Many people were killed, many villages destroyed in the war. Even neighbours fought each other during this war – with words, chicanery, denunciations and weapons. The injustice was incredible, and everybody felt hurt in some way or another. Moreover, the Eupen-Malmedy population had fought in the German army after the annexation, inter alia against Belgium, a country that was once again their fatherland. Let me ask you: After such a terrible war, how can a society find peace with itself and others? How can such injustice be made good? Is justice possible at all – after so many years suffering under a terrible dictatorship? East Belgium is a post-war society made up of different elements, but following a single and unique path.
In 1945, the Eifel and Ardennes regions were in ruins, while the region around Eupen was in a state of shock. A way had to be found to transition from wartime to peacetime.
The immediate post-war years in Belgium were marked by an urge for justice and revenge. After four years of German occupation, collaborators were supposed to pay the price of their actions, while spies and traitors were to be sentenced to death. Everything reminding people of the hated occupiers was to be eradicated. Indeed, many Belgians equated national socialism and German nationalism with the German language and culture. Though well-intentioned, denazification and the punishment of collaborators became anchored in the collective memory as “répression” and “épuration” (purge) Following Belgium’s liberation in 1944, a hysterical purge broke out, directed mainly against collaborators – similar to what happened in other occupied countries in Europe such as France, Czechoslovakia and Poland.
Beginning in September 1944, the purge did not spare East Belgium and its 60,000 inhabitants, and only drew to an end in the 1950’s. During this period, the Belgian Resistance – the so-called White Army – or the military inspectors in the ex-cantons of Eupen and Malmedy arrested 6000 - 7000 citizens, interning them in concentration camps or prisons. 18,427 court files were drawn up for the region’s 60,000 inhabitants, leading to 3,201 court cases and the sentencing of 1,503 citizens – four times the Belgian average. Some 10,000 citizens – this figure includes their families – were supposed to lose their Belgian nationality and be sent off to Germany. At the end of the day, a “mere” 461 citizens were affected by this measure of the Belgian state under a law adopted for this specific purpose.
Many East Belgians lost part or all of their rights for a limited period or ad infinitum. For instance, in 1946 50% of the German-speaking male population was disenfranchised, while women did not gain the right to vote until 1948. Up to June 1946, more than 4,000 citizens were largely excluded from public life due to a negative certificate of good conduct. Companies, administrations, clubs, etc. fared no better. As countless files had been destroyed or taken away by the White Army, the military courts had little by way of concrete evidence, leading to the mayor of Eupen, Herr Zimmermann, calling on citizens to denounce traitors.
Was this the right thing to do? The Belgian government had not recognised the annexation of Eupen-Malmedy in 1940 as it contravened international law. Nevertheless, it had tacitly accepted or even supported the region’s transfer to Germany. After 1945, a strict regime was supposed to govern East Belgium. However, against the background of inner-Belgian tensions with regard to the purges, any special treatment seemed hardly possible. For this reason, the East Belgian civilian population as well as the 8,800 soldiers who had fought in the German army were supposed to be judged under the same criteria as the inhabitants of occupied Belgium, though the special role of East Belgium was obviously supposed to be at least taken into account. But this turned out to be practically impossible.
While the Belgian authorities needed quite a long time to understand what daily life had been like in Eupen and Malmedy during the Third Reich, the military courts complained that, though they had several reports involving possible collaborators, the Belgian Resistance had destroyed or taken away so many files that it was almost impossible to arrive at legally sound verdicts.
Within the population, the purges were for the most part considered to be unfair, as East Belgium had been “annexed and not occupied”. The first sentences were sometimes very harsh, though most of them were relaxed or even declared null and void upon appeal.
The post-war policy developed for East Belgium in Brussels and in the commissariat in Malmedy was also considered to be unfair, with the borders to Germany being for the most part shut and the East Belgians expected to now look to Belgium instead to Germany. An exaggerated Belgian nationalism was supposed to take hold of the region, while French was enforced in schools and local authorities.
For the Belgian Eifel, the post-war years were important for another reason as well. Lasting until the 1960’s, this was the reconstruction period. While most municipalities in Belgium had escaped destruction, the Battle of the Bulge had caused massive destruction in East Belgium. Under these circumstances, a number of Belgian municipalities took over sponsorships for villages in East Belgium, alleviating hardship through donations of food and household articles.
The purges remained a taboo in the region until the 1990’s. At an emotional level, everyone had experienced and got over the period in different ways. The population had kept quiet about what had happened during the period, sticking their heads into the sand. They saw themselves as war victims due to the annexation or the forced conscription of young men into the German army, or as victims of the Battle of the Bulge or the post-war purges. It was only after the archives had been opened to the public that the first studies appeared, looking at the episode from a scientific perspective. The question remains unanswered to this day why the purges were unsuccessful in achieving their basic intention of administering justice, but were seemingly successful in installing peace.
This example shows how difficult it was for the courts under these exceptional circumstances to administer justice in a way considered fair by the majority of the populace. But the citizens of the region had similar problems coming to terms with the deeds of their fellow citizens. Was this the reason why so many kept quiet?
These days, we are often tempted to judge somebody else. In the social media, people are (anonymously) abused or bullied. But court sentences are always based on concrete evidence. What information do we need in order to be able to arrive at an opinion and judge someone or something?
Further reading (in German):
Christoph Brüll: Belgien im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Besatzung, Annäherung, Ausgleich (1944-1958). Essen 2009.
Christoph Brüll, Els Herrebout, Peter M. Quadflieg (Hg.): Eine ostbelgische „Stunde Null”? Eliten aus Eupen-Malmedy vor und nach 1944. Annalen des Symposiums im Staatsarchiv in Eupen am 15. September 2012. Brüssel 2013 (Belgisches Staatsarchiv, Quellen und Forschungen zur Geschichte der deutschsprachigen Belgier, Bd. 6).
Carlo Lejeune: Die Säuberung, Bd. 2: Hysterie, Wiedereingliederung, Assimilierung (1945-1952), Büllingen 2007.
Carlo Lejeune: Die Säuberung, Bd. 3: Verdrängte Erinnerung – 340 Zeitzeugen berichten. Büllingen 2008.