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 11, 2020

The Rape of Belgium: The Untold Story of World War I

by Larry Zuckerman
NYU Press, 2004
John D Beatty, Reviewer

Dinant Memorial to Its 674 Civilians Killed by the German Army

One of the benefits of being a casual student of the Great War is that you can be surprised by new information when reading about subjects "everyone knows about already". Larry Zuckerman has produced one of those books in the pantheon of Great War literature where even the most knowledgeable Great War scholars can learn something or, if not get new facts, learn how the West came to see what the Germans seemed to be capable of. The Rape of Belgium starts with a description of a Belgium that few people before 1914 can appreciate. It was a happy, industrious, prosperous state with the fifth-largest manufacturing base in Europe, secure within its borders with a small professional army and navy, a treaty recognizing her neutrality, and influential friends in Germany and France. Belgium, a country carved out of what had been both French and Dutch territory by the Congress of Vienna, embraced Flemish, Walloon, and Luxembourgian ambitions within its borders. Its railroads and other commercial highways were the envy of Europe.

And those excellent roads, Zuckerman holds, was their problem. Germany's Schlieffen Plan depended on Belgium's granite roadways as highways to Paris and the early defeat of France so that they could turn their attentions to slow-mobilizing Russia. The author expounds on this topic as easily and as clearly as he does on the lowly tubers in his The Potato: How the Humble Spud Rescued the Western World (North Point Press, 1998)—with verve and detail that never gets dull. He's quite clear about German Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg's contemptuous "scrap of paper" dismissal of Belgian neutrality and its effect on world opinion, especially Britain. He's also quite clear on how the Belgian atrocity stories that started not long after were gross exaggerations and that the truth was worse.

The truth of the story that followed the early reports and wild tales is something between a Kafkaesque tragedy of disbelief and ignorance and a preview of what was to come in 1939, when Germany would march again. The Germans blamed the Belgians for not allowing them to simply stroll through, standing aside so they could destroy the French more quickly, with an offhand thought about how puny Belgium dragged Britain into the war. This attitude toward Belgium triggered the real "rape" of Belgium: systematic looting, confiscation of machinery, forced labor, ignoring Belgian laws and customs, and a halfhearted attempt to separate Flemings and Walloons by suggesting that Belgium would be partitioned.

The book pulls few punches when it comes to describing Germany's years of abuse of Belgium's resources. Zuckerman holds that Germany held Belgium in contempt for simply obeying German demands and that Germans could not understand why the world thought Germany was somehow a bad actor in the case of Belgium. The occupiers even went so far as to punish the families of people who killed themselves with guns, fining them for the cost of the ammunition and advising others to hang themselves, as copper was short.

Even as the war ended in 1918, when the armistice negotiations were going on between Berlin, Paris, London, and Washington, Belgium was not consulted. When the Versailles conference began, Belgium was treated with less regard than even China, but Zuckerman admits that may have been because of Belgium's small military contributions. While acknowledging that Belgium had a small and fragile force on the Western Front, her total military casualties from 1914 to 1918 amounted to four days of French losses in August 1914 alone. After the war, Zuckerman tells us, there were war crimes trials of a sort, but they were held in Germany, by German courts, and the sentences handed out were minor.

There are some surprises. For instance, The Rape of Belgium states that Germany was running low on ammunition as early as October 1914; after the Somme/Verdun catastrophes of 1916, much of the German Army no longer cared if the war was won or lost as long as it ended; as late as July 1918 it was clear that German officials expected to stay in Belgium indefinitely. The role of Belgian Relief, the Herbert Hoover-driven American organization, was also somewhat smaller than most Americans had been led to believe—and the Germans thought their agents to be spies. Also, Belgian relief ships were torpedoed by German submarines, marked or not.

In all, The Rape of Belgium is an interesting and informative read, recommended for Great War aficionados who are looking to get away from battle narratives (there are none here) and learn something they thought they knew about poor little Belgium.

John D. Beatty, MA, Am Mil History


  1. Sounds fascinating. Thank you for the review.

  2. ...and what about the poor people in the Belgian Congo?

    1. I am curious about how this book covers Leopold's atrocity.

  3. I had no idea it was Belgium's excellent roads that so attracted the Germans.

  4. According to at least two sources I know of (one book, one person), the country suffered worse under the Kaiser than Hitler.