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Leuven's legacy: Century after razing of Belgian library, cultural destruction a wartime norm

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LEUVEN, Belgium — A century after German forces burned down the Leuven University library, Marie Legrand still has visions of the horrid scene. Even the scent of smoke she smelled as a 3-year-old stings in her mind to this day.

"When I close my eyes like I do now, I see the whole city in front of me, and the flames," she told The Associated Press at her home, fanning invisible flames with her frail hands.

"The old Leuven, the old town, the old history. In short: History itself all went up in flames," she said of the fire that invading German forces started on Aug. 25, 1914, targeting the university library in the heart of the Belgian town east of Brussels.

World War I had started weeks earlier and Belgium had slowed Germany's march on France much more than expected. German irritation turned to anger, then to atrocities.

The destruction of the university library served little strategic purpose beyond ruining what people held dear — a practice that continues to thrive today, especially in the Middle East and Africa, where roaming rebels and defiant dictators are robbing the world of some of the highlights of human history.

"The strategy is destroying the identity of a community," said Leuven University archivist Mark Derez.

The torching of the Leuven University library drew international condemnation and was widely used in propaganda to purport that Germany lacked any civilized standards. Still, as shocking as it was a century ago, its example appears to have done nothing to check the practice of cultural vandalism during wartime.

"It is getting worse," said Joris Kila, a heritage protection expert. "And strangely enough, the worse it gets, the less money and determination there is to do something about it."

The 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict makes it mandatory for signatory nations to ensure that such destruction does not happen. But many of today's conflicts rage in states with weak central governments and rebel forces that answer only to themselves.

In March 2001, the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the huge Bamiyan Buddhas, deeming them idolatrous and anti-Muslim. It was one of the regime's most widely condemned acts.

Two years ago, Muslim extremists destroyed key parts of the heritage of the ancient Malian city of Timbuktu, razing tombs and burning ancient documents, saying they acted on divine orders. Similar actions have happened in Somalia and continue in Iraq, where the Islamic State group is destroying the holy shrines of other religions.

"You try to demoralize a local population. It is an attack on the identity of the population. It is an attack on the collective memory," Kila said.

In today's Leuven, the rebuilt university library displays a few of the charred books, sealed in glass cases and "serving as a kind of evidence for the German burning of the library," Derez said.

PHOTO: In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, a damaged book on display at the Leuven University Library in Leuven, Belgium. The German invading forces set the heart of Leuven alight during the early days of World War I, paying special attention to the gem of learning and history, the university library. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)
In this photo taken on Thursday, Aug. 21, 2014, a damaged book on display at the Leuven University Library in Leuven, Belgium. The German invading forces set the heart of Leuven alight during the early days of World War I, paying special attention to the gem of learning and history, the university library. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

The printed letters that once combined into sentences and books of wisdom are now blackened beyond recognition, gone at the edges, curled up at the center.

Among the library's 300,000 lost books and manuscripts was the 16th century "Atlas of the human anatomy" by Andreas Vesalius, the founding father of that branch of science, a gift to the university from Emperor Charles V.

Derez said much evidence suggests that German forces wilfully destroyed the library to demoralize the people of Leuven, at the time a town of 42,500. The fires ultimately razed 1,081 of its 8,920 buildings.

"That kind of terror has something to do with reducing, assuring a minimum of civilian resistance during the invasion and a maximum of civilian cooperation during the occupation," he said.

It certainly worked on Legrand.

"Just talking about 'Germans' scared the kids," she said. To this day, at 103 years of age, Legrand said that "some residue of worry always remains."

When someone says they are German, it still gives her a small shock, she said.

"It should not be. But that's how it is," Legrand said.

If it leaves such an impression a century later, it is hardly surprising that demolishing monuments and cultural venues remains such a popular strategy. Even though individuals may run the risk of being prosecuted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague for such crimes, this rarely happens, Kila said.

"They all make promises, but at the end nobody puts their money where their mouth is by going out to arrest these people," he said.


AP photographer Virginia Mayo and videographer Mark Carlson in Leuven contributed to this report.


Raf Casert can be followed on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/rcasert

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