How did the relationship between Belgium, which had suffered under the yoke of Nazism, and the fledgling West Germany evolve at the end of the Second World War? What role did the Cold War play in the rapprochement between these two countries, with Belgium being the first country to recognise a German ambassador? Christoph Brüll attempts to answer these questions in his thesis which – and this is probably one of its most original features – distances itself from the history of classical diplomacy to focus on the actual people involved, namely the civil population in the border region and Belgian soldiers stationed in Germany.
While the immediate after-war period has been extensively reviewed by researchers, the history of bilateral relations between Belgium and Germany in the context of reconstruction and the Cold War has not, according to Christoph Brüll, whose thesis “La Belgique dans l'Allemagne d'après-guerre” [“Belgium in post-war Germany"] is due to be published (1) shortly. The German-speaking researcher puts forward several reasons for the academic world’s disaffectation for this subject, both in Belgium and Germany. On the Belgian side initially, general suspicion of Germany was the first major obstacle to overcome, combined with the narrowness of the scientific community. On the other hand, while the German scientific community was larger, it was perhaps mistaken in its disinterest in Belgium, a country often perceived as “complicated” and having the knack of “going unnoticed”. “Moreover, if German-speaking Belgian historians like me don’t tackle this type of subject, then nobody will!" adds Christoph Brüll with a touch of realism. He does admit, nevertheless to being delighted with the warm reception given to his work. Another of his achievements was not to restrict his field of research simply to the diplomatic history of Belgian-German relations in the post-war period, but to integrate another dimension, that of the actual people involved, namely the civil German population and the Belgian occupying troops in Germany, notably through an analysis of mixed marriages or complaints of violence. A personal and pioneering approach gives Christoph Brüll’s work an original edge. He had, however, mainly envisaged his research from the perspective of Belgian claims for economic and territorial reparations. On the economic level, despite a relatively wide consensus within the Belgian political classes, two elements played against the Belgians: on the one hand, the very pronounced hostility of the Allies, particularly the British and Americans, to these kind of claims in the context of the emerging Cold War; on the other hand, settling the “battle for coal” was to mean that economic claims were ill-timed. The question of territory was more complex, essentially because of the existence of pressure groups. Comparison with the 1918 situation is interesting, following as it does in the footsteps of the Comité de Politique Nationale, which at the end of the First World War had pleaded for a nostalgic return to a “Great Belgium”, namely the pure and simple annexation of territory extending down to Cologne. From this perspective, Dutch Limbourg and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg would also have been an integral part of Belgian territory. In 1945, supporters of annexation organised themselves into the "Comité Belge du Rhin" around the writer and Senator Pierre Nothomb. Belgium extended as far as the Rhine, or at least the use of the Rhine’s industrial infrastructure was to be part of their programme. Other, such as Paul Struye, demanded a policy of force and prestige towards Germany and the Germans. For the Belgian government, more modestly, the stumbling block was clearly the enclaves of Rötgen and Mützenich, two little villages sandwiched between the border on one side and the Vennbahn, a little used railway line on the other. In the terminology of 1946, a “rectification” of the border was talked about, to amend the “anomalies” of the inter-war period.
(1) BRÜLL C., Belgien im Nachkriegsdeutschland. Besatzung, Annäherung, Ausgleich (1944-1958), ed. Klartext, Essen, 2009 (University of Iena, 2008).