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Lewis Lapham: Germans Used Moms, Kids as Shields in WWI

`Catastrophe 1914'
"Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War," by Max Hastings. Source: Knopf via Bloomberg

Nov. 2 (Bloomberg) -- During the early months of World War I, German atrocities were common, approved by the military and praised by the Kaiser.

(To listen to the podcast, click here.)

A German brigade commander was killed in Aarschot, Belgium, on Aug. 19, 1914, likely by “friendly fire.” In retaliation, 76 male hostages were murdered, and the town was looted and burned.

A wounded Irish soldier reported seeing Germans using civilians, including women and children, as human shields.

At Seilles, Belgium, 200 civilians were rounded up and shot, the town torched. A German officer wrote in his diary on Aug. 22: “A family sits on the pavement before one house that is still burning: they watch until the last rafters collapse, crying and crying...Our soldiers get used to drinking and looting.”

During -- and even after the war -- these atrocity stories were often discounted as propaganda, but recent scholarship records 129 “major” and 383 “minor” documented incidents, with 6,427 civilians known to have been murdered by the Germans during 1914 alone.

I spoke with Max Hastings, author of “Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War,” on the following topics:

1. Western Front.

2. Schlieffen Plan.

3. German Atrocities.

4. Definitive Marne.

5. Battle of Ypres.

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

Muse highlights include Zinta Lundborg on NYC Weekend and Greg Evans on movies.

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at

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