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This book looks at the series of atrocities committed by the German army in the first weeks of its invasion of Belgium in 1914. During that period there is good evidence that the German army killed nearly 6,000 civilians, while the destruction of over 24,000 buildings, amongst them the University Library of Leuven, is almost universally acknowledged. Despite the presence of a vast number of witness statements, many of these atrocities have been ignored or even denied.
Lipkes begins with a chapter on the German ultimatum to Belgium, and the response to it, before moving on to look at the actual atrocities in great detail - eleven of the fifteen chapters in the book are dedicated to the events that took place in August 1914. Leuven, where the most famous atrocities took place, gets four chapters to itself.
Having established what happened, Lipkes then attempts to explain why it happened, looking at the various reasons given by the Germans at the time (mostly concentrating on apparent attacks by Belgian civilians). He also examines the pre-war attitude of the Germany army, which goes a long way to explaining their activities in 1914.
Finally we get two chapters on the wartime and post-war denials that took place both in Germany and in the victorious powers. Lipkes clearly traces the series of distortions that passed as evidence amongst atrocity deniers and demolishes them in some detail. Most telling is the difference between wartime German efforts, which focused on justifying the actions of the German army in August 1914, and postwar efforts which began to deny those same actions had even happened.
A slightly different path was followed in Britain and America. Once the more extreme wartime rumours and tales of atrocities had been largely disproved, the genuine mass killings were either dismissed as just part of warfare or as equally fictional. About the only redeeming feature of some of the British and American inter-war literature on this topic was that its authors were motivated by a desire to avoid a second war. Perhaps the most confused argument that recurs in much of the denial literature is that the atrocity tales were one of the reasons for the British entry into the war, and would therefore need to be repeated even if not true. The essence of this argument is that Britain entered the war because of events that had not yet happened!
This is a very well researched, compelling and frequently harrowing book on an aspect of the First World War that is often ignored or dismissed and is a very valuable contribution to the literature of the war.
Author: Jeff Lipkes
Publisher: Leuven University Press
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