In 1914, the King of Belgium, Albert I, with only six ill-equipped divisions making up the entire Belgian army, heroically held off superior German troops for thirteen days, buying time for Britain and France to gather their forces behind the lines. By the end of World War I, Belgium, crippled after a difficult four years of German occupation, was heralded as one of the bravest nations to face off against the Central Powers.
Two decades later, Belgium was invaded by Germany again. This time, after three weeks of hard fighting, the new King, Leopold III, surrendered, and the Nazis invaded, using the country both as “a road” and a back door through the Maginot Line. During the next four years, while the War raged hard between the Axis and the Allies, Belgium was occupied. It is estimated that during those four years, 75,000 Belgian civilians were killed.
Unlike the First World War, the story of Belgium during the Second World War is not one of great armies, heroic leaders, strength, or strategy. Rather, Belgium in WWII was a nation abandoned. Left demoralized, their King surrounded by controversy, the story of Belgium during the occupation is a story of the little people; the common working families. Politically, Belgium, already divided into two languages and two classes, sided differently. One side strongly favored the Nazis, the other strongly opposed them. However, the people were not militarily inclined, and homes were without weapons. The story of those four years is a story of distrust, conflict, and survival; of ordinary people trying to make it one more day.
When I first met Rachel Van Meers, it didn’t take me long to learn that this was a unique story, about the undistinguished Belgians who survived and were killed during these mostly unrecorded few years, from one Belgian who had to live through the occupation and witnessed it. Rachel herself was of the lowest class in Belgium. From the Flemish side, families whose pride was in their work, she was looked upon as a lowly girl born out of wedlock, with one scraggly dress, and only ten years old when the invasion occurred. Too young to know about politics, her education cut short, and despite an antagonistic mother and stepfather, she was a completely ordinary little girl, who, like millions of other Belgians, woke up one morning to find herself in extraordinary circumstances. For us a more humble storyteller would be difficult to find. And humble is the story of Belgium in WWII.
I think it’s a fascinating story, and to me it’s somewhat baffling why more books haven’t been written about this sub-facet of 20th Century European history. But, anyway, I feel happy that I had a role in bringing a part of this story to you.