Why should you be interested in the Nazi dictatorship in East Belgium during the Second World War? You live today in a democracy, in peace and possessing fundamental human rights from the day you’re born. But many democracies are being transformed into dictatorships on Europe’s doorstep. The history of the Second World War can show you how life gets changed in a dictatorship and that it’s worth fighting every dictatorship. Using the history of the Second World War in Eupen-Malmedy as an example, I will illustrate to you that you have absolutely no rights in a dictatorship and that democracy is the best recipe for living together in harmony, even if it is not perfect.
On 10 May 1940, the German army marched into Belgium, marking the start of the Second World War in the West. While Belgium harboured 1.5 million people refugees fleeing from the wrongdoings of the German Reich, numerous citizens in East Belgium between Kelmis in the north and Ouren in the south welcomed the troops with open arms, handing them small presents (cigarettes, chocolate) and offering them water, coffee or even a bite to eat.
- A large part of the population was opposed to being integrated in Belgium, the new fatherland. These citizens rejected the Treaty of Versailles, speaking openly of the region being returned to Germany.
- The majority of them had maintained strong links with Germany over the past two decades.
- While many of them upheld democratic principles, other sympathised with the German dictatorship.
- The effects of the world economic crisis seemed to have been less severe in Germany than in Belgium, a fact highlighted by German propaganda.
- In Eupen-Malmedy, a large number of pro-German organisations, financially and ideologically supported first by the Weimar Republic and after 1933 by the Nazis, were calling for the region to be returned to Germany.
- Around one hundred men had established national-socialist “front” organisations openly campaigning for the Third Reich.
Did the majority of the population welcome the invasion of 10 May 1940? This question can no longer be answered. Personal accounts (“egodocuments”) reveal that reactions varied between “great enthusiasm, borderless despair and all intermediate nuances”, as stated in Martin Schärer’s study. Around one hundred citizens fled Eupen-Malmedy, heading for Belgium. But only a very small slice of the population had any idea of how the war was set to spread, igniting the whole world.
On 18 May 1940, the cantons of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith, together with ten other neighbouring districts, were formally annexed under a decree of the Third Reich. This annexation contravened international law, as it occurred before the conclusion of a peace treaty. In September 1941, a German law definitively solved the citizenship question, with all inhabitants of the annexed districts becoming full-fledged citizens of the German Reich from this day on – with all associated rights and obligations. These included for example mandatory membership of certain Nazi organisations, such as the Hitler Youth for boys, or its counterpart for girls, the BDM, as well as conscription for young men. The citizens of Eupen-Malmedy now lived under circumstances completely different to the rest of occupied Belgium. The Belgian government in exile did not protest against the annexation, with the Belgian authorities tacitly accepting or even supporting the transfer to Germany.
The enthusiasm shown in the early days soon dissipated. Did the citizens of the cantons of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith have an idealised picture of their regained fatherland? Did national German convictions blind their eyes to the reality of the German dictatorship? Could the citizens of these rural areas offering just limited educational opportunities have better seen behind the Nazi propaganda? Perhaps better than their counterparts in the Saar, a similar border region between France and Germany where 90% of the populate voted for the Third Reich in the 1935 plebiscite?
It quickly became clear that the totalitarian state required the full commitment of its citizens. The Nazi party, administration and propaganda used a wide range of instruments to raise enthusiasm for the Third Reich. It was almost embarrassing to see how much effort the Nazi party and administration put into covering up anything that could be seen as a step backwards vis-à-vis the previous situation under Belgian rule, for instance the deterioration in the standard of living or the slower connection of telephone calls. By contrast, improvements were very much highlighted.
A major stir in the Catholic and conservative population was caused by the decision to remove crucifixes from schools in June and September 1940, but there were no public protests. Why not? In contrast to a democracy, a dictatorship forbids public demonstrations of discontent, attempting to control and steer the lives of all its subjects in all facets. Only a democracy allows its citizens freedom to act according to their conscience and to publicly fight for the rights of others. Similarly, in a dictatorship, people are denied the right to personal, self-defined development. A dictatorship protects its citizens against denunciation, oppression, surveillance, persecution or the integrity of life only as long as this serves its interests. Citizens have no opportunity to oppose the state with democratic means, meaning that the only form of opposition is resistance, whether individual or collective. Yet – as far as we know – there was no organised resistance in Eupen-Malmedy. A total of 62 citizens from the annexed region were killed in concentration camps for resisting the regime.
The German annexation policy in Eupen-Malmedy went through three phases: development - stagnation - outright war.
The first phase, lasting from May 1940 to autumn 1942, was characterised by a surprising amount of activity despite the war. Heavily subsidised by the Third Reich, a lot of development work took place in the regained region. However, the money was spent not so much on construction work but on developing national-socialist organisations, giving the populace the feeling of belonging to a major new Germanic community. Nobody was spared. Everyone had to do his or her bit to develop the system. This was supposed to give people a feeling of being useful and responsible for what was happening.
The second phase lasted from autumn 1942 until May 1944, and was characterised by deep disillusionment. Many national-socialist projects were stopped, including the building of the dam across the Weser valley near Eupen, where construction work had begun in 1936. More and more men were conscripted into the army, the list of those killed in action grew longer and longer, the German army was defeated in Stalingrad, the Gestapo and similar quasi-police units increased their surveillance, citizens were abducted to prisons and concentration camps – all this served to fundamentally change attitudes.
The third phase lasting until September 1944 was marked by outright war - the “totaler Krieg” as the Nazis called it. Everything was oriented towards the war: factories ceased producing non-military goods, women were increasingly forced to work in the factories and fields, and political surveillance reached its peak.
By August 1944, 8,700 men from Eupen-Malmedy had been conscripted, of whom 3,300 were never to return home, listed as killed or missing in action.
In September 1944, the US army liberated the region, which up to then had only had to endure sporadic bombing by the Allies. In December, the Belgian Eifel and the Ardennes became a battleground. In a final effort to stop the advance of the Allies, Hitler ordered troops under the command of General von Rundstedt to attack. Known by the Allies as the Battle of the Bulge, the battle raged from 16 December 1944 to 25 January 1945. Several villages and the small town of Sankt Vith were completely destroyed, while others suffered heavy damage. Traumatising the civilian population, these events are indelibly stamped into the region’s communicative memory.
The Second World War plays a major role in the memory culture of German-speaking Belgians, leaving its stamp on their identity. Above all in the Belgian Eifel, the population initially saw themselves as victims and, in doing so, were able to “forget” all the unpleasant sides of the war. Since the 1980’s however, things have changed, with the population now able to actively look back at the war and the inter-war period. Taboos are disappearing, albeit with a certain delay in the region around Eupen.
After an initial “head-in-the-sand” period, the interest of historians in the war and its consequences was aroused in the mid-1960’s – though not in the region, as seen by the fact that historical associations in Sankt Vith, Eupen and Kelmis remained silent about everything apart from the Battle of the Bulge. It was left up to German and Swiss historians, including Klaus Pabst, Heinz Doepgen, Martin Schärer and Heidi Christmann, to delve into the period between 1920 and 1945, covering the region’s transfer to Belgium, the inter-war years and the Second World War. The local media gradually increased their focus on the period, with for instance the local newspaper, the Grenz-Echo, printing long reviews of books covering the period, and the Belgian Broadcasting Corporation broadcasting its first documentaries. Since the 1980’s, taboos governing this period have successively disappeared.
As you have seen, a dictatorship is characterised by injustice and arbitrariness. Human rights are suppressed. Many people suffer.
But what about today? What do you think about Turkey, a state that is gradually turning its back on democracy and depriving people of the chance to fight for their rights? What do you think of Poland or Hungary, where inalienable rights – such as the separation of the judiciary and the executive or freedom of the press – are being undermined? Yet these are all instruments protecting all citizens from the actions of a dictatorship. What do you think of developments in Belgium or other European countries, where human rights have been hollowed out over the last twenty years with a view to providing greater protection against terrorist attacks?
Do closed-circuit cameras really need to be installed in a small town like Eupen to fight crime, or wouldn’t it be better for each and every one of us to enjoy their freedom without state-sponsored snooping?
Further reading (in German):
Peter M. Quadflieg: „Zwangssoldaten” und „Ons Jongen”. Eupen-Malmedy und Luxemburg als Rekrutierungsgebiet der deutschen Wehrmacht im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Aachen 2008.
Martin Schärer: Deutsche Annexionspolitik im Westen. Die Wiedereingliederung Eupen-Malmedys im Zweiten Weltkrieg. Bern, Frankfurt am Main 1975.