Belgium and the European Conflict
IN THE spring of 1939, when Germany suddenly invaded Czechoslovak territory, no shadow of doubt remained: Europe was moving rapidly towards a general conflict. This was a distressing prospect for all peace-loving nations. Belgium, though she felt powerless before the coming storm, continued to the end to do everything in her power to ward it off.
She had not forgotten the Great War and four years of enemy occupation. She realized that the totalitarian countries, with their worship of force, would display unparalleled brutality in a new war. She was also aware that they had forged a formidable weapon to ensure superiority on land and in the air, and above, all, that their Air Force was far bigger than the Air Forces of the great Democracies.
Belgium reflected upon the ordeal which faced Europe and a great part of mankind; she also reflected upon the risks to which she was herself exposed. Her policy had undoubtedly been a prudent one, and at the same time she had made a great military effort. But experience had taught her that, in spite of declarations and solemn undertakings, she would be in grave danger, in the event of a European conflict, or being used once again as the battlefield of the Great Powers.
Her anxiety was shared by the small States on the North Sea and the Baltic, which had for several years been in the
habit, under the name of the Oslo Group, of exchanging views from time to time about questions of mutual interest connected with the League of Nations. These consultations took place in a spirit of great cordiality and mutual confidence, and had, of course, nothing to do with political or military obligations. Thus, in July 1938, when the international situation already looked black on account of events in Czechoslovakia, the Foreign Ministers of the Oslo States met at Copenhagen, and after their exchange of views declared themselves "prepared, for their part, to collaborate in any international attempt at conciliation in a spirit of impartiality and independence toward the various groups of Powers."
In August 1939, war seemed imminent. The Governments of these small States accepted a suggestion put forward by Belgium and agreed to make a last effort to save peace. When negotiations between the Great Powers seemed to be broken off for good and all, an appeal on humanitarian grounds might possibly enable them to set aside motives of prestige and reopen conversations. The Foreign Ministers were convened urgently to Brussels on August 23rd, where they adopted a declaration. King Leopold, speaking on behalf of the heads of the Oslo States, read this declaration to the whole world on the same day at the Brussels Palace (Appendix 5). It was a heartrending appeal to public opinion to pull itself together and not to succumb to the idea that a catastrophe was inevitable. But although the appeal called for a pacific settlement, there was no ambiguity, no question of resignation in the face of violence and accomplished facts. "Let there be no mistake!" said the King. "The peace that we want is peace with respect for the rights of all nations. A durable peace cannot be based on force. It can only be based on a moral order."
The Pope and many Governments associated themselves with the appeal. The British and French Governments fully sympathized, and pointed out that they had always urged the settlement by pacific methods of all international disputes. Germany and Italy made no comment.
A few days later, on August 26th, the German Ambassador at his own request was received by the King in the presence of the Prime Minister. He declared of his own accord that the Government of the Reich was firmly determined to comply with the terms of the German Declaration of October 13th, 1937, according to which the Reich would in no circumstances impair the inviolability and integrity of Belgium, but would at all times respect Belgian territory (Appendix 6).
On the following days, the Ambassadors of Great Britain and France also gave an assurance,on behalf of their Governments, that should the efforts of these Governments to maintain peace fail, and should Belgium in such a contingency, adopt an attitude of neutrality, they were resolved, in accordance with their traditional policy, fully to respect Belgium's neutrality (Appendix 7).
On August 28th, the situation became even more critical. Queen Wilhemina and King Leopold, being anxious to the last to leave nothing undone, however slight, to avert the danger, made an offer of their good offices to Great Britain, France, Poland, Germany, and Italy. The representatives of these countries were called upon one by one by M. Pierlot in Brussels and simultaneously by M. Van Kleffens at The Hague.1
But nothing could be done to stem the tide of events.
On September 1st, the German Army entered Poland. Germany refused to withdraw her troops, and Great Britain and France therefore considered themselves to be in a state of war with her on September 3rd.
The dreaded disaster had occurred.
From that time, Belgium's duty was plain. It had been clearly laid down in 1936; it was not discussed and there was no ambiguity about it. Great Britain and France on the one hand and Germany on the other had taken note of it in 1937, solemnly indicating their approval. Furthermore, they had confirmed it several days earlier in their statements
of August 26th, 27th, 28th, 1939. "Once again I arrived at the reassuring conviction," said the Foreign Minister in the Chamber on April 16th, 1940, "that our foreign policy had been ... perfectly correct. Few countries can have defined their objectives so clearly; confined themselves to promises they could be sure of keeping; enlightened their neighbours as to their intentions. There was not--there is not--any change, any element of surprise. Whatever happens, nobody can say Belgium deceived them" (Appendix 14).
Now that the Great Powers of the West were at war with one another, Belgium had to follow the policy she had adopted.
Politically, she was in much the same position as in 1914. She realized that, as in 19124, it was in her highest interest faithfully and loyally to fulfil her international obligations. She was under no obligation to take part in the war. The Rhine Pact did not apply, and in any case it did not bind her. The League of Nations was not asked to take action, and if it had been, its recommendations would have been optional.
On the other hand, the position taken note of in the Declarations of Great Britain, France, and Germany in 1937 implied that in such a conflict Belgium would be neutral. She had therefore to fulfil the obligations imposed on neutral States under international law. On September 3rd, the Moniteur published the Belgian Declaration of Neutrality (Appendix 8).
In the economic sphere, difficult questions immediately arose, because the belligerents took opposing views. The Belgian Government based all its negotiations with them on two principles. First, it endeavoured to safeguard Belgian interests autonomously by prohibiting or regulating the export of such foodstuffs and essential raw materials as were not produced in sufficient quantities to meet the needs of the country. The second principle was based on Article 9 of the Hague Convention, which prohibited neutral States from imposing any prohibition or restriction on a belligerent State which it did not similarly impose on other belligerent States.
These two principles were hardly open to question. They
did, of course, involve a heavy reduction in Belgian exports to Germany; but there was no legal ground for Germany's protests. Great Britain and France recognized that they provided all the guarantees they could reasonably expect.
Belgium's duty was most obvious in the military sphere. Here, it is sufficient to refer to the terms of the Declarations of 1937, when Germany, as well as Great Britain and France, took note of the Belgian Government's determination (a) to defend the frontiers of Belgium with all its forces against any aggression or invasion, and to prevent Belgian territory from being used, for purposes of aggression against any other State, as a passage or as a base of operations by land, by sea, or in the air; (b) to organize the defence of Belgium in an efficient manner for this purpose.
Since 1912, Belgium had had a system of compulsory general service. In peace-time she had six infantry divisions and two cavalry divisions, forming three army corps and one cavalry corps. From 1934, there were also frontier guard units and the "Chasseurs Ardennais." In war-time Belgium could, by means of general mobilization, raise an army of twenty infantry divisions, one cavalry corps and troops for the fortifications--about 650,000 men in all.
In 1930, as we have already seen, she restored and improved her fortifications; in 1935 sh tried to provide greater protection by extending the period of service, and this was increased to seventeen months under a law passed at the beginning of 1937; at the same time, she maintained her annual contingent in spite of the years when the birth-rate was low; she improved and added to her material, mechanized the whole of the cavalry, and extended and developed the training of units on active service and in the reserve.
When the crisis occurred in September 1938, she called up several classes and put twelve infantry divisions on a war-time footing. Partial mobilization was costly, but it was a useful experiment and enabled improvements to be made. A more flexible system was introduced by which mobilization was divided into five successive stages, A to E.
As a frontier country at the outposts of Germany and
France, Belgium had to be on her guard, during an international crisis, immediately the neighbouring Powers took military measures, so as to avoid being taken by surprise. As in the past, this rule was scrupulously observed.
As from August 24th and 25th, Army leave was cancelled and soldiers on leave were recalled. On the 25th was decided Stage A of mobilization. This was the first of the provisions for putting our military machine on a war-time footing. On the 26th, a Royal Decree declared that the country was in a state of mobilization. Its object was to bring about the entry into force of several legislative and administrative measures provided for in the event of an international crisis. The Decree was therefore not an order for general mobilization. On the contrary, it explained that mobilization of the Army would be spread over several stages on the orders of the Minister of National Defence. On August 28th, mobilization passed to Stage B; this involved the supervision and guarding of the frontiers, aerial protection and observation. The garrisons of fortified positions were reinforced. At the same time, all private and foreign aircraft were prohibited from flying over Belgian territory and territorial waters, with the exception of aircraft of regular lines and aircraft holding an authorization from the Ministry of Communications.
On the opening of hostilities in Poland, the Minister of National Defence ordered Stage C of mobilization, which involved the calling up of units of the first reserve. This was completed by September 3rd.
On September 4th, the King issued an Order of the Day under Article 68 of the Constitution, announcing that he had taken command of the Army (Appendix 9. On the 10th, a number of second reserve units were recalled for a period of training.
During September, the German offensive was aimed at Poland; the western front remained calm. France did not have sufficient effectives, or material, or aeroplanes to engage successfully in offensive operations. By the middle
of September, mobilization was proceeding systematically, and about fifty divisions had been called up. England had sent three divisions to the Continent.
At that time, Poland had already virtually succumbed to the attacks of armoured divisions and a formidable air force. The campaign in the east was at an end, and in a speech in the Reichstag on October 6th, Chancellor Hitler described the results achieved. In the favourable circumstances produced by his military successes, he seemed disposed to enter into peace negotiations. However, the German armies were brought back from the eastern front and the whole of the forces were placed on the western frontier. Over fifty divisions were concentrated on the left bank of the Rhine on the frontiers of southern Holland and Belgium. From that moment, hardly a week passed without the Belgian military authorities receiving information of steady reinforcements of both men and materials in this area: new divisions, the number facing the Dutch and Belgian frontiers increasing to nearly seventy; large quantities of material for bridge-building for crossing watercourses, munition dumps, aerodromes, etc. The Belgian Army Command was therefore compelled progressively to increase its precautionary measures, and to carry on with the mobilization of the Army, so that it was soon almost up to a wartime footing.
On several occasions the Belgian military authorities received information which led them to fear an immediate act of aggression. The effect of these warnings was to speed up the mobilization of the Belgian forces and to stimulate arrangements for putting the country in a complete state of defence.
The first "alert" occurred at the end of October. Holland appeared specially threatened. According to information reaching the Netherlands authorities, a surprise German attack was to be launched at dawn on Sunday, November 12th. Alarming signs were brought simultaneously to the notice of the Belgian Government.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands has
described how he decided, in the circumstances, to suggest to Queen Wilhelmina that she should renew the offer of good offices previously made on August 28th in conjunction with King Leopold.2 This suggestion was made in Brussels on Monday, November 6th. So that no time should be lost, the King left for The Hague the same evening, accompanied by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Military Adviser. The draft was completed on the following morning and was sent in the afternoon to the King of England, the President of the French Republic, and the Chancellor of the German Reich (Appendix 11). Alarming news about Germany's military intentions continued to arrive during the next few days, and it appeared to confirm that an attack was imminent. Then, all of a sudden, the plans for aggression seemed to have been abandoned. Was this really the case, or was it only a blind? Even now it is impossible to be sure. However, the information as a whole was sufficient to justify most elaborate precautions.
During the first fortnight of January, there was another grave warning, and all forms of national defence were pushed forward as quickly as possible.
A German courier plane made a forced landing at Mechelen-sur-Meuse in Belgian territory on January 10th. The two officers on board said that they had lost their way in the fog above the Ruhr basin and the valley of the Rhine. One of the two officers had some confidential papers which he twice tried to burn. He almost succeeded the second time: he managed to throw them suddenly into a lighted stove while he was being questioned, but a Belgian officer rushed forward, put his hand in the stove and pulled them out of the flames three-parts burned. They consisted of instructions to the squadron-leader of No. 2 Air Fleet about the offensive which the German Western Army was to carry out across Belgium from the Moselle to the North Sea. The Sixth Germany Army was specially instructed to destroy the Belgian Army, launching its main attack in the Maastricht district; the Seventh Air Force Division, conveyed by air, was
to land between the Sambre and the Meuse (Appendix 13).
Was the document authentic? Was it really an accident that it had fallen into the hands of the Belgian Army? A thorough enquiry was made, and the hypothesis of a trick was dismissed. It was certainly a severe winter, and snow and frost hardly seemed propitious to military operations. But it was clear from the papers that it would be easier for German air-borne troops to land if the ground was hard with frost. Other disturbing news which came to hand at the same time seemed to confirm this. It was feared that the German Command, learning that important parts of the plan of operations had fallen into the hands of the Belgian authorities, would carry it through at once, so that there would be no time to counter the attack.
As this plan involved a threat to England, France, the Netherlands, as well as Belgium, their military authorities were immediately informed.
The Army remained at the ready for several days; then, as no important troop movements on the frontier had been reported, it was concluded that the attack had again been postponed.
However, important additions were made to the Belgian defences. The Army continued to organize its positions.
The Belgian Army was disposed as a covering force on positions along the Albert Canal from Antwerp to Liège and along the Meuse from Liège to Namur. Advanced units and demolition squads deployed form the German and Netherlands frontier were to hamper the invader and prevent contact on this protective position. This was a very strong position, and the natural obstacles were supplemented and reinforced by means of a large number of fortifications and fieldworks. But there were three serious drawbacks:
- It was a long way from the French frontier.
- It was very extended (over 200 kilometres).
- It was semi-elliptical.
Owing to its distance from the French frontier, no Franco-British help could be expected on that line. Yet by itself
the Belgian Army could not engage the German forces on a front of over 200 kilometres without running the risk of being annihilated. Again, being a semi-ellipse with the point at Liège, it was dangerously exposed to flank attacks, particularly in the north, where a local break-through would irreparably threaten the whole position.
Quite clearly, the Albert-Meuse Canal position could only be a covering position. If the Belgian Army were to offer resistance there, the Franco-British forces and the bulk of the Belgian Army would have time to occupy a position connecting the fortified towns of Antwerp and Namur. This line, which runs through Koningshoyckt-Malines-Louvain-Wavre, is known as the K.W. position, after the places at either end. The construction of the line K.W. was begun in 1939. The experience gained during the construction of the Liège and Namur fortifications and the lessons learnt from the Spanish War were largely taken into account. The K.W. position comprised a large number of works spread over several lines. The front was protected by a continuous anti-tank barrier and by arrangements for flooding, while anti-tank traps were provided well inside the position. There was also an underground telephone system and a road system.
The Belgian line thus embraced the fortified town of Antwerp, the K.W. line, and the fortified town of Namur. On this position--supported at the North Sea by the fortified town of Antwerp and extended south and connected with the Maginot Line by the Meuse cutting--the Belgian Army--with the help of the Franco-British forces, expected on the third day of the war--had decided to engage in the battle which was to stem the invasion.
This defence line had for long been known as one of the most important strategic lines in Western Europe. It was very near the line of the armies of Louis XIV when Belgium was defended against the Coalition forces under Marlborough.
The Belgians are well aware of the price their country has had to pay for the doubtful privilege of being used as a
battlefield by its powerful neighbours. It was therefore not without some apprehension that the Belgian Government contemplated the stabilization of the front on the Antwerp-Namur line. Indeed, its choice meant the certain destruction of the chief towns of Belgium--Brussels, Antwerp, Malines, Louvain, Namur, Lierre, Gembloux, It also meant handing over half the national territory to the enemy.
The fortifications were not confined to the K.W. line. The other positions were constantly improved. Preparations were made for extensive destructions, particularly of roads, all along the front and in the Ardennes; all the bridges and principal routes were mined; obstacles were placed everywhere. On the National Railway Company's system alone, 137 kilometres of track, 310 points and crossings, and 339 bridges and tunnels had been destroyed by the end of the May campaign.
Full advantage was taken of the months gained at the beginning of the war--fieldworks were under construction, reserve formations were called up and thoroughly trained. Belgium had at that time twenty infantry divisions, one motorized brigade, and as mechanized cavalry corps not only well-equipped, armed and officered, but trained and familiar with the ground. All the higher officers and many of the Reserve officers were veterans of the 191r war; they had taken part in the victorious offensive of 1918, and still remembered the victory over the German armies. The troops were proud of their strength, the worth of their material, the soundness of their positions.
To form a strong army of 600,000, Belgium had to mobilize 8 per cent. of her total population, or 46 per cent. of the men between twenty and forty years of age. It was a tremendous effort and strain (Appendix 16).
Although the soldiers' pay and the allowances to the families of those who were called up were relatively small, mobilization involved financial burdens which were crushing in comparison with Belgium's resources. At the beginning of 1940, the daily expenditure, including extraordinary expenditure on fortifications, was 21 million francs. Other
extraordinary expenditure amount to 3.5 million francs a day; the ordinary budget was 12 thousand million francs per annum; the total estimated to be borne by the State in 1941 amounted to nearly 21 thousand million francs.
Though great sacrifices were made, the national defences were not complete. The Air Force was not up to the same standard as the Army. The reason is simple. Technical progress is so rapid that air material is soon out of date. It has therefore to be written off after a short time, and this entails considerable expense. The Army had British machines, and when the danger became more acute, Belgium tried to obtain more. But British industry had to meet pressing national requirements, and the Belgian Army was only able to obtain a few Hurricanes.
Another factor had to be taken into account. The aerodromes of a frontier country like Belgium are highly exposed, because of their proximity to the German bases. Belgian material, despite the precautions taken, was in danger of being destroyed during a sudden attack. In any event, in such a contingency, Belgium could not expect to defend herself without help. She was counting on the aid of the Powers that had given their guarantee. In the air, this help appeared to be possible at once. Belgium was justified in relying on the French and British Air Forces to defend her skies.
Although Belgian air power was weak, Belgium did her duty, thanks to her fully organized observer corps and to the courage of her pilots, when belligerent aircraft flew over her territory.
In taking steps to safeguard the defences of the country, she followed the dictates of conscience as to her duty to herself and to other States. She was convinced that Belgian interests were the same as the interests of the Powers with whom she sympathized. Parliamentary debates, Government declarations in both France and England, left no doubt that the rearmament of these Powers was not up to the same standard as that of Germany. It was known that the industrial mobilization and material assistance of
the United States would not be fully effective for a long time. During that period, Belgium protected the vital areas of England and France. As far as the latter was concerned, a French General remarked in an well-known book that Belgian neutrality, as long as it was respected, "would strengthen France considerable ... by reducing the length of our front of 250 kilometres which the Belgian Army could not hold alone."3
Great prominence had been given in the Belgian Press, during the spring of 1940, to statements made in England according to which it was fortunate that Germany had not launched a full-scale attack on the western front at the beginning of the war. It was said that time had thus been given to France and England to pursue the mobilization of their national resources and bring their war effort to the maximum.
Eminent French publicists have since disclosed that M. Daladier, President of the Council, and General Gamelin, were concerned in the same way about their country.4
Belgian public opinion noted with satisfaction the increasing evidence that the requirements of national defence were in keeping with her sympathies, for she did not admit that political neutrality meant she must keep silent. "This voluntary neutrality," said M. Max, Burgomaster of Brussels, at a meeting of the Communal Council on September 17th, 1939, "is fully in keeping with the dignity appropriate to a proud people. It does not prevent either independence of thought, or liberty of conscience, or loyalty to our friends." Public opinion was suspicious of any attempt to check these sentiments. Moreover, the Government, though recommending moderation, affirmed the same principle. "No one," said the Minister for Foreign Affairs in the Chamber on September 19th, "has ever maintained that a neutral Belgian must be an indifferent Belgian. And the history of to-day cannot efface the history of yesterday.
Such truths have often been proclaimed, and not a member of the Government would deny them." The Minister's words were thus in harmony with those of the Burgomaster of Brussels.
The Government, with the approval of public opinion, was careful to see that Belgian independence and national dignity were maintained. The Press severely criticized German acts of aggression as well as violations of international law and of the most elementary laws of humanity. Germany protested in vain at such freedom of opinion. She induced all the neutral States of Europe to prohibit the sale of the books which were most critical of the dangers and evils of Hitler's Reich, such as those of Dr. Rauschning and Otto Strasser. Brussels was approached many times in the same sense, but refused.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, speaking in Parliament, condemned the Russian aggression in Finland. "The Government," said M. Spaak, on December 19th, "is indignant." In the same spirit of independence, speaking in the Senate on April 16th, he expressed Belgium's sympathy with Norway, which had been suddenly attacked. "We are following Norway's efforts all the more sympathetically," he said, "in that she was always a great lover of peace and was loyally neutral." (Hear, hear. Applause from all benches.) "She was therefore in much the same position as ourselves. Her sentiments were our sentiments." (Appendix 14).
The Minister did not stop there. He warned Belgium of the lesson to be learnt from this bitter experience. "What strikes me most," he said, "in Norway's heroic stand is that love of peace, respect for neutrality, the often-repeated desire to spare one's country the horrors of war do not in any way diminish but rather heighten the fierce determination to defend the soil of the Fatherland when it becomes necessary." (Loud applause).
Belgium has sometimes been classed with the small States determined to defend themselves to the last against an attack, but equally determined not to anticipate aggression.
This is a view that calls for correction. The moment the conflict broke out, Belgium realized that the Netherlands might be attack while she herself was spared, at least for the time being. On several occasions--particularly at the end of October--there were grave reports which appeared to confirm this supposition. Holland appeared at that time to be in far graver danger than Belgium. On November 6th, King Leopold left for The Hague. Although his interview with Queen Wilhelmina was about the Netherlands proposal that they should renew their offer of good offices, it is significant that he was accompanied by the General who was his Military Advisor. The Government discussed the attitude to be adopted in such a contingency,l but although the discussion was secret, considerable space was devoted to it in the international Press. The resolutions adopted were outlined in the Chamber on December 19th in a speech by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. "I want," said M. Spaak, "to be quite free to form a judgment in the light of all the facts. For that reasons, I think it would be unwise to decide now what attitude we should have to adopt if the situation in Holland changes. But I should like to make it clear that it would be madness to suppose such an event would leave us indifferent. As far as I am concerned--and I am sure I am speaking for the whole Government--I am deeply conscious of all the ties that bind Belgium and the Netherlands" (Appendix 12). There was no doubt as to the meaning of these words. They were loudly applauded. Such an attitude fully conforms to the "policy of independence" as understood by the Belgian Government. Public opinion was almost unanimous in approving it; the Minister for Foreign Affairs, speaking in the Senate on April 17th, three weeks before the aggression, full confirmed his earlier statements.
Was it necessary to do more?
On several occasions, Belgium believed she was on the verge of being attacked by Germany. She had been made aware that such an attack had been closely studied. She had not remained passive. She had drawn all the
conclusions which her concern for her security forced upon her.
On the outbreak of the conflict, the Belgian forces were placed in such a way as to protect all the frontiers. The Government intended to act strictly in accordance with the correct and loyal attitude she had always adopted. But once a powerful German Army was concentrated near Belgian territory and the representatives of the Reich themselves seemed to think there might be an attack, the King, with the full approval of the Government, felt quite justified in diverting the whole of the Belgian forces to where the danger undoubtedly threatened. The units in the west were withdrawn and sent to the east. On several occasions, the Reich made remarks or criticisms on this subject. The Belgian Government constantly refused to take account of them, as it felt that the steps taken were fully justified by the Germany Army's preparations for aggression.
Belgium had yet another cause for anxiety, in addition to the impending danger. She was unable to meet aggression by herself. Great Britain and France had undertaken to assist her, but to be effective, help had to be prompt. Arrangements were therefore made by the High Command for this purpose, though in keeping with the rôle Belgium had adopted. The Minister of National Defence, General Denis, gave Parliament a formal assurance. "The responsible Belgian authorities," he said, on February 7th, 1940, "will neglect no steps to enable the Powers that have guaranteed Belgium to fulfil their obligations towards us." From 1914 to 19356--twenty-two years--the Belgian General Staff maintained close contact with the French General Staff.
The Belgian Command had received from the Commander-in-Chief of the Franco-British Army an assurance that he had at his disposal everything that was necessary to ensure that the help to Belgium be rendered without delay. Events proved that he was right. On May 10th, the French and British forces took up their positions within the time-limit laid down.
Belgium was discreetly advised to seek Franco-British aid without awaiting an act of aggression. She did not accept
this advice, which she regarded as incompatible with the attitude she intended loyally to maintain. Moreover, it had grave disadvantages. On several occasions, she was under the impression that preventive intervention by France and Great Britain was just what the Germans were secretly hoping for. The Germany Army was concentrated on the Belgian frontier, ready to launch an attack. If the French and British Armies had entered Belgian territory, the German attack would have followed immediately and the advantage gained by them would have been slight. The Government knew that these armies could not go beyond the K.W. line. To appeal for preventive aid would have entailed the occupation of half the country by the German invaders. The only result would have been to set in motion earlier the events that occurred in May. The course of these events would not have been changed, because it was due to factors outside Belgium's control. The chief cause was the great superiority which the Powers who were the guardians of peace had allowed the aggressive Powers to acquire. There was in particular the weakening of France, which, on the eve of the German aggression, manifested itself by more and more disquieting signs: a ministerial crisis, a crisis of the High Command, and the weakening of the will to conquer.
The Government could not have prevented the disasters that occurred in May, but an appeal for preventive aid would have given them an entirely different meaning and the people would have endured them with far less fortitude.
The case of Belgium would have become far less clear, and from then on would have been open to discussion. Germany, relying on the Declaration of 1937, would have represented Franco-British intervention as justifying her own aggression. She would have accused Belgium of failing to keep her promises and of being responsible for her own troubles. Towards neutral countries and towards herself, Belgium would have ceased to be what she was in 1914, a loyal nation, a nation that had been attacked, though no shadow of blame attached to her.
The military defeat, the piercing of the French lines on the
Meuse, the subsequent enemy occupation, would not have been avoided. But Belgium would not have had the support, in these terrible trials, of the moral force generated by her attitude.
One of the chief objectives in 1936, as has been seen, was to assemble all the national forces before the danger, and so to act that the nation would arise as one man against aggression, just as it did in 1914, though this time with an infinitely more powerful and better-trained army.
This result was fully achieved. At the beginning of the conflict, a Coalition Government was set up in which the three political parties were represented. The whole world heard the proud words in which the King himself gave the watchword: "If we were attacked," he said on October 27th, "--and may God preserve us from that fate--in spite of the solemn and categorical undertakings given to us in 1937 and renewed just before the war, we should fight without hesitation, but with ten times the means. And this time again the whole country would be behind the Army" (Appendix 10).
Never did foreign policy meet with such general approval in Belgium. It is only necessary to read the debates in the Senate on April 16th and 17th, three weeks before the aggression. There had been growing approval from the beginning of the conflict; even those who were formerly critical fully approved. "I am the more qualified to say what I think of this policy," said a Walloon Socialist senator, "in that I was opposed to it at the beginning. Confusing independence with neutrality, I told myself that neutrality was something shady and cowardly. But after these dreadful events which have made the human conscience bleed, I have realized that I was mistaken, and for the past eight months I have felt sure our young King was right." (Hear, har.) "And, old republican as I am, I thank him."
The debate closed with a vote that was almost unanimous--131 for and only 3 Communists against. There were two abstentions.
The Government would not have been able to carry the
nation with it on any other policy, even if it had wanted to do so; had it tried, the attempt would have led to serious internal dissension and confusion, the consequences of which might have been fatal. National unity would have been impaired, and by that very fact the country's power of resistance would have been weakened.
On the contrary, at the moment of supreme trial, the whole country, except for a few scattered elements of little importance, was resolved and united as it had never been at any previous period of its history. The Rexist Party, which had Fascist leanings, and had had a passing success five years before, at the height of the economic depression, was completely broken up. Most of its representatives had openly supported the national union; this was also true of the Flemish nationalists, who represented the extremist element in Flemish public opinion. The fifth column was represented only by scattered individuals; it was not able to demonstrate openly.
After the German aggression, foreign observers sometimes asked the Belgians was good their policy of independence and their efforts to prevent war in their territory had done them. It is true that this policy prevented neither German aggression nor invasion. it could perhaps reduce the risk slightly, though it could not remove it. Only the foresight and armed force of the Great Powers could have done that. But Belgium's attitude and her consistency in maintaining it were nevertheless of inestimable value to her. They cemented national unity and strengthened the common will to resist at a time when the country was about to face one of the most terrible ordeals of its history: an aggression of unparalleled violence, the brutal onslaught of an unexpected and unmerited disaster, the moral torture and deprivation entailed by a new occupation, the spectre of famine. These are the fundamental safeguards which it was essential Belgium should have when her very existence was threatened by the storm.
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