After the ambiguities of France and the outright collaboration of priests and bishops in countries such as Croatia and Slovakia, the story of Belgium’s Catholic Church during the Second World War will come as some relief. For once, there are few ambiguities in the story. Strangely, in a nation riven internally along ethnic lines and where there were large numbers of volunteers for the SS and the German army, the Church stands out as a beacon of hope.
There were precedents. During the First World War, the mercurial Cardinal Archbishop of Mechelen-Malines, Désirè-Joseph Mercier, had been the voice of Belgian opposition against German occupation. However, Mercier had also been a firm believer in the supremacy of the French-speaking Walloons over the Dutch-speaking Flemings. It was to the latter that the Germans appealed in the First World War, but such was the standing of the Church amongst them, that, on the whole, their appeals went unheard.
Interestingly, the main appeal of Fascism in pre-1940 Belgium was amongst the Walloons. The largest Fascist party in Western Europe, Rex, founded by Léon Degrelle, was rooted amongst ethnic French-speakers. This is, perhaps, not that surprising. Degrelle had studied at a Jesuit college, where he had discovered the inspiration behind France’s Action Française, Charles Maurras. Once more one has the odd spectacle of a man with deep-seated Catholic convictions being swayed by the utilitarian, agnostic and deeply unspiritual Maurras. Degrelle was impressed by the heroism of the Mexican Catholics who fought against the anti-clerical regime of that country during the Cristero War, and would base his own political movement on their battle cry: Viva Christo Rey.
Degrelle soon went on a journey that would lead him outside the Catholic fold. Meetings with Hitler, Mussolini and other European Fascist leaders brought him closer to mainstream Fascism, and further away from the Magisterium of the Church. Rex became an electoral success, incredibly gathering many votes not only amongst Walloons, but also amongst Belgium’s German minority and amongst the Flemish. In 1935, the movement was expelled from the Catholic Party, and, when the war broke out, Degrelle soon found himself excommunicated for wearing a SS uniform to Mass. He had volunteered for the SS, membership of which movement the Belgian hierarchy had banned on the basis of its pagan creed.
Degrelle would survive the war and live in Spain until his death in 1994. His Rex movement had a Flemish counterpart, the VNV, Vlaamsch Nationaal Verbond, or Flemish National Union. This had no Catholic roots to speak of. It had split from the Frontpartij, a Flemish emancipation movement that had begun in the trenches at the front during the First World War. There, Flemish soldiers had been refused the courtesy of being commanded in their own language, which had galvanized an incipient Flemish movement.
However, this movement was deeply Catholic, and totally devoted to the Church. Its heroes were men who had fought and died for the Church, and at the IJzer River, just outside Ieper, they had erected a large cross inscribed with the letters AVV – VVC, all for Flanders, Flanders for Christ.
The VNV walked away from all of this, under the leadership of Staf de Clercq, who totally identified with the neo-paganism and Social Darwinist racism of the German Nazis. In Flanders as in Wallonia, thousands joined the SS under the banner of localized nationalist sentiment. However, the Church had no desire to condone these movements: on the contrary, as in the case with Degrelle, she went to war with Belgium’s Fascists. Indeed, under its formidable leader, Jozef-Ernst Cardinal van Roey, she went to war with Nazism and Hitler.
Van Roey was a very different character from his predecessor, Mercier. Jovial, he loved Flanders and Belgium in equal measure. He was also deeply faithful to the Magisterium of the Church and to its practices. When cremation was first mooted in Belgium, for example, he condemned it outright as an invention. Mercier, on the other hand, had initiated the first Catholic-Anglican dialogue and was a more modern man than van Roey.
Yet it was van Roey who managed to unite the opposition to the Fascist threat from Rex, from the VNV, and from Germany. His vision on Hitler and the Germans is worth quoting in full: “With Germany we step many degrees downward and reach the lowest possible depths. We have a duty of conscience to combat and to strive for the defeat of these dangers.”
He cracked down on Rex, ensuring that no-one would be able to believe this Fascist movement to be Catholic in any sense; in 1937, he forbade Catholics from voting for Rex, condemning it as a threat to state and Christianity. Hitler was incensed, but Pius IX offered his full support when secular sources criticized the Cardinal for intervening in the political process. Van Roey’s unbending defense of the values of the Gospels and the teachings of the Church earned him the sobriquet of the Iron Bishop, and it appears that his fearlessness intimidated the German army of occupation. Van Roey was one of the few Church leaders in this period who simply does not seem to have concerned himself about Communism. This is of vital importance, as the threat from the Soviets was largely responsible for the equivocal attitude of many in the Church towards Fascism.
To understand the difference in Belgium, one needs to know its Catholic political past. The Catholic party had been founded in 1869, and had, at first, been rather conservative, pre-occupied with Catholic schools. Yet with the issuing of Rerum Novarum in 1891, the party gradually transformed into a more Christian Democratic movement, including a Catholic trade union wing. It had more than held its own, indeed, had had an absolute majority in parliament for much of the later nineteenth century. Communism had managed to make but little gains, was, in other words, not a serious threat.
Perhaps other Catholic parties in Europe would have done well to copy the Belgian model. It had undermined the appeal of Communism, and in the process had allowed Belgium’s Catholic leaders to form a proper estimate of the real dangers of Fascism and Nazism. Uniquely, the Church in Belgium arrived at this estimate across her wings. Both conservatives like Cardinal van Roey and liberals such as Dom Bruno O.S.B. could come together in the defense of the teachings of the Gospels, could unite in promoting the Catholic alternative to the extremes of Communism and Fascism that Popes Pius XI and Pius XII had been promoting from Rome.
Dom Bruno, or Henri Rynders, to give him his civilian name, was the outstanding champion of the Jews in Belgium between 1940 and 1945. He had become a monk at the Keizersberg abbey in Leuven, and had made his mark as a maverick thinker. Uniquely for the time, Bruno had invited his students to consider Luther’s theories on their own merit, something that made him less than popular! He also offered strong support for the experiment at the abbey of Chevetogne in the Ardennes, where Catholic and Orthodox monks were living together in community, re-thinking the meaning of Church.
Having served as an army chaplain, Bruno returned to the religious life after Belgium’s defeat, and soon thereafter made contact with the resistance. He was instrumental in organizing escape routes for allied pilots and thus played a vital role in maintaining air personnel numbers during the crucial Battle of Britain.
When, in 1942, the country’s Jews were being rounded up, Dom Bruno organized the hiding of several hundred Jews in Catholic schools, monasteries and care homes. Many children were taken in by Catholic families at Dom Bruno’s request. Time and again he managed to evade the Gestapo, rescuing some 400 people from the gas chambers. In this he was not unique. Largely as the result of the actions of the Catholic Church, inspired by Cardinal van Roey, three-quarters of Belgium’s 100,000 Jews survived the war; and this in spite of the large-scale collaboration that also took place. Dom Bruno was declared a Righteous amongst the Nations by Israel in 1964: it is a title that can easily be extended to the Catholic Church in the whole of Belgium. For those seeking for an heroic Catholic resistance to the Nazis, they need look no further than Belgium.
Harry Schnitker, Ph.D. was born in Holland to a secularized family with Catholic, Calvinist and Lutheran roots. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18, and attended the University of Wales, College Cardiff (then the Jesuit University of Antwerp, Belgium), and the University of Edinburgh, where he gained a masters. Schnitker completed his Ph.D. in medieval history at the same university. During college and through the study of the Middle Ages, he regained contact with his own Catholic roots.
Since graduating, Schnitker has taught at the universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, before moving to the Maryvale Ecclesiastical Institute, where he is the senior supervisor of Ecclesiastical History. The institute specializes in long-distance learning, and this allows Schnitker, his wife, son and daughter to live in the countryside of Perthshire, Scotland.
Besides supervising Ph.D. students, he also teaches the history module for those training for the permanent diaconate, and is developing a new course of R.E. for primary education throughout the English-speaking world. He has written for a number of Catholic newspapers and magazines, both in Britain, North America and Holland.
In the past Schnitker has been involved in curating exhibitions, both at a local and national level, and was responsible for the historical St. Ninian’s pageant in Edinburgh in 2010 for the state visit of the Holy Father to the United Kingdom. He recently completed a book on the culture of the devotion to Our Lady, and is currently finishing a book on the memory of the saints in Scotland.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.