With its liberal regime and Constitution, ratified in 1831, that was remarkable for its respect for fundamental freedoms and freedom of the press in particular, Belgium can be considered as a cradle of the press. There are many publications, with a corresponding number of trends. Before 1789, the Principality of Liège and the Duchy of Bouillon had welcomed many foreign publicists, journalists, editors and printers, notably French, who were in search of a land of greater freedom. Were the founders of independent Belgium, i.e. in 1830, not also journalists in large part? How can one not think of Charles Rogier, Joseph Lebeau and many others who, since the mid-1820s, had been the target of the ire of the Dutch authorities that they called into question in the press publications for which they wrote? In short order, just like Belgian society of which it was doubtlessly one of the most faithful reflections in this 19th century, the Belgian press, both French-speaking and Dutch-speaking (with the latter developing somewhat later than the former), include titles with an international image, such as the Indépendance belge, the publication of the Chancelleries. However, when German troops invade Belgium on the night of 4 August 1914, they bring along with them an occupation regime for which one of the first ambitions will be to strangle the freedom of expression that is so common in Belgium. One of the most significant voices of this freedom is the press, naturally, both daily and weekly. A military government established itself in Brussels, and does not hesitate to impose its views. This includes necessary censorship. Accordingly, an underground press will develop, and be distributed "out of sight". It will be one of the expressions of a free Belgium, in the words of the "Libre Belgique"...
The press… under pressure
Two and a half months after German troops begin their invasion of Belgium, the occupier's first measures against the freedom of the press are initiated. On 22 September 1914, the Military governor, General-Baron Von Lüttwitz orders a small notice to be posted on the walls of the city of Brussels:
I would remind the population of Brussels and its suburbs that it is strictly forbidden to sell or distribute newspapers that have not been formally authorised by the German military governor. Any violations will result in the immediate arrest of the sellers, as well as extended imprisonment.
The first convictions are quick to follow. A man named Louis Prost is sentenced to six months in prison "for having spread copies of untruthful news regarding the war, reproduced by typewriter". The pressure applied by the occupier on the freedom of expression will rapidly push certain people to write and publish through clandestine channels. In 1915, Victor Jourdain and Eugène Van Doren are at the origin of La Libre Belgique, that will involve no fewer than 500 people, all of whom will spend two years of the war operating clandestinely. La Patrie will follow in 1916, and Le Flambeau (liberal leaning) in 1918. Other types of publications also feel the impact of the German censorship, that does not hesitate to blue-pencil the original texts. This is what happens to the Histoire de la Guerre de 1914-1915, d’après les documents officiels, distributed in Brussels. Here, for example, is an interview between Sir Goschen, British ambassador in Berlin, and German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, i.e. their last conversation on 4 August 1914.
The original text tells us:
I found the Chancellor to be highly agitated. His Excellency began a harangue that lasted for 20 minutes. He told me that the decision by His Britannic Majesty was terrible. All that for a little word neutrality, a word to which no one paid any attention in wartime, really all of that for just a scrap of paper.
The text reviewed by the German sensors:
I found the Chancellor to be visibly agitated. His Excellency told me that the decision by His Britannic Majesty was terrible.
Belgium can be considered as a cradle of the press
Alles voor Vlaanderen
Nevertheless, several titles will not support the censorship regime; it should be pointed out that in Wallonia, the Catholic newspaper of Namur L’Ami de l’Ordre continues to publish. On the Yser front, nearly 300 newspapers, periodicals and notes from the trenches (or from the little strip of land of unoccupied Belgium), appear more or less sporadically from 1914 to 1918. If the war can be considered as a moment of unanimity and national union for the Belgians, it should be recalled that this is also an opportunity for some to promote their community objectives. This is the case of certain Flemish militants. The Frontparij gradually takes shape, and will be the origins of the party referred to as the frontists. In December 1914, Ons Vaderland and De Kleine Vanderlander begin to appear, while the ancestor and first version of the Standaard, then called De Belgische Standaard appeared starting in January 1915, conveying the opinions of Flemish Catholic circles.
The war was also an opportunity for for some to promote their community objectives.
To live happily, let's live… elsewhere.
But the most remarkable episode in the history of the Belgian press during the first worldwide conflict is doubtlessly that of the press published abroad. Faced with the unacceptable demands of the German censorship, many press publications closed down in 1914.
Some journalists took the road to exile, like the Belgian government in exile at Sainte-Adresse, and then near Le Havre after October 1914. The Belgian government's publication, however officious, was of course Le XXe Siècle, under the auspices of Fernand Neuray, a journalist who will dominate part of the inter-war press, and to whom we owe a very original interview with Georges Clémenceau. Neuray was not content to simply tag along behind the government, but rather pleaded in favour of a "Belgianism" that was close to purity, going so far as to call for a "Great Belgium", the fantasies of which reached their peak around 1919-1920, and were notably propagated by Pierre Nothomb and Gaston Barbanson. This "Great Belgium" included an ambition of annexing the west bank of the Rhine, part of northern France and Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Nothing would come of it. But after 1918, Neuray would primarily be known for having held the reins of La Nation Belge, that would appear until its slow death in 1956, as an incarnation of passionate Belgian nationalism.
But this coin also has a flipside. Alongside Belgian nationalism, other forms of nationalism are also encouraged by the occupation. As such, militant Walloons in France publish La Wallonie (that will soon become L’Opinion Wallonne) in 1915-1916, under the management of Raymond Colleye, while Flemish militants look after publishing Ons Vlaanderen. Moreover, alongside France, it is rarely mentioned that Belgian newspapers are published in other countries, such as L’Indépendance Belge and La Métropole, published in London, or L’Écho Belge that was published in Amsterdam.
Neuray pleaded in favour of a "Belgianism" that was close to purity
Continuation and conclusion
In the days after the wars, the time to settle accounts seemed to have come. Indeed, the Belgian government in exile had already set the tone. A decree-law of October 1916 and another of October 1917 were intended to ensure that the legislation included measures againsy press publications that contributed to encouraging "the enemy or exercising a harmful influence on the spirit of the armies and population".
After 1918, the Belgian press turns about completely. Released from its imposed neutrality of 1839, Belgium will henceforth have its own national press agency (Belga), founded in 1920. But the press that, in the 1920s and 1930s, sees a period of virtually unprecedented circulation growth (Le Soir increases from 150,000 copies in 1920 to 265,019 30) will also have to deal with new challenges, including competition from a new medium: the radio. It will be the coming conflict's most potent weapon, during the "war of the waves"…