Vincent Stuer is a writer and works in the European Parliament. He writes in his own name. Stuer is the author of Pride – From Verdinaso to Resistance.
78 years ago today, most Belgians woke up in a liberated country.
Due to the speed of the Allied advance, the direct role of the Belgian resistance was limited. The years of preparation for l’Heure-H turned out to be over in a few days, the laboriously collected weapons immediately superfluous. But it wasn’t a lack of effort. Since the Normandy landings, there have been hundreds of attacks to pave the way for the Allies. Those first days of September, the railways were thwarted in 600 places, 140 locomotives destroyed, 50 bridges damaged. But the heavy lifting continued for the regular army, Americans and British.
Yet there is one place where armed resistance made a huge difference: the port of Antwerp. As early as 1943 a committee had been set up to map the German use of the port. By the time British intelligence began to see its importance, Antwerp’s sabotage plans were well advanced. With the liberation approaching, mines and bombs were dismantled, by the afternoon of September 4 the main docks were in the hands of the resistance, and German attempts to flood the Antwerp sewer system had been thwarted. If Antwerp could later serve as a hinge for the Allied advance, it had everything to do with the oil that local resistance fighters had poured into it.
In the recent overview work Resistance, The Underground War in Europe 1939-45 Halik Kochanski gives the story of the Antwerp resistance a nice place. Where it has no place is in our collective memory. In most occupied countries, according to Kochanski, ‘the memory of resistance proved to be more important in retrospect than the resistance itself had been of strategic importance during the war’. Not so in Belgium, where the history of resistance still remains underexposed after all these years. Strange, but telling.
Part of the explanation lies with the resistance groups themselves.
The Belgian resistance was in no way inferior to that of the French or Dutch. In every aspect of it – propaganda, hindering the occupying economy or the military preparations for the eventual invasion – the Belgians proved equally creative and entrepreneurial. The idea for the ‘V’ campaign, for example, came from a Belgian and was immediately imitated throughout occupied Europe. During the liberation, the BBC repeatedly told what the British thought about it: ‘Nowhere more than in Belgium has the resistance achieved success.’
But many fought for the right cause for reasons that were later seen as wrong.
For the right, the country’s takeover in 1940 had proved that democracy was too weak to defend itself. Dissatisfaction with this national disgrace drove those people into resistance, both against the Germans and against the democratic institutions that had been folded before them. The imprisoned King Leopold III offered a symbol of passive resistance, but also the hope of an authoritarian regime in which party politics would no longer play a role. On the left, many communists showed courage during the war, but they became suspicious soon after when the conflict with Moscow cast doubt on their civilian loyalty. Both flanks lost the post-war, which became democratic and western.
Country without winners
But our distorted view of war and resistance also says a lot about our self-image.
For the inhabitants of many countries, the turn of the millennium prompted a collective reflection on their national identity and the history that has shaped them. In the United Kingdom, of course, they elected Winston Churchill as the greatest Briton of all time, the man who almost single-handedly won the Second World War. In France it became Charles de Gaulle, the man who had kept them on the right side of history in those years. In Germany: Konrad Adenauer, who symbolized the tearing apart of the old Germany and laid the foundation of the new. In contrast, nobody from the political history of the twentieth century could be found in the top ten of largest Belgians, any more in French-speaking Belgium than in Flanders. It is as if we have made it through that century, and the two world wars in the middle of it, without winners and without leaders.
De Gaulle gave his country the comforting fiction that ‘France has been liberated by itself’, the Belgian government in exile was sent back to the wings. In other countries, a new generation of politicians broke through on the basis of their credibility as members of the resistance. With us they remained extremely rare, while in Flanders the political opening was made more towards the collaborative side. In our memory, it was better for us to downplay the importance of the resistance, and portray everyone as a little wrong and very much a victim.
Now that the 1930s are back, it’s time to rethink the 1940s. Perhaps there is now room for the realization that, even in the darkest times, thousands of men and women have risked and lost their lives for freedom.