- Mayoral Collaboration under Nazi Occupation in Belgium, the Netherlands, and France, 1938–46 by Nico Wouters
This book is about the many hundreds of men, whether elected or appointed, who stood between the German occupiers and civilian society in the Low Countries and in the two neighboring French departements, Nord and Pas-de-Calais. The Germans had separated the latter from the rest of France under the German military commander of occupied Belgium. Everywhere mayors were seen traditionally as the mediators between local citizenries and the politicians and bureaucrats, but now the occupational forces with their numerous and competing agencies added to the mayors' problems. In terms of education and social standing, the mayors ranged from simple farmers in the small towns to hardened political leaders in great cities such as Lille, Brussels, Antwerp, Rotterdam, and The Hague. Most were unpaid; one must assume that they derived benefits and prestige from their positions and connections.
In May 1940 the Germans found that the queen and government of the Netherlands had fled to Great Britain, while in Belgium at least the king remained behind to become a symbol of elite subservience. A collaborationist Dutch mayor had good reason to worry about possible punishment after the war, while a collaborationist Belgian mayor could draw comfort from his king's pro-Nazi stand. Mayors in the two French departements tended to adhere to the pro-German policy of France's Vichy regime, even though the latter had no official power over them. Only a few French officials and mayors fled after the German conquest, and most of these soon returned.
All mayors faced the same dilemma: how to deal with the occupiers. The instructions they received before the war, or sometimes while the German were approaching, stated that functionaries and mayors were to obey the orders of the occupiers so long as they were not illegal—whatever that meant—and did not threaten the lives and the wellbeing of the inhabitants. Armed or even passive resistance was to be avoided; "communist" activities would not be tolerated. The contemporary photograph reproduced on the book's cover shows an elderly mayor leaning on his cane and bowing as deeply as his corpulence permitted, while grasping the hand of a benign-looking, uniformed German official. Next to them, a group of German and local dignitaries lend solemnity to the handshake. What exactly was meant by this kind of peaceful but cautious submission?
Nico Wouters shows that such advice was undefinable and impracticable. The author was certainly well qualified for this research: a historian at the University of Ghent in Belgium, and a state archivist with many publications on the history of the region, he was able to read and absorb thousands of original documents. What stands out is the diversity within the seeming similarity, leading the author to frequent and sometimes mind-deadening comparisons between and within regions. The number of references is indeed extraordinary, even for this type of specific study. [End Page 129]
One factor influencing divergent behaviors was that between 1914 and 1918 Belgium and the two French departements had experienced a terrible war and many German brutalities, which anyone over thirty could well remember. The Netherlands on the other hand had been neutral. What now bound the Netherlands and Belgium was that both had made no attempt to prepare for defense against a clearly imminent German invasion, and that they had surrendered almost immediately. Loses in human lives were consequently small. (Historians have shown that the devastating German aerial bombing of Rotterdam had been by mistake.)
Even more significant, Hitler now entrusted governance over the Netherlands to German civilian Nazis in the expectation that the "Aryan" Dutch could be won over and eventually incorporated into the Greater German Reich. Belgium remained under a military commander—but one who happened to be an old-world aristocrat contemptuous of the Nazis. True, the SS and its security services eventually moved in; but they caused bureaucratic conflicts...