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."

Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.
peopleThe idea has been greeted enthusiastically by the party's MPs
Michael Buerk in the I'm A Celebrity jungle 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Avatar grossed $2.8bn at the box office after its release in 2009
filmJames Cameron is excited
File: David Cameron offers a toast during a State Dinner in his honour March 14, 2012
voicesAnd nobody from Ukip said babies born to migrants should be classed as migrants, says Nigel Farage
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
Stik on the crane as he completed the mural
Happy in his hat: Pharrell Williams
Arts and Entertainment
Stella Gibson is getting closer to catching her killer
tvReview: It's gripping edge-of-the-seat drama, so a curveball can be forgiven at such a late stage
Brazilian football legend Pele pictured in 2011
peopleFans had feared the worst when it was announced the Brazil legand was in a 'special care' unit
i100(More than you think)
Brendan Rodgers seems more stressed than ever before as Liverpool manager
FOOTBALLI like Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
The Magna Carta
archaeologyContemporary account of historic signing discovered
Phyllis Dorothy James on stage during a reading of her book 'Death Comes to Pemberley' last year
peopleJohn Walsh pays tribute to PD James, who died today
Benjamin Stambouli celebrates his goal for Tottenham last night
Life and Style
Dishing it out: the head chef in ‘Ratatouille’
food + drinkShould UK restaurants follow suit?
peopleExclusive: Maryum and Hana Ali share their stories of the family man behind the boxing gloves
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

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML, CSS, SQL

£39000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - OOP, Javascript, HTML,...

Austen Lloyd: Commercial / Residential Property - Surrey


Recruitment Genius: Graduate Programme - Online Location Services Business

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: What do you want to do with your career? Do yo...

Recruitment Genius: Senior QC Scientist

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company is a leading expert in immunoassa...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game