Fifty years on, and Belgium's war wounds are still hurting

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The Independent Online
BELGIUM is trying to come to grips with a dilemma that has seared the national psyche: as it prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, is it time to pardon collaborators?

The country is still war- wounded. Its limping attempts to create a federal state were fuelled partly by tales of how Flemings were used as cannon fodder in the First World War by a Walloon officer class that refused to issue orders in a language the soldiers could understand. By the Second World War, some Flemings were supporting National Socialism, and its embrace of 'Germanic peoples', as a counterweight to Walloon dominance.

Many collaborators were only small-time black-marketers motivated by greed. But others routinely denounced their neighbours; and some even joined up on the German side, and helped to round up the Jewish community in Antwerp and elsewhere.

From the Walloon side came the notorious Rex group. Led by Leon Degrelle (who still lives in exile), it was attracted intellectually to fascism and collaborated with the Nazi regime at all levels, despite determined resistance that often led to vicious reprisals, including the mass shooting of innocents in tit-for-tat killings.

At the end of the war collaborators were harshly treated, though it is hard to come by reliable numbers. According to some civil records, the state opened files on nearly 500,000 people in a country with a population of 8.5 million. Military statistics show 55,000 files were opened and 3,000 sentenced to death, mostly in absentia. But few paid the ultimate price: according to the military records, only 1,247 came before a tribunal, of whom 242 were executed, including four women.

Those found guilty of lesser crimes of collaboration were jailed; forced to pay reparations and fines to the state; forbidden to hold any civil function; and risked having their property sequestered and being stripped of their citizenship and pension rights.

Over the years, successive laws have sought to rehabilitate many, but there are still an estimated 600 pariahs. Proposals now range from the lifting of censures to a full amnesty in return for a public admission of wrongdoing. According to the constitution, the initiative must come from parliament, but politicians are sharply divided along regional lines, and the subject brings out old public animosities, deeply buried but keenly felt.

The issue has engendered a passionate debate. All the Flemish parties (including the Christian Democrats who dominate the ruling coalition) favour reforms that go well beyond those supported by the French-speaking Socialists. The French-language newspaper Le Soir recently ran an interview with Lode Claes, a Flemish collaborator now reintegrated in Belgian society.

He explained that he had been drawn to the intellectual arguments of the German conservative revolution, but not to Nazism. He denied acting against any resistance members or Jews, but admitted that he should 'have taken more notice of what was going on around me'.

It is a sign of the feelings that the period still generates that Le Soir, itself a collaborationist newspaper during the war, felt obliged to run beside the interview a longer piece justifying the act of interviewing a collaborator, and sharply refuting his claim to innocence.

It added: 'It would be wrong to think that a miraculous solution could wipe out all hatred and rancour because, as the experience of France and the Netherlands has shown, even an amnesty is unable to heal all yesterday's wounds.'