September 2 2022 — As an old man, I rarely get upset. But a recent message posted on Twitter by UCL rector Vincent Blondel has managed to infuriate me. How can we expect people to understand ongoing war crimes if universities are unwilling to speak clearly about those that occurred 100 years ago? How can we expect young people to take historians seriously? Follow us on Twitter: @INTEL_TODAY
Let me explain. First, I quote the message:
“Un trésor du Japon dans la “réserve précieuse” à l’UCLouvain ! Après l’incendie de la grande bibliothèque de Louvain en 1914, le Japon s’est mobilisé pour contribuer à la reconstitution de la bibliothèque et a offert plus de 10.000 ouvrages soigneusement sélectionnés.”
The burning of the library of Louvain University (known then as the Université catholique de Louvain) in 1914 was not an accident. On August 25th 1914, the fourteenth century University Hall and the eighteenth century library wing of ancient manuscripts were intentionally destroyed by German forces. The material damage was enormous: 250,000 books went up in flames, among which about 800 so-called ‘incunables’, i.e. books that were printed in Europe before the year 1501.
This war crime — widely seen as a direct attack on learning and culture — caused outrage worldwide. The burning of Leuven led to the poem by Rudyard Kipling For All we Have and Are, a popular call to arms with its urging warning ‘The Hun is at the gate’. Edward Elgar evoked the Belgian martyred towns in a symphonic poem Carillon, in which ‘Louvain’ in the French lyrics rhymes with ‘Berlin’. In the London music halls it was a great success. For the occasion, the wife of the socialist Minister Vandervelde, Lala Vandervelde, known as LADY LALA, starred, draped in a Belgian flag.
The donation of 14,000 rare books, mostly from the Japanese Imperial Court, is almost unknown among ordinary Belgian people. Even diplomats and historians seem confused about that important event. What really happened?
After the opening of Japan to the outside world, Belgium was one of the first countries to establish formal diplomatic relations with Japan in 1866. And surely, the very close ties between the Japanese Imperial family and the Belgian Royal Family played a key role. But I also believe that one man was at the center of this story. Of course, no one remembers who Yamamoto Shinjiro actually was and what he accomplished. Well, maybe the Vatican knows exactly what happened…
This is however well established. In January 1919, the Paris Peace Conference was convened at Versailles. On the side of the main conference, an international committee was set up to help the reconstruction of the Leuven university library. Prince Kinmochi Saionji, the former prime minister of Japan, promised to donate a unique collection of books to the university.
In June of 1921, Prince Regent Hirohito visited to the Leuven university library, which was still in complete ruin at the time. In the spring of 1922, Japan organised a large-scale collection of books and pictures to be donated to Leuven.
However… On September 1st 1923, the disastrous Great Kantō Earthquake devastated large parts of the Tokyo-Yokohama region. The earthquake killed more than 100,000 people. It also destroyed Tokyo’s Imperial University library. The fire that ensued incinerated many books that were meant for Leuven. Nevertheless, Leuven eventually received a donation of 14,000 rare books mostly from the Japanese Imperial Court.
PS — In 1940, at the start of World War II, the Leuven university library was once again targeted by German bombs. Nearly everything was destroyed…except for the books donated by Japan. In fact, the collection remained completely intact as the collapsed roof miraculously protected the collection from the flames. God acts in mysterious ways…
After the burning of the library, Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote that Leuven became the Sarajevo of European intellectuals. History is never without irony. The library of Sarajevo was torched on August 25th 1992. And the bloody twentieth century ended where it had begun on August 25th 1914.
Embassy and Consulates of Belgium in Japan — Diplomatic relations
Remembering the burning of the Leuven Library (August 25th 1914) — Is UCL Rector Vincent Blondel a clown?