Belgium is facing up to its too-cosy relationship with its world war two German occupiers. A group of historians this week has presented to parliament’s upper house a report that is severely critical. It claims administrators actively collaborated in the deportation of Jews on a large scale.
The report reveals three key moments in this tainted relationship that led to mass deportations. In the autumn of 1940 Belgium is occupied. The civil service and justice system accepts, on Nazi orders, to make a census of all Jews everywhere. The second key moment is the summer of 1942. While in Brussels the authorities refuse to distribute yellow stars, Antwerp’s local police arrest 1243 Jews, and hand them over to the Nazis for deportation. 90 percent of Belgium’s 56 000 Jews live in these two cities. Finally, after the liberation at no moment does the state look into its role, recognise its responsibility, or punish anyone. 25 000 Belgian Jews are deported. Only 1200 survive.
The report is titled “Docile Belgium”, but why was there such a supine response; as the report says, a disgrace for a democracy? One of the investigators, Rudi van Doorslaer, explains: “Belgium’s traditional elite has a certain xenophobia of its own, with an anti-semitic fringe. The reason for this, in fact, is a lack of democracy that was very telling in the 1930’s and 40’s”.
All the same, more than 50 percent of Belgium’s Jews were never caught. That in part is due to the fact that, unlike in the Netherlands, religion was not recorded in civil registers. Professor Julien Klener is president of the Jewish Central Consistory in Belgium: “Of course there was collaboration at different levels, but there were also quite a few Belgians, and this is a positive point, that on their own initiative decided to save Jews or people of Jewish origins. We mustn’t forget this”.
Klener insists every nation should check its past on this issue, and that this report has a preventive role to play: “I tell you, the past, unfortunately, is horrible, and can’t be undone, but the present and future must be preserved if you believe in democracy. I dare to hope that democracy remains an ideal to support and reinforce in Europe”.