The Sack of Belgium, August 1914

The Ruins of the Catholic University Library, Louvain, Belgium

Some historical incidents are significant not so much for what happened in them but for how they shed light on the convergence of disparate trends of a given period. One such event is how the German public responded to Britain’s declaration of war on Germany on August 4, 1914 for violating Belgium’s neutrality.

In the summer of 2013, my wife and I had occasion to visit Kansas City, Missouri, where the National World War I Museum is located. The museum, constructed in 2006, is the only one in the United States dedicated solely to the First World War and is exceedingly well done. If one should have the opportunity to be in Kansas City, it is well worth a visit. In anticipation of visiting the Museum, I began reading Barbara Tuchman’s classic work on the outbreak of the First World War, The Guns of August. Tuchman’s book covers the period from just before outbreak of the War until the First Battle of the Marne, which stalled the German offensive in the West in the fall of 1914 and shifted fighting to the trench-bound stalemate that would characterize the next three and a half years of the war.

The British Decision to Enter World War I

Historians say World War I began because of the interlocking system of alliances that became activated as a result of the assassination of Austria’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian terrorist in June 1914. That is true as far as it goes, but it gives the impression that the system was reflexively mechanical. Tuchman illustrates there was actual decision-making involved on the part of statesmen and it was not a foregone conclusion that treaty arrangements would always be honored. For its part, Britain’s decision to go to war was not automatically the result of its Entente with France, but hinged on Belgium’s neutrality.

Belgian neutrality had been written into the Treaty of London in 1839 when Belgium was recognized as independent from the United Netherlands. At the time, with memories of the Napoleonic wars still lingering, the thinking of the major powers was that the neutrality of the Low Countries would facilitate European peace by placing a roadblock across the major invasion corridor between France and Central Europe. The British retained that strategic assessment into 1914, but Germany discarded it out of arrogance and expediency. The Germans assessed that in any European conflagration they could not afford to fight both Russia and France simultaneously. Accordingly, since they knew that the Russians took longer to mobilize their military to full strength, the Germans calculated that a quick thrust against the French—which they successfully pulled off in the six-week Franco-Prussian War of 1871—would knock the French out of the war and allow them to concentrate against the Russians. Invading through Belgium was the quickest way to accomplish that goal and keeping the British out was a necessary corollary in order to keep them from reinforcing the French. Germany’s declaration of war on Russia on August 1, 1914, brought France into war with Germany because of France’s treaty commitments to Russia and because Germany refused to guarantee Belgium’s neutrality. After Germany invaded Belgium on August 3, the German Foreign Minister tried to persuade the British not to intervene, at one point sarcastically saying that the treaty guaranteeing Belgium’s neutrality was merely a “scrap of paper” not worth Britain to go to war over. The British disagreed.

Tuchman describes the popular German reaction that followed:

As he [Sir Edward Goschen, the British Ambassador to Germany] was leaving [the German Foreign Ministry], two men in a press car of the Berliner Tageblatt drove through the streets throwing out flyers which announced—somewhat prematurely, as the ultimatum did not expire until midnight—Britain’s declaration of war. Coming after Italy’s defection, this last act of ‘treason,’ this latest desertion, this one further addition to their enemies infuriated the Germans, a large number of whom immediately became transformed into a howling mob which occupied itself for the next hour in stoning all the windows of the British Embassy. England became overnight the hated enemy; ‘Rassen-verrat!’ (race treason) the favorite hate slogan.

The Guns of August, p. 154

“Race Treason” and Evolution

What is worth noting here is not the anger the German mob had toward the British—that much was a given in the situation—but the particular epithet they used: race treason. It is easy to gloss over this and miss the significance of what this means. As far as Tuchman records, the Germans did not use that term when the Italians days earlier had reneged on their treaty commitments to Germany under the terms of the Central Alliance. This term was specific to the British. The epithet shows a couple of things: first, that on a popular level the Germans were viewing international relations in racial terms; and second, they saw a kind of racial hierarchy that placed the British on a par with themselves. In their view, the British betrayed some implicit racial solidarity in siding with the French rather than staying neutral. Such thinking is both curious and, from post-World War II perspective, seemingly out of place chronologically. One might have expected such ideas from the Nazis in the Second World War. It is surprising, therefore, to hear them from the Germans at the beginning of the First World War.

In retrospect, perhaps it should not be so surprising. As Richard Weikart soberly and extensively documents in his book, From Darwin to Hitler; Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany, German intellectuals in the half century before the outbreak of the First World War were forward-leaning in embracing Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, not only on seemingly scientific grounds but also in terms of working out the implications of those ideas in a range of fields. Indeed, Darwin himself in 1868 viewed the warm reception his ideas were receiving in Germany—the leading center of education in Europe at that time—as a hopeful sign that his ideas would gain lasting traction [Weikert, 10]. The appropriation of Darwinian evolution by German intellectuals did not remain limited to the sphere of biology. The implication of evolutionary theory that life was not inherently valuable—contrary to the traditional Jewish and Christian understanding—prompted a rethinking of the basis for ethics, with many of the strongest proponents for evolutionary ethics also being equally strong critics of traditional Christian morality. From the field of ethics, Darwinian evolution subsequently spread to engage the field of sociology, as evidenced by the increasing advocacy of eugenic approaches to public health during this time. By the turn of the 20th century, German intellectuals were trying to apply evolutionary theory to explanations of international relations as well, even to include the idea of racial struggle and extermination as a natural part of international conflict. [Weikert, 164-206]. While “Social Darwinism” was by no means limited to Germany during this time, Weikart demonstrates it did receive deeper and wider acceptance there than elsewhere in the West.

Execution of Civilians in Blegny, 1914

The fact that ordinary Germans were thinking in categories of race by 1914 shows that these ideas were not limited to intellectual journals and the academy. Indeed, the devaluation of life, the repudiation of traditional Judeo-Christian morality, and the acceptance of the idea of racial struggle no doubt played into the atrocities the Germans committed after invading Belgium. According to Tuchman, upon entering Belgium, German forces began a deliberate policy of Schrecklichkeit (terror) aimed at instilling fear in the population to make them quiescent. What this meant varied from place to place within Belgium. There were summary executions of scores of civilians, especially civic leaders, on the pretext that the victims had been engaged in a conspiracy to foster guerrilla resistance. On a larger scale, the Germans burned some villages to the ground and killed hundreds of people as reprisals to purported sniper attacks on the German troops. The most infamous example occurred on August 25, 1914, when the Germans burned the town of Louvain, a town of no military significance but which housed a library with irreplaceable medieval manuscripts and artifacts. And, then, of course, there was Germany’s use of unrestricted submarine warfare against any shipping, neutral or otherwise, which the Germans suspected of supporting the Allies. While such atrocities pale in comparison with those which the Germans did in the Second World War, they nevertheless were considered barbaric at the time.

On August 5, 1914, a few days after the war began, German Chief of Staff Helmut von Moltke summarized the German attitude towards such atrocities when he said, “Our advance in Belgium is certainly brutal, but we are fighting for our lives and all who get in the way must take the consequences.” [Tuchman, 199] Here, too, is a curious comment. Moltke’s comment implied that the war was an existential one for Germany, and Tuchman quotes several other German leaders who seemed to have similar views. While Germany did not start the war, Germany’s wholehearted backing of the Austro-Hungarians did and Germany was clearly the dominant partner in the alliance. Germany, therefore, can legitimately be considered the aggressor in the conflict. Moreover, in no way was its national existence at stake, especially when Moltke was speaking. So from a military, political, and strategic perspective this does not make sense. It does, however, fit with understandings of racial struggle and race war which were circulating in Germany prior to the outbreak of the War.

The Desertion of the German Church

Given the contemporary conflicts between conservative Christianity and Darwinian evolutionists, it is reasonable to ask where the German Church was in all this. Although I will not claim to be an expert on the German Church my sense is that German Protestants effectively made themselves irrelevant over the course of the 19th century. By the start of that century, Pietism was strongly entrenched in German Lutheranism, and this created a theological climate that de-emphasized doctrine and the institutional church in favor of personal holiness and devotion to Christ. Emerging at the same time was a growing movement toward critical theology, rooted in Enlightenment Rationalism. This movement questioned the reliability and historicity of the Scriptures, and, interestingly enough, comfortably co-existed with Pietism—after all, one could question the truth of the Scriptures because all that really mattered was to still have a heart for Jesus. Immanuel Kant’s revolution in philosophy and Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberalism also contributed to the marginalization of the German Church. Kant divided the realm of knowledge into the phenomenal and the noumenal, the former being the realm of concrete things and the latter being the world of aesthetics and values. Religion was relegated to the latter and not considered able to speak to the former. For Christianity, a faith rooted in the historicity of God’s working in the world, this was a severe blow. In addition, in his book, On Religion: Speeches to Its Cultured Despisers in 1799, Schleiermacher redefined the Christian faith largely to categories of moralism and feeling. The confluence of all these trends meant that the Church was reduced to little more than a sterile conveyor of private piety and public morals. The culturalized Christianity that resulted was criticized by the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, damned by the atheist Frederich Nietzsche, and unable to present either a challenge or an alternative to the new ideas sweeping Germany. Into the void left by the Church entered German Romanticism, a glorification of Germany’s pagan past, and new “scientific” theories like Darwinism. Melded with an insecure nationalism and bolstered by the cultural achievements of German intellectuals, Germans were convinced of their own superiority. Spiritually speaking, they succumbed to blindness and idolatry.

Germany’s sense of racial superiority, its atrocities in Belgium and in the waters of the Atlantic, along with the overall horrendous death toll of the First World War, help explain why the Allies were so punitive in the peace they forged at Versailles in 1919. The reparations were intended in part to break the spirit of militarism in Germany. Ironically, Versailles was punitive enough to make the Germans feel humiliated but did little to change attitudes within the country. The idolatry was given life by the fact that Germans did not feel defeated in the war even though their political leaders knew they had been. In the spring of 1918, Germany launched a series of offensives that actually gained them ground, but having expended their reserves, they could not hold what they had. Allied counteroffensives in the summer and fall of 1918 caused Germany’s defeat and led to the armistice on November 11, 1918. Within Germany, however, domestic propaganda highlighted the successes of the spring but did not explain the failures of the summer and fall. This fostered a sense among many Germans that they had been “stabbed in the back.” In the aftermath of Versailles, Adolf Hitler, a corporal in the German Army during the Great War, synthesized his own version of racial identity from the intellectual theories extant before and during the war and combined it with the feelings of betrayal stemming from the end of the war. This noxious mixture would form the core of Nazi ideology and that idolatry would only be broken by Germany’s total defeat in the Second World War. Thus, World War I was not the prequel to World War II. Rather, World War II is probably best seen as the conclusion of World War I, the two World Wars being Europe’s second Thirty Years War. It would take Germany’s total destruction in the Second World War and its division through the Cold War to really effect a change in Germany. The Germany of today, thankfully, is not the Germany of 1913.

A Lesson for Today?

What does this mean for us today as American Christians? While this historical vignette is interesting for how it pulls together many intellectual strands, it is not merely of antiquarian interest. Nor is this merely another data point about the dehumanizing effects of evolutionary ideas, although it is that. Weikert, in both the book already mentioned and in his follow-on book, Hitler’s Ethic; The Nazi Pursuit of Evolutionary Progress, is careful to note that the connection between Darwinism and Nazi ideology was not necessarily a straight line. Given that, it would probably be misleading to assert that the acceptance of evolution in today’s society will inevitably lead to fascist ideology. There were additional factors that contributed to the development of fascism in Germany specific to that time and place. All that said, however, what this vignette does highlight is the self-inflicted failure of the Church. A Church that eschews doctrine, that rejects Scripture as authoritative or historically reliable, that relegates itself to private piety and mere moralism while looking to be acceptable to its cultural despisers, is a Church that will be incapable of resisting idolatry. If idolatry is to be opposed, then orthodoxy must be defended, even if that is unpopular. And idolatry needs to be called what it is. Relevance is not resistance. This is a sobering lesson for us as Christians today, as we face some of these same pressures. Our Lord said, “You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt loses its flavor, how shall it be seasoned? It is then good for nothing but to be thrown out and trampled underfoot by men.” (Matt. 5:13)

May we not lose our saltiness.

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