COVID-19 and confinement : opinion

The University of Liège, closing buildings and opening up to the world

A Historian's Perspective

The coronavirus crisis has led to the closure of university buildings. But does that mean the University is closed? Has it ever seen such a measure throughout its history ?

Interview with Philippe Raxhon, professor within the Department of Historical Sciences of the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, co-author of Mémoire et prospective- Université de Liège (1817-2017) published by the Presses Universitaires de Liège in 2017, during the University’s Bicentenary.


There have been no courses at the University since 13th March.

Indeed. The rules of confinement apply to everyone, even institutions, especially those with 25,000 students. But - it should be stressed - the University is not closed: it has never been so open to the world, even though the conditions are far from ideal. Not only has a system of distance learning been set up with recordings of digital lessons, but researchers are also continuing their work and playing an active role in the fight against the current pandemic. Faced with the circumstances, the University is responding with a great deal of goodwill on the part of its teachers, researchers and administrative staff.

The University of Liège has only been closed once since its creation.

Yes, it was closed for several years from August 1914. Let us recall the context: on 4th August 1914, the German army attacked Belgium and crossed the border into the province of Liège. The city was bombed, the central building of the University was hit, German soldiers invaded, and a war hospital was set up. On 20th August, there was the dramatic attack on the Émulation building: German soldiers set fire to the buildings on the square and executed about fifteen innocent civilians. Outremeuse suffered the same fate, and the Zoology and Anatomy Institutes were vandalised. The central library was transformed into stables, the Wittert collection was looted, and scientific instruments disappeared. Despite the threats, the academic council refused to resume classes under German supervision. The University remained closed throughout the war. The academic year resumed, somewhat chaotically, on 21st January 1919.

Didn't the Second World War have the same effect on the University ?

No. The German authorities did not want to take the same approach, so as not to offend the population. However, as early as 1939 many students, and a few professors, were mobilised. Then came the invasion of May 1940 and defeat. Activities were interrupted until the autumn of 1940, when classes resumed. For the anecdote, the University Theatre of Liège was created in 1941, and Shakespeare's The Tempest was on the programme for its first performance.

The Université Libre de Bruxelles, on the other hand, sabotaged itself in order to not be "Nazified", as the German authorities had the ambition of having the courses given by Nazi teachers. It closed its doors and its lecture halls, which led hundreds of Brussels-based students to join the University of Liège, which decided to welcome them so that they could continue their training.

At the University of Liège, Rector Léon Graulich – with the help of former Rector Jules Duesberg, and Marcel Dehalu - managed to stand up to the invaders. He convinced the retired professors to continue their teaching so that they would not be replaced by Nazi professors and organised the nightly ransacking of his own office so that accomplice students could steal the list of registrations demanded by the German authorities, who were implementing a programme of "compulsory labour" in Germany. Exams were held secretly in cellars to escape enemy surveillance.

In spite of the numerous destructions of its buildings, including the Val Benoît, which was totally destroyed, university activity, while not quite as we know it, continued during the Second World War.

Philippe Raxhon is a professor within the Department of Historical Sciences at the University of Liège. He teaches courses in Contemporary History and Historical Criticism. He works on memorial processes, and on the relationship between history and memory.

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