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‘La Belgique docile’. Les autorités belges et la persécution des Juifs

At the request of the Belgian Senate, Cegesoma was entrusted with a study to look into the possible implication of the Belgian authorities in the identification, persecution and deportation of the Jewish population during the occupation period 1940-1944. The result is La Belgique docile, a reference work for everyone who wishes to have a better understanding of Belgium in the period 1930-1950.

Le bourgmestre de Bruxelles Jules Coelst
Jules Coelst, the catholic mayor of Brussels (in this photograph in conversation with King Leopold III in 1939), symbol of the critical attitude of the Brussels authorities towards the so-called “Jewish question” in 1942.
When the Second World War is referred to today, or when the war is mentioned in the media, attention is mainly given to the extermination of the European Jews by the Nazis. The issue is still very much alive, and not only among those who have a professional interest in it. If perhaps too little attention is given to other events of this war, it is understandable that the Holocaust should occupy such a crucial place. It is a unique fact, unprecedented in its scale and systematic application. It is important that as many people as possible are told these terrible facts.

 

La Belgique docile explains how the local and national authorities responded (or not) to the will of the occupier to find and deport the Jews. However, the study does not want to concentrate on the Jewish tragedy alone. The novelty of the study lies in the fact that an explanation is sought as to why these authorities reacted in a certain way. To this end, not only the war years were examined but also the 1930s. The mentality of the country's elites in those first years was particularly considered so as to reach a conclusion as to their behaviour during the war.

 

From the 1930s to the first post-war years, there was a very important change in the attitude and mentality of the Belgian authorities: from anti-Semitism to docile submissiveness and unease in recognising what was happening to the Jews. After 1918, Jews were a marked minority in Belgium and the economic crisis of the 1930s placed them in strong competition with certain Belgian social groups. The anti-Jewish sentiment grew especially among Belgian and Flemish nationalist groups and parties. As a result of the persecution in Germany, a lot of Jewish refugees arrived in Belgium from 1933 onward. At the German invasion in 1940 they were deported to France because they were considered German citizens. In 1942, about 1,500 of these Jews were transported via Drancy to Auschwitz. The Belgian authorities could not have foreseen this, but it was nevertheless the result of ill-considered security policies. The authorities cannot however hide behind their ignorance of the imminent tragedy. This was a policy supported by the majority of the Belgian governing circles. In these circles, in the second half of the 1930s, there was a very strong mixture of xenophobia and anti-Semitism. It is also important to realise that the focus was on “the German” as an enemy rather than on Nazism. This lack of insight in the ideological foundations of Nazi Germany explains among others the attitude towards the Jewish question, which seemed subordinate to the nationalist perception of the conflict.

 

Furthermore, liberal democracy suffered an enormous blow in the 1930s. As a result of the economic crisis, there was less faith in the traditional “laissez-faire” and quite a few people looked to Germany and Italy where authoritarian regimes had been installed. Moreover, several collaborationist parties had accomplished a disguised coup during the occupation by seizing high state functions, in particular that of Domestic Affairs. This seizure of power undermined even more the Belgian administration's capacity for democratic resistance.

 

A third and important factor were the unprepared circumstances in which the occupation took place. The experience of the First World War had shown the importance to keep as much power of governance as possible. The secretaries-general took over considerable powers from the absent ministers. But no clear legal instructions were available for the Belgian authorities as to the use of this power in the event of an occupation. That is why the occupier as well as the Belgian authorities and the economic and financial circles supported a rapid recovery of public life. Thus, after May 1940, the Belgian authorities were immediately immersed in an escalating dynamics of collaboration for which they were not prepared.

Hommes, femmes et enfants chargés dans un camion
An open truck of an Antwerp moving company is loading Jewish (?) persons, men, women as well as children (Photo Auditorat general)


In the case of the persecution of the Jews, the Belgian authorities were not legally obliged to follow the orders of the occupier. The Hague Convention states (art. 46) that the occupier must respect “the honour and the rights of the family, the life of persons and private property, as well as religious convictions and worship”. Furthermore, the persecution of the Jews served only the politics of the enemy and not the public order of the occupied country. Why did the Belgian authorities comply with the occupier in the first place and why did they not make use of this article? Firstly, only 5 % of the Jews were Belgian citizens and therefore the issue concerned foreigners. Secondly, no one was willing to point at the moral and legal limitations of the collaboration policies which after all caused little friction. Finally, the latent xenophobic and anti-Semitic sentiment among the country's elite goes a long way to explain events.

 

In some cases, these opinions shifted somewhat in the course of the war. A good example is a comparison between the Brussels and Antwerp local administration from the spring of 1942 onward. The specific war context is crucial: it was no longer certain that Germany would win the war, the tide was turning. The Brussels catholic mayor Jules Coelst refused to distribute the Star of David among the Jewish population and he refused to assist in tracing the Jews in the context of the “employment in the East”. In Greater Antwerp however, the town administration and police did take part in the distribution of the Star of David and the collective round-ups of Jews. This difference can mostly be explained by a political-ideological factor. In 1940, the Antwerp town administration had, like the Brussels town administration, adjusted for pragmatic reasons to maximal politics of collaboration. The outcome was however different. For Antwerp, it was a proactive attempt to integrate itself in the German-Flemish New Order. Brussels remained patriotic-Belgian and decisively hostile to Germany. Except in Brussels and Liège, the Star of David was distributed in all of Belgium by the town administrations and when the massive deportation of the Jews started from the Dossin barracks in Mechelen, there was no official protest from the part of the Belgian authorities. They chose not to endanger the administrative collaboration because of the deportation of the Jewish foreigners. The occupier had (deceitfully) declared that Jews with Belgian nationality would not be deported.

 

It was not until October 1942 that there was a change in policy at the central administration, but this was irrespective of the deportation of the Jews. It was the result of the introduction of forced labour in Germany. The Allies' improved chances of victory also played a role here. It is no surprise that the “Jewish question” no longer played a role in this change in attitude. The Jews had as good as disappeared: they were either deported or in hiding. This did not lead to an official change in policy by the central authorities towards the Jews, but resulted in an official protest.

 

After the liberation, there was no acknowledgement of the importance of the Judeocide. The administrative authorities and the military justice decided that the Belgian authorities carried no responsibility in the deportation of the Jews in Belgium. There was enough knowledge on the issue and some authorities recognised the Judeocide in an informal way. The largest problem was the fact that no policy had been put in place, neither with regard to the persecution and punishment of the perpetrators, nor as far as the acknowledgement of the victims was concerned. There had been no proper legal preparations in London and no significant attempts to adjust this had been made after the liberation.

 

Why were there no adjustments and why was no policy developed with regard to the Jewish question? The priorities of the Belgian government lay elsewhere: political and socio-economical problems needed to be tackled. The Judeocide was not a political issue and there was no political resolve to deal with the moral, material and juridical problems of Jewish victims and their surviving relatives. In this matter, Belgium's attitude was not different from the other European countries. Furthermore, the Jews formed a small minority and most of them were still foreigners and therefore of no electoral consequence.

 

What is now the outcome of the persecution of the Jews in Belgium? It is generally assumed that some 28,900 Jews died while in detention, were murdered in Belgium or were deported from Mechelen and Drancy. This is 36.5% of the total death toll in Belgium during the Second World War.

 

We may conclude that the lack of administrative and juridical preparation for the occupation, but especially the xenophobic and anti-Semitic culture among leading circles as well as the decline of democracy in the 1930s and the war years, were probably decisive factors in the docile collaboration of the Belgian authorities on a national as well as a local level that eventually led to the disastrous results we know today. Had the authorities opposed the occupier's measures and refused to carry out their orders, a lot of Jews would probably have survived the war. Where the question of responsibility is concerned, there can be no misunderstanding: during the occupation the possibility remained to refuse to carry out certain tasks or to ignore certain demands.

 

Ruben Baes

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