World War II Country Trends: Belgium


Figure 1.This mother with her children has hastily packed up a few belongings and is fleeingg the Germans. The photograph was taken May 20, 1940. Many Belgians headed south to France thinking that as in World War I, the French Army would stop the Germans.

Neutral Belgium fought with the Allies in World War I after being invaded by the Germans. King Albert I ably led the Belgian Army and their resistance delayed the Germans, making the Miracle on the Marne possible. After the War, Belgium returned to a neutral status like the Netherlands to the north. The NAZIs again invaded Belgium (May 1940). King Albert's son Leopold took over command of the Belgian Army, but the Germans advanced with unrelenting speed. Quickly surrounding the Belgian Atmy, King Leopold III surrendered, imperiling the British-French Dunkirt eacuation. Belgian officials escaped to London and set up a govertment-in-exile. That Government maintained control over Belgian colonial possessions (primarily the Belgian Congo). The German occupation was severe in World War I, but this time the Germans lived up to the Workd war I images. The NAZIs persued the Holocaust in Belgium, but with somewhat less success than in the Netherlands. The German occupation policies were largely race based, thus the occupatio while brutal and expoitive, did not aprroach the horrors of the east, except for the Jews. There was some collaboraion with the NAZIs, but the Allies were received with jubilation when Belgium was liberated (September 1944). The NAZIs launched their last offensive of the War in the Ardennes (December 1944). The resulting Battle of the Bulge was largely fought in Belgium.

Belgian Neutrality

Belgium was a new state created in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. It largely comprised the territory of the Spanish Netherlands, the area of the Netherlands that Spanish had managed to control in the wars with the Dutch. The Belgian mobarchy had close ties with British royal family. And Belgium was important to the British as British foreign policy for centuries had tried to precent any major power from dominating the Low Lands. After the creaion of Belgium, its neutrality was garanted by the great powers (1839). Prissia was a signatory to the convention. Thus the German Empire as the successor state in 1871 continued to be a guarantor of Belgian neutrality. Belgium on the eve of World war I, concered aout rising tensions and the arms race, issued a statement of neutrality (November 1913). Despite the guarantees of Belgium's neutral status, German military planning in 1907 drew up a plan in case of war France. Their war planning was based on a drive through lightly defended Belgium to France (the Schlieffen Plan). When King Albert heard of this, he protested to Germany, "Belgium is a country not a road map."

World War I (1914-18)

Germany preparing to attack France delivered an ultimatum to Belgium, demanding unimpeded passage through Belgium for the German Army to drive into France (August 2, 1914). The Belgians denied the German request. German troops invaded both Belgium and Luxemburg (August 4). In the ensuing Ger man offensive, almost all of Belgium was occupied by the Germans (August and September). Neutral Belgium fought with the Allies in World War I after being invaded by the Germans. King Albert I ably led the Belgian Army and their resistance delayed the Germans, making the Miracle on the Marne possible.The allies managed to only hold a small part of Belgium in the far west along the French border. Large numbers of Belgian civilians and soldiers fled theGermans, seeking refuge in the neutral Netherlands. The Belgian soldiers were interned. The German Army seizedd food supplies. Only American war relief prevented mass starvation.

Inter-War Era

The Treaty of Versailles ending World War I, abolished Belgium’s neutrality which had been guaranteed by the Great Powers. This left Belgium free to eiyhervmauntain its neutrality or sign alliances. The German speaking cantons of Eupen and Malmédy which Germany had annexed were returned to Belgium. Belgium signed a treaty of military assistance with France (1920). Belgium also negotiated an economic union with Luxembourg tieing their currencies (1921), Belgium’s eastern border, meaning the frontier with Germany, was guaranteed by the widely heraled, but toothless Locarno Pact (1925). The League of nations granted Belgium a mandate over Ruanda-Urundi. This had been part of German East Africa that Belgian colonial forces from the Belgian Congp had seized during the War. Belgium like the rest of Europe was hard hit by American stock market crash and resulting Great Depression. The rising unemployment helped the Socialist Party gain strength. They rejected free market capitalism and advocated state economic planning as promoted by socialist theorist Hendrik de Man. Two other parties gained influence. A Flemish-nationalist party became more important regionally, but was unable to generate much success in national elections. The Rexists led by Léon Degrelle gained considerable strength. The Rexists won 21 seats, more than 10 percent of the National Assembly--an impressive showing in Belgiums multi-party system (1936). Disruptive strikes supported by the Socialists and Communisrs broke out. A tripartite government was formed of Paul van Zeeland to defuse the political situation. The Government approved a series of social measures to win over workers, including paid holidays and a 40-hour workweek for miners. The first National Labour Convention was the beginning of an institutionalized dialogue between what the Belgianss called the "social partners" (employers, trade unions, and government). King Leopold III succeeded his father, Albert I (1934). With the rise of the NAZIs in Germany, the new king faced an increasingly dangerous international situation. King Leopold was an strong advocate of a more independent foreign policy for Belgium. He advocated a policy of neutrality designed to keep Belgium from what increasingly seemed like another war. There was general support for this policy bin Belgium. It is unclear why the Belgians realistically thought that why neutrality which had failed in 1914 would protect them against NAZI Germany. The governing factor here was probably a general abhorence of war. Neutrality was approved by the parliament. The country built a defensive line from Namur to Antwerp and strengthened key forts. Like other countries bordering NAZI Germany, Belgium was inundated by Jewish and political refugees. A refugee camp wa established at Marneffe.

Outbreak of War

Hitler launched World War II by invading Poland (September 1939). King Leopold twice urged mediation of the conflict between NAZI Germany and the Western Allies in the months immediately before and after the outbreak of war in 1939. Belgium remained strictly neutral.

King Leopold III

Leopold was the eldest son of King Albert I and Queen Elizabeth. He and his brother were emacualtely dressed, often in fancy outfits, as boys by their fashionable mother. He ascended to the throne in 1934 as Leopold III after the tragic death of his father. Although greeted with great warmth by the Belgian people, his reputation was tarnished by his surender of the Belgian Army in World War II after it had been mauled in the 1940 NAZI invasion. Unlike Queen Wilhimina in the Netherlands, he refused to flee to England, an act of some courage, but proably unwise given the circumstances. Thus when the Allies entered Belgium in 1944, Leopold was never returned to the throne. His brother Charles served as regent until 1951 when his son Baudouin was crowned.

German Western Offensive: Belgium (May 1940)

Belgium remained strictly neutral, but was invaded by the Germans for a second time (on May 10, 1940). The Germans struck at both the Netherlands and Belgium at the same time. It was the start of the long anticipated German offensive in the West. After a few months of the "Phony War", it was the turn of the Low Lands and France. The German initiated their long awaited western campaign on a wide front against the neutral Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxemburg. The Luftwaffe played a key role in the German success in the west. King Leopold before the War had promoted the construction of important defensive fortifications from Antwerp to Namur in front of the German border. These defenses were quickly taken by the Germans. The British Expoditionary Force rushed nort to assist the Dutch. This meant that they were not present in force to opposed the Germans when they broke through in the Ardennes.

Refugees

NAZI oppression drove Jews and other targets into neighboring states. Thus Belgium had a refugee problem before the War. Belgians when the Germans struck (May 10, 1940) began fleeing the Germans by heading south by rail, car, and on foot toward France as they did in World War I. Most assumed that as in World War I that the French Army would hold. Within days, the German Panzers slashed through the Ardennes and across northern France and reached the Channel. That made the further movement of Belgian refugees to France impossible. There were, however, large numbers of Belgians on the road fleeing west. They were soon overun by the Germans who allowed them to return home. As a result, there were far fewer Belgian refugees in World War II than in World War I. And this gime the French Army did not hold. Within weeks France itself was defeated by the Germans and the country surrendered. Most of the Belgians who had made it to France, retuned to their occupied country. Thus except for a handfull of Belgians who made it to Britain, almost the entire Belgian population was trapped in the country during the German occupation. The one exception was the small Belgian population in the country's African colonies, the largest being the mineral rich Congo.

Belgian Surrender

King Leopold's actions as Commander and Chief of the Army during the German invasion of 1940 has been criticized by some Belgians and the British and French. Leopold, with the bulk of the Belgian Army, was surrounded by the Germans, and capitulated. Leopold ordered his army to surrender and refused to flee with officials to form a government-in-exile in England. His actions were resented by some Belgians. His surrender at a crucial point in the battle for the low countries left a critical gap in the Allied ring around Dunkirk and could have made the evacuation impossible if the Germans had pressed their attack. King Leopold aroused further criticism by his marriage in 1941 to a commoner, who was some looked on as pro-NAZI. To many Belgians, Leopold's surrender to the NAZI's forces were in stark contrast to his father's gallant resistance to the Kaiser's Army during World War I. Other Belgians believe that the King has been unfairly criticized.

Fall of France (June 1940)

Although Belgium was mostly occupied by the Germans in World War I, the Belgian Army fought on and hope for liberartion was strong because the French army had survived the German onslaught and backed by the British, the front lines of the Western Front was obly a few miles south of Belgium. World War II was different. This time the French Army collapsed. France fell only 3 weeks after Belgium. To many Belgians in 1940, it looked as though the Germans had won the war and their future would be decided by Germany.

Government in Exile

Belgian Government officials reached France before the Germans cut off Belgium. They met in Limoges and condemned King Leopold's surrender of the Belgian Army. Officials set up a Belgian government-in-exile at Bordeaux (June 18). They demanded that the King abdicate. With France itself about to fall, the Belgian officials escaped to London. Spaak and Pierlot head the government-in-exile. That Government maintained control over Belgian colonial possessions (primarily the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi). The Government-in-exile established the Belgian Legion to organize the various resistance groups organized in NAZI occupied Belium (1942).

Belgian Congo

The Belgian Congo was one of the largest European colonies during World War II. It was also mineral rich and thus of some strategic importance. The major mineral was copper, but a liitlle known mineral (uranium) would take on enormous importance. Belgium as in World War I was a neutral country. The Germans lsaunched theie long-awaited western offensive with attacks in the Netherlsands and Belgium (May 10). The small Belgian Army resisted the, but was no match for the Wehrmacht ad Luftwaffe. After the German Army surrounded the Belgian Army, King Leopold III surrendered (May 27, 1940). The governor of the Congo, Pierre Ryckmans, recognized Pierlit's government-in-exile and the Germans did not have the capability to seize the Congo and other European collonies. Authorities in the Congo with the approval of the Belgian government-in-exile in London declared war on Italy (November 26, 1940), The step was more political and military. The Congo had very limited military caposabilities. The Belgians, however, wanted to estanlish their credentisals as a viable part of the anti-Axis coalition who wanted to be recognized as the legitiumate Belgian government after liberation. The Belgian force in the Comgo was known as the Force Publique commanded by Major-General Gillaert. After the British defeated the Italian invasion force in Egypt (December 1940), they organized an offensive into Libya and East Africa (1941). The Germans came to the rescue of the Italians in Libya, but this was not possible in East Africa. The Brirish launcherd the East African campaign Sudan and Kenya. As the Cono bordered on Sudan, the Belgian colonia government supported the British offensive which was a multi-nationsal effort. South African troops played a major role. Two battalions of Congolese troops commanded by Gen. Gilliaert participated in the campaign.

German Occupation

The German occupation was severe in World War I, but not as brutal as suggested by British propaganda. The German Army did seize the food supply, but starvation was overted by American food aid. This time the Germans lived up to the World War I images. The German occupation policies were in part race based, thus the occupation while brutal and expoitive, did not aprroach the horrors in the East, except for Belgium's small Jewish population. There was some collaboraion with the NAZIs, especially at first when it looked like the NAZIs had won the War. Colaborationists organized Youth groups alpng the lines of the Hitler Youth. Many viewed the King as a colaborationist, but his role is complicated to assess. The Wehrmacht was the occupation authority. Fascist groups open colaborated with the German occupation authorities. Hendrik de Man served as a front man for the Germans. He dissolved the Belgian Workers Party (June 1940). King Leopold III met Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden (November 1940). He reportedly angered Hitler by asking for improved conditions for the Belgians. He managed to arrange the release of 50,000 Belgian POWs and an improved food supply for occupied Belgium. Differences existed between the Flemish and Waloons. As in other countries, the Germans though in racist terms. The NAZIs saw the Flemish as more salvagble racial stock than the Wallonians. The NAZIs replaced the Belgian and Luxemburgian Franc with the German Reichsmark (1941). King Leopold showed great courage by subsequently refusing to administer his country under German control and lend any appearance of legitimacy to the NAZI occupation government. King Leopold was held prisoner by the Germans until the end of the war, first in his castle at Laeken, near Brussels. As the Allies approached Belgium he was moved deep in Germany itself. Attitudes toward the Germans began to change markedly (1942). Major factors included the consscription of Belgians for war work in the Reuch. German military reverses in the final months of the year.

Military Cooperation

The Germans set up a Flemish and a Wallonian "legion of volunteers against Bolzhevism" to fight in the East. There were few volunteers except among Belgium's relatively small Fascist faction.

The Air War

As the Allies expanded the strategic bombing campaign, the Germans opened important Luftwaffe davilities in Belgium as the shortest route to targets in the Reich passed over Belgium. These sites became targets for Allied air raids. The Erla factory at Mortsel repaired Messerschmidt planes. It was hit by an American-British raid (April 5 1943). The results were 936 killed and 1,342 people wounded, primarily civilians living near the plant.

The Holocaust

There were about 90,000-100,000 Jews in Belgium at the time World War II broken out in Europe, many were foreign Jews that had already fled the NAZIS from their own countries. During the first months of the occupation, thousands of Jews, especially foreign Jews, fled from Belgium or were deported to neighboring France. As a result, as of late 1940 about 52,000-55,000 Jews remained in Belgium. Hitler apparently had no marked plans for Belgium in the NAZI "New Order" in Europe. This thus had a marked effect on the administration that the Germans established in Belgium. NAZI suppression of Jews in Belgium followed a familar pattern. The NAZIs issued the first anti-Jewish measures in the Fall 1940. These measures suceeded in robbing Belgian Jews of their property. Inpoverished and concentrated it cities, they were now ready for the next step, transport east and the death camps. The killing of Dutch, Belgian, and French Jews began in July 1942 when the Polish death camps became fully operational. Most accounts suggest that the NAZI anti-Semetic campaign which began soon after the occupation had little impact on most Belgians. It was virtually impossible to contront the NAZIs openly. Many Belgians, however, quierly and effectively opposed the NAZIs quiettly and effectively. One author explain that it was these "slent rebels" that saved many Belgian Jews. Belgian clerics were some of the most effective in Europe in helping to rescue the country's Jewish population. The most notable cleric was Father Bruno who saved hundreds of children. There was only so much the Resistance could do in Belgium. Unlike Denmark there was no easy to get to sanctuary. The English Channel and North Sea is difficult waters. mined, and heavily patrolled by the Germans. The NAZIs succeeded in killing about 25,000 Jews who were living in Belgium. Here accounts vary. Some are as high as 40,000. Only 1,271 survived and retuned after the War. Despite the appaling total, the number of Jews saved is a testimony to the support of the Belgian people to their non-Jewish countrymen.

Resistance

As the War citinued, resistance groups orgamized in Belgium. Resisistance groups had varied political objectives. They included communist, Flemish nationalists (Witte Brigade, trsl. White Brigade), royalist (National Royal Movement), Christian Democrat (Liberation Army), and socialist. The Gestapo and collaborationist militia savegely hunted them down. Hundreds were executed. Others were committed to concentration camps. The major achievement of the Resistance was just as the Allies were liberating the country and approacjing Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was critical to the Allies. Both the Allies and Germand knew this. The Germans once the Allies entered Belgium, preopared to detroy the port. The Resistance suceeded in preventing the Germans from destroying the port. The Allies very rapidly put the port into operation. It became the most important port feeding the Allied armies preparing to invade Germany. It is no accident that the the last German offensive of the War (the Bulge Offensive) aimed at retakeing Antwerp.

Liberation (September 1944)

The Allies after liberating Paris pressed north into Belgium. The British reached d Brussels (September 2) and Antwerp (September 3). They were met by jubilant civilians realizing that the dark years of NAZIdom were finally over. There was hope in the Allied camp that with the German collapse in France that the NAZIs could be defeated in 1944. Antwep was the key to the Allied thrust on into Germany. The Allies reqired a deep water port in Belgium. Supplies were still being landed in Normandy and trucked through France via the Red Ball Express. This was creating enormous logistical problems and the Allies needed to shorten its supply lines. While the Allies after taking Brussels reached Antwerp the next day. Opening the port proved to be a much more difficult undertaking. The Germans had fortified islands in the Scheldt estuary. Montgomery did not initially grasp the importance. The Germans evem though cut off by the advancing Allies held out recognizing the importance of keeping the port closed. The Belgian Resistance played an important role in the costly effort to clear the Scheldt. [Moulton]

German Air Attacks (September 1944-March 1945)

Once in Allied hands, Antwerp and its harbor became a target for German air attacks. Limiting supplies to the Allies was a major German objective and Antwerp was one of the most important ports in Europe, capable of supplying Allied armies for the final mpush into the Reich. The Luftwaffe by this time was a spent force, but the Germans had an ampel supply of V-1s and V-2s. The city was full of children, men, and the rkderly. Many men had been transported to the Reich for war work. The V-1s could be intercepted, especially as Allied forces including air forces poured into Belgium. The V-2s were aifferent matter. The Germans fired hundreds of V-1s and V-2s on Belgium, most targeting Antwerp. Whole city blocks disappeared. Some were never rebuilt. Squares likee the ‘Theater plein' in front of the theatre and de vrijdagmarkt today are witnesses to the destruction. Thousand of people were killed. The most deadly attack was a V-2 hit on the ‘De Keyserlei” which killed 157 people (November 27, 1944). Most of the dead were from the cinema REX. The last German missles hit Antwerp (March 30, 1945). By this time the Allies were crossing the Rhine in force. The Germans hit Belgium (mostly Antwerp) with 2,000 missles. Only London received more hits. The German attacks killed nearly 4,000 people and destroyed 5,000 houses and damaged 60,000 more. The primary target was the port, but the Germans missles while technological marvels did not have precission targeting capability. The numbers show how ineffective these weapns were. Each missle on average killed only about 2 civilans and rarely a soldier. They proved not to be a real military weapon.

The Bulge (December 1944)

The Wehrmacht launched a carefully planned attack against weak Anerican ynits in the Ardennes (December 16, 1944). The offensive was commanded by Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt. The NAZI panzers stormed westward along a 60-mile front stretching from Saint Vith in Belgium south to Echternach in Luxembourg. The German goal was to break through the American lines, sweep through the Ardennes, and seize Antwerp. The port of Antwerp was essential to the Allied offensive. The major limiting factor to the Allie was supplies and the Allies were beginning to repair the Antwerp port facilities. With Antwerp the British and Canadians in northern Belgium could be cut off and encircled. The Allied thought the Wehrmacht was esentially defeated and incapable of mounting amajor offensive. The Germans were also careful to avoid sending messages bout the offensive electronically. Thus Ultra did not have a clear picture, although Allied commanders were given some warnings. The Germans forced the U.S. 28th Division to retreat from Wiltz (December 19). Eisenhower ordered the 101st Airborne Division to defend the vital crossroads town of Bastonge in Belgium. The German panzers pushed west. German Panther and Tiger tanks in many ways were superior to the American panzers, but they were slower and the Tigers could not cross many Belgian bridges, limited possible crosings. They also guzzled huge quantities of fuel and fuel ws the principal limiting facor to the Germand offensive. he German plans were contingent on capturing American fuel depots. When the German offensive began, George S. Patton's 3rd Army to the south was about to launch an invasion into the German Saar. In a brilliant movement, within 2 days, he turned the offensive on a 90° axis and struck northward into the German flank to relieve the 101st Airborne in Bastogne. The 3rd Army liberated Ettlebruck on Christmas Eve and broke through the German lines to relieve Bastogne (December 26). The U.S. 5th Armored Division conducted a surprise night crossing of the River Sure and liberated Diekirch (January 18, 1945). The Germans were pushed back to the positions they held at the start of the battle (January 28). The Whrmacht offensive in the Ardennes delayed the Allied offensive toward the Rhine by about 6 weeks. The llies i the campaign, however, destroyed virtually all of the Wehrmacht reserves and important panzer units as well as futher depleting the Luftwffe. This meant that the ability of the Germans to defend the Rhine and Berlin was significantly reduced.

Post-War Belgium

As the Allies neared Belgium, the Germans did not seriously contest their advance. Fighting only intensified as the Allies approached the Rhine. The retreating Germans troops took King Leopold and his family with him. King Leopold was finally liberated by American forcers in Austria. War damage in Belgium was limited compared to many other European countries. The most damage was done in the subsequent Bulge campaign which was fought in Wallonia wgere the Ardennes is located. Belgium was regonized as a member of the Allied coalition that fought the NAZIS. It was one of the founding members of the United Nations. He was a controversial figure in Belgium. The public was sharply split on his war time role. Many Belgians condidered him a colaborator as well as some Allied officials. This is unfair, but his abrupt decesion to surrender put the BEF and the French First Army in great danger, almost making the Dunkirk evacuation impossible. His decesion to remain in Belgium was also iladvised. Bad decesions and poor leadership, however, are not the same as colaboration. The most pressing issue after the War, was the royal question. As a result, of the public feeling, the King went into exile in Switzerland rather than return to Belgium. His brother Charles oversaw a regency (1945–1950). A plebiscite approved his return to Belgium (1950), but because of the controversies surrounded him, Leopold abdicated and his son Badouin I became king. With the liberation of Belgium, the Franc was reintroduced (1944). The Belgian Government adopted Keynesian economic policies to revive the badly damaged economy. The government cancelled Belgium's national debts. A major highway building program was initiated. Most of the war damage was in Wllonia where the Battle of the Bulge was fought out. Belgium stringly supported the steps toward European integration.






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Created: 4:31 AM 12/25/2005
Last updated: 10:07 AM 8/12/2014