# How the Belgians view the Germans

Published in 1917 by a Bavarian assault battalion, this card illustrates the evolution of their clothing and weaponry: the steel helmet (Stahlhelm), so characteristic and superior to English and especially French helmets, and the grenade pouches slung from each shoulder.  - Private collection, Mrs. Betty Fabry. ©

Published in 1917 by a Bavarian assault battalion, this card illustrates the evolution of their clothing and weaponry: the steel helmet (Stahlhelm), so characteristic and superior to English and especially French helmets, and the grenade pouches slung from each shoulder. - Private collection, Mrs. Betty Fabry. ©

Over the course of history, the cohabitation of two peoples imposed by military conquest has rarely been a good experience for the occupied people. Belgium in 14-18 is no exception to this rule. Accustomed to the rivalry between its large neighbours, Belgium had had more than 100 years to learn not to take sides, lest it find itself in a war outside of its weight class. Events between France and Germany were witnessed by Belgium almost as a spectator. Of course, French-speaking Belgians have always felt culturally close to France, and Wallonia has admired it in many regards. Nevertheless, Germany was also well regarded, notably on economic and cultural levels, and elicited growing interest throughout Belgium.

But history decided who would be the invader, and who would be the liberator: German troops attacked Belgium, and the Belgians had to live with them for 4 years. They had to comply with military orders posted in German, and it was German soldiers whom they learned to hate for the deaths of their family or village. For 51 months, they met each other in the streets or in shops. The vast majority of the population would keep as far as possible from the soldiers, who would most often cause problems, but after several years, the population gradually grew accustomed to their presence, even while avoiding all contact. While not developing any kind of sympathy, almost no mention is made of them: survival becomes the primary preoccupation, not too much attention is paid to German actions and gestures.

Before the war

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Belgian view of Germany was not at all unfavourable. This was primarily so in the bourgeois society educated in Belgian universities, where they had attended courses by many German professors and learned much in the new seminars and scientific laboratories, in which students developed their experimental abilities. Many young people, after their studies, then spent several years in Germany in order to learn about the country and its customs. But also in the industrial world, we find Germans amongst the directors of Cockerill, of the armaments industry in Liège and textiles in Verviers.

On the political stage, all of the major parties would at some point admire the German model. The Liberals wildly praised the policies of Bismarck and his efforts to combat the weight of the Catholic Church in Rhineland, a border region and therefore the only part of Germany that is really well-known, and in Bavaria, which is only known because the Queen of the Belgians, Elisabeth, was born there. Later, it will be the turn of the Catholics, in power between 1884 and 1914, to admire German organisation and discipline. At the same time, the liberals and socialists worry about the growing military and hierarchical structure in Germany.

In the middle bourgeoisie, a large number of German young ladies are hired to work as nannies for young children, given their habits of cleanliness, politeness and discipline. Finally, in literary circles, German schools can be found almost everywhere, along with language schools where the learning of German was encouraged, plus many literary clubs that will study the great German authors, such as the deutscher Klub (German Club, created by the German consul, it offered a meeting place for the several thousand Germans living in the Liège region), the deutscher Verein Germania (Germania German association) as well as the Schillerverein (Schiller Association). Finally, from a religious viewpoint, while the Belgians feel relatively close to the Bavarians, the inhabitants of Baden-Württemberg or the Saxons since, like them, they're Catholic, they remain mistrustful of the evangelical Protestant Prussians.

Interest in Germany was growing throughout Belgium

The arrival of the troops

There is therefore no anti-German tradition in Belgium on the eve of 4 August 1914, and the country would in fact view this night as a "breach of close". The image of Germany, no doubt incomplete overall, but with its people enjoying life, its beer and its sauerkraut, but also its top-flight scientists, its civilisation and its "positive realism", all of that is wiped away in a few hours. The Germans, whether Prussians, Bavarians or from the Rhineland, whether civilians or soldiers, labourers or noble men, all are now considered as invaders to be hated. All of them are now viewed as guilty for the massacres on the Herve plateau and in the other martyrs cities. A limitless Germanophobia then appears, and establishes itself for the long term… The depth of the impression is obvious on 10 May 1940, when the Nazi attack is only barely distinguished from the 1914 attack, and is announced as the "return of the pointy helmets".

The Germans, whether Prussians, Bavarians or from the Rhineland, whether civilians or soldiers, labourers or noble men, all are now considered as invaders to be hated.

Habits are formed

During the war, civilians rarely distinguish between the various types of soldiers. Indeed, once the front lines have passed, it is the Landsturm, older soldiers or unfit for service, who will be assigned to the occupation rather than to the trenches. Rarely are they described as Landsturm, with the Belgian civilians describing the actions of the "Germans" irrespective of their rank or posting. Some differences are noticed, however. The first patrols by the Landsturm, in stark contrast with the front-line soldiers, in September 1914, bring to mind certain memories within the population: " When [the civilians] see the Landsturm soldiers going by, big and small, fat and thin, it's more solemn, but also more comical than our civil guard. You get the impression of watching a parade of military costumes through the ages! What a difference with the troops from August! As such, the residents of Liège are quick to comment on these troops: They'll take anyone!".

As the war advances, the relations do not improve. In keeping with the requisitions, exploding food prices and, finally, the deportations, the Germans are blamed en masse, without any kind of distinction.

The army's growing supply difficulties are noticed by the civilians who, in December 1915, take note of the poverty of the troops, their old and heterogeneous equipment – notably including rifles described as "Belgian, French or Russian, and even sometimes Chassepot rifles from the 1870s" - but also of the age and physical condition of these troops: "[...] old men, the deformed and the sick […]". Civilians also take note of the progressive reduction of the number of men occupying the cities and their surroundings. Indeed, more and more men are sent to the front, which in August 1917, for example, will reduce the number of men guarding the Boncelles fort to just 3.

The officers, reproached by the population for ordering searches only in an effort to find bottles of wine, are described along with their men: "[...] Amongst the latter [the officers in attendance], there were some that we saw each day, notably a higher cavalry officer with a greying mustache, who never went out without his dog, a fox terrier, that he kept next to him on the tram or that he would carry under his cape when it was raining or cold. There was also an old major, a big old man with a pointed goatee, who lived here with his family and who, each day, would take long walks with his grandchildren. Then an artillery officer, a small man with a cantankerous and grumpy countenance, who was always on his own, even in his carriage pulled by two horses with harnesses covered with copper ornaments. This one certainly liked things to be glittering, since his servant wore livery that included countless numbers of large mother-of-pearl buttons sewn on the sleeves, on the back of the livery and even on the seam of the trousers. But the best known of these dodging officers was Lieutenant von Mallinkrodt, who served as the governor's secretary at the command headquarters. He was always welcoming, invariably promising to intervene if you but filled out a complaint, but it was very rare for these promises to be honoured, or at least followed by any effect."

The Germans are blamed as a whole, without any kind of distinction

Time for everyone to go home

At the end of the war, residents of Brussels are astonished to see even their "plump landsturm of the occupation army" (90% fat, some would say) revolt against their officers. In Brussels and elsewhere, German soldiers revolt after the mutiny by the sailors in Kiel. These mutinies in Kiel, starting in November 1918, will rapidly be followed by a virtually generalized uprising of the soldiers and workers against the existing power. The German revolution will force the Emperor into exile in the Netherlands and, eventually, lead to the advent of the Weimar Republic. The Soldiers' council will be the new government body set up within the German army and in Belgium, calling into question the powers of the hierarchy and of the General government and taking control of the organisation that is now little more than a retreat. A council of this type is set up in each Belgian village. They assume the powers of the officers, but the population will see very little difference, preferring to focus on the Allied offensive followed shortly thereafter by the armistice. With the announcement of the armistice, most Belgians devote no further attention to the occupation troops and go about their activities while preparing the "return to normal".

The only point on which the civilians and soldiers seem to agree, in the end, other than for the desire for peace, is the responsibility of certain farmers and intermediaries, i.e. "hoarders" for the poor nutritional situation reigning in Belgium. The population and the German army are convinced that these hoarders have spent 4 years growing rich at their expense. While the soldiers can't do much, a certain degree of indulgence towards food smugglers within poor families will become commonplace. The German government will nevertheless take no true enforcement actions against the guilty, for which it will be reproached by the population. A large number of these hoarders and traffickers will be imprisoned once the armistice is signed.

If 1914-1918 is a shakeup in the international politics, it's also an interruption in the vision that the peoples have of one another. August 4th, 1914 is the starting point of a visceral hatred of the Belgians against Germany and its people, that will only begin to ease off with the common construction of Europe with its peace and cooperation, 40 years later. These two peoples who lived with one another for more than 4 years will nevertheless suffer the same ills, side-by-side. Hunger, worrying about loved ones and homesickness will be the daily lot of these populations, who are nevertheless enemies. They will be hated for the hell that the soldiers brought with them, even though most of them were not directly responsible, and would doubtlessly have preferred to stay home with their families.