Author Topic: Belgium under Nazi Occupation  (Read 2540 times)

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Offline <k>

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Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« on: March 16, 2017, 11:13:09 PM »
In this topic I will continue my general series on the era of fascism and World War 2. I will very briefly look at the birth of Belgium as a state and the issues it faced, before assessing how far fascism did or did not penetrate Belgian politics in the 1930s. I will also look at the standard Belgian coinage on the eve of war, so that we can see to what extent it changed under the Occupation.

 
« Last Edit: March 17, 2017, 01:13:49 AM by <k> »

Offline <k>

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #1 on: March 16, 2017, 11:15:44 PM »
Note: text in blue is largely taken from Wikipedia, though I have occasionally abridged it.

The Belgian Revolution of 1830 led to the secession of the southern provinces - mainly the former Southern Netherlands - from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. These provinces then established an independent Kingdom of Belgium. The people of the Southern Netherlands were mainly Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons. Both peoples were traditionally Roman Catholic, whilst the Northern Dutch were mainly Lutheran Protestants. Many liberals regarded King William I's rule as despotic. There were high levels of unemployment and industrial unrest among the working classes.

On 25 August 1830 riots erupted in Brussels and shops were looted. Uprisings followed elsewhere in the country. Factories were occupied and machinery destroyed. Order was restored briefly after William committed troops to the Southern Provinces but rioting continued and leadership was taken up by radicals, who started talking of secession. Dutch units saw the mass desertion of recruits from the southern provinces, and pulled out. The States-General in Brussels voted in favour of secession and declared independence. In the aftermath, a National Congress was assembled. King William refrained from future military action and appealed to the Great Powers. The resulting 1830 London Conference of major European powers recognized Belgian independence. Following the installation of Leopold I as "King of the Belgians" in 1831, King William made a belated military attempt to reconquer Belgium and restore his position through a military campaign. This "Ten Days' Campaign" failed because of French military intervention. Not until 1839 did the Dutch accept the decision of the London conference and Belgian independence by signing the Treaty of London.

Issues of language and religion had been two of the issues behind the creation of Belgium. In terms of power and influence, the Francophone Walloons were now dominant in the new state. In the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, French reigned: it was spoken in the wealthy coal-rich south and was the language of the Francophile elite, while the Flemings were the underdogs. For that reason, most Walloons favoured a unitary state: they were in effect simply Belgian nationalists, who approved of Wallonian predominance.

« Last Edit: March 26, 2017, 07:29:56 PM by <k> »

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #2 on: March 16, 2017, 11:20:22 PM »
The Great Crash occurred in 1929, but in 1932 Belgium’s three traditional and moderate political parties won 90% of the vote in the general election. In those days the main Belgian parties were not split along linguistic lines – that did not happen until the 1960s and 1970s. The effects of the Great Depression came late to Belgium and were less severe than elsewhere. However, the deflationary policies of the coalition of the Catholic and Liberal parties, under Prime Minister Paul van Zeeland of the Catholic Party, exacerbated the situation. In the general election of 1936, the Labour Party won around a third of the votes, becoming the biggest party, but it went into a government of national unity with the Catholic and Liberal parties, and Paul van Zeeland remained prime minister. Given decree powers, van Zeeland tackled the economic crisis by devaluing the currency and resorting to expansive budgetary policies. Nonetheless, by this stage, there was still some anger at politicians and bankers, who some considered responsible for the depression and also to have profited from it. At this point a new face entered the political arena: Léon Degrelle.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #3 on: March 16, 2017, 11:22:15 PM »
After studying at a Jesuit college and later for a law doctorate, Léon Degrelle worked as a journalist for the conservative Roman Catholic periodical “Christus Rex” (“Christ the King”), where he was attracted to the ideas of the Frenchman Charles Maurras and his “Action française”. A reactionary pro-Catholic and monarchist movement, Action française was highly elitist and disapproved of “the masses”, but it is regarded as proto-fascist because of its belief in “direct action”: violence. Its members used to beat up political opponents in the street, a tactic later enthusiastically adopted by fascists. Degrelle led a militant tendency inside the Belgium Catholic Party, which he formed around his newspaper. Though he would later become an infamous pro-Nazi collaborator, at this point he was not a fully-fledged fascist. Degrelle clashed with the mainstream Catholic Party members, and the Rexist group separated itself from the Catholic Party in 1935.

The ideology of Rex called for the "moral renewal" of Belgian society through the dominance of the Catholic Church, and by forming a corporatist society and abolishing liberal democracy. It idealised rural life and traditional family values. The Rexist party also vigorously denounced corruption in Belgian politics, thanks to which it stirred politics up in 1936, and its leader's supposed charisma gave rise to the punning phrase, “Rex appeal!” However, Belgian women were not allowed to vote in those days. Initially Rex gained considerable popularity and won 11.5% of the votes in the 1936 general election, making it the fourth-strongest force in Parliament. Though authoritarian and not totalitarian, the party increasingly made use of fascist-style rhetoric, which was a fashionable meme in those days. Later Degrelle ran in the April 1937 Brussels by-election against Prime Minister Paul van Zeeland of the Catholic Party. By this time the worst of the Depression was over, and the Spanish civil war had alerted people to the dangers of fascism. Van Zeeland was supported by all the other parties, even the Communists, and the Catholic Church of Belgium intervened, calling Rexism "a danger to the country and to the Church". Degrelle was decisively defeated: he lost by 20% to 80%.

Only after this defeat did Rex openly embrace anti-Semitism and anti-parliamentarism, following the Nazi model, but its popularity now declined sharply. In the 1939 election, Rex's share of the votes fell to 4.4%, and it lost 17 of its 21 seats, mostly to the Catholic and Liberal parties.

Offline <k>

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #4 on: March 16, 2017, 11:26:51 PM »
In October 1936 Degrelle had made a secret agreement with the VNV, the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Union). Both movements strove for a corporatist system, but the VNV wanted to separate Flanders from Belgium and unite it with the Netherlands. The Flemish side cancelled the agreement after just one year. Rex and VNV both received subsidies from Hitler and Mussolini, who, with typical cynical opportunism, aimed to destabilise Belgium by a policy of "divide and rule".

The Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (VNV: Dutch for "Flemish National Union" or "Flemish National League") was a nationalist Flemish political party in Belgium, active between 1933 and 1944. It was founded by Staf de Clercq. The party was authoritarian and reactionary in outlook and though it adopted some fascist airs, prior to World War 2 it was not genuinely fascist. It aimed to separate Flanders from Belgium and to unite it with the Netherlands to form a Greater Netherlands, termed Dietschland, nowadays spelled "Dietsland" ("Dutchland"). Verdinaso was a similar movement, but it was not a party and did not take part in elections. Flemish nationalists had a variety of options: some favoured more autonomy within the unitary state. Some favoured a federation of Flanders and Wallonia. The more extreme Flemings dreamed of a Greater Netherlands, which would include all the Dutch-speaking peoples. They referred to this concept as Dietschland, which is nowadays spelled as Dietsland. The smallest version of Dietsland would include a unified Netherlands and Flanders. A larger version would include French Flanders, and sometimes even Luxembourg and / or the Frisians of Germany.

Fascism was never a serious internal threat in the Belgium of the 1930s. Democratic politics survived the Depression with little difficulty. The real threat was external, as Nazi Germany became ever more aggressive.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #5 on: March 16, 2017, 11:50:30 PM »
King Leopold III had come to the throne in 1934, determined to maintain Belgium's policy of neutrality. Under his reign, a new design series of coins was issued in 1938 and 1939. They looked rather modern compared to the old-fashioned, often allegorical and rather French-looking designs of the 1920s. As usual, they catered for Belgium's linguistic division by including legends in French, spoken by the Walloons, and Dutch, spoken by the Flemings. België and Belgique are, respectively, the Dutch and French words for Belgium.

Below you see the two versions of the 5 centimes design. One side shows the royal monogram, which includes a capital L for Leopold and its mirror image, while the other side shows the coats of arms of the cities of Arlon, Gent and Liège. Both coins are the same size - the images are not to scale.

Offline <k>

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #6 on: March 16, 2017, 11:53:24 PM »
The 10 centimes coins feature the arms of the cities: Antwerp, Hasselt and Namur.
« Last Edit: March 17, 2017, 11:06:36 AM by <k> »

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #7 on: March 16, 2017, 11:59:14 PM »
25 centimes - cities: Brugge, Bruxelles/Brussel, and Mons.

The 5, 10 and 25 centimes coins were designed by Oscar Jespers. In Belgium, he was a very famous and well-known artist.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2017, 11:07:12 PM by <k> »

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #8 on: March 17, 2017, 12:16:42 AM »
The 50 centimes of the series exists only as a French-language version dated 1939. The upper image is courtesy of www.ibelgica.be. The lower image shows a trial strike, courtesy of www.numisbids.com. The arms belong to the provinces of East Flanders, Hainaut and Luxembourg.

According to the Royal Mint of Belgium, the 50 centimes coin of 1939 was never put into circulation, because of the difficulties caused by the outbreak of war.
« Last Edit: March 23, 2017, 11:10:03 PM by <k> »

Offline <k>

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #9 on: March 17, 2017, 12:30:46 AM »
The 1 franc coin shows the arms of the provinces of Limburg, Namur, and West Flanders.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #10 on: March 17, 2017, 12:40:07 AM »
The 5 francs features the arms of the provinces: Antwerpen, Brabant, and Liège.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #11 on: March 17, 2017, 01:04:37 AM »
The 50 francs coin featured a portrait of King Leopold III, and this time the arms of all the nine provinces were represented.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #12 on: March 17, 2017, 11:22:52 AM »
Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, following the German invasion of Poland, but no major land operations occurred in Western Europe during the period known as the Phoney War in the winter of 1939–1940. The French and British governments tried to persuade Belgium to join them, but King Leopold III and his government refused, maintaining Belgium's neutrality. Belgium considered itself well-prepared against a possible invasion by Axis forces. During the 1930s the Belgian government had made extensive preparations to deter and repel a German invasion, such as had occurred in 1914. On 9 October 1939, Adolf Hitler ordered plans to be made for an invasion of the Low Countries (Benelux), to use them as a base against Great Britain and to pre-empt a similar attack by the Allied forces, which could threaten the vital Ruhr Area.

On 10 May 1940, the Wehrmacht invaded Belgium. On the first day of the offensive, the principal Belgian strong point of Fort Eben-Emael was overwhelmed by a daring paratroop operation. The defensive perimeter was therefore penetrated before any French or British troops could arrive. After a short battle, Belgium was overwhelmed by the numerically superior and better-prepared Germans. Nevertheless, the Belgians prevented the British Expeditionary Force from being outflanked and cut off from the coast, enabling the evacuation from Dunkirk. After his military surrender, Leopold (unlike Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, in a similar predicament) remained in Brussels to surrender to the victorious invaders, while his entire civil government fled to Paris and later to London.

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #13 on: March 17, 2017, 11:25:16 AM »
On 24 May 1940, Leopold, having assumed command of the Belgian Army, met his ministers for the final time. They urged the king to leave the country with the government. Prime Minister Hubert Pierlot reminded him that capitulation was a decision for the Belgian government, not the king. The king indicated that he had decided to remain in Belgium with his troops, whatever the outcome. The ministers took this to mean that he would establish a new government under the direction of Hitler, potentially a treasonous act. Leopold thought that he might be seen as a deserter if he were to leave the country: "Whatever happens, I have to share the same fate as my troops." Leopold had long had a difficult relationship with his ministers, acting independently whenever possible, and trying to circumvent and even limit their powers.

French, British, and Belgian troops were encircled by German forces at the Battle of Dunkirk. Leopold notified King George VI by telegram on 25 May 1940 that Belgian forces were being crushed, saying "the assistance that we give to the Allies will come to an end if our army is surrounded". Two days later, Leopold surrendered the Belgian forces to the Germans. Prime Minister Pierlot spoke on French radio, saying that the king's decision to surrender went against the Belgian Constitution, since he had acted without his ministers' advice. Pierlot and his Government believed this created an impossibilité de régner and that regency and guardianship should be provided by the united Chambers. It was now impossible, however, to summon the Belgian Chamber of Representatives or Belgian Senate, or to appoint a regent. After Leopold's surrender, the British press denounced him as "Traitor King" and "King Rat", and French Prime Minister Paul Reynaud, aware that the Battle of France was probably already lost, accused Leopold of treason.

Leopold's surrender was also decried by Winston Churchill. In the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 he said: “At the last moment when Belgium was already invaded, King Leopold called upon us to come to his aid, and even at the last moment we came. He and his brave, efficient army, nearly half a million strong, guarded our left flank and thus kept open our only line of retreat to the sea. Suddenly, without prior consultation, with the least possible notice, without the advice of his ministers and upon his own personal act, he sent a plenipotentiary to the German Command, surrendered his army and exposed our whole flank and means of retreat."

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Re: Belgium under Nazi Occupation
« Reply #14 on: March 17, 2017, 11:36:02 AM »
Shortly after the surrender of the Belgian army, the Militärverwaltung in Belgien und Nordfrankreich (a "Military Administration" covering Belgium and the two French departments of Nord and Pas-de-Calais) was created by the Germans with Brussels as administrative centre. Germany annexed Eupen-Malmedy, a German-speaking region given to Belgium under the Treaty of Versailles of 1919. The Military Government was placed under the control of General Alexander von Falkenhausen, an aristocrat and career soldier. Under von Falkenhausen's command, the German administration had two military units at its disposal: the Feldgendarmerie ("Field Gendarmerie", part of the Wehrmacht) and the Gestapo (the "Secret State Police", part of the SS). The section of the Military Government that dealt with civil matters, the Militärverwaltungsstab, commanded by Eggert Reeder, was responsible for all economic, social and political matters in the territory.

Before leaving the country in 1940, the Belgian government had installed a panel of senior civil-servants, the so-called "Committee of Secretaries-General", to administer the territory in the absence of elected ministers. The Germans retained the Committee during the occupation; it was responsible for implementing demands made by the Militärverwaltungsstab. The Committee hoped to stop the Germans becoming involved in the day-to-day administration of the territory, allowing the nation to maintain a degree of autonomy. The Committee also hoped to be able to prevent the implementation of more radical German policies, such as forced labour and deportation. In practice, the Committee merely enabled the Germans to implement their policies more efficiently than the Military Government could have done by force.