David Van Reybrouck on Historical Taboos

What’s your national taboo? Or, if you prefer, what’s the most striking European taboo?

Pedophilia, you would think. Sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy. The battle between the Flemish and the Walloons. Or at least: Congo. These all seem to be obvious candidates in the contest “What is Belgium's biggest taboo?” And yet they are not. Believe it or not, it is a much older issue that is still nagging at the back of our minds, so remote it almost seems imperceptible. And yet it is there: the Second World War still rages on, not like a conflict, but a like an itch. We haven't gotten over it. We haven't digested it. And now it seems so long ago, that it would be pathetic to ruminate about it. So we have saddled ourselves with a second burden: we have added shame to pain. No good.

When I say 'The Second World War', I actually mean: the collaboration of certain segments of the Flemish movement with the German occupier. Let me explain. Historically, Belgium has been a linguistically diverse country where Flemish dialects, Walloon dialects, French and German were spoken. In 19th and first half of the 20th century, it was clear that French served as the dominant language in politics, arts and academia. Against this supremacy, there was an awakening sense of Flemish pride, a movement that started already in the early 19th century as part of the wider romantic zeal for national roots that pervaded Europe at the time. By the turn of the century, feelings of frustration and resentment had become part of the Flemish national discourse. 

The Germans capitalised on that. Already during WWI, they had been responsible for starting the first Dutch-speaking university in the country. (Flemish is the same as Dutch; the differences are minimal, comparable to the difference between American English and British English.) Since Dutch was a Germanic language, it was clear that the Germans were a good ally for promoting the Flemish cause. This was also the reasoning in WWII. Germany devised a so-called Flamenpolitik(Flemish policy) that privileged Flemish identity and helped to divide to country it was occupying. Divide et impera, but then auf Deutsch.

Many Flemish nationalists joined German ranks. With the Germans, everything was going to improve! Intellectuals sided with the occupier. Farmers and factory owners were keen to deliver goods and services to the Germans. Catholic priests encouraged thousands of Flemish youngsters to join the SS and go fight the Communists at the eastern front.

And then the Germans lost. And the collaborators were first lynched by the mob (women who had been with a German were shaved and exhibited in the empty cages of the Antwerp Zoo) and later prosecuted by the state, swiftly and severely. There were 40,000 verdicts and 242 people were executed. In Flemish nationalist circles, the years after the war are still known as ”The Repression” (not as The Liberation).

It meant a serious blow to the Flemish movement: what had been a legitimate cause was now tainted with connotations of high treason and fascism. It embittered more than one advocate for more linguistic, cultural and political rights. The Flemish cause had become “aangebrand”, as people used to say, literally meaning “charred” by the national-socialist excursion. As a consequence, it turned inwards. Silence became the answer, not serenity. Underneath the surface, resentment ruled.

As an example: my own grandfather, a small-time farmer from the countryside, had been thrilled by the Flemish movement as a means of revolt against French-speaking bourgeoisie and aristocracy. In the 1930s, he joined the nationalist party and campaigned in his village. In the early 1940s, he sent my uncle (then a child) to Germany for a cultural exchange program. Yet after the war, he was interrogated and taken into custody. Although his imprisonment only lasted two weeks and although his case was considered too minor for prosecution, the fact that he was arrested still taints our later family history. Up to this very day, the case is surrounded with mystery, silence and scruples. It is fairly unbelievable that a two-week imprisonment is still nagging after more than 70 years. But it is.

And the reason is that we haven't come to terms with our past. "All things pass, except the past" is the magnificent title of an equally magnificent book by Belgian sociologist Luc Huyse. In it, he talks about transitional justice, in South Africa, Rwanda, but also Belgium. Whereas the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has enabled South Africa to open the wounds of its painful past, the so-called “repression” in Belgium has rather intensified them. Since the call for justice was strong, the claim for truth was silenced. Perpetrators preferred to shut up, rather than to share. The wound was not cleared, but covered. Retaliatory instead of reconciliatory justice may have a short-term beneficial effect, but in the long run it provokes new complications. 

We still suffer from WW II, because we haven't properly treated our wounds.

If we could overcome the national taboo you identified ..... how would that impact the country?

It would certainly have an impact on the linguistic tensions within the country: Belgium has been divided since the aftermath of the Second World War. In 1962, the linguistic frontier was formalized and established, in 1970, the first phase of the state reform was realized. It was the first of a series of six. The sixth is presently being negotiated: all state reforms had the aim to federalize the country, that is, to turn a unitarian country into a federal state. Although I would certainly not want to go back to the unitary Belgian state of the 1950s (often described as the "Belgique de papa"), I can't stop thinking that some of the recent outburst of the linguistic tension, and in particular the rise of Flemish nationalism, still goes back to a poorly digested war trauma on the Flemish side.

What was Europe’s biggest learning moment? What should we do with what was learned?

Biggest learning moments are always painful moments: the Dutch-French-Irish NO to the EU Constitution certainly made clear that the old way of doing things no longer worked. That old way started in the post-war years when some of the brightest minds in Europe drew the outlines of a political project with far-reaching consequences. The idea that an intellectual, idealist and voluntarist elite could work out such plan no longer holds, even it was originally designed for the benefit of all. Europe has become the continent of communication; one-sided decisions from above, even with the best intentions, are no longer experienced as legitimate. Communication has never been easier than today, yet the EU does so little with it. People are better educated than anytime in history, yet the EU keeps on playing its old-school paternalist, top down approach. Without genuine participation from below, the European project is bound to fail.

Another learning moment, much longer ago, was the failure to establish a European defence union. Ever since, the continent has been dependent from the Nato for its inner and outer security.