Fort Breendonk (Dutch: Fort van Breendonk, French: Fort de Breendonk) is a military fortification situated at Breendonk, near Mechelen, in Belgium which is best known for its role as a Nazi prison camp (Auffanglager) during the German occupation of Belgium during World War II.
Fort Breendonk was originally built for the Belgian army between 1906-13 as part of the second ring of defenses of the National Redoubt protecting the important port-city of Antwerp. It was covered by a five-metre thick layer of soil for defense against bombings, a water-filled moat and measured 656 by 984 feet (200 by 300 m).
During World War II, the fort was requisitioned by the Germans as a prison camp for detaining Belgian political dissidents, captured resistance members and Jews. Although technically a prison rather than a concentration camp, the Fort was famous for its prisoners' poor living conditions and for the use of torture. Most prisoners who were detained at the camp were later transferred to larger concentration camps in Eastern Europe. Of the 3,590 prisoners known to have been imprisoned at Breendonk, 303 died or were executed within the fort itself but as many as 1,741 died subsequently in other camps before the end of the war.
Today, the site is a national memorial and museum which is open to the public.
Background and World War I
Belgium was invaded in August 1914 by the German army after refusing its request of unhindered passage to northern France.
The invasion began on 4 August 1914. Eager to reach Paris as soon as possible, the German army concentrated all its efforts towards the south, ignoring Antwerp. Continued Belgian resistance from the north forced German command to attack the city. On 9 September, General Beseler was ordered to attack Antwerp. Heavy siege artillery was sent north, having already been used at the sieges of Namur and Maubeuge in France.
Fort Breendonk was first attacked on 1 October 1914 by howitzers located 5 to 6 km out of range of the fort's own guns. The Germans however soon breached the Belgian line in Lier, allowing them to attack Antwerp without needing to capture Breendonk. On 9 October, the garrison of Fort Breendonk surrendered after the fall of Antwerp.
German prison camp: Breendonk I
The German army invaded and occupied Belgium in May 1940. The fort was the headquarters of the Belgian command during the first weeks following the invasion but was abandoned in the face of German advance.
By 1940, Breendonk was already militarily obsolete and was unnecessary for the German occupiers. Soon after the start of the German occupation, the Nazis transformed it into a prison camp which was controlled by SS and other security agencies of Nazi Germany (SIPO and SD in particular) although Belgium itself was under military (Wehrmacht) jurisdiction and controlled by general Alexander von Falkenhausen.
Administration and inmates
On 20 September 1940, the first prisoners arrived. Initially most of the prisoners were petty criminals, people deemed anti-social, or who did not conform to the German race laws. Later on, resistance fighters, political prisoners and ordinary people captured as hostages were detained as well. Another section was used as a transit camp for Jews being sent to death camps in Eastern Europe such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The camp was guarded by Flemish as well as German SS units. Of the 300 prisoners that died in the camp itself, 185 were executed; many of the rest died of torture, disease or exposure. Most of those that did survive were transported to concentration camps. The German execution poles and gallows, as well as the torture chamber, are preserved in the current museum on the site.
Between 3,500 and 3,600 prisoners were incarcerated in Breendonk during its existence, of whom 1,733 died before liberation. About 400-500 were Jews. Most of the non-Jewish prisoners were left-wing members of the Belgian resistance or were held as hostages by the Germans. In September 1941, the Belgian Communist prisoners held at Breendonk were deported to Neuengamme concentration camp.
Jewish prisoners in Breendonk were segregated from other prisoners until 1942. Thereafter, Jews were transferred to the nearby Mechelen transit camp and deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
Daily life in the camp
Upon arrival at the camp, new inmates were brought to the courtyard where they would have to stand facing the wall until they were processed into the camp. They were forbidden to move and any motion was severely punished. In the camp, punishment consisted of beatings, torture in the old gunpowder magazine, hanging or execution by firing squad. Inmates were forced to watch any executions that took place. The camp commander Lagerkommandant Philipp Schmitt was known to set his German Shepherd dog (called "Lump") loose on the inmates. His wife was also known to wander the camp, ridiculing the inmates and ordering punishments at whim. Severe and arbitrary beating occurred daily. During winter 1942-1943, after the German defeat at Stalingrad, it occurred more than once that inmates, mostly Jewish, were forced by the Flemish SS guards to enter into the extremely cold water of the moat and kept there with a shovel. The victims gradually sank or fell into the mud and most of them, after a struggle that could last for over 15 minutes, finally drowned.
All the prisoners were subjected to forced labour. The camp authorities wanted the earth that had covered much of the Fort to be removed and shifted to build a high bank around the camp to hide it from outside view. In the few years Fort Breendonk was used by the Nazis, 250,000 cubic metres (8,800,000 cu ft) of soil covering the fort were removed by the prisoners by hand at a gruelling pace. Prisoners only had hand tools to complete this enormous task and the soil had to be transported to the outer wall via hand carts on a narrow gauge railway system. The ground in the camp was often very soggy causing the rails to sink away in the mud. Prisoners were then expected to move by hand the carts filled with dirt, pushing and dragging them back and forth over a distance of more than 300 meters. This regime was imposed for over 12 hours a day, seven days a week, even in the worst of weather conditions. Orders were given only in German, so inmates were forced to learn the basic commands rather quickly or otherwise be punished for failure to obey orders. Prisoners were also forced to salute and stand to attention every time a guard passed.
Accommodation in the fort consisted of the old barracks. Built from thick stone, without windows and with only minimal ventilation, these were extremely cold and damp. Each barrack room only had a small coal burning stove, and providing sufficient heating was nearly impossible. Rooms were originally designed for no more than 38 people, but frequently housed over 50 inmates sleeping in three-tier bunk beds on straw mattresses. The top bunks were highly prized. Inmates only had a single small bucket per room for a toilet during the night, and many of the sick and weakened inmates simply allowed their waste to drop down to the lower levels. This caused much fighting between inmates, which was probably what the guards wanted.
Prisoners were allowed to use the toilet in the given order only twice a day. There were two gathering spaces inside the fort, east and west, each one with a small building, made of brick and without doors, equipped with four holes and one urinal. Only in 1944 a greater facility was added. But to go to the toilet was always done under surveillance, in group and in a hurry: an additional opportunity for the guards to intimidate and humiliate the prisoners.
Jewish prisoners were segregated from other inmates and housed in specially constructed wooden barracks. These barracks were poorly insulated and over-crowded. Other prisoners were housed in cells, either in small groups or individually. The aim was to isolate certain prisoners for later interrogation and torture.
Food was severely rationed for the prisoners and distributed in different quantities to the various types of inmates. Jews received the least food and water. Prisoners were served three meals a day. Breakfast consisted of two cups of a coffee substitute made of roasted acorns and 125 grams (4.4 oz) of bread. Lunch was usually 1 litre of soup (mostly just hot water). Supper was again 2 cups of a coffee substitute and 100 grams (3.5 oz) of bread. This was far from enough to sustain a human being, especially considering the intense cold or heat, harsh labour and physical punishments the prisoners were subjected to.
This harsh treatment of prisoners started to leak outside the Fort to such a degree that the head of the administrative staff of the Military Governor of Belgium Eggert Reeder was compelled to order an inspection of the Fort because Von Falkenhausen "did not want the camp to become known to history as the hell of Breendonk". But the respite was short lived also because the SS seized and forwarded to Germany most of the food parcels sent in by the Red Cross.
Conditions in the camp were so cruel and harsh that those who left alive were so weak that their chances of survival at the final destination were severely hampered. Often prisoners were so sick and weak that they were led straight to the gas chambers or simply died within weeks of their arrival. The regime in the camp was at least as harsh as in an actual concentration camp. On 4 September 1944 the SS evacuated the Fort, and all the remaining prisoners were sent to Buchenwald concentration camp. Fewer than 10 percent of the inmates survived the war.
Particular controversy surrounds the Flemish SS guards of the camp, who so openly and cruelly turned against their fellow countrymen in blind support of their Nazi paymasters.
Famed author, philosopher, and journalist Jean Améry (formerly Hans Mayer) was captured by the Nazis in July 1943 while fighting with Belgian Resistance. He was subsequently sent to Fort Breendonk, where he was severely tortured before being sent to Auschwitz. Améry discussed his experiences in a book he wrote about the dehumanization that occurred between victim and perpetrator during the Holocaust, a work he entitled At the Mind's Limits.
Comics artist Marc Sleen also spent time in Breendonk, together with his brother, because his third brother was a member of the resistance. The Nazis hoped to hear them out about the whereabouts of their brother, but they never betrayed him. As a consequence Sleen, his brother and other prisoners were put in a death cell, where one of them was shot every day. By the time it was Sleen's turn he was lucky that D-Day had occurred, causing a mass panic among the prison guards. They took every prisoner with them to another camp, where Sleen was able to escape. Yet he would suffer post-traumatic nightmares about these experiences for the rest of his life.
The artist Jacques Ochs was interned in Breendonk from 1940 to 1942, when he managed to escape. A few of the drawings he made during his time there had survived. He used them after the war to reconstruct scenes of life in the camp, and in 1947 published those in the book Breendonck – Bagnards et Bourreaux ("Breendonck – Slave Laborers and Hangmen").
Allied prison: Breendonk II
The officer of the British Army designated to liberate the camp late in 1944 was Charles Arnold-Baker, a German and officer in MI6. Fort Breendonk was briefly repurposed as an internment camp for Belgian collaborators. This period of the Fort's existence is known as "Breendonk II". The internees were moved to Dossin Barracks, Mechelen, on 10 October 1944.
Trials of the Flemish SS guards, considered Nazi collaborators, were held during 1946 in Mechelen and including some guards and officials at Fort Breendonk. Of those who were convicted, 18 were sentenced to be executed by firing squad in 1947; two appealed their case and had their sentences revised to life imprisonment. Four others were sentenced to life in prison; one person to 20 years of prison, and one other was acquitted. Two guards were sentenced to life but were never caught. The Nazi camp commandant, Philipp Schmitt, was tried in Antwerp in 1949 and sentenced to death. He was shot on 9 August 1950. He never showed any remorse and denied all of the atrocities that occurred at Breendonk, claiming he was merely re-educating the inmates as he had been ordered.
Museum and memorial
In 1947 Fort Breendonk was declared to be a national memorial, recognizing the suffering and cruelty that had been inflicted on Belgian prisoners during World War II. The fort is now a well-preserved example of the prison camps operated by Nazi Germany and a national museum. The Fort is open to visitors all year round and is located close to the A12 Brussels-Antwerp motorway.
Pictures of working Nazi internment camps during the war are rare and, for a long time, it was believed that absolutely no pictures of Breendonk during the war existed. But in the early 1970s a batch of photos of the camp was discovered in the possessions of Dutch photographer Otto Spronk. He had collected thousands of pictures and films of the Third Reich as part of his work for the Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (Cegesoma). The collection consisted of 37 pictures depicting daily life in the camp. They were taken by German Nazi photographer Otto Kropf for propaganda purposes but were never used. All pictures are essentially cliche stills; none of the daily atrocities or horrors of the camp are shown. But they are the only reference material available. Several of the inmates on the pictures managed to survive the war and were able to identify the others on the pictures and the circumstances in which they were taken.
- List of Nazi-German concentration camps
- Citadel of Huy
- Pahaut, Claire; Maerten, Fabrice (2006). Le Fort de Breendonk: Le Camp de la Terreur Nazie en Belgique pendant la Seconde Guerre mondiale (PDF) (in French). Bruxelles: Éditions Racine. ISBN 978-2873864606.
- "Breendonk". USHMM Holocaust Encyclopedia. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Retrieved 15 May 2016.
- Vander Velpen, Jos (2005). Breendonk: Chronique d'un camp (1940-1944). Brussels: Editions Aden. ISBN 9782930402079.
- Wijngaert, Mark Van den (2010). Beulen van Breendonk. Schuld en boete (1st ed.). Antwerp: Standaard Uitgeverij. ISBN 9789002239564.
- Nefors, Patrick (2005). Breendonk: 1940-1944. Brussels: Ed. Racine. ISBN 9782873864200.
- Wynen, André (2007). Le fort de Breendonk le camp de la terreur nazie en Belgique pendand la Seconde Guerre mondiale. Democratie ou barbarie (3rd ed.). Brussels: Ed. Racine. ISBN 9782873864606.
- Official website