BOOK REVIEW / Old wounds reopened, guilty memories revived: Collaboration in Belgium - Martin Conway: Yale, pounds 30

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The Independent Online
IN 1973, this reviewer, then a foreign correspondent, covered a memorial service in a Flemish village for Canadian soldiers killed during the liberation of Belgium. Afterwards came speeches hailing the solidarity of Allied and Resistance forces in the Second World War crusade and I chatted with various village dignitaries as tongueloosening champagne flowed. I asked one worthy what role he had played in the anti-Nazi struggle. 'Actually,' he confided, 'I was on the other side.'

I soon discovered that he was far from being rare among Flemings in harbouring a pro-German past. Thus it's rather disappointing that Martin Conway, in his scholarly new account of Belgian collaboration with the Nazi conquerors, doesn't attend more to Flanders, where some separatists hoped that Berlin, the supposed champion of 'Germanic' peoples, would engineer their region's independence from Belgium. But Conway's subtitle - 'Leon Degrelle and the Rexist Movement, 1940-1944' - makes clear at the outset that his prime concern is with collaboration as practised in francophone Wallonia, rather than in Dutchspeaking Flanders.

All along, Conway insists that collaboration in Belgium was very much a minority affair, the Rexist faithful comprising perhaps 1 per cent of the population of Wallonia and Brussels. Even so, his book merits reading in tandem with works such as the memorable 1989 account by Mark Bles of one Belgian girl's anti-Nazi valour, Child at War. There, moreover, the appalling brutality rampant in Hitler's Europe is constantly in evidence, while Conway's book at times becomes clinically preoccupied with political minutiae.

In a sense, the clinical approach is necessary, since this is a ground-breaking investigation exploring issues which, as with Vichy France, have been treacherous areas for historians of the European Occupation because of abiding animosities or guilt-curbed recall. The passage of time now allows detachment, enhanced in Conway's case by his perspective as an offshore historian, operating from Oxford. He finds to start with that the origins of the Rex movement seemed innocent enough - a ring of militants founded in the early Thirties by a spellbinding publicist (Degrelle is still living, an 87-year-old exile in Spain) and initially preaching a brand of Catholic social revivalism. Deriving its Latin name from the cult of Christ the King, Rex did relatively well at the polls in the desperate, disenchanted climate of 1936 but faded thereafter and gravitated towards Fascism.

The German conquest of 1940 spurred Degrelle and his unruly cohorts into feverish subservience to the invader as they strove to win influence under the Nazis. Degrelle went off with a special Rexist brigrade to fight for the Nazis in Russia, returning to proclaim the Walloons a Germanic people fit for integration into an expanded Reich.

Rex, however, met with a rising tide of Resistance attacks as the liberation approached. These attacks, in which a brother of Degrelle was among the sympathisers gunned down, served as a pretext for a systematic Rexist counter-terror, and the latter pages of Conway's book switch from narrative loftiness to a chronicle of bloodletting. In one Rexist reprisal, at Courcelles in August 1944, 19 detainees, including several women and a priest, were shot one after another. The Rexist killers then 'returned to Brussels, where they were offered a drink and congratulated . . . on their act of revolutionary vengeance'.

After the war, 27 Rexists were executed for the Courcelles atrocity but many other captured collaborators were eventually released. 'Popular passions had subsided,' writes Conway, 'and, with the reestablishment of the democratic parliamentary regime and Belgium's integration into a structure of Cold War alliances, little purpose appeared to be served by maintaining large numbers of former collaborators in detention.' Belgium largely reverted to prewar institutions and policies, and the country' s chronic frictions, notably those between Flemings and Walloons, continued to disrupt the subsequent decades of peace.