Nobody much remembers Germany’s invasion of Belgium in 1914 — a shocking event that inaugurated the First World War. But this act of aggression by a great power against a weaker neighbor bears revisiting considering the crisis in Ukraine.
On August 3, 1914, neutral Belgium responded defiantly to Germany’s demand of passage to permit its invasion of France: “The Belgian Government are firmly determined to repel, by all the means in their power, every encroachment upon their rights.”
Unsuccessful at its coercive diplomacy, Germany massed the largest army in world history (to date) on Belgium’s border. Like a lightning bolt, on August 4, one 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, Britons, Irish and Japanese, among other peoples worldwide, made favorable comparisons to Liège and the Alamo, and to the Spartans at Thermopylae. Belgium’s King Albert, much like Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy 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 of 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 collection of manuscripts. They murdered thousands of innocents. At places like Tamines, where nearly all the town’s residents were rounded up, machine-gunned and bayoneted, the cemetery became a memorial to systematic terror.
American diplomats and aid workers watched this campaign of Schrecklichkeit unfold during the invasion and subsequent occupation. It was their horrifying reports of war crimes against civilians that reaffirmed Britain’s and France’s convictions to crush Germany and awakened neutral governments in the United States, Spain, Holland, Switzerland and the Vatican to the plight of Belgians whose lives were snuffed out by wanton cruelty and military expediency. Reports alleging Vladimir Putin’s frustration with a slower-than-anticipated campaign of conquest in Ukraine are alarming considering Belgium’s experience.
Belgium’s symbolic contribution to the Allied war effort extended to the United States, where a growing conviction to combat Berlin’s lawlessness intensified and erupted in war in 1917. By then, Americans understood the stakes of war. In a world where conquest is legitimate, anything goes. “Remember Belgium” became one of America’s rallying cries as volunteers and draftees hastened to the colors to liberate the once-neutral nation and halt Germany’s schemes.
Yet in late 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. Vengeful in defeat, angry German soldiers expressed their frustrations in cruel ways that compounded civilian misery and made postwar reconstruction efforts in Belgium much more difficult.
Disappointed with their leaders, German troops harbored hatreds toward anyone they could blame for defeat. Hitler’s psychosis emanated from this dystopian dynamic of destruction. 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 their ambitions.
Echoes of Belgium’s tragedy resound today. Germany claimed its invasion of a neutral country was defensible based on 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 such as Saddam Hussein, their nation might unravel the patchwork quilt of international stability that is based on the principle that conquest is illegitimate.
For more than a century, Washington has been a consistent proponent of this principle even though it is inconsistent in its application. In the Open Door Policy (1899), the Washington Treaty (1922) and the Hoover-Stimson Doctrine (1930s), the United States discouraged the partitioning of China by avaricious empires. And it corrected for its own aggressions against the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and Nicaragua by announcing a path toward independence for Filipinos and its rejection of armed intervention in the Americas with the Hoover-Roosevelt Good Neighbor Policy (1930s).
As the Second World War was coming to a violent climax, Washington wished to enshrine the principles of sovereignty and human rights in the UN Charter (1945) — to insist that small nations have the right to exist, and no peoples should be subjected to genocide.
To America’s discredit, soon thereafter, Cold War presidents set aside such concerns as they engaged in continuous covert and overt wars. Responses to 9/11 further relaxed any constraints on U.S. and NATO armed intervention in Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Revelations of torture and drone strikes against innocents have further undermined America’s claims of moral authority.
Washington reflexively points fingers of condemnation at others but rarely displays any signs of introspection about its own ugly conduct. Is it any wonder that Putin denounces the United States as an “empire of lies”?
Patterns of U.S. armed intervention have placed Putin’s aggression on surer footing in Georgia and Ukraine, and Beijing in its expansionist campaign in the South China Sea. But if invasion is universally wrong today, it was wrong in 2001 and 2003. Americans, in their anguish and rage emanating from 9/11, did not recognize this fact.
For different reasons, Putin is likely incapable of admitting such principles either. And expressions of global solidarity accompanied by the West’s economic warfare and the flow of weapons into Ukraine will certainly reinforce his conspiratorial conviction of injustices. Beware a bear cornered.
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. Centuries ago, the Italian statesman and theoretician of international relations, Niccolò Machiavelli, appreciated the unpredictability of war and declared: “Wars begin when you will, but they do not end when you please.”
In 1914, Germany’s strategic assumptions proved catastrophically wrong. It underestimated Belgium’s tenacity, Britain’s resolve, and the opprobrium its conduct would elicit worldwide. The United States’ decision to enter the war against Germany, and thereby seal Berlin’s fate, was powerfully influenced by American solidarity with Belgium. And, as the world rallied to assist Belgium, promises of military aid to Ukraine from Portugal, Sweden, Germany and many other countries indicate the ease with which war expands.
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. The dismal historical truth is that no international treaties or military alliances guarantee safety when nations rely on war to solve their grievances.
Tragically, Putin’s choice to invade Ukraine signals the impossibility of peace because the initiative to act violently rests with him and any other leader who chooses war. If anything, Putin has undeniably succeeded in restoring 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 concerns about terror now seem quaint in comparison to nuclear war.
Branden Little, Ph.D., is a professor of history at Weber State University.