Belgium was neutral in 1914, but German troops invaded nonetheless. On August 4, monarchs and heads of state came together in Liege to commemorate the start of the World War One.
"Can anyone see William and Kate around here?" asks a middle-aged woman from Liege, waiting with a friend at the fence surrrounding the Allied memorial in the city's Cointe district. She's waving her camera in vain, though. The memorial ceremony marking the start of the war 100 years ago is taking place on the other side of the slender white memorial tower.
Many onlookers are keen to catch sight of the prince and his wife, who are representing Britain at the commemoration. Britain was one of the guarantor powers that were supposed to safeguard Belgium's neutrality in 1914.
The invitation to attend the main memorial service in Liege came from King Philippe of Belgium. German President Joachim Gauck was present alongside French President Francois Hollande and Spain's King Felipe.
The Belgian king thanked the Allies for their support, not only in the war itself, but also by providing for the country's starving population. "Keeping brave little Belgium alive was an unparalleled humanitarian endeavor," said the king, referring to the food deliveries that reached the country from the United States, Canada and Britain. "Today, we have achieved a united, peaceful Europe - something our grandfathers could only dream of. We must continue to work on this project," said Philippe, standing at the foot of the memorial, where the heads of state laid a wreath into which each dignitary had personally placed a white rose.
German president Joachim Gauck expressed his gratitude that he, a German, had been invited to speak in Liege. This, he said, was not something that could be taken for granted. "I thank all Belgian men and women," he said, "that after two wars, after two attacks on their country, after all the horrors and misery, they very soon afterwards reached out their hand to us in reconciliation."
Responsibility for peace
The Europe of today has become a peaceful continent, Gauck declared. From this he concluded that Europeans have a responsibility with regard to current conflicts around the world. "Peace and reconciliation is possible," he said. "A continent of enduring enmity and war after war has become a continent of peace. But witnessing this should also remind us that we have a common responsibility for the world. We cannot remain indifferent when human rights are violated, when violence is threatened or exercised. We must actively stand up for freedom and for what is right, for enlightenment, for justice and humanity."
The memorial service then concluded with the European anthem, the final movement of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, sung by a youth choir dressed all in white. The people of Liege and the general public were only able to watch the military ceremony, including performances by military bands from the Allied countries, on television.
Belgium resisted in vain
German troops crossed the Belgian frontier on August 4, 1914. The neutral country had refused to allow the Germans to march through en route to France. At that time, Liege was heavily fortified: It had a total of 12 forts. However, the Belgian army was small, and outnumbered by the German attackers.
Nonetheless, Liege surprisingly managed to resist for several days, and this is celebrated in Belgium today as a feat of heroism. The Germans deployed “Big Bertha,” a cannon with a massive 42-centimeter (17-inch) caliber, and a Zeppelin for the first time, to bombard Liege prior to storming it.
At the end of August 1914, the last Belgian city, Antwerp, also fell. The German advance was only halted in western Flanders, at the little River Yser. A year of trench warfare with very heavy losses ensued between the Allies and the German troops, in the course of which poison gas was also used.
The Belgian people suffered four years of brutal German occupation. The Belgian monarch at the time was King Albert, a relative of the German Kaiser who was attacking his country. Albert led the remaining Belgian troops himself into battle in western Flanders, and for this he is still revered in Belgium today. The Belgian historian Herbert Ruland told DW: "This defense was very decisive; it essentially secured the continued existence of the Belgian state."
In the afternoon, German President Joachim Gauck visited the city of Leuven, where German troops once set fire to the irreplaceable university library. In late August 1914, a large part of the medieval town was destroyed by the occupying forces in retaliation for alleged attacks by Belgian irregular troops.
Commemorative fete - and iced coffee
On the Place Saint-Lambert in front of the former prince-archbishop's palace, the City of Liege had installed large columns bearing the inscription "Peace" in many different languages. Information boards and works of art recalled the events of a century ago. Period music and fashion shows aimed to recreate the atmosphere of life in Liege the summer before the outbreak of war.
Here, too, Belgians and tourists had an opportunity to catch sight of the Belgian monarch. Philippe appeared on the balcony of the palace in the afternoon - but without William and Kate. The photogenic members of the British royal family had already traveled on to Mons to commemorate the war dead at a cemetery there.
Near the Place Saint-Lambert, Thierry Marée is serving the world-famous specialty known as café liegeois to customers in his café: iced coffee, flavored with vanilla. The people of Liege have a story to tell about this. Up until the outbreak of war in 1914, this drink was still known in Belgium and France as "Viennese coffee." But because Austria was a German ally, no one wanted anything more to do with it, and the restaurant owners abruptly replaced the Austrian capital with Liege. The new name stuck - and has remained unchanged now for 100 years.
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