Belgium Remembers: Military column to travel in WWII liberators’ footsteps
As part of the months-long programme of events commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Belgium during the Second World War, a military column of vehicles will traverse the country
The campaign is co-ordinated by the War Heritage Institute (WHI) and among its dozens of events are a military column, ceremonies in Brussels and Antwerp and a new exhibition at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces.
“The campaign serves to remind us that the freedom, democracy and peace that we have today came at a price,” says Franky Bostyn, Deputy Director-General at the WHI. “They are hard-won gains, and we need to continue protecting them.”
Bostyn points out that we are at a crucial time in post-war history. “We are at a moment when there are not too many people left who have played an active role in these events, like war veterans, and who can share their perspective on them.”
One of the most ambitious projects of Belgium Remembers is the column of military vehicles that will traverse Belgium for two weeks. Beginning in Wallonia on 31 August, it will head to Halle in Flemish Brabant, continuing to Leopoldsburg in Limburg – following the trajectory of the triumphant troops 75 years ago.
The column consists of 50 tanks and jeeps that actually took part in the liberation in 1944 and 20 modern military vehicles. The column will make some 15 stops, where ceremonies will take place, including in Brussels, Antwerp, Breendonk and Leopoldsburg.
Jubelpark will serve as the centre of activities on 3 and 4 September, when the liberation of the capital will celebrated. The following weekend, a big military air and boat show will celebrate the liberation of Antwerp. At Breendonk, ceremonies are planned at Fort Breendonk, used as a Nazi prison camp during the Second World War.
The role of the Allied troops is a highlight throughout the column activities, but there are events that concentrate on specific foreign regiments. A ceremony at the Adegem Canadian war cemetery, for example, honours the contribution of the Canadian army in freeing the Western part of the Scheldt river.
Next January, the WHI’s column of military vehicles will also commemorate the end of the German offensive in the Ardennes, which included the famous Siege of Bastogne. In May, 1,000 youngsters will travel by train to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where they will attend a ceremony on 8 May – Victory in Europe Day. That same day, a major event in Brussels will conclude the programme in Belgium.
While the lion’s share of Belgium Remembers kicks off now, the WHI opened War – Occupation – Liberation last spring. This new permanent exhibition at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces not only illustrates military operations, but also shows the political, economic and human consequences of war.
Left or right?
After a short introduction, the exhibition makes you choose whether you want to turn left or right. To the left is the section on resistance, to the right on collaboration. Resistance has a white background, collaboration a black one.
“We show that the reality was generally not black or white, but mostly shades of grey, with so many complex in-between cases,” explains Bostyn. “We wanted to avoid stereotypes and tackle the myths.”
The expo shows the many ways people resisted the oppressors aside from fighting. Belgian citizens carried out sabotage operations, created clandestine papers, spied, refused to work for the Germans and offered help to Jewish people.
The reality of collaboration and resistance was generally not black or white, but with many complex in-between cases
On the other hand, collaborators didn’t only support the enemy’s military actions. Others exposed the identities of people in hiding or in a resistance group while some supported the Germans economically.
A dramatic example of collaboration were the raids in Antwerp during which the city’s police forces helped arrest large numbers of Jewish people, who would then be deported to concentration camps. Less clear-cut is that of a young comic strip artist Willy Vandersteen, who – not yet made famous by the future strip Suske en Wiske – drew an anti-Semitic cartoon during the occupation. It is believed that Vandersteen also drew anti-Nazi cartoons in the same period.
At the end of War – Occupation – Liberation, visitors are asked to look in a mirror and think about what they would have done in those circumstances – a question impossible to answer.
The expo also doesn’t shy away from other delicate subjects, like the part played by King Leopold III and the post-war punishment of collaborators. It is built around four main themes: occupation and liberation of the country (1940-1944), the end of the war in Europe and Asia (1944-1945), national-socialist repression and persecution and genocide (1933-1945).
There are in total 2,000 items spread over 3,000 square metres. Among them are military gear like uniforms, weapons and vehicles but also many objects that highlight personal stories. Take for example the briefcase with which the well-known Flemish collaborator Jef Van de Wiele was caught in Germany, a love letter of an American army captain to a Belgian woman and a tiny wooden sailing boat in which money and documents were hidden and dropped from planes to be fished out of rivers by resistance fighters.
This is the second of three articles on Belgium Remembers. The first, an interview with Chantal Kesteloot of the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society, can be found here.
Photos from top: A soldier crossing under a barbed-wire fence during the Second World War/©Belga Archives, part of the War – Occupation – Liberation installation at the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces in Brussels/©VdW, Belgian citizens pose on American jeeps during the liberation/©Belga Archives