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19 September 2014

‘Sack of Louvain – Awful holocaust’ (Daily Mail headline, Monday 31 August 1914)

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On 4 August 1914, the German army invaded neutral Belgium on their way to Paris and a speedy victory. In the event, the Germans met with unexpected resistance from the Belgian army which slowed their progress and allowed time for the arrival of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).  Accounts from Belgium, Luxembourg, and Northern France of German troops engaged in the mass execution of civilians and the wilful destruction of towns helped mobilise support for the war in Britain as well as influence public opinion in neutral countries such as the Netherlands and Switzerland.  The Germans countered that their actions represented harsh but just punishment for attacks on their troops by civilian snipers (‘francs-tireurs’).  In reality such attacks did not take place in 1914, but the Germans had indeed had to contend with civilian snipers in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, and so were expecting to come under fire from civilians on this occasion too.

The German writer Arnold Zweig, best known for his later anti-war cycle, Der Große Krieg der Weißen Männer (‘The Great War of the White Men’), based on his actual experiences serving with the German army in Belgium, Serbia and at Verdun, began his literary career penning nationalistic stories fictionalising German propaganda about Belgian snipers. In Die Bestie (Munich, 1914; British Library 012552.i.24/3), the eponymous ‘beast’ is a treacherous Belgian farmer who is justly executed for cutting the throats of three sleeping German soldiers. In Zweig’s later Erziehung vor Verdun (Amsterdam, 1935; 12557.y.11.;  English translation Education before Verdun (London, 1936; 12554.r.14)), on the other hand, the German investigating judge Mertens discovers that ‘In Luxemburg alone over 1,350 houses had been burned, and more than 800 people shot. In Belgium and Northern France the same methods had led to even worse results’.

The ‘sack of Louvain’ (Leuven) and destruction by arson of the university library during the week 25-28 August struck a particular chord both at the time and in popular memory as a wilful attack on a cultured university town, the ‘Oxford of Belgium’. 

Louvain march
John Neat, Remember Louvain. March (London, 1914) h.3827.x.(31.)  Cover illustration signed M.H.

Englebert Cappuyns, a lawyer from Louvain and refugee based in Kingston upon Thames, provided an early eye-witness account in his Louvain: a personal experience (Kingston upon Thames, 1914;, while the narrative of An eye-witness at Louvain (London, 1914; 09083.b.36(1)) by an anonymous Professor at Louvain ‘furnished through Father Thurston, S.J. of Farm Street’, concentrates on the execution of the Jesuit priest Father Dupiérieux. Albert Fuglister, a Swiss businessman based in Louvain, and present during 25-28 August, countered German propaganda in his Louvain ville martyre (Paris & London, 1916; 9083.f.14). In addition to the usual eye-witness accounts, Fuglister includes many photographs. In an appendix, ‘Comment j’ai  photographié leurs crimes’ (‘How I photographed their crimes’), he explains that he took photographs of Louvain in ruins from 2 September 1914 onwards.  He also reproduces photographs taken by others, in particular the two Arnou brothers.  Photographs from the Arnou album are on show in the 2014 Leuven exhibition Ravaged: art and culture in times of conflict

Louvain Snipers
Fuglister reproduces a German propaganda postcard depicting the alleged Louvain snipers (above). The caption reads ‘The atrocities against unsuspecting German troops in Louvain’. Fuglister’s counter caption tells his readers that ‘this widely circulated postcard is intended to show the public how German soldiers were attacked by the population of Louvain. This street does not exist anywhere in Louvain except in the imagination of the author of this drawing’.

Here Fuglister uses before and after photographs of the Grand Hall in Louvain University Library  (below) to highlight the impact of the devastation wrought by the Germans.

Louvain library before and after
The caption explains that the library ‘held [note the imperfect tense] more than 300,000 books, incunabula, manuscripts of incalculable value reduced to ashes in the space of one night. The fragments are found within a radius of five kilometres’.  

Fuglister’s book has a preface by the Belgian poet, and Louvain graduate, Emile Verhaeren. Verhaeren, himself a refugee in London and Wales from September 1914 to January 1915, and transformed by his shock at the fate of his country from a cosmopolitan man of letters into a ‘Belgian Paul Déroulède’ used his time in Britain tirelessly producing patriotic verse, and touring the country in support of his native land. His preface to Fuglister’s book mentions an earlier book by a citizen of a neutral nation, the retired Dutch professor L. H. Grondijs, author of The Germans in Belgium (London, 1915;

As for Louvain University Library, it was reconstructed after the war largely with American money (though see The reconstruction of the Library of the University of Louvain: an appeal for further contributions by Henry Guppy, the Librarian of the John Rylands Library, Manchester (Manchester, 1919; 011903.d.16)). This new library and collection was in turn destroyed in the Second World War. Finally, the Belgians themselves dismantled the new post-Second World War collection when the French-speakers were evicted from the now exclusively Flemish university and the collection was divided equally between the old foundation and the new university at Louvain-la-Neuve.

Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator French Studies

References/Further reading:

Sophie De Schaepdrijver ,The ‘German Atrocities’ of 1914

Fernand Van Langenhove, Comment naît un cycle de légendes : francs-tireurs et atrocités en Belgique (Lausanne; Paris, 1916). 9083.ff.10 (English translation, The Growth of a Legend (New York, 1916).

 John Horne and Alan Kramer, German atrocities 1914: a history of denial (New Haven, 2001). m01/34099

Alan Kramer, Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford, 2007). YC.2008.a.8001

Leuven University Library 1425-2000 edited by Chris Coppens, Mark Derez and Jan Roegiers.   (Leuven, 2005). LF.31.b.7798


17 September 2014

The Colour of Hope – Irina Ratushinskaya in the ‘Small Zone’

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25 years ago, the first Russian edition of Irina Ratushinskaya’s prison memoirs, Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (‘Grey is the Colour of Hope’), came out in London, under the auspices of the Overseas Publications Interchange. Born in 1954 in Odessa (then the USSR, now Ukraine), at the age of 29 Ratushinskaya was convicted to seven years’ confinement for dissident activity (writing religious poetry), and served a sizeable part of her sentence in the female penal colony ZhKh-385/3-4 in Mordovia. There she was kept together with the prominent human rights activists Tatiana Velikanova, Tatiana Osipova, Raisa Rudenko, Galina Barats, Lagle Parek and a few others, who, unlike most ordinary criminals, were entitled to neither amnesty nor parole. The book’s title refers to the colour of the uniform that the colony’s political prisoners had to wear. As their only crime was hoping for the country’s better future (and trying to do something to bring it closer), the garb indicating their outcast status also came to symbolise, for Ratushinskaya at least, their defiantly optimistic expectations.

Ratushinskaia Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy
Cover of the first edition of Seryi – tsvet nadezhdy (London, 1989). British Library YC.1990.a.8192.

As prison literature goes, Ratushinskaya’s book is rather traditional when it describes the forced labour conditions, deliberately (and not always successfully) designed to deter offenders from further crimes. In the words of a colony officer (compared by Ratushinskaya to the infamous Else Koch, the ‘Bitch of Buchenwald’),  “with the kind of life you live here, you’d never want to come back”. To the best of their ability, Ratushinskaya and her fellow inmates try to defend themselves against their environment by equally traditional methods, from deceit and insubordination to hunger strikes. Among other forms of resistance are growing an illicit vegetable patch and reading.

(Readers of this blog series may be curious to find out that Ratushinskaya’s colony had a library but no catalogue. Moreover, some books, especially modern ones – mostly about  ‘love’ and  ‘war’– were hardly identifiable. They lacked a beginning and end because other prisoners used the first and last pages as cigarette papers. Yet the colony’s political prisoners (never more than a dozen at any one time) did read the relatively undamaged 19th-century Russian classics, up to ten volumes a fortnight or so. Their jailers did not mind, believing that this was better than writing letters of complaint.)

The fact that Ratushinskaya serves her time in a women’s prison does not significantly alter the generally familiar picture of penal conditions for both genders. It is true that, overall and practically everywhere, “women are far less likely to be arrested, tried, convicted and imprisoned than are men. … [Women] have less extensive criminal experience in … burglary, robbery, and larceny, and they less often have a long history of penal confinement. … They are more often involved in homicide cases where the murder victim is the husband or lover …, friend …, or child” (David A. Ward and Gene G. Kassebaum, Women’s Prison, (London, 1966; YC.1993.a.1109, pp. 59, 67, 62; ). Yet women’s sufferings in confinement are largely comparable to those of men, even though women apparently tend to “suffer more from separation from families and disruptions of familial roles” (ibid., p. 70).

Women are especially vulnerable in certain circumstances, and their jailers rarely hesitate to take advantage of these. For example, during her transfer from a Moscow train station to Lefortovo prison, two guards offered Ratushinskaya sex with either of them, claiming they were doing her a favour (if she fell pregnant she might be released early). When in Mordovia, she and her fellow inmates were blackmailed by a colony officer who threatened to send them to dangerously cold isolation cells: “Do you think you’d be capable of conception after that?” Other similar instances include a KGB officers’ visit to the showers area with naked women inside, and the embarrassing need to explain to a colony doctor, a colony chief and a state prosecutor how many sanitary towels a woman requires during her period. All this is, unfortunately, quite typical of reports about women in confinement – not only in the USSR.

Where the book does differ from many prison memoirs is in the nuances of Ratushinskaya’s attitude. Uncharacteristically, she and her fellow inmates do not hate their jailers: “We feel sorry for them, with a touch of contempt. Poor them – what is the principal difference between their lives and the prisoners’? Always in the same labour camp and wouldn’t dare say a word against an order”. Ratushinskaya explains: “Under no circumstances should you allow yourself to feel any hatred. Not that your tormentors don’t deserve it. But if you let the hatred in, there’ll be so much of it in all your years in jail that it’ll replace everything else inside you, and your soul will be disfigured and corroded”. She adds: “The only way to remain human in a labour camp is to feel other people’s pain stronger than your own”. Easier said than done?

Irina Ratushinskaya (photo by Mikhail Evstafiev from Wikimedia Commons)

For Ratushinskaya, her and other political prisoners’ sentences, unjust as they seemed, still served a particular purpose: if women could withstand prison conditions without giving up their principles (as Ratushinskaya and most of her fellow inmates managed to do), “cowardly men should be ashamed of themselves. And if my fellow countrymen stop being cowards, life may well change beyond one’s wildest dreams”. The disappearance of labour camps would signify such a momentous change for her (“Labour camps exist not to form but to destroy human personality ...  For how long will they remain in my land?” she says). Alas, the camps are still there. According to the Russian Federal Penitentiary Service (FSIN), as of 1 August 2014, there were 675,400 prisoners in Russian colonies and jails, 50,000 of them women.

Until recently, the first Russian edition of Ratushinskaya’s book (YC.1990.a.8192) could not be found in the British Library because of a cataloguing error, which has now been rectified. The book has been translated into French, German, Swedish, Finnish, Danish, Norwegian, Italian, Dutch and Japanese. The translations in the blog are mine, but a published English version is also available (YC.1989.a.7849).

Andrei Rogatchevski, University of Tromsø

15 September 2014

A Teuton take on tartan: Sco(t)tland and the Germans

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Although I have used the title ‘Anglo-German Centuries’ to describe this series of blog posts, the intention was always to look at cultural ties between Germany and the whole of Britain. With the Scottish independence referendum imminent, this seems like a good moment to reflect specifically on Scotland in this context.

The early Hanoverian monarchs showed little personal interest in Scotland; since they had replaced the Stuart dynasty (which had ruled Scotland since the late 14th century) and had faced various Jacobite attempts to regain the crown, a certain wariness is hardly surprising. It was not until George IV’s visit to Scotland in 1822 that the increasingly anglicised Hanoverians also began to embrace their inner Scot and remember their Stuart ancestry. From here we can perhaps date the British royal family’s particular affection for Scotland, which continues to this day.

The man primarily responsible for this was Sir Walter Scott, who persuaded George IV to make his visit and the Scottish nobility to welcome him (and all concerned to don tartan kilts). But Scott was not just instrumental in introducing Britain’s ‘German’ monarchs to his country; he was also an important mediator of German culture in Britain. In his early twenties Scott had become fascinated with German literature – ‘German-mad’ as he later described it, His first published work was a translation of two ballads by Gottfried August Bürger in 1796 and the following year produced the first English translation of Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen

Walter Scott
Sir Walter Scott. Frontispiece fom vol. 1 of  The Prose Works of Sir Walter Scott  (Paris, 1840) British Library 12273.g.2

Scott maintained an interest in German culture and literature throughout his life, and was influenced by the activities of the German writers and scholars who were rediscovering and recording national folklore and mediaeval literature (he corresponded for example with Jacob Grimm). He also encouraged Robert Pearse Gillies, another Scottish enthusiast for German literature, to found the Foreign Quarterly Review (London, 1827-1846; 268.h.15.), a journal devoted to continental literature. Through its pages Gillies introduced Kleist, among others, to British audiences.

Scott was among the 15 British admirers who presented Goethe with a golden seal on his 82nd birthday and was thanked in a poem addressed to ‘Fünfzehn englischen Freunden’. Chief among these ‘English’ friends was another Scot, Thomas Carlyle, who had begun a correspondence with Goethe after translating Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Carlyle was another great 19th-century champion of German literature and thought in Britain; indeed, in the words of the critic R.D. Ashton, he ‘became convinced that he alone knew anything about German literature … and that it was his duty to teach it’, and he continued in this mission for all his writing life.

Germans were also taken with Scotland and its culture. James Macpherson’s ‘Ossian’ poems were influential to the writers of the ‘Sturm und Drang’ and Romantic movements (and of course play a climactic role in Goethe’s Werther).  A combination of Macpherson’s work and actual Hebridean scenery inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s overture known both as ‘The Hebrides’ and ‘Fingal’s Cave’, and the same tour of Scotland inspired his ‘Scottish Symphony’.

Both Scott’s and Carlyle’s own works were well-received in Germany. Richard Andree, a German traveller to Scotland in the 1860s, described Scott as ‘the man who has brought Scotland’s history closest to us Germans’. On arrival in Edinburgh he hastened to pay his respects at the Scott memorial, but when he visited Scott’s home at Abbotsford he was somewhat disappointed by the stout guide who ‘smelt alarmingly of whisky’ and took quantities of snuff as she showed him round: ‘an unpleasant addition to the rooms where The Lady of the Lake was written’. 

In Edinburgh Andree almost immediately encountered fellow-Germans working there: three Swabian waiters at his hotel and a group of Palatine musicians busking in the street. This comes as something of a surprise as Scotland generally attracted far fewer Germans to work or settle in the 19th century than London or some of the northern English cities. Nonetheless, by the end of the century Edinburgh and Glasgow each had sufficient German populations to support a German church, so Andree’s waiters were part of a trend, if only a small one. (The musicians may have been a more itinerant group – he later encountered them again in Inverness.) A salutary reminder that sometimes the term ‘Anglo-’ is not enough when looking at British- German relations between 1714 and 1914.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Studies


Max Batt, ‘Contributions to the History of English Opinion of German Literature I. Gillies and the Foreign Quarterly Review’, Modern Language Notes vol. 17, no. 3 (March 1902) pp. 83-85. P.P.4970.i.

R.D. Ashton, ‘Carlyle’s Apprenticeship: His Early German Criticism and His Relationship with Goethe (1822-1832)’. Modern Language Review, vol.71, no. 1 (January 1976) 1-18 (p.7).

Richard Andree, Vom Tweed zur Pentlandföhrde: Reisen in Schottland (Jena, 1866) and available online [] 

Panikos Panayi, German immigrants in Britain during the nineteenth century, 1815-1914 (Oxford, 1995) YC.1996.a.721