Student uncovers hidden story behind wave of historical thefts


Historian Julie Devlieghere has won Flanders’ foremost thesis prize with a paper that investigates a series of thefts during the First World War and explains why judges handed out such minor sentences

Shifting values

Julie Devlieghere had always had a keen interest in the First World War, but it was her thesis supervisor who suggested she look deeper into the wave of thefts that swept Flanders during the Great War. She was quickly game.

Both Devlieghere (pictured) and Antoon Vrints, a professor at Ghent University (UGent) were eager to find out if what the French philosopher Gabriel Tarde wrote in 1886 was true: Rien de plus immoralisant que la Guerre. Or, nothing breeds immorality like war.

After six months of digging in the state archives in Beveren, East Flanders, where all the former files of the county court of Mechelen are kept, Devlieghere discovered that the profile of the perpetrators changed during the war. Judges and plaintiffs' level of tolerance also shifted, but not in the same direction.

“Before the war, mainly unmarried men committed thefts, often stealing money and jewellery,” says Devlieghere, 22. “During the war, it was not just single men, but also people with kids, even women. In most cases, they weren’t robbing cash or jewels, but food to support their families.”

When charged, she continues, “they didn’t show much regret, and judges were mild – to the disappointment of victims, often farmers who demanded a severe response”.

20 thieves, one farmer

So stealing potatoes or vegetables from farmers’ fields – known as moeskopperij – became more or less accepted – at least if it was clear you were going hungry.

“In an attempt to deal with the plague of thefts, judges prosecuted perpetrators, even of moeskopperij, which hardly ever happened before the war. But the punishments were often limited to a very short sentence in prison or, more often, just a fine. And sometimes, in the most painful situations, the fine was dropped.”

The limits of what was permitted and tolerated did shift

- Historian Julie Devlieghere

Devlieghere adds that the acts of theft were seldom accompanied by violence. “Often they were just a strategy for survival, as they are in periods of economic crisis,” she explains. “I read statements in which farmers said they were confronted with more than 20 potato thieves at once. So it is obvious, their tolerance of the situation adjusted. Some would watch their fields at night, or start a farm patrol, but those were easy to get around.”

Devlieghere came to this conclusion by comparing all the thieves the county of Mechelen sentenced between 1912 and 1917. She compiled a database with the information she found in court books and read all the statements offenders and victims gave to the police or in court. 

Upper class angst

“The fear among the upper class that the poor would lose their moral compass during wartime, like Tarde suggested, was exaggerated,” Devlieghere says. “But the limits of what was permitted and tolerated did shift.”

Devlieghere’s thesis not only capped her four-year degree programme in history, it also won her the Scriptieprijs 100 Jaar Groote Oorlog (Thesis Prize Great War Centennial). Awarded by Scriptie vzw and the Flanders Department of Foreign Affairs, it is worth €1,000.

Devlieghere, meanwhile, has moved on to her next project. She is pursuing a Master’s in journalism at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), where she is working on another thesis, this time about how refugees are represented by the media.

Photo by Kevin Faingnaert

First World War

Claiming the lives of more than nine million people and destroying entire cities and villages in Europe, the Great War was one of the most dramatic armed conflicts in human history. It lasted from 1914 to 1918.
Flanders Field - For four years, a tiny corner of Flanders known as the Westhoek became one of the war’s major battlefields.
Untouched - Poperinge, near Ypres, was one of the few towns in Flanders that remained unoccupied for most of the war.
Cemetery - The Tyne Cot graveyard in Passchendaele is the largest Commonwealth cemetery in the world.
550 000

lives lost in West Flanders

368 000

annual visitors to the Westhoek

1 914

First Battle of Ypres