One of Europe’s Great Libraries Didn’t Stand a Chance… In Either of the World Wars

Richard Ovenden on the Unlucky History of the Library of Louvain

Exactly a century after the burning of Washington another invading army encountered a library, and saw it as a perfect way to strike a blow at the heart of their enemy. This time the action would have a global impact, as the means of spreading news had been transformed in the century since the burning of the Library of Congress troubled the young George Gleig. The burning of the library of Louvain University (known then as the Université catholique de Louvain) in 1914 by the invading German army would be the focus of profound political outrage; unlike the Washington incident, the fate of the library would figure as an international cause célèbre. Young Louvain Jesuit Eugène Dupiéreux wrote in his journal in 1914:

Until today I had refused to believe what the newspapers said about the atrocities committed by the Germans; but in Leuven I have seen what their Kultur is like. More savage than the Arabs of Caliph Omar, who burnt down the Alexandrian library, we see them set fire, in the twentieth century, to the famous University Library.

Louvain University was the earliest university to be established in the country that is today known as Belgium. Founded in 1425, the university had educated a number of great minds, including the theologian Saint Robert Bellarmine, the philosopher Justus Lipsius and the cartographer Gerard Mercator. The university was comprised of separate colleges (by the end of the 16th century there were 46 of them), each of which had built up book collections during the Middle Ages, with the result that no central library existed until the foundation of the central university library in 1636.

This library grew over the succeeding century and a half, its collections increasing in size through purchase and donation. Louvain was a comparatively rich university and its riches helped the development of the library. In the late 17th century a new approach to shelving, recently established in France, was adopted with bookcases fitted against the walls of the library, with windows above, as opposed to the old medieval and Renaissance fashion of bookcases projecting out from the walls into the library room.

Between 1723 and 1733 a new library building was constructed, and as the 18th century progressed the wealth of the university meant that it could acquire collections beyond those needed for the immediate use of the scholars. This development was given a strong boost by the allocation to the library of the national privilege of legal deposit in 1759 by Charles Alexander of Lorraine, the governor general of the Low Countries (who also allocated the privilege to the Bibliothèque Royale in Brussels). A few years later the library was the beneficiary of the forced closure of a neighboring library—the suppression of the Jesuit order in 1773 allowed the library to purchase books from the library of the Jesuit house in the city (the books from the Louvain Jesuits are now dispersed across the world and continue to appear in the antiquarian book trade).

The university suffered during the late 18th and early 19th centuries as the French Revolutionary Wars spread into Europe. Louvain’s faculties were forcibly relocated to Brussels in 1788-90, and the university was formally suppressed in 1797, and then refounded in 1816. Almost ten percent of the books in the library—more than 800 volumes of incunabula (books printed before 1501), illustrated editions, and Greek and Hebrew books—were forcibly removed to Paris in 1794-5 by officials of the Bibliothèque Mazarine (a fate that befell other libraries in the region, including the Bibliothèque Royale). Other books were cherry-picked by the librarian of the École Centrale in Brussels.

The university and its library were temporarily closed again by the revolution of 1830, which created the Belgian nation. The university reopened in 1835 as the Catholic University and the library became a symbol of national renewal, an engine for intellectual and social power and a crucial element in cementing the university’s new role in the Belgian national consciousness. It was also made a public library, one of three (with Liège and Ghent) in Belgium, but regarded as the greatest.

On 31 August the Daily Mail reported “A crime against the world,” stating that Germany could not be forgiven “so long as the world retains a shred of sentiment.”

By 1914 the library at Louvain had over 300,000 volumes in its collection, and a group of special collections of international quality. The importance of the library could be seen in its glorious baroque buildings. Its holdings reflected Belgian cultural identity, documenting the intellectual contribution of the greatest minds of the region, and preserving the university’s strongly Catholic cultural flavor. It was also a national resource, as a library of legal deposit and open to the general public. There were almost a thousand volumes of manuscripts, mostly classical authors and theological texts, including the Church Fathers, and medieval philosophy and theology. It also held a sizeable collection of incunabula and uncatalogued collections of oriental books, and manuscripts in Hebrew, Chaldaic and Armenian.

The university librarian before the First World War, Paul Delannoy, embarked on modernization from the time of his appointment in 1912, as by that point the library had become organizationally behind the trend in academic librarianship, and the reading rooms were quiet. He began to sort out backlogs of cataloguing and to acquire new research collections, taking a more contemporary grip on the organization of the institution, a process that was dramatically halted on the night of 25 August 1914. Just as at the Library of Congress the destruction that followed would be catastrophic, but would also eventually allow a great leap forward to take place.

German troops arrived in Louvain on August 19, 1914, having violated Belgian neutrality in marching through the country en route for France, and for about a week the town functioned as the headquarters of the German First Army. The Belgian civilian authorities had confiscated any weapons held by ordinary Belgian citizens in advance, warning them that only the Belgian army was authorized to take any action against German forces. Modern scholars of the First World War have failed to find any evidence of popular insurrection against the Germans. On August 25 there was a series of atrocities in Louvain, possibly triggered by a group of German troops who, in a state of panic, fired on some of their own troops. That night the reprisals began. Belgian civilians were forcibly removed from their homes and summarily executed—including the mayor and the rector of the university. Around midnight German troops entered the university library and set it on fire using petrol.

The entire building and almost all of its collections—modern printed books and journals as well as the great collections of manuscripts and rare books—were destroyed. Although Germany had been a signatory to the Hague Convention of 1907, which stated in Article 27 that “in sieges and bombardments all necessary steps must be taken to spare, as far as possible, buildings dedicated to religion, art, science, or charitable purposes,” the German generals remained hostile to its spirit, especially to the sense that war could be codified.

The Hague Convention would eventually incorporate much stronger sanctions for acts of violence against cultural property, but its power in the First World War was still relatively weak. The burning of Louvain University Library, and the response to it from the international community, would help change this, not least by the inclusion of a separate clause in the Treaty of Versailles dealing with the reconstruction of the library.

On August 31 the Daily Mail reported “A crime against the world,” stating that Germany could not be forgiven “so long as the world retains a shred of sentiment.” The leading British intellectual Arnold Toynbee felt that the Germans had deliberately targeted the intellectual heart of the university, without which it could not carry on its work. The French Catholic newspaper La Croix felt that the Barbarians had burned Louvain. The German view, echoing the excuses given by the British army in Washington in 1814, was that there was civilian resistance in the city, with sniper fire on German troops, which triggered the atrocities.

In the immediate aftermath, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany sent a telegram to the American President—no doubt fearful that the incident might encourage the Americans to join the Allies—arguing that the German army had merely responded to attacks from the civilian population of the city. On October 4, 1914, following accusations of war crimes, a group of 93 prominent German artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals published a manifesto concerning the events in Louvain. It was entitled “An appeal to the world of culture” and was signed by some of Germany’s most prominent cultural leaders including Fritz Haber, Max Liebermann and Max Planck. They wrote: “It is not true that our troops treated Louvain brutally. Furious inhabitants having treacherously fallen upon them in their quarters, our troops were obliged, their hearts aching, to fire a part of the town as a punishment.” The controversy over the cause of the library’s destruction has continued for over a century. In 2017, the German art historian Ulrich Keller laid the blame for the devastation once again at the feet of the Belgian resistance.

Romain Rolland, the French writer and intellectual who was a great admirer of German culture, wrote in puzzled indignation to the Frankfurter Zeitung in September 1914, addressing his words to his fellow writer Gerhard Hauptmann, calling on him and other German intellectuals to reconsider their position: “how do you wish to be referred to from now on if you reject the title ‘Barbarian’? Are you Goethe’s or Attila’s descendant?” Hauptmann’s response was unequivocal: better to live as Attila’s descendants than have “Goethe’s descendants” written on their tomb.

Not all Germans felt this way. Adolf von Harnack, director of the Royal Prussian Library in Berlin (now the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin), a great biblical scholar in his own right, and one of the signatories of the “manifesto of the 93,” wrote to the Prussian minister of culture to suggest appointing a German official in occupied Belgium to ensure that libraries would not be damaged in the rest of the war. The proposal was accepted and in late March 1915 Fritz Milkau, director of the University Library in Breslau (now Wrocław in Poland), was sent to Brussels to take on this role. Milkau brought with him such people as a young reservist soldier who was librarian of the University of Bonn, called Richard Oehler, and they visited 110 libraries in Belgium discussing conservation and protection.

The fourth anniversary of the destruction of Louvain University Library was marked by a commemoration held in the French port of Le Havre, the seat of the exiled Belgian government. The government officials were joined by representatives of the Allies who made up a diverse group including an envoy of the King of Spain and a delegate from Yale University. Public messages of support were sent from across the world as the mood of sympathy for Belgium shifted emphasis from outrage to support for rebuilding.

In the UK the John Rylands Library in Manchester was one of the most visible and generous of the libraries that felt deep empathy with the losses of Louvain. In December 1914 the governors of the library decided to donate some of their duplicates to Louvain in order to “give some practical expression to the deep feelings of sympathy with the authorities of the University of Louvain in the irreparable loss which they have suffered through the barbarous destruction of the University buildings and the famous library.” They earmarked 200 books, which they felt would be the “nucleus of the new library.” The John Rylands offered not only their own books but also to collect books donated for Louvain from private and public collections in the UK.

Henry Guppy, director of the John Rylands, was the driving force behind British support for Louvain. He issued a pamphlet in 1915 reporting an “encouraging” response to the public appeal for donations of books coming from as far afield as the Auckland Public Library in New Zealand. In fact, Guppy’s efforts were remarkable. In July 1925 the final shipment of books to Louvain was made, bringing the total to 55,782, which took twelve shipments to transfer and represented around 15 per cent of the books that were lost in the destruction of August 1914. The authorities in Manchester were enormously proud of their efforts, demonstrating that the plight of Louvain University Library touched ordinary members of the public far removed from Belgium.

As the war ended the international effort to rebuild the library moved up several gears. This process was aided by the special inclusion of the library in Article 247 of the Treaty of Versailles (June 28, 1919): “Germany undertakes to furnish the University of Louvain . . . manuscripts, incunabula, printed books, maps, and objects of collection corresponding in number and value to those destroyed in the burning by Germany of the Library of Louvain.”

The architecture of the new library, which the Americans took it on themselves to raise the funds for, was to look to the past and not the future.

America too saw an opportunity to support the international effort to help Louvain rebuild its library, not just to show cultural and intellectual solidarity but as an opportunity to convey “soft power.” Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia University, was very active in leading the American initiatives, and the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor sent books.

In October 1919 Cardinal Mercier, the Archbishop of Mechelen and Primate of Belgium who had led the Belgian people in resistance to German occupation, visited Ann Arbor to receive an honorary doctorate of laws. His bravery during the war was cited in the presentation, which was made in a hall packed with over five thousand members of the university, and in response the Belgian cardinal was at pains to thank the “boys” of America who had fought for the freedom of his country. After the Belgian National Anthem and the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” were sung a book was presented to Cardinal Mercier. The book was full of symbolism. It was an edition of the Boethius text De consolatione philosophiae (The consolation of philosophy), which had been printed in Louvain in 1484 by a German printer, Johannes de Westfalia, who had come from Paderborn and Cologne to establish the first printing house in the Low Countries.

The irony of this particular vignette from history was not lost on the academic community at Ann Arbor. A Latin inscription was inserted into the book, which read: “I was printed in the University of Louvain by a certain German who there received most kindly hospitality. After many years I travelled across the Atlantic Ocean, to another land, where I happily escaped the destiny which was so mercilessly visited on my companions by the Germans.” This particular edition was one of the 300 incunabula, which was part of the Louvain collection before the destruction of the library, and was therefore chosen to replace a particularly precious lost item.

The architecture of the new library, which the Americans took it on themselves to raise the funds for, was to look to the past and not the future. The style of the new building chimed closely with the traditional vernacular of the Low Countries, particularly of the Flemish “renaissance” of the 17th century. But the library was to be big: enough space for 2 million books and influenced by the latest thinking in design for research libraries, especially those in American Ivy League universities such as Columbia, Harvard and Yale. The cultural politics at play over the renewal of the library were to be expressed in the decoration of the structure. Over the main entrance was to be a statue of the Virgin Mary, acknowledging the Catholicism of the city, while two coats of arms would bear the heraldry of Belgium and the United States.

The laying of the foundation stone in 1921 was similarly symbolic of this new Belgo-American relationship. Although the ceremony was attended by representatives of 21 countries and presided over by the King and Queen of Belgium, various cardinals and Marshal Pétain, the American involvement would take center stage.

The president of Columbia University and the American Ambassador to Brussels read a message of goodwill from President Harding. Henry Guppy’s view was that “This was America’s Day.” Eight years later, on July 4, 1928—the American Day of Independence—the official ceremony of inauguration of the newly rebuilt Louvain University Library was held. The American flag was prominent on stage and speeches were made by the American Ambassador, the chairman of the American committee to restore the library, representatives of the French committee and Cardinal Mercier. As if the American presence wasn’t already overshadowing the Belgian, a statue of President Herbert Hoover was unveiled during the ceremony, to honor his support of the project. The rebuilding of the library would become a major source of diplomatic tension between America and Belgium, and helped to generate the isolationism in foreign policy that would dominate American politics in the 1930s.

Despite these grand celebrations the completion of the renovation had become a pressure point for America throughout the 1920s, as the project became symbolic of American prestige in Europe. By 1924 the problems of funding were becoming visible in the media, the New York Times describing the rebuilding of the library as “A promise unfulfilled” in an editorial in November that year. The following month Nicholas Murray Butler dissolved his Louvain committee and passed the task on to Herbert Hoover, then US Secretary of State for Commerce. With other commentators in the United States bemoaning the failure to complete the library as a national disgrace, John D. Rockefeller Jr reluctantly pledged $100,000 towards it, seeing it as a patriotic duty rather than sharing any enthusiasm for the project. By December 1925 the funds had finally been found and the reconstruction of the half-finished library could recommence.

A further issue then rose to the surface. The epigraphy planned for the building by its American architect, Whitney Warren—”Furore Teutonico Diruta, Dono Americano Restituta” (the Latin is straightforward to understand: “Destroyed by German fury, rebuilt by American donations”)—had been conceived before the shift in political fault lines in Europe at the end of the 1920s. The sentiment of this inscription no longer seemed appropriate. Nicholas Murray Butler in particular began to have reservations about the wisdom of the inscription; he took up a new role that year as president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a philanthropic organization much concerned with the role of libraries in post-war reconciliation in Europe.

A battle in the pages of American newspapers now ensued between Warren and Butler, and this soon spread to Europe. It became a diplomatic and public relations issue, which exacerbated strong anti-American feelings in Europe following the 1927 execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, two Italian anarchists who were seen to be victims of unfair anti-European immigrant views prevalent in America. The battle over the inscription continued to the days immediately preceding the ceremony (on July 4 1928) to mark the completion of the building. Warren, supported by Belgian nationalists, refused to change the inscription. The university authorities, backed by US government officials, refused to allow it to go up, and instead placed a blank space on the walls of the library. Lawsuits were filed by Warren in the following two years and the issue remained in the news on both sides of the Atlantic, with the blank facade defaced by Belgian nationalists on two occasions. In the end in 1936 the original inscription was placed on a war memorial in Dinant, and the issue over the library finally stopped being news, and both the Americans and the university authorities in Louvain breathed a sigh of relief.

This peace would sadly be short-lived. Not only would the lesson of Louvain not be learned in the aftermath of the First World War, it would have to be taught again in the second. On the night of May 16, 1940, almost 26 years after the first destruction of the library, the reconstructed building was again mostly destroyed, and again it was the German armed forces that targeted and bombed it.

The case of the double destruction of the library in the 20th century is one that invoked, on both occasions, the sense of cultural loss epitomized by the destruction of the Library of Alexandria.

In The Times on October 31, 1940, in an article headed “Louvain Again,” the paper’s Belgian correspondent reported that “The Germans declare that it was the British who set fire to it this time, but nobody in Belgium has any doubt about the German guilt.” A German investigation committee conducted by Professor Kellemann of Aix-la-Chapelle (Aachen), which had discovered tins in the basement originating from the Far East, alleged that they had been packed with gasoline by the British who then set them off by detonating three grenades. It was reported in the New York Times on June 27, 1940 from Berlin as providing “conclusive proof” that the destruction of the library was a British plot.

The president of Columbia University, Nicholas Murray Butler, who had been so involved with the reconstruction, received a harrowing letter from the university librarian at Louvain:

I am indeed grieved having to tell you that the library was nearly completely gutted by fire; that the fine stack rooms at the back, housing our precious collections, are no more and that only terribly twisted and molten girders remain of it. It is painful to behold . . . gone also the collection of incunabula, manuscripts, medals, precious china, silk flags, and catalogues. Practically, we have to start again at the bottom.

The Daily Mail blamed the Germans as “guilty of the crime of destroying the ancient library of Louvain” in an article by Emrys Jones in December 1940, following incendiary air attacks on London, and for them it was one of the acts by “The Great Arsonists” of world history, alongside the destruction of the Cloth Hall at Ypres and the Cathedral of Rheims. It is as hard to prove the attack was deliberately aimed at the library in 1940 as it had been in 1914. The American-designed building, which had been claimed to be fireproof, did not protect the library’s collections. Only 20,000 books are known to have survived the bombing, and another restoration effort was established to rebuild the library, which was reopened in 1950.

The case of the double destruction of the library in the 20th century is one that invoked, on both occasions, the sense of cultural loss epitomized by the destruction of the Library of Alexandria. The loss of the collection was more than the loss of great treasures—and the intellectual value of the destroyed treasures has been played down by some scholars who instead emphasize the national and civic pride embodied in the library—it was for many Belgians their “bibliothèque de famille.”

Like the Library of Congress, which was also destroyed twice within a few decades, the acts of reconstruction at Louvain were more than symbolic. Both libraries put huge efforts into remaking buildings, rebuilding collections of books and manuscripts that would be used and reused over successive generations, and perhaps more importantly allowing ways of working to be reconceived. The German army may have seen attacking the library as an opportunity to inflict psychological damage on their enemy, and in the short term they were successful. The long-term result had the opposite effect. The library is very different today from the institution that was rebuilt in the 1920s and again in the 1940s and 1950s. Although the university was divided into two during the 1970s, with one speaking French, the other Flemish, the library of the KU Leuven (as it is known today) is an important hub for learning and education in one of Europe’s leading universities, helping Belgium stay at the forefront of the knowledge economy of Europe.

The shock of the loss of the library was the focus of the world in 1914, and to a lesser extent in 1940, but its story has slipped from public consciousness over the subsequent decades. The Holocaust would set a new standard for public disgust and outrage; the burning of individual libraries pales in comparison with the murder of millions. In both Belgium and Germany, however, public opinion is still preoccupied with the events in Louvain in 1914 and 1940; one community still feels a sense of guilt and responsibility, another continues to try to understand the motivations for what happened.

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burning the books

Excerpt adapted from Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © Richard Ovenden 2020. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Richard Ovenden
Richard Ovenden
Richard Ovenden is Director of the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Balliol College. He was awarded the Order of the British Empire in 2019, is a member of the American Philosophical Society, and serves as Treasurer of the Consortium of European Research Libraries and President of the Digital Preservation Coalition.





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