On August 25, 1914, the library of Belgian university KU Leuven was destroyed by German forces in a fire that was a deliberate act of World War I. At the time, the library, which was constructed in the 17th century, was estimated to hold around 300,000 volumes, many which were of historical and scholarly importance. The full extent of the loss was never known because the library was in the middle of an audit at the time of the attack.
The targeting of a non-military cultural institution was widely reviled and viewed as contrary to the normal laws of wartime engagement and conduct. It soon became a cause célèbre, illustrating the terrible cultural ravages inflicted by war. Before-and-after postcards were circulated across the globe to illustrate the extent of the destruction.
Following the end of the war, funds were donated by institutions and people worldwide to help rebuild the library. This new library, designed by American architect Whitney Warren, opened in 1928 and featured a prominent new bell tower to hold a carillon of 48 bells. However, tragedy struck once more in 1940, when the library was again destroyed by fire during World War II. It was rebuilt using Warren’s 1920s design.
Today, a visceral reminder of the impact of war can be seen within the library, where books that were rescued from the fires, dubbed “Snow Whites,” have been retained and displayed as a poignant memorial to the cultural losses of war. Each book rests within its own glass casket, sealed with red wax.