So This Is Liberation
L. S. B. SHAPIRO
Maclean's War Correspondent.
BRUSSELS (By Cable)—In Brussels last month consternation fell upon the people. Dancing in the streets petered out; the mad revelry in cafés was no more; the holiday of food and wine and entertainment that began on the night of Sept. 3 was over. The high jinxs of liberation from German occupation was suddenly ended, as though Cinderella’s midnight had struck. Now the people were faced with the stern realities of war. The reconstituted Belgian Government imposed a series of harsh measures. Gas was cut off to preserve coal; so was electricity during daylight hours. In order to smash the black market and to curb the fanciful flight of inflation all bank notes of 100 francs and higher were required to be exchanged for new currency. All bank accounts were frozen and withdrawals were limited to 2,000 francs per week. Men and women queued up for days in front of the banks. The black market, which for four years had controlled the distribution of food in Brussels, was stunned into inactivity. Restaurants went on an
indefinite strike for lack of supplies. Housewives frantically haggled for food with the wretchedly little new money now available to them. The Bruxeloise went to work with half-filled stomachs in the mornjng and at night they were chased to their cheerless, heatless homes by rigidly enforced curfew. *
“So this,” they commented bitterly, “is liberation.”
Those of us who had lived in London during the war years did not share in the consternation. Cold and black-out and meagre living had become normal for us. What did surprise us was our first experience in Brussels.
I arrived in the Belgian capital on the morning of Sept. 4. My jeep churned its way to the palatial Metropole Hotel and a battery of porters carried my baggage into the lobby. Across the Place De Brouckere tanks of a British guards regiment were rumbling in pursuit of the enemy, but inside the hotel the atmosphere was redolent with the most exquisitely dressed women I had seen since pre-war Fifth Avenue, with
music from full orchestras, with the clink of champagne glasses, and with the smell of well-cooked food, being carried through the dining room by hordes of broadshouldered waiters. The great chandeliers sparkled with hundreds of lamps.
When I was shown to my room the full hotel staff was there to greet me. I had clean sheets and laundry service and unlimited quantities of hot water in a tiled bathroom.
“When did the Germans leave?” I asked the chambermaid.
“The German officers who lived on this floor packed their bags yesterday morning, monsieur,” she replied, “and they checked out yesterday afternoon. We hope you will be comfortable here, monsieur.”
THAT’S HOW it was—as though the Rotary convention had moved out of town and the Kiwanis convention had moved in. The city was somewhat breathless about the quick change-over and the people were deliriously happy to see us, but otherwise the capital was normal.
After a hot bath and a meal served in my room, I wandered about the town. To my war-jaundiced eyes the scenes were staggering. The streets were thronged with well-dressed people and the shops overflowed with luxury goods, unobtainable even in America and long forgotten in England. The sidewalk cafés were crowded and the liquor stocks of everything—beer, wine, champagne, Benedictine, even Scotch whisky—seemed inexhaustible. I stopped at an optical shop to enquire into the possibility of having my reading lenses duplicated on new frames; the proprietor said he would have them ready in four hours. In England two months is the minimum waiting time for spectacles. Above all, I was struck by the immaculate appearance of the city. Everything was shiny and freshly painted and in perfect repair. Shop displays behind huge plate-glass windows were tasteful and luxurious. It was all ridiculously like a memory of 1938 back in America, even unto the huge ice-cream sodas being served in the multitudinous confectionery shops.
Later that afternoon I spotted the massive building of the Westminster foreign bank; it too was bright and shiny and flew a Union Jack. Inside, business seemed to be going on as usual. The manager, a Belgian national, received me in his office.
“Certainly,” he said, “we have been open right through the occupation. Of course I haven’t been able to communicate with our head office in London, but they will be glad to know we’ve done a good business during the war.”
“But,” I asked, “didn’t the Germans seek to close the British banks?”
“Oh, no,” he said, “they froze our British accounts, and every two or three months a German bank inspector would come to look at our books. He was a very amiable chap—just looked around and then left.”
That evening I dined at the home of a Belgian industrialist. Dinner in this lavish home consisted of a minimum of bread and meat, but there was plenty of vegetables, some fresh, some magnificently cooked, and dairy products and, of course, wines.
“Belgian industry is ready to resume operations,” my host said. “There may be some shortage of coal but my reports show that our electric railway system is intact and our heavy industries have only been slightly damaged. If the Government moves wisely Belgium can quickly patch up her economic life.” I was frankly puzzled by everything I saw and heard in this seemingly carefree and unscarred city.
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If strong leadership is not
forthcoming "Western Europe may be torn apart by dissension and chaos and perhaps bloodshed," Shapiro
So This Is Liberation
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I compared it with London drab, grey I shabby London—its scars roughly covered over with boards, its ruins still standing gaunt against the dangerous sky, its women standing endlessly in queues, its people wearing the frayed patchwork of pre-war clothes, its pubs strictly rationed, even as to watery beer, its homes heatless except in deepest winter, its girls driving the trucks and working the factories, its men five years abroad at the wars.
That was London and this was Brussels—the same Brussels to which London, reeling under the blows of the Luftwaffe, sent messages of hope and encouragement. I recalled Herbert Hoover’s drumfire of propaganda, appealing to Britain’s heart to breach the blockade in order to feed Belgium’s starving children. I thought of these things and I wondered where the truth lay in this problem of western Europe.
The next week I requisitioned a jeep and made a grand tour of liberated Belgium and France. I drove by a roundabout route to Paris, moving through districts untouched by our advance; thence through parts of Normandy and Brittany I had not seen before, and finally I returned to the Canadian lines via Picardy and Flanders.
Three principal observations were extracted from this tour. These were:
First — the amount of physical damage in France and Belgium had been much less than in any other beligerent country of Europe, except possibly Denmark and Norway, on which there are little data. In Belgium coal mines and heavy industry are intact; in France the industrial areas around Paris and Lille have scarcely been scratched by our bombing. In both countries industry generally has not been converted for war production, which considerably lightens the problem of a return to peacetime economy. Transport is the main problem in France; bridges and railroads have been badly mauled. And though the areas of heavy fighting in Normandy have been devastated, the section thus affected is a minute one.
Second—western Europe did not starve during the German occupation; let us be definite about that. The standard of eating varied, of course — in the Riviera section of France food was scarce, while in Normandy and Brittany it was plentiful. In the big cities rationing was strict and in the rural areas there was no rationing. The over-all picture is that the people of France and Belgium lacked adequate bread, were barely sufficient in meat and fats, and filled out their diet with potatoes, fresh vegetables, fruit and dairy products. By and large I would say the food problem in these countries was slightly more acute than in England. But certainly I found no evidence of widespread nutritional disease.
Third—the people of both countries ! are exceedingly restless for a strong ! government which will make an efficient job of the transition period from i an occupation economy to a democraticeconomy. They will brook no return to the haphazard administrative policies of pre-war years. They appreciate their freedom more than ever, but they have ; come out of the occupation period with ! a strong desire for more iron in their governments of the future.
Now this was the picture we found in ¡ I the first flush of liberation. It was a picture full of hope for the quick ¡
recovery of western Europe once the soul scars of German occupation had healed over. But it was just a picture. Behind this façade the real situation was rotten. Now the rot is spreading fast, and unless the leaders of France and Belgium are exceedingly prescient and incisive western Europe may well be torn apart by dissension, economic chaos and perhaps bloodshed.
Even as I write these words a mass demonstration is taking place below my window overlooking a Brussels Square. Thousands of men and women are parading noisily, carrying placards denouncing the Government and chanting the words “pain et charbon”— bread and coal. There are Communists in the crowd, proudly waving Red flags, but mostly the demonstrators are lower middle-class men and women made frantic by sheer hunger and cold, aggravated by what they consider dawdling measures by a spineless Government.
The Square that two months ago thronged with dancing people and crowded cafés, with happy shoppers and fine restaurants—that same Square is now witnessing a hunger parade. And instead of cheering Allied uniforms the Bruxeloise are hissing the Gendarmeries massed in strength around the Square.
Small wonder the people are wandering disillusioned in the halls of the new-found liberation. Small wonder a few are beginning to say: “In some ways it was better under the Germans. Some of us died by torture and many lay hidden, but at least those of us who lived had food in our stomachs, heat in our houses and jobs at good pay. The Boche was a beast but he didn’t confiscate our savings. We love our liberty but one cannot live on liberty alone; one must have food.”
What factors created this crisis? What has happened to the food supply on which Belgium managed to feed herself for four occupation years? Why is unemployment spreading now when Belgium’s constitutional Government is in charge?
These are problems currently peculiar to Belgium; soon they will be common to all of Continental Europe. And on the manner and speed of their solution will depend whether Europe will be lacerated by revolution or whether it will move in an orderly fashion toward stabilization and prosperity.
Let us trace the sequence of events in Belgium and perhaps we will begin to know what must happen everywhere Germany has held sway during most of the war.
Germany fell heir to a Belgium that was completely intact, even as to manpower. The Nazis held only a token force of military prisoners in Germany; the bulk of Belgian men were sent back to civilian life. The production of food and luxuries was encouraged no less than the production of war materials by heavy industry. The country’s transportation system, based on a magnifi-
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cent network of railroads, was adequate for distribution of commodities.
In this neat picture the Germans introduced a cardboard economy based on printing press money. By 1942 the circulation of paper francs had been multiplied fourfold over the stable monetary system of 1940. Wages and prices raised each other to new heights. There were no curbs, no control; everybody made money, everybody spent it.
This printing press boom acted like a cunningly administered narcotic on the Belgian economy. Each time the system looked as though it might wilt a new wave of German soldiery on leave and a new burst of German Government purchases with new Belgian money flooded the country with more francs. It was a system the Germans used all over Europe, including their own country, and It was bound to collapse sooner or later. What has happened in Belgium is that it is collapsing under the impact of the Government’s first attempt to stabilize the economy by deflating currency.
For a month after liberation the country was still gay on the narcotic of four years inflation. Then when the Government called in all bank notes of 100 francs and up, froze all bank accounts and limited withdrawals to
2.000 francs per week, the whole national structure wilted.
The new currency regulations were aimed primarily at the black market, which had become the national system of food distribution. By calling in all bank notes of 100 francs and up the Government calculated to confiscate black market fortunes; and by limiting the spending power of individuals to
2.000 francs weekly the Government hoped the black marketeers would be forced by lack of purchasing power to lower their prices to legitimate levels.
The population largely approved these measures. It was troublesome for individuals to queue endlessly at the banks in order to change their legally acquired currency for the new bills, but they accepted the hardship in return for a prompt smashing of the black market.
But the black market didn’t react as expected. The racketeers merely pulled in their horns and refused to do business under the new system. The food distribution system was suddenly frozen. The pitifully few legitimate provision merchants were sold out each day, five minutes after they opened their doors. Frantic housewives who went to their old black market haunts were asked 600 francs, about $15, for a kilo of butter. How could they pay this on an income of 2,000 francs weekly for food, rent, heat and clothes?
Coincident with the food problem came the problem of growing unemployment. In the transition period between occupation and legitimate government, factories ceased working to await guidance for the future. Coal miners went on strike because their wages revised downward would not buy food for their families. Such coal as is available cannot be transported because the Allied Armies, hard pressed to solve their own supply problems at the front, are forced to requisition the bulk of the nation’s transport system. Nor can Allied food stocks be im¡sorted for the civil population because our line of communications is very long, the battle very hard, and every ton of supplies needed for operations.
One problem feeds upon the other until the whole tragedy is compounded to desperate levels. Now the people are making ugly demonstrations in the streets of Brussels. They accuse the
Government of indeeision, of halfway measures. They demand to know why the Government took steps to freeze the black market without first taking state control of the distribution of food. They are screaming for the blood of the traitors, particularly the black marketeers.
“There is only one way to break the black market,’’one excited woman said, “that is to send agents to buy butter and when a man asks 600 francs the kilo, just pull out a gun and shoot him. If we shoot 29 or 30 of them the black market will be finished.”
This, then, is Europe’s problem as it is beginning to evolve in this exemplary little nation of Belgium. It is the inheritance of Hitler’s abortive attempt to build a Pan-European system on a cardboard foundation. It is an Allied problem no less than a European problem.
As the Nazis move into the inner bulwarks of their fortress, Germany, the Allies must fight two wars. They must smash German armed might with one hand, and keep Europe stable with the other. They must wage war against men—and also against hunger and revolution. They must make sure that when cannons cease fire in Europe the clubs and knives of civilians do not launch a new wave of bloodshed.