1914 - 1918

"The Belgian Press during the First World War"


The Mundaneum preserves several thousand newspapers from around the world.

The International Press Museum, founded in 1905 by Otlet and La Fontaine, aimed to collect the first and last issue of each press title, as well as special issues.

Information channel by excellence, the Belgian press in the early 20th century was in full bloom thanks to the freedom of the press guaranteed by the Constitution, technological innovations and faster means of communication. Over 1000 newspapers and periodicals (including a hundred daily papers) from all viewpoints coexisted.

During the First World War, this medium will be censored, controlled by the enemy or operated underground

The opposing parties were well aware of the extent to which the daily press influenced the population and the importance of controlling it.  All those involved wanted to control the press, partly to prevent disclosure of strategic information and partly to spread their own propaganda

When the German invasion was announced, the Belgian press had to submit - like it or not - to military censorship by the Government, which wanted to prevent the enemy from learning sensitive information such as troop movements, the number of artillery pieces available, or the number of wounded or prisoners.

Some of the newspapers reporting the invasion 
Article mettant en valeur les exploits des troupes belges

Anything that would harm the morale of the troops or the populace was also banned

Article épinglant les atrocités allemande

This meant that the quality of information was mediocre; in fact soldiers invented the term “bourrage de crâne” - rubbish - to describe propaganda articles from the hinterland, designed to support the morale of the population and foment a deep-seated hatred of the Germans

As the German troops advanced into Belgian territory, many titles disappeared. Journalists often preferred to throw in the towel rather than submit to the censorship of the occupiers. However, there were some exceptions, such as the Brussels "L'Indépendance" and the Antwerp "La Métropole", which went into exile so that they could continue to publish
The "L'Ami de l'Ordre" in Namur is an example of a different attitude: it initially stopped publishing, but then resumed, encouraged by the occupiers

In the early days of the Occupation, the disappearance of many Belgian newspapers was a problem for the Germans, who needed to have the press in their favour in order to win over public opinion in the occupied country

Daily papers under German censorship
Steps were taken to relaunch journalism in Belgium.  One of the main aims was to gain the trust of the population. The new publications were therefore to be run (or at least seen to be run) by Belgians
And this was also why the censors at the beginning of the Occupation tolerated the inclusion of little patriotic references, articles showing respect for the King and Queen… As the Occupation went on, however, the "emboché" - German-friendly - Belgian press was to give in more and more to the demands of increasingly tough German censorship

The news approved by Germany was almost all that was available to the Belgian people.  This meant that they had no news of exiles, of soldiers at the front, or of the Belgian Government which had taken fled to Le Havre, and this in turn had the effect of demoralising the population. This demoralisation was made worse by the fact that only German victories - often exaggerated - were reported, and by a campaign to malign the Allies and the Government in exile

The occupiers also attempted to exploit the country's sensitive linguistic situation by introducing a policy designed to "Germanise" Flanders and split up the country.  Two opposing currents appeared: the activists, who felt they should use the situation for their own ends, and the passivists, who preferred to wait for a solution to the problems until Belgium was eventually liberated.  New newspapers were brought out to express the opinions of these two currents of opinion

As a reaction, clandestine newspapers appeared from the beginning of the Occupation; their aim was to act as an antidote to the poison being spread through the population by these “emboché” - pro-German - newssheets

clandestine press
These banned papers were to use various ways of thwarting press censorship

Germany's ban on any media which did not support it meant that the people of Belgium were isolated. 

To counter this, the clandestine papers published announcements by the Allies, as well as articles that appeared in the foreign press or the exiled Belgian press

The banned press also took the step of condemning the censored titles, disclosing the names of the journalists writing anonymously for the Occupiers. The clandestine writers were determined to show the danger nature of these newspapers, which appeared to be Belgian, but were in fact the voice of Germany

clandestine press
articles denouncing the German-friendly press
articles by La Libre Belgique
Finally, the clandestine press attacked the German powers directly, denouncing the crimes committed against the population, the insidious manoeuvres of the Occupiers and, in general, throwing doubt on all the actions of the Empire and its press

The humorous, mocking tone often used contributed to raising the morale of the people, who had little to laugh about

During the occupation, a very special kind of newspaper appeared: trench journals

So many new journals were produced with the twin aim of providing the soldiers with both information and entertainment

When Liberation came, the censored press disappeared completely. 

“Collaborating” journalists were often prosecuted for working alongside the enemy, although some tried to flee from Belgium and even moved to Germany. 

articles dealing with the purges and hunting down collaborators
Brief report explaining the material problems
The pre-war press reappeared little by little, publishing in reduced format due to tight finances and restrictions on materials and paper. Some clandestine titles now appeared openly (the best-known, La Libre Belgique, still exists today)
Credits: Story

Rôle — Nicolas Brunel, archiviste
Rôle — Raphaèle Cornille, Responsable du département iconographique

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.