Flames of Louvain – Leuven 1914 an attempt to destroy a civilisation

On 19 August, 1914, two weeks after the invasion of Belgium, German troops attacked the city of Leuven (Louvain). There were 200 civilians killed, 1,100 houses destroyed. Leuven being a university town with a very interesting library saw 300,000 books going up in flames at the library of the University of Leuven.

Leuven Univ Biblio  Naamse str 1914

The by German fire destroyed old library of the University of Leuven (Louvain) in 1914

As we have seen the last few years in war-zones, there has been no pardon for the cultural treasures. But in 1914 people around the world were still conscious about the importance of old books. The written documents were still valued high.

Destroying art was like destroying the inner soul of a generation and to destroy civilisation.

The University of Leuven was founded in 1425. Until 1636 there was no official library of the university. Very likely the students had access to manuscripts and printed books preserved in the homes of their professors or colleges. In 1636 the university transferred the Cloth Hall in their library until its various additions were sent in 1797 to the Central School of Brussels, official successor of the former university, while its books and most precious manuscripts were deposited in Paris among the national treasures of the National Library. During the troubles of the wars of the French Revolution many books and valuable documents surreptitiously followed an “unofficial journey”, sometimes with the lofty aim of saving them from disaster, sometimes with the sordid aim of making money from them. It is thus that many libraries across Europe have books and manuscripts that certainly come from the Old University of Louvain, such as the founding charter of 1425 which was located in 1909 at the seminary of s’Hertogenbosch, or the courses of the law professor Henricus de Piro which were located in the late 20th century in the National Széchényi Library in Budapest.

In 1817 the State University of Leuven was founded. Many works of the municipal library of Leuven were offered by the city to the State University in 1817. In addition, the State University received from the government of the Netherlands the sum of 20,000 guilders to enrich its book funds.

In 1834 the Catholic University of Leuven (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) took as her headquarters a 17th-century building in the Naamse Straat (rue de Namur). When the Germans in 1914 entered the town they found, as a sign to the country, this library had to be burned down. On that occasion many valuable works disappeared that had been assembled since 1834 by gift and purchase.

The German troops rounded up prominent citizens and shot them whilst others were beaten and publicly disgraced. Tales of brutal atrocities against women and children spread almost as quickly as the flames that were destroying the ancient buildings. Under threat of bombardment, most people were sent to the surrounding countryside whilst an unlucky 1,500 were deported in cattle wagons to spend miserable months in a prison camp.

The university’s ancient library, filled with irreplaceable volumes of incunabula and glorious illuminated manuscripts, was doused with kerosene and set alight. Wooden beams and millions of pages made perfect fuel for the ferocious flames that soon reduced the building to rubble and its priceless contents to ashes.

By the end of the month of August, one-sixth of the city’s buildings laid in ruins and its population of over 10,000 had been expelled. {Find a photo of the city hall and library in the ash.}

Throughout the beginning of the war the German army engaged in numerous atrocities against the civilian population of Belgium, and destruction of civilian property; 6,000 Belgians were killed, 25,000 homes and other buildings in 837 communities destroyed. One and a half million Belgians (20% of the entire population) fled from the invading German army.

The sack of Louvain became one of the more famous examples of German atrocities in the First World War. Plucky Belgium was contrasted with the brutish Hun, and tales of civilian casualties and deliberate destruction of irreplacement cultural treasures provided excellent fuel for Allied propaganda. {Vaguely interesting}

The library building designed by Whitney Warre...

The library building designed by Whitney Warren and built from 1921–1928, now the KUL’s central library. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following the destruction of the library, a new library building was constructed on the Mgr. Ladeuzeplein. It was designed by the American architect Whitney Warren in a neo-Flemish-Renaissance style, and built between 1921 and 1928. Its monumental size is a reflection of the Allied victory against Germany, and it is one of the largest university buildings in the city. The library’s collections were rebuilt with donations from all around the world, outraged by the barbaric act which it had suffered. In 1940, during the second German invasion of Leuven, the building largely burnt down, including its 900,000 manuscripts and books. The blaze is thought to have started in an exchange of fire between the two armies, rather than a deliberate act.

Despite the fires during both world wars and the splitting of the library to provide a library in Louvain-la-Neuve (Université catholique de Louvain -1970) today the library of the Flemish Catholic University (Katholieke Universiteit Leuven) is again restored to a great library worthy of a great university, and has acquired not only modern books but also many old books and valuable incunabula.


Exhibition at the Leuven City Museum M

The 1914 fire is the starting point of Ravaged and contextualises Leuven in a long history at the City museum M,

The museum’s focus on both old and new can be clearly seen in works selected by curators Eline Van Assche (classics) and Ronald Van de Sompel (contemporary art).

Ravaged is M Museum’s first exhibition that juxtaposes artists from the past and present in the same exhibition. From the museum’s roof –  the obligatory end to any visit – visitors are confronted with a poignant end to their tour: the university library, which was newly rebuilt on the nearby Ladeuzeplein, with US help. The rooftop view suggests that even destroyed heritage will rise again.


1. From 20 March 2014 to 1 September 2014:

Art and Culture in times of conflict: Ravaged 1914.


Ravage in 5 themes

Ravaged takes you on a journey to destroyed cities, ruins, iconoclasm, art theft and propaganda. From the 15th century until today.

M Museum explores Leuven wartime destruction

Van 20 maart 2014 tot 1 september 2014 loopt in M – Museum Leuven een tentoonstelling over de vernietiging van kunst en cultuur in tijden van conflict. Elke dag opnieuw blijkt hoe kwetsbaar cultuur is tijdens conflicten. Dit actuele thema heeft een lange geschiedenis. We tonen hoe kunstenaars door de tijden heen geïnspireerd zijn door dit thema. Misdaden tegen de cultuur worden al eeuwen door hen verbeeld. In de kunstgeschiedenis vind je voorbeelden terug van klassieke en populaire kunst, zowel in realistische als symbolische weergaven. Daarom worden de reflecties en interventies van hedendaagse kunstenaars naast kunstwerken uit het verleden geplaatst. De werken van oude meesters en hedendaagse kunstenaars gaan in de museumzalen van M met elkaar in dialoog.


Overview Ladeuzeplein, Leuven

The other exhibition is at the Library of the University at the Ladeuzeplein (here in an old view), Leuven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Tentoonstelling: Ravage – The Flames of Louvain

Wanneer/ When 03-03-2014 09:00 tot
01-09-2014 17:00
Waar/ Where Hal Grote en Kleine Leeszaal
Telefoonnummer/Telephone 00 32 16 32 46 60

Op 25 augustus 1914 werd de Universiteitsbibliotheek in de as gelegd. Deze aanslag op erfgoed vond een enorme weerklank bij de internationale publieke opinie. Driehonderdduizend boeken gingen in vlammen op. Een vijfentwintigtal verkoolde boeken bleven bewaard. Ze zijn verpakt in verzegelde glazen kistjes en worden gepresenteerd samen met andere memorabilia die de brand hebben overleefd én samen met documenten uit het Universiteitsarchief die de impact van de brand illustreren. Deze kleine tentoonstelling kan u bezoeken in de hal aan de ingang van de Grote Leeszaal van de Universiteitsbibliotheek.


Openingsuren kan u hier vinden.

Please do find:

Louvain/Leuven – aftermath of German reprisal 25-30 August 1914

  • Leuven (August 6) (caseygoestoeurope.wordpress.com)
    As students at the University of California, we have more experience with a long tradition of academic success than many American college students do. However, the University of Leuven (Louvain) put our sense of “history” in its proper context, which I found to be a humbling experience. The buildings of the university do appear to be old, but for a variety of reasons they did not immediately present the university’s real age to my eyes. Primarily, after having been traveling through the Low Countries for four weeks, I have grown accustomed to seeing buildings that are centuries old, so the university buildings seem to blend in with their surroundings. In addition, though, the effects of war on Leuven have forced the university to make use of more modern buildings, or at least reconstructions of older buildings.
  • The ravages of war (economist.com)
    Many of the exhibitions that commemorate the start of the first world war focus on the fields of Flanders and northern France where the heaviest battles took place. “Ravaged”, an exhibition in the Belgian town of Leuven, marks the centenary in a different way. It explores another universal consequence of conflict: its impact on art and culture. Its starting point is the story of how German troops entered Leuven in 1914 and, in retaliation for a supposed sniper attack, exacted terrible reprisals on the town, destroying large swathes, including the university library, and executing many inhabitants.It’s a good idea, therefore, to prefix a visit to the exhibition with a climb up the rebuilt library’s 80-metre bell tower, where the town’s story is told floor by floor. At the museum proper, the exhibition is introduced with a work from 2011 by Adel Abdessemed, an Algerian conceptual artist. With a flailing horse lying on top of a copy of the “Green Book”, a collection of the political thoughts of Muammar Qaddafi, it tries to illustrate the close relationship between propaganda and slaughter. Near by, a canvas by Michael Sweerts dating from 1650 shows Mars, the Roman god of war, destroying “the arts”.
  • The Belgian Cook Book 1915 – War, Bread and Levity. (edibleswansea.wordpress.com)
    I am very likely one of very few people who has ever reached for a book because of its appearance of studied dreariness. I cannot recall the particular second-hand bookshop it was – there’ve been so many. (I recently went to a new ‘produce market’ and returned with second-hand books instead of Welsh chilli chutney, locally decanted olives or other irresistible and distinctive offerings)
    On the 4th August 1914 the Kaiser’s army had broken the neutrality of the small state heralding the start of the First World War. To the German request for free passage of its army Albert, King of the Belgians, had reply that ‘Belgium was a country, not a road’. According to the country’s constitution the King took personal command of the Belgian Army and engaged the invading army providing valuable time for the French and British to muster their forces. The depth of the popular sympathy for the ‘bullied’ little country and its king is perhaps not easy for us to imagine now but one can find much evidence for it. Stories of the invading army’s atrocities against people and property made daily headlines. In September, Belgian trawlermen sought refuge in Swansea and apparently confirmed the newspaper stories. My great uncle was apparently named after the ‘plucky’ warrior king and, more concretely, in the panic that immediately followed Germany’s invasion it is estimated that 240,000 Belgian refugees were taken in and accommodated in the UK for period of the war.
  • August 6, 2013 (hansgiv.wordpress.com)
    The current town hall is a fifteenth century renovation to the older town hall. The renovation was an effort to “outdo” Leuven’s “rival” Brussels. The town hall was designed by the same architect who designed the town hall of Brussels (no surprise here, they look very similar and Brussels is a stone’s throw away from Leuven). It is not as large as other town halls, like in Brussels, but the visual qualities are enough to outweigh the quantity. There is a heavy focus on detail on this building, and no inch of the façade is left undecorated. The famous Leuven humanist professor Justis Lipsius wrote the building’s “harmonious proportions” many centuries ago, validating the building’s size (Lecture by Mark Derez, Aug. 6, 2013). The town hall is very impressive at sunset, as it stands directly across the town’s main church and lends itself to beautiful photos. Our city tour guide, Leuven History Professor Pasture, taught us that medieval towns very typically placed their church and town hall side by side. This was not only convenient, but had important symbolic meaning. The church was “giving authority” to the councilmen of the town hall this way.
    The University Hall is very beautiful, and has a fittingly pristine lecture hall in it that houses paintings of the university’s former directors. These were all clergymen until 1966, when the university split. The Flemish elected a lay person as chancellor, illustrating the break from religious tradition. His portrait is very modern in style and obviously breaks from the style of the former chancellors.
  • 20130807-171239.jpg
  • In praise of Flanders, Right-wing intellectuals and Theodore Dalrymple (blogs.telegraph.co.uk)
    At first sight, Leuven looks much like any Flemish city: brick gables, cobbled streets, carillons, a handsome cloth hall and a truly gorgeous stadhuis (this one decorated with 236 statues of distinguished burghers, each standing on a pedestal so richly carved as to be a fine ornament in itself). Look a little closer, though, and you notice that the bricks are less decayed than in other towns, that the roof tiles are more uniform, and that many of the buildings have a sword-and-fire image carved into their exteriors, along with the date 1914.The motif tells us that they were rebuilt after the destruction of the town by the German First Army. Prussian officers carried a collective memory of having been shot at by French franc-tireurs, some of them in civilian clothes, in the 1870 war. This time, they were determined to disincentivize resistance from the start through overwhelming reprisals. For five August days, they systematically razed Leuven, damaging the church of St Peter, destroying several university buildings, torching hundreds of houses, obliterating the Gothic library and its priceless collection of manuscripts.
  • Findings from Catholic University of Leuven Has Provided New Data on Information Technology (hispanicbusiness.com)
    Our news editors obtained a quote from the research from the Catholic University of Leuven, “The dataset contains 475,391 journal papers published in 1980 and indexed in Web of Science (WoS, Thomson Reuters), and all annual citation counts (from 1980 to 2010) for these papers. As an indicator of citation impact, we used percentiles of citations calculated using the approach of Hazen (1914). Our results show that citation impact measurement can really be improved: If factors generally influencing citation impact are considered in the statistical analysis, the explained variance in the long-term citation impact can be much increased.”
  • Studies from Catholic University of Leuven Further Understanding of Information Technology (hispanicbusiness.com)
  • Victory at Sea: The British Navy 1914 – 1918 (ool.co.uk)
    Understandably, the media presentations and TV commentries to mark the 100th anniversary of the Great War have concentrated on the land battles fought in Flanders. Nothing matches the horror of Paschendale. But the part played by the Royal Navy was the equivalent of the Battles of Britain and the Atlantic fought in the Second World War rolled into one.No great sea engagement comparable to Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar took place to fire popular imagination. The Battle of Jutland in May 1916 was indecisive, but crucially the German surface fleet broke off the engagement and retreated back to the Baltic, never to break out again during the course of the war. Indeed, it refused when asked to do so in 1918.
  • Belgium’s Louvimmo assets sold for €34.4 million (savills.co.uk)
  • All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting… George Orwell (oldsaltbooks.wordpress.com)
    What makes World War I – and subsequent military actions – different is that these actions were widely disseminated and used for propaganda purposes to mobilize populations in hatred of the enemy – often justifying more and greater slaughter in order to get even. Again George Orwell put it best, Every war when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defense against a homicidal maniac… War against a foreign country only happens when the moneyed classes think they are going to profit from it.
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About Marcus Ampe

Retired dancer, choreographer, choreologist Founder of the Dance impresario office and archive: Danscontact-Dansarchief plus the Association for Bible scholars, the Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" and "From Guestwriters" and creator of the site "Messiah for all". - Gepensioneerd danser, choreograaf, choreoloog. Stichter van Danscontact-Dansarchief plus van de Vereniging voor Bijbelvorsers, de Lifestyle magazines "Stepping Toes" en "From Guestwriters" en maker van de site "Messiah for all".
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7 Responses to Flames of Louvain – Leuven 1914 an attempt to destroy a civilisation

  1. Pingback: All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting… George Orwell | Marcus' s Space

  2. Pingback: August 4, 1914 to be remembered | Marcus' s Space

  3. Pingback: Liège 2014 remembering the Great War | Marcus' s Space

  4. Pingback: Mons 2014 remembering the Great War | Marcus' s Space

  5. Pingback: June 13: 100 years ago my father was born | Marcus Ampe's Space

  6. Gerald says:

    Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


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