Acclaimed SA academic’s Nazi Secret

2013-05-29 00:00

“WHY Belgian-born Herman de Vleeschauwer, who was condemned to death for Nazi collaboration in the Second World War, could rise to such a prominent position at South Africa’s oldest and largest university remains a mystery,” writes Archie L. Dick in The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures.

Dick, professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Pretoria, confesses himself equally baffled as to why the academic and library profession accepted him, and did nothing to “investigate his sinister background”.

When De Vleeschauwer came to South Africa from Switzerland in 1950, he was a fugitive from justice. With him came an 8 000 volume collection of books, now housed in the De Vleeschauwer Collection at the University of Johannesburg (formerly the Rand Afrikaans University). How he obtained many of those books adds another sinister question mark to his career.

De Vleeschauwer was born in 1899 in Dendermonde, Flanders, the son of a school inspector and historian. In 1923, he obtained a doctorate in philosophy magna cum laude. His prolific scholarship, including a major work on the philosophy of Emmanuel Kant, brought him international recognition. In 1937, the University of Glasgow conferred an honorary doctorate on him, “the youngest Belgian to receive such an honour”. The citation describes him as “a scholar of the most profound learning”.

De Vleeschauwer was also involved in Belgian national life as a champion of the Flemish movement, which sought greater independence for the region of Flanders, and protection of the Dutch language and Flemish culture. He accordingly founded the Flemish Union as “a cultural forum to discuss Catholic, liberal and socialist ideas”.

In May 1940, when Germany invaded Belgium, De Vleeschauwer briefly served as a first lieutenant, but returned home when King Leopold capitulated on May 28. De Vleeschauwer then performed an apparent about-face, announcing the “failure of democracy” and defending “the New Order for Europe advocated by the German occupying forces”. He was rewarded for his stance by being appointed director-general for higher education on November 16, 1940. He joined the Flemish National Union political party and, according to Dick, while still “retaining his position at the University of Ghent, commuted daily to Brussels to implement the will of the occupying forces”.

On November 26, 1940, De Vleeschauwer signed a ministry of education circular that dismissed Jewish professors from the universities. Later, in April 1942, he called for the removal of Jewish teachers from schools. In newspaper articles, he urged students to enlist, to shut their books and fight for “blood, loyalty, and honour”.

After the end of World War 2 in 1945, De Vleeschauwer was tried for war crimes. The charges included his role as a propagandist of national socialism and collaboration with the enemy during the Nazi occupation. On January 30, 1946, the Belgian Military Court sentenced him to death in absentia, as he was in hiding at the time. It was later alleged that De Vleeschauwer set fire to education ministry buildings in Brussels in 1947, a fire that killed 18 people, as well as destroying compromising films and archives. This charge was never proved.

In the same year, De Vleeschauwer left for Switzerland using a false identity. “He had left behind his entire family in Belgium,” says Dick, “and struck up an intriguing relationship with the younger secretary-general of the Belgian Federation of University students, Ms Henriette Vandevoorde.” She facilitated the removal of his book collection to Switzerland.

De Vleeschauwer began writing to South African academics shortly after the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. Indicating he was looking for job opportunities, De Vleeschauwer “listed among his skills and qualifications that his studies in the great libraries of Europe had given him vast experience with handling documents and archival material”.

These letters were passed on to Professor C.H. Rautenbach, principal of the University of Pretoria, who, impressed by what he read, asked Dr P.C. Coetzee, the university librarian, to get in touch with De Vleeschauwer regarding an appointment at the Merensky Library.

Vandevoorde, who De Vleeschauwer described as a distant relative “who had saved his life during the last months of bombardment of the war”, accompanied him to South Africa. The couple arrived in February 1950, shortly before De Vleeschauwer took up his post at the Merensky Library. At the time, he was using the name Herman de Villiers. “[He] used this name for the first couple of years in his correspondence with European friends and relatives as another precaution to hide his true identity and whereabouts in South Africa.”

The pseudonym had been suggested by Coetzee, with whom De Vleeschauwer became a close friend. Clearly the academic authorities knew of De Vleeschauwer’s problematic past. They also groomed him for greater things. In 1951, he was appointed to the University of South Africa (Unisa). He headed the Department of Philosophy from 1951 to 1964 and the Department of Librarianship and Bibliography from 1955 to 1965, occupying the chairs in both disciplines simultaneously. For a short period, he was also head of the Department of Romance Languages. “His study guides on book and library history were the first of their kind in South Africa,” says Dick, “and he was the founding editor of Mousaion.”

De Vleeschauwer also frequently wrote for Afrikaans newspapers, “ardently advocating the nationalist cause”.

Occasionally, De Vleeschauwer’s past showed signs of catching up with him, but when other Belgian immigrants drew attention to it, he quickly branded them as communists. “He had friends in the apartheid government and the South African security police harassed his accusers,” says Dick. “Belgian academics Wilfried de Pauw and Maria Hugo were casualties of De Vleeschauwer’s smear campaign. It became difficult for them to find work in Pretoria.”

De Vleeschauwer retired in 1964 and Unisa conferred an honorary doctorate on him in 1973. He died on August 16, 1986. In accordance with his will, his book collection was donated to the H.F. Verwoerd Library of the Rand Afrikaans University. “The De Vleeschauwer Collection, housed in the rare book section of the University of Johannesburg Library, consists mainly of books on philosophy,” says Dick.

Many of these books are in Latin and French, and include a 1645 first edition of H. Grotius’s Dissertationes de studiis instituendis. “A striking feature of De Vleeschauwer’s library collection is the mysterious removal by cutting or erasure of ownership markings and names in many of the books,” says Dick.

This was first noticed when the books were catalogued, but no further inquiry was made. “Further research points to more disturbing motives,” says Dick. “De Vleeschauwer had a record of book theft.”

In 1944, military police found 35 books belonging to the University of Ghent’s Central Library when they came to De Vleeschauwer’s home with a search warrant. But more sinister was the fact that in October 1940, De Vleeschauwer was appointed to a book selection commission by the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR) with a “special responsibility for philosophy books”.

The ERR was a Nazi organisation led by Alfred Rosenberg, Adolf Hitler’s deputy responsible for the ideological training of party members. “The work of the ERR was to confiscate archives, libraries and works of art from the ideological enemies of Nazism,” says Dick. “It was the most productive unit of plunder in Belgium, and was directed by archivists, librarians and museum curators.” Jewish homes were among those targeted.

“De Vleeschauwer was well-placed as the minister of education and ERR member to cherry-pick the philosophy books he wanted for his personal library. Many of these looted books are in the De Vleeschauwer collection and they can be recognised by the excisions of ownership markings.

“The recent restitution of Belgian archives from Russia included the return of books to Belgium, but many remain untraced. They lie hidden in the personal libraries of ERR collaborators like De Vleeschauwer.”

•The Hidden History of South Africa’s Book and Reading Cultures by Archie L. Dick is published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. This article also quotes from “Scholarship, identity and lies: the political life of H.J. de Vleeschauwer, 1940-1955”, by Archie L. Dick and published in Kleio, 34, 2002.

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