'Vrank en Vrij': History

Belgium occupied

Vrank en VrijOn 10 May 1940, Hitler's forces advanced across the borders of The Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg and France. This unequal fight was first lost by the Netherlands and fourteen days later by Belgium. With the victory over France in June, Hitler established his dictatorship throughout Western Europe. Together with the north of France, Belgium fell under German military rule of General Alexander von Falkenhausen. King and commander-in-chief Leopold III and his troops surrendered after which he became a prisoner of war in the Castle of Laken. For the second time during the twentieth century the Belgians were deprived of civil rights such as a free press.

Illegal press

The rapid German victory had not led to a strong spirit of resistance during the first year at war. In the first months after they were defeated, many people counted on a German victory over Great Britain or thought that the two remaining European superpowers that were still at war would make peace. Also, the 'correct' manners of the German soldiers, which contrasted sharply with what the Belgians had had to endure during the First World War, muffled their will to resist. The problematic nature of a unitary state dominated by a French speaking population forced many Flemish people towards collaboration.
Yet resistance did arise, albeit somewhat tentatively at first. Organizing escape routes for allied pilots who were shot down, sabotaging factories and companies, intelligence work and the forging of documents all occurred during the second half of 1940. The illegal press was an important force within the resistance. Armed resistance started to play a major role after 1943.

A large number of illegal papers were published in Belgium. There are 556 titles that we know of. Of those 415 are in French and 141 are in Dutch. A large number of people were involved in these publications; according to a reliable estimation approximately 15,000 people in total. This resistance work was at a great cost: the same source estimates 3,000 arrests and no less than 1,630 casualties. The illegal press' major purpose was to showcase the resistance. It was here that the people of Belgium could express their opinion about Hitler's 'New Order'. The illegal press' existence was clear evidence that not the whole world was nazi and not everyone collaborated with the Germans. Therefore the clandestine publications were an important factor in upholding morale. An interesting title in the family of illegal publications and the first to be published during the Second World War in Flanders is Het Vrije Woord [Freedom of Speech]. Of which the subtitle was - 'is published despite THE OCCUPYING FORCES - in Antwerp and elsewhere...'. The paper was published by the 'Independent Patriotic Group called "Vrank en Vrij" [Free as the wind].

Henri Mandel

Henri MandelIt is remarkable that the people who had the most influence in this 'Independent Patriotic Group' were father and son Mandel. Father Henri Mandel (1896-1953) was born in the Austrian part of Poland into an orthodox Jewish family. In 1913, he emigrated to Belgium. In order to escape from being drafted into the Imperial Austrian army he fled from occupied Belgian territory in 1914 to The Netherlands, which was neutral. Here he met other German activists who also had fled such as Wilhelm Pieck who, after the Second World War, became the first president of the GDR. Together with this group, Henri Mandel became involved in the edition of Der Kampf [The Struggle] with the unmistakable subtitle Revolutionär-sozialistisches Wochenblatt. Organ der deutschen Kampfgruppen in Holland [Revolutionary Socialist weekly. Organ of the German task forces in the Netherlands] in 1917. When the German empire collapsed and Germany came under the spell of revolution, he expeditiously departed for Berlin to make his contribution. He took part in establishing the forerunner of Tass News agency and he met Karl Radek, the envoy of the Russian revolutionary rulers. The shocking murders of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht in 1919 forced him to return to Antwerp. As so many people with similar backgrounds, he decided to support himself by focusing on the diamond trade. He was very successful at doing so. From now on he no longer had the time to play an active role in politics.

Ernest Mandel

Ernest MandelHenry Mandel married Rosa Mateles, a Jewish woman from Krakow and in 1923 their first son, Ernest, was born. Their second son, Michel, was born in 1925. The Mandel family was a family with a father in business, but at home everything revolved around politics, culture and literature. The fact that his library of 1400 titles, of which he could still name 823 after the war, was stolen by the Germans in 1942, is a crime that he never neglects to mention and which he considers to be nearly just as barbaric as the Nazi crimes of murder and deportation. In 1930, the crisis also affected Henri Mandel's business. Moreover, his business suffered damage due to a major internal theft. Mandel changed profession and started an insurance and mortgage agency. The family then moved to a more modest residence on the Cruyslei in Deurne.
It is here that Ernest grew up in a house that was often the meeting point for radical refugees from an increasing number of European areas of tension. The Spanish civil war, but more so the Moscow trials of 1936 shocked the Mandels. Radek's conviction in the second Moscow Trial of 1937 added a personal touch to their shock. This made Henri Mandel, to quote his son, 'angry beyond description' and he set up a solidarity committee. This brought him into contact with the Antwerp Trotskyism. The young Ernest witnessed all these activities first hand and this explains why in 1938, at the age of 15, he was admitted to the small Parti Socialiste Révolutionnaire (PSR) [Revolutionary Socialist Party].

The practice of illegality

The spark that ignited the Mandels and their political friends was the news of Trotsky's murder. Trotsky was murdered on 21 August 1940 in Mexico by an agent of the NKVD. Immediately after the news got out in Antwerp, a group of people gathered at Mandel's house. They felt that now they could no longer remain silent and decided to publish pamphlets, soon followed by a magazine: Het Vrije Woord [Freedom of Speech]. Father and son Mandel were the driving force behind the project and in October 1940 the first issue was published.
The small newspaper was stencilled on Henril Mandel's Gestettner and 3000 copies issued. It was distributed in Antwerp, Mechelen, and Turnhout. The paper was usually distributed to residences, shops and offices in the evening. At later stage post offices, trains and trams were included.
The paper grew to become a respectable size organization. At least one hundred people, one-quarter of them Jews, were involved. The paper soon realized what danger the Jews were facing. In the second issue of November 1940 they took a strong stand against the first ordinances against the Jews and with foresight they stated: "These ordinances... are only THE BEGINNING and the NAZI BARBARIANS know no boundaries!"

This illegal work was naturally not without danger and German police forces constantly hounded the writers, printers and distributors. The group must have drawn extra attention from the German authorities due to the fact that after the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, an issue was published in German, specifically intended for the soldiers of the Wehrmacht. Four more issues in German were to follow. Het Vrije Woord existed until issue No. 31, which was published in August 1942. It was in this month that the Mandels left Antwerp and went into hiding in Tervuren, near Brussels. Rosa and her youngest son left for a secret address in the Ardennes. Father Henri stayed in the agglomerate of Brussels and Ernest roamed around between friends' houses. The Trotskyist environment in Brussels had suffered barely any losses. Maybe it was because of this, that Ernest Mandel was incautious on 4 December 1942 when he walked straight into the arms of the Gestapo near Camille Loots' house where he had been hiding. Camille Loots had been arrested earlier that day. Ernest escaped on 5 January 1943 from the car that was transporting him. It appeared that he had been bought out by his father and his friends.
With the assistance of Marcel Devlieghere, Henri Mandel moved into a house in the Keizer Karelstraat in Brussels. Now Devlieghere's agency of the Belgian Company for General Insurances proved to be a very useful cover-up. New activities were launched from the basement of this house.

Vrank en Vrij

On this location in Brussels, no less than two new illegal papers were published: Vrank en Vrij (with an average of 4300 copies) and Das Freie Wort (average of 4000 copies). The first paper continued the tradition of Het Vrije Woord as a magazine for the resistance in Dutch. The second paper was specifically aimed at German soldiers.
The creators had even roped in two German soldiers to distribute Das Freie Wort, Heinrich and Joseph. Both were originally social democrats and prepared to conduct these dangerous services. Joseph, for instance, worked at the 'Feldpost' [Field post] in Brussels. This is where he added Das Freie Wort to the 'Feldpostbrieven' [field post letters] to German soldiers at every frontline.

Before the magazine Das Freie Wort was published, the group issued a pamphlet which carried the same name. The pamphlet was released on December 1942 and was circulated until September 1943. In the paper, Ernest Mandel wrote the column 'Deutsche Dichter sprechen zu euch' [German poets speak to you] in which, despite limited space, he quoted from freedom-loving poetry by e.g. Schiller or Herwegh ("Kein Zensor fällt der Wahrheit in die Zügel, Er hat nur Federn, doch der Wahrheit Flügel") [No censor can suppress the truth, as he only has feathers, the truth on the other hand has wings]. What is also remarkable is the fact that the paper refers to the murders of hundreds of thousands of innocent citizens, Poles, Russians and Jews in the 'sondernummer' ['special edition'] of September 1943. The publication tells German soldiers that they are in part responsible for the murders if they do not specifically repudiate them, even if the murders were committed by the 'Hitler-soldateska'.
Vrank en Vrij, which first appeared in May 1943 and Das Freie Wort, which was released in November of that same year, were both published without interruption until just before the liberation of Belgium in September 1944. While distributing Trotskyist pamphlets in Seraing on 29 March 1944 Ernest Mandel was arrested for the second time. It is nothing short of a miracle that he survived the prisons and concentration camps. In March 1945, he was liberated by the American army, advancing into Germany.

After the war

Beknopt overzichtThe production of three illegal papers by the 'Independent Patriotic Group' "Vrank en Vrij"' is an exceptional accomplishment; achieved despite the enormous risks involved. An overview drawn up by Colonel Lejeune in 1950 (with Henri Mandel's approval) lists four employees that were killed: Hubert de Hunter, Cécile Piller, "Helene" and "Martin" (Henri Mandel's records No. 33). Henri Mandel was very aware of just how significant the achievement was. In September 1944, he immediately donated the volumes to the Belgian parliament, the senate, the City of Antwerp, the Press Union and to the British Embassy. On September 25 1944, Camille Huysmans, at the time mayor of the recently liberated City of Antwerp, wrote a letter of thanks and commended the German edition in particular (Henri Mandel's records No. 25). The group's publications were given a prominent place in the exhibition, which was held on the subject of the illegal press in Brussels in December 1944.
It is also remarkable that the two Dutch papers clearly did their best to remain 'independent' and 'patriotic', although the Trotskyists were the most dominant political force in the group. The consistent line in the German paper demonstrates what their political preference was. German soldiers are systematically distinguished from the 'Hitler-clique' or the 'Nazi Regime' and are called upon not to support the regime any longer. This is an example of the internationalist opinion that soldiers are merely workers in uniform. In the Netherlands, Sneevliet was one of the few that spoke to German soldiers through resistance publications. Ernest Mandel stated that he had survived German captivity by making contact with German guards who often secretly harboured leftist political preferences.
In view of this it is somewhat ironic to realize that the first general, patriotic, Dutch languange newspaper of the resistance in Flanders was created and written by a Polish-Jewish independent socialist who allowed his Gestettner to rattle, even at risk of his own life, who, however, did not own a Belgian passport. Henri Mandel did not acquire the Belgian nationality until October 18 1950, after an extensive correspondence with a reluctant bureaucracy.

Huub Sanders, April 2011
I am grateful to Jan Willem Stutje for his comments.
Relevant IISH archival collections

• Henri Mandel papers
• Ernest Mandel papers


• Jan Willem Stutje, 'Ernst Mandels kleine oorlog : revolutionaire socialisten in bezettingstijd, 1940-1945', Bijdragen tot de Eigentijdse Geschiedenis 2003 12
• Jan Willem Stutje, Ernest Mandel : a rebel's dream deferred (London : Verso, 2009)
• T.Ali, 'The luck of a crazy youth. Ernest Mandel interviewed by Tariq Ali', in: Gilbert Achgar, The legacy of Ernest Mandel (London: Verso; 1999) 217-224.
• Lieven Saerens, Vreemdelingen in een wereldstad : een geschiedenis van Antwerpen en zijn joodse bevolking (1880-1944) (Tielt: Lannoo, 2000)
• J. Gotovich, 'Het beeld van de klandestine pers in 1940', Bijdragen tot de Geschiedenis van de Tweede Wereldoorlog 3, no. 2 (1972): 113-156.
• The collection of clandestine issues of "Vrank en Vrij" can be found under inventory number 80 of Henri Mandel's records.