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Under German occupation in Western Europe

The Benelux states in World War II

German troops in Maastricht, the Netherlands (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German troops in Maastricht, the Netherlands (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The day before yesterday was the 77th anniversary of three small European countries, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, entering a customs union as a preparatory step toward a more efficient and better organized Europe. Of course, the three countries were still largely occupied by Nazi Germany on September 5, 1944 – the union was signed into effect by the three governments-in-exile in London, and would not take practical effect until after the countries were liberated. Further treaties drew the three nations even closer over time, leading to the formation of the Benelux Union, the name derived from the first two letters of the names of the three member countries. The Benelux Union still exists today, and acted as a precursor to the much more widespread European Union. On the occasion of this anniversary, today's article will take a quick look at the German occupation of these three countries in World War II.

Benelux conference in The Hague in 1949 (Photo: Dutch National Archives)
Benelux conference in The Hague in 1949 (Photo: Dutch National Archives)
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The three countries lay in the buffer zone between France and Germany. The direct border between the two latter countries is characterized by mountainous and forested terrain, while the general Benelux area offers large stretches of flatlands, ideal for offensive operations. Belgium, in particular, had been such a military hotspot for centuries due to its location that it bears the nickname "the battlefield of Europe." World War I further demonstrated the precariousness of this position when Imperial Germany occupied Belgium and Luxembourg during its drive west into France. After World War I, with seething German resentment over the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles and Hitler's eventual rise to power, the three states had good reason to fear a new war, one that would leave them between a rock and a hard place once more.
 
Belgium achieved its independence from the Netherlands in 1830, and had pursued a policy of neutrality for the rest of the 19th century. It made no strong alliances, but tried to position itself so that if any one country attacked it, several others would likely rush to its aid to preserve the balance of power. After the devastation of World War I, the country changed tack and allied itself with France in 1920 to counter a possible German resurgence. Belgium established a defensive line along the River Meuse and the Albert Canal, while France stationed most of its forces near the French-Belgian border. The Belgian army had no chance to stop a potential German invasion at this line on its own, but the alliance meant that the French military could enter Belgium when needed and occupy the defensive lines the Belgians prepared for them. This would have closed off all German avenues of advance: the French-German border was protected by the unassailable Maginot Line, and Belgium by the French-manned defenses along the Meuse. (The defenses had a single gap: the mountainous Ardennes Forest, where the Battle of the Bulge would play out in 1944. In the 1930s, however, the French incorrectly believed the Ardennes to be impassable for armor.) Except for the oversight of the Ardennes, the defensive plan was quite good.

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The Albert Canal as seen from one of the machine gun positions of Fort Eben-Emael, a key part of the defense line (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
The Albert Canal as seen from one of the machine gun positions of Fort Eben-Emael, a key part of the defense line (Photo: Bundesarchiv)

So what went wrong? In 1934, King Leopold III ascended to the throne of Belgium. He was young, inexperienced and soon found himself in over his head. In 1936, Hitler flagrantly violated the Treaty of Versailles by occupying the Rhineland right next to Belgium. King Leopold, who had preferred a neutral policy anyway, broke the alliance with France and reestablished Belgium's neutrality in an attempt to appease Hitler. In exchange, Hitler promised to respect Belgium's borders – a promise that was obviously worth less than the paper it was written on.

King Leopold III in 1934, the year of his coronation (Photo: Nationaal Archief)
King Leopold III in 1934, the year of his coronation (Photo: Nationaal Archief)

When Germany inevitably invaded in May 1940, King Leopold personally commanded the Belgian army, but his mistake caught up with him. The French army could only enter Belgium once the German invasion was already underway, and could not reach the prepared defensive line in time. Instead, it was forced to fight on much less advantageous terrain, where it was eventually defeated. King Leopold surrendered to Germany on May 28.
 
The king's surrender triggered a crisis. Much of Belgium's government had fled to Britain to support the fight from there, and the ministers wanted the king to do the same. Leopold probably felt that it was his moral duty to stay with his people even in defeat, but many Belgians felt that the king betrayed them by surrendering, which made it look like his was supporting the German conquerors.
 
Additionally, Leopold travelled to Germany in November 1940 and met Hitler in Berchtesgaden. He tried to persuade the Führer to release Belgian prisoners of war. His attempt was a failure, and many Belgians saw his visit as further proof of his collaboration with the Nazis. King Leopold probably meant well, but his actions during the occupation led to a constitutional crisis after the war, which was finally resolved by his abdication from the throne in 1951.

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King Leopold III (center) visiting the troops in early 1940 (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)
King Leopold III (center) visiting the troops in early 1940 (Photo: rarehistoricalphotos.com)

The king was not the only one whose good intentions turned sour. When the government fled, they've left behind a panel of civil servants, the "Committee of Secretaries-General", whose job was to ensure the day-to-day running of the country. Once the German authorities settled in, they started to use this committee to put their directives into practice. The Belgians hoped that by acting as intermediaries, the Committee could protect the populace from the worst of the Germans' demands. What really happened was that German Military Government became more efficient, since it was aided by a group of trained administrators who were familiar with the country and its bureaucratic systems.
 
Belgian good intentions backfired in one more way. The Galopin Doctrine, named after the director of the country's largest company, declared that Belgian companies should continue producing food, consumer goods and other products needed by the civilian population, but refuse to support the German war effort. However, once the Germans learned about the doctrine, they just rounded up Belgian workers and industrial machinery, shipped them off to Germany, and used the men as forced labor without any restrictions.

German troops enjoying a few beers and a warm welcome in Malmedy, Belgium (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
German troops enjoying a few beers and a warm welcome in Malmedy, Belgium (Photo: Bundesarchiv)
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The German occupation of the Netherlands was an altogether different story. Unlike Leopold III of Belgium, the Dutch royal family fled to Britain and spent the rest of the war as guests in Buckingham Palace. Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands served as an inspiration for Dutch resistance groups, and the daisy, which was blooming during the days of invasion, became a symbol of Dutch refugees at her encouragement.
 
Nazi doctrine considered the Dutch to be fellow members of the Aryan master race, and Hitler had a great personal esteem for the people whose empire used to be a major global power player in the Age of Discovery. Consequently, the occupied Netherlands were ruled not by a military governor, but a civilian one: Arthur Seyss-Inquart, an Austrian Nazi who was Chancellor of Austria for two days before the Anschluss.

Arthur Seyss-Inquart in Vienna in 1940 (Photo: Wikipedia)
Arthur Seyss-Inquart in Vienna in 1940 (Photo: Wikipedia)

Seyss-Inquart was a highly intelligent man – in fact, he scored second highest on the IQ tests carried out on all defendants of the Nuremberg Trials. While he was not afraid to use the stick, he preferred the carrot, and tried to win over the Dutch population by keeping repression and depredation low and cooperating with the country's elite. He opened the German market to Dutch companies, allowing them to achieve great profits by exporting to Germany (and aiding the German war industry in the process) – at least at first.
 
Things, however, were still far from peachy. Dutch society at the time was built on the concept of pillarization. Most citizens belonged to one of the three pillars: the Catholics, the Protestants or the Socialists (the liberals arguably formed a fourth pillar). Each pillar had not only its own political parties, but also its own hospitals, newspapers, schools, sports clubs and workers' unions. The German attempt at Nazification, the impression of totalitarian control on all aspects of society, disrupted this division of society, causing tremendous resentment.

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Dutch soldiers standing guard in a flooded part of the Dutch-German border in late 1939 (Photo: Dutch National Archives)
Dutch soldiers standing guard in a flooded part of the Dutch-German border in late 1939 (Photo: Dutch National Archives)

Things took an even worse turn after Germany invaded the Soviet Union. With the German advance eventually stopping both at Moscow and Stalingrad, Germany started to lean on occupied territories harder and harder, increasing the amount of money and production that was removed from subjugated nations and fed into the German war machine. The Dutch economy was soon reeling. Meanwhile, the efforts to round up Dutch Jews were also taken up a notch. Dutch national records included information on the citizens' religion, which made it easier to track down Jews. Additionally, the Dutch authorities were more willing to cooperate with the Nazis in this effort, than those of other countries, and private collaborators were happy to take the bounties offered for Jews. Additionally, the Netherlands are predominantly flat and bare – with no forests, Jews escaping the cities and towns were hard-pressed to find a good hiding place.
 
Things reached rock bottom for the country in late 1944, after the failure of Operation Market Garden, the British-American attempt to rapidly cut a path through the occupied Netherlands. Acting on a plea made by the Dutch government-in-exile, railway workers organized a large-scale strike that was intended to disrupt German supply lines and hasten the downfall of German forces. The Germans retaliated by cutting off food shipments to the western part of the country. Food was already becoming scarce due to the ravages of the war, and the resulting Hongerwinter ("Hunger Winter") led to the death of about 18,000 people before the Allies could liberate the country and start supplying the populace with enough food.

A mother with her two children during the Hunger Winter (Photo: hongerwinter.nl)
A mother with her two children during the Hunger Winter (Photo: hongerwinter.nl)

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The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the smallest of the Benelux states and protected only by police officers and a volunteer force, stood a snowball's chance in Hell against the German military. Most of the country fell on the very first day of the invasion with 83 Luxembourgers wounded or captured, 5 French Spahis (North Africans serving in the French military) killed, and one British airplane's crew killed or captured. Like Wilhelmina of the Netherlands, Grand Duchess Charlotte managed to escape, and became a stalwart ally to President Roosevelt in his attempts to get America to enter the war. Her son, Prince Jean, went on to serve in the British Army.

Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, in 1942 (Photo: Library of Congress)
Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, in 1942 (Photo: Library of Congress)

Historically and culturally, Luxembourg had strong ties to both German and French culture, and both languages were widely spoken, along with the tiny nation's own language, Luxembourgish. Luxembourgish is a Germanic language and is therefore linguistically related to German, but is distinctly separate from it.
 
One important figure of the German occupation administration was Gustav Simon, the Chief of Civil Administration. Simon was convinced that the people of Luxembourg were truly culturally Germanic, only covered in a thin layer of French influence. He was determined to remove that layer and integrate Luxembourg into the German Reich.

Gustav Simon, the Chief of Civil Administration in Luxembourg (Photo: Wikipedia)
Gustav Simon, the Chief of Civil Administration in Luxembourg (Photo: Wikipedia)

Simon banned the French language along with numerous everyday French phrases such as "Bonjour" (Good day!), "Merci" (Thanks) and the like – Luxembourgers were instructed to say "Heil Hitler!" instead of these. Propaganda posters appeared on the streets with declarations like "Luxembourger, you are German, your mother tongue is German. You belong to us!" Similarly, French first and surnames as well as the names of streets, shops and towns, were replaced with German equivalents.
 
These measures to stamp out Luxembourg's identity were met with defiance. The Germans took a survey of Luxembourg's population in October 1941 to see how successful the Germanization efforts were. The survey asked one's nationality, native language and racial group. The questions were phrased in an extremely leading way which made it perfectly clear that "German" was the correct answer in each case. Much to the Germans' embarrassment, 95% of the population answered "Luxembourgish" to each. In fact, many locals who did not learn Luxembourgish as children started to learn the language as a gesture of defiance; and not even the punitive mass arrests could deter them from doing so.

Propaganda poster reminding Luxembourgers of the Germanhood (Image: University of Hamburg)
Propaganda poster reminding Luxembourgers of the Germanhood (Image: University of Hamburg)

The Luxembourgish survey was far from the only act of resistance in the Benelux countries. Resistance efforts were generally fractured, as various groups (communists, royalists, clericals, conservatives and even anti-semitic far-right organizations) all acted on their own initiative. Quite a lot of resistance activity consisted of the usual things: publishing underground newspapers, helping the persecuted flee the country, carrying out acts of sabotage or even assassinations. A few groups, however, added their own flair.
 
Service D in Belgium, for example, specialized in inserting their men into the postal system, and one of them even got into the Gestapo's headquarters as a telephone operator. They used these positions to intercept letters addressed to the Nazi authorities in which collaborators denounced their fellow citizens. The group then warned the denounced individuals and gave them time to flee, and also tried to identify the man who reported them.
 
Intelligence gathering on German troop movements and other sensitive information proved valuable in a more military sense. In fact, it was a Luxembourgish doctor called Fernand Schwachtgen, operating under the pseudonym "Blind John", who gave the Allies much information on the famous Peenemünde Army Research Center, where the German V-1 and V-2 rockets were tested.

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