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“The punishment for smuggling didn’t really work as a deterrent”

“The punishment for smuggling didn’t really work as a deterrent”

Photographer:Fotograaf: Eddy Somers /Simone Golob

Tricks of the trade

The First World War: the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences used it as a theme for a cross-border project; the RWTH Aachen was a partner. Approximately thirty students with Flemish, Walloon, Dutch, German and even British and Austrian nationalities participated. It was all done within the framework of Marble, Maastricht University’s project on Research-based learning. We asked two students about their experiences.

The Netherlands remained neutral in the First World War, but how neutral was that? Thousands of Belgians fled to the Netherlands. Smuggling was a lucrative business. Cows, horses, grain, potatoes, flour, and petroleum, everything was hauled across the border. Dutch student Kirsten Zweers of European Studies spent days at the Social Historical Centre. “We read all the judicial decisions by the South Limburg courts, written between June and October 1916.” Zweers and her fellow-students read through fifteen hefty tomes, handwritten, “illegible at times, scribbled”. What struck them was the huge difference between the verdict and the actual punishment that the smugglers received. “That punishment was often very small and didn’t really work as a deterrent.” Anyone caught smuggling a litre of petroleum could officially be locked up for three days. However, it was often settled with a fine. “There was a fine of 10 Dutch Guilders [4,40 Euro] for smuggling a kilo of flour, but a man who had smuggled no less than 17 kilos of flour, also ended up paying a 10-Guilder fine. If you consider that a carpenter earned about 18.50 per week, then 10 Guilders is not a ridiculous amount. Definitely not enough to never do it again.” Zweers cannot provide an explanation for the huge difference. “There was very little literature on the subject. We researched something that nobody had done before, and yes, that was quite special. The research was very educational. We continually came across things that we wanted to dig deeper into.”

Flemish student of Arts and Social Sciences, Eddy Neyens, worked on the war monument in Flemish Neeroeteren. Every year, on 11 November, there is a memorial service. Neyens: “Belgians think it is normal to commemorate the First World War. Germans and Dutch maybe feel that is a little strange. They are more likely to focus on the Second World War.” Neyens grew up in Neeroeteren, which made it easier for him to approach people for information. He wanted to know what exactly was being commemorated, and who, and what it still means? He visited the Maaseik archives, looked on the Internet, including a site by amateur historians. “That was very valuable. I discovered, for example, that one of the names mentioned on the monument was a boy who died when a bomb dropped from an airplane landed behind the lines.” Neyens found it difficult to find original sources. “The Neeroeteren archives having been destroyed in a fire in the nineteen-sixties, I had to go to Maaseik, where very little information is left on this subject. I was thinking of applying for a dossier on a soldier who had died, from the military museum in Brussels, but I eventually didn’t. There is only one single retired volunteer who collects everything, and as he was very busy – there are a lot of Belgians looking into their family history – I would receive the dossier after the deadline of the project.”

In this series, students talk about their inspiring (research) project

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