Neither the empire nor its ward greeted this absentee-landlord arrangement with enthusiasm.
The city of Brussels at this point* was governed by the “nine nations”, nine craft guild consortiums wielding privileges dating to the medieval economy who together dominated the city. Defending these privileges against absolutist states intent on rolling them back was a major bone of contention in Brussels, even years before the Austrian handover.
Just what the ancient rights of the guilds embraced had long been contested with the Spanish crown, and apparently the Brussels town council kept the charters enumerating a very expansive grant of them locked up — until they were accidentally revealed thanks to a bombing in the Nine Years’ War, then published widely.
So did the guilds get these rights or no?
Anneessens in 1698-99 argued the nations’ case before the equally ancient Council of Brabant, and lost: Spanish Austria was suffered to curtail the Brussels guilds, and although the guilds provocatively refused to swear their customary oath to the new arrangement the Spanish were able to squelch the ensuing disturbances by 1700.
The tensions rested, unresolved, through the war years but come 1717 they resurfaced when the Austrian-import governor the Marquis of Prie demanded fresh oaths upon the hamstrung guild privileges, and new taxes to boot. Again the guilds refused — not only in Brussels but Ghent, Antwerp and Mechlin.
Prie only quelled this half-revolt in 1719 but when he did,
he took drastic measures. Five leaders, including Anneessens, were arrested. They were all locked inside the Stone Gate, and a scandalous trial followed, during which Prie did everything he could to get Anneessens, whom he viewed as the brains behind the resistance, convicted. Anneessens received a death sentence, which he proudly refused to sign, and was beheaded on 18 September 1719 [sic**]. After the execution the people of Brussels mourned and collected his blood as relics, and priests in some of the churches held requiems in spite of strenuous attempts by Prie, supported by the higher clergy (the Archbishop of Mechlin) to prevent this. Prie had wanted to “make an example” with this execution and in fact succeeded, despite the sympathy of the people of Brussels for their martyr. (Hetty Wertheim-Gijse Weenink, “Early 18th Century Uprisings in the Low Countries: Prelude to the Democratic Revolution,” History Workshop, spring 1983)
* The guild-nation governance system would persist until Belgium was occupied by France after the French Revolution.
** Literally every other source I found, including the inscription on the Anneessens monument, prefers September 19 for the man’s execution.
On this date in 1916, German forces occupying Belgium shot Gabrielle Petit at Schaarbeek for espionage.
Petit, orphaned as a child, was a 21-year-old Brussels saleswoman and governess when the First World War began.
In 1914, she helped her wounded fiance, soldier Maurice Gobert, cross the front lines into the Netherlands to rejoin his unit.
This was already a no-no — just the thing, in fact, that would soon get British nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Hun. But Petit went way beyond into outright espionage.
Having impressed British officers upon her successful delivery of Maurice by relating everything she could remember about the German army’s disposition, she got a crash course in spycraft and returned back over the lines. For a year and a half, she continued funneling information about troop movements as well as distributing the then-underground (but today still-extant) newspaper La Libre Belgique.
Captured in February 1916, she refused to trade her life for the identity of any other operative, and was shot for spying.
Although Gabrielle Petit didn’t get anything like Nurse Cavell’s wartime propaganda play, her story became well-known after the Armistice and resulted in a state funeral, various films and books, and a monument in Brussels’ Place Saint-Jean.
Early this morning in 1915, the German military occupying Belgium shot aid worker Edith Cavell at Brussels for aiding the British war effort.
The matronly nurse had been condemned only the day before by a German military court for helping Allied soldiers escape from behind German lines — charges Cavell readily admitted. The British chaplain who attended her the night before her death reported her saying (not actually her last words, but recalled as her parting sentiment, as it were):
But this I would say, standing as I do in view of God and eternity, I realize that patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward any one.
So naturally, she immediately became the Entente’s bloody banner of the barbarous Hun, helping dramatically ramp up recruitment for the other team’s set of moral cretins.
The thing is, the Germans actually had a point. Cavell ran a nursing school in Brussels, and courageously stuck around when the Germans smashed through Belgium as World War I opened. She’s sometimes remembered as getting in hot water for treating the wounded regardless of nationality, but she did a lot more than that: she got involved with an underground railroad funneling Allied soldiers back to enemy countries.
It was one of those impossible trials of conscience that wartime brings: Cavell, whose hospital was subsumed by the Red Cross during the war, should technically have remained neutral; her actions did bring material aid to Germany’s foes.
However, Belgian, French and English troops caught behind lines by the Germans’ lightning advance were in danger themselves of summary execution, as were civilians who harbored them. Neutrally treating them and handing them over as POWs might have been tantamount to killing many of them, especially in the first few months of the war. Though Edith Cavell said that “I am happy to die for my country,” her actions look more humanitarian than nationalistic — the best choice to be made when no good ones are available. Patriotism of a higher order, if you like.
Probably Cavell’s was a case tailor-made for executive clemency, but Germany was keen to send one of those proverbial messages: civilians in occupied countries had best stay out of the war. Despite the frantic lobbying of England’s ambassadors (and, ominously for Germany, those of the United States), the sentence was carried out on both Cavell and a fellow-traveler in her network, Belgian Philippe Baucq.
Clumsy propagandists, the Kaiser’s boys badly misjudged the message so sent.
None of this abated Cavell’s stupendous propaganda value to Germany’s enemies. And — holy wow, the graying 49-year-old gets made over into quite the heartbreaker in most of these.
The nurse’s repute — and she was said to have struck a Joan of Arc-like chord in those parts — caused a renaissance for the name “Edith” among French and Belgian newborns, most notably singer Edith Piaf (born in December 1915). While Cavell’s sacrifice did nothing to stem her name’s declining Anglo (or at least American) popularity, there is a Mount Edith Cavell named for her in Canada, and a plethora of monuments and public spaces dedicated to her throughout the Allied powers’ lands. (Here are just a handful.) And she still packs enough symbolic punch for the current British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to deploy her in the propagandist’s subtler modern arts.
There’s plenty more about her online, but world headquarters (with information about the Cavell Festival) is edithcavell.org.uk. There’s also a stupendous collection of text and images (several already used in this post) at the sometimes slow-loading but endlessly fascinating site The Great War in a Different Light.
Let this long-expired generation counsel posterity to find itself elsewhere when one’s door is darkened by a man known as “the Iron Duke”. William had the wit to get out of town. Egmont and Hoorn hung around, depending on their (professedly) clean consciences.
The beheadings were widely protested both locally and abroad, and festered as a grievance against the empire — a grievance that, as the nascent conflict evolved into a revolution that would detach the Netherlands from Spain, elevated these distinctly non-revolutionary wealthy nobles into freethinking martyrs of independence.