Martyr Cities


The Sack of Louvain

By David Kattenburg

Marie-Therese Delcom sits at an outdoor café in the Belgian town of Leuven, rustling through faded family photos from the First World War. In one of them, her paternal grandfather is digging his own grave, invading German soldiers standing at the ready.

Delcom recalls her maternal grandfather describing how the Germans placed him and others in a line and shot every third man. A priest stepped forward and offered to die in her grandfather’s place, since he had a wife and children.


Marie-Therese’s faded photos are a graphic reminder of the horrors World War One inflicted here in Belgium in the opening days of World War One. Germany invaded Belgium on August 4, 1914. Leuven was one of seven so-called “Martyr Cities” laid to waste in an orgy of destruction between August 23 and 27 — a hundred years ago.

Together with the nearby Flemish towns of Dendermonde and Aarschot, Leuven is poised to commemorate those frightful events.

Karolien Hellemans, Leuven Tourist Office

Karolien Hellemans, Leuven Tourist Office

The Leuven tourist office has organized a 5-day program that will kick off on August 23. The schedule includes performances of classical and modern music — including a new composition by Flemish artist Piet Swerts entitled “The Sack of Louvain” — and a host of innovative audiovisual presentations and guided tours.

Of all the acts committed by German troops in Leuven in August 1914, none sparked more outrage within European and North American intellectual circles than the destruction of the university library – laid to waste on the night of August 25, 1914.

Leuven University’s medieval library wasn’t one of Europe’s great national treasure troves.

Mark Deretz, Leuven University archivist, beside carbonized remains of old library.

Mark Deretz, Leuven University archivist, beside carbonized remains of old library.

It was home to one of Europe’s finest collections of Humanist, Reformation and Enlightenment literature, including priceless incunabula – books printed in the first decades of the printing press.

An estimated eight hundred and fifty incunabula were destroyed in the fire German soldiers set on the evening of August 25, 1914 – for reasons that are still in dispute among First World War scholars — and between 230,000 and 300,000 volumes of books.

Among the precious holdings destroyed in the flames: the university’s fifteenth century charter and an original copy of Andreas Vesalius’s monumental work on human anatomy – De Humani Corporis Fabrica — replete with exquisite drawings of the human skeleton and musculature attributed to a student of the great artist Titian.

Thankfully, some gems were out on loan when the “Bosch” arrived, among them an original, handwritten letter by one of the university’s early sixteenth century lecturers — the great Dutch scholar Erasmus.

The destruction of Leuven University’s library was hotly discussed by intellectual elites in the late summer of World War One.

When German troops proceeded to shell Rheims Cathedral, in France, and destroy the medieval Drapers’ hall in Ypres, Germany’s reputation as the leader of European science and culture was in ruins.

"German culture ends here." A display in Leuven University library.

“German culture ends here.” A display in Leuven University library.

“Ici finit la culture allemande,” an inscription reads inside the library that towers over Leuven’s central square today.

Did German military leaders order their troops to destroy Leuven’s university library? This question would be debated for years.

“Morally I’m convinced that it was a deliberate act of vandalism,” says university archivist Mark Deretz, standing beside a display containing all that remains of the library’s original holdings: carbonized fragments in small glass boxes.


The "Bosch." Display in Leuven University library.

The “Bosch.” Display in Leuven University library.

“But we don’t have a real proof in documents. There is no fuhr befehl to find in the archives.  We have only a kind of moral conviction and we have only a kind of anecdotal evidence, but not the evidence of a written document with the order: “Set fire to the library, because it’s the library of the Pfaffen Universität.”

“There was a strong Protestant and anti-Roman Catholic feeling amongst the German troops which came from the northern part of Germany; the Protestant part,” Deretz adds. “It’s a very difficult question.”

For Marie-Therese Delcom, sitting at a crowded café in tourist-packed Leuven, the events of a hundred years ago are more than academic. She shows me a photo of her great-grandfather digging his own grave, armed German soldiers standing at his side.

“It’s horrible,” says Delcom. “It’s a horror, the war. In the First World [War] there were 15 million people dead in all the world. And that I hope is an example to … but the war continues in the world.”

Will this week’s commemoration in Leuven and Belgium’s other Martyr Cities help foster a culture of peace? Marie-Therese isn’t so sure.

Leuven tour guide Guido Claesen in front of old town hall.

Leuven tour guide Guido Claesen in front of old town hall.


“To respect the people who died, and all the things. But it’s very touristic. I don’t know. And young people don’t know about it. It’s only the old people [who] remember.”

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