Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914
Reviewed by Ron Drees

Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914
by Jeff Lipkes
The Brabant Press, 2014 (reissue)

Rehearsals is a book of several sections: Wehrmacht atrocities against the Belgian people in August, 1914; a comparison of the 1914 German invaders and nation to the Allied invaders of 1944–1945; a commentary linking the settlement of the 1870–71 Franco-Prussian war with the Treaty of Versailles; a commentary on German society, such as its anti-Catholicism; and a linkage of the murder of Belgium civilians to Polish civilians in 1939. This is a complex book that hopscotches across history and thus requires careful reading of the later sections.

The first 12 chapters are straightforward. Invading German troops march into Belgian towns, accuse the local populace of shooting at them, round up a bunch of men, and without trials or discussion or any process, march the men out of town and murder them. Frequently, women and children are included. Usually many homes and buildings are burned. The death toll was over 6,000 between the various villages, all within a few days in August. After the Great War, plaques and monuments were put up to memorialize the murdered civilians, but the Germans returned in 1940 and removed the plaques.

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The "villages" part of the book is like a relentless pile driver; deaths and burnings relentlessly pile on top of other deaths and burnings. Then Lipkes makes his text interesting by beginning to seek explanations. He compares German, French, and Allied troops and notes that the first may have suffered from mass hysteria — but more likely German officers may have provoked reprisals to terrorize civilians. Furthermore, the German definition of total war made the killing of civilians necessary.

What led to this murderous mindset by supposedly a very civilized nation? A "bellicose minority" of Germans believed that war was a cure for human and national diseases. This minority included the most influential of Germans who considered war a biological necessity to remove weak nations. A corollary of this belief was that a German military officer could behave as he liked; he was required to defend the Kaiser's uniform even if that meant cutting down a civilian with his sword, cutting in line, or dueling with fellow students.

This militarism supported German nationalism. Germans believed that they were a chosen people, incapable of doing wrong, especially the German Army. "Deutschland Uber Alles" is more than a song; it is a national mind-set. This resulted in Christianity melting away. Selected phrases that capture this include, "The German people are the elect of God…" and "It must please God to see Himself mirrored in the German soul". Contrast that with Abraham Lincoln who was concerned not that God was on our side but that we were on God's side.

Reparations became a controversial topic after the war. Lipkes claims that Belgium and France were inadequately compensated for damage willfully caused by the Kaiser's government. While the Central Powers were assessed $33 billion, Germany paid only $5.375 billion of its share of $12.5 billion. Instead, in an effort to help Germany pay its bills, the U.S. loaned it billions, in effect financing rearmament.

Depiction of the Dinant, Belgium, Atrocity of  23 August 1914 (Tony Langley Collection)

Then Lipkes performs a truly unique act; he compares the reparations of the 1870–1871 Franco-Prussian war to the Brest Litovsk treaty of March 1918, and Poland in 1939. While Germany had suffered no damage to its territory in 1870–1871 and 1939 and little from Russia in 1914–1918, it made the conquered nations pay for the costs of a war they had not started. Payment was required in terms of money, land, and economic dependence. Perhaps other authors have discussed Franco-Prussian reparations in light of the Versailles Treaty, but I haven't seen them. He concludes that the problem with the Versailles Treaty was its feeble enforcement. Germany's president greeted the Wehrmacht as heroes, denying a defeat. Twenty-seven years later, the German people would definitely know that they had lost the war when millions of their civilians died.

Lipkes continues with other topics, such as German anti-Catholicism, anti-Semitism, the greed of conquering troops as they looted beaten nations, and the deportation of civilians to serve as forced labor. Moreover, he draws an analogy between Foreign Secretary Grey's appeasement of Austria and Chamberlain's efforts in 1938. Eventually there were investigations by the British government into the Belgian atrocities. These resulted in trials of Germans by Germans in Germany and the not surprising "not guilty" verdicts.

This book covers a great deal more material than the title would indicate. I submit that the post-village atrocity chapters are the most valuable. I recommend that prospective readers first read one or two chapters describing the murders in particular villages and then initially jump to the Explanations, Epilogue, Afterword, and Appendices for new and valuable information. The justification for murdering whole villages is that terror reduces resistance. The later sections provide background as to why such terror came about.

Ron Drees


  1. Good review, sounds like another interesting book.

  2. "The Deluge" by Adam Tooze, recently published, covers the complicated story of how the Versailles Treaty reparations were eventually watered down by a clever Germany and disunited Allied side.

  3. If this is a reprint when was it first published? Does it address any of the cracks detailed in "The Great War Dawning"?

  4. Sounds like he's on Pershing's side....that the allies should had fought their way to Berlin in 1919 to make sure the Germans knew they were defeated.

  5. My Great Grandparents, Ludwig Haake and Maria Trenthroff emigrated from the Westphalia Region of Germany to the USA in 1884/85 because "they did not want to raise anymore sons to fight for the Fatherland and Kaiser." And told their 8 sons that "as long as there is a Germany, there will be war." And my Grandparents and our family have thanked God ever since then, but fought in both World Wars against Germany. In my view I think it was really just the same World War with a break in between because Germany was beat, along with the rest of Europe that desired peace, and needed to rearm to devastate Europe again.