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When the University of Leuven Library was burnt down – twice!

burning of leuven

The burning of the University of Leuven Library in 1914 led to the loss of over a quarter of a million books and manuscripts. 26 years later it was burnt down again.

In my last post I wrote about the 1566 iconoclasm in the Low Countries. Here I describe two other major acts of destruction that devastated a part of Belgium and led to the loss of lives, property and valuables.

Three hundred and fifty years after the iconoclasm, Leuven was a wealthy university city with a rich architectural heritage. The University of Leuven Library, located in the 14th-century cloth hall, was a particularly fine building. Founded in 1425, it possessed exceptional collections. These included theological literature from the early Christian period, medieval manuscripts, and writings from the golden age of humanism.

The University of Leuven Library, pre-1914
The University of Leuven Library, pre-1914

August 1914

On the morning of 19 August, 1914, German troops arrived in Leuven. The city authorities were well prepared. They had confiscated all weapons in private hands and published warnings that only the Belgian army was entitled to take military action (although it had already left the previous day). The reason for these measures was the news of the cruelties perpetrated along the invasion route: 640 civilians killed in Liège; 156 in nearby Aarschot.

Over the course of the day, infantry filed into the city. They were followed by artillery, ambulances and mobile field kitchens. The German 1st Army made Leuven their headquarters, and many of the 15,000 troops were billeted with the locals, who had to supply food and drink.

All remained peaceful until the evening of 25 August, when a train unexpectedly pulled into the station. German soldiers, thinking it was carrying enemy troops, opened fire. Other troops stationed in the city thought that Belgian civilians were shooting and immediately rushed into the streets and started firing into their houses. The train was actually carrying a retreating German unit that had come under attack from the Belgian army in the north, but in the absence of this information, panic broke out.

Terrified inhabitants were dragged out of their homes, beaten and shot. Executions were carried out on the mere suspicion that someone had fired. The dead were dumped in ditches. Houses were set on fire.

Close to midnight, troops broke into the Catholic University of Leuven Library and set it, too, on fire. By dawn, little remained of the building and its collections. The library remained burning for several days. In addition to the loss of 300,000 volumes, the professional documents of 58 notaries, solicitors, judges, doctors and professors were lost.

The University of Leuven Library, before and after the 1914 burning

In all, 248 citizens of Leuven were killed during the destruction of Leuven, and 1,500 were deported to Germany by rail on cattle trucks.

“The town was as dead. Nothing could be heard to break the profound silence except the sinister crackle of houses on fire.”

A witness in Leuven, 27 August 1914

After this, for eight days, the city was ransacked, with troops taking furniture, works of art, silverware, linen, musical instruments and wine. Whatever could not be carried off was broken.

The destruction of Leuven aroused international indignation. The Dutch newspaper the Nieuwe Rotterdamsche Courant wrote: “It is so terrible that the whole world must take note of it with the greatest sadness.” Intellectuals in Italy condemned the “cultural atrocities,” and 40 journalists protested publicly against the “barbarity”.

The burnt-out University of Leuven Library, August 1914
The burnt-out University of Leuven Library, August 1914

After the war, the Americans took charge of building a new home for the University Library. Under the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was required to donate 13 million marks’ worth of books in reparation. A new site was chosen – Ladeuzeplein – where the new library was built from 1921 to 1928. It was designed by the American architect Whitney Warren in Flemish neo-renaissance style. By 1939, there were some 900,000 volumes on its shelves.

May 1940

However, on 16 May 1940 it was reduced to ashes once more. The exact events are shrouded in mystery. It was certainly a confusing time; at one stage the British army was retreating from the west of Leuven while the German army was advancing into its eastern suburbs.

There is a verified story that German artillery officers east of Leuven asked a local farmer to point out the American library in Leuven so they could shell it. Traces of shells were certainly found in the tower, and the German army was always quick to destroy Allied war monuments from the First World War, so there might be some truth in the story. On the other hand, traces of petrol were found in the burnt-out store rooms, suggesting arson.

The damage was even more extensive than in 1914. Almost one million volumes were lost – three times the previous number. Among them were specimens of every book printed in the Netherlands in the Incanabula (pre-1500) period and huge collections by German scholars from the 1920s.

If a human face can be put to the Flemish spirit to rebuild after the severe destruction of Leuven, then it’s that of Monsignor Etienne van Cauwenbergh, the long-suffering head librarian of the University of Leuven Library from 1919 to 1961. Not just once, but twice he had to rebuild and restock his library from the ashes.

The University of Leuven Library today
The University of Leuven Library today is worthy of a visit

21 thoughts on “When the University of Leuven Library was burnt down – twice!”

  1. Senseless destruction and killing. Sounds depressingly familiar in Ukraine today. Let’s hope for the chance to reconstruct lives and buildings like you have done beautifully iin Leuven.

    1. Yes Elaine, we can hope, and there are many uplifting stories of reconstruction, but as you point out, there always seems to be another senseless destructive event just around the corner.

  2. By reading your article about the iconoclasm in the Low Countries; the burning of the University Library in Leuven (a few centuries later) was one of the many atrocities that came also to my mind.
    When you read what happened to the many innocent inhabitants, it reminds us that those cruelties are still going on. On a different geographic place, but with similar barbarism.
    Seems we humans never learn.

    1. That’s one of the toughest takeaways from historical articles isn’t it Jacques: the circularity of these shocking events, just in a different land, by different regimes.

  3. Jacques is correct, the cruelties still go on, maybe in a different geographical place but with similar barbarism. Ukraine comes to mind with the indiscriminate shelling that has taken place not caring about damage or human lives.On a different point, the current bqnning of books in America is ridiculous.

    1. Yes David, in a civilized world there are still too many depressingly uncivilized acts of barbarism being conducted. What banning of books in the US are you referring to in particular?

  4. Jacques is correct, the cruelties go on and wherever they are humans don’t seem to learn. On another point, regarding the destruction of books, the current Banning of books in the (dis)United States does a disservice to all ne w generations who are to be denied their history and are expected to live a whitewashed life. They can learn nothing from this when history repeats itself and no-one knows how to react to it.. We are supposed to learn from our mistakes.

  5. The attempts to ban books that deal with the days of slavery, with Black Lives Matter and any books dealing with homosexuals or written by them Of course this is mainly confined to Red States unless the MAGA’s do well in the November election, at which point all bets as to what will happen are off. It’s more than likely that at some point soon America will reject it’s old allies and form new ones And Victor Orban will be a close advisor to the new President.. The Old one having been disposed of in some manner.

    1. This is another chilling reminder of the circularity of barbarism isn’t it David. 50 years ago it was books on science and evolution (although they are surely still on banned lists somewhere). Thankfully digital books are less easy to burn.

  6. Horrible and sad, I remember Dante assigned a horrible place in the seventh Circle of Hell for people Who murder and commit war crimes, but I don’t recall where he put villains who burned libraries. That’s a good point you make about digital libraries.

  7. A touching feature of today’s library are tiny momentos of private social groups from all over America which adorn the facade. These reflect the gifts collected by schools, civic groups and religious communities to help rebuild the library.

  8. Tragic. As a librarian, I feel it even more. Re digital books, I get your point but it’s not as simple as that. Ebooks are not owned but licensed. There is a furore in academic libraries at the moment because a particular publisher has withdrawn a huge swathe of titles – of course, after they have appeared on reading lists. The suspicion is that the most popular titles have been withdrawn so that more money can be made by licensing to individual students. It’s easy to see how this could also be done on idealogical grounds – so books don’t have to be burnable to be destroyed.

    1. Interesting Anabel, that publishers themselves are banning, or at least limiting, the availability of eBooks. Smells like commercial interests have a key role to play here.

      1. Oh, absolutely. The prices they charge are eye-watering, and they bundle everything up so you might be buying titles you don’t need to get those you do. It’s nothing like buying a book for your kindle! There’s a big campaign about it in U.K. academic libraries.

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