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Published by EH.NET (October 2010)

Herman Van Der Wee and Monique Verbreyt, A Small Nation in the Turmoil of the Second World War: Money, Finance and Occupation (Belgium, its Enemies, its Friends, 1939-1945). Leuven, Leuven University Press, 2009. 494 pp. $75 (cloth), ISBN: 978-90-5867-759-4.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Kim Oosterlinck, Facult? de Philosophie et Lettres and SBS-EM, Universit? Libre de Bruxelles.

Even though Belgium was an important economic power before the Second World War, research dedicated to its economy during the occupation remains scarce and, with the notable exception of Gillingham (1977), most analysis has been written either in Dutch or French. As a consequence, readers unfamiliar with these two languages would tend to form their opinion on Belgium?s economy under the Nazi boot on basis of Gillingham. Since the Liberation, the extent of the collaboration of the Belgian economy has led to heated debates. The position defended by Gillingham, industrialists were eager to collaborate, has been heavily criticized by actors active during the war (Baudhuin, 1977) and historians (Van der Wee, 1979; Verhoeyen, 1986). The book under review is thus an important addition to the existing literature. It is the English translation of a book formerly published in Dutch in a series on the history of the National Bank of Belgium (De Nationale Bank van Belgi? 1939-1971. Boekdeel 1 ? Oorlog en monetaire politiek: de Nationale Bank van Belgi?, de Emissiebank te Brussel en de Belgische regering 1939-1945).

Surprisingly the translated version is, in my eyes, better than the original. Indeed, the Dutch version contains some lengthy citations and maybe too detailed discussions on minor issues which render its reading sometimes hard. The English version, on the other hand, has the immense merit to be both academically precise and enjoyable to read. The only, very minor indeed, regret is that in the translation process the title lost in clarity. The English title may indeed be misleading: readers should know that the book is mostly dedicated to the fate of the National Bank of Belgium (NBB) and its monetary and financial operations during the war.

The book is very well researched and based on many archives, which have until recently not been available to researchers. Quite naturally, the archives from the National Bank of Belgium prove to be fascinating. The book?s opening chapter explains the vision of Belgium?s leaders. The following chapter describes the tribulations of the Belgian government and of the head of the NBB in France. The creation of the Banque d?Emission and the complex relationship between this new issuing institution and the NBB are analyzed thereafter. The so-called ?Politique du moindre mal? (policy of the lesser evil) is discussed extensively and the actions of the various actors are set into perspective. This provides a balanced view of the motivations of the different leaders.? As a whole the book covers almost all aspects related to the monetary decisions taken by Belgium during World War Two. Whereas researchers tend to concentrate their analysis on occupied Belgium, this book provides a detailed account of the interaction between the Belgian government and the National Bank of Belgium. It not only covers the policy in occupied Belgium but also discusses the financing of the government in London, the steps taken to limit the post-war inflationary impact of the huge amounts of money printed during the war and the effective monetary reforms undertaken by Camille Gutt at the Liberation (the Gutt plan).

The book is thus likely to be of interest to all researchers working on the Second World War and on war economy. It provides a clear and focused analysis of the functioning of the National Bank of Belgium during the war. This leads the authors to also discuss the problems related to the occupation costs and economic exploitation (notably via the clearing system imposed upon defeated Belgium). The book gives also a fascinating account of the means devised by the Belgian administration to finance the country?s occupation. Even though the book focuses on the National Bank of Belgium, the fate of other Belgian banks is presented (quite naturally since their leaders were preeminent actors and were at the basis of the creation of the Banque d?Emission). It would have been interesting to include other aspects of the financial world. There is for example almost no mention of the stock exchange even though Brussels represented, before the war outbreak, one of the world?s major markets.

References:

Fernand Baudhuin, “La Politique de production de l?industrie belge durant l?occupation nazie: Une r?plique du Professeur Baudhuin,” Revue Belge d?Histoire Contemporaine, 1977, 5, 3-4, pp. 265-267

John Gillingham, Belgian Business in the Nazi New Order, 1977, Gent, Jan Dhondt Stichting.

Herman Van Der Wee, “L??conomie belge au cours de la Seconde Guerre Mondiale et le probl?me de la collaboration industrielle,” Revue Belge de Philologie et d?Histoire, 1979, 57, 2, pp. 394-409.

Etienne Verhoeyen, “Les grands industriels belges entre collaboration et r?sistance: le moindre mal,” 1986, Cahiers du CREHSGM, 10, pp. 57-114.

Kim Oosterlinck is associate professor at the Universit? libre de Bruxelles. He recently published ?French Stock Exchanges and Regulation during World War II,? Financial History Review, 2010, 17, 2, pp. 211-237 and ?Observing Bailout Expectations during a Total Eclipse of the Sun,? Journal of International Money and Finance, 2010, 29, 7, pp. 1193-1205 (jointly with Oscar Bernal and Ariane Szafarz).

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