by Larry Zuckerman
NYU Press, 2004
John D Beatty, Reviewer
|Dinant Memorial to Its 674 Civilians Killed by the German Army|
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.
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