Belgium dropped to a red rating, reflecting the rise of a revisionist far-right-wing Flemish party and a series of anti-Semitic incidents -- which most mainstream Belgin politicians ignored and refused to condemn. The most notorious example occurred in the town of Aalst, where a carnival parade float “humorously” pictured Jews as rats. The European Commission condemned the float. UNESCO dropped the Aalst Carnival from its world heritage list. But for all of 2019, Belgian politicians of all stripes refused to condemn it. Only last week did the Antwerp Mayor Bart De Wever express his concern.
Belgium scores well in almost all categories. Even Flemish nationalists, long sensitive about the subject of collaboration, have opened a museum which points out their responsibility in deportations.
Although it took decades from the end of World War II, the Belgian government today accepts its role in the Holocaust.
After long claiming that Belgium played no significant role in the Holocaust and that country was only a victim of the Nazi occupation, the government commissioned in 2004 a report from the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation. In 2007, it published, under the title “Docile Belgium, a more than 1000 page study detailing how the Belgian state collaborated with the Nazi occupation in hunting down its Jews and Roma, or gypsies.
That same year, Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt apologized for Belgium’s complicity in deporting Jews at the site of the Dossin Barracks, a transport camp in Mechelen. In 2012, Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo issued a similar apology. Last year, the federal government instituted an annual special session at the Senate and Chamber of Representatives to memorialize the Holocaust.
Holocaust denial is illegal in Belgium. Holocaust education is mandated in the French-speaking Wallonian region. In Flanders, Holocaust education is widespread, though not explicitly required in the curriculum. Although some Flemish politicians have claimed that Flemish cooperation with the Nazis was not driven by racism or anti-Semitism, but rather by a fight for equal economic and social status with French-speaking Belgians, none have denied the Holocaust.
The Holocaust in Belgium
Germany invaded and conquered Belgium in 1940. A government in exile fled to London.
collaborationist Belgian civilian government remained behind and coexisted with the German military government.
German occupiers began to identify and regulate Jewish life. An estimated 70,000 Jews lived in Belgium before the war. Belgian authorities followed German orders to register the Jews, but only 42,000 Jews were eventually registered. Many Belgian Jews fled to France and other European countries. German Military Governor General von Falkenhausen hesitated to carry out Nazi orders. The Belgian civilian government also made significant efforts to protect Belgian-born Jews, though no attempts were made to save non-Belgian or immigrant Jews.
Beginning in July of 1942, the German occupiers began deporting Jews and Roma from
Mechelen Transit Camp, today known as the Dossin Barracks. The camp is located midway
between Brussels and Antwerp and served as the main transport base in Belgium. More than 25,000 Jews were deported from Mechelen. The majority were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Two-thirds of those deported were immediately sent to gas chambers. At least 90% of those deported were not Belgian citizens. They were immigrants or refugees who had arrived in Belgium after fleeing persecution in Germany, Austria, or Poland.
While the Belgian nation was complicit in the crimes of the Holocaust, Belgium can claim the fifth largest number of “Righteous Among Nations.” Belgium is especially known for its network of “hidden children,” Jewish children taken in and protected by non-Jewish Belgians during the war.
There was only one incident of clearly anti-Semitic violence in Belgium during the war, which occurred on Easter, April 14, 1941. A mob of Belgian citizens vandalized and destroyed much of the Jewish Quarter of Antwerp. The group set fire to two synagogues and the house of a Belgian rabbi.
- 1969: Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary
Society (CEGES) is founded, originally as Centre for Research and Studies on the
History of the Second World War.
- 1995: Act of 23 March 1995 prohibits Holocaust negationism. The law penalizes any
minimization, approving, or justifying of the genocide.
- July 1997: The Study Commission is founded to research the assets of the Belgian
Jewish community lost during WWII.
- 2000: A PhD thesis outlines the collaboration and contributions of Antwerp authorities in
- 2001: The report by the Study Commission (founded in 1997) is published.
- December 2001: Act of 20 December 2001 establishes the Indemnification Commission
for the assets of Belgian Jews.
- 2004: The Belgian government designates January 27th as “Remembrance Day of the
Genocide committed by Nazi Germany”.
- 2004: The Belgian government commissions CEGES to research the role of Belgian
authorities in WWII and the Holocaust.
- 2007: “La Belgique Docile” published.
- 2007: Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt publicly apologizes for Belgium’s
complicity at the site of the Dossin Barracks.
- December 2007: Research closes on the assets and individual claims of Belgian Jews.
The Belgian Judaism Foundation is established, and remaining reparations are donated
to the Foundation for the support of the Jewish community.
- May 2007: Belgian Prime Minister and Minister of Defense honor the Righteous Among
Nations of Belgium with a plaque.
- March 2009: Decree of 13 March 2009 by the French Community supports Holocaust
- 2012: Prime Minister Elio Di Rupo publicly apologizes for role of Belgian authorities in
- 2017: Federal government institutes an annual special session at the Senate and
Chamber of Representatives to memorialize the Holocaust
The current Belgian government condemns the atrocities of the Holocaust and apologizes for the role that Belgium played in the persecution of the Jews.
The most recent case concerning Holocaust revisionism dates back to 2015 when politician
Laurent Louis made a public speech claiming Zionism to be worse than Nazism. After initially fining Louis EUR20,000 and giving him a six-month suspended jail sentence, the Brussels Court of Appeals ruled that his punishment would instead be to visit and write about one Nazi concentration camp each year for five years. This caused significant controversy. Some thought it was minimizing the severity of Holocaust denial as a crime. Others thought it was a productive way to address revisionism in the public eye.
A more contemporary divisive issue concerns immigration. During the war, the Belgian
government took strong action to protect Belgian Jews but willingly provided the information of non-Belgian Jewish refugees or immigrants to German authorities.
This memory is often politicized to convey certain messages either for or against immigration. Conservative parties tend to use the Holocaust as a warning sign against anti-Semitism, which they claim is common among Muslim immigrants. Left-wing uses Holocaust remembrance to argue for more open borders for immigrants and refugees.
In December 2018, Prime Minister Charles Michel’s government lost its majority in Parliament after its biggest coalition partner, the right-wing N-VA Flemish party, left in opposition to the planned signing this month of the United Nations international agreement on migration. Michel said he would try to lead the remaining minority government to “ensure stability.
Education in Belgium is a local concern, so Holocaust education must be evaluated in each of its two main regions: French-speaking Wallonia and Dutch-speaking Flanders.
In Flanders, Holocaust education is not mandatory. The Flemish constitution allows pedagogical liberty for teachers. No specific topics are listed in the history curriculum in Flanders. Instead, the Ministry of Education focuses on the development of the skills and strategies necessary to better analyze history. At the same time, Flemish schools have signed a “Declaration of Commitment” to teach about “genocides and crimes against humanity in the second world war.” The Flemish Ministry of Education believes that most teachers teach the Holocaust because of the declaration.
Researchers at the Free University of Brussels are investigating the effectiveness of these
policies. The results of this study are expected to be published at the end of 2018. Holocaust education will also be included in 2018 as a “curriculum goal,” which will require teachers to prove their students have learned about the Holocaust. Efforts of Holocaust Revisionism are managed by the “Special Committee for Remembrance Education,” which is based out of the Kazerne Dossin.
In contrast, Wallonia and Brussels, the French-speaking communities of Belgium, require
Holocaust education. The subject is included as “the universe of concentration camps and
genocide.” Démocratie ou Barbarie, an organization founded in 1994 to coordinate and
encourage citizenship education in French-speaking Belgium, plays an important role in the advancement of Holocaust education. It organizes school visits to museums and memorials such as the Kazerne Dossin and even Auschwitz. Such visits are not required, but they are common.
The federal government owns and operates a Holocaust museum on the site of the Breendonk concentration camp, which held mostly political prisoners during the war. The Flemish government owns the Dossin Barracks deportation camp.
The fate of the Dossin Barracks is instructive. After the war, the federal government used the site as a military base. It sold the land to a private real estate developer in the early 1990s. After protests by the Jewish community, the Flemish government bought two of the flats in the complex and constructed a small museum.
In 2001, Flemish Prime Minister Patrick Dewael announced a plan to build a large museum on the site and appointed a committee of well-renowned historians to put together a proposal. It focused on the local Belgian Holocaust story. Although the new Flemish Prime Minister Yves Leterme initially rejected the project, he changed his mind after a visit to Auschwitz in 2006.
The museum today confronts the dark past in an unflinching, passionate fashion. Photos of all 25,846 Holocaust victims deported from Mechelen are posted on a three-floor high wall. Each year, additional photos are added. When pictures remain unavailable, a graphic representation is shown.
The museum’s permanent exhibit presents an unsparing look at Belgian collaboration,
emphasizing how Flanders was the most compliant to Nazi orders. According to Dr. Eric Picard, founder of the Brussels-based Association for the Memory of the Shoah, about 25 percent of the Jewish population in French-speaking Belgium was murdered, compared to 75 percent of Flanders’ similarly sized Jewish community. Hundreds of Belgians — many of them police officers — were involved directly in hunting down Jews. Not a single Belgian municipality refused the Nazi occupiers’ orders to register the Jews in their jurisdictions. Only one, in the Brussels region, refused to hand out yellow stars.
Holocaust commemoration is widespread in Belgium. January 27 is nationally recognized as the Holocaust Remembrance Day. Last year, the government instituted an annual special session at the Senate and Chamber of Representatives to memorialize the Holocaust.
Belgium has three main wartime archives, the Centre Communautaire Laïc Juif, The Auschwitz Foundation, and The National Memorial Fort Breendonk.
Archives are accessible to researchers, but the process of obtaining information is more
complicated for non-academics. All archives will be accessible by 2020, which will mark the 70- year anniversary of the end of the war. Certain archives have also been digitized in a process led by Yad Vashem.
A Study Commission was founded in July 1997 to research assets of the Belgian Jewish
community lost during WW II. It published its findings in 2001. Financial reparations were first allotted to survivors and the families of survivors. The remaining money was used to create The Belgian Judaism Foundation, which supports Jewish communities in Belgium.
Religious leaders are not active in Holocaust remembrance in Belgium. While the country’s
majority Roman Church, in general, condemns the Holocaust, it has made no official apology.
Islamic immigrants are anti-Israel. As such, Islamic communities are reticent to commemorate the Holocaust. Many Belgian citizens have expressed concern that teachers are reluctant to teach the Holocaust in schools with large Muslim populations.
Belgian news sources are sensitive to the memory of the Holocaust, and they often cover
events of commemoration. Some Belgians are frustrated that the media focuses so much on the Holocaust and neglects other parts of history, such as Belgium’s brutal colonization of the Congo.
About 30,000 Jews live in Belgium today, according to the World Jewish Congress. This means that Jews make up only about 0.2% of the total population of 11 million.
The overwhelming majority of Belgian Jews live in either Antwerp or Brussels. The Jewish
community in Brussels is largely Ashkenazi and secular, while the community in Antwerp is
mostly Orthodox. Jews are well integrated into Belgian society. The process of distributing
reparations to Jews after the war was completed.
-Authors: Ilana Luther and Lindsay Daugherty