First World War poster for Relief in Belgium. Note the outrageous claim that 3,000,000 were destitute.Perhaps the cleverest aspect of the whole CRB business was that it dealt mainly in money and kept its own books, accountable to no-one. It sought more from all possible sources with unbridled avarice. Appeals for Belgian relief were initiated across the English-speaking world from 1914 onwards, and it has been assumed that the generous giving from ordinary people sustained the international programme. This was simply untrue. Although the word American was literally stamped across all that was imported (it was generally called ‘American Relief’ even in Belgium), most of the food for the people of Belgium and Northern France was financed by the Allied governments. So too, were the supplies that sustained Germany and the German army on the western front. The volume of funds required was enormous, and well beyond the scope of charity. Banks, and in particular banks that had international connections, were absolutely central to the control and abuse of Belgian relief.

As early as November 1914, a loan of $3,000,000 had been advanced from the immensely wealthy Belgian Bankers associated with the Comite National for the purchase of food for Belgium. It was a loan, not a gift. However, Herbert Hoover unilaterally announced that these funds had been granted to his organisation to be used for transportation. As we previously explained, that was a lie aimed at undermining a rival organisation under the Rockefeller banner. No such restriction had been laid down by the Belgians. [1] Indeed at exactly the same time as he was dictating that the loan from the Comite National was for transport, Hoover was negotiating with American suppliers for free transportation of grain across the United States. [2] Hoover was absolutely determined to be the sole controller of money, food-purchase and transport and to crush any parallel charitable organisation. Over the next three years he brooked no rival and successfully negotiated with national governments and international banks for loans totalling multiple millions of dollars…. and how and where it was spent. Such was the power he assumed that an independent observer might have believed it was Hoover’s money.

Share certificate from Francqui's Societe Generale de Belgique

Belgian banks formed a formidable and influential power-base at the core of European and international finance in the last decades of the nineteenth century and grew rich on the exploitation of the Congo, China and South America. The principal independent Belgian bank, the Societe Generale de Belge stood above them all. From 1902 it launched a number of foreign expansions and in 1913, its most significant move was to make the Banque Sino-Belge an official subsidiary of the Societe Generale under the title of the Banque-Belge pour L’Etranger. [3] To all intents this appeared to be a benign decision based on natural expansion, but its branch office in London served as the headquarters of the Societe Generale outside occupied Belgium during the First World War. The connection was absolutely critical to the dealings of the Comite National between 1914-1918.

A second important connection stemmed from the Banque d’Outremer, an international company for commerce and industry. Formed in 1899, its shares were owned by an interesting combination of Rothschild banks, Belgian financiers enriched by the rape of the Congo, and British investors close to the Secret Elite. The Societe Generale was the largest subscriber closely followed by Rothschild’s Banque de Paris et des Pays Bas, Banque Leon Lambert and Cassel & Cie. Both Sir Ernest Cassel, King Edward VII’s banker [4] and Sir Vincent Caillard, of Vickers, friend of Lloyd George and Basil Zaharoff, were shareholders. Co-incidentally, its specialism was mining and metallurgy and Banque d’Outremer bought large shareholdings in companies across the globe. [5]

Émile Francqui made his fortune in the Congo before becoming the most powerful banker in Belgium.

A further ‘co-incidence’ was that Emile Francqui, the President of the executive committee of the Comite National de Secours et Alimentation, (CNSA) was a director of both banks, the Outremer from 1905-11 and the Societe Generale from 1911 onwards. In 1915, when the Chairman of Outremer, Albert Thys, died suddenly, Francqui took control of both it and the Societe Generale. [6] When one considers the financial and banking power held by these individuals alone and their direct association with the Secret Elite, it is little wonder that the phrase ‘money-power’ became common parlance; the House of Rothschild, both in London and Paris; Ernest Cassel, Nathan Rothschild’s financial associate in creating the armament’s giant Vickers; Baron Leon Lambert, his son-in-law, who ran his own family bank; Emile Francqui had been King Leopold’s man in the Congo. He was associated with Herbert Hoover in China and South Africa, controller of two of the most important banks in Belgium and President of the executive committee of the CSNA. All these men were all linked by blood or money. But that was only the tip of the financial iceberg.

Almost every important Belgian banking houses was represented in the CNSA. Josse Allard, formerly a director of the Belgian mint, headed the Banque Allard et Cie, which in turn was affiliated to the Banque Josse Allard in Brussels and an associate of the Dreschner Bank in Germany. [7] But the links crossed the Atlantic too. Franz Philippson, head of the Banque Philippson which was formed to finance loans for the independent state of Congo in 1888, joined with prominent American-German bankers Kuhn, Loeb and Co. in New York and their Hamburg banking colleagues, the Warburgs, to form a Portfolio company to specialise in selling US securities in Europe. Because these banks were integral to the structure of the commercial life of Belgium and aided the Germans by guaranteeing payments to the occupying force, their foreign investments were not subject to interference. It proved a convenient understanding.

The Banque National de Belge, the National Bank of Belgium, (NBB) its central bank, had formerly printed all of the bank notes for the nation but as punishment for transferring its gold reserves and ‘a large number of State bonds’ to the Bank of England in August 1914 [8] the Germans chose to operate through Francqui’s Societe Generale, thus giving it even more international kudos. The Banque National’s’s auditors had included Baron Leon Lambert of Rothschilds and intriguingly, Edward Bunge, the Antwerp banker and grain importer.

US Embassy Brussels, Hoover commemoration exhibit displaying bags of flour from America.

Edward Bunge’s family connections reached into Argentina, where his brother Ernest and his brother-in-law, George Born, emigrated from Antwerp and by 1909 their grain exporting company, Bunge and Born owned Argentina’s largest and most profitable flour mills, grain silos and harbour installations. They were the exporting arm in the joint business. Edward owned Bunge and Co. as the independent European outlet for the massive grain importing business and the operating hub for these companies was Antwerp. [9] Like many other rich entrepreneurs, Bunge and Co. had been involved in King Leopold’s notorious exploitation in the Congo and administered the affairs of the company which was given rights over the 12,000 square miles of the Mongalla district by the Belgian monarch. [10] Trusted by the Belgian royal family, Edward Bunge was in a perfect position to both assist Hoover in purchasing grain and benefit spectacularly from the venture.

While Hoover and the Commission later produced a chart showing membership of the CNSA, the banking connections were hidden in a forest of names. When highlighted below, it reveals the extent of the domination of the CNSA by Belgian banks and business.

Comte National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CNSA)

President
Ernest Solvay
Chairman, Solvay S.A.

Vice-Presidents

Jean Jadot                                     L. Van Der Rest
Vice-Governor, Societe Generale     Vice-Governor, National Bank 

Members

Josse Allard                             Dannie Heineman                 F. Masson

Banque Josse Allard              Director, CNSA Brussels
Director, Belgian Mint           Director, SOFINA

Louis Bertrand                         J. de Hemptinne                Comte de Merode
Belgian Workers Party                                                    Aristocrat

F. Van Bree                        E. De Wouters                       C. Heynderbickx
Societe Generale            Managing Director
Congo Financier             Banque Belgique d’Etranger

Baron Evence Coppee            Baron d’Huart                       C.L. Peten
Mining/Metallurgy              Representative                  Advocate

E. Van Elewyck                      F.M. Philippson                       W. Hulse
National Bank                    Banque Philippson               SOFINA

E. Francqui                           Baron Janssen                       F. Portman
Societe Generale
Banque a Outremer

L. Frank                                 E.M. Janssen                          L. Solvay
Solvay S.A .                                                                      Solvay S.A.

Baron Lambert                       Max Hallet                             E. Hanssens
Banque Lambert                    Lawyer                            Constitutional 
International Financier                                                  Lawyer

A. Harmignie                       Michel Levie                            G. De Laveleye
Catholic Party           ex-Minister of Finance               Business Lawyer

Alfred Orban                        P. van Hoegaerden                  Ed Bunge

Banque Belgique                National Bank                 Banque Bunge & Cie   d’Etranger

Executive Committee

President
Emile Francqui
Chairman, Societe Generale; Banque a Outremer

Vice Presidents

Emmanuel Janssen          Chevalier E De Wouters                       M.F. Van Bree
Solvay S.A.                     Banque Belgique d’Etranger            Societe Generale

Look carefully then, at the names of those who served on the Comite National, headed by its President Ernest Solvay, the wealthiest industrialist in Europe. Solvay’s firms were spread across the world and major plants and factories could be found in Germany, Austria, France, Belgium and America. The Executive committee, the select group which was charged with day to day decision-making was chaired by Emile Francqui, director of the Societe Generale and the single most powerful banker in Belgium. By the end of the war he would become a man whom even wealthy bankers feared. Francqui was supported by men who held high office in the Societe Generale or Solvay’s companies, including Chevalier de Wouters d’Oplinter, the same man who had stood side by side with Herbert Hoover in the infamous London court case of 1905. [11]

CNSA in session. A combination of bankers, financiers, lawyers and politicians.

They were ably assisted in full committee by Baron Leon Lambert, head of Banque Lambert, the second biggest private bank in Belgium. Both Lambert and Francqui had previously enjoyed direct involvement with the rabid Belgian exploitation of the Congo despite the atrocities that happened there. [12] Francqui had negotiated loans with the US financier Pierpont Morgan on behalf of King Leopold II and on return to Belgium had invested his fortune in banking. [13] As we have shown in our blog of 26 August, Dannie Heineman, an engineer of German descent, though born in America was head of the international SOFINA Group and his associate, William Hulse, also of SOFINA were pro-German. SOFINA was founded in 1898 as a German company which held vital tram and electricity concessions in Spain, Argentina, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, France and Turkey. Heineman and Hulse were consequently very influential with the German governors in Brussels, and Heineman’s voice also carried weight in Berlin. He was their man and Hoover used him as such.

Thus, the Comite National was headed by the most important and influential industrialists and bankers in Belgium whose assets crossed national boundaries. But the interconnections ran much deeper. They had holdings in minerals and ores essential for the war, chemicals that offered new ways of spreading death and foodstuffs located in neutral countries that could provide bread to the warring factions. They could make loans, underwrite borrowings and discount bills of exchange. Everything they did made a profit. This was surely one of the oddest collections of humanitarians in history. When the full committee met together there was also a coterie of the King Albert’s representatives, some high-placed lawyers and genuine politicians representing the complete spectrum of Belgian society, the Workers, the Catholics and the Conservatives, whose aim was to serve a needy people. But they were in a minority, kept away from the power-base executive which made the real decisions and reaped the eventual rewards.

Like the barons of medieval England, the Comite National dictated its own charter on 31 October 1914 and had it rubber-stamped by all of the delegates from across Belgium who depended on it. They announced that two new organisations had been created, one the Commission for Relief in Belgium, by this time, Hoover’s CRB, and a second, the Provincial Committees whose work would be supervised by the delegates appointed by the Comite National. They declared that the Comite National would ‘maintain intimate co-operation’ with the CRB through its offices in Brussels. However the chief feature of this declaration of virtual self-government was the agreement that ‘the Comite National would centralise the accounts, fix the price of merchandise and look after the payment of supplies sold to the provincial committees.’ [14] Through this system, Provincial Committees paid the CNSA for the foodstuffs it received, and resold to consumers at fixed prices so that they could earn a ‘ small profit’. They were also obliged to pay an insurance premium to cover any damage or misfortune that might befall their supplies. [15]

Local committees worked tirelessly to provide for the destitute and sell produce to those who could afford it.

Furthermore, each provincial committee had to maintain a running account with the Societe Generale with sufficient funds to cover at least one month’s shipments of food. This was not charitable humanitarianism; it was monopolistic control. The Comite National fixed the price of the food and clothing, whether donated or bought by Allied funds. Putting aside food allocated for the destitute, everything was sold for cash at a profit with payment guaranteed and the Societe Generale as the central banker. Francqui and his banking associates literally set up a system where they could dictate ever rising prices, allocate the scarce resources, make ever increasing profit. Even the cash flows ran through his all-powerful bank. And they called it benevolence. What impertinence!

Certainly Hoover had the backing of the financial power-houses of New York and London, but the Belgian banks boasted international muscle that challenged even his authority from time to time. The reader might wonder why, with so much wealth, the Belgian banks, did not risk their assets to relieve there fellow-countrymen? What? They were banks, for goodness sake; banks don’t operate charities, do they? Yet they would like you to believe that they played a major role in this relief scheme. That’s what their records claim.

[1] George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, The Humanitarian, 1914-1917, pp. 49-52.
[2] Ibid., p. 57.
[3] Manfred Pohl and Sabine Freitag, Handbook on the History of European Banks, p.84.
[4] King Edward VII had a very close relationship with Sir Edward Cassell, whom he trusted and valued. Interestingly, Cassell was the last visitor whom Edward saw before his death in 1910.
[5] R. Brian et J.L. Moreau, Inventaire Des Archives de la Banque d’Outremer S.A., 1899-1957, pp. VII- VII, http://www.avae-vvba.be/PDF/Banque_%20d_Outremer.pdf
[6] Ibid.
[7] Marie Therese Bitsch, La Belgique Entre La France et d’Allemande, 1905-1914, p. 134.
[8] The Times 22 Feb. 1915.
[9] Gabriel Tortella and Gloria Quirega, Entrepreneurship and Growth: An International Historical Perspective, pp. 78-81
[10] E.D. Morel, Affairs of West Africa, p. 331.
[11] The Times, 2 March 1905, p. 9.
[12] Neal Ascherson, The King Incorporated, Leopold and the Congo, p.199.
[13] Charles D’Ydewalle, Albert King of the Belgians, p. 147.
[14] Tracy Barrett Kittredge,The history of the Commission for Relief in Belgium – Primary Source Edition,  p. 77.
[15] Charles de Lannoy, L’Alimentation de la Belgique par le comite national (published 1922) p. 32. https://archive.org/details/lalimentationdel00lann