A government-backed report released Tuesday blamed Belgian authorities and the ruling elite for collaborating with the Nazi persecution of Jews during World War II.
Although Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt has already recognized the level of collaboration, the report was the first time it had been presented in such detail.
“The Belgian authorities cooperated with the racial anti-Jewish policies during the occupation,” and acted in a way “unworthy for a democracy,” said the study.
The report documents how an influx of Jewish refugees from Germany in the 1930s combined with a turn to the political right because of an economic crisis created an unsavory mix where anti-Semitism and right-wing extremism could rise.
Parliamentarians and Jewish representatives sat in silence as chief researcher Rudi Van Doorslaer read the conclusions of the report, “Submissive Belgium,” for 50 minutes in the Senate.
“It presents a mirror of ourselves,” said Senate chairwoman Anne-Marie Lizin, who condemned the “cowardliness of our administration” during the 1940-1944 occupation.
Some 50,000 Jews lived in Belgium in the 1930s and about half were exterminated in the Holocaust.
After the Nazi invasion in May 1940, the Belgian government fled to Britain, but issued instructions authorizing civil servants who stayed to work with the Nazis to keep services running and prevent the economic breakdown that occurred during the German occupation in WWI. In many cases, that deteriorated into collaboration with the persecution of Jews.
From yellow stars to concentration camps
At first Jewish citizens had to be registered, then they were obliged to wear yellow stars, then schools and hospitals were segregated. Raids soon rounded up Jews in Belgian cities and they were deported to Nazi concentration camps. Although some cities refused to help, others continued helping with the deportations that sent thousands to their deaths.
Even the government in exile in London, “never let it be known that policies had to be adapted and that the behavior of leading civil servants and magistrates was unconstitutional and democratically reprehensible,” the study said.
After the war, many cases were considered too delicate to handle by military courts and “every responsibility of the Belgian authorities in the persecution and deportation of Jews was rejected,” the study said.
Early reaction is positive
The first reactions to the 1,116-page report were positive. “This report is fundamental and it is a victory for enlightened democracy,” said Philippe Markiewicz, the president of the Coordination Committee of Belgian Jewish Organizations.
Markiewicz said that despite the negative impact of the report, there were many Belgians who risked their lives to save Jews. “You also have to see that there were some administrations which had a remarkable attitude and rescued Jews,” he said.