The Nizkor Project: Remembering the Holocaust (Shoah)

The Trial of German Major War Criminals

Sitting at Nuremberg, Germany
2nd February to 13th February, 1946

Fiftieth Day: Monday, 4nd February, 1946
(Part 5 of 8)

[M. EDGAR FAURE continues his examination of the witness M. VAN DER ESSEN]

[Page 42]

At the moment when the Lovengule battery was about to begin firing, the officer who commanded it asked an inhabitant of the village of Vigneron to accompany him into the field; when they arrived at a place from where they could see the tower of the library, the officer asked, "Is that the tower of the University library?" The reply was "Yes." The officer insisted, "Are you sure?" "Yes," replied the peasant, "I see it every day, as you see it now."

Five minutes later the shelling began, and immediately a column of smoke arose quite near the tower.

There can therefore be no doubt that this bombardment was systematic and aimed only at the library.

In addition, it is certain that a squadron of 43 aircraft flew over the library and dropped bombs on the monument.

Q. M. van der Essen, you are a member of the official Belgian Commission for War Crimes?

A. Yes.

Q. In this capacity you investigated the events of which you speak?

A. Yes, indeed.

Q. The information which you have given the Tribunal, then, is the result of an inquiry which you made, and evidence by witnesses which you heard yourself?

A. What I have just stated here is most certainly the result of the official inquiry made by the Belgian War Crimes Commission, assisted by several witnesses heard under oath.

Q. Can you give information on the attempt at Nazification of Belgium by the Germans, and especially the attempt to undermine the normal and constitutional organisation of the public authorities?

A. Certainly. First, I think it is interesting to point out that the Germans violated one of the fundamental principles of the Belgian Constitution and institutions, which consisted of the separation of powers, that is to say, separation of judicial powers, of executive powers and legislative powers. I say this because, in the numerous organisations of the new order which they themselves created, either by decree or by suggesting the creation of these organisations to their collaborators, they never made a distinction between legislative and executive powers. Also, in these organisations freedom of speech for the defence was never, or very little, respected. But what is much more important is that they attacked an organisation which goes far back in our history, which dates back to the Middle Ages - I mean the communal autonomy, which safeguards the people against any too dangerous interference on the part of the central authority. This is what happened in this domain:

It would be sufficient to read, or to have read for a short time, the present-day Belgian newspapers, to observe that the burgomasters, that is to say the chiefs of the commune, the aldermen of the principal Belgian towns such as Brussels, Ghent, Li6ge, Charleroi, and also of many towns of secondary importance - all these aldermen and burgomasters are either in prison or about to appear before the court martial.

That shows sufficiently, I think, that these burgomasters and these aldermen are not those who were appointed by the King and by the Belgian Government before 1940, but are all of them people who were imposed by the enemy, by means of groups of collaborators, V.N.V. or "Rexists."

It is of capital importance to establish that fact, because the burgomaster, as soon as he acted directly under the central authority - in other woras, as soon as the Fuehrer principle was applied, could interfere in all kinds of ways in the administrative, political and social life. The burgomaster appointed the aldermen; the aldermen appointed the communal officials and employees, and the moment the burgomaster belonged to that Party and was appointed by that Party, he appointed as communal officials members of the Party, who could

[Page 43]

refuse ration cards to refractory people, or give an order to the police to furnish, for instance, a list of Communists, or of those suspected of being Communists; in short, they could interfere in almost any way they wished, and by every possible means, in the communal life of Belgium.

If we examine the big towns and the small towns, we can say that everywhere there was truly a veritable network of espionage and interference following the events or acts of which I have just informed you.

Q. It is true, then, to say that this meddling by the Germans with the administration of the communes constituted a seizure of Belgian national sovereignty ?

A. Certainly, since it caused the disappearance of the fundamental principle of the Belgian Constitution, that is to say, the sovereignty that belongs to the nation, and more especially to the communal councils, which appointed aldermen and burgomasters. From then on it was impossible for them to make themselves heard in the normal way, so that the sovereignty of the Belgian people was directly attacked by the fact itself.

Q. Since you are a professor of higher education, can you give us information concerning the interference in education?

A. Yes, Sir, certainly.

First, there was interference in the domain of elementary and secondary education, through the General Secretary of Public Education, on whom the Germans exercised pressure. A commission was set up which was entrusted with the task of purging the text books. It was forbidden to use text books which mentioned what the Germans did in Belgium during the 1914-18 war; this was absolutely forbidden. The booksellers and publishing houses could still sell these books, but only on the condition that the bookseller or library should cut out these chapters.

As for new books which had to be reprinted or republished, this commission indicated exactly which ones should be cancelled or removed.

That was serious and alarming interference with primary and secondary education.

As regards higher education, the interference was unleashed, so to speak, from the very beginning of the occupation, and first of all, for motives which I need not explain here, but which are well known, on the free University of Brussels. The Germans first imposed on the University of Brussels a German Com missar, who thus had in his hands the whole organisation of the University and even controlled it-as far as I know-from the point of view of accountancy. Moreover they imposed exchange professors. But serious difficulties began the day when, in Brussels as elsewhere, they required that they should be informed of all projects of new appointments and all new appointments of professors, in the same way as the assignment of lecture courses and other subjects taught in the University. The result was that in Brussels, by virtue of this right which they had arrogated, they wished to impose three professors, of whom two were obviously not acceptable to any Belgian worthy of the name. There was one, notably, who, having been a member of the Council of Flanders during the occupation of 1914-18, had been condemned to death by the justice of this country and whom they wanted to impose as a professor in the University of Brussels in 1940. Under these conditions the University refused to accept this professor, and this was considered by the occupying authorities as sabotage.

As a penalty, the chairman of the Board of the University, the principal members of the board, the deans of the principal faculties and a few other professors who were especially well known as being anti-Fascists, were arrested and imprisoned in the prison of Witte with the aggravating circumstance that

[Page 44]

they were considered as hostages, and that if any act whatsoever of sabotage or resistance occurred, they, being hostages, could be shot.

As far as the other universities were concerned, as I have just said here, they wished to impose exchange professors. There were none at Louvain, because we refused categorically to receive them, the more so as it appeared that these exchange professors were not, primarily, scholars who had come to corn!nunicate the result of their researches and their scientific work, but rather,, in a great many cases, observers for the occupying authorities.

Q. In this connection, is it true that the Belgian authorities discovered the report made by one of these so-called "invited" professors?

A. That is indeed the case. The Belgian authorities got hold of a report by Professor von Mackensen, who was sent as an exchange professor to the University of Ghent. In this report - drawn up with infinite care and which is extraordinarily interesting to read because of the personal and psychological observations which it contains concerning the various members of the faculty of Ghent - in this report we see that everyone was observed and followed day by day, that his tendencies were labelled, and that a note was made as to whether he was for or against the system of the occupying Power, or whether he had any relations with students who were N.V. or Rexists. The slightest ffiovements and actions of all the professors were carefully noted, and, I add, with great care and precision. It was almost a scientific piece of work, but it was the work of an informer.

Q. M. van der Essen, I described this morning to the Tribunal various incidents which occurred in the University of Louvain, of which you were the General Secretary.

Therefore, I should like you to tell the Tribunal briefly the actual facts connected with these incidents, especially those connected with the imprisonment of the Rector, Mgr. van Wayenberg.

A. Yes, indeed, Sir. Serious difficulties began in the University of Louvain after the appearance of the Decree of Compulsory Labour of 6th March, 1943, by which students of the University were forced to accept compulsory labour, I would add, not in Reich territory, but in Belgium. But this action, which was held out to the University students as a sort of privilege, was entirely inacceptable to Belgian patriots, for the simple reason that if the University students agreed to go and work in the Belgian factories, they automatically expelled workmen, who were then sent to Germany.

That was the first reason why they did not wish to work for the enemy; the second was because from a social point of view they wanted to show solidarity with the workers, who suffered very much because the students had refused.

At least two-thirds of the students of Louvain refused to do compulsory work. They became refractory, the classes became empty, they hid themselves. as best they could, and several went to the Maquis.

The German authorities, when they saw the way things were going, demanded that the list of students be given to them, with their addresses, so that they could arrest them in their homes, or, if they could not find them, they could arrest a brother or sister or father, or any member of the family in their place. This was the principle of collective responsibility, which was applied here, the same as in all other cases.

After having used gentle means, they resorted to blackmail, and ended up by adopting really brutal measures. They renewed the raids, they dismissed Dr. Tschacke and Dr. Kalische, I think, and many others. They ordered searches to be made in the University offices, to lay their hands on the list of students, but as this list was carefully hidden, they had to go away empty-handed.

[Page 45]

It was then that they decided to arrest the Rector of the University, Mgr. van Wayenberg, who had hidded the lists in a place known only to him. He declared that he alone knew the place so as not to endanger his colleagues and the members of the faculty.

One morning, in June, two members of the Secret Police from Brussels, accompanied by Military Police, came to the Hall. They arrested the Rector in his office and transferred him to the prison of Saint-Gilles in Brussels, where he was imprisoned. Shortly afterwards he appeared before a German tribunal, which condemned him to 18 months' imprisonment for sabotage. To tell the truth, he was in jail for only 6 months, because the doctor of Saint-Gilles saw that the Rector's health was beginning to fail and it would be dangerous to keep him longer if one wished to avoid a serious incident, and also because of the many petitions by all sorts of authorities. Thus the Rector was freed. However, he was forbidden to set foot in the territory of Louvain, and they enjoined the University to appoint, immediately, another Rector. This was refused.

Q. Very well. Is it true to say that the German authorities persecuted, more systematically, persons who belonged to the intellectual elite?

A. Yes, there can be no doubt as to this. I might give, as examples, the following facts:

When hostages were taken it was nearly always university professors, doctors, lawyers, or men of letters, who were taken as hostages and sent to escort military trains. At the time when the Resistance was carrying out acts of sabotage to railways and blowing up trains, university professors from Ghent, Lidge and Brussels, whom I know, were taken and put in the first coach after the locomotive, so that if an explosion took place they could not miss being killed. I know of a typical case, which will show you that it was not exactly a pleasure trip. Two professors of Liege, who were in a train of this kind, witnessed the following scene: The locomotive passed over the explosive. The coach in which they were, by an extraordinary chance, also went over it, and it was the second coach containing the German guards which blew up, so that all the German guards were killed.

On the other hand, several professors and intellectuals were deported to that sinister camp of Breendonck, about which you know, some for acts of resistance, others for entirely unknown reasons; others were deported to Germany. Professors from Louvain were sent to Buchenwald, to Dora, to Neuengamme, to Grossrosen and perhaps to other places too. I must add that it was not only professors from Louvain who were deported, but also intellectuals who played an important role in the life of the country. I can give you immediate proof. At Louvain, on the occasion of the reopening ceremony of the University this year, as Secretary General of the University I read out the list of those who had died during the war. This list included 348 names. If I remember rightly about 30 of these were soldiers who died during the battles of the Scheldt and the Lys in 1940; all the others were victims of the Gestapo, or had died in camps in Germany, especially in the camps of Grossrosen and Neuengamme.

Moreover, it is certain that the Germans particularly hated the intellectuals, because from time to time they organised in the Press a synchronised campaign to give prominence to the fact that the great majority of intellectuals refused categorically to rally to the new order, and refused to understand the necessity for the struggle against Bolshevism. These articles always concluded by stressing the necessity of taking measures against them. I remember well certain newspaper articles which openly proposed to send these intellectuals to concentration camps. There can be no doubt, therefore, that the Germans made a dead set at the intellectuals.

Q. I will ask you no questions on anything relating to deportations or to camps, because all that is already well known to the Tribunal. I will ask you. when replying to the following question, not to mention deportation.

[Page 46]

Now, my question concerns the whole of the atrocities which were committed by the Germans in Beigium and, especially, at the time of the offensive of December, 1944, in the Ardennes. Can you give information concerning these atrocities?

A. Yes, Sir. As a matter of fact, I can give you exact and detailed information, if necessary, on the crimes and atrocities committed during the offensive of von Rundstedt in the Ardennes, because, as a member of the War Crimes Commission, I went there to make an inquiry, and I questioned witnesses and survivors of these massacres and I know perfectly well, from personal knowledge, what happened.

During the von Rundstedt offensive in the Ardennes they committed truly abominable crimes in 31 localities of the Ardennes, crimes against men, women and children. These crimes were committed, on the one hand, as it happened elsewhere and as it happens in all wars, by individual soldiers, so I will let that pass: but what I particularly want to stress are the crimes committed by whole units who received formal instructions, as well as crimes committed by known organisations. If I remember rightly, they were called "Kommandos mit besonderer Verwendung" - that is to say, Commandos with special tasks, which operated unchecked not only in the Belgian Ardennes, but which also committed the same kind of crimes carried out in the same way in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg.

As regards the first, the crimes committed by whole units, I would like merely - I do not wish to take up the time of the Tribunal - but I will give one example which is quite typical. It happened at Stavelot, where about 140 persons - the number varies; let us say between 137 and 140 - first it was 137, then they discovered some more bodies - about 140 persons, of whom 36 were women and 22 were children, of whom the oldest was 14 years and the youngest 4 years, were savagely slaughtered by German units belonging to the S.S. Tank Divisions, one the Hohenstaufen Division, the other the S.S. Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division. This is what the divisions did - we have full information about this from the testimony of a soldier who deserted during the von Rundstedt campaign, dressed himself as a civilian and then worked as a labourer on an Ardennes farm. One day as he was working stripped to the waist, he was seen by Belgian gendarmes, who saw by the tatooing on his body that he was an S.S. man. He was immediately arrested and interrogated. His testimony showed that this was the method used by the soldiers of the Hohenstaufen Division:

There was a line of tanks, some of which were Koenigstiger (Royal Tigers) followed and preceded by Schuetzenpanzer. At a certain moment the Obersturmfuehrer of this group stopped his men and delivered a little speech, telling them that all civilians whom they encountered should be killed. They then went back to their tanks, and as the tanks advanced along the road the Obersturmfuhrer would point to a house. Then the soldiers entered it with machine guns in their hands. If they found people in the kitchen, they killed them in the kitchen; if they found them sheltering in the cellar, they machine gunned them in the cellar; if they found them on the road, they killed them on the road. Not only the Hohenstaufen Division, but also the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler Division and others acted in this manner, on formal orders according to which all civilians were to be killed. And what was the reason for this measure? Precisely because, during the retreat in September, it was mainly in that part of the Ardennes that the Resistance went into action, and quite a number of German soldiers were killed during that retreat. It was therefore to avenge this defeat, to avenge themselves for the action of the Resistance, that orders were given that all civilians should be killed without mercy during the offensive launched in this region.

[Page 47]

As far as the other method is concerned, this is still more important from the point of view of responsibility, tor it concerns persons commanding troops of the Sicherheitspolizei, that is to say, of the Security Police, who in most villages they came to immediately set about questioning the people as to those who had taken part in the Resistance, about the secret army, where these people lived, whether they were still there or whether they had fled. In short, they had special typed questionnaires with 27 questions, always the same, and which were put to everyone in the villages to which they came.

Here again I shall proceed as I did in No. 1. In order not to take up too much of the Tribunal's time I shall simply give the example of Bande, in the Arrondissement of Marche. At Bande one of these S.D. detachments, the officers of which said they were sent specially by Himinler to execute members of the Resistance, seized all men between 17 and 32 years of age. - After having questioned them thoroughly and after sorting them out in a quite arbitrary manner - they did not keep any people belonging to the Resistance, for most of them had never taken part in it - there were only four who were members of the Resistance - they led them away along the road from Marche to Bostcuil with their hands raised behind their heads. When they reached a ruined house which had been burned down in September, the officer who commanded the detachment posted himself at the entrance of the house, a Feldwebel joined him and put his hand on the shoulder of the last man of the third row who was making his way towards the entrance to the house, and there the officer, armed with a machine gun, killed a prisoner with a bullet in the neck. Then this same officer executed in this manner the 34 young men who had been kept back.

Not content with killing them, he kicked the bodies into the cellar and then fired a volley of machine gun bullets to make sure that they were dead.

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