Heritage of Global Significance

1914 Illustré, 1914 No 1 (Hendrik Conscience Heritage Library, Antwerp)

The Belgian press from the Great War is not only of significance to Belgium. Because of the global scale of the conflict in which these documents were created, the position of Belgium within the international community at the time, and the presence of many nationalities on its soil, these newspapers need made available for research world wide. But there are many more reasons why the collections are of world wide importance.

The First True World War

The First World War was the first large-scale conflict in the history of humankind. Within a few weeks it evolved from an ‘Austro-Russian’ war to a general European and international war. Among those involved were six major powers (Russia, Germany, Great Britain, France, Austria-Hungary, and the Ottoman Empire) and five colonial states (Germany, France, Great Britain, Belgium, and later Italy).

Starting in September-October 1914, a ‘world war’ had developed. The United States was involved indirectly from the start, and from April 1917, it joined the fighting as a new and decisive party to the conflict. The US and the few neutral countries (including Switzerland, the Netherlands and Scandinavia) started mobilising against the war, particularly against the German invasion of Belgium. ‘Poor little Belgium’ became an international symbol.

Belgium on the World Stage

In 1914, Belgium occupied a special position at European and international level. The country had only been independent since 1831. At independence, three neighbouring major European powers (France, Germany and Great Britain) had guaranteed the neutrality of the small kingdom.

But since 1909, Belgium had also been a colonial power and by 1914, it had developed into a global economic power. As a result, and also due to the huge number of Belgian refugees (1.5 million), the occupation of the country became a cause for international concern. Eventually, the occupation exercised important influence over the development of international law.

Freedom of the Press

The Belgian press was also special. Already in 1914, Belgium had a long and exceptional tradition of freedom of the press. Press freedom was part of the ‘foundation myth’ of the new state and solidly embodied in the constitution. Belgium was a pioneer in this area, alongside the Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States.

This explains the existence of a wide-ranging press landscape: there were more than a hundred daily newspapers and nearly a thousand periodicals. The press was highly diverse in relation to ideology, religion and language. While papers in French were still the most widely read at the time, there were many papers in Dutch as well.

Broad Reach and Orientation

In comparison with other countries, the Belgian press was exceptionally internationally oriented. International relations, industrial and commercial developments, Belgian investments abroad, the colonial interests in the Congo, the international labour movement (in the socialist press), international developments in the Church (in the Catholic press): all are covered in detail.

Finally, in a time before radio, television and the internet, newspapers had a virtual monopoly on information. The end of the nineteenth century saw the development of the inexpensive mass press, which had a huge reach. While the Belgian newspapers from the First World War form a unique source of information about all aspects of the conflict (military, humanitarian, daily life, refugees abroad, political conflicts), they are also an exceptional source for scientific research into the evolution of the media, which went through a number of crucial developments during the First World War period.

Fragmentation of Press and Country

The papers contain a direct record of the consequences of the invasion and occupation. After all, one direct consequence of the occupation was a fragmentation of the press landscape. It became divided into censored newspapers, front-line newspapers, clandestine press, refugee press, and ‘free newspapers’ published in England, France, the Netherlands, and even the United States.

Despite censorship – and, in the case of the illegal press, precisely because of it – there was greater press diversity. Censorship led to discussion, which ultimately resulted in a wider moral debate about the value and the meaning of freedom of the press. The war brought the discussion about the value of a free press to a head.

The Paper State

The fragmentation of the press is an indicator of its socio-political importance as an alternative vector of the Belgian national sovereignty. The war, the occupation of large parts of territory, the direct German military control, a parliament that no longer meets officially, and a government that governs the country from France: all this called into question the concept of ‘national sovereignty’ and allowed for alternative bearers of that sovereignty to take shape – in this case, the press.

The Belgian press developed into a sort of symbolic paper state. This united the Belgian people, who were separated geographically by the war, while also shaping Belgium’s continued existence in the international context. Newspapers published in Le Havre and in the small unoccupied part of Belgium showed that Belgium still existed.

National sovereignty was put into doubt by the occupying power through the administrative and political division of Belgium into Flanders and Wallonia. This was a political flashpoint of prime significance, which was mainly fought out in the press.

Humanitarian Issues

The press articulated the material needs of the population. Newspapers played a key role in the launching of an international humanitarian campaign avant la lettre by the Commission for Relief, which arranged for supplies to be delivered to the inhabitants of the occupied territory threatened with hunger. It gave the impact of the war a tangible and human face.

The press gave a voice to the debate on the role of international law in wartime. Belgium’s status before the war as a small neutral country with a strong international orientation made it a pioneer in the debates on international law. For instance, the country had high expectations of the Hague Convention.

During the war, the Belgian press abroad kept the discussion about international law and the law of war alive, and in doing so, it popularized what was originally a rather technical legal debate. Although this was from the point of view of a victim (with the baseline argument being that Belgium, as a fully innocent country, had been invaded by a militarily strong neighbour that did not spare the civilian population during its warmongering), the topical relevance of this debate cannot go by unnoticed.

Even during this large-scale war, continued importance was attached to (international) law and discussions took place about legal mechanisms to prevent wars in the future. Not just between specialists, as was mainly the case before the war, but also in the public sphere, through the press.

The Voice of Displaced Citizens

The ‘press of the Belgian diaspora’ (the refugee press, the prisoners of war press and the trench press) proved that Belgium still existed, albeit more for the citizens rather than for the external powers. These were not established newspapers moving their activities to free territory, but new initiatives. They had a bottom-up character or focused on specific target groups (for instance, soldiers at the front).

These newspapers also had a symbolic value that went beyond the local content. For example, the refugee press provides insight into the actual living conditions and the problems faced by refugees, the reaction of the surroundings in which they settled, and the strategies they developed to deal with their situation and acquire a place in the host society. Having their own newspapers was an anchor for Belgians abroad and it kept them within the splintered Belgian state.

The same was true for papers for prisoners of war and the frontline papers, intended for the soldiers at the Yser front. Contrary to the official Legerbode (Army Courier), the frontline papers were an initiative of military personnel with an intellectual background, which informed and connected soldiers from a specific town or region, provided them with a framework and, in the case of the Flemish papers, made them politically aware.

Trench papers created a link between the frontline, where soldiers spent much of their time, and their home towns or districts from which they were cut off for long periods of time. This even took place at the existential level, through publishing lists of the fallen or the names of Belgians in a particular refugee camp.

Shaping a New Belgium

Newspapers were also a means by which the country could be given a new form after the war. Many frontline papers were the initiative of pro-Flemish intellectuals who put the emancipation of the Dutch-speaking part of the country on the political agenda. But the clandestine press and the press outside Belgium also kept the political debate alive and facilitated it, and in doing so, acted as a political arena and as an alternative to parliamentary debate.

Before the war, parliament and the press worked in symbiosis to shape politics. In wartime, the press continued this role alone. It not only ensured the continuation of the Belgian political arena, it also allowed political differences to manifest through debate and pluralism – a fundamental aspect of democracy.

Here too, the relevance of the collections goes beyond the First World War and Belgium. It shows how, even in wartime, there are still opportunities to continue the political debate. This is hugely significant for present-day conflicts anywhere in the world.

The First Mass Medium

The First World War is special in the history of the press because several societal, political and technological evolutions converged that facilitated the development of the press as portrayed above. At the end of the nineteenth century, the mass press emerged. Thanks to industrial production processes and improved transport, newspapers could reach consumers relatively inexpensively and quickly, throughout the territory of the state.

The newspaper became a product that fit into the regular consumption pattern and daily experience of many. This was also a result of a gradual increase in purchasing power that allowed newspapers to partly fund their production with advertising income.

The press was no longer limited to the political elite and their parties. The labour movement, as well as other emancipation movements (the Flemish movement, farmers), were also major producers of periodicals. The democratisation of the right to vote provided a reason to develop a politically conservative mass press, as an instrument in the electoral competition with the labour movement.

The know-how required for publishing papers became widely disseminated, which also partly explains the later rise of the clandestine press and the frontline press. Here we see an interesting parallel with today’s situation, where the internet and social media facilitate the dissemination of news and opinion in a relatively easy and cheap way. The press became part of the daily life of large sections of the population. This was the background to the German efforts to have censored newspapers published, in order to exercise influence over the population.

Propaganda Vehicle

This brings us to a special aspect of the war press: propaganda. Not only do wars bring censorship (in occupied territory, but also by the Belgian authorities), but the press is also used for propaganda purposes. In this respect as well, the relevance of the collections goes beyond the First World War.

The broad composition of the collections make them an excellent source for uncovering the mechanism for war propaganda and for exposing how warring parties influence the press. We can research how the same event was described very differently in newspapers of various persuasions. Images (in the form of drawings, press photographs, caricatures) became hugely popular in this period, precisely because they are an excellent means of propaganda. Following liberation, the image became part of a reaction against censorship and propaganda, and was part of the development of a new model for journalism that emphasised ethics and objective reporting.

Window on the World

The significance of the newspapers’ contents also extends beyond the period of the First World War and Belgium. Through Belgium’s central role in the conflict, its press opens a wide window on world wars. The press facilitates research into how other peoples, cultures and countries are perceived, represented and integrated in the war experience of the Belgians, the mechanisms involved, and the influence this has on people’s vision of their own society.

The real-life confrontation with foreign cultures is an aspect of the First World War that has great relevance in today’s globalised world. Even within Belgian territory, the conflict had the character of a world war, with the deployment of British, German and French troops, together with soldiers and support from their colonies. For many, this was their first contact with people from faraway cultures. In the press, we see how these people and these contacts were presented, and how the different segments of Belgian society responded to them.

Events that would drastically change the face of the world in the next decades (consider the Russian Revolution) reached the Belgian public through the press, a forum where the meaning of these events were discussed and significance (negative or positive) attributed. Here too we see a link with today’s world, in which events in other countries have a huge impact on the fate of states at war (a good example of this being the Middle East). The Belgian press collections from the First World War are a unique source for researching parallels and recurrent mechanisms.

A Myriad of Perspectives

These newspapers are substantively relevant for documenting the course of the war at different levels (macro-political, but also in a small village or at the frontline) and from different perspectives. There are few other media from the Great War that can explain so clearly to future generations what the impact of the First World War was on ‘regular people’. The consequences of the invasion and occupation can be felt directly in these newspapers.

The newspapers reflect the unique war experience of a small country that was forced into an international conflict, and that in its brief existence had not yet been confronted with war. It is perhaps the only source that documents the impact of this attack so broadly and in such detail.

The trench war in Flanders is a prominent event in the collective memory of the Great War. But relatively little research has been done on the Belgian newspapers from this period, and without them, it would no longer be possible to fully understand this part of the history of Belgium and the western front of the WWI conflict.

Beyond Belgium

This substantive relevance of these newspapers for understanding the daily impact of war goes beyond the case of Belgium. After all, it enables us to reconstruct the existence and survival strategies of very different groups of the population – not only soldiers, but also vulnerable groups (such as refugees and children), and groups that were suddenly forced into a different role due to the occupation, in particular women.

The collections show the response to the war as developed by different sections of society, and the domination and control of an occupying power. The press is a very suitable source for this because newspapers provide information about almost all aspects of daily life.

They even serve as a resource in the survival strategy (consider the information provided in the papers about food distribution, rationing or social initiatives for infants). Finally, the censored press is hugely important for understanding the policies of an occupying power and the resources it deploys to win over the occupied population.