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Flemish leader sparks row over Belgium’s Nazi past

The leader of the Flemish nationalist party opened a wartime wound in an already divided Belgium on Wednesday, accusing French speakers of historical amnesia over collaboration with Nazis.

Smack in the middle of tense coalition talks with French-speaking parties, Bart De Wever sparked a row by charging in a Flemish newspaper column that research on francophone collaboration during World War II was “particularly brief.”

Contrary to French-speaking Wallonia, he wrote, Flanders had owned up to its collaborationist past, making it impossible for the Flemish region to “sweep under the rug the ‘New Order’ temptation as if it had just been a fling.”

The head of the N-VA party even used one of Belgium’s cultural legacies, comic books, to drive home his point by drawing a parallel between the wartime activities of two iconic artists, one francophone, the other Flemish.

Little attention has been paid to the fascist leanings of “Tintin” creator Herge, he argued, while the family of Flemish comic book writer Willy Vandersteen admitted last week that he made anti-Semitic drawings in 1942.

“It is better to shed light on a society’s past without hiding reality,” De Wever wrote in a column in De Standaard daily entitled “Flemish Nazis.”

He accused Walloons of “judging by virtue of a moral superiority that is out of place and based on collective ignorance.”

A row over collaboration could complicate on-off negotiations that have failed to produce a new government since legislative elections in June, when De Wever’s party came out on top in Flanders.

French-speaking politicians slammed De Wever for bringing up collaboration in the heat of seven-party talks that have stumbled over Flemish demands for greater autonomy.

The head of Wallonia’s regional government, Guy Demotte, warned on RTBF television against “throwing oil on the fire” with “misplaced comments.”

Catherine Fonck, who leads the French-speaking cdH party in the federal parliament, said with a tinge of irony: “Well, well! Instead of resuming negotiations, we prefer to write columns about collaboration.”

“Francophones have always forcefully condemned (collaboration) and have never, for their part, pleaded for amnesty,” she said, calling for “mutual respect.”

Belgium was hit by a political crisis between its Flemish and French-speaking communities after the war, which culminated in 1950 with the abdication of King Leopold III, who was accused of pro-German sympathies.

Many people in Flanders believe that the purge that followed the liberation of Belgium mainly targeted Flemish collaborators while prosecutions were rarer in Wallonia.

The leading francophone daily, Le Soir, condemned De Wever’s column in its own editorial on Wednesday, under the headline: “The Unhealthy Game of the Most Collaborationist Belgian.”

De Wever’s grandfather was a member of a collaborationist party during World War II.

The Flemish leader has himself been accused by francophones of having fascist sympathies. In October 2007, he criticised the apology issued by the city of Antwerp to the families of Jews who were deported during the war.