The neutrality of Belgium came to an end on May 10, 1940 with the German invasion, and subsequent conquest of the Low Countries. Hundreds of thousands of civilians fled toward France before the oncoming German army. After 18 days of hostilities, the Belgian army surrendered. Of its 600,000 soldiers, 225,000 were taken prisoner. 1,680 later died in captivity, but over 160,000 others, mostly Flemish, were gradually released in the context of Hitler’s pan-Germanic policy.
The unconditional capitulation of Belgium was signed on May 28, 1940. The Belgian government took up residence in London whilst the King of the Belgians, Leopold III, gave himself up and was finally placed under house arrest in Belgium. Governmental duties were entrusted to the Secrétaires-généraux (the “Secretaries-General,” the highest-ranking Belgian State civil servants). They were meant to always respect and uphold the Belgian constitution and laws. They pursued a policy of “passive execution” (a concept elaborated by legal experts in reference to the question juive, or “Jewish issue”) in their relationship with the German occupying authorities, who took care to be diplomatic in order to obtain “loyal” cooperation from the Belgian administration. Thus, the fact that the Belgian constitution acts as a brake against racist policies did not, in fact, prevent the Belgian authorities from implementing anti-Semitic measures against the Jewish population.
A German military government was instituted for Belgium and Northern France under General von Falkenhausen. Meanwhile, repression was entrusted to the Sicherheitspolizei-Sicherheitsdienst or Sipo-SD (the combined SS intelligence service and security police), which opened the internment camp of Breendonk, Belgium in September 1940. Belgian political life was basically bipolar, divided between the Catholic and Socialist parties. The parties which advocated collaboration with the Germans, such as the VNV or Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (Flemish National Union) led by Staf de Clercq, and Rex, led by Léon Degrelle, only had the support of a minority of the population.
The VNV was formed as a result of a radicalization of Frontism, which was a movement of rebellion of Flemish soldiers against their French-speaking officers during World War I. The main elements of the program of this pro-Nazi party were the linguistic issue, the mystical usage of the concepts of people and of race, and the demands either for independence for Flanders, or for the creation of a Germanic, pan-Dutch state, as well as anti-Semitism.
Rex originated from Catholic, reactionary and French-speaking youth. It had no clear-cut program, and was content with denouncing political scandals. It also demanded the suppression of democratic political parties in favor of a single party, run by a supreme leader. Rex obtained 21 seats in the 1936 elections, but failed to sustain this success in the elections of 1937. This defeat led the movement to become increasingly fascist. However, the zeal of the partisans of collaboration with the Germans did not compensate for their numerical inferiority. This was particularly clear in the implementation of the Judenpolitik (the Nazi policy against the Jews of Europe). In fact, there were fewer than 20 German SS (Schutzstaffel, members of a vast Nazi elite paramilitary organization) involved in the “Final Solution” in Belgium (Klarsfeld & Steinberg, 1980:23-24). Consequently, the Nazis were not in a position to do without the Belgian administrative authorities’ “collaboration.”
Between October 28, 1940 and June 1, 1942, 17 anti-Jewish decrees were promulgated by the military Governor of Belgium and Northern France. Jews had to be counted; they were forbidden to work in the media or as civil servants, magistrates or teachers. The removal of Jews from the economy was highly effective: companies and businesses belonging to Jews were identified, then liquidated (sold) or “aryanized” (confiscated and transferred to non-Jews); forced labor was also used. Jews were forced into an “administrative ghetto”: they were forced to remain at home during the hours of a curfew aimed specifically at them, their children were excluded from the educational system, and they were forced to wear the yellow star.
The Germans entrusted the “Secretaries-General” with setting up the implementation measures necessary to enforce these decrees. They subsequently passed on the German decisions to inferior administrative levels, to provinces, cities and municipalities, which contributed to their application and, therefore, to setting up the system for the future deportation of Jews.
Once the trap was set, the deportation of the Jews of Western Europe (including Belgium) was organized. On June 11, 1942, Theodor Dannecker, Willy Zoepf and Kurt Asche, who were respectively the Judenreferenten (Nazi intelligence officers in charge of special units responsible for deporting Jews) of Paris, The Hague and Brussels, were called to Berlin by Adolf Eichmann. At the time, he was head of Section IV B4 for Jewish Affairs at the Reichsicherheitshauptamt or RSHA (Headquarters of the Reich Security Services). They decided that a first group of 10,000 Jews should immediately be deported from Belgium (Klarsfeld, 1977:43-45), and estimated that around 10% of them might not be fit for work.
At the beginning of July 1942, the German general Eggert Reeder, head of the Military Administration, decided to temporarily exempt Jews holding Belgian citizenship from deportation, in order to avoid any potential reactions from the Belgian authorities (Politische Archiv des Auswärtigen Amts, Inland II A/B (5602), Telegramm (G. Schreiber) von Von Bargen, Brüssel, Dienststelle des A.A., 09/07/1942, Nr. 602 v 9.7 Auf nr 788 +) v. 29.6). Only 6% of the 70,000 Jews living in Belgium had Belgian nationality. The Military Government of Belgium - Northern France under the commandment of General Alexander von Falkenhausen This particularity was due to the fact that the vast majority of the Jewish community had recently immigrated to Belgium. 44% of these immigrants had fled Poland, mainly between 1920 and 1930. Between 1933 and 1939, another 12,000 Jewish refugees had arrived from the German Reich.
On July 15, 1942 General Harry von Craushaar, deputy head of the German military administration, instructed SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Philipp Schmitt, who was in charge the Breendonk camp, to organize a transit camp for Jews in the city of Mechelen (Auditorat Militaire, Schmitt Trial, Affidavit concerning the creation of the transit camp of Mechelen, under the responsibility of Philipp Schmitt, Brussels, July 15, 1942).
The General Dossin de Saint Georges Barracks in Mechelen was an obvious choice as a location. The Dossin Barracks had been built in 1756 halfway between Brussels and Antwerp, in an area where almost all of the Jews of Belgium lived. The railroad between the two cities passed near the barracks, which was also situated near the junction of this railway with the eastbound line toward Louvain, and Germany. In the nearby Auffanglager (literally, “reception camp”) of Fort Breendonk, Summer 1942: the assembly camp at Mechelen after the arrival of those caught during the night various categories of prisoners were held, including political prisoners, members of the anti-German resistance, common law criminals, draft dodgers and “asocial” persons – as well as Jews, up until the end of July 1942. The proximity of this camp to the Dossin Barracks led the occupying authorities to conclude that on the security level, the environment was relatively neutral and that the presence of detainees would not provoke any particular agitation among the local population, since they had not reacted thus to events at Fort Breendonk. Finally, the barracks consisted of a square building with three floors, surrounding a courtyard, and it was big enough to hold a thousand detainees.
By July 27, 1942 the Mechelen transit camp was operational and received its first prisoners. This exceptional document shows new detainees arriving at the Dossin barracks. The photograph was presumably taken at the end of the summer of 1942, when massive round-ups and arrests took place.