Belgium's war and peace

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The Independent Online
BELGIUM will erupt in a co- ordinated celebration of '50 years of peace' this weekend as lesser British royals, veterans and the Belgians themselves re-live the arrival of Allied troops in 1944.

But the street dances, the military tattoo, the blitz of the media coverage and the ceremonies of remembrance have only served to underline the extent to which the country is still at war with itself.

For many, the liberation (Belgium was not fully liberated until February 1945) was followed by the darkest days of the whole war as a populace once united against the enemy split again into its constituent parts and vengeful citizens settled scores.

The German-speaking cantons in the north-east, only Belgian after the First World War, were annexed in the second. After liberation, thousands of citizens were rounded up, beaten and imprisoned - the movement to suppress the region's language and culture intensified.

The resentment between French-speaking Wallonia and Flemish Flanders was played out in executions and summary displays of civilian justice.

For many Flemings, the horrors inflicted on them by Walloon officers in the First World War and the severe discrimination they suffered subsequently had stoked nationalist sentiments that fed on Nazi promises of an independent Flemish nation. Some joined up and others actively collaborated, as did the Francophone Rexists, who were intellectually attracted to Fascism.

At the end of the war, collaborators were harshly treated. The worst offenders were executed. Others were jailed, forced to pay reparations and fines and stripped off civic rights. Property could be sequestered, and pension rights abolished.

Over the years successive laws have rehabilitated all but some 600 or so pariahs and at the start of the year King Albert created a stir by suggesting they, too, be granted an amnesty. But his idea, which commands greater support in Flanders than in Wallonia, has merely unleashed all the old animosities.

Last weekend, at the so- called Ijzerbedevaart, 35,000 Flemish nationalists urged him to act and decried what was termed '50 years of Belgian intolerance'. The Ijzerbedevaart is the annual pilgrimage to a monument towering 85 metres above the Flemish plain commemorating the Flemish dead of the First World War. Anti-Flemish feeling ran so high in 1946 that the original tower was blown up.

It is a display of nationalist fervour on a par with old-style Afrikaner rallies, attracting Flemish politicians and mainstream voters as well as extremist elements that the authorities say they cannot stop attending. This year the theme was Brussels - capital of Flanders.

Under the federal reforms of last year, Belgium is now composed of autonomous regions. Brussels is a category on its own but Flemish nationalists still believe that it should be the capital of Flanders.