Discover the darkness at the heart of Europe

December 5, 2003

A long-overdue exploration of Belgium's treatment of Jews under the Nazis is being led by a research centre, says Terry Philpot

Three years ago, Leo Delwaide, a prominent member of Belgium's Flemish Liberals and Democrats political party (VLD), sought to have a book banned. The book alleged that his late father - also Leo, a respected member of the Catholic Party, one of the country's electorally most successful political parties, and mayor of wartime Antwerp - had been complicit in the round-up of Jews for deportation. It was the first time that a major Belgian politician had been exposed in this way.

Delwaide's effort failed - the book was published, and its revelations cast new light on the history of occupied Belgium.

As a result, the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society has been commissioned by the government to look at the "participation" - the word is offered carefully by the centre's director Jose Gotovitch - of the Belgian state (local administrators, the police, the justice system, mayors and so on) in the wartime deportation of Jews.

The centre will start work this month, but a report is not expected to be published for two years. If it finds wide-scale participation, there will probably be some kind of declaration by the government.

Belgium's occupation is the least explored of those countries that fell to the Nazis, but it is also, perhaps, the most complex.

The research centre's history illustrates the uncertainty with which the country has approached its past. A latecomer compared with its French and Dutch counterparts, it was set up in 1967 as the Centre for Research and Studies on the History of the Second War World, as part of the General Archives. Its foundation was prompted by the trial and acquittal in 1965 of Robert-Jan Verbelen, a former member of the DeVlag, a Flemish pro-Nazi wartime group. The poor documentation in the dossier drawn up against Verbelen pointed to shortcomings in official record-keeping on the period.

The centre not only made good that deficit but it also sparked pioneering research. Gotovitch and Jules Gerard-Libois' study L'An 1940 , published in 1971, was the first sociological study of wartime Belgium. Later work, aided by greater television, radio and newspaper explorations of the war, included studies of women and war, forced labour and the confiscation of Jewish property.

But as the war receded into the distance, the centre was forced to broaden its remit. Its name was changed in early 1997 to reflect a wider interest in conflicts. For example, it has been involved in research into events at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.

Gotovitch refers to the centre, which has eight researchers working full time and eight on time-limited contracts, as "a public service" that aims to get behind the cliches to study "the forming of a mentality". "It's our way to help contemporary society face its problems," he says modestly.

Understanding the country's war history - which saw the government exiled in 1940 and a civilian administration set up under German military supervision - is key to understanding its current political and economic circumstances. Belgium was created in 1830 as a French-speaking state, even though the country had a mix of Dutch-speaking Flemish of Teutonic stock and French-speaking Latins, known as Walloons. The country did not become officially bilingual until just before the second world war. But the Flemish still felt that they were treated as second-class citizens, and the divisions between the Flemish and Walloons spawned two fascist parties.

Some Flemish looked to the Germans for the respect that, they felt, was not accorded them by their state.

After 1945, there were 57,254 trials for collaboration and 242 people were executed, but many more people were believed to be guilty than ever stood trial. The trials drew accusations that governments of all parties had skirted the issue of bringing industrialists to trial. They also became tainted by the country's nationalist divisions. "Slowly, there came the conviction that the trials were a Francophone instrument to exclude the Flemish people from power," says Chantal Kesteloot, a senior researcher at the centre. This may explain why Flemish nationalism survived the war while Francophone nationalism collapsed, and also why a Flemish nationalist party, Volksunie, developed in the 1950s and grew to become a force in Belgian political life after taking on some mainstream policies.

There are various reasons why Belgium began to look at its wartime self comparatively late. The fate of the disgraced King Leopold III, who stayed behind after the government fled in 1930, took up much public attention and pitched Walloons and Flemish into opposing camps. Belgian Jews were not a vocal or coherent group. They saw themselves as Belgians and had other alliances, such as with the Communist Party, that distracted them from agitating for more information about the occupation. Of the 25,124 Jews (nearly 60 per cent of the Jewish population as well as some refugees from other countries) deported during the occupation, only 1,323 returned. Those who came back were "not integrated into the vision" of what had happened in Belgium, says Gotovitch, himself a Jew, who, with his sister, was hidden by a Catholic family from 1942 to 1945. "It was Belgians who were persecuted.

It wasn't spoken about in terms of Walloons or Flemish or Jews. The country had to be united after all it had gone through, and it was heroes who had to be applauded - but the Jews were not heroes, they were victims."

It was not until the 1960s that some attention began to be directed toward Jewish suffering, and it was then that legislation was passed that allowed them to regain confiscated property.

Today's historians, who are divided along language lines, are keen for the country's recent past to be fully brought into the light. In 1999, the Voorwaarts group of young Flemish historians publicly condemned the alliance of Flemish nationalism with fascism and said that the past should be thoroughly investigated. In 2001, a meeting of French and Flemish-speaking historians resulted in the passing of a parliamentary resolution condemning collaboration during the second world war - the first such resolution in the country's history. Gotovitch says this shows the important role historians are playing in the country's past and present, and represents "a link between the world of the historian and the world of politics".

Research on collaboration is another example of this. "These matters are still seen as black and white," Gotovitch says. "But we need to try to understand how society, groups and individuals behave in a crisis.

Resistance and collaboration had a past, and it is important to analyse the values of society of that time, rather than see that society through our eyes today and why some matters and attitudes did not have the importance that they have for us today."

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