Ninety-nine years ago today, on August 25, 1914, an unspeakable tragedy in world culture occurred in a small corner of Belgium, when German troops set fire to the library on the campus of the Catholic University of Louvain (also known as Leuven). Over 250,000 rare books were destroyed, many of them dating back to the Middle Ages. These illuminated manuscripts were one-of-a-kind items, totally irreplaceable. A great deal of material had been amassed at the University of Louvain library documenting the religious struggles of Belgium and Holland during the Protestant Reformation. There were also some of the very first printed books, dating from the 1470s. The truth is we don’t know everything that was lost at Louvain, because the University was in the process of cataloging its holdings, and that audit was not yet complete at the time of the German attack.
Why did German troops destroy the University of Louvain? The answer seems to be as unclear in 2013 as it was in 1914. Germany invaded Belgium in early August 1914, an act that led to the full-scale outbreak of World War I, and evidently they had occupied Louvain more or less peacefully for about a week. On the night of August 25, a fire broke out at the University. Some say it was set by drunk German troops who wanted to see a building in flames. There were evidently some claims of “military necessity,” though it’s hard to see what sort of military threat an ancient building full of books presented. It’s also possible the fire broke out accidentally. As Tolstoy argued famously in War and Peace, a foreign army occupying a sizable city is an extreme fire hazard by its very nature.
The Louvain library after its destruction by German troops in August 1914.
Certainly the destruction of the University was spun by the Allied powers as evidence of the inherent “barbarism” of the Germans, part of the “rape of Belgium” propaganda that was heavily pushed during the war. The loss of cultural treasures, by whatever means or for whatever reasons, is one of the many, many horrifying tragedies of war. It’s another example of how war is corrosive not merely to human beings or political institutions, but to the very fabric of human culture and civilization.
I’m fascinated by lost libraries and lost knowledge, which is why I became interested in this story. I read somewhere–can’t recall where–that the human race has, over the course of its history, lost and forgotten more knowledge than we actually possess today. The destruction of the great Library of Alexandria and its intellectual treasures quite possibly set back human civilization by 1000 years or more. It would be fascinating to know what we really lost at Louvain, but, alas, knowledge that is lost is fated to be forever unknown.