Robert Fisk: When propaganda turns out to be fact

Saturday 19 July 2008 00:00 BST

What happens when myths turn out to be true? I'm talking about the "myth" of the German army's atrocities in little Belgium in 1914, the raped nuns and the babies spitted on Prussian bayonets. "Hun barbarism" was the powerful propaganda tool to send the British Tommies and the French poilus – literally, "the hairy ones" – off to the killing fields of the Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele and Verdun. But now, thanks to the analytical, brilliant, horrifying work of Alan Kramer, a history professor at my own alma mater of Trinity College, Dublin, it all turns out to be – well, let's speak frankly – true.

He's not the first to catalogue Germany's war crimes in the 1914-18 conflict – Germany's own academics got their hands on the military and political archives proving that the massacre of civilians in Belgium really happened at the start of the war – but Kramer has gone a stage further; he has traced an undeniable pattern of atrocities not only in Belgium but in First World War Italy and Russia too. The Nazis, it seems, were marching in the footsteps of earlier German war criminals.

Maybe it's hypocritical to dwell on these long-ago war crimes when our own illegal invasion of Iraq may have culled a million Iraqi lives, not to mention Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki – readers can fill in the extra names – and it's true that New Zealand troops murdered German prisoners in the First World War (on 15 September 1916, to be precise).

So did Canadian troops. And Brits. But slaughtering prisoners on the battlefield is one thing. Shooting down rows of innocent civilians is quite another. Kramer's new book has a suitably academic title – Dynamic of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War – but its contents freeze the blood.

Here, for example, is what happened to unarmed civilian prisoners in the Les Rivages suburb of Dinant after German troops were attacked by snipers: "German witnesses to one mass execution ... stated that the order was given by a major whose face was 'contorted with rage' ... More than half of the 77 killed were women and children: 38 women and girls, and 15 children under 14, of whom seven were babies; seven of the men were over 70 years old."

A Captain von Loeben describes another nearby massacre. "The people were arranged in several ranks by the garden wall. Women, children and older men were excluded ... I had some difficulty separating the women and children. One woman clung to her husband and wanted to be shot together with him. I therefore decided to let her go free, together with her husband. One man had a child of about five in his arms ... the child was taken away from him and sent to the women. The man was shot with the rest."

In all, 674 citizens of Dinant, including many women and children – one in 10 of the population of the town – were executed. Another 262 civilians were murdered by the Kaiser's soldiers in Ardenne where the burgomaster – a man called Camus – was hacked to death with an axe. German troops had already torched the historic Belgian city of Louvain, bayoneting civilians in their homes and burning the great university library with its wealth of Latin and medieval manuscripts. "Holocaust of Louvain," the Daily Mail trumpeted on 31 August 1914. For once, the paper was right.

There's a chilling photograph of a German shell exploding on the roof of Reims cathedral, one of the finest medieval treasures of France. Of course, the Germans said that the Allies were using it as an observation tower – but they effectively blew the place to bits. And come to think of it, I recall my Dad, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk of the King's Liverpool Regiment – yes, of course, he has featured in this column before – telling me how, after being bitten by a rat in the trenches, doctors removed an entire layer of his skin; and how he lay each night in agony in a makeshift hospital at Reims.

"I was made to sleep on the floor of Reims Cathedral," he told me, "and every night, I'd look up at the stars and see all these gargoyles glaring down at me." So the Germans had blown the entire roof off the cathedral.

After the massive Italian defeat at Caporetto – the Italians were on "our" side in the First World War, so it was perhaps only fair that the Germans should have them on their side in the Second – mass deportation of Italian civilians began, along with executions and deliberate starvation. The number of Italian deportee and PoW deaths – largely from maltreatment, but also massacre – reached 24,597. Some were dispatched to camps whose names – draw in your collective breath, O reader – were Mauthausen and Theresienstadt.

Indeed, there were Jews in the German army in the First World War – 12,000 of them were killed in action for the Fatherland – but hands up those readers who know that, even as the Germans were fighting for their lives in 1916, the authorities undertook a "Jew census" in the army after provocations from small anti-Semitic parties in Berlin.

On the eastern front, 92,451 Russian prisoners died in German captivity. "They are not to be given water at first," a 1914 German 8th Army order read. "While they are in the vicinity of the battlefield it is good for them to be in a broken physical condition." The Untermenschen idea was already there, it seems. At least 9 per cent of Germany's 158,000 soldiers in Russian camps, it should be added, also died.

Amid such a charnel house, the Ottoman genocide of one and a half million Armenians – still outrageously denied by Turkey, although it taught Hitler how to destroy the Jews of Europe less than three decades later – provides a terrible historical continuity.

Did those German-Jewish soldiers of the First World War have the slightest inkling of what was to come? They must have known of the German army's cruelty towards civilians, even if they could not then read the words of the angry, gas-blinded corporal from the Somme who asked after the armistice: "Did all this happen only so that a gang of wretched criminals could lay their hands on the Fatherland?"

This young German soldier had been fighting less than a mile from where my father stood in the trenches of the Somme. Alas, 2nd Lieutenant Bill Fisk didn't manage to shoot Corporal Adolf Hitler.

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