Since 1831, Belgium had been a "permanently and perpetually" neutral country, as proclaimed by the legal texts in effect after the treaties of 1831 and 1839. Since then, the established fact of this neutrality had become well-established in tradition, despite being sporadically challenged. However, on August 4th, 1914, this neutrality and its underlying principles are violated by Germany after the expiry of an ultimatum that stipulated that troops from the other side of the Rhine had to cross Belgian territory in order to avoid an upcoming offensive by the French army. King of the Belgians Albert 1st sees in this no more than a pretext for an outright invasion of his Kingdom. As such, war seems inevitable.
Quite quickly, Belgium comes to be seen as quite a particular case in the starting phase of this conflict; this peculiarity will in fact persist through the four years of battles. Indeed, it's the only country to be invaded for more than 90% of its territory. This invasion implies an almost automatic consequence, namely exodus. Of course, we're referring to the thousands of Belgian refugees who find shelter abroad, including intellectuals who, sometimes after considerable delays and tribulations, make their way to England, near Oxford, or even quite simply the Belgian government that, in October 1914, establishes itself not far from Le Havre, in Sainte-Adresse, from where it will manage the course of Belgium's affairs. But within this overall scenario, one very particular activity is often forgotten, if not totally unknown, namely the intense activity deployed by certain Belgians abroad, in an effort to develop propaganda that is favourable to the fate of their invaded country.
These propagandists, however limited their numbers, set up a highly useful communication network, often with very modest means, and through diverse and varying channels, managed to provide Belgium with a new voice, after it had been rendered mute and muddled by the hazards of the invasion. These new "voices" of Belgium defend its cause in 1914-1915, and attempt to obtain support, material or otherwise, from countries that have remained neutral, such as Switzerland, Italy, Spain or Romania.
Poor Little Belgium
This propaganda effort is deployed, with greater or lesser success, from August 1914 until February 1915. It's also worth noting that it developed on its own, without any kind of tangible structure. It is primarily made up of propagandists all of whom are like so many free electrons that are supposed to preach the good news abroad in favour of Belgium, Poor Little Belgium. It is not until February 1915 that the Belgian government in exile at Sainte-Adresse and, more specifically, the War ministry, sets down the outlines of a Belgian Documentation Bureau that is given the task of preparing and organising Belgium's so-called "official" communication and propaganda. The first objective of this Bureau – basically the same one as the propagandists who will be described below – was to refute at all costs any of the brochures, books and various statements made by the German authorities in order to justify the August 1914 invasion, and to peddle the legend according to which Belgium is overrun by irregulars willing to shoot down German soldiers in cold blood. Another rumour disseminated by the occupier claimed that Belgium's supposed neutrality before 1914 was an absurdity, given that it had signed agreements with England, in 1906, in order to thwart a possible invasion from the other side of the Rhine. With the signing of this agreement, this neutrality was naturally devoid of any substance. It was therefore this German propaganda that had to be "shot down". This will be the role of the aforesaid propagandists.
Diplomats will have to wear a different hat
Diplomats taking up the battle
Defending Belgium's image and refuting these various noises and rumours are in part assigned to Belgian diplomats posted to neutral countries. But what about these agents cut off from their hierarchy and their administration? How can it not be viewed as a major handicap that communications between these agents and the government located in Sainte-Adresse sometimes take three weeks to arrive at their destination? Faced with such a situation, the diplomats, considered to be able to step back somewhat when dealing with problems, and also for dealing with them slowly, often as a result of long reflection, will have to put on a different cap. They will have to "democratize" themselves. Previously squared away in their ivory towers, accustomed more to offices than crowds, or even journalists, the diplomats will henceforth be required and even forced to communicate. Their voice, in order to be heard as it should, must blend with that of Belgium. Amongst these diplomats, it is impossible to say nothing about Belgium's representative to the Kingdom of Italy, Werner Vanden Steen de Jehay, who served from 1911 to 1922. He was the first to perform in a manner previously considered impossible for a member of the Diplomatic corps, namely granting an interview to a Roman newspaper on 12 August 1914. Thereafter, L’Osservatore romano and the Corriere d’Italia, amongst others, will publish the viewpoints of the Belgians who have been entrusted with guarding and defending the image of their country abroad. Moreover, Belgium's representatives to Italy and to the Vatican (Maximilien d’Erp) attain the first milestones with the pro-Belgian committees and propaganda bodies, in which we find Italian politicians of not insignificant influence, such as the Catholic deputy of Milan, Filippo Meda. These propagandists are also helped by the collaboration of certain Belgian editors that have a branch in Rome, along the lines of the Desclée firm, the head office of which is at Tournai, that will look after the publication of works and brochures signed by Jules Van den Heuvel, Hervé de Gruben or Julien Davignon.
- Yes, but I couldn't give a speech in Italian.
- No matter! Everyone here understands French speakers!
Jules Destrée and Georges Lorand in Italy
These propagandists were doubtlessly most active in Italy. There, two eminently worthy characters, and long-standing Italophiles, are particularly at the forefront. First is the liberal deputy of Virton, Georges Lorand, undoubtedly one of the Belgians with the best knowledge of Italy, and secondly, the socialist elected official for Marcinelle, Jules Destrée, best known for having published his famous Letter to the King in 1912, in which he called for the administrative separation of Belgium, all the while also being a great friend of Italy. Lorand started his campaign in Italy in October 1914, whereas Destrée took up the cause at the end of that same year. The main weapon of these two protagonists is the spoken word. They go to great lengths to hold multiple conferences south of the Alps, in agreement with the King of the Belgians Albert 1st. They experience clear success. What are their orders? The main objective of this "Italian campaign" is to convince the neighbours across the Alps to finally enter the war once and for all, alongside the French, British and Russian Allies. Indeed, after a vote by the Chambers, Italy had decided to maintain its neutrality in August 1914. However, it appeared that this decision was not irrevocable. While Italy had been part of the Triple Alliance alongside Germany and Austria-hungry since 1882, it had increasingly distanced itself from these two nations and drawn closer, however sporadically, to France, for example around 1902. The heavyweight argument of the two speakers is the following: Rome must be sensitive to the fate of "martyred" Belgium, much as it is relative to the fate of the unredeemed lands (Istria, Trentino, Fiume) on the shores of the Adriatic, that Italy would like to bring it into its fold.
Here is an eloquent testimonial on the activities of Lorand and Destrée, drawn from the latter's notes. It's a discussion during which Lorand convinces his contact to remain in Italy:
I've always enjoyed distributing grain to the pigeons in St. Mark's Square. They're familiar, they run up to us with a silky sound, and come to peck from your hand. Lorand surprises me in the midst of the occupation.
What is it that I'm doing here? Looking for the paintings for the Belgian pavilion. In the interest of our articles hidden away in England, and to help the ones in the interior, all disoriented by the war, we thought to hold an exhibition in London of the works of art that were included in the Venice exhibition…
- Fine, Lorand answers me, fine. But, my good friend, there's much more for you to do. Were you told nothing in Le Havre?
- I was advised to visit my socialist friends, I was told that you had carried out a brilliant campaign here, but I don't know how I can help you.
- Italy is neutral, provisionally, anyway. There are some in favour of intervention alongside the Allies, but the socialists are hostile, the Catholics as well; the general opinion is one of hesitation. The main argument of the interventionists is currently Belgium. The Germans know it so well that they're using clever propaganda against us here: they justify the invasion by saying that Belgium abandoned its neutrality: they justify the atrocities using the legend of the irregulars, etc. etc. One must react.
- I would love to, but how?
- Gracious! Through the press, by speaking out! You've given enough speeches that you could give a few on these topics!
- Yes, but I couldn't give a speech in Italian.
- No matter! Everyone here understands French speakers!
The Swiss viewed the invasion of Belgium in a rather positive light
Toward the organisation of the propaganda
Amongst the active militants for Belgium's cause, the sociologist from the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Emile Waxweiler, is part of the bridgehead. In recent years, Waxweiler had acquired international recognition notably thanks to the development of his Sociology Institute, that is home to future top-notch characters, along the lines of Henri Rolin or Fernand Van Langenhove. We owe him works that are still considered to be classics, in favour of Belgium's cause from a legal viewpoint: "Neutral and loyal Belgium" or "The case of Belgium's neutrality". However, despite his in-depth knowledge of questions relative to the notion of neutrality in Europe, Waxweiler was astonished to see that Switzerland, a neutral country of course, but in a different manner than Belgium, viewed the August 1914 invasion of Belgium in a rather positive light. In Switzerland, the venues for Belgium activities will be Geneva and Lausanne. It will take all of Waxweiler's energy to bring certain Swiss circles around to Belgium's side. Switzerland primarily reproached Belgium for having disputed its status as a neutral country, firstly, and secondly for not having sufficiently invested in its military budget before 1914. Conferences in Switzerland are fewer in number and not as easy as in Italy; this was certainly Destrée's task, who spoke during them as of December 1914, but not without risk of virulent contradiction.
Moreover, other countries are overrun by Belgian propagandists. Amongst these were Spain, the Holy See, Romania and Bulgaria, where Georges Lorand ("The wandering apostle of admirable Belgium" is particularly active, despite great difficulty getting his ideas across in Sofia.
In the spring of 1915, the situation changes appreciably in more than one way. In February, the Belgian government sets up a Documentation Bureau, notably in charge of looking after propaganda, while in May, Italy decides to join the war. The short-lived era of Belgium's propagandists now comes to a close.