and the Baltic group annexed from Russia, would be under German sovereignty for “all time,” with possible representation but no voting power in the Reichstag. Erzberger was not sure which category Belgium would fit into, but in either case Germany was to retain military control over the entire country and over the French coast from Dunkirk down to and including Boulogne and Calais. Germany would also acquire the Briey-Longwy iron basin and Belfort in Upper Alsace which she had failed to take in 1870. She would also take the French and Belgian colonies in Africa. Morocco, curiously enough, was excepted as likely to be too much of a drain on Germany’s strength. No mention was made of England’s colonies, which suggests that Erzberger may have been considering a negotiated settlement with England. In reparations the vanquished nations were to pay at least 10 billion marks for direct war costs, plus enough more to provide veterans’ funds, public housing, gifts to generals and statesmen, and pay off Germany’s entire national debt, thus obviating taxes on the German people for years to come.
Drawn up in the intoxicating days of conquest in August, these war aims on which Germany set her sights were so grandiose as to be irreducible to the level of feasible compromise. On the Allied side in August, the primary war aim was expressed by Foreign Minister Sazonov to Paléologue at a tête-à-tête luncheon in St. Petersburg on August 20. “My formula is a simple one,” said Sazonov; “we must destroy German imperialism.” They agreed that the war was one for existence and that its objects could be gained only by total victory. Rather rashly for a Czarist minister, Sazonov agreed that sweeping political changes must be made if Kaiserism was not to rise from its ashes. Poland must be restored, Belgium enlarged, Alsace-Lorraine returned to France, Schleswig-Holstein to Denmark, Hanover reconstituted, Bohemia set free from Austria-Hungary, and all of Germany’s colonies given to France, Belgium, and England.
These were the map carvings of professional statesmen. Among private people who did not know Schleswig-Holstein from Bohemia, a deep underlying recognition had grown by the time the war was twenty days old that the world was engaged by “the largest human fact since the French Revolution.” Though a tremendous catastrophe, it seemed, in August when it was still new, to contain that “enormous hope,” the hope of something better afterward, the hope of an end to war, of a chance to remake the world. Mr. Britling in Wells’ novel, who, though fictional, was representative, thought it might prove a “huge step forward in human life. It is the end of forty years of evil suspense. It is crisis and solution.” He saw “a tremendous opportunity .… We can remake the map of the world .… The world is plastic for men to do what they will with it. This is the end and the beginning of an age .…”