Clandestine Press in World War II
From the summer of 1940, and after the example of illustrious predecessors during the First World War, a group of persons decided to produce clandestinely periodical publications, thus escaping the German censorship. Initially, their aim was to lift public morale after the defeat during the eighteen-day campaign and to counterbalance German propaganda. The instigation to resistance will come later. A number of these publications also served as a reflection on the organisation of society and to propose reforms. By writing and distributing these leaflets, embryonic networks were created that were often at the basis of movements.
A few figures emphasise the importance of the clandestine press phenomenon in Belgium. About 675 registered publications are known. Several tens of thousands of collaborators were involved in the writing, printing and distributing of the papers. After the war, 12,000 will be officially recognised for their participation. A death toll of at least 1,650 was the direct result of the German repression.
Nevertheless, this clandestine press had its limitations. The papers generally only appeared once a month and mostly consisted of only a few pages. Furthermore, they were rarely printed, which did not allow a large circulation (generally between 100 and 1000 copies pro number). Finally, the frequent arrests caused a lack of continuity among the groups involved in the production and the distribution of the clandestine papers. Thus, only some twenty titles remained in circulation throughout the occupation. In fact, this clandestine press was rarely available to the majority of the population. It was nevertheless a powerful communication instrument between and within the small circles of resistance fighters and movements.
The first papers
In the beginning of the war, the initiative for the publication of clandestine papers was often taken by members of the Francophone bourgeoisie close to the circles of war veterans. Because of the non-political stance of these pioneers the great majority of these initiatives were isolated, related to family or a small group of people. In the course of time, these papers often disappeared or were absorbed in a greater entity. Sometimes, they remained independent of a movement. This was the case for the Churchill-Gazette (Liège), La Libre Belgique Peter Pan (Bruxelles) or De Vrijschutter (Halle). But sometimes they became the mouthpiece of a movement. This was the case for L’Insoumis and the movement by the same name in Brussels, Steeds Vereenigd-Unis Toujours for the Witte Brigade in Antwerp, La Vérité for the Armée de la libération in Liège and La Voix des Belges for the Mouvement national belge in Brussels. These papers were almost always right-oriented but mostly chose not to lay claim to a particular political party.
Socialists and communists
The anti-fascist left constituted the other breeding ground of the clandestine press. In the first months of the occupation, initiatives were very limited, with the exception of the foundation of the Monde du Travail in Liège, published by left-socialist dissidents. From 1941 onwards, more steps were taken. On the socialist side, a solid structure was set up to publish a few clandestine papers with a fairly wide circulation, in particular Le Peuple in Brussels.
On the communist side, the evolution was even more spectacular. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, everything was done to find support for a movement of popular resistance that would drive away the occupier. For them, the clandestine press was an essential instrument for circulating their ideas. It was a crucial propaganda instrument for the Independence Front, an organisation founded by the communists in the autumn of 1941 with the aim of uniting civilian resistance.
The results of the PCB’s efforts were impressive. De Rode Vaan-Le Drapeau rouge constituted the standard-bearer to the 97 clandestine papers that were published by the party. Were added to this 248 papers that were directly or indirectly published under the flag of the Independence Front, among others the mouthpiece of the movement, Front, founded in October 1943. It must however be mentioned that in this period more and more regional papers of the Independence Front were taken over by resistance militants of the Christian democrat, liberal and above all the socialist family. This leftist clandestine press was very present in Brussels and Wallonia, but much less in Flanders.
Differences between Flanders, Brussels and Wallonia
For that matter, this regional difference determines the global image of the Belgian clandestine press. Only 25,7 % of the leaflets were written in Dutch compared to 71,5 % in French. The apportionment of the places of publication reflects the great importance of the capital since 31,8 % of the newspapers were published there, against 42,7 % in Wallonia and 25,5 in Flanders.
An analysis of the clandestine press
On average, the clandestine press appears to be the work of an educated urban middle class, mostly removed from the circles of power before the war. As regards content, it was divided in two main types of papers. The first, generally attached to the Belgian communist party (PCB/KPB) and the Independence Front, incited to direct and radical action and supported a severe repression against collaborators. On the other hand, they rarely expressed any views on the future of society. The second, which combined the newspapers of the moderate left and of the right, were more in favour of less violent forms of resistance (helping illegal persons, gathering intelligence) and put their trust in the post-war judicial system to conduct a severe but well-balanced repression. Moreover, they proposed several projects for the future. Here opinions differed between the conservative and the socialist organs: the first demanded social and economic reforms, but opposed the transformation of the liberal-democratic political system. The conservatives on the contrary opposed economic reforms and supported a strengthening of the executive power linked to a restriction of the legislative power.
In spite of its major impact during the occupation, the clandestine press could not assert any real influence after the war. This was in part the result of the lack of impact of the Resistance on the political events in the post-war years.
- José Gotovitch, “Photographie de la presse clandestine de 1940”, in Cahiers d’histoire de la Seconde Mondiale, n°2, 1972, p. 113-156 [in het Nederlands “Beeld van de klandestiene pers in 1940”, in Bijdragen tot de Geschiedenis van de Tweede Wereldoorlog, n°2, 1972, p. 223-267].
- José Gotovitch, “Presse clandestine en Belgique, une production culturelle?”, in François Marcot & Bruno Curatolo (dir.), Ecrire sous l’Occupation ; du non-consentement à la Résistance. France-Belgique-Pologne 1940-1945, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2011, p. 97-114.
- José Gotovitch (dir.), Guide de la presse clandestine de Belgique, Bruxelles, Centre de Recherches et d'Etudes historiques de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale, 1991, IV + 214 p.
- Fabrice Maerten, «Presse clandestine», in Paul Aron & José Gotovitch (dir.), Dictionnaire de la Seconde Guerre mondiale en Belgique, Bruxelles, André Versailles éditeur, 2008, p. 343-345.
- George Tanham, Contribution à l'histoire de la résistance belge. 1940-1944, Bruxelles, Presses Universitaires de Bruxelles, 1977, p. 105-144.