Written by Nico Wouters.
International comparative history is often discussed and welcomed but still rarely practised, including in First- and Second World War research. Even today, both fields of historical study remain predominantly national in orientation. However, when the empirical datasets for the selected national cases are sufficiently broad and rich, an international comparison has the potential to combine elements of micro-history with transnational analysis, yielding innovative results that can transcend the insights from exclusively national angles.
When comparing Belgium, the Netherlands and the north of France (Nord/Pas-de-Calais) through the lens of mayoral collaboration, the differences between the three countries stand out for the first year of occupation (1940-41). There were marked differences among the three countries in the local transitions during and immediately after the German invasion in May 1940, the first priorities of new order reform that were launched immediately after the summer of 1940 and the way power was redistributed among new and old actors. Belgium and the north of France were opposite cases in many regards. Where the first country encountered a fragmentation of power and a strong German interventionism on the local level, the north of France developed strong prefectoral control on local governments. The German occupier allowed the sacrosanct principle of French administrative ‘autonomy’ to continue to exist because it initially enhanced French-German cooperation and served German interests (for example in anti-Communist repression).
Despite this, pre-war political cultures seemed to become accentuated in 1940-41 to an almost cliché-confirming extent (notably the Belgian ‘weak capacity’ vs. the French bureaucratic state often mentioned in the scholarly literature), the most fundamental differences in the workings of national systems in 1940-41 were caused by largely unforeseen events after 10 May 1940. This means they were mostly caused by specific occupation conditions and events and not necessarily ‘predetermined’ by pre-war political cultures.
The transfer of information from the different national administrations and services to the German occupier’s administrations and services (reports, letters, etc.) is an essential focal point to study (administrative) collaboration under occupation. Transfer of information is an unavoidable consequence of governing any occupied country. However, it creates enormous dilemma’s and is an interesting topic for micro-research for three reasons: first, because it shows the tension between the judicial definition of ‘denunciation’ in post-war purges on the one hand and the realities of everyday cooperation under occupation on the other; second, because it is an ideal theme to study how an almost technocratic convergence of interests of similar national and German administrations and institutions develops on the everyday local level; and third, because it is an ideal problem to render visible the role of the individual within hierarchical administrative systems (through the margins used (or not) within everyday individual choices). The latter is an entry point to make concrete distinctions between levels of individual mayoral collaborationism. In general, the administrative grip of national socialist mayors (or functionaries in general) in Belgium/the Netherlands was rather weak. Their real impact on local communities, however, was often related to the way they handled sensitive information about their local citizens vis-à-vis the German authorities.
The mayoral angle makes the large international military turning point (around the winter 1942-43) clearly visible on the local level. When national legitimacy and institutional capacity to control local administrations evaporated, mayors and other (local) administrators started to re-position themselves in their every day, local environments. What is interesting is that at this point, local similarities began to outweigh the outspoken national differences we saw in 1940 and 1941. None of the different national occupation systems and authorities were better equipped to deal with their disintegrating power. The tightly organised French ‘prefectoral’ system turned out to be hollowed out from the inside. The biggest difference might be the Netherlands, where a rigid ‘civil servant’-attitude of obedience among some mayors remained surprisingly strong for quite a long time. However, in all three national cases and despite the enormous differences in institutional organisation and political power-redistribution, the autonomy and resilience of local governments now proved the stronger similarity. Mayors and local governments were able to collectively decide that local interests had to prevail and then to counteract central policies in a relatively efficient way and as such to maintain administrations as the backbone of local solidarity under heavy repression.
In this sense, the ‘disappearance’ of the state in 1944 was nuanced, particularly in the case of Belgium. The institutional state did not disappear in 1944 but was maintained by hundreds of smaller local states. The essential key to making this work was the revived cooperation or pact between a renewed local civil society (including the resistance) on the one hand with mayors and their formal local government structures on the other hand. In part, this revival of mayoral-civil society cooperation might also be considered as the return of the democratic state. This saw a reconfirmation of democratic norms among local elites about grassroots community management and decision-making, where the experience of national socialist occupation worked as some kind of cathartic effect. This shows that despite the profound differences in the political and institutional shapes, the resilience of local democracies was an integral part of the liberal state. This underlying similarity became only visible under the extreme pressure of occupation and the disappearance of national political authority. The supportive foundation of these ‘local states’ partly explains the relatively quick restoration of the liberal, democratic state in each of these three countries in 1945-46.
The extensive post-liberation purges (meaning both judicial court-cases and administrative sanction procedures against mayors) in particular in Belgium and the Netherlands had a significant impact on the development of collective local memories. Dealing with the legacy of occupation was quickly taken out of local communities’ control. We should not underestimate that local memories (both in the sense of memories about local government/communities as memories constructed and transferred in local social networks) were an early and essential component of national collective memories formed in the 1950s and afterwards.
Nico Wouters is director of CegeSoma, the Belgian Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society in Brussels and the author of Mayoral Collaboration under Nazi Occupation (Palgrave, 2016). Image Credit CC by Nationalmuseet – National Museum of Denmark/Flickr.