Imagining a Better Future by Re-imagining the Past

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Brussels: Nation at the Crossroads of Conflict

Early in the morning of March 22, 2016 terrorists exploded bombs in Brussels, Belgium. The bombings were the deadliest act of terrorism in Belgium's history. At least 34 people were killed with hundreds injured.

This wasn’t the first time Belgium was the target of international violence. Belgium was at the crossroads of violence during the two great conflicts of the Diesel Era.

World War One
During the early days of the Great War, Germany invaded neutral Belgium. Known as the Schlieffen Plan, the invasion was meant to allow the German forces to circumvent the French defenses with the goal of quickly capturing Paris. Due to an 1839 agreement to protect Belgium this caused the British to join into the conflict.

Belgium army in World War One
The German invasion sent waves of Belgium refugees into Netherlands, France and England. To stop the outgoing flow of refugees, in 1915 the German authorities built an electric fence (known as the Wire of Death) along the Belgian-Dutch border. It’s estimated that between 2,000 to 3,000 Belgian refugees died trying leave the country.

The world was shocked by the atrocities committed by the German authorities in Belgium. Known as the Rape of Belgium, it’s been confirmed that the German army executed as many as 6,500 French and Belgian civilians in 1914 claiming that they were responding to guerrilla attacks. Often these were random large-scale shootings directed by junior German officers. However, the German Army recorded 101 ‘major’ incidents in which 10 or more civilians, totaling to 4,421 deaths, were executed at a time. They recorded that 1,100 Belgians were killed in 383 ‘minor’ incidents.
Painting by George Bellow depicting German atrocities in Belgium
World War Two
World War One devastated Belgium. As a result, the small nation announced what it called the ‘Independent Policy’ in which it would remain neutral in the event of another European war. It even signed a treaty with Nazi Germany in 1937 in which it was promised that its borders would not be violated.

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1975-021-20 / Pincornelly / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,
On May 10, 1940, German broke its agreement and invaded Belgium. Under the code name Case Yellow, Germany used Belgium as a shortcut into France much as it had in World War One. The German forces quickly overwhelmed the Belgium army. Belgium fell in just 18 days.

As in World War One, conditions in Belgium during the German occupation were harsh to say the least. Food and fuel were tightly rationed. Belgian civilians living near possible targets such as railway junctions were in danger of Allied aerial bombing. Civil rights were non-existent. Not only were they oppressed by the Germans but there were collaborators from Belgian Fascist parties in Flanders and Wallonia. Several of them recruited for the SS and the German army.

However, in 1942, the occupation reached a new level of horror not seen during the Great War. That year the Germans began to systematically persecute Jews and deport them to concentration camps. They also deported non-Jewish Belgium civilians to work in factories in Germany. Starting in 1944, the SS and Nazi Party gained much greater control in Belgium, which placed greater and greater hardships.

Belgium people have shown to be resilient in the face of adversity. In the aftermath of the two wars they recovered to become world leaders. They were founders of the European Union. Quality of life is quite high in Belgium as shown by it being categorized as ‘very high’ on the Human Development Index, which is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators.

Just as the Belgium people survived and recovered to be stronger from the devastation of the two world wars, they will rebound from the recent terrorist attacks to continue as one of the great countries of the world.

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