Read CHAPTER III - THE POISONED WELLS of Through the Iron Bars, free online book, by Emile Cammaerts, on ReadCentral.com.

We must never forget, when we speak of the moral resistance of the Belgian people, that they have been completely isolated from their friends abroad for more than two years and that meanwhile they have been exposed to all the systematic and skilful manoeuvres of German propaganda. Not only are they without news from abroad, but all the news they receive is calculated to spread discouragement and distrust.

How true lovers could resist a long separation and the most wicked calumnies without losing faith in one another has been the theme of many a story. From the story-writer’s point of view, the true narrative of the German occupation of Belgium is much more romantic than any romance, much more wonderful than any poem. The mass is not supposed to show the same constancy as the individual, and one does not expect from a whole people the ideal loyalty of Desdemona and Imogen. Besides, we do not want the reader to imagine that, before the war, the Belgians were ideally in love with one another. Like the English, the Americans and the French, we had our differences. It is one of the unavoidable drawbacks of Democracy that politics should exaggerate the importance of dissensions. Therefore it is all the more remarkable that the sudden friendship which sprang up between classes, parties and races in Belgium, on the eve of August 4th, should so long have defied the untiring efforts of the enemy and should remain as unshakeable to-day as it was at the beginning.

We do not wonder that the German intellectuals who have undertaken to break down Belgian unity are at a loss to explain their failure. Scientifically it defies every explanation. Here was a people apparently deeply divided against itself, Socialists opposed Liberals, Liberals opposed Catholics, Flemings opposed Walloons; theoretical differences degenerated frequently into personal quarrels; political antagonism was embittered by questions of religion and language. Surely this was ideal ground in which to sow the seed of discord, when the Government had been obliged to seek refuge in a foreign country and a great number of prominent citizens had emigrated abroad. The German propagandist, who had been able to work wonders in some neutral countries, must have thought the task almost unworthy of his efforts. Every one of his theoretical calculations was correct. He only forgot one small detail which a closer study of history might have taught him. He forgot that, in face of the common danger, all these differences would lose their hold on the people’s soul, that the former bitterness of their quarrels was nothing compared with the sacred love of their country which they shared.

The first action of the German administration after the triumphal entry into Brussels was to try to isolate the occupied part of the country, in order to monopolize the news. Rather than submit to a German censor, all the Belgian papers with the exception of two small provincial journals had ceased to appear. During a fortnight, Brussels remained without authorized news. From that time, the authorities allowed the sale of some German and Dutch dailies and of a few newspapers published in Belgium under German control. The Government itself issued the Deutsche Soldatenpost and Le Réveil (in French) and a great number of posters, “Communications officielles du Commandant de l’Armee allemande,” which were supposed to contain the latest war-news.

To this imposing array, the patriots could only oppose a few pamphlets issued by the editor Bryan Hill, soon prohibited, and copies of Belgian, French and English papers, which were smuggled at great risk, and consequently were very expensive. Still, before the fall of Antwerp, it was practically impossible for the Germans to stop private letters and newspapers passing from the unoccupied to the occupied part of the country. Besides, they had more important business on hand. Here again, it was only after the second month of occupation that the pressure increased. During October and November, several people were condemned to heavy fines and to periods of imprisonment for circulating written and even verbal news. The Dutch frontier was closed, wherever no natural obstacle intervened, by a continuous line of barbed wire and electrified wire. Passports were only granted to the few people engaged in the work of relief and to those who could prove that it was essential to the interests of their business that they should leave the country for a time. The postal service being reorganized under German control, any other method of communication was severely prosecuted. At the end of 1914, several messengers lost their lives in attempting to cross the Dutch frontier. Under such conditions it is easy to understand that, in spite of the efforts made by the anonymous editors of two or three prohibited papers, such as La Libre Belgique, the bulk of the population was practically cut off from the rest of the world and was compelled to read, if they read at all, the pro-German papers and the German posters. The only wells left from which the people could drink were poisoned.

The German Press Bureau in Brussels, openly recognised by the administration and formerly the headquarters of Baron von Bissing’s son, set to work in three principal directions. It aimed at separating the Belgians from the Allies, then at separating the people from King Albert and his Government, and finally at reviving the old language quarrel between Walloons and Flemings.

The campaign against the Allies, though still carried on whenever the opportunity arises, was specially violent at the beginning, when the Germans had not yet given up all hope of detaching King Albert from the Alliance (August-September, 1914). It was perhaps the most dangerous line of attack because it did not imply any breach of patriotism. On the contrary it suggested that Belgium had been duped by the Allies, and especially by England, who had never meant to come to her help and who had used her as a catspaw, leaving her to bear all the brunt of the German assault in an unequal and heroic struggle. It was accompanied by a constant flow of war news exaggerating the German successes and suggesting that, even if they ever had the intention of delivering Belgium, the Allies would no longer be in a position to do so.

According to the first war-news poster issued in Brussels, a few days after the enemy had entered the town, the French official papers had declared that “The French armies, being thrown on the defensive, would not be able to help Belgium in an offensive movement.” I need not recall how, his name having been used at Liege to bolster up this false report, M. Max, the burgomaster of Brussels, found an opportunity of contradicting it publicly and, at the same time, of discrediting all censored news.

The effect was amazing. Henceforth the official posters were not only regularly regarded as a tissue of lies, but definitely ridiculed. The people either ignored them or paid them an exaggerated attention. In some popular quarters, urchins climbed on ladders to read them aloud to a jeering crowd. The influence of M. Max’s attitude was such that, eighteen months later, several people coming from the capital declared that, as far as war news was concerned, Brussels was far more optimistic than London or Paris, every check received by the Allied armies being systematically ignored and every success exaggerated.

When one reads through the series of German “Communications” pasted on the walls of the capital during the first year of the occupation, one wonders how they did not succeed in discouraging the population. For, in spite of some extraordinary blunders such as the announcement that a German squadron had captured fifteen English fishing boats (September 8th, 1914), that the Serbs had taken Semlin because they had nothing more to eat in Serbia (September 13th, 1914), or that the British army was so badly equipped that the soldiers lacked boot-laces and writing paper (October 6th, 1914) the author of these proclamations succeeded so skilfully in mixing truth and untruth and in drawing the attention of the public away from any reverse suffered by the Central Empires, that the effect of the campaign might have been most demoralizing.

After this first reverse, the Germans only attacked the Allies in order to throw on their shoulders the responsibility for the woes which they themselves were inflicting on their victims. When some English aeroplanes visited Brussels, on September 26th, 1915, a few people were killed and many more wounded. The German press declared immediately that this was due to the want of skill of the airmen, who dropped the bombs indiscriminately over the town. We possess now material proof that the people were killed, not by bombs dropped from the air, but by fragments of shells fired from guns. This can only be explained in one way. The German gunners must have timed their shells so that they should not burst in the air, but only when falling on the ground. This method of propaganda may cost a few lives, but it is certainly clever. It might well be calculated to stir indignation in the hearts of the people against the Allies and at the same time to serve as a warning to enemy headquarters to the effect: “Whenever you send your aeroplanes over Belgian towns, we are going to make the population pay for it.”

The same kind of argument is used at the present moment with regard to the wholesale déportations which are going on in Belgium. To justify his slave-raids, Governor von Bissing denounces England’s blockade. It is the economic policy of England not German requisitions which has ruined Belgium and caused unemployment: “If there are any objections to be made about this state of affairs you must address them to England, who, through her policy of isolation, has rendered the coercive measures necessary.” But the argument is used more for the sake of discussion than in the real hope of convincing the public. General von Bissing can have very few illusions left as to the state of mind of the Belgian population. He knows that every Belgian worker, would answer, with the members of the Commission Syndicale: “All the Allies have agreed to let some raw material necessary to our industry enter Belgium, under the condition, naturally, that no requisitions should be made by the occupying power, and that a neutral commission should control the destination of the manufactured articles.” Or, more emphatically still, with Cardinal Mercier: “England generously allows some foodstuffs to enter Belgium under the control of neutral countries ... She would certainly allow raw materials to enter the country under the same control, if Germany would only pledge herself to leave them to us and not to seize the manufactured products of our industry.”

Such arguments are extraordinarily characteristic of the German mind, as it has been developed by the war: “Let Belgium know that she is suffering for England’s sake. Let England know that, as long as she enforces her blockade, her friends in Belgium will have to pay for it.” It is the same kind of double-edged declaration as that used on the occasion of the Allied air-raid on Brussels. Literally speaking, it cuts both ways. The excuse becomes a threat and the untruth savours of blackmail. Healthy minds work by single or treble propositions. If we did not remember that our aim is to analyse the beautiful and heroic side of the occupation of Belgium, rather than to dwell on its most sinister aspects, we should recognize, in this last manoeuvre, the lowest example of human brutality and hypocrisy, the double mark of the German hoof.

In spite of the most authentic documents, of the most glaring material proofs, it might be difficult to realise that the human spirit may fall so low. It seems as if we were diminishing ourselves when we accuse our enemies. We have lived so long in the faith that “such things are impossible” that, now that they happen almost at our door, we should be inclined to doubt our eyes rather than to doubt the innate goodness of man. Never did I feel this more strongly than when I saw, for the first time, a caricature of King Albert reproduced from a German newspaper.

Surely if one man, one leader, has come out of this severe trial unstained, with his virtue untarnished, it is indeed Albert the First, King of the Belgians. His simple and loyal attitude in face of the German ultimatum, the indomitable courage which he showed during the Belgian campaign, his dignity, his reserve, his almost exaggerated modesty, ought to have won for him, besides the deep admiration of the Allies and of the neutral world, the respect and esteem even of his worst enemy. There is a man of few words and noble actions, fulfilling his pledges to the last article, faithful to his word even in the presence of death, a leader sharing the work of his soldiers, a King living the life of a poor man. When in Paris, in London, triumphal receptions were awaiting them, he and his noble and devoted Queen remained at their post, on the last stretch of Belgian territory, in the rough surroundings of army quarters.

The whole world has noted this. People who have no sympathy to spare for the Allies’ cause have been obliged to bow before this young hero, more noble in his defeat than all the conquerors of Europe in their victory. But the Germans have not felt it. Not only did they try to ridicule King Albert in their comic papers. Even the son of Governor von Bissing did not hesitate to fling in his face the generous epithet, “Lackland.” As soon as the last attempt to conciliate the King had failed the German press in Belgium began a most violent and abusive campaign against him. The Duesseldorfer General-Anzeiger published a venomous article, in which he was represented as personally responsible for “the plot of the Allies against Germany and for the crimes of the franc-tireurs.” He was stigmatised as “the slave of England,” and it was asserted that “If he did not grasp the hand stretched out to him by the Kaiser on August 2nd and the 9th it is only because he did not dare to do so” (October 10th, 1914). He was said to have “betrayed his army at Antwerp. Had he not sworn not to leave the town alive?” And Le Réveil, another paper circulated in Belgium by German propagandists, announced solemnly that, once on the Yser, the King wanted to sign a separate peace with Germany, but England had forbidden him to do so. The Hamburger Nachrichten, the Vossische Zeitung and the Frankfurter Zeitung repeated without scruple this tissue of gross calumnies. The Deutsche Soldatenpost, edited specially for the German soldiers in Belgium, went even a step further and violently reproached the Queen of the Belgians for not having protested against the cruelties inflicted on German civilians in Brussels and Antwerp, at the outbreak of the hostilities!

Not being able to stir the people against the Allies or against their own Government, the German Press Bureau attempted to revive the language quarrel and to provoke internal dissensions. It is interesting to notice that the new campaign, whose crowning episode was the opening of the German University at Ghent, in October last, began two months after the surrender of Brussels and did not develop until the spring of 1915, when an important minority of Germans began to realise that it would be impossible to retain Belgium, and when a greater number still only hoped to keep Antwerp and Flanders, thanks to the “social and linguistic affinities of Flemings and Germans.”

That is how Germany, who had never troubled much before about the Flemish movement and Flemish literature, suddenly discovered a great affection for her Flemish brothers who had so long been exposed to “the insults of the Walloons”; how she suddenly espoused their grievances and put into effect, in spite of their strong protests, some reforms inscribed on the programme; how she tried by every means at her disposal to conciliate Flemish sympathies and to stir up antagonism and jealousies by treating Flemings and Walloons differently, whether prisoners in Germany or in occupied Belgium.

The German train of thought is clear enough: “If we are unable to hold Belgium, any pro-German demonstrations in the Northern provinces may suggest the idea that it is the wish of the Flemings to be bound to the Empire and give a pretext for the annexation of Antwerp and Flanders. If even that is impossible and if we are obliged to give back his Kingdom to King Albert, we shall have sown so many germs of discontent in the country that it will be impossible for the Government to restore Belgium in her full unity and power. She will never become against us the strong bulwark of the Allies.”

All this Walloon-Flemish agitation started by Germany belongs to a vast plan of mismanagement. The day Germany knew that she would not be able to keep her conquest she deliberately set herself to ruin Belgium economically and morally. She succeeded economically, for nobody could prevent her from requisitioning whatever she wanted. She failed morally because the people understood her purpose and because the Flemish leaders proudly refused the German gifts. The reform of Ghent University was made in spite of them. It was made with the help of a few Germans, German-Dutch and Belgians without any reputation or following. The professors have been bought and the students (they only number eighty) have been mostly recruited among the Flemish prisoners in Germany and among a few young men threatened with deportation. They are obliged to wear a special cap and are under the ban of the whole population. No true “Gantois” passes them in the street without whispering, “Vive l’Armee.” This is the pitiful medley of cranks, traitors and unwilling students which General von Bissing is pleased to call a “University.”

In his inaugural speech, the Governor exclaimed, “The God of War, with his drawn sword, has held the new institution at the font. May the God of Peace be gracious to her for long years to come.” The Germans’ lack of humour surpasses even their ruthlessness. With one hand General von Bissing was baptizing the baby rather a difficult operation with the other he brandished his fiery sword over the heads of all the true Flemings who refused to adopt it. Many of them paid for this patriotic attitude by losing their liberty. With one hand Germany inflicted this unwelcome gift on the Flemings, with the other she banished M.M. Pirenne, Fredericq and Verhaegen from the sacred precincts of Flemish culture!

Most solemnly, on different occasions, all the prominent Flemish leaders have protested against the German Administration’s action. They have declared that it was illegal and unjust. Governor von Bissing reminds them that, according to De Raet’s words, “Two heroic spirits dominate the world: The Mind and the Sword.” They may possess the first but he holds the second.