Belgium: An American View



BRUSSELS has grown upon me, and I now look upon it as one of the most charming cities in Europe. Externally it has been practically untouched, and it is possible to buy many things here that are virtually unknown in England. On the other hand coffee, chocolate, soap, and tobacco are very scarce, and the problems of heat and transport are severe. I was amazed, though, at the vast quantity of Allied flags and emblems and of ingenious patriotic costume jewelry, showing that the people had been working at these things for months beforehand under the Germans’ noses.

As far as I can gather, the impression prevails at home that before liberation the Belgians lived like the gloomy and starving “Potato Eaters” in the early Van Gogh painting, and that since liberation they have lived on the scale of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah. Certainly the Belgians were overjoyed by being liberated — probably a great deal more so than we had been cautiously taught to expect on the other side of the Channel. It was a bit of a saturnalia at first, and one it did your heart good to see.

And something of this feeling has remained, in spite of a morning after with nothing in the larder or the coal bin and with the positive knowledge that not so very far away the war is still bloody well on. So much so, in fact, that the man in the street finds himself worse off than he was in the days of the German occupation when he had a marvelously well organized black market. If a man was too poor to buy on the black market, he became the intermediary who brought in the goods to sell, and with his profits he could then buy what he himself needed.

The Belgians have been through this business of occupation twice, each time for a four-year spell, and what they don’t know about outsmarting the German, or anyone else who orders them to do what they don’t want to, is not worth knowing. They were, I think it’s fair to say, far cleverer than their neighbors, the Dutch, in the matter of leading as normal a life as possible and actively and passively resisting the Germans. The Dutch frequently did not know how far they could go or when they had better stop.

Sometimes the Belgians failed too, as many a burned and gutted village in the Ardennes can testify. In a large measure, though, life for the average Belgian under German occupation this time was like sleepwalking. To be sure, they had their clandestine newspapers, but these were not so important as the radio, to which everyone listened every day. For the most part they stayed at home. They did not go out to cafés and theaters where the Boche was sure to be. The children did not talk to or play with German soldiers or, least of all, the German Wacs, known as the “souris grises.”

Waking up from this state has had curious results among the Belgians. As one paper put it, it has been like taking too much strong drink on an empty stomach. So at first the miners started striking because they damn well wanted to after four years of forced drudgery. And then the people found out that they had some unpleasant medicine to take into the bargain. The Germans had left them with a nice problem of inflation to cope with (by flooding the country with too much currency). For that they have taken the strongest fiscal cathartic that any nation has ever voluntarily swallowed, and they are still squirming from the dose. Further, because they cannot get the machine started right away, they also have a problem of unemployment on their hands. Then we systematically damaged their transport before invasion, and later the Germans stole it, with the result that it has been a terrible problem to distribute food and coal. Indeed, food, coal, and transport chase each other round in a perpetual vicious circle.

On top of all this come the Allied armies, making tremendous demands for coal, power, and transport (but not for food) and further weighing down a heavily burdened and struggling national economy. Employment of civilians is an advantage, of course, but for the moment the armies’ supply requirements work to the average fellow’s disadvantage. It is an absorbing problem to determine just when the Belgian man in the street’s hungry stomach and cold house become a question of military priority as important as a bullet for a soldier’s gun. It is to judge this question, and alternately to soothe and to stimulate the civilian human elements which comprise it, that some of us are here instead of in a foxhole at the front.


ANOTHER thing the Belgian waked up to on this cold gray dawn is that he has a political dilemma. And here too his government, as in the financial situation, instead of clapping him on the back and telling him what a fine fellow he had been all these four years, announced to him coldly: “All right, you have deserved well of your country; now hand in your arms and go home. Later on, perhaps, you can join our good old pre-war army.” Some of them did so; but a fair-sized and very politically-minded minority said unpleasant things about the Belgian Army and its elderly officers. Three ministers (one Communist and one representing the troublesome group of the resistance — Front de I’Indépendence) resigned. There were a lot of demonstrations and in one of them some people got hurt. In protest the Communists tried to call a general strike and failed signally.

It is too soon to say what the aftermath of all this will be. Undoubtedly there is a greater cleavage between left and right — how great, we shall not know until circumstances permit a general election. But on the other side there is no doubt that a lot of people felt ashamed that there should have been a political dust-up when Belgium’s independence was being fought for on her very frontier.

One of the liberal papers, La Dernière Heure, carried an editorial: “Did the Communists really think that they were masters of the situation? And did they not understand that their attitude to the other democratic parties was as much as to say: ‘You have only the right to follow us — not that of choosing what path we take’? Was it so difficult to predict the consequences of this idiotic policy on the Belgian people? Agitation for agitation’s sake: on the one hand fight against the black market, on the other defend the farmer who is its principal organizer; now the defense of the value of the franc, then riots in the street to demand the liberation of accounts under 50,000 francs — when they know this would throw 65 billions into circulation and would surely entrain the inflation which high finance and big business may want but which would ruin the little fellow and every wage earner. . . . To gather up the malcontents wherever you can find them, excite them, and exploit them without bothering about the consequences — what admirable tactics! ”

M. Van Acker’s cabinet, like M. Pierlot’s at liberation, is a coalition of all the parties, and in it the Catholics are still strongly represented. When the Communists got out after the little dust-up in November, they thought the Socialists would follow them and they could swing the government to the left. But the time wasn’t ripe, and the Communists found themselves out in the cold.

The moment that the Socialists chose for ousting the thoroughly unpopular Pierlot government was apt. They acted on the general theory that things could not get much worse without getting better, and took the gamble that the war might not last much longer.

The Pierlot government had hard luck all along. The war did not end by Christmas; instead there was a vicious counterblow on Belgian soil. Consumer goods were not available at lower prices. Food was scarce. Industry could not get going. Cold weather froze the canals. Instead of fewer armies to use the transport system, there were more. No government could stay popular with those cards stacked against it.

M. Van Acker did a remarkable job in getting together a new team in the face of what looked at first like insuperable odds on the right. The only member of the old London group is M. Spaak, an able orator and a somewhat changeable politician.

There are more cabinet members from the resistance. M. Van Acker himself is one. He is a selfmade man, a Fleming, not an orator. He was the Minister of Labor in the Pierlot government and achieved a lot of social legislation in that post. Of the Communists, the one resumes the Ministry of Health which he abandoned back in November, and the other — the secretary of the party and an editor of the Drayeau Rouge — takes over the tricky post of Food Supply.

The new government is not radically different from the one before it. It is slightly more to the left, with the Socialists in the saddle though numerically inferior to the Catholics. The Communists have come back into the fold. M. Van Acker will stand or fall by his handling of the all-important matter of coal supply, to which he has committed himself.

In spite of their troubles, — and they are many and profound and irritating, — and granted an end to the war at some not too distant date, I have every confidence that the Belgian people will pull through in better shape than their unfortunate neighbors to the north and their high-spirited neighbors to the south.

I have said something about Belgium’s economic and political troubles, but I should add a word, I suppose, about their legal difficulties. Their jails are full of traitors and collaborators, but the really fat cats, like the infamous Leon Degrelle and the Flemish quislings, got out while they still could. Traitors, when duly convicted and so sentenced, are shot in the back; and so far only four have met this dismal fate. Incidentally, it is the first time in eighty years that anyone has been executed in Belgium. But three things bother the Belgians. One is that, while there are some innocent people in prison, there are also some guilty ones and fifth columnists at large in the country. Another is that, for obvious reasons, only the piddling traitors are being tried — and those not fast enough. And the third is that there is no universal agreement as to what constitutes an industrial collaborator.

The Communists, naturally, are for making a holocaust of big business. But others say that a businessman who kept his employees from being deported to Germany, and saw that they were paid and fed, is really a patriot, even if he did furnish some goods to the Germans. I have heard an absolutely patriotic Belgian declare that he could convict himself of collaboration if he left out all the bright side of his ledger. In short, where exactly can one draw the line? I gladly leave that one to the lawyers.

It would be nice if one could sit as Romain Rolland did in the last war and write of things and people outside the melee. But I cannot. My sympathies get aroused and my “admirable objectivity of mind ” vanishes. From America, all the foregoing may appear absurdly prejudiced and out of the picture. But my job is here with these people — “les bons Beiges,” as the French ironically intone in imitation of a Brussels accent, but which I use literally. So I think of them as people like myself, with problems to be solved, and not as units in a huge machine out of which so much must be got for the war effort. For, in the long run, we shall get more by building them up. The other way is the Nazi way.