“SHALL I play something?” Luc Rombouts, a carillonneur at the University of Leuven, pulls a stack of sheet music tall enough to be a footstool out of his satchel and starts to shuffle through it. “How about a blues?”
We are standing around the keyboard of the carillon of the University’s library, having just climbed 300 vertigo-inspiring steps inside its bell tower. During the climb, the story of the building unfolded, beginning on 24 August 1914. On that day, a detachment from a German reserve battalion was posted to guard the city railway station. These were part-time soldiers, aged between 39 and 45, under-trained and extremely nervous. Their heads had been filled with stories of guerrilla tactics being used by the civilian population, and they eyed the rooftops and windows with fear and suspicion.
The following day, shots rang out around the station. The Germans said that the shots came from civilians or guerrillas: the Belgians countered that it was friendly fire following a confused retreat after a counter-attack near Mechelen. Either way, the reservists panicked and began shooting civilians, including women and children.
The German military leadership, hardened by the guerrilla activities during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71, invoked their standard policy in quelling such activity. As a punishment, they ordered the expulsion of the population and the destruction of the city. In the days after, 2000 buildings were destroyed, and 248 were lives lost. Several hundred more civilians were transported to Germany and incarcerated.
Among the buildings destroyed was the original university library, dating from the 15th century, together with 300,000 books and manuscripts; and St Peter’s, in the city centre. The tower of the church, which housed a carillon, an 18th-century masterpiece from the foundry of Noorden and De Grave in Amsterdam, collapsed. The bells shattered when they hit the ground.
ALTHOUGH Leuven (often referred to by its French name, Louvain) was not the only afflicted Belgian city, and did not suffer the worst during the early part of the First World War, it featured prominently in Allied propaganda campaigns. Accounts of “The rape of Belgium” and “The flames of Leuven” decried the destruction of the “Oxford of Belgium”.
The tale of “The broken bells of Flanders” drew international attention to Belgian carillon culture, and further inflamed world opinion. In Britain, The Daily Telegraph published King Albert’s Book, containing tributes to Belgium from contributors including Thomas Hardy, G. K. Chesterton, and Edward Elgar. The allied propaganda campaigns turned the war into an ethical conflict between good and evil: a fight for civilisation itself.
When peace came in 1918, reconstruction began almost immediately, and was embodied by the replacement of the university library. Motivated by the propaganda effort, hundreds of universities and organisations in the US raised funds. An American architect, Whitney Warren was engaged to run the project.
With the fire of the propaganda campaigns still smouldering, the building became showered with reminders of the war. Symbols of the victorious Allied nations, complete with military shields, edge the roof. Busts of the royal family — King Albert I bearing a military air — adorn the front façade. The Archbishop of Mechelen (which, under its French name, is the Malines of the ecumenical Malines Conversations), Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier, a leading activist against German occupation during the war, stares out from a side wall.
Over the main entrance and below a relief of the original library burning stands Our Lady of Victory, wearing a soldier’s helmet. She holds Jesus in her left arm while stepping on a Prussian eagle as she stabs it with a gilded sword. She is flanked by St George, slaying a dragon, and St Michael, conqueror of Satan. The architect wanted a Latin inscription to run along the balustrade which, in translation, would have said, “Destroyed by German fury. Restored by American generosity.” Only the better judgement of the university’s Rector, Paulin Ladeuze, kept it off the building.
The library is a monument to the war, to those on the Allied side who suffered and made sacrifices during it, and to the victory of good over evil.
Uniting in friendship: left to right: (partially obscured) the Archivist of Neuss, Jens Metzdorf; Neuss’s Alderman of Culture, Christiane Zangs; the Prior of Park Abbey, R. P. Jozef Van Osta; Verena Metze-Mangold, who chairs the German UNESCO Commission; Jos Daniëls, who chairs the managing committee of Park Abbey); the Mayor of Neuss, Reiner Breuer; and the Mayor of Leuven, Louis Tobback
ONCE Luc’s short demonstration had finished, the tour descended the tower. The story of the library was somewhat unsettling. It felt incomplete. As we walked to his car to fetch some pamphlets and books, he began another story. This one started in 2014, in Germany.
Dr Jen Metzdorf, the city archivist of Neuss, discovered during the course of some research that it was elements from the reserve battalion of that city who had initiated and executed the punishment of Leuven. He communicated his findings to his counterpart in Leuven. Delegates from Neuss visited Leuven in 2015, and the two cities agreed to come together in reconciliation through shared cultural projects that would culminate in the Year of Peace 2018, and the inauguration of a new peace carillon in Park Abbey, on the outskirts of Leuven.
This would be no ordinary carillon. The bells that were hanging in St Peter’s at the time of the fire in 1914 had originally hung in Park Abbey between 1730 and 1796, when they were hidden from the invading French to prevent their being confiscated and melted to make cannons or other such armaments.
In 1811, once the danger of confiscation had disappeared, the bells were moved to St Peter’s. In about 1880, a Leuven bell-founder, Constant Sergey, drew detailed diagrams of these bells which provided his successors with the opportunity to recreate the 18th-century masterpiece as closely as possible. Even the technique for tuning the new bells will be the one used in the 18th century.
The two cities have agreed to fund the two largest bells and co-operate in fund-raising for the remainder. This is the crowning project in the complete restoration of the abbey and the reconciliation between the two cities. The Latin inscription on the two largest bells reads: “May peace and concord grow through these bells.”
The inauguration ceremony will be held on 11 November 2018. A century after the guns fell silent, two cities, separated by fire, will come together in harmony.
IN THE confusion of war, an over-stretched antagonist puts an under-trained unit into position. In fear and confusion, they react to something. To what? No one is sure. Perhaps they overreact. The military leadership, without due investigation, enacts a brutal policy of repression to keep areas behind the front lines quiet. The machine of war reduces a city to ashes.
Once conflict ends, however, life must move on. Children need education, people need jobs, and the return to some semblance of normality is vital to every community. Indeed, libraries need to be built, and quickly.
But reconstruction is only part of the recovery from conflict. If progress is to follow conflict — any conflict — there must be reconciliation. Yet reconciliation involves an extremely delicate balance. There is a need by all parties in the conflict to recognise their contribution to it. There is the need to atone and the need to forgive. There is, on the one hand, the duty to remember the suffering and the sacrifice. On the other hand, there is an obligation to future generations to ensure that they will have the opportunity to enjoy the gift of life in peace and harmony. Without reconciliation, the latter is impossible.
Those two commitments can make finding the timing and tenor of reconciliation exceedingly difficult. It may be that the spiritual wounds are so deep that it appears impossible to put reconciliation on any sort of a timeline. To do so would be false to our ancestors. Yet not to do so would be false to our descendants.
The United Nations’ handbook on reconciliation states that it is both a process and a goal. For the sake of the future, it needs to become a way of life. The bells of Leuven, due to ring again, will be a symbol of what is possible.
Richard Miller is a freelance writer and poet.