- from the book 'A Woman's Experiences in the Great War'
- 'Interviewing Burgomaster Max'
- by Louise Mack
an Australian Lady Reporter in Occupied Brussels
Burgomaster Adolphe Max
The hotel is closed to the public.
"We shut it up so that we should not have Germans coming in," says the little Bruxellois widow who owns it. "But if Madame likes to stay here for the night we can arrange, only there is no cooking!"
The old professor from Liège asks in his pitiful childlike way if he can get a room there too. He would be glad, so glad, to be in a hotel that was not open to the public, or the Germans.
Leaving my companions with many expressions of friendliness, I now rush of to the Hotel de Ville, accompanied by the faithful Jean.
Just as we reach our destination, we run into the man I have come all this way to see.
I see a short, dark man, with an alert military bearing. It seems to me that this idol of Brussels is by no means good-looking. Certainly, there is nothing of the hero in his piquant, even somewhat droll appearance. But his eyes! They are truly extraordinary! They bulge right out of their sockets. They have the sharpness and alertness of a terrier's. They are brilliant, humorous, stern, merry, tender, audacious, glistening, bright, all at once. His beard is clipped. His moustaches are large and upstanding. His immaculate dress and careful grooming give him a dandified air, as befitting the most popular bachelor in Europe, who is also an orphan to boot. His forehead is high and broad. His general appearance is immediately arresting, one scarcely knows why. Quite unlike the conventional Burgomaster type is he.
M. Max briefly explains that he is on his way to an important meeting. But he will see me at eleven o'clock next morning if I will come to the Hotel de Ville. Then he hurries off, his queer dark face lighting up with a singularly brilliant smile as he bids us "Au revoir!" An historic moment that. For M. Max has never been seen in Brussels since!
Of itself, M. Max's face is neither particularly loveable, nor particularly attractive.
Therefore, this man's great hold over hearts is all the more remarkable.
It must, of course, be attributed in part to the deep, warm audacious personality that dwells behind his looks.
But, in truth, M. Max's enormous popularity owes itself not only to his electric personality, his daring, and sangfroid, but also to his commons sense, which steered poor bewildered Brussels through those terribly difficult first weeks of the German occupation.
Nothing in history is more touching, more glorious, than the sudden starting up in time of danger of some quiet unknown man who stamps his personality on the world, becomes the prop and comfort of his nation, is believed in as Christians believe in God, and makes manifest again the truth that War so furiously and jealously attempts to crush and darkenthe power of mind over matter, the mastery of good over evil.
From this War three such men stand out immortallyKing Albert, Max of Brussels, Mercier of Malines.
And Belgium has produced all three! Thrice fortunate Belgium!
Each stone that crumbles from her ruined homes seems, to the watching world, to fly into the Heavens, and glow there like a star!
On foot, swinging my big yellow furs closer round me in the true Belgian manner, I walked along at Jean's side, trying to convince myself that this was all real, this Brussels full of grey-clad and blue-clad Prussians, Saxons, and Baverois, with here and there the white uniform of the Imperial Guard. Suddenly I started. Horribly conscious as I was that I was an English authoress and with no excuse to offer for my presence there, I felt distinctly nervous when I saw a queer young man in a bulky brown coat move slowly along at my side with a curious sidling movement, whispering something under his breath.
I was not sure whether to hurry on, or to stand still.
Jean chose the latter course.
Whereupon the stranger flicked a look up and down the street, then put his hand in his inner breast pocket.
"Le Temps," he whispered hoarsely, flashing looks up and down the street.
"How much?" asked Jean.
"Five francs," he answered. "Put it away toute suite, vous savez c'est dangereux."
Then quickly he added, walking along beside us still, and speaking still in that hoarse, melodramatic voice (which pleased him a little, I couldn't help thinking), "Les Allemands will give me a year in prison if they catch me, so I have to make it pay, n'est-ce-pas ? But the Brussels people must have their newspapers. They've got to know the truth about the war, n'est-ce-pas? and the English papers tell the truth!"
"How do you get the newspapers," I whispered, like a conspirator myself.
"I sneak in and out of Brussels in a peasant's cart, all the way to Sottegem," he whispered back. "Every week they catch one of us. But still we go onn'est-ce-pas? We don't know what fear is in Brussels. That's because we've got M. Max at the head of us! Ah, there's a man for you, M. Max!"
A look of pride and tenderness flashed across his dark, crafty face, then he was gone, and I found myself longing for the morning, when I should talk with M. Max myself.
But Sunday I was awakened by the loud booming of cannon, proceeding from the direction of Malines.
"What is happening?" I asked the maid who brought my coffee "Isn't that firing very near?"
"Oui, Madam! On dit that in a few days now the Belgian Army will re-enter Brussels, and the Germans will be driven out. That will be splendid, Madam, will it not?"
"Splendid," I answered mechanically.
This optimism was now becoming a familiar phrase to me.
I found it everywhere. But alas! I found it alongside what was continually being revealed as pathetic ignorance of the true state of affairs.
And the nearer one was to actual events the greater appeared one's ignorance.
This very day, when we were saying, "In a few days now the Germans will be driven out of Brussels," they were commencing their colossal attack upon Antwerp, and we knew nothing about it.
The faithful Jean called for me at half-past ten, and hurrying through the rain-wet streets to meet M. Max at the Hotel de Ville, we became suddenly aware that something extraordinary was happening. A sense of agitation was in the air. People were hurrying about, talking quickly and angrily. And then our eyes were confronted by the following startling notice, pasted on the walls, printed in German, French and Flemish, and flaming over Brussels in all directions:
"Le Bourgmestre Max ayant fait default aux engagements encourus envers le Gouvernment Allemand je me suis vu force de le suspendre de ses fonctions. Monsieur Max se trouve en detention honourable dans une forteresse.
"Le Gouverneur Allemande,
"VON DER GOLTZ."
Bruxelles, 26th Septembre, 1914.
Cries of grief and rage kept bursting from those broken-hearted Belgians.
Not a man or woman in the city was there who did not worship the very ground Max walked on.
The blow was sharp and terrible; it was utterly unexpected too. Crowds kept on gathering.
Presently, with that never-ceasing accompaniment of distant cannon, the anger of the populace found vent in groans and hisses as a body of Uhlans made its appearance, conducting two Belgian prisoners towards the Town Hall. And then, all in a moment, Brussels was in an uproar. Prudence and fear were flung to the wind. Like mad creatures the seething crowds of men, women, and children went tearing along towards the Hotel de Ville, groaning and hooting at every German they saw, and shouting aloud the name of "Max," while to add to the indescribable tumult, hundreds of little boys ran shrieking at the tops of their voices, "Voici le photographie de Monsieur Max, dix centimes!"
The Civic Guard, composed now mostly of elderly enrolled Brussels civilians, dashed in and out among the infuriated mob, waving their sticks, and imploring the population to restrain itself, or the consequences might be fatal for one and all.
Meanwhile the Aldermen were busy preparing a new affiche which was soon being posted up in all directions.
"Pendant l'absence de M. Max le marche des affaires Communales et le Maintenance de l'ordre seront assures par le College Echevinal. Dans l'interet de la cité nous faisons un supreme appel au calme et sangfroid de nos concitoyens. Nous comptons sur le concours de tous pour assurer le maintien de la tranquilite publique.
Bruxelles. "LE COLLEGE ECHEVINAL."
Accompanied by Jean, I hurried on to the Hotel de Ville.
"Voyez vous!" says Jean under his breath. "Voici les Allemands dans l'Hotel de Ville! Quel chose n'est-ce-pas!"
And I hear a sharp note in the poor fellow's voice that told of bitter emotion.
It was an ordeal to walk through that beautiful classic courtyard, patrolled by grey-clad German sentinels armed to the teeth. The only thing to do was to pass them without either looking or not looking. But once inside I felt safer. The Germans kept to their side of the Town Hall, leaving the Belgian Municipality alone. We went up the wide stairs, hung with magnificent pictures and found a sad group of Belgians gathered in a long corridor, the windows of which looked down into the courtyard below where the Germans were unloading waggons, or striding up and down with bayonets fixed.
Looking down from that window, while we waited to be received by M. le Meunier* (see note at the bottom of the page), the Acting-Burgomaster who had promptly taken M. Max's place, I interested myself in studying the famous German leg. A greater part of it was boot. These boots looked as though immense attention had been given to them. In fact there was nothing they didn't have, iron heels, waterproof uppers, patent soles an immense thickness, with metal intermingled, an infinite capacity for not wearing out. I watched these giant boots standing in the gateway of the exquisite Hotel de Ville, fair monument of Belgium's genius for the, Gothic! I could see nothing of the upper part of the Germans, only their legs, and it was forced upon my observation that those legs were of great strength and massive, yet with a curious flinging freedom of gait, that was the direct result of goose- stepping.
Then I saw two officers goose-stepping into the courtway. I saw their feet first! then their knees.
The effect was curious. They appeared to kick out contemptuously at the world, then pranced in after the kick. The conceit of the performance defies all words.
Then Jean's card was taken into the acting Burgomaster, and next moment a Belgian Echevin said to us, "Entrez, s'il vous plait," and we passed into the room habitually occupied by M. Max.
We found ourselves in a palatial chamber, the walls covered thickly with splendid tapestries and portraits. From the high gilded ceiling hung enormous chandeliers, glittering and pageantesque. Under one of these giant chandeliers stood an imposing desk covered with papers. An elderly gentleman with a grey wide beard was seated there. We advanced over the thick soft carpets.
M. le Meunier received us with great courtesy.
"Nous avons perdu notre tete!" he murmured sadly."Without M. Max we are lost!"
The air was full of agitation.
Here was a scene the like of which might well have been presented by the stage, so spectacular was it, so dramaticthe lofty chamber with its superb appointments and hangings, and these elderly, grey-bearded men of state who had just been dealt the bitterest blow that had yet fallen on their poor tortured shoulders.
But this was no stage scene. This was real. If ever anything on earth was alive and real it was this scene in the Burgomaster's room in Brussels, on the first day of Max's imprisonment. Throbbing and palpitating through it was human agony, human grief, human despair, as these grey-bearded Belgians stared with dull heavy eyes at the empty space where their heroic chief no longer was. Tragic beyond the words of any historian was that scene, which at last however, by sheer intensity of concentrated and concealed emotion, seemed to summon again into that chamber the imprisoned body, the blazing, dauntless personality of the absent one, until his prison bonds were broken, and he was here, seated at this desk, cool, fearless, imperturbable, directing the helm of his storm-tossed bark with his splendid sanity, and saying to all:
"Fear nothing, mes enfants! There is no such thing as fear!"
The story of Max's arrest was characteristic.
He was busy at the Hotel de Ville with his colleagues when a peremptory message arrived from Von der Goltz, bidding him come at once to an interview.
"I cannot come at once!" said Max, "I am occupied in an important conference with my colleagues. I'll come at half-past four o'clock."
Presently the messenger returned.
"Monsieur Max, will you come at once!" he said in a worried manner. "Von der Goltz is angry!"
"I am busy with my work!" replied Max imperturbably. "As I said before, I shall be with Von der Goltz at four-thirty."
At four-thirty he went off, accompanied by his colleagues, and a dramatic conference took place between the Germans and Belgians.
Max now fearlessly informed the Germans that he considered it would be unfair for Brussels to pay any more at present of the indemnity put upon it by Germany.
One reason he gave was very simple.
The Germans had posted up notices in the city, declaring that in future they would not pay for anything required for the service of the German Army, but would take whatever they wanted, free.
"You must wait for your indemnity, said Max. "You can't get blood from a stone."
"Then we arrest you all as hostages for the money," was the German's answer.
At first Max and all his Echevins were arrested.
Two hours later the aldermen were released.
But not Max.
He was sent to his honorable detention in a German fortress.
The months have passed.
He is still there!
By degrees Brussels calmed down. But the Germans wore startled expressions all that grey wet Sunday, as though realising that within that pent-up city was a terribly dangerous force, a force that had been restrained and kept in order all this time by the very man they had been foolish enough to imprison because Brussels found herself unable to pay up her cruelly-imposed millions.
Later, on that Sunday afternoon, I fulfilled my promise and went to call on General Thys, the father of one of my Aerschot acquaintances.
I found the old General in that beautiful house of his in the Chausée de Charleroi, sitting by the fireside in his library reading the Old Testament.
"The only book I can read now!" the General said, in a voice that shook a little, as if with some burning secret agitation.
I remember so well that interview. It was a grey Sunday afternoon, with a touch of autumn in the air, and no sunlight. Through the great glass windows at the end of the library I could see that Brussels garden, with some trees green, and some turning palely gold, already on their way towards decay.
Seated on one side of the fire was the beautiful young unmarried daughter of the house, sharing her father's terrible loneliness, while on the other side sat the handsome melancholy old Belgian hero, whose trembling voice began presently to tell the story of his beloved nation, its suffering, its heroism, its love of home, its bygone struggles for liberty.
And outside in the streets Germans strode up and down, Germans stood on the steps of the Palais de Justice, Germans everywhere.
Mademoiselle Thys, a tall, fair, very beautiful young girl, chats away brightly, trying to cheer her father. Presently she talks of M. Max. Brussels can talk of nothing else to-day. She shows him to me in a different aspect. Now I see him in society, witty, delightful, charming, debonnaire.
"I did so love to be taken into dinner by M. Max!" exclaims the bright young belle. "He was so interesting, so amusing. And so nice to flirt with. He did not dance, but he went to all the balls, and walked about chatting and amusing himself, and everyone else. Before one big fancy dress ballit was the last in Brussels before the warM. Max announced that he could not be present. Everyone was sorry. His presence always made things brighter, livelier. Suddenly, in the midst of the ball a policeman was seen coming up the stairs, his stick in his hand. Gravely, without speaking to anyone he moved down the corridors. 'The Police,' whispered everyone. 'What can it mean?' And then one of the hosts went up to the policeman, determined to take the bull by the horns, as you say in Angleterre, and find out what is wrong. And voila! It is no policeman at all. It is M. Max! "
Undoubtedly, the hatred and terror of Germany at this time was all for Russia.
In Russia, Germany saw her deadliest foe. Every Belgian man or woman that I talked with in Brussels asserted the same thing. "The Germans are terrified of Russia," said the old General. "They see in Russia the greatest enemy to their plans in Asia Minor. They fear Russian civilisationor so they say! Civilisation indeed! What they fear is Russian numbers!"
It was highly interesting to observe as I was forced to do a little later, how completely that hatred for Russia was passed on to England.
The passing on occurred after English troops were sent to the assistance of Antwerp!
From then on, the blaze of hatred in Germany's heart was all for England, deepening and intensifying with extraordinary ferocity ever since October 4th, 1914.
And why? The reason is obvious now.
Our effort to save Antwerp, unsuccessful as it was, yet by delaying 200,000 Germans, enabled those highly important arrangements to be carried out on the Allies' western front that frustrated Germany's hopes in France, and stopped her dash for Calais!
How Max Has Influenced Brussels
In their attitude to the Germans, the Bruxellois undoubtedly take their tone from M. Max.
For his sake they suppressed themselves as quickly as possible that famous Sunday and soon went on their usual way. Their attitude towards the Germans revealed itself as a truly remarkable one. It was perfect in every sense. They were never rude, never sullen, never afraid, and until this particular Sunday and afterwards again, they always behaved as though the Germans did not exist at all. They walked past them as though they were air.
No one ever speaks to the Huns in Brussels. They sit there alone in the restaurants, or in groups, eating, eating, eating. Hour after hour they sit there. You pass at seven and they are eating and drinking. You pass at nine, they are still eating and drinking. Their red faces grow redder and redder. Their gold wedding rings grow tighter and tighter on their fingers.
The Belgians wait on them with an admirable air of not noticing their presence, never looking at them, never speaking to them, the waiters bringing them their food with an admirable detached air as though they are placing viands before a set of invisible spectres.
Always alone are the Germans in Brussels, and sometimes they look extremely bored. I can't help noticing that.
They do their best to win a little friendliness from the Belgians. But in vain. At the restaurants they always pay for their food. They also make a point of sometimes ostentatiously dropping money into the boxes for collecting funds for the Belgians. But the Bruxellois never for one moment let down the barriers between themselves and les Allemands," although they do occasionally allow themselves the joy of "getting a rise" out of the Landsturm when possible,an amusement which the Germans apparently find it impolite to resent!
I sat in a tram in Brussels when two Germans in mufti entered and quite politely excused themselves from paying their fares, explaining that they were "military" and travel free.
"But how do I know that you are really German soldiers!" says the plucky little tram guard, while all the passengers crane forward to listen. "You're not in uniform. I don't know who you are. You must pay your fares, Messieurs, or you must get out."
With red annoyed faces the Germans pull out their soldiers' medals, gaudy ornate affairs on blue ribbons round their necks.
"I don't recognise these," says the tram guard, examining them solemnly. "They're not what our soldiers carry. I can't let you go free on these."
"But we have no money !" splutter the Germans.
"Then I must ask you to get out," says the guard gravely.
And the two Germans, looking very foolish, actually get out of the tram, whereupon the passengers all burst into uncontrollable laughter, which gives them a vast amount of satisfaction, while the two Germans, very red in the face, march away down the street.
As for the street urchins, they flourish under the German occupation, adopting exactly the same attitude towards their conquerors as that manifested by their elders and M. Max.
Dressed up in paper uniforms, with a carrot for the point of their imitation German helmet they march right under the noses of the Germans, headed by an old dog.
Round the old dog's neck is an inscription: "The war is taking place for the aggrandisement of Belgium!"
The truth isthe beautiful truththat the spirit of M. Max hangs over Brussels, steals through it, pervades it. It is his ego that possesses the town. It is Max who is really in occupation there. It is Max who is the true conqueror. It is Max who holds Brussels, and will hold it through all time to come. For all that the Germans are going about the streets, and for all that Max is detained in his "honorable" fortress, the man's spirit is so indomitable, so ardent, that he makes himself felt through his prison walls, and the population of Brussels is able to say, with magnificent sangfroid, and a confidence that is absolutely real:
"They may keep M. Max in a fortress! But even les alboches will never dare to hurt a hair of his head!"
*Note - Miss Mack uses a phonetic spelling for Mr. Max's deptuy acting-Burgomaster. She mistakenly uses 'le Meunier' when the correct spelling is 'Lemonnier'. Both Mr. Max and Mr. Lemonnier have prominent boulevards in post-Great War Brussels named for them.
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