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Minutes of the conference “The Cold War and Belgium”, CegeSoma (17 June 2022)

When did the Cold War start precisely? There are diverging opinions among historians regarding this question. What can be asserted however, is that a number of events in spring 1947 made it clear that the geopolitical conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union, and the associated ideological confrontation between capitalism and communism would henceforth dominate global politics. In this context, US president Harry S. Truman announced on 12 March 1947 his doctrine of containment of the Soviet expansion, and a few months later denied the Soviet-Russian government participation in the European Recovery Program (the so-called Marshall plan). In the meantime, three quarters of a century have passed and there is often talk about a new kind of Cold War that we may have entered. In the context of the seventy-fifth ‘anniversary’ of the Cold War, CegeSoma organised a conference about the Belgian dimension on 17 June 2022. Here follow the minutes of this interesting day.

After the welcome address by Nico Wouters, in which he underlined the importance of research into the Cold War and Belgium for the work of our institution, Michael Auwers opened with a short paper about how Belgian historians have shed light on the East-West conflict. For a long time the focus had been on a number of prominent politicians who enabled little Belgian to punch above its weight on the world stage. This prevailing perspective has gotten a lot of competition in the past decades from studies that pay more attention to social, economic and cultural aspects of the Cold War and Belgium, and to the multitude of actors engaged between East and West. Auwers also explained the programme that CegeSoma plans to execute in the research field ‘Cold War’.

Next was keynote-speaker Giles Scott-Smith, who presented a an agenda for research about Belgium and the Cold War on the basis of a threefold approach. The first one is Belgium as actor in which the big-politician-small-country narrative is critically examined by underlining the short-sightedness of this view: it does not allow us to analyse how the mechanisms of power actually work. It is indeed important to map out who are the multiple actors speaking in the name of Belgium at international level, in which manner they do so and which objectives they pursue. Belgium is also more passively involved in the Cold War. This is the second approach: Belgium as target. It examines how Belgium and Belgians were subject of interest, not only for the Great Powers (for example with regard to the US cultural diplomacy through its academic Fulbright programme), but also for Gaullist circles. Finally, according to Scott-Smith, historians should take a closer look at Belgium as a site: be they Belgian sites on which a lot of Cold War movement took place (for example during Expo ’58) or the experiences of Europeans and Non-Europeans during transnational network meetings in cosmopolitan Brussels.

The three papers presented during the morning session each highlighted different aspects of the work of intelligence services during the Cold War. Idesbald Goddeeris carried out a lot of new research in archives in the context of the French translation of her book about the Polish intelligence services active in Belgium. He earned a lot of laughter from the audience with some revealing quotations from reports in which the first director of CegeSoma played a prominent role. At the same time he underlined that historians should not overestimate the effectiveness of Eastern European intelligence services. In addition, his research beautifully combined the approaches Belgium as target and Belgium as a site. The same is true for the paper by Marie Bouvry. She studied the activities of the Stasi, East Germany’s secret service, in Belgium and placed particular focus on the methods and the perception of interests of its agents in the period following the move of the NATO headquarters to Belgium. Finally, in his paper, Marc Cools went beyond the Belgian context and explained how ITT, the US conglomerate International Telephone and Telegraph, developed a private security network, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, enganged former CIA agents and financed US intelligence services in order to influence elections in Latin America.

The first afternoon session had three papers that each in their own way illustrated the approach Belgium as actor, in the sense that they pointed out how a wide variety of key players spoke in the name of Belgium in very different ways and with very different objectives. Thomas Briamont examined the economic relations between Belgium and the German Democratic Republic. Members of the Communist Party of Belgium played a key role here. Indeed, through commercial entities, they acted as intermediaries between top Belgian companies and their East German business partners. Manuel Herrera Crespo placed his focus on Opération Villages roumains, a political activist movement established in Belgium in the 1980s in protest against the plans of the Romanian government to wipe rural Romanian villages from the map and transform them into agro-industrial centres. He concluded that the initiative was closely intertwined with the policy of détente led by the Belgian government in the 1980s and that East-West solidarity led to frictions with North-South solidarity after the upheavals in Central and Eastern Europe. The paper by Jan Van der Fraenen was about a fascinating aspect of military history of the relations among Western states during the Cold War: the Belgian Armed Forces in West Germany. These forces evolved from an occupation force in the wake of the Second World War to a partner in the defence of the West, which also led to a normalisation of relations with the local population.

After the break, Kim Christiaens picked up the Belgium as a site approach again and reflected upon how foreign archives could shed more light on the Belgian dimensions of the transnational activism of solidarity movements. This type of activism was a key element of policies and diplomacy during the Cold War. The conference organised by CegeSoma would indeed not have been complete without a discussion about BELCOWAR. Thus, initiators Bart Kerremans and Dirk Luyten explained which proposition formed the basis for this ambitious research programme about the role of Belgium in the economic Pax Americana and how this research shall be carried out in the coming decade.