A Country of Heroes? Belgium in Russian Propaganda during WWI… and after

Wim Coudenys


A Country of Heroes? Belgium in Russian Propaganda during WWI… and after


The treacherous German invasion of Belgium and the heroic resistance by the Belgian king Albert, his army and subjects played a crucial role in the Russian war propaganda during WWI. German cruelties justified Belgian retaliations, and when these were slow in coming, imagination stepped in. Undaunted by any factual knowledge of Belgian politics, history, geography or military tactics, Russian novelists and poets adopted literary images derived from Maeterlinck, Verhaeren, Rodenbach or De Coster so as to instill Russian patriotism and indignation at German (cultural) barbarism. Soon enough, these images were adapted in paintings, war posters, propaganda films, sensationalist plays and pulp literature. These images were so strong that they even inspired real Russian politics: the tactics of inundation the Belgians used (with mixed results) convinced the Russian military to invite Belgian specialists to the Russian front; and when the negotiations over French arms for Russian troops started in 1915, the Russian government wanted to bring its troops under royal Belgian command, rather than under the republican French. The Russian image of Belgium created during the war would have an lasting impact: Russian émigrés after 1917 molded the image of king Albert after their late Emperor and wanted to believe that he would protect them (in vein). Soviet authors visiting Belgium only saw the country through the images of war. And Russia’s most popular Belgian novel – Charles De Coster’s Til Ulenshpigel (1867), about the civil war in the Low Countries in the 16th century – was first translated in… 1915 as part of the Russian propaganda  war. In this case, as in others, suggestive ‘literary images’ were considered more appropriate and  effective than cruel, factual representations.   

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