# Life and entertainment despite the war and occupation

Photograph of a theatre performance  - Private collection, Mrs. Nicole Latour ©

Photograph of a theatre performance - Private collection, Mrs. Nicole Latour ©

The beginning of hostilities during the First World War, right from August 4th, 1914, brought a sudden stop to all intellectual and artistic activity in Belgium: indeed, more serious and far-reaching concerns immediately come to occupy the minds of the population, in keeping with the German army's progress towards the west of the country and with the installation of the occupation regime. Cinemas, café-concerts, theatres and other performance venues suddenly shut their doors, as do certain museums that hurry to safeguard their collections in cellar storage. But in Brussels in September 1914, a "Verordnung" (regulation) from the German administration, written in three languages (German, French and Dutch), orders a resumption of industrial and commercial activities, as well as the reopening of cafés, cinemas, stores, restaurants, theatres and other entertainment venues. The "Kommandantur" (general staff) wants the Belgian capital to appear to be a city that is not suffering from the occupation. The Germans themselves requisition certain public buildings, such as the Théâtre de la Monnaie and the Théâtre du Parc, in order to organise performances of works by Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Wagner, Weber… in an effort to spread Germanic culture in Belgium! Moreover, Governor General Moritz von Bissing, a great art lover, compels museums in Brussels, including the Fine Arts Museum and the Cinquantenaire Museum, to once again expose their entire collections, while being accessible to the troops mobilised in the capital. The German authorities also implement a plan to safeguard the artistic heritage ("Kunstschutz") of Belgium and northern France; it's a somewhat ambiguous programme that oscillates between a genuine desire to protect artistic creations in a time of war, and the pure and simple plundering of certain artistic treasures.

For the Belgians, after a few weeks of hesitation and without news of the troops on the other side of the Yser, the population once again begins to seek distractions and makes its way back to the various entertainment venues. But everything is not as rosy as it appears: the increasingly vexatious censorship and curfews imposed by the occupier, as well as a lack of materials and the difficulty gathering a sufficient number of performers, complicate the work of performance organisers. Some stop their activities until the end of the occupation, others regularly change their offerings in keeping with the circumstances and the expectations of the public. For its part, other than philanthropic works, the public simply wishes to escape the gloominess of war. In theatres, this means that operettas and vaudeville do very well indeed. In the cinema, though the French films so appreciated by the public before the war have been replaced by German films, cinema halls are as full as ever, especially in the winter, since they provide the public with a cheap way of staying warm! In cabarets and café-concerts, there is singing and dancing; despite the occupation, the Belgians allow themselves almost any kind of pleasure. Except one: attending the performances organised by the German occupier. While this need for entertainment doesn't dismay ultra-patriots, this same behaviour is strongly frowned upon by the overall population. Patriotism, after all, remains a very sensitive subject; throughout the conflict, the festivities on 21 July and the King's Feast (15 November), the strongest expressions of patriotism, are forbidden by the occupying authorities. When the war ends, Belgian artists express their desire for vengeance, in some ways, by producing many anti-German works and performances that are very well-received by the public.