Sunday, July 08, 2007

Library: An Unquiet History by Matthem Battles (15)

Alleging that Belgian civilians had committed such atrocities as ambushing rearguard troops and gouging out the eyes of wounded soldiers in the field, the German government justified the burning of the Louvain on the grounds of military necessity. “The barbarous attitude of the Belgian population in all parts occupied by our troops has not only justified our severest measures,” the Germans declared, “but forced them on us for the sake of self-preservation.” The West, of course, saw it differently. “It is treason to civilization,” wrote the London Daily Chronicle on August 29. “War on non-combatants is bad enough, but this is war on posterity to the remotest generations.” Eight days after the Germans razed the town, a witness wrote that “even into the country, leaves of manuscripts and books fluttered about, half burned, at the mercy of the wind.” One manuscript was saved, though: a professor had withdrawn it for consultation and carried it with him when he fled the city before the German occupation. Trudging along in a refugee column, he stopped in a garden near Ghent and buried the book, “ enclosed in a little iron safe.” There is no record of this single manuscript’s return to the library or of its rediscovery. Perhaps the last book of Louvain’s great prewar library still rests in its iron casket, a hidden library of one.

Page 159.

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