Belgium opens old war wounds

MORE THAN 50 years after the Allied liberation of Belgium, the country's two linguistic communities, the Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons, are embroiled in a rancorous feud over who collaborated with the Nazis, and more compellingly, why.

Words like "complicity", "traitor" and "pariah" reverberate once more around towns and villages as a result of moves by the regional parliament in Flanders to award cash compensation to Flemish men and women convicted as collaborators after the war.

Parliament's vote has reopened a traumatic chapter in Belgium's history, causing deep offence to many Walloons and unleashing what local newspapers have called the "demons" of ethnic and linguistic tension seething beneath the surface of Belgian life.

To add insult to injury, the vote was only passed with support from an extreme right-wing Flemish separatist party, the Vlaams Blok.

The compensation bill, known as the Suykerbuyk law, after the Flemish Christian Democrat MP who campaigned for it, could still be overturned by the courts. The Walloon government, which runs the southern, French- speaking part of the country, Francophone political parties, the Walloon parliament, and the Walloon cities of Dinant and Bastogne, where memories of wartime bombardment are bitterest, have all joined forces to launch a legal challenge. The Belgian senate last week said it would ask the courts to have the measure declared unconstitutional, as only the federal government can legislate for war-time matters.

The sense of outrage the bill has awoken may never heal. "Our own people have seen fit to inflict on us a shame more abject than that of the SS," said Arthur Haulot, a Walloon veteran.

"Let us not forget that of the 70,000 Belgian prisoners of war, 67,000 were Walloon, only 3,000 were Flemish," Jose Happart, a Walloon Socialist MP said.

The bill aims to soften the last remaining effects of the harsh laws concerning "repression of collaboration", which were enacted after the war. Mr Suykerbuyk, the bill's sponsor, insists the change is long overdue. "We should have done it 20 years ago," he told The Independent. The law would give a token state handout worth around pounds 400 a year to surviving "victims of repression" and their immediate families for the rest of their lives.

To claim this aid, they would have to prove both that their collaboration was small-scale, and that they were impoverished as a direct result of the punishment meted out in the post-war years.

Almost half a million Belgians were investigated for alleged collaboration with the Nazis after the war. Three thousand were condemned to death by military courts. Most had their sentences commuted to prison terms. But 242 went in front of the firing squads.

Tens of thousands of others, many of them Flemish, were branded as collaborators, were jailed or fined and lost their civil rights and property. To this day there are men and women who, thanks to delays, still cannot claim a pension, although they may have been pardoned by the appeal courts in the 1960s.

Collaborators have endured decades of ostracisationMr Suykerbuyk insists that allowing people to claim the handout will not rewrite history: "It does not in any way change the fact that they were convicted as collaborators."

But the Walloons see the measure as an amnesty for Nazis and a victory for the extreme right in Flanders. Flemish nationalism, is now more than ever linked in Walloon minds with the far right.

The Walloon collective memory venerates the notion of French speakers as heroic members and supporters of the underground resistance. True, there were a few high-profile French-speaking acolytes of Hitler in the 1930s, such as Leon Degrelle, the founder of the fascist Rexist movement, but the belief is that there was little grassroots sympathy among Walloons for the Nazis.

Flemings dispute this. They point out that Flemish cities such as Gent and Antwerp were important centres in the resistance. "Not all Walloons were in the resistance and not all Flemings were collaborators," Mr Suykerbuyk says.

But on the Flemish side there is also an ambivalence about the whole concept of collaboration. Their philosophy is that it has to be seen in context. "If you took a job from the German battalion stationed in your village, does that make you a Nazi?" Mr Suykerbuyk asked. "For many it was a question ofhow to put bread on the table."

The problem is that there were many card-carrying Flemish Nazis, not to mention sympathisers. The wartime Vlaams National Verbond (Flemish national Union) campaigned for the union of Germany, Holland and Flanders. They encouraged Flemish people to guard bridges against saboteurs and join the German army on the eastern Front. There were outright Flemish Nazis, such as Jef Van de Wiele, and a Flemish branch of the SS, whose members flooded the police and gendarmerie in Belgium the early days of the Occupation.

What the present row has exposed is the fact that many Flemings in 1939 did not see their refusal to defend a country run by a French-speaking elite as "betrayal". They felt no allegiance to a land where their language and rights were suppressed. Many did not know which was worse - the French- speakers who ran the country, or the Germans, who they hoped would at least redress Flemish grievances.

Hugo Schiltz, a former Belgian deputy prime minister and a leading member of the Volksunie, a moderate Flemish party, says: "The real problem is the blinkered Walloon attitude: Francophones still cannot admit that Flemish collaboration was due in part to the injustices of the time. They go on insisting that Flemish nationalism and Nazism shared the same hideous face."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Technical Author / Multimedia Writer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This recognized leader in providing software s...

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent