The war in East Belgium



The border area of Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith changed nationality three times in the first half of the 20th century. Part of Belgium since 1920, it was annexed by Nazi Germany in 1940 and became Belgian again in 1944 to 1945.

Eupen, Malmedy and Sankt Vith and their surrounding areas were united for the first time in a modern national state within the Ourthe Department in 1795. Twenty years later, the Congress of Vienna attributed this territory, where the population spoke different German dialects, Walloon, German and French, to Prussia. As a consequence, many men of the region fought the Great War in imperial uniform, mostly in northern France and Belgium. After the armistice, the peace negotiations in Versailles eventually awarded the territory, along with Prussian and Neutral Moresnet, to Belgium. Following a transitional period, political and social tensions grew within the population between those in favour of a return to Germany and those who did not want to look back.

Whilst Belgium had claimed the territory ‘back’ in 1919 on the basis of a ‘common past’ before 1815, as well as economic, strategic and linguistic arguments, in May 1940 Nazi Germany celebrated the ‘homecoming’ of this region. For a part of the local population this annexation was a ‘liberation’, others fled. Most people though took an adaptive stance: they wanted to stay at home and get through this situation, not yet knowing that it would change again in 1944 to 1945.

When allied troops reached the area in September 1944, the ‘liberation’ from Nazi Germany was met with mixed feelings. The relief of some contrasted with the fear of reprisals of others, some of which fled.

In December 1944, the Battle of the Bulge brought severe bombing and fighting into the area, causing the death of thousands and the destruction of entire cities and villages. The fighting in the Sankt Vith and Malmedy area lasted until the end of January 1945. The population housed soldiers from both sides, while the border at their own doorstep shifted daily. The end of the war meant the return of Belgian rule, but also a wave of purges which would have a lasting impact on the population.

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