Historians appointed by the Belgian government publish a first report on the role of the local authorities in the persecution and the deportation of Jews during WWII

Entrance to Auschwitz (photo: BPK, Berlin)

How Belgium sacrificed its Jews to the Nazis

PUBLISHED IN |  Mar 5, 07

The first question that must be asked is why this has taken so long. About three weeks ago, 62 years after the end of World War II, a committee of historians appointed by the Belgian government published a comprehensive report on the role of the Belgian authorities in the persecution and deportation of the Jews during the war. In other words, the committee was appointed to investigate the extent of the Belgian state’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

“Most Belgians are unaware of the gravity of the persecution experienced by the country’s Jews,” stated the Belgian Senate in its 2002 decision to establish the committee. “Why was it necessary for half a century to elapse in order for us to discuss this part of our past? It is the Senate’s duty to preserve the memory of the genocide, relying on facts that cannot be questioned. This is our obligation to the coming generations.”

What, in truth, can possibly explain this delay? Professor Dan Machman, chief historian of Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority) and a specialist on the Holocaust in Belgium and Holland, says Belgium began dealing with the Holocaust later than other nations, but its state-commissioned report is an exception to the rule. He says that such reports have only been published in Romania, Switzerland and Lichtenstein thus far, and similar research is currently underway in the Baltic states. However, in France, for example, no such project has been launched.

Machman explains that one of the reasons the Belgians held off from dealing with the issue was the fact that King Leopold III remained in the country during the German occupation, unlike the Belgian government, which went into exile in London. This fact gave rise to questions about his collaboration with the Germans; he relinquished his crown after the war to his 20-year-old son, Baudouin.

“The king problem” remained a very sensitive issue in Belgium, and historians preferred, therefore, to concentrate on the German occupiers and not to deal with the Belgian collaborators. In the matter of the Jews, says Machman, the Belgians emphasized acts of saving the Jews and participation in the anti-Nazi underground.

King Leopold’s mother, Queen Elizabeth of Bavaria, even received the title of Righteous Gentile from Yad Vashem in 1964 for her intervention on behalf of several hundred Belgian Jews with Belgian citizenship (a small minority in the Jewish population). Today, says Machman, it is not at all certain she would have received this honor, as her intervention on behalf of a small group of Jews with Belgian citizenship could have been seen as giving the Germans license to deport all the rest without citizenship.

In total, 25,000 Jews were killed, 44 percent of the total number of Jews living in Belgium on the eve of the German occupation.

Obedient Belgium

Belgian Jewish family with the Star of David (photo: USHMM)

Belgian Jewish family with the Star of David (photo: USHMM)

The title given to the 1,100-page report is “La Belgique Docile” (“Obedient Belgium”), and its conclusions state explicitly that “the Belgian state adopted an obedient approach, and collaborated in a manner unbefitting a democratic country, in various but critical areas, in a devastating policy toward the Jewish population.”

In the epilogue to the report, its authors wrote: “War exposes the soul of the nation. Most of the (Belgian) office-holders retained a certain amount of independence of action even under the occupation. The occupier’s power was in hardly any case absolute power. The ability not to carry out certain tasks or not to put certain orders into effect remained in their hands. The significance of this latitude is that at several crucial moments (the Belgian authorities) were required to choose.”

The editor of the report, historian Rudi Van Doorslaer, says that the German occupier required the local authorities’ collaboration and therefore power remained in the hands of the Belgians. “Our role was to examine when the Belgians complied with the Nazis’ instructions and when they did not,” Van Doorslaer has told Haaretz. “In general, it can be said that the Belgians sacrificed the Jewish community to try to preserve ‘normality’ and the orderly functioning of the economy. The Belgians were very much influenced by the experience of World War I, but they did not take into account the fact that in the second war, the occupation was of a political nature. In World War II the German occupation of Belgium had Nazi and racist characteristics with regard to part of the population, which had not been the case in the First World War.”

Van Doorslaer says he and his colleagues identified three crucial moments that marked the Belgian authorities’ attitude toward the Jews. The first was in the autumn of 1940, about six months after Belgium surrendered. In November of that year, the occupation regime ordered Belgium to register all the Jews in the country. In terms of the Belgian Constitution, this order was illegal, as it discriminated against citizens according to their religion. In addition, explains Van Doorslaer, this was a violation of The Hague Convention, according to which “family honor and rights, the lives of persons, and private property, as well as religious convictions and practice, must be respected” by an occupier. Van Doorslaer relates that the authorities indeed did have a problem with this order. At this stage, only senior officials called secretaries general remained in Belgium, replacing the government that had gone into exile in London. However, after legal consultations, it was decided to allow the registration. The logical solution went like this: The order to carry out the registration was given by the Germans, so that if the Jews presented themselves at the registration office to follow the instruction, then the Belgians could not avoid it. In effect, the Belgians saw themselves as passive intermediaries in this matter.

According to Van Doorslaer, the Belgians saw the Jews as foreigners, as 95 percent of the community did not have Belgian citizenship. “This action has no explanation apart from that it was an intentional decision that derived from the fact that the Jews were considered foreigners,” states the report. Van Doorslaer says much of the Belgian elite was tainted with xenophobia and anti-Semitism and the war led them to prefer “the Belgian interest,” which ostensibly did not include the protection of Jews, by virtue of the fact that they were non-Belgians. Paradoxically, states the report, even though the Jews were the most obvious group harmed by the German enemy, the Belgian authorities related to the Jews as though they were themselves the enemies.

Pro-German Antwerp

A round-up of Jews in Brussles (source: USHMM)

A round-up of Jews in Brussles (source: USHMM)

In the wake of this registration came a long series of instructions and orders, the aim of which was to separate the Jewish population from the rest of society. In December 1940, all of the Jews who held official positions were fired from their jobs. In July 1941, the Belgian internal affairs secretary-general ordered the word “Jew” added to identifying documents. From that moment on, states the report, “the transition from passive collaboration to active collaboration was accomplished with great rapidity.” In October 1941, the authorities declared illegal those textbooks that were edited by Jews and in December 1941, Jewish children were expelled from the schools. In June 1942, Jews were prohibited from working as doctors.

The second crucial moment featured in the report took place in the summer of 1942 when the Jews were deported to the East – to Auschwitz. Since 1940, Van Doorslaer says, there had been administrative collaboration with the Nazis; the Belgians carried out the Germans’ instructions. In the instance of the deportations, however, there was a clear difference between Brussels and Antwerp, the two largest cities in Belgium where most of the Jewish population was concentrated. The report states that the Brussels police did not take part in rounding up and deporting the Jews, whereas in Antwerp the police helped the German forces close off streets to carry out the deportations. One out of a total of three deportations, on the 28th and 29th of August 1942, was even carried out in its entirety by the Antwerp police. In this deportation, 1,243 Jews were caught and sent to the death camps.

The explanation for this difference between Brussels and Antwerp derives, according to Van Doorslaer, from the long-standing division of Belgium between the Flemish north and the Francophone south. On the Flemish side, he says, there was more collaboration, both passive and impassive. This difference did not derive from any love of Jews, he explained, but rather from patriotic and nationalist sentiments.

In Brussels, the sense of Belgian patriotism was greater and anti-German sentiment stronger. In Antwerp, however, there was a fierce sense of Flemish patriotism, which connoted pro-German sentiment. The Flemish feelings of inferiority, which date back to the 19th century and are still felt to this day, could explain their German leanings: They thought the Germans would rectify their “inferior status” within the Belgian state.

The third crucial moment described in the report occurred at the end of the war. At that stage, the Belgian legal system was weighing whether to try German collaborators. It was decided, for example, that the Antwerp police who participated in the deportation of the Jews would not be tried. Van Doorslaer says the issue was too sensitive, because if the police officers bore responsibility then so did their commanders – and if the latter had superiors, then the entire system was responsible.

This possibility meant opening a Pandora’s box at a very delicate moment in Belgian history. “The Belgian state decided at the end of 1945,” states the report, “that the Belgian authorities bore no legal or other responsibility for the persecution of the Jews.”