Demonizing Russia Risks Making Compromise Impossible, and Prolonging the War

Photograph Source: Eden, Janine and Jim – CC BY 2.0

In August 1914, the German army launched an unprovoked invasion of Belgium during which they killed some 6,000 Belgian civilians which they held as hostages, wrongly suspected of sniping, or simply in order to instil fear. In the village of Dinant near Liege on 23 August some 644 villagers were lined up in the village square and shot by German firing squads, the youngest victim being a three week old baby.

Over five days from 25 August, German soldiers looted and burned the town of Louvain, killing hundreds of its inhabitants and destroying its medieval library, one of the greatest in Europe, which was filled with irreplaceable books and manuscripts.

The massacres in Belgium – the German policy of Schrecklichkeit or frightfulness aimed at preventing popular resistance – outraged the world, having a particularly powerful impact in Britain where the atrocities fostered support for the war and led great numbers to volunteer to fight. On 2 September, just as the sack of Louvain was coming to an end, Rudyard Kipling published a poem reflecting the general anger, four lines of which read: ‘For all we have and are/ For all our children’s fate/ Stand up and take the war/ The Hun is at the gate!’

Patrick Cockburn is the author of War in the Age of Trump (Verso).