20 DECEMBER 1940, Page 9



j LEFT Brussels on May 12th, counting on being able to I maintain the conflict against Hitler behind the Yser, but I had to leave for Boulogne, and only just succeeded in getting through at the very moment when the German advance guards were approaching. I succeeded in reaching Paris in the flood of refugees and making contact there with my daughter, who had been working in Paris since the previous September in one of the National Defence Laboratories. Some days later I had to go on to the Toulouse district, where hundreds of thousands of my countrymen were herded together in almost incredible conditions. I got there in the early hours of May 28th. Everything was crashing round us, but it still seemed possible to reconstitute an army and a people out of those vast masses, which had not then abandoned their native courage. We strove for that for weeks with all the force and energy we were capable of. Then came the French armistice. Everything crashed afresh, and this time the courage of most was broken. For those who refused to confess themselves conquered there remained only one course—to reach Great Britain at any cost and strive to render there whatever service might seem possible.

My daughter and I made every endeavour to achieve that from the end of June onwards, trying every way that offered any promise of success. But it took us two months and a half to in getting out of France, and nearly five months before at last we set foot on the soil of Scotland—and from thence reached London, where the Belgian Government is now established. Travel today has reverted to the speed of classic days. After our own experience we understand better how Ulysses should have taken so long to return from Troy and St. Peter to get to Rome. I will not attempt to recount in detail our little Odyssey through Southern France, Northern Africa, Portugal and part of the Atlantic. In the course of the journey we had to undergo fatigue, a great deal of boredom and some danger. We retain the memory of many amusing incidents and some instructive experiences. But that is a story of small things, and presents no real interest except to ourselves. It may be more valuable to note certain impressions gathered en route in the very varied circles with which we were in contact. Before the French armistice I used to go every evening after my day's work was done to a rest-centre for French soldiers on leave or off duty. There I saw the men of Dunkirk who had fought so magnificently. I shall retain for ever the memory of those faces chiselled by suffering, faces to which their ordeal, so heroically borne, had given a strange nobility. They were bent on resuming the struggle at any cost, and I was witness of what was first of all their stupefaction and then their utter despair when the news came that their leaders had decided to bow the head and accept defeat. • Then I saw other soldiers after that debacle which allowed the Germans to occupy almost the whole of France in a few days. We were living in a farm, where we saw pass day by day a hundred or so men going off to the demobilisation centres. What a contrast between their attitude and what I * M. de Brouckere is a former Belgian Senator, a past Chairman of the Second International and a former Professor at Brussels University. had noted such a few days before, and how hard it was to believe that the one set of men was, after all, singularly like the others. This latter cavalcade, for the most part without arms, for they had thrown them away by the roadside, strove to justify the defeat first of all in their own eyes. Many of them laid the responsibility on the officers, whom they accused of cowardice or even of treason. Many, too, maintained that if they had not fought it was because it was not worth while to fight, and that they would not be much worse off under Hitler than under the Republic. They declared in fact that everything was all right, since they were on their way home to resume their pre-war life in the workshop or the fields in peace. I am not explaining ; I am simply stating facts. Later on it may be possible to plumb the causes of so astonish- ing a state of mind. Already we can see how superficial the sentiments expressed were, and how deep a disillusionment and shame were concealed under an affectation of cynicism all too easy to pierce. If some of them could really believe that the pre-war life could be happily resumed after the surrender, they were soon undeceived.

I had the opportunity of seeing these same demobilised troops again in the country and the town trying in vain to build a tolerable existence for themselves. The German requisitions and the German oppression, which made them- selves felt even in non-occupied France, the resolute deter- mination of the conqueror to prevent the recovery of the conquered, left them no hope of escape from utter misery. It took a very few weeks to drive home the realisation of that and the obvious conclusions arising from it. They felt in their own flesh what it costs to be enslaved. They felt it no less bitterly in their human self-respect. All the normal agencies of public opinion and public life were gone. No more papers —for the synchronised sheets which replaced them were read by hardly anyone. No more radio, except the German official. No more political life in this South where it had always assumed such intensity. No more Government recognised and controlled by the people, for Vichy was treated simply as an evil assumed to be necessary, and its declarations on the New Order were never taken seriously. It was accepted, as the German garrison in the occupied regions was accepted, because the superior force of the conqueror left no alternative. Main was respected for his past. It was thought that he would make whatever could be made out of the terrible situation that had arisen. Laval was despised, but tolerated.

This resignation was due above all things to the belief that there was nothing else to be done. Everyone was certain in June that the war would be over in a few weeks. Had not the Marshal declared that? The fall of London was con- sidered as inevitable as the fall of Paris. But weeks passed and London still stood. British resistance, then British successes, excited first surprise, then enthusiasm, and with it a marked return of confidence. At Nimes, where we spent a whole month, the B.B.C. French broadcasts were to be heard at six o'clock every day pouring out of every window. They literally filled the street. In August there was evidence of a certain reaction of opinion, hesitant at first, then strengthening every day. First came hope for a British victory, then the desire to contribute to it. France, stunned for the moment by the blow which had prostrated her, was reawakening and gathering strength. We had the clear impression that after a short eclipse she would re-establish herself and that the fullest hope in her in no distant future was justified. One of the things that has struck me most is the almost complete obliteration of the old categories of political life and of all the forms of social life. The parties have ceased to exist, their militant leaders having, with rare exceptions, disappeared ingloriously. The trade unions have abandoned without a struggle the positions they had so laboriously gained. France in her dis- comfiture has not been able to make use of her traditional organisations as instruments of her recovery. There has resulted from that a very intelligible aggravation of the crisis, proving that defeat is not the only underlying cause of the present distresses. But France is recovering in spite of the hardships she has to bear, and her restoration may present us yet with many welcome surprises.