Guest opinion: Belgium 1914 and Ukraine 2022 look eerily alike
Nobody much remembers Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914 — a shocking event that inaugurated the First World War. This act of aggression by a great power against a weaker neighbor bears revisiting in light of the crisis in Ukraine.
On Aug. 3, 1914, neutral Belgium responded defiantly to Germany’s demand of passage to permit its invasion of France. Unsuccessful at its coercive diplomacy, Germany massed the largest army in world history (to date) on Belgium’s border.
Like a lightning bolt, on Aug. 4, 1 million German soldiers crashed upon Belgium’s frontier and sent shockwaves across the invaded country. The stubbornly suicidal defenders of Liège purchased their countrymen time to flee and aroused global support for their gallantry. Seeking safety from armies and artillery shells, more than 1.5 million Belgian civilians-turned-refugees, comprising 20% of the Belgian population, poured into neighboring sanctuaries in Holland, France, England and Ireland.
Valorizing Belgian bravery, Americans, Irish and Japanese, among other peoples worldwide, made favorable comparisons to Liège and the Spartans at Thermopylae. Belgium’s King Albert, much like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky today, was transformed into a hero — regent, battlefield commander and defender of the rights of small nations and democratic principles.
Belgium became an instant cause célèbre — a symbol of intrepidity, victimhood and dashed hopes for international peace. Its neutrality violated, its own small army crushed by Berlin’s juggernaut, and its people soon subjected to vicious reprisals by marauding troops, Belgium inspired an international humanitarian campaign and Britain’s declaration of war against Germany. A wider world war was the result in which the Allies, neutrals and the United States declared that civilization was imperiled by Berlin’s aggression.
Venting their rage at Belgium’s defiance as it derailed their invasion plans for France, German arsonists-in-uniform incinerated a medieval university library in Louvain and its priceless manuscripts. They murdered thousands of innocents. In 1918, when German troops were confronted with defeat, and they began to retreat from Belgium, they punitively inflicted a scorched-earth program of systematic destruction. They razed orchards, poisoned wells and destroyed industry. Whether Putin will strike vindictively against Ukraine with every weapon in his arsenal remains to be seen. But it would not be without historical precedent for a conqueror to punish peoples who deny its ambitions.
Echoes of Belgium’s tragedy resound today. In 1914, as in 2022, the invasion of one country by its neighbor spawned an instantaneous global reaction. Neither invader had envisioned such opposition when they deployed their armies.
Germany claimed its invasion of a neutral country was defensible on the basis of national survival. One of its leaders even indiscreetly described the treaties of neutrality to which Germany was a signatory as a “scrap of paper.” Russia has made similar claims today as it ignores the Budapest Memorandum of 1994 in which it promised that Ukraine’s sovereignty would be inviolable after relinquishing its nuclear arsenal.
Officials in Berlin during the First World War dismissed criticisms of Germany’s conduct levied by peoples around the world. After all, had not the British boasted of their prior conquests by claiming “the sun never sets on the British empire”? Could Belgium be fairly classified as innocent after the shockingly sordid mismanagement of its colony in the Congo? Could the United States claim to be a paragon of international law or democratic principles when its society waged a genocidal war against indigenous peoples, brutalized Africans and Chinese in America, and had bloodied the Philippines?
One of Russia’s dismissals of its unlawful activities today is grounded in the United States’ invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Few Americans pondered the possibility that in their pursuit of terrorists and archvillains like Saddam Hussein their nation might unravel the patchwork quilt of international stability that is based on the principle that conquest is illegitimate.
No foreseeable course of action can produce the restoration of peace in Ukraine. Neutrality provides no assurance of safety for Ukraine as Belgium in 1914 could well testify. Ukraine has no future in NATO either for fear of triggering nuclear retaliation — the trump card Putin can still play.
Denied a quick victory in Ukraine, Putin has successfully restored Russia as a frightful feature in international affairs. Sadly, children worldwide have a new villain to demonize and a country to fear. If there is any silver lining in the current disaster, at least the West’s longstanding concerns about terror now seem quaint in comparison to the threat of nuclear war.
Branden Little is a professor of history at Weber State University.