Belgium and the First World War


Belgium and the First World War

Henri Pirenne

The First World War began with the invasion of Belgium. Except for a thin slice of territory south of the Yser River, Belgium was entirely occupied by the Germans from October 15, 1914 until the armistice. The suffering of the Belgian people, which made such a vivid impression on Americans, British, Canadians, and Australians at the time, has been largely forgotten.

The invasion was accompanied by mass executions and wholesale arson; nearly 6,000 civilians were killed and 25,000 buildings intentionally burned. Over 2 million Belgians escaped to the Netherlands, France, and Britain. When order was restored, the nation faced a grave economic crisis. A major exporter and among the most prosperous countries in Europe, Belgium was now cut off from its supplies of raw material and its markets, and subject to heavy war taxes, fines, and requisitions. As Germany began increasingly to feel the effects of the Allied blockade, the temptation grew to exploit to the hilt all Belgian resources, including labor.

With eloquence and passion, the eminent medievalist Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) describes the hunger, the deprivations, the unemployment, the arbitrary arrests and deportations, the indignities of home invasions and confiscations, the censorship, the conscription of workers, the dismantling and destruction of Belgian factories, and the administrative division of the country.Belgium and the First World War comprehensively surveys the catastrophe and chronicles the stoicism and the resiliency with which Belgians responded.

Henri Pirenne (1862-1935) was himself one of Germany’s best known victims. Professor of History at University of Ghent from 1886, he made his reputation with what would eventually be a seven-volume history of Belgium.Belgium and the First World War can be considered a postscript, carrying the story to 1918 and elaborating some earlier themes. The two books for which Pirenne is best known in the English-speaking world are also post-war publications, Medieval Cities and Mohammed and Charlemagne. The theses of both are still debated today. Pirenne’s pioneering work in economic and social history inspired the AnnalesSchool in France, as well as two generations of British and American scholars. On March 18, 1916, the historian was arrested and deported to Germany for having urged the faculty at University of Ghent to close the institution for the war’s duration. Despite international protests, he was not released until after the armistice. Pirenne used his time in captivity to learn Russian, give courses for his fellow prisoners, and begin work on his magisterial History of Europe, which grew out of his prison-camp lectures.

Publication date: May 6, 2014