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Belgian Repressed Memories

By Benoît Lechat

I never knew my paternal grandfather. He passed away in 1951, nine years before my birth and six after the end of the Second World War. All that I know of him is what my father transmitted to me through his stories and the traces of him that he has so carefully preserved. In August 1914, my grandfather was 16 years old. He lived in Liège, some forty kilometers from the German border, with his widowed mother and his two younger siblings. The city was occupied as early as August 7th, 1914. Fighting would continue until mid-August.

In November 1915, at just 17 years of age, my grandfather decided to join the Belgian army that was still engaged in battle behind the Yser. To do so, he and a group of his contemporaries tried to enter Holland, a country that was still spared from the conflict. However, from Vaals to Knokke, over 200 kilometers of the Belgian-Dutch border, the Germans had built the “dodendraad” or lethal electric fence. My grandfather was taken prisoner. He was one of the lucky ones. I know that many of his companions were killed, but what I don’t know is whether it was by soldiers or by the 2000-watt fence. I know that he was sent to a POW camp in Germany. He was detained first in Sennelager (Rhine Westphalia), and then in Holzminden (Lower Saxony). On his 18th birthday, he wrote his mother “I took communion with you in spirit. There is a small chapel where we can hear mass from 5:00 to 8:30 in the morning.” I can only imagine my poor great-grandmother’s joy in reading this, at home, alone with her two other children.

The roots of the fear of the Germans

In 1916, my grandfather was forced to work in a coalmine in Brambauer in the Ruhr. He attempted to escape three times and each time he was caught.  In November of 1918, he returned home. He bore the scars of his captivity. Rather than go to university to become an engineer like his father, he went to work.  He became an active business manager who gave himself to his region, Eastern Belgium, where he settled after getting married. He was sophisticated and athletic, but he suffered from great anxiety.  He smoked so much that he died from lung cancer at the age of 53, just after the end of the Second World War when peace had finally been restored.

When I re-read his letters or think about the stories my father has told me over the years, I can still feel the incredible anxiety, hidden behind the impeccable appearance, which this man felt for the rest of his life. I really do not know which concrete experience was the trigger. Was it the terror of crossing the electric fence? Was it the dogs that caught him each time he attempted to escape? I have no idea, but I do know that he had a phobia of German Shepherds. My father did too and he passed it on to me. It runs deep in me.

In the fall of 1938, probably after the Munich agreement that meant the end of Czechoslovakia, my grandfather was so afraid of a return of the 1914-1918 occupants, that he sent my father to a boarding school on the other side of the Meuse, the big natural border that served to reassure him, but wrongly so. My grandfather was not happy with the King of Belgium’s policy of neutrality. He knew that in the case of an invasion, the right bank of the river would be abandoned. In the winter of 1939, after the invasion of Poland, the whole family moved to the Coast of Belgium. Grandfather continued to commute by car between the west and east of the country for work.

Hatred of chauvinism and nationalism

When the invasion began on May 10th, 1940, my father was in a boarding school near Bruges. My grandfather came to get him as soon as possible to head towards the south of France and towards Portugal where he hoped to settle the family. He was always so careful about having a well-kempt appearance, but on that day he didn’t even take the time to shave. It was time to go, and quick. After weeks of wandering around France, in the summer of 1940, the whole family returned home. In 1944, the German Police came for my grandfather for having turned over the blueprints for the Belgian electrical grid to the allies. He hid in Brussels. The Americans and British finally arrived in September.

But in December 1944, the nightmare began for the third time. It was the last German counter offensive. It was time to flee again. When my uncle, who was a young boy at the time, found out that the people who wanted to take his father had come back, he broke down. An American soldier who witnessed the scene said to my grandmother, “now I understand why we are here.” Each time I tell this story I always get choked up. I think about the young GIs who died in the snow in the winter of 1944 to fight against those who terrorised Belgian children. That is why I could never be anti-American, but I could never be anti-German either. My parents did not transmit a hatred for Germans to me. They taught me to hate chauvinism and militarism. This is what made European construction possible after 1945.

The forgotten massacres of Belgian civilians

It is difficult to compare suffering.  But, it seems to me that what my family experienced pales in comparison to those families that were almost entirely destroyed during the massacres of civilian populations at the beginning of the First World War. Few are aware in Europe today, but in the August of 1914, thousands of people were massacred in Belgium and in the north part of France (estimates are of around 6,000 victims in the first weeks of the war until October 1914) Belgium).  These were civilians who were slaughtered on bogus accusations of being “snipers.”

There is a very poignant film on the subject by the Belgian director André Dartevelle “Three days in August 1914: the walls of Dinant”, shows how the descendants of victims still bear the scars today: “Four generations in four days, when it comes to the memory of terror” is how one great-granddaughter of the August 23rd, 1914 Dinant massacre victim puts it. On that infamous day, 674 people, men, women and children, of the small town of the Meuse Valley, were brutally assassinated and their town was burned. Similar acts were perpetrated in other Belgian towns.  Some historians defend the German soldiers, explaining that they did indeed believe that they faced the threat of snipers.

How then do you explain the fact that such a disciplined army repeated these acts in so many different cities, and in such cold blood? I believe, like the director André Dartevelle, that these atrocities were part of a deliberate plan of “total war,” and just a sinister prelude to the massacres that would mark the entire 20th century.  In 2001, the German Minister of Defense came to Dinant to ask for forgiveness for his country.   The German flag now flies over the bridge across the Meuse, next to the other European flags.  Some of the descendants of the victims still struggle to accept those apologies, while others have forgiven.  And it is hard to understand while what is possible for some is impossible for others.  Forgiveness is a complicated thing.

Memory and responsibility

To me the political message of August 1914 is clear.  Today, European reconciliation is a reality.  But it is a very fragile reality, one that is incomplete and that is strapped with enormous responsibility. We not only must fight a return of chauvinism and militarism, but we must also live up to the responsibility that we have to the victims of those policies of terror that continue to be carried out in Africa and Asia.  Throughout this spring of 2014, I cannot stop thinking about the children of Aleppo, and I cannot accept the fatalism of Europeans who refuse European Union action to prevent Bashar al-Assad’s army from bombing the civilian population and putting an end to the terror being inflicted on Syrian children, wreaking ravages for generations to come.

References

Horne J. & Kramer A., German Atrocities, 1914: A History of Denial (Yale University Press, 2001).