Thursday, December 3, 2009

"In My Native Land Set Free"

I came across this patriotic piece by Belgian poet and historian Emile Cammaerts (author of, among other works, Albert of Belgium: defender of right and The prisoner at Laeken: King Leopold, legend and fact), published in The War Illustrated, on December 21, 1918. The context was the euphoria of liberation and the return of peace at the end of World War I. I particularly liked the way Cammaerts balances (as far as might be expected, given the exaltation of the moment) the merits and defects of his people, capable of both pettiness and greatness. I found his mixture of realism and idealism interesting and touching.
It may seem absurd, but we only truly appreciate what we have missed for a long time. It is not necessary to be a globe-trotter to be a patriot, but it may be sometimes useful to stay away from home to realise how dependent one is on familiar sights and sounds. I do not suppose that Englishmen love their country more than Frenchmen or Belgians do ; but, being great travellers, they are certainly given more opportunity to become conscious of it. So that the old and very human paradox remains true — that the best way of finding out something is to run away from it.
I experienced this feeling each time I used to go back to Belgium to spend there my holidays after a few months' absence. The land and towns appeared to me fairer than I left them, clothed with a new light, bathed in the shadows of old memories. My recent return, however, was different. Belgium had been cut off from the world, trampled upon by the oppressor, threatened for four long years with destruction. More than once her fate had trembled in the balance, and it needed a stubborn and blind faith — the only faith worth having — to believe, all through this time that the hour of complete liberation and full reparation would strike at last. So that it was not the "dear old country" this time.
A Wonderful Coincidence
It was during the last wonderful November days, in the soft pure light of winter, a floating mirage, a dream come true. After crossing for many miles the zone of destruction along the Yser, the heap of wreckage which once was Dixmude, the solitude which once was Ypres, the huge morass covered with yellow reeds, once the brightest meadows in Flanders, Bruges appeared like an oasis beyond the desert. Beflagged Bruges, with bells pealing and the old belfry chimes playing just the same tune, and her towers and her canals where swans' feathers still float under the old bridges.
There is something providential in the fact that the liberation came when it came, before the destruction wrought by the offensive from Ghent to Tournai could spread over the rest of the country. Another month of war, perhaps another fortnight, might have involved Antwerp, Brussels, Namur, thrown several million of refugees on the high road and struck at the very heart of the country.
That Bruges should be the first large town in which King Albert made his entry is also a wonderful coincidence. For Bruges is the very gate of peace, the narrow gate sanctified by centuries of tradition and worship. In spite of the large guns and motor-vans stationed in the square, the old atmosphere was preserved, and the helmeted soldiers tramping in the moonlight did not seem out of place.
Barring one or two accidents, the town is untouched. The British airmen ought to be congratulated on their work. While the port and the approaches of the Zeebrugge Canal are badly damaged by their periodical bombardments, only a few bombs were dropped on the town.
Like cliffs rising from the sea, with their towers pointing to heaven, Belgium's ancient towns rose before us. After Bruges, Ghent with St. Nicolas, St. Baron and the gilded belfry. After Ghent, Antwerp'and her great cathedral. Truly we never saw such sights before. We used only to compare, to criticise, to look at the mistakes made by over-zealous restorers, at the ugly creations of modern architects. We never realised that so many treasures were left, that so much harmony could grow out of glaring contrasts. It was not merely a mirage, a dream, it was a resurrection. The grey veil was lifted, the shroud unfolded, and Belgium rose again more beautiful than ever. It was as if the sound of Easter bells filled the wintry sky.
Life is Greater than Art
I am told that the first Belgian soldier who entered the Grand Place in Brussels exclaimed : "It's all right! The Town Hall is still there, as crooked as ever !" He used the French words, "de travers." Those who know the Hotel de Ville will remember that the tower does not sit in the middle of the building, but grows a little to the right, thus breaking the hall's perfect symmetry. This apparent irregularity has been much commented upon ; some have praised it, others have deplored it. But the man did not care; he was only too pleased to find the place just as he left it four years ago. Artistic perfection is not to be considered in such circumstances. What a disappointment it would have been to find things altered, even for the better ! Those very mistakes and irregularities make towns and people more human, more living. They give a sense of reality more delightful than any fancy. The rough French was good to hear again, mixed with Flemish expressions.
Belgium is far from being perfect. It is not the country of pure style and lofty ideals. It does not merely stir our admiration. It is somewhat shy and awkward, very genuine, sincere, and strong. It was a relief to find it, as the tower on Brussels Town Hall, still a little "de travers." I thought, a few years ago, that the great square in Brussels looked better before the time of its restoration, but I no longer regret the past. When King Albert appeared on the balcony over the Grand' Place flooded with light, the old corporation banners flying from every house, while the crowd shouted to greet him from the square, from every window, even from every roof, who could find in his heart room for any regret ? Life is greater than art, souls are more precious than stones.
Heroism of the People
The people also have not changed. The clock of history has stopped for them. Their ideas, their aspirations, their feelings are out of date. They go back to those terrible days of August, 1914, when Belgium became a prison. They have heard very little of what happened outside. They still sing "Tipperary," and the flags they have hoisted are the flags of Liege. All their energy has centred on two questions : To keep alive and to remain loyal. Most arduous and anxious questions when the only way out of material difficulties pointed to Berlin. Their whole activity, their whole energy, has been absorbed in deepening the gulf between the invaders and themselves, and in alleviating as far as possible the growing misery of the masses. They have grown older, very much older, with constant worry, under the weight of threats and persecutions. Their hair has turned grey and white, but they have kept their heads erect. There is not one of them, directly or indirectly, who has not taken his or her share in the struggle. Many have been fined ; many more have gone to prison or to Germany ; hundreds have given their life for the common cause. But what we never realised outside is the light-hearted way in which the most peaceful, the most quiet of them played their part.
When we heard that the Germans had condemned a hundred thousand people to various penalties in one year, we thought that almost all of those who infringed regulations had been detected. We did not know — as we do now — that the German police was practically powerless in the face of an almost universal will to break the law. Through these last years people never ceased reading and circulating forbidden papers, sheltering prisoners of war, helping recruits to cross the frontier, and hiding requisitioned articles. The number of those who were detected is only a small portion of those who defied German decrees. It was their way of waging war; for the wool, the copper, the leather which escaped the search-parties could not be used to equip the enemy army, or to provide it with munitions.
A Symbolic Scene
This attitude of mind can only be fully appreciated by those who have relations and friends in Belgium ; for it is not only the number of law-breakers which is amazing, it is the transformation brought about in their temper. They will meet people who, in ordinary circumstances, would never have dreamt of exposing themselves to the slightest inconvenience, or of sacrificing the least of their everyday comforts, who gaily risked deportation, imprisonment, or even worse for the common cause.
The Belgians, it is true, are just the same as four years ago ; but they have given us the opportunity of improving our knowledge of them. Under the stress of circumstances their apparent pettiness and selfishness have gone, and their true character stands revealed. They do not strike heroic attitudes, they do not utter heroic words, but in their simple, open-hearted way they have done as much for the triumph of justice as the soldiers in the trenches.
I shall never forget the scene in the Town Hall when Burgomaster Max, freshly arrived from Germany, welcomed King Albert to Brussels, after his long absence, and when the King, in a trembling voice, congratulated the first citizen of his capital on the great example of patriotism he had given to the people. It was a short and impressive scene. All the more impressive because it had a symbolic meaning. All over the country, at the same moment, the Belgian soldiers were greeted by their relations and friends. In every Belgian home, as in the Brussels Town Hall, every soldier and every civilian had some story to tell. In spite of the long years of separation, they realised that they had suffered, fought, and conquered — together.

No comments: