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The Long Shadow of the ‘German Atrocities’ of 1914

Associate Professor Sophie de Schaepdrijver considers how the ‘German atrocities’ have been represented during and after World War One by both the Allied countries and Germany.


The so-called ‘German Atrocities’ of the summer of 1914, when 6,500 civilians were killed by the German armies in Belgium and northern France, were hardly the largest-scale incidence of violence against civilians in the First World War, yet they were the war’s cause célèbre, passionately debated throughout the conflict and for decades afterward.

Portrait of Johannes Jørgensen

Portrait of Johannes Jørgensen

Portrait of Johannes Jørgensen, a Danish writer, who in 1915 published Klokke Roland (False Witness), describing the German invasion of Belgium in 1914 as a heinous act.

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Wartime propaganda

The ‘German Atrocities’ framed the discussion over who was the aggressor in this war and who was violating international standards of warfare. In neutral countries, the plight of invaded Belgium, a neutral state that had not been a party to the mounting tension in Europe, reverberated strongly. The 1915 novel Klokke Roland (False Witness) by the Danish Catholic convert Johannes Jørgensen (1866-1956) lamented a small country’s victimisation. The Dutch cartoonist Louis Raemaekers (1869-1956) became an international celebrity with his pictorial denunciations. In the Allied camp, reports on the civilian massacres portrayed the opponent as beyond the pale of ‘civilized’ warfare. The Allied accusations, though based on true events, were adjusted to fit wartime propaganda. For instance, the German soldiers were depicted as targeting women and children, when, in reality, the majority of victims had been men . But then, the theme of massacred women and children appealed to men’s sense of chivalry and so supported military mobilisation. The Belgian poster artist Gisbert Combaz (1869-1941) portrayed the victims of the Louvain (Leuven) massacre as mothers and toddlers. The theme of victimised women and children travelled to other theatres: one poster that aimed to rally Italians behind the reconquest of their invaded territories showed endangered cherubs and the warning ‘Italians ! The horrors of Belgium and France are being repeated in invaded Veneto!’ As war weariness increased, exhortations to remember the plight of the defenceless sought to galvanise the fighting spirit .

If Allied war propaganda with regard to the civilian massacres of 1914 resorted to distortions, its counterpart in Germany was a complete conceit. German war propaganda claimed that, in reality, the victims of cruelty had been German troops. Civilian snipers (francs-tireurs) had conducted a guerrilla war against German soldiers, cutting the throats of sleeping men and gouging out the eyes of the wounded. Such fabrications circulated widely, among other media in penny dreadfuls that staged ‘bestial’ bands of francs-tireurs and portrayed the invading army as a bringer of stern but just order, rightly rejoicing in the punishment it meted out .

The mill in the Ardennes

'The Mill in the Ardennes' taken from a series of German penny magazines. The story portrays German soldiers fighting in Belgium as good-natured - only using violence in emergencies.

The Mill in the Ardennes, printed in penny magazines, was a story for Germans which portrayed German soldiers as well-behaved and selfless. 

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Documenting the ‘atrocities’ during the war

Within days of the invasion, Belgian and French commissions documented the massacres by interrogating refugees and sending out roving reporters before the front closed down. In the late spring of 1915, an official British commission came up with its own, widely-disseminated report . While not deliberately mendacious, it overemphasised cruelty against women and children and did not contradict refugees’ panic-infused allegations, such as the story that invading troops systematically hacked off children’s hands.

At the same time, May 1915, the German government produced its own report (the so-called German White Book) which claimed that the Belgians had conducted a premeditated ‘People’s War’, with sadistic excesses, against its army. This report relied on hearsay and heavy editing, omitted evidence from within the German army that contradicted its claims, and suppressed depositions by civilians for the same reason. In response, the Belgian government-in-exile published a detailed refutation (the so-called Belgian Grey Book) with lists of civilian victims; and the Belgian sociologist Fernand van Langenhove invalidated the ‘People’s War’ thesis in his 1916 study The Growth of a Legend, which proved on the basis of German documents that the franc-tireur story had been a mass delusion, a ‘cycle of myths’.

The Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Front cover of the Bryce report: Committee on alleged German outrages

Report of the committee led by Viscount Bryce, assessing 'alleged German outrages', 1915.

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The interwar years

And yet, after the German defeat, the Weimar government refused to repudiate the old imperial army’s war record. From the Armistice to the end of the Republic, the War and Foreign Ministries put out ‘innocentist’ propaganda and hampered investigations into wartime military conduct. An attempt to put war criminals on trial, in Leipzig in 1921, came to nothing. Meanwhile, in Allied (especially British) public opinion, a growing current of condemnation of war itself as an atrocity led commentators to indict war propaganda as the culprit and question atrocity reports. In 1928, British Labour MP Arthur Ponsonby published Falsehood in Wartime, an indictment of atrocity propaganda. Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That (1929) poked fun at the lurid allegation that German soldiers had hung Belgian priests inside church bells. (In fact, no Allied text had ever carried this accusation; it was fabricated by German war propaganda to discredit reports on violence against civilians.) Ironically, this pacifist campaign dovetailed with the German denial campaign in that both agreed that the ‘atrocities’ had essentially been a creation of war propaganda.

Historiography after the Second World War

The Second World War did not bring renewed relevance to the issue, as evidenced by the forlorn 50th-anniversary commemorations in different victimised towns. Yet in the meantime, a Belgian-German commission of historians had established a realm of truth and reconciliation by critically examining the German arguments for the defence. A 1958 study by the German historian Peter Schöller demonstrated the mendacity of the 1915 White Book in the case of Louvain. It did not, however, reverberate broadly through the German historiography of the 1914 invasion of France and Belgium. A 1984 study by the German historian Lothar Wieland analysed German public opinion and official policy regarding the franc-tireur question from 1914 to 1936, concluding that the refusal to countenance war crimes contributed to the success of Nazi propaganda. Finally, the vast study German Atrocities 1914 by the historians John Horne and Alan Kramer, published in 2001, placed the events of the summer of 1914, and their echo in wartime and postwar cultures, in the context of entire societies’ mobilisation for war and exit from war. The study confirmed that the violence against civilians had not been a figment of propaganda and that the ‘People’s War’ had been a delusion; and it explained why, in spite of the relatively small number of victims, these events loomed so large in a war which both sides portrayed as a crusade for the defence of civilisation. The publication of this study demonstrated that the waning of the passions of the war in Europe – both the passing of the ‘crusade’ culture, and of the interwar efforts to dispel this culture – definitively opened up a space of historical truth in which to grasp the place of the ‘atrocities’ in the wider history of mass mobilisation for the First World War.

  • Sophie de Schaepdrijver
  • Sophie De Schaepdrijver teaches Modern European History at Penn State University. She has published on military occupations in the First World War, on “war cultures” in occupied Belgium, and on civilians’ diaries. She is interested in the intersection between military occupation and individual ambition. She has recently finished a book on Gabrielle Petit, a spy for British General Headquarters who was executed in German-occupied Brussels in 1916 at the age of 23. She has co-written and presented the documentary Brave Little Belgium (VRT-Canvas, to be broadcast autumn 2014) and curated a historical exhibition on Bruges under German Navy rule.

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