Cover image for German atrocities, 1914 : a history of denial
German atrocities, 1914 : a history of denial
Horne, John, 1949-
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New Haven, CT : Yale University Press, [2001]

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xv, 608 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
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D626.G3 H67 2001 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Is it true that the German army, invading Belgium and France in August 1914, perpetrated brutal atrocities? Or are accounts of the deaths of thousands of unarmed civilians mere fabrications constructed by fanatically anti-German Allied propagandists? Based on research in the archives of Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, this pathbreaking book uncovers the truth of the events of autumn 1914 and explains how the politics of propaganda and memory have shaped radically different versions of that truth.

Author Notes

John Horne is associate professor in the Department of Modern History and fellow of Trinity College Dublin. Alan Kramer is senior lecturer in the Department of Modern History and fellow of Trinity College Dublin

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

The German invasion of France and Belgium was from the beginning linked with stories of atrocities committed against civilians. These stories became grist for Allied propaganda, in turn were denounced as lies by Germany, and eventually were submerged in the far more hideous atrocities that accompanied WWII. But as Horne and Kramer, historians at Dublin's Trinity College, demonstrate in this seminal book, German behavior in the first weeks of the Great War was more than a passing episode. Using a remarkable range of printed and unpublished sources, many of the latter only recently available, the authors show that the German army killed over 6,500 French and Belgian civilians between August and November 1914. The atrocities began when poorly trained and poorly disciplined troops reacted to the shock and anxiety of battle by interpreting the rear-guard resistance of French and Belgian soldiers, and their own uncontrolled firing, as the acts of guerrillas. Instead of restoring order in their own ranks, junior officers themselves succumbed to delusion and authorized near-random large-scale shootings of civilians. Since German army policy imposed draconian collective penalties for insurgency, senior officers receiving reports of large-scale partisan activity responded by ordering its ruthless repression. The partisan myth thus took on a life of its own, independent of a reality that consisted of no more than a few isolated acts of civilian resistance. As time and rhetoric blurred memories, politics and the need to heal the wider wounds inflicted by the Great War were responsible for downplaying or dismissing charges of atrocities. The facts, however, remained stubborn. Brought to light here, stripped of their penumbras, they offer fresh perspectives on the German army, the First World War and, by extension, the nature of war itself: the province of horror, confusion and lies. (Jan.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

From the outset of the German invasion of Belgium in 1914, there were reports of atrocities against civilians. While not denying that incidents occurred, recent historians have been skeptical of the extent of such events, crediting some reports to wartime propaganda. Horne and Kramer, history faculty members at Trinity College, Dublin, spent several years researching atrocities and conclude that they did indeed occur. As they explain, the Germans had a deep fear of francs-tireurs (snipers), a term from the Franco-Prussian War. As a result, a myth complex was generated in the German army that led to a mass delusion of civilian resistance when there was none. In fact, German units were more frequently the victims of friendly fire than of snipers. This, along with experiences in colonial wars, rumors of German wounded being mutilated, Prussian distaste for civilians, and anger at the impertinence of the Belgians in resisting, formed a deadly combination for the civilians caught in the German onslaught. This is the first English-language text to examine this issue so closely. While extensively detailed, it presents a compelling case and is highly recommended for graduate collections.-Daniel Liestman, Kansas State Univ. Lib., Manhattan (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One German invasion, part 1 In August 1914, Germany attacked Belgium with a million men, an invasion force larger than any previously seen. The intention of the General Staff, following the Schlieffen Plan, was to ensure rapid victory in the west by throwing five armies in a massive arc through central and southern Belgium in order to overwhelm the French army from the north and take Paris. Two more armies were to hold the frontier in Alsace-Lorraine against a French invasion of Germany. Time was vital. The German armies had to defeat their enemies in the west before the Russian mobilization was complete so they could join their Austro-Hungarian allies and triumph in the east as well. The planned invasion path in the west was no stranger to war. Overrun by the armies of the French Revolution in 1792-4, Belgium was the site of Napoleon's defeat in 1815. After Belgium achieved independence in 1830, the European powers guaranteed its permanent neutrality in 1839 in order to prevent it being used again as a platform for invasion.     The German armies were to bypass the northern third of Belgium, consisting of a low-lying coastal strip. The First and Second Armies, which formed the right wing of the invasion, were to storm across the densely populated central plain of Limburg, Brabant, and Hainaut provinces to the French border in a matter of days. In the southern third of the country (Namur and Luxembourg provinces) the valleys of the rivers Sambre and Meuse provided access routes to France, although the Ardennes mountains further south were more difficult to cross. Here, the Third and Fourth Armies were to wheel in successively shorter arcs to maintain the invasion front while the Fifth Army drove across the southern tip of Belgium into the Meurthe-et-Moselle in eastern France (map 1).     Before the full invasion could begin, however, the Germans had to force the gate to Belgium. Liège, the most easterly Belgian province, lies adjacent to the German Rhineland. Liège city was the country's largest industrial centre -- the `Birmingham of Belgium'. Strategically it controlled access to both the valley of the Meuse and the central plain. Encircled by modern forts of steel and concrete, it was one of three military complexes (along with Namur and Antwerp) on which the defence of Belgium depended. The German General Staff had provided for a special assault force in order to eliminate Liège in a matter of days. Early on 4 August 1914, under the command of General von Emmich, this force violated Belgian neutrality by crossing the border on a 40-kilometre front between Aachen and Malmédy. 1 The shock of Liège The Germans reckoned on a Belgian force defending Liège of 6,000 soldiers plus 3,000 members of the Belgian civic guard. Thirty-nine thousand German troops were deemed sufficient to overcome this resistance. In reality, Belgian soldiers were rushed to defend Liège so that the Germans faced 32,000 enemy troops when the invasion began, the bulk of them in improvised positions between the forts, supported by 150 artillery pieces and 30 machine-guns. The Belgians were in defiant mood, reinforced by King Albert's call for national unity. They knew their army was too small to withstand the German onslaught for long; universal military service had only been introduced in 1913, too late to make maximum use of manpower. Yet Belgians hoped that Germany's breach of the international guarantees of their neutrality would bring rapid assistance from France and Britain. For the first two weeks in August, as the main German invasion force assembled in the Rhineland, the war turned on the fate of Liège.     The Germans converged on Liège in five lines which attacked simultaneously (map 2). The northernmost column, the 34th Mixed Infantry Brigade, struck from Aachen to Visé, with the intention of crossing the river Meuse and attacking the city from the north. The 27th Infantry Brigade moved from the north-east on the fort of Barchon. The 14th Infantry Brigade took the main road from Aachen, traversing a string of villages (Battice, Herve) before assaulting the fort of Fléron which barred entry into Liège from the east. The 11th Infantry Brigade came from Eupen to assault the forts of Chaudfontaine and Embourg, south-east of Liège. The 38th and 43rd Brigades formed the southernmost prong of the attack, moving up from Malmédy to attack the fort of Boncelles, south of Liège.     On 5 and 6 August, the Germans flung themselves at the forts. The bulk of the Belgian defenders were forced to retreat on 6 August, some in disorder, and the city fell on the seventh. But this counted for little since the forts remained intact, and the German onslaught broke down in disarray. On 5 August, for example, the 34th Brigade lost 30 officers and 1,150 men; next day, the 14th Brigade, advancing against fierce artillery and machine-gun fire, lost more than half its men and many of its officers, including the brigade commander and a regimental commander. Five of the six German brigades retreated to their original positions and even beyond, after punishing losses. Faced with the ignominious failure of heroic frontal infantry assaults, on 8 August the Oberste Heeresleitung (OHL -- Supreme Army Command) abandoned the tactic and sent in another 60,000 troops as a siege army under General von Einem. Bombardment by heavy artillery now became the decisive tactic. This began in earnest on 10 August, pulverizing the forts one by one until the last surrendered on 16 August, and eastern Belgium lay open. The cost, however, had been high. Where Schlieffen, in revising his plan in 1912, had allotted just one division to invest Liège and Namur, it took eight divisions to reduce Liège alone and cost the Germans valuable time, as well as some 5,300 casualties.     When the Germans entered Belgium on 4 August, General von Emmich issued a declaration that the Belgians were not considered an enemy and that the Germans merely sought transit, though he warned that in the event of sabotage, the Germans would respond harshly. There was little serious fighting on 4 August. Nonetheless, scattered incidents of aggression against Belgian civilians occurred. When men of the 34th Brigade met resistance from Belgian soldiers in Visé, who fought from houses before blowing up the bridge and then fired on the Germans from the far bank, houses were burned, inhabitants randomly shot at, and two were killed on suspicion of destroying the bridge. That night, soldiers panicked in nearby Berneau, shooting each other and killing 11 of their own men; civilians were blamed and ten were shot down the next day, including a family with five children hiding in a cellar. The inhabitants of Herve and Battice were exposed to random violence by soldiers of the 14th Brigade. The burgomaster (mayor) of Herve, Iserentant, was accused by a German colonel of fomenting civilian resistance and told that: `Since our entry into this country, our troops have been fired upon [...] The laws of war authorize reprisals; burning, shooting. You will remain our prisoners.'     Such incidents were merely a prelude. The first mass executions of civilians took place on 5 August, and by 8 August nearly 850 civilians had been killed and about 1,300 buildings deliberately burned down. A great deal can be established about these incidents from the witness depositions and reports of the commission of inquiry which the Belgian government set up on 7 August to investigate war crimes, as well as from a variety of sources in German and other archives, and contemporary publications. The same is true for comparable incidents later in the invasion. Although the accounts by German soldiers and Belgian (or French) civilians are often radically different, careful comparison makes it possible to establish what took place, which is what concerns us here, even if explaining why is more difficult. In the case of Liège, it makes sense to consider each of the five lines of attack, from north to south, in turn.     In the north, on the night of 5-6 August, the 34th Brigade succeeded in crossing the Meuse and advanced towards Liège through the villages of Hermée, Milmort, Herstal, and Rhées. It came under heavy bombardment from the fort of Pontisse and intense fire from Belgian infantry ensconced in the industrial outskirts of the city, notably Herstal, which contained the Belgian national arms factory. Units of the brigade were separated from each other and a number of men were captured. A small detachment from Jäger Battalion 7 managed to enter Liège by daybreak, where the population at first greeted them as British soldiers. A fierce Belgian counter-attack inflicted high casualties. Grenadier Regiment 90 shot civilians and Belgian prisoners of war, and set fire to houses, in Herstal. Major-General von Kraewel, commander of the 34th Brigade, ordered a retreat in order to avoid the brigade's `total annihilation', and he reported that the `entire population in Liège and the suburbs participated in the fighting'. The retreat caused panic, and the brigade fled in disarray on the morning of 6 August with many soldiers crossing clean into Holland. As others retreated through Hermée, they killed 11 civilians and burned houses, claiming they had been fired on. In Warsage, a village on the east bank which lay in the brigade's rear, 12 hostages were executed. One old man was accused of cutting off the ears and gouging out the eyes of wounded Germans, and bound to the wheel of a wagon.     Early on 7 August, retreating soldiers of Jäger Battalion 7, who had remained near Liège since the night of 5-6 August, collided with the Belgians retiring into the fort of Pontisse. In the ensuing battle in the streets of Herstal, furious Jäger killed more inhabitants, a total of 27 perishing there on the two days. Herstal soon became a notorious case in which official German sources claimed (as Kraewel had) that the population of the working-class district had engaged in mass resistance against the Germans. In all, from 4 to 7 August, the 34th Brigade killed at least 117 civilians.     The civilian death-toll on the invasion path of the 27th Infantry Brigade, attacking from the north-east, was lower, even though the brigade repeatedly failed to take the forts of Barchon and Evegnée on 5-6 August. The commander of Infantry Regiment (IR) 16 decided to withdraw from the regiment's forward base in the village of Blégny-Trembleur to Battice, out of range of the forts' guns. First, however, the population of Blégny was rounded up in the church because there had allegedly been collusion with the fort of Barchon by signalling from the church tower. Belgian nuns who tended the wounded that night in Blégny related the German soldiers' intense distrust of the inhabitants: `There were some who showed a deep anxiety; they had been told that in Belgium the wounded had their eyes gouged out, were poisoned, were finished off.' The church and many houses were burned, and 19 people were killed. The brigade took 150 of Blégny's inhabitants on its retreat to Battice, where it executed 33 of them on 6 August. The priest and burgomaster were executed on 16 August as hostages for alleged continued civilian firing.     The 14th Brigade, which launched the attack on the fort of Fléron, east of Liège, was responsible for some of the worst mass executions of civilians. When IR 27 and 165 were repulsed on 5 August, they fell back on the village of Soumagne on which they vented their frustration. They placed the inhabitants under armed guard in the church. Male victims were selected and shot in a field in front of women and children. The execution squad bayoneted the bodies to ensure that no one survived; one injured victim, covered by corpses, lived to tell his story to the Belgian commission of inquiry. Over 50 men were killed in this execution, with 118 perishing in all and over 100 houses destroyed. On this occasion, it was the resistance of Belgium as a nation which angered the German soldiers, since they reportedly told the villagers: `It is your brothers who are firing on us from the fort of Fléron.' Three hundred to 400 survivors were used as a `human shield' by the Germans as they entered Liège on 7 August. Some were kept on the bridges of the Meuse without food for several days to prevent the Belgian artillery destroying the crossings.     Similar events marked the 14th Brigade's eventually successful attempt to penetrate between the forts of Flèron and Evegnée in the night of 5-6 August. Micheroux was burned by IR 27 and 11 inhabitants killed, the soldiers apparently explaining: `Belgium will not let us pass.' On 6 August, houses were burned and 40 civilians killed in Retinne. As at Soumagne, a `human shield' was driven at bayonet point by the Germans as they fought towards Liège on 6 August. At Melen, soldiers of IR 165 retreating early on 6 August roused the inhabitants and shot at least 11 of them. As some units retreated further to Battice that afternoon, they pillaged and burned 146 houses, farms, and the church, and killed 33 inhabitants. On 8 August, IR 165 returned to Melen. It took 72 inhabitants, including some from surrounding villages (such as Herve and Battice), to a meadow, and executed them collectively. This group included eight women and four girls under 13 years of age. Much of the village was burned. One witness recorded that the Germans made children dance in front of the corpses singing a nursery rhyme, `Il pleut, il pleut, bergère'. When the burgomaster of Herve, Iserentant, came to identify and bury corpses, he was seized and shot. The total number of victims in Melen on both days was 108.     In Herve itself on 8 August, the town hall and 300 houses, including farms and dwellings in the countryside, were destroyed, and 38 inhabitants were killed, many gunned down as they fled from burning buildings. One account described the terrifying arrival of the troops, firing thousands of shots and incendiary devices at the houses. `In a frenzy, the soldiers forced entry into the houses, aiming at the women and children, whose arms were raised, and seizing the men. The sound of explosions mingled with the cries of horror of the women.' It is not clear whether the unit responsible for the massacre at Herve was Reserve IR 39, which arrived that day from Düsseldorf, or a cavalry squadron rebuffed from Fléron. Overall, the fate of the villages along the main Aachen to Liège road, with more than 360 inhabitants killed, was directly linked to the failure of the 14th Brigade to take Fort Fléron, which did not surrender until 13 August.     The advance of the 11th Brigade (IR 20 and Fusilier Regiment 35) from Eupen in the east was associated with the deaths of over 100 inhabitants on 5-6 August. In Olne, the priest and village secretary were shot in the afternoon of 5 August. That night, the Germans tried to penetrate between the forts of Fléron and Chaudfontaine. They suffered heavy losses at the hands of the Belgian infantry and withdrew in panic. Just before midnight, a shell from the fort of Fléron hit the nearby hamlet of Saint-Hadelin, wounding some soldiers, whereupon the local teacher was accused of signalling to the fort and was shot with some of his family. This sparked a wave of killings in which 64 civilians in Olne and Saint-Hadelin perished, with 40 executed in the neighbouring hamlet of Riessonart on 6 August. Fusilier Regiment 35 also burned Romsée and Magnée, between Fléron and Chaudfontaine, on 6 August, killing a number of inhabitants and using the priest of Magnée in an attack on Fléron. The following day, a `human shield' of 200 civilians from Romsée and Olne was deployed against the forts of Embourg and Chaudfontaine.     In the southernmost advance against the fort of Boncelles by the 38th Brigade (Fusilier Regiments 73 and 74) and the 43rd Brigade (IR 82 and 83), over 100 civilians were killed. On the evening of 5 August, elements of the two brigades gathered for the attack at Poulseur after a long march in torrid heat. As night fell there was a thunderstorm with heavy rain, and some units lost their way in the advance. The vanguard of IR 83 was met with withering fire from the Belgian defence around midnight, but a chaotic assault continued until it was called off around dawn, owing to exhaustion and lack of ammunition. A Belgian counter-attack drove the German forces into retreat. Throughout the night and following day, German soldiers vented their humiliation and rage on a series of villages -- Esneux, Louveigné, Poulseur, and Sprimont. At Louveigné, for example, on 7 August hostages were seized by men of IR 73, 82, and 83, taken before a makeshift court-martial, and told they would be executed since villagers had resisted and had cut off the ears of a major. Shortly after, 17 were shot. Other civilians were killed, the village ransacked (with lorry-loads of booty sent back to Germany), and eventually burned. In Poulseur, sporadic firing at villagers continued throughout the night of 5-6 August, prompted by rumours that German soldiers had been shot in an outlying hamlet. On 6 August, the male inhabitants of Poulseur, and women and children from Chanxe, were used for two days as a `human shield' on a bridge against the guns of Boncelles, resulting in six deaths. (Continues...) Excerpted from German Atrocities, 1914 by John Horne and Alan Kramer. Copyright © 2001 by John Horne and Alan Kramer. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Table of Contents

List of illustrations, maps, figures, and tablep. viii
Prefacep. xi
Abbreviations, technical terms, and place namesp. xiv
Introductionp. 1
Part I Invasion, 1914p. 7
Chapter 1 German invasion, part 1p. 9
[1] The shock of Liegep. 10
[2] The First and Second Armies to the French frontierp. 23
[3] The destruction of Louvainp. 38
[4] The Third Army and Dinantp. 42
Chapter 2 German invasion, part 2p. 54
[1] The battle of the Ardennesp. 54
[2] The Germans in the Meurthe-et-Mosellep. 61
[3] To the Marne and back: September-October 1914p. 67
[4] The pattern of German military violence towards civiliansp. 74
[5] Comparisonsp. 78
Part II War of illusions? 'Francs-tireurs' and 'German atrocities', 1914p. 87
Chapter 3 The German army and the myth of the francs-tireurs, 1914p. 89
[1] Concepts and precedentsp. 89
[2] The myth-complex of the 'franc-tireur war'p. 94
[3] The military situation and the franc-tireur fearp. 113
[4] The internal dynamic of the franc-tireur fearp. 129
Chapter 4 Memories, mentalities, and the German response to the 'franc-tireur war'p. 140
[1] Memories of 1870 and the laws of warp. 140
[2] German nationalism: externalizing the enemy withinp. 153
[3] The German way of war? Responding to the 'franc-tireur war'p. 161
Chapter 5 Allied opinion and 'German atrocities', August-October 1914p. 175
[1] Refugees, soldiers, and the Allied invasion 'fear' of 1914p. 175
[2] Allied narratives of victimhoodp. 186
[3] Rape, mutilation, and severed handsp. 196
[4] Representing 'German atrocities': the role of the pressp. 204
[5] Memories, mentalities, and the construction of 'German atrocities'p. 212
Part III War of words, 1914-1918: German atrocities and the meanings of warp. 227
Chapter 6 The battle of official reports and the tribunal of world opinionp. 229
[1] The battle of official reports: the Allied chargesp. 229
[2] German counter-attack: the 'White Book'p. 237
[3] The Belgian riposte: the 'Grey Book' and Fernand van Langenhovep. 247
[4] Neutral witness and the tribunal of world opinionp. 249
Chapter 7 Communities of truth and the 'atrocities' questionp. 262
[1] Socialistsp. 263
[2] Catholicsp. 267
[3] Intellectualsp. 277
Chapter 8 Wartime culture and enemy atrocitiesp. 291
[1] War cultures and the unreconciable enemyp. 292
[2] War cultures and national martyrdomp. 302
[3] Sustaining the meaning of 1914p. 317
Part IV The impossible consensus: German atrocities and memories of war from 1919p. 327
Chapter 9 The moral reckoning: Versailles and the war crimes trialsp. 329
[1] Versaillesp. 330
[2] The Leipzig war crimes trials, 1921p. 345
[3] War cultures after the warp. 355
Chapter 10 German atrocities and the politics of memoryp. 366
[1] The pacifist turn: German atrocities as Allied propagandap. 366
[2] Locarno and the politics of memoryp. 375
[3] The Second World War and afterp. 400
Conclusion and perspectivesp. 419
Appendicesp. 433
[1] German atrocities in 1914: incidents with ten or more civilians killedp. 435
[2] Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land (1907)p. 444
[3] The Treaty of Versailles, Articles 227-230p. 446
[4] Allied demands for the extradition of enemy war criminals, 1920p. 448
Notesp. 451
Bibliographyp. 565
Indexp. 596