In March 2012, Belgium took over the Chairmanship of the Task Force for International Cooperation on Holocaust Education, Remembrance and Research. Today, an academic conference with the title National Police Forces in Europe and the Holocaust 1939-1945 took place in Mechelen as the beginning of a two-day plenary meeting. My paper entitled Why the Holocaust does not matter? Explaining the (non-)participation of policemen in the arrest of Jews in Belgium during World War Two argued that as long as the Holocaust Studies remain a distinct research field that does not integrate the larger context, the explanations for the unfolding of the persecutions of Jews remain unconvincing.
For the first thirty years after the war, the narrative about Belgium during World War Two was a narrative that did not give any specific function to the Holocaust. It was about the importance of the resistance, the ambiguous position of Leopold, the role of the communist during the liberation, the status of the secrétaires généraux, and very quickly the so-called répression of the Flemish collaboration after the war. And even on the specific topic of today i.e. policing, the persecution of Jews was a “non-topic”. Looking at the pioneering work of Albert de Jonghe or Rudi Van Doorslaer, the Holocaust does not occupy a prominent place when these authors explained how the police did work between 1940 and 1945. In the last twenty years, the situation did completely change: the persecution of the Jews became the central element around which a new narrative about the Belgium society during World War Two was organised. And this time, Holocaust and policing are intimately interwoven. The commission created in 2004 by the Belgium government proposed a new “story” on how to tell the Second World War, based on the persecution of the Jews, by calling their results: “La Belgique Docile”.
This trend is valid for Western Europe as a whole. The fate of the Jewish population in France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg was for a long time a footnote in the history. Today, the specific national war narratives are organised around this element. This is true for academic history writing as well as private and public commemorations.
In my presentation, I argued that we have do decentralise the persecution of the Jews if we want to understand this persecution. The goal is therefore not to marginalise its importance but to reintroduce the history of the Holocaust into the larger history of World War Two. This has been recently done for the Eastern Front: it is also necessary for the occupied territories in the West. My paper placed the history of the arrest of the Jews in Belgium into the a more general policy of arrest by Belgian police forces under occupation.
In the discussion after my presentation, Herman Van Goethem challenged my statement that we should stop trying to prove that the action of local authorities and especially the police during World War Two was legally wrong. He did not really convince me but I think this was reciprocal. Below you find my presentation of this morning.