Marvellous Recuperation of Belgium and How it Comes About.
BELGIUM suffered by the war more in some ways than any other combatant nation; in other ways it suffered less. It had not the awful drain of casualties that had Russia, France and England, and it had besides a people trained to industry and frugality. Will Irwin, writing in the Saturday Evening Post, gives some interesting sidelights in the revival of the little nation:
Before the rule of the Roman ceased in Western Europe the people of the Low Countries were manufacturing half the
cloth of Europe, were busily trading, were building up rich cities. For fourteen or fifteen centuries Belgium was the battlefield of Europe, the belligerents in those battles being mostly foreigners who adjourned to Belgium, as it were, to poke each other in the eye without messing up their own houses. During all these disturbances the native Belgians went right on, making cloth and glass and iron and selling them at a profit to the Carolingian, the Burgundian, tne Spaniard, the Austrian, or whatever dynasty or people happened at the moment to be ruling the Low Countries.
Yes, she has been in business a long, long time. She has a tradition of work and of sound, sensible, nonspeculative commercial methods. And just as a man’s native breeding and traditions come out in the crises of his life, so in the mighty upheaval of the past six years have the European nations run true to their traditions in a manner amazing and sometimes even amusing. Hence the significance of that little episode in the glass works of Liège. In going through the forms of getting down to work at the earliest possible moment Belgium was symbolizing her traditions. Now, a year and half later, anyone with a pair of eyes in his head can see the difference between Belgium and her neighbors.
Along the southern border between the sea and Menin runs the old familiar belt of devastation with which picture and description have made us all so familiar. Once across that line you feel that you have entered a new and different world. It is not so much the smoking factory chimneys; it is not so much the fields, looking as though every clod had been rubbed to powder by hand; it is not so much the crowds of factory operatives waiting at the stations to commute home. It is the composite action and movement of the crowds; it is the expression of their faces. In all the war-torn countries of Continental Europe this is the only atmosphere which breathes normality; this is the only spot where it seems at present that the war is really over. To go thither from hungry, flattened-out, distressed Germany; from starving, heartbroken Austria and perplexed, discouraged France—is, for mental relief, like returning home to America.
That Belgium has recovered more rapidly than any other ex-belligerent of Continental Europe has become almost an axiom in political, financial and industrial circles. I travelled to Belgium mainly to learn the reason why. And the longer I looked into Belgian conditions the more I was struck by this mental factor. In spite of certain otherfavoringcircumstances. the main cause for her progress on the road to recovery is psychological. Belgian statesmen, Belgian industrial men, Belgian labor have kept their balance. Untouched by those waves of half insanity which in most countries follow the letdown from the terrific strain of war, they have worked together with an entirely admirable sense of co-operation toward the single object of putting Belgian industry back on the map, of resuming normal production. To express the idea in another way: Belgium has given play to her traditional common sense. And if you follow the history of the Low Countries from the day when a great Caesar made them Roman to the day when a little Kaiser tried to make them German, you find that common sense, shrewd business judgment and a talent for production have always marked their inhabitants.
Let me begin by telling briefly how Belgium emerged from the war, as compared to France, her nearest and closest neighbor, the country whose war burdens in character most resembled hers. Contrary to the general impression the amount of purely physical damage was about the same. France, by official figures, lost
600.000 buildings; Belgium 116,000. The present population of France may be roughly figured at 38,000,000, that of Belgium at 7,500,000. France, therefore, lost one building to every 63.33 inhabitants ; Belgium, one to every 64.65. As to the real money value of these destroyed buildings the comparison, I suspect, rather favors Belgium. In the region of the Old Line the only Belgian towns of any size banged up were Ypres and Dixmude, both merely farming centres with few factories. In France, Rheims, St. Quentin, both large and important manufacturing cities, were a dead loss; with them went dozens of smaller manufacturing cities, running from
5.000 to 30,000 inhabitants, such as La Bassée, Armentières, Albert, Chauny, Lens, Soissons and Sedan. A large item on the Belgian bill was deliberate destruction by the Germans in that period of 1914 when they were reducing Belgium to docile submission. However, your German conducts his atrocities with discretion. I have noticed that he usually burned down the village church and spared the village brewery. Comparatively few factories or other costly buildings went in this process. After the Belgians broke the German line at Ypres, and when the Allied Armies swept into Flanders, several towns like Oudenarde were considerably banged up. Here alone did many factories suffer from shell fire. But this total
was inconsiderable compared to that of
On the other hand, the German destruction squads, busily moving looted machinery back to Germany or reducing whole plants for scrap iron, got at only about seven or eight per cent, of the area of France, while they had all Belgium as a field of operations. The proportionate loss of junked machinery was unquestionably greater in Belgium. Still further: the final retreat stopped, with'the armistice, only after the Germans had fallen back over a good half of Belgium. In their track they destroyed most of the railroads and canals, badly damaged most of the highways.
In the days preceding the Spa Conference, during which I write these lines, all nations involved are entering bills of damages full of exaggerated claims and sophistries, and not always innocent of plain lies. Official figures cannot therefore be trusted. Considering all the factors which I have set forth, I believe that the destruction, in proportion to the national wealth in building, land and machinery, was about the same.
However, certain other factors greatly favored Belgium. Most important of all was her strong financial position before the war. In a general way this little nation of
7,500,000 had greater real wealth per capita than any other in Continental Europe. As a financial power she ranked above Italy with 35,000,000 inhabitants, Austria with 50,000,000. Virtually, she produced nothing during the four years of German occupation; she actually had to pay unemployment indemnity to her workpeople, who were loafing as a patriotic duty.
Further, on the adverse side of the balance there was the affair of the German mark. The conquerors had ruled that their currency must be accepted as legal in Belgium; they had flooded the country with marks. The Belgians decided, with the armistice, that none should suffer through this forced currency; that all German marks in the country must be redeemed at their pre-war value of one and a quarter francs to the mark. Unfortunately it was impossible in the confused conditions which followed the armistice to close the border against still further intro duction of German marks. Speculators rushed this rapidly declining currency into Belgium; before the process was finished the treasury was forced to liquidate 6,000,000,000 marks. After which German values went relentlessly down, until by January, 1920, the mark, on dollar exchange, stood at only one twenty-fourth of its old value, and, even in the era of speculation and false exchange prices which
closed the month of May, 1920, only at one-eighth. Of course the Belgian treasury will recoup when, if ever, Germany recovers. But all during the period of rebuilding and readjustment it must carry this load.
On the other hand, Belgium, owing to circumstances, was able to mobilize less than 100,000 men before the Germans occupied the country; from that time forth she must needs depend for reinforcements and replacement on young men living outside of the country and on the slender stream of recruits who crawled by night across the electrified wire into Holland. She could never put in the field many more than 200,000 men, or less than three per cent, of her population, whereas France, during the heaviest strain, had more than ten per cent, of her population under arms. France, England and Italy, too, must maintain, at war scale of expense, a navy. Belgium had virtually no navy at all. Her bill of war expenses was much less, therefore, than that of her Allies. Government statements, as I have already remarked, are at this time open to grave suspicion, and no unprejudiced person has as yet drawn up an exact comparative bill. But just as in material damage Belgium was perhaps somewhat harder hit than France, in damage to her financial and commercial system she was much the lighter sufferer.
When, after the armistice, the Belgians totalled up accounts, even the most pessimistic among them realized that in one intangible but valuable asset they probably came out better than France, Germany, Italy, and England. Owing to the imossibility of mobilizing all their men they ad lost in vigorous young life proportionately less power than their allies. Their death roll was 65,000 men, out of a population of 7,500,000—less than nine-tenths of one per cent. France lost in killed more than 1,400,000 young men—making due allowance for the Colonials, nearly three and a half per cent. Naturally, the mutilated and the half efficient ran in about the same proportion. The men whose health was ruined by the barbarous German deportations of labor must be considered in the Belgian account; but
after all they would change the proportion only slightly.
But here came a doubt. This unimpaired working class—so skilled, before the war so industrious, so pre-eminently the great asset of Belgium—what would be their reaction toward the pursuits of peace? During four years they had lived in idleness, which was all right; the Belgian Government wanted them to be idle. To work at almost anything would be to work for the Germans. Their health, thanks mainly to a quiet young American named Hoover, was virtually unimpaired; but what about their mentality? Had they lost the habit of labor, the will to work? Hadn’t the unemployment indemnities, the free provisions, the soup kitchens, put them into the attitude of paupers? Russia had blown up with Bolshevism. The Spartacists were loose in Germany. Would not this habit of idleness make a good seeding ground for a wild social revolution?
When, in January, 1919, I visited Belgium for the first time since the early months of the war, I found the country in a state of bewildered perplexity over this and kindred problems. In whatever way the Belgian manufacturer or business man directed his path through the strange maze of affairs, he came to an impasse, to a gulf he could not bridge. That problem of the attitude of labor was yet to be faced; but immediately ahead rose the problem of credits—of enough tangible cash to set the machine going. In these days, when all Europe is talking of the manner in which the United States has thrown them down, it is pleasant to record that the first real impulse toward general resumption came early in the spring of 1919, when American credits, both Governmental and private, became available. The undamaged factories set their wheels to going. The damaged began to rebuild, to reconstruct, to repair. And within a month or so the directing minds of Belgium found, to their intense relief, what way the cat was going to jump with the working class. The habit of idleness had not gripped them. On the contrary, they were tired of loafing. They took up their tools and their dinner pails and went to work with a real enjoyment of the old job.
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