A Man to Remember: Henri Pirenne

Many innocents died during WWI which finished in a day like this, in 1918. Today we are trying to pay our respect not only to those but to all that have fallen throughout wars and combats since then. But, as Historians, we respectfully would like to do this talking about a man who did not die in the war, otherwise he lives through it as a non-violent resistant and keep on working and spreading his knowledge even as a prisoner of war. The man was called Henri Pirenne.
Pirenne was born in Belgium, the little country used by the German army as a shortcut to France. He was a medievalist and his son was killed in action in the first days of the invasion, during the battle of Yser. He was a teacher also, at the University of Ghent, and an active member of the Belgian non-violent Resistence. As a form of resistance to the invaders, teachers at the University went on strike, which subsequently lead to German actions to restore teaching as a showing of normality. Being one of those refusing to abide, Pirenne was deported and sent to a camp. Allegedly, when questioned under arrest he kept on speaking French even though it was well-known that he was a fluent German speaker, the reason being, in his own words, that he had forgotten German on the day the German Army crossed the Belgian frontier.
After a first internment in Crefeld, he was transferred to Holzminden and finally in Jena, where he was kept till the end of the war. In Holzminden, the 8000 prisoners tried to keep some sense of normal life with shops and schools. There, Pirenne started a course on European History amidst the scarcities and brutality of a prisoners of war internment camp. Being not allowed to keep his books, he has to do it from memory. With the notes of those lessons and, again, his memory, and the time devoted to think he composed in Jena his “A history of Europe”, a masterly work focused on social, political and even mercantile trends rather than the usual chronological, matter of fact work typical of the age. Given the conditions Pirenne had to suffer during his work, this is the more remarkable, specially when its objectivity is taken into consideration and the fresh and original approach is put on full view.
But for us, the most important thing in this story is that, while Europe was trying to commit suicide, this man, without other weapon than his knowledge, was trying to explain her, and, by the way was trying to alleviate the suffering of his interment companions through learning and debate.
Learning, knowledge, debate…unusual sons of war. So maybe today we could spend some time remembering Henri Pirenne and his effort, in the middle of a raging war, to explain the Europeans who they were and where they came from, thus making them more aware of what they have in common and why the war could not be the solution.

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