Intervention by Workers

Intervention by Workers' Party of Belgium

by M. Arnaud Staquet

Teaching the Second World War in the Belgian French-speaking community

Dear Comrades,

I am here with you today to address the issue of the denial of the Second World War in French-speaking secondary education in Belgium under the responsibility of the Belgian French-speaking community.

In our country, the first issue a teacher is confronted with is to find a subject matter to teach and, possibly, to criticize.

Indeed, if you go through curricula (1) of both education systems (official and catholic), you will not find any explicit mention of the Second World War under the heading “compulsory subject matter”.

The Second World War does appear, but only as “a possible working track”. You may rest assured that “genocide” is obligatory and therefore we may tackle the War from this angle. We have a textbook entitled Building history (2), the only textbook approved by both systems for the time being. It is full of illustrations and documents, but contains very little teaching matter, and even less about the war: two pages only. It also contains two pages about the “world of concentration camps” just after the Second World War. Of course, the “Nazi camps” are treated on an equal footing with the “Soviet camps”. But then, maybe all this is explained in the section of the textbook on the period between the wars? Not at all, there is nothing on the construction of socialism in the USSR, whose history seems to come to a stop in 1921. A mere two pages are devoted to the “diversity and seduction of authoritarianism”, wherein the “totalitarian regimes” are compared in constructions which are particularly sparing of facts: you know this already, I will spare you it. On the other hand, two pages are dedicated to “racism, the basis of Nazism”. As a result, everything is done so that young people understand two things only: “the cause of the war was Nazi hatred of the Jews” and “communism is equal to fascism”. 

There is, in the French-speaking community of Belgium, a tenacious myth which consists in the so-called “pedagogical freedom of teachers”. In theory, an inspector can hardly object to the content of your history course, as long as you treat the subject of camps and genocide, but he is entitled to sanction you if you do not have an evaluation grid to measure “competence”.  Half the curriculum dwells on pedagogical constructions such as the “mobilization of resources in a situation of integration”, while, as far as content is concerned: nothing! Thus, a progressive teacher could concentrate his course on the exemplary resistance of the Belgian communists against the Nazi invaders, while a rightist one could very well focus, for the major part of his course, on the “gulag”. Or, if he can find no motivation in the subject, an “apolitical” teacher could simply search the web to find a ready-made pedagogic sequence or start from a documentary produced by the media and as a result, run a high risk of reproducing prevailing opinion. The latest of its kind is Apocalypse by Daniel Costelle, which has been massively broadcasted by the public television network, the RTBF, and which carries a reactionary discourse (the responsibility of the Vichy regime in the deportation of Jews is not treated - the workers' parties are held responsible for the coming to power of the Nazis – the Final Solution and the bombing of German towns are placed side by side).

The conclusion is obvious: all this going on about “freedom” is what is most dangerous. The authors of the programs hide behind such pseudo-freedom by putting forward the competence and critical sense of the teachers in order to avoid a fundamental debate on the deliquescence of education in the French-speaking community, notably in the field of history. The international PISA investigation has come to the conclusion that the educational system in French-speaking Belgium is among those with the greatest social inequality of all developed countries. In so far as the subject matter we are dealing with today is concerned, this means that children from the working classes, the majority of whom are found in the schools with the lowest standards, are being denied the teaching of elementary historical truths which are essential for the working class: the economic collaboration during the Second World War, the central role played by the working class in the anti-fascist resistance. For example : the strike of the one hundred thousand led by communist leader Julien Lahaut in Liège in January 1941, the fact that the first deportees to the Nazi concentration camps were communists and trade union members, etc…

I know that Belgium is a small country, but that is no reason not to teach its history to its youth.

Nothing figures in the program, and very little in the textbook. One is happy to learn that our country was invaded on 10 May 1940 and that Brussels was liberated in September 1944. As for the details of the occupation, we are fed four pages of documents which insist almost solely on the sufferings endured by the population in general and the Jews in particular. While I do not want to minimize the hardships suffered by the civilians of my country, would it not be sensible to recall the much greater atrocities committed by the Nazis in the USSR, in Yugoslavia, in Greece, Albania and Poland, and by the Japanese imperial army in China otherwise than by means of an austere table of statistics (which has to be looked for in another section on the post-war period)?

What do we find about collaboration with the enemy? Two posters, of which one is on the SS legion levied by Degrelle, without any other commentary than the number of those enrolled, wounded and dead. Why is the question  of the king’s return to Belgium only taken up 63 pages after the section on the occupation, without any mention of the political statement drawn up by Leopold III in January 1944 at the moment of his “consenting deportation” to Germany, where he described the allied forces as new occupiers, requested the members of the Belgian Pierlot government in London to apologize to him for having criticized his decision to remain in Belgium, and proposed to them to abrogate a number of treaties signed with Great Britain and the United States.

What about the resistance movement? A tiny insert which does not even mention the leading role played by the “Front de l'Indépendance et des Partisans Armés” under the leadership of the Belgian communist party.

Why isn’t there one word on the Belgian diplomacy’s responsibility for the “failure to win peace (1936-1939)”? Our students might be interested to learn “for memory’s sake” that Belgium chose to desert the allied camp as early as July 1936 in order to become neutral and to recognize Franco’s Spain in 1938, earlier than other democracies and before the end of the Civil War... that after the invasion of Poland in September 1939, while Germany was attacking Denmark and Norway, the Belgian King and the Belgian general staff refused entry to Belgian territory to French and English troops and even dispatched two divisions to the French border!

(1)  Curricula:

Enseignement catholique secondaire : Histoire, Formation commune et Option de base, 2ème et 3ème degrés, Humanités générales et technologiques, 2008.

Enseignement de la Communauté française / secondaire général et technique de transition : Deuxième et troisième degrés, Programme d’études du cours d’histoire, 2000.

(2)  Textbook: Construire l’histoire, sous la direction de J-L. Jadoulle et J.

          Georges, tome 4, Un monde en mutation (de 1919 à nos jours), Didier –

           Hatier Editions, Bruxelles, 2009