Belgian refugees fleeing the German army in 1914Shortly after the start of the war and the consequent German invasion of Belgium, hundreds of thousands of refugees trudged westwards to France, across the channel to England and north east to Holland, leaving behind a shocked and disoriented population. Estimates of the number of refugees vary widely from the CRB’s conservative guess of approximately 600,000 [1] to around 1.5 million. [2] The much lower number suited the CRB’s more grandiose claims that it had to feed around 9.5 million ‘otherwise inevitably starving people’ who remained behind. [3] Despite the destruction caused by the invaders, there was at first no shortage of food supplies. [4] However, some areas of the country were particularly badly affected by the German advance, and a number of different local committees set up organisations to provide food, clothing and even accommodation for those in distress. In a very short time, these groups had been amalgamated into an enormous supply chain which none of the belligerents ‘dared or cared’ to stop. [5]

Had the general public in allied countries known how much of the food supplied for ‘starving Belgians’ was destined for Germany, there would have been outrage. Had they realised that these foodstuffs, which eventually totalled over a hundred thousand tons a month, purchased by money which the tax-payer in Britain and France would have to repay, actually sustained the enemy and prolonged the war, governments would have fallenHad the allied troops known there would have been mutiny throughout the ranks.

A number of important assumptions still exist which have helped conceal the clever sleight of hand behind the organised system that supplied food to both the civilians in Belgium  and the German army on the Western Front. The first and most concerning is the extent to which the illusion of starvation or impending starvation in Belgium was created. Belgium was highly industrialised but at least 60 per cent of the country comprised rich agricultural land which was intensively cultivated. During the war years the general conditions of farming were sound, though modest. [6] When war broke out Belgium found herself in a very favourable position with regard to food stocks. The new cereal crop had been exceptionally good and, despite the presence of an invading army, there was at first no shortage of food and prices hardly rose. [7]

Hoover Institute propaganda image of 'starving' children in Belgium

So from where did the myth of a starving nation emerge? Haunting images exist of starving Boer children in South Africa, of starving German families and children in 1919, of the atrocities visited on the starving holocaust victims in 1945, of pitiful Biafran innocents in the 1960s, but not from Belgium in 1914. The immaculately staged images, published by the Hoover Institute, of Belgian children  show masses [8] of adequately clothed youngsters with suppliant begging-bowls, presumably hungry. There is, however, a world of difference between hunger and starvation. There was need, no-one would deny that. But there was no evidence of a starving nation. There are no memorials to victims of starvation in Belgium during the First World War, as there are say, in Ireland to the millions who died in the great famine,  so why has  myth been accepted as fact?

A second assumption spread by journalists and historians who have unquestioningly accepted the claims made by Herbert Hoover and his associates, was that the supply of emergency foodstuffs was undertaken by a single organisation called the Commission for the Relief of Belgium, or as many preferred, the American Relief Committee. It was not. Two organisations were in operation, one from New York and London, the other from Brussels, but they rarely acted as, nor considered themselves to be one body. The third assumption is that these organisations were entirely charitable; indeed ‘benevolence’ was their favoured term. [9] Again, this is not true. Much of the food was sold and the profits allegedly flowed back to the relief fund to purchase more. What this amounted to, we will never know. But this is the essential problem with Belgian relief in all of its guises; it has been successfully covered-up and rebranded, and what is recorded lends itself to myth.

The groups which emerged by the end of 1914 to provide food to Belgium (and later Northern France) gathered immense power and their prestige grew through a combination of bankers, financiers, racketeers, lawyers and politicians. They were unaccountable to any democratic chamber and wrote their own history. Though not all were motivated by self interest and greed, the system that operated favoured the powerful banks. Indeed, with both the King and the Belgian government in exile, by November 1914 the Brussels Committee was regarded by many Belgians as the provisional government. [10]

Consider the initial response to a serious situation. The provision of adequate food for citizens caught up directly in the consequences of the German advance through Belgium towards Paris had caused an immediate problem. Many villages were totally destroyed and towns like Louvain, Dinant and Aerschot razed to the ground as the might of the German army pushed its way westward. Around twenty per cent of the population may have fled the country and the capital, Brussels, sheltered around 200,000 refugees. [11] Factories closed and civil servants and local government employees went unpaid. A ‘private charitable organisation’ was formed in Brussels to counter the growing crisis by raising money to buy food and distribute it to the needy, unemployed or destitute in and the city.

Food was handed out free to the verifiably poor and destitute only. Here at Malines the locals are lined up at the police station to receive their allocation.

It described itself as a triumph of good organisation and careful preparation which coordinated the disbursement through local volunteer relief agencies, distribution centres and uniform rationing. But food was not supplied free of charge. Only the ‘verifiably poor’ received free rations and those who could, had to pay. [12] In Brussels the organising group called itself the Comite Central and its most unusual feature was that it comprised virtually every senior banker in the land. Banks rarely involved themselves directly in charitable works unless, of course, there was an underlying benefit.

As the history of the Rothschilds has proved, certain banks are always first to know what is about to happen [13] In 1912, two years before the cataclysm of world war, a series of events took place which anticipated what was to come to pass; events which made a mockery of Belgian ‘neutrality’. King Albert convened a secret meeting of the Belgian parliament and disclosed that he had evidence that Belgium was in dire and imminent danger. Two crucial moves followed. Firstly the strength of the Belgian army was raised by 340,000 men, an enormous expansion given the ‘neutral’ status of a small nation. [14] As explained in our book,  long before the war Belgium had  worked under secret military agreements and alliances with Britain and France.

5 Franc Note from Banque Nationale de Belgique planned in advance of the war.

Secondly, the National Bank of Belgium began preparations to cope with the financial emergency that war would bring. In utmost secrecy, they printed 5-Franc notes to replace silver coins and planned the transfer of their reserves of gold and note-making plates to vaults in the Bank of England in London. [15] Not only had the Belgian banks prepared for a war that no-one allegedly knew was coming, they had chosen sides. So much for neutral Belgium.

While this expose focuses on the lesser known and often denied malpractices from which key players made fortunes, there can be no doubt that thousands of volunteers and civic administrators worked ceaselessly to feed and safeguard the ordinary citizen, man soup-kitchens, issue daily rations, provide milk and other suitable food for mothers and babies and shelter the destitute. The infant mortality rate in Belgium fell from 151 per 1,000 live births in 1914 to 119 by 1918 [16] which would surely have been impossible in a nation wracked by starvation. In addition to food, a central warehouse was opened in Brussels in September 1914 to collect, restore, distribute and sell second-hand clothes. [17] This is a history of immense kindness on the part of many, and despicable exploitation by the few.

The task of sourcing foodstuffs from both inside Belgium and from neutral countries was initiated by the Comite Central in Brussels in September 1914. Dannie Heineman, an American-born electrical engineer who had spent most of his life in Germany, apparently suggested to the Comite Central that diplomatic channels might be opened with American and Spanish approval to purchase food abroad. Subsequently, the Comite authorised him to contact the German authorities. The official CRB histories describe Heineman as an American businessman, resident in Brussels, [18] but this is entirely misleading.  He was taken to Germany by his widowed mother when he was eight years old and was educated there, graduating from the Technical College of Hanover in 1895. His first post was in Berlin with a company directly associated with the American giant General Electric. In 1905, he headed a small three-man Belgian-German company which specialised in electric power and transport. Established by Belgian bankers, the Societe Financiere de Transports et d’Enterprises Industrielles (SOFINA) became a powerful player in the nascent energy industry. It grew into an international company employing 40,000 workers and owned tramway and electrical power systems throughout the world. [19] How could Heineman possibly have raised the finance to achieve such success? Who was backing him?

Dannie Heineman of SOFINA. He spent his yoiuth and most of his working life in Germany.

Dannie Heineman, the moving spirit, [20] played a particularly important, though often underrated role in what followed because he was well known and trusted by the Germans. Not everyone approved of him. The Head of the American Legation at Brussels, Brand Whitlock, had reservations about Heinemann. He noted in his diary on 14 October 1914: ‘A call from Heineman towards noon. He has been discussing with his German friends the revictualing of the city and also the affairs of the banks. Heineman, invaluable, clever little Jew, eyes like a rat. Very strong with the Germans.’ [21] Quite apart from the despicable anti-Semitic pejoratives, consider the implications here. Dannie Heinemann was first and foremost a friend of the Germans.

Time and again over the following three years, the chief role in negotiations with the German Governor-General ‘ fell naturally’ to Heineman. [22] By October 1914 he had been elevated to vice-chairman of the CRB and director of the Brussels office. Why? It is our contention that this man who was closely linked to Germany was placed in a key operational role because it gave him ample scope to divert supplies to the occupying forces. Surely the British authorities were aware of this? It stood to reason that, no matter their assurances, the occupiers would abuse the proposed system. Were these not the same ‘heartless’ Prussians lambasted for almost a decade by the British press for their inhumanity? Why would the Germans have agreed to allow the importation of foodstuffs into their area of occupation unless there were substantial benefits to their own war effort? And where does Heineman and ‘the affairs of the banks’ fit into this jig-saw puzzle? The answer is, at the very core of all that the Secret Elite constructed around the facade of humanitarian relief.

Heineman discussed the proposals with the German civil administration which in turn approached the military authority to obtain the requisite permission to purchase food for Belgian citizens. Assurances that imported food would not be requisitioned by the German army were given to the Head of the American Legation, Brand Whitlock. Further promises were made that the Germans would not tax, seize or requisition any supplies imported by the Comite Central for the needs of the civilian population in Belgium. On the face of it, if the British government was prepared to allow the Americans to feed Belgian civilians, then the responsibility for doing so passed from the German occupiers. It was a win-win solution from their point of view. If Belgians were fed with imported food, it would make some of the food actually produced in Belgium available to the Germans to sustain their armies. From the start the German civil administration reserved the right to decide how and where flour and wheat were to be distributed. [23] The Comite would not have absolute control over distribution even though they pretended otherwise.

Dannie Heineman’s close confidante, Millard Shaler, a mining engineer whose background, like that of Emile Francqui, lay in Belgium’s cruel and ruthless exploitation of the Congo, was chosen to make representation to the British government. He duly made his way to London with a credit note for £20,000, and instructions from the Comite Central to buy foodstuffs on their behalf. Critically, he also carried the written assurance from the German Governor-General that they would not seize any of the food imported to feed the civil population. [24] Shaler was also instructed to meet a representative of the Banque Belge pour l’Etranger in London to organise, in co-operation with the Belgian Minister resident there, a sub-committee to raise funds and purchase food on their behalf in England. [25] The important point to recognise is that in these early days this was an all-Belgian affair, organised in conjunction with the Belgian government in exile in association with Belgian banks. Funding and purchasing was to be channelled through the largest Belgian private bank, the Societe Generale de Belgique, a vitally important cog in all that was to transpire. Its London affiliate, the Banque Belge pour l’Etranger was the British connection. In what the bank’s own history terms a ‘providential’ move, a direct link between the main Belgian bank’s headquarters in Brussels and the London branch had been established in 1913. Amazing. What lay behind this providence?

CNSA in committee in its palatial headquarters in Brussels.

The early success of the Brussels committee attracted the attention of a number of mayors and community representatives in other cities and districts who appealed to them for help, and the Comite Central’s scope was widened to encompass most of occupied Belgium. Under the Presidency of Ernest Solvay, head of the international Solvay Chemical companies, and the patronage of the Spanish and American ‘Ambassadors’ [26] as well as the Dutch Minister at Le Harve, the Comite Central expanded into a more important and influential organisation called the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation. (CNSA)

It is no exaggeration to say that the Belgian people saw the CNSA as a symbol of opposition to German occupation. It had 125,000 agents operating in the cities and provinces, a visible sign of Belgian solidarity. [27] The ordinary people were doing their best to help others. They had no notion whatsoever that the CNSA was working in harmony with the German occupiers. Two vitally important factors should be made clear at this stage. Firstly, the CNSA was a Belgian affair. Secondly it’s controllers were mostly creatures of finance and banking.

So how did Belgian Relief, which originated with the Comite Central in Brussels, mutate in the minds of most of the world into The Commission for Relief in Belgium and, by default, American Relief?

Please note that from next week we will be posting two blogs each week on Wednesday and Friday.

[1] Tracy Barrett Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914-1917.  Primary Source Edition, p. 7.
[2] Lipkes J. (2007) Rehearsals: The German Army in Belgium, August 1914, Leuven University Press suggests a figure of around one and a half million.
[3] Kittredge, The History of the Commission, p. 1.
[4] Rapport sur l’activite du Bureau Federal des Co-operatives Intercommunales de Revitaillement,in General Report on the functioning and operations of the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation – Quatrieme Parte, p. 267.
[5] Kittredge, The History of the Commission, p. 1.
[6] Louis Delvaux, Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 247, Belgium in Transition (September 1946) p. 144.
[7] Rapport sur l’activite du Bureau Federal des Co-operatives Intercommunales de Revitaillement, in General Report on the functioning and operations of the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation – Quatrieme Parte, p. 267.
[9] Heures de Detress, l’oeuvre du comite national de secours et d’alimentation et de la Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914-1915, p. v.
[10] Michael Amara and Hubert Roland, Gouverner en Belgique Occupee, p. 39.
[11] Kittredge, The History of the Commission , p. 7.
[12] George Nash, The life of Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, p.18.
[13] Niall Ferguson, The House of Rothschild: The World’s Banker, 1849-1999, vol. II, p. xxvii.
[14] Francis Neilson, How Diplomats Make War, p.179.
[15] Banque Nationale de Belgique, The Centenary of the Great War – the National Bank in wartime.
[16] Rapport sur les Petites Abeilles, Auot 1914 – December 1918 p. 20.
[17] Kittredge, The History of the Commission, p. 17.
[18] Ibid., p. 12.
[19] Physics Today (15) 3. 1962. Obituary for Dannie Heineman.
[20] Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, p. 18.
[21] Letters and Journal of Brand Whitlock, The Journal, Chapter II.
[22] Kittredge, The History of the Commission, p. 78.
[23] Ibid., p. 34.
[24] Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, p. 18.
[25] Kittredge, The History of the Commission, p. 35.
[26] While the Report (page 18) refers to them as Ambassadors, technically Brand Whitlock was Head of the American Legation. Many writers simply blur the issue and refer to Whitlock as Ambassador.
[27] Michael Amara and Hubert Roland, Gouverner en Belgique Occupee, p. 39.