The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany
2nd February to 13th February, 1946

Fiftieth Day: Monday, 4nd February, 1946
(Part 6 of 8)

[M. EDGAR FAURE continues his examination of the witness M. VAN DER ESSEN]

Q. M. van der Essen, you are a historian; you have taught scholars; therefore you are accustomed to submitting the sources of history to criticism. Can you say that your inquiry leaves no doubt in your mind that these atrocities reveal that there was an overall plan and that instructions were certainly given by superior officers ?

A. I think that I can affirm it; I am quite convinced that there was an overall plan.

Q. I would like to ask you a last question: I think I understood that you yourself were never arrested or particularly worried by the Germans. I would like to know if you consider that a free man, against whom the German administration or police have nothing in particular, could during the German Nazi occupation lead a life in accordance with the conception a free man has of his dignity?

A. Well, you see me here before you. I weigh exactly 67 kilos, my height is one metre, 67 centimetres. According to my colleagues in the Faculty of Medicine that is quite normal. Before 10th May, 1940, before the aircraft of the Luftwaffe suddenly came without any declaration of war, and spread death and desolation in Belgium, I weighed 82 kilos. This difference is incontestably the result of the occupation. But I do not want to dwell on personal considerations or enter into details of a general nature, or of a theoretical or philosophical nature. I would like simply to give you an account - it will not take more than two minutes - of the ordinary day of an average Belgian during the occupation.

I take a day in the winter of 1943: At 6 o'clock in the morning there is a ring at the door. One's first thought - indeed, we all had this thought - was that it was the Gestapo. It was not the Gestapo. It was a Stadt Gendarme who had come to tell me that there was a light in my office and that in view of the necessities of the occupation I must be careful about this in the future. But there was the nervous shock.

[Page 48]

At 7.30 the postman arrives bringing me my letters; he tells the maid that he wishes to see me personally. I go downstairs and the man says to me, "You know, Professor, I am a member of the secret army and I know what is going on. The Germans intend to arrest at 10 o'clock to-day all the former soldiers of the Belgian Army who are in this region. Your son must disappear immediately." I hurry upstairs and wake up my son. I make him prepare his kit and send him to the right place. At 10 o'clock I take the tram for Brussels. A few kilometres out of Louvain the tram stops. A military police patrol makes us get down and lines us up - irrespective of our social status or position - in front of a wall, with our arms raised and facing the wall. We are thoroughly searched, and having found neither arms nor compromising papers of any kind, we are allowed to go back into the tram. A few kilometres farther on the tram is stopped by a crowd which prevents it from going on. I see several women weeping, there are cries and wailings. I make inquiries and am told that their menfolk living in the village had refused to do compulsory labour and were to have been arrested that night by the Security Police. Now they are taking away the old father of 82 and a young girl of 16 and holding them responsible for the disappearance of the young men.

I arrive in Brussels to attend a meeting of the Academy. The first thing the President says to me is: "Have you heard what has happened? Two of our colleagues were arrested yesterday in the street. Their family is in a terrible state. Nobody knows where they are." I go home in the evening and we are stopped on the way three times, once to search for terrorists, who are said to have fled, the other times to see if our papers are in order. At last I get home without anything serious having happened to me.

I might say here that only at 9 o'clock in the evening can we give a sigh of relief, when we turn the knob of our radio set and listen to that reassuring voice which we hear every evening, the voice of Fighting France: "To-day is the hundred and eighty-ninth day of the struggle of the French people for their liberation" - or the voice of Victor Delabley, that noble figure of the Belgian radio in London, who always finished up by saying: "Courage, we will get them yet, the Boches." That was the only thing that enabled us to breathe and go to sleep at night.

That was an average day, a normal day of an average Belgian during the German occupation. And you can well understand that we could hardly call that time the reign of happiness and felicity that we were promised when the German troops invaded Belgium on 10th May, 1940.

Q. Excuse me, M. van der Essen. The only satisfaction that you had was to listen to the London radio; this was punished by a severe penalty, if you were caught, I suppose?

A. Yes, it meant imprisonment.

M. FAURE: Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT: Have you finished, M. Faure?

M. FAURE: No more questions, Mr. President.

THE PRESIDENT: General Rudenko?

GENERAL RUDENKO: I have no questions.

(There were no questions from the British Prosecution.)

THE PRESIDENT: Do any of the defendants' counsel wish to ask any questions?

BY PROFESSOR FRANZ EiCNER (counsel for the defendant Jodl):

Q. You have been speaking about the University library at Louvain. I would like to ask you something: Were you yourself in Louvain when the two, batteries were firing at the library in 1940?

A. I was not in Louvain, but I say this: Louvain was in the K.O. line, that is in the very front line, and the population of Louvain was obliged by the British military authorities to evacuate the town on the 14th so that nearly all the inhabitants of Louvain had left at the time when these events took

[Page 49]

place, and only paralytics and sick persons who could not be transported and who had hidden in their cellars were left; but what I said concerning these batteries I know from the interrogation of the two witnesses who were on the spot just outside Louvain. The library was not set on fire from within, but shelled from without. And these witnesses of whom I speak lived in these two villages outside the town where the batteries were located.

Q. Were there any Belgian or British troops still left in the town?

A. The Belgian troops were no longer there. They had been replaced by the British troops when the British had taken over the sector, and at the time when the library was seen to be on fire-the first flames were seen in the night of the 16th-17th at 13.00 hours - the British troops had left. There remained only a few tanks which were operating a withdrawal movement. These fired an occasional shot to give the impression that the sector was still occupied by the British Army.

Q. So there were still British troops in the town when the bombardment started ?

A. There were no longer any British troops; there were merely a few tanks on the hills outside Louvain in the direction of Brussels, a few tanks which, us I said, were carrying out necessary manceuvres for withdrawal.

I would have liked to add a few words and to say to the very honourable Counsel for the defence that, according to the testimonies of persons who were in the library - the ushers and the janitors - not a single British soldier ever set foot in the library buildings.

Q. That is not surprising. At the time the German batteries were firing were there still British batteries or Belgian batteries firing?

A. No.

Q. So all was quiet in the town of Louvain; the troops had left; the enemy was not there yet, and the batteries did not fire?

A. That was the rather paradoxical situation in Louvain; there was a moment when the British had left and the Germans had not yet arrived, and there only remained the few sick persons, the few paralytics who could not be moved and who were left behind in cellars. A few other persons remained too: the Chief of the Fire Service and Mgr. van Wayenberg, the Rector of the University, who had brought the dead and the dying from Brussels to Louvain in the firemen's car, and made the journey several times. There was also my colleague, Professor Kennog, member of the Faculty of Medicine, who had taken over the direction of the city.

Q. Do you know where the German batteries were located?

A. Yes, certainly. One was located at Corbek and the other at Lovengule, one on the West side and one on the North side. The only shell hits on the tower of the library were four hits from the East side and seven from the North side. If there had still been British or Belgian batteries, the shells would have come from the oppositeside.

Q. Can you tell me anything about the calibre of these batteries?

A. Yes, we saved the shells and at present they are in the Library of Louvain, or rather in what serves as a library for the University. There are four shells .and two or three fragments of shells.

Q. And do you know the name of the peasant who was supposed to have been asked by a German officer whether that was really the University of Louvain?

A. Yes, indeed, his name is M. Vigneron.

Q. Do you know the peasant yourself? Do you know him?

A. I do not know him personally. It was the Librarian of the University Who had a conversation with him, and who induced the War Crimes Commission to interrogate this peasant.

Q. But you are a member of that Commission yourself, are you not?

[Page 50]

A. Yes, I am ready to declare that I took no direct part in the inquiry concerning the Library of Louvain, just as Monseigneur the Rector and the Librarian took no active part in the inquiry concerning the Library of Louvain. It was made by an officer of the judicial delegation who acted alone and quite independently upon the order of the Prosecutor of Louvain, and we kept entirely out of the matter.

Q. Have you seen the official files of this Commission?

A. Yes, certainly.

Q. I am surprised they were not brought here. Tell me, why did the director of the library or the person who was directly concerned not go to the Mayor or to the Commander of the town after the occupation of the town?

A. I do not think I understand the question very well.

Q. When the German Army came, a Town Commander was appointed. Why did not the Mayor of the town, or the director of the University library, go to the Town Commander and tell him about these things?

A. Why did he not tell him about these things - for the very simple reason that at that time everything was in complete disorder and there was hardly anybody left in the town, and on the other hand as soon as the German Army arrived they systematically closed the entrance gate of the library so that the Belgians could not make any inquiry. Then two German inquiry commissions came upon the scene. The first worked on 26th May, 1940, with an expert, Professor Kellermann of the "Technische Hochschule" in Aix-la-Chapelle, accompanied by a Party man in a brown shirt. They examined what was left and they summoned before them, as witnesses, the Rector of the University and the Librarian. From the very beginning of the inquiry they wished to force the Rector and the Librarian to declare and admit that it was the British who had set fire to the library. And as a proof, this expert showed shell cases saying, "Here, sniff this, it smells of gasoline and shows that chemicals were used to set fire to the library." Whereupon the Rector and the Librarian of the University said to him, "Where did you find this shell case?" "In such-and-such a place." "When we went by that place," said the Rector, "It was not there." It had been placed there by the German expert. And I will add, if you will permit me, because this is of considerable importance, that a second inquiry commission came in August, 1940, presided over by a very distinguished man, Obergerichtsrat von Boist. He was accompanied this time by the expert who had directed the inquiry into the firing of the Reichstag. This commission again examined everything, and before the Rector and another witness, Krebs, from the Benedictine Abbey of Mont-Cesar, they simply laughed at the conclusions of the first commission, and said they were ridiculous.

The second commission, presided over by the Obergerichtsrat von Boist assisted by the expert who had examined the matter of the firing of the Reichstag, declared before Belgian witnesses quite openly that the conclusions of the first commission was ridiculous.

Q. You have said that the library building had towers. Do you know whether there were artillery observers in these towers?

A. You ask whether there were artillery observers? All I can say is that the Rector had always opposed this - from the beginning - and he certainly would have opposed any attempt of this kind, knowing that the presence of artillery observers in the tower would obviously provide the enemy with a reason to fire on the library. The Rector knew this and he always said to me, "We must be very careful to see that British soldiers or others who might take the sector do not go up in the tower." I know from the statements of the janitor that no British soldiers went into the tower. This is absolutely certain. As for Belgians, I must confess that I cannot answer your question, as I do not know.

Q. It would not be so very amazing, would it, if the University library had been hit by German artillery. After all, it has happened that the libraries of the

[Page 51]

Universities of Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Breslau, Wuerzburg, Cologne, etc., have been hit.

A. I did not understand the question.

Q. I said, it is not, it would not have been so amazing if the University library had been hit by the enemy. During this war the University libraries in Berlin, Leipzig, Munich, Breslau, Cologne and other towns have also been hit. The question is whether this was done deliberately, and here it occurs to me that the peasant . .

A. The peasant ...

Q. I would like to ask you: Was there any mention in these inquiries, as to the motive which might have induced the Germany Army to make this an objective?

A. All the evidence seems to indicate - and this was the conclusion arrived at by the Commission - that the motive - I will not say the main motive, because there is no certainty in this sort of thing - that the motive which is absolutely probable, almost certain, for the destruction of the library was the German Army's desire to do away with a monument which commemorates the Treaty of Versailles. On the library building there was a hidden virgin crushing under her foot a dragon which symbolised the enemy. Certain conversations of German officers gave the very clear impression that the reason why they wished to set fire systematically to this building was their desire to get rid of a testimony of the defeat in the other war, and above all a reminder of the Treaty of Versailles. I may add that is not the first time that the Germans have destroyed the University of Louvain.

Q. You believe that the commander of that battery knew that?

A. There is very interesting testimony which I would like to submit to the honourable Counsel for the defence. On the day when the batteries were installed, the two batteries which I mentioned, I spoke to a tax collector, a civil servant, who lived in a villa on the road to Roosbeck, a few kilometres from Louvain. That afternoon some German high-ranking officers came to his house to ask for hospitality. These officers had with them a lorry with all the necessary radio apparatus for sending wireless orders to the German artillery to fire. These officers installed themselves in his house, and dinner was naturally served to them, and they invited him to sit with them at table in his own house. After hesitating a moment, he accepted, and during the meal there was a violent discussion. The officers said, "These Belgian swine" - excuse my using this expression, but they used it - "at any rate they did put that inscription on the library." They were referring to the famous inscription "Furore Teutonica" which in fact was never on the library, but all the German officers were absolutely convinced that this inscription "Furore teutonica diruta, dono americano restituta" (destroyed by German fury, restored by American generosity) was on the building, whereas, in fact, it never has been there. However, I am quite willing to admit that in Germany they might have believed that it was there, and the very fact that there should have been a discussion among the officers in command of these two batteries seems to prove that if they directed the fire on to the library it was in order to destroy this monument, which in their eyes ...

THE PRESIDENT: Too fast! ... go on.

A (continuing). It was probable that they wanted to get rid of a monument which, according to their idea, bore an inscription which was insulting to the Germany Army and the German people. That is the testimony which I can give to the honourable Counsel for the defence. I give it as a fact.

Q. You mean that the captain who commanded this battery knew about that inscription! I do not believe it.

A. Certainly.

Q. Thank you.

[Page 52]

Q. Witness, you have said that 43 aircraft flew over the library and dropped bombs on it. As you told us yourself, in reply to Professor Exner's question, you were not in the town at the time; where did you get that information?

A. As I have already said, it is not my testimony which I am giving here, because for my part I have none; but it is the testimony of the lawyer, David, who had a country house at Kesselloh.

This lawyer went out in the morning to look at the sky. He had a considerable number of refugees in his home, among them women and children, and as aircraft were continuallyhoverhead he had gone out in the morning to see what was going on. He saw this squadron of aircraft which he counted - remember, he was an old soldier himself - and there were 43 which were flying in the direction of the library and when they arrived over the library, exactly over the gable at the furthest point from the house of the witness, they dropped a bomb, and he saw smoke immediately arise from the roof of the library. That is the testimony on which I base the statement I just made.

Q. So it was just one bomb that hit the library?

A. We must distinguish here, Sir, between artillery fire and bombs which are dropped by planes. From a technical point of view, it seems absolutely certain that a bomb from a plane hit the library, because the roof has metal covering and this metal roofing is quite level, except in one part where it caves in. We consulted technicians, who told us that a metallic surface would never have sunk in to such an extent if it had been hit by artillery fire, and that the sinking could only have been caused by a bomb from a plane.

Q. How many bombs in all were dropped by aircraft?

A. As the witness was on a height dominating the Louvain area, from where he could see the library in the plain, it was impossible for him to count exactly the bombs which these planes dropped. He only saw the bombs fall. Then he saw the smoke which arose from the roof of the library. That is all I have to say concerning this point.

Q. How many bomb hits were counted in the city?

A. On this point I can give you no information, but I know that some aircraft passed over the library quarters in a straight line from North to South. These bombs, at that time, in May, 1940, damaged, but not very seriously, the Higher Institute of Philosophy, the Institute of Pharmacy and a few other University buildings; also a certain number of private houses.

Q. When were the bombs dropped, before the artillery fire or afterwards?

A. The bombs were dropped before and afterwards. There were some air raids. I myself was present during a terrible air raid on the afternoon of 10th May, 1940, by a squadron of seven planes. I am not a military technician, but I saw with my own eyes the planes which dive-bombed the Tirlemont Bridge. The result of this bombing was that a considerable number of houses were destroyed and 208 persons killed on the spot, on the afternoon of 10th May, 1940.

(A recess was taken.)

THE PRESIDENT: Do any of the other defence counsel wish to cross-examine?

BY DR. BABEL (counsel for S.S. and S.A.):

Q. Witness, when did you last see the University building; that is, before the attack ?

A. Before the fire? I saw it on l Ith May, 1940.

Q. That is to say before the attack?

A. Before the attack.

Q. Was it damaged at that time, and to what extent?

[Page 53]

A. On 11th May absolutely nothing had happened to the library. It was intact. Until the night of 16th-17th May, when I left, there was absolutely no damage.

Q. Apart from the hits on the tower, did you notice any other traces of artillery fire on the building?

A. On the building, I do not think so. There were only traces of artillery fire on the tower.

Q. From the fact that only the tower had been hit, could it not be thought that the tower and not the building was the target?

A. When I said that the towei was struck, I only meant the traces that could be seen on the walls on the balcony of the first storey and on the dial of the clock. Apart from that, nothing could be seen on the building for the simple reason that the building had been completely burned out inside, and nothing could be seen on the charred walls. But it is absolutely certain that either a bomb from a plane or an artillery shell - I personally think it was the latter - hit the building. The trace of a shell can be seen. It is just here that the fire began.

Q. After the fire, when did you see the building for the first time?

A. After the fire, in July, 1940.

Q. That is much later?

A. Yes, but still in the same condition. Nothing had been done to it. It was still as it was originally.

Q. Do you know if, while the building was burning, an attempt was made to stop the fire and save the building?

A. It is absolutely certain that attempts were made to stop the fire. The Rector of the University, Mgr. Wayenberg, told me this himself, and has stated that he sent for the firemen, but the firemen had gone. Only the Chief and two members of the fire brigade were left, and all the water mains at that time were broken as a result of the bombardment. There was no water supply for several days.

Q. Did German troops take part in these attempts to save the building?

A. No, no, they were not there yet.

Q. How do you know that? You were not there.

A. But the Rector of the University did not leave the town of Louvain. The Rector was there and so was the Librarian.

Q. Did you speak to the Rector on this question, as to whether German troops took part in the attempt to save the building?

A. I spoke to the Rector and to the Librarian. In my capacity as General Secretary of the University I discussed with the Rector all general questions concerning the University. We discussed this point specially, and he told me categorically that no soldier of the German Army tried to fight the fire.

Q. You also have spoken about the Resistance movement. Do you know if the civilian population was called on to resist the German troops?

A. Where? In the Ardennes?

Q. In Belgium.

A. In Belgium the Resistance was mainly composed of the secret army, which was a military organisation with responsible and recognised commanders, and wore a distinctive badge so that they could not be confused with simple franc-tireurs.

Q. Do you know how many German soldiers fell victims to the Resistance movement?

A. How German soldiers fell victims to this resistance? I know very well because everywhere in the Ardennes the Resistance went into action and legally with commanders leading them, carrying arms openly and with distinctive badges. They openly attacked the German troops from the front.

[Page 54]

Q. That was not my question. I have asked you if you know roughly how many German soldiers became victims of that Resistance movement?

A. I do not understand what is implied by the question of the honourable Counsel for the defence.

Q. I ask you . . .

A. Does the honourable counsel for the defence mean the events of the Ardennes which I alluded to a while ago, or does he speak in a quite general sense?

Q. The witness in his statements has himself brought up the question of the Resistance movement, and that is why I asked whether he knows ...

THE PRESIDENT: Dr. Babel, the witness has already answered the question by saying that he cannot say how many Germans were killed by the Resistance movement.

DR. BABEL: But he can say whether a certain number of Germans did fall victims to the Resistance.

A. There were real battles....

DR. BABEL: The witness will also be able to confirm that the members of the Resistance are to-day considered heroes in Belgium. From what we have read in the papers and from what has been brought up here, these people who were active in the Resistance movement are now considered heroes. At least I could draw that conclusion.

Witness, you have said, if I understood you correctly, that you lost 15 kilograms weight.

A. Yes, indeed.

Q. What conclusion did you draw from that fact? I could not quite understand it this morning.

A. I simply meant to say that 1 lost these 15 kilos as a result of the mental suffering which we underwent during the occupation, and it was an answer to a question of M. Faure on whether I considered this occupation compatible with the dignity of a free man. I wanted to answer "No," giving the proof that as a result of this occupation we suffered much anguish, and I think the loss of weight is sufficient proof of this.

Q. During the war I also, without having been ill, lost 35 kilos. What conclusion could be drawn from that, in your opinion? (Laughter.)

THE PRESIDENT: Go on, Dr. Babel, we are not interested in your experiences.

DR. BABEL: Thank you, Sir. That was my last question.

THE PRESIDENT: Does any other counsel wish to ask any questions?

(No response.)


M. FAURE: I have no questions.

THE PRESIDENT: The witness may retire.

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