The former camp guards of the Auffanglager Breendonk were sentenced by a court martial in Mechelen in spring 1946. © Fort Breendonk / War Heritage Institute

Hidden passions? The archives of the military justice and their modalities of access

The archives of the military justice are of great scientific and social value. Over the past five years, the State Archives has handled more than 1,400 requests for access to these records. In a recent article for META. Tijdschrift voor bibliotheek & archief, archivist Johannes Van De Walle (National Archives 2 - Joseph Cuvelier repository) discussed the troubled history of these archives and their modalities of access.

The term "military justice archives" covers all archives created by Belgian military courts. As a rule, such extraordinary courts are competent to try military personnel, but under certain circumstances their jurisdiction may be extended. This was the case after World War II, when the Belgian government in London decided to entrust the trial of collaborators to the military courts. Twenty-one local courts-martial were set up at lightning speed, and together they opened more than 400,000 files: prosecutions were initiated for just over 57,000 cases; the High Military Court handed down 18,126 judgments on appeal.

Since 2018, the Belgian State Archives has been in charge of preserving the archives of the courts-martial, war tribunals, the High Military Court and the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office. In addition to voluminous series of documentation and intelligence files on the basis of which criminal prosecution policies can be reconstructed, these include the estimated 500,000 justice files relating to individual cases. These files are crucial to the study of collaboration and postwar repression, not only for historians, but also for the countless citizens seeking more information about the wartime past of their families.
Today, anyone wishing to inspect a justice file from the military jurisdiction must make a reasoned request to the Board of Prosecutors General. The right to perusal depends on the identity of the applicant: family members and researchers affiliated with a university or recognized research institution may be granted access under certain conditions.

The verdicts related to the Hasselt War Council, an essential access
to find the justice files of this period.

The history of the public access policy has been erratic. Historians who from the early 1960s insisted on the accessibility of the files on the administration of justice invariably received no response from Deputy Auditor-General John Gilissen. Els De Bens, who received her doctorate from Ghent University in 1972 with a dissertation on the daily press during the German occupation, was the first to be granted access, after confronting Gilissen with the reality that many of the confiscated documents found in the files could be freely consulted abroad. The publication of her investigation a year later sparked a flurry of controversy and parliamentary questions. The question of public access to the repression files was explicitly linked to the amnesty issue, which was very topical at the time. Even within the General Prosecutor's Office there was growing awareness that sooner or later the files would have to be released. The minutes of a meeting of the military prosecutors in May 1972 state that "the majority of the nation acknowledged the importance of disclosure. [...] The question is whether or not one will meet a seemingly unstoppable demand for objective, and at least as complete information as possible, to get a more accurate understanding - with hindsight and a less emotionally charged approach - of the war events.' For the first time, the door of the archives of the military court came ajar. In the years that followed, more and more researchers and relatives took advantage of that opening, and slowly the General Prosecutor's Office abandoned its suspicions.

However, it was not until 1996 that for the first time the access policy adopted was defined according to objective criteria, resulting in a considerable tightening of access rules. In a circular letter, chief prosecutor Minne stated that a more restrictive consultation policy should "prevent public order from being disturbed by granting access to certain judicial archives, which, in the event of perfidious use, could rekindle certain deep-seated passions ". It is striking that in 1996 it was felt necessary to start further sealing off the files, a quarter century after the military justice's leadership ruled that public access was eventually unavoidable. It is likely that this demarche came in response to the review of the trial of Irma Laplasse, the woman sentenced to death by the military court in 1945 who was seen by amnesty advocates as a symbol of unjust repression.

In 2010, the State Archives concluded an agreement in principle with the FPS Justice on the relocation of the archives to the National Archives 2 - Joseph Cuvelier repository. Since the beginning of 2018, it is no longer the administrative staff of the Board of Prosecutors General but the archivists of the State Archives who manage the archives of the military court. Over the past four years, over 1400 requests for access have been processed in this way. The State Archives is working towards a sustainable, transparent and democratic arrangement of the access policy. Society is entitled to this more than 75 years after the end of the war.

The full article can be read on the META website.

For more information about the archives of the military justice or if you are looking for a specific file, please contact the National Archives 2 - Joseph Cuvelier repository at