Scholar details social complexities of occupied Belgium
By Jean Gossman
Although contemporary observers tend to view World War I Europe as either the battle front or the home front, “vast swaths” of Europe were occupied during World War I, as Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver pointed out during a recent Georgetown University forum on her Great War occupation scholarship. Germany’s occupation of Belgium “generated specific war efforts” from both the occupiers and the occupied. “These efforts tried to establish some kind of stability,” De Schaepdrijver said. She noted that after the war American efforts helped stabilize Belgium.
Civilians’ role in occupied Belgium, “as underground patriotic culture defined it, was precisely to push back the remit of armed violence and to claim the unassailability of civilian life,” De Schaepdrijver wrote in “No Country for Young Men: Patriotism and its Paradoxes in German-Occupied Belgium during the First World War.” Ultimately, “the credo that justice would prevail in the long run was a cornerstone of patriotic belief.”
While protesting German authority, De Schaepdrijver wrote that Belgium “did not define itself as rebellious; rather, it strove for the return to a (presumably) natural order of things, and its moral reasoning hinged on the notion of immanent justice – the belief that iniquities would be punished and that usurped authority was by definition temporary.”
Belgium’s view that the “scandal” of the invasion should not and would not last drove the “vision of order” that fueled citizens’ efforts “to deny legitimacy of the occupying regime,” De Schaepdrijver said during the forum.
“They were strictly civilian efforts and used civilian tools” such as “discourse, symbolic acts such as celebrating the forbidden national [Belgian] holiday or wearing the national colors,” sabotage, and intelligence work, along with “a sizeable clandestine press.”
But this “culture of patriotic endurance” proved “inhospitable” for educated young civilian men not at the front, De Schaepdrijver said.
In general, few Belgian men served at the front during World War I due to lack of early mobilization by the “not particularly martial country” and the swiftness of Germany’s invasion, according to De Schaepdrijver.
Yet educated young civilian men “marooned” in occupied Belgium were “publicly shamed” and looked down upon for not taking up arms against Germany. University students “were a minority everywhere including in Belgium. You’re looking at one out of 1,000 young men, ages 18-25, in college. A handful of young men, really.”
Post-invasion enlistment – an “extraordinarily dangerous thing to do” -- entailed a risky escape to an unoccupied area in Belgium or to an Allied nation, De Schaepdrijver pointed out. Some young men ended up feeling forced to accept German offers to serve as confidence men.
After the war, cut off from societal respect and social relief made available to those who had worked and served Belgium’s cause, many of these young men enlisted support from American pacifist and social reformer Jane Addams, said De Schaepdrijver. Addams, founder of Chicago’s Hull House, worked with the Commission for Relief in Belgium, headed by future U.S. president Herbert Hoover.
“The more the war is retrospectively defined as having been about nothing, the more [the young men’s] stance becomes avant-garde and rebellious. The fact that they suffered some kind of troubled fate [with] the Belgian state is only going to strengthen that identity” within a decade after the war.
De Schaepdrijver is an associate professor of modern European history at the Pennsylvania State University. The forum was sponsored by the Georgetown University Institute for Global History and the University’s Mortara Center.
Interview with Professor Sophie De Schaepdrijver
"...the Americans cared about us, and that was very important."
By Jean Gossman
In your paper, you noted that the culture of Belgium’s World War I occupation by Germany does not loom large in national memory. Other than the passing of those who experienced the occupation within living memory, why is this the case?
“For a long time, the whole experience of occupation was not seen as central” to Belgian’s World War I experience, according to De Schaepdrijver. Instead, the German occupation “was a marginalized memory.” But, “with the centenary, things have changed a lot.”
Do you think that World War II subsumed memory of the Great War?
“Yes, [World War II] was a war that was supposedly about something,” and Belgians’ experience of occupation “was something that [they] would link to World War II.”
How would you characterize the Belgian experience and memory of American World War I aid to Belgium through the mid-century postwar period and beyond?
“It was not something that loomed particularly large. [Growing up during the 1960s] I don’t think anybody knew why we have [a boulevard named for U.S. ambassador to Belgium] Brand Whitlock in Brussels, for instance.
Has awareness changed in recent years?
During the present centennial commemorative period, “there is a general revival of [interest in] World War I across Europe.” Moreover, after Belgium suspended the draft in the 1990s, the country looked back to “a time of deep military mobilization and realized an era has come to an end.
What lessons can be taken from your scholarship on the occupation?
“War always has unintended consequences. The state matters. What I mean by that, what I’ve explored in my paper, is a firm belief in the endurance of the Belgian state. This belief was expressed in the absence of the Belgian state [during the occupation] because there was no government. Yet civil society carried on in the firm belief that [the government] would be reconstituted, as indeed it was.
“I think the framework matters in which people [express] solidarity, feel themselves to be citizens. There was a belief that the framework [worked] for us. Which is not the same as flag-waving patriotism, necessarily. It’s a belief that as a citizen there is a framework that works for you. That is something that I saw very clearly in Belgians’ experience in this war. The vast majority of citizens were not ready to accept that that framework [of the state] would be taken away.
“My general point is that you can have a lot of heroism and good will, but you need a firm framework for it, and the majority of Belgian citizens felt that the framework did exist” during the occupation – “the concrete presence of the Belgian state, with the constitution and [national] institutions.” De Schaepdrijver noted that after the war and restoration of the state, Belgium established universal manhood suffrage and set taxes on war profiteering.
What was the Belgian view of America and its involvement in World War I during and immediately after that conflict?
“What you see in occupied Belgium is the sense ... that the Americans cared about us, and that was very important.” Belgians began to celebrate Valentine’s Day, “which was unknown” earlier and considered an American holiday.
“Many Belgians” expressed their gratitude for American food aid by “beautifully” embroidering the flour bags, which were returned to the American Commission for Relief in Belgium. The commission then sold the bags for fundraising. Today, “you see them here [in U.S. historical] collections. For example, the Hoover Library has several beautiful specimens.”
After the war, “America was cool – the coolest country.” Belgians “were proud that this great country had taken an interest in them and come to their aid.”
Jean Gossman is a volunteer at the United States World War One Centennial Commission.