Resistance in Belgium - partial history or history in parts? (II) Second part of a duo of papers on the historiography of the Resistance in Belgium

As we’ve seen previously, the first generation of historians studying the Resistance were “contemporary witnesses and protagonists”, with the exception of American researcher George K. Tanham. Although these works were quite interesting from a psychological and factual point of view, they had a serious bias: With a quiet conscience, their authors often argued pro domo, did not shy away from polemics and presented themselves as paragons of patriotism... while providing no explanation whatsoever of the conditions that led to the emergence of the Resistance phenomenon.  As time passed and a certain serenity returned, this type of literature lost the essence of its glorifying character or show of bravery and became more sober; it included reflections about the time of the resistance (William Ugeux, Léon-Ernest Halkin) or even opted for a more scientific approach of the subject (Henri Bernard).  

From 1970 onwards a fresh set of works about this subject, penned by “war children” born between 1940 and 1960, came to the fore. At the time, the historiographical Zeitgeist preferred works centred around social, economic and political aspects, and history was meant to be “structural”.

Is it even necessary to remind the reader ? The work L’an 40 by José Gotovitch and Jules Gérard-Libois (1971) would set the tone for a new wave of research into the subject. But let us put this into context. With Belgium being the country it is and with a limited number of historians studying contemporary history, this wave was rather a ripple indeed: Just as in the previous decades, the Resistance was no major preoccupation of society in the years 1970-1990. For most people, this era belonged to the past and became a marginal part of history, mostly confined to the small veteran community. Furthermore, the works produced in this field are often developed in the shadow of the very recently established centre for the historical study about the Second World War “Centre de Recherches et d’Etudes Historiques de la Seconde Guerre mondiale” (CREHSGM -1967-1969), where a researcher, José Gotovitch, took pleasure in thriving, together with a number of colleagues (and friends nevertheless), who felt concerned - for various reasons - about the issues this period of time posed.                           

One thing was new however: little by little, qualitative studies were authored in Dutch. For example: De vijand te lijf (1974) by Frans Selleslagh and Willem C. Meyers, Het Verzet (1988) by Etienne Verhoeyen and Rudi Van Doorslaer and, later, Geheime Oorlog. De Inlichtings – en Actie – diensten in België (1992) by Fernand Strubbe. Yet, one cannot claim theses works had great success in the North of the country...                                                                                       

As for José Gotovitch, he continued his research in a field that was dear to him, successfully defending his doctoral thesis about the communists during the Second World War, which was published under a new title in 1992 and is a masterpiece of political erudition: Du Rouge au Tricolore. Les Communistes belges de 1939 à 1944. Almost at the same time (1991) but on a wholly different note, Victor Marquet also finished his voluminous Contribution à l’histoire de l’Armée Secrète 1940-1944.      

In these years, a lot of universities promoted research and Master’s theses – that were independent of the CREHSGM yet connected to it – about the resistance at local or regional level. The works carried out under the supervision of professors Stengers, Lory and Balace are particularly remarkable. In a sense, the book by Pierre Jacquet (Brabant wallon 1940-1944. Occupation et résistance – 1989) is a neat example thereof.                                                                                                   

In addition to these works that were made available in libraries as books for the general public, one can also mention a quite discrete but indispensable piece of work, namely the Guide de la presse clandestine de Belgique (1991) by Dirk Martin, Etienne Josse, Y. Hostie and Jacques Wynants,  submitted to CREHSGM which became CEGESOMA in 1997: a solid sketch of the history of the Resistance press (Histoire de la presse résistante) – history that yet remains to be fully written.

The research community of the Centre still counted a number of seasoned historians of the Resistance – professionals or well-organised amateurs. Let us mention two names as examples: First, the prolific Francis Balace, well-known in the historians’ microcosm thanks to his plethora of works on “right-wing” resistance and an in-depth study of the Resistance in Liège (Aspect de la Résistance en province de Liège, 1994); second, Etienne Verhoeyen, a righteous researcher from the Flemish public broadcaster V.R.T. with profound knowledge of the “Services de Renseignement et d’Action” from their beginnings until the turbulent times of the Cold War. The latter has also made an innovative contribution to historiography with his work België Bezet 1940-1944 (1993), which is in the same spirit as L’An 40, about the relations between the exiled “Londoners” and the Resistance. This book was translated into French (La Belgique occupée. De l’an 40 à la Libération – 1994), as was the work by Fernand Strubbe (Services secrets belges 1940-1945 – 1997).    

For the sake of completeness – if that is even possible – let us mention two researchers from the field of social and economic history or social and political history from Louvain-la-Neuve, namely Fabrice Maerten (Du murmure au grondement. La Résistance politique et idéologique dans la province de Hainaut pendant la seconde guerre mondiale – 1999) and Emmanuel Debruyne (La guerre secrète des espions belges 1940-1944 – 2008).

But let us also not lose track of two major tendencies: The first one is the collapse of “memory studies”. Which traces has the memory of the Resistance left within Belgian society? This is an issue about monuments, places, street names (research and publications by Bruno Benvindo, Chantal Kesteloot, Marnix Beyen…) but also about resistance organisations in postwar Belgium (Babette Weyns), and the phenomenon can also be studied from the generational point of view (Koen Aerts, Florence Rasmont). The second is the interest in the history of the Resistance currently rising in Flanders. The topic is studied at local level (Karolien Steen, Bruno De Wever) and with regard to remembrance (Nico Wouters, Bruno De Wever and Koen Aerts).

Before we round off this very fractional overview, let us highlight two future publications. The first one is imminent. It is the archival source guide for the history of the Resistance, developed by Fabrice Maerten, which will enable researchers – there is no doubt about that – to discover many unknown or lesser known resources. The second is still in progress and scheduled for 2021: the Revue belge d’Histoire contemporaine will publish a thematic issue about various aspects of the history of the Resistance.

Finally, don’t forget to browse through the many useful articles about the history of the Resistance on our website “Belgium WWII”.

Alain Colignon