Tag Archives: Second World War

The many sides of Belgium’s legal history

Banner Digithemis

In the ocean of legal websites you encounter very different sites. There are relatively few attempts at creating portals. When I saw the Digithemis portal for Belgian legal history and discovered its qualities it was only a matter of time before I would write about it here. Digithemis has been created by the Centre d’Histoire du Droit et de la Justice, Université Catholique Louvain-la-Neuve. Currently there is no portal site for Dutch legal history, and thus there is every reason, not only for Dutchmen, to look at this website. It might well inspire scholars in other countries, too.

Simple layout and rich contents

Logo CHDJ, Univers't Catholique, Louvain-la-Neuve

One of the powerful aspects of this website is its simple layout, with an implicit promise you will not get lost here. The subtitle Système numérique d’information historique sur la Justice is best translated as “digital system for historical information about justice”. Under the first heading Applications three databases are presented. The first, Belgian Magistrates, is concerned with officials in the Belgian judicial system. The database contains personal information, details about nominations, jurisdictions and institutions. Cubes, the second database, gives you judicial statistics, information about the number of cases and given verdicts in Belgian courts of justice. As a matter of fact I was hunting for websites with historical statistics when I ran into Digithemis. The third section brings us a bibliographical database for Belgium’s legal history. The database is the fruit of cooperation between the CHDJ at Louvain-la-Neuve and the project BeJust 2.0 – Justice et Populations.

In the second section, Ressources documentaires, you will find four subjects: legislation, doctrine, jurisprudence, and surprisingly again judicial statistics. Under Legislation you can find the French versions of the various codes of Belgian law, bulletins of the Ministry of Justice (circulaires), legislation concerning the judicial structure of Belgium, and a similar section for Congo during the colonial period. For doctrine you can look at a number of legal journals, at mercuriales, discourses pronounced at the start of the judicial season by the attorneys general, and there is a bibliographical database for criminology with some 8,500 entries. The corner with jurisprudence seemed at first straightforward: for arrêts of the Cour de cassation between 1832 and 1936 you can consult the Pasicrisie, alas currently not available, and for the period 1937-2011 there is a similar site, but here I can see only verdicts between 2002 and 2015. A very much contested period in Belgium’s history comes up with the online version of La jurisprudence belge depuis le 10 mai 1940The section for judicial statistics is enhanced by a historical overview and a concise bibliography.

The section Expositions virtuelles contains two virtual exhibits. The first, Classified, looks at Belgian military intelligence forces. The second one, Mots de la Justice [Words of Justice] is concerned with images and imagery of law and justice. The accompanying congress in Bruges earlier this year has figured on this blog at the time the bilingual catalogue was published.

The next stop of this tour are the contributions, As for now there are only two scholarly articles. The Lignes de temps interactives show interactive timelines for three subjects, women and legal professions, the Belgian judicial organisation, and the jury d’assises. In particular the timeline for women in the legal profession is telling. Ten short videos with presentations in French and Dutch about recent research are the last element of this section.

Logo BeJust 2.0

Finally the links section of this website confirms its claim to be a portal for legal history. The concise choise of links concerns Belgium, France, digital resources, and some Transatlantic websites and projects. In the right sidebar you can browse for interesting items in a RSS feed. This portal does build on other major projects in Belgium, starting with BeJust 2.0. Other portals often have an events calendar, but it seems Françoise Muller and Xavier Rousseaux wisely have built a compact portal with space for future extensions. The footer of the portal mentions the 2016 prize of the Fonds Wernaers awarded by the Fonds National de la Recherche Scientifique (FNRS) for the best scientific website.

More statistics

Logo Lokstat

I found the attention to statistics a strong feature of this portal. I could not help noticing that it might be useful to add a more general website for Belgian statistics to this portal. The University Ghent has created the Lokstat project, an abbreviation of Lokale statistieken, local statistics. This project currently offers local statistics taken from the 1900 census in Belgium, with additionally an agricultural census from 1895 and an industry census from 1896, this one accompanied with maps. It would be interesting to combine these data with judicial statistics.

As a Dutchman admiring these efforts of a neighbour country I have not yet found similar Dutch judicial statistics at a special platform. The Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (CBS) has made a fine website for Dutch Censuses 1795-1971, accessible in Dutch and English. At CBS Historische Collectie you can consult digitized reports from almost two centuries. For the field of law and justice there are mainly reports from the second half of the twentieth century, for example prison statistics (1950-2000), crimes between 1950 and 1981, juvenile criminality (1974-1981) and crime victims (1980-1984). A quick look at general publications since 1813 in this digital collection shows judicial statistics were part and parcel of the yearly overviews. For four Dutch provinces there are yearbooks since the 1840’s (Provinciale verslagen).

It is not because you find everything at particular websites, but because they help you to look further, to value information, to think about problems you want to study or to contact scholars or read their work, that portals such as Digithemis deserve a warm welcome and attentive followers. Digithemis should serve as an invitation for the creation of similar portals for other countries and regions, too.

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Facing the past

Jede Epoche ist unmittelbar zu Gott, every period is for God at the same distance. This dictum by Leopold van Ranke has often been used to harshly criticize and ridicule his views. It has definitely harmed his reputation. How close are historical periods to a historian? Are some periods not closer to them because of a familiarity fostered by years of research? Are some periods not much farther away from us because we do not readily respond to them? Specialisation can be a hindrance to perceive other subjects, periods and approaches. Historians have to face the temptation to behave like Gods at a safe distance, with the ultimate view and judgment of history and people. Doing academic history is not always and automatically a safeguard against bias and prejudice, but it definitely can help preventing the worst excesses.

A few weeks ago Eric Hennekam, a Dutch archivist who devotes much time to his blog, a website with news on archives and several other online activities including Twitter, almost lamented the launch of www.tweedewereldoorlog.nl, a new Dutch portal about the Second World War. Again a website on this period! At first I intended to share his view, but after visiting this portal I changed my mind. I am afraid I am a medievalist, with admittedly knowledge of and interests in other periods and subjects, but there’s no undoing my focus on medieval history. I have my copy of the multi-volume official history of The Netherlands during the Second World War by Lou de Jong, but apart from that I have only a few books on this period. The services of a portal which leads you to both written and audiovisual sources, to both educational resources and research institutes, can be really useful. Combining the strengths of the National Institute for War Documentation (NIOD), the audiovisual archives of the Dutch broadcasting organizations and other institutes is not in itself a bad idea. The use of the term erfgoed, “heritage”, on this portal is probably more alarming. It points to the different perceptions and representations of history which can lead you away from a more distanced way of doing history.

It is now four weeks since the appearance of a new study on the role and behavior of Dutch barristers during the Second World War by Joggli Meihuizen, Smalle marges. De Nederlandse advocatuur tijdens de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Amsterdam: Boom, 2010). Meihuizen is a researcher at the NIOD. The research for this study was supported by the Dutch Bar Association. The reactions on Sans égards, a study published in 2007 by Meihuizen on Adriaan Pitlo, a famous law professor at the University of Amsterdam, and his behavior towards Carel Polak, a Jewish lawyer, during and after the Second World War, contain for me the warning to keep here a safe distance. In Dutch historiography about the Second World War much stress has been put on the discernment between morally justifiable and immoral behavior. In 1983 former NIOD director Hans Blom gave his inaugural lecture at Amsterdam University the title In de ban van goed en fout? (Enthralled by good or wrong?). Chris van der Heijden’s Grijs verleden: Nederland en de Tweede Wereldoorlog (Grey past: Holland and the Second World War) (Amsterdam 2001) was often seen by the general public as a defamation of historical truth.

Using words as accomodation, indicating the many hues and grey zones, is difficult to swallow when this does not seem to fit in with one’s own recollections of the war period. Few things are probably more confronting than comparing your own memories with more general views of any event: your own view might appear to be biased, you might have created your vision of things, others might have a very different view of affairs. Things are perhaps made more heavy for Dutch people because of the sheer impact of the first war on Dutch territory since 1813. The Second World War has become The War. However, it is normal for historians to distinguish between continuity and change, and it is perfectly sensible to look for both also when studying the Second World War. Two generations after the end of this terrible war it is still living memory, a period to which people are sensitive.

The Dutch Bar Association wanted the NIOD to do research on Dutch barristers precisely because of the diminishing powers of memory, the small number of lawyers still living who were practising at the bar in these years, and because archival records about barristers are relatively scarce and difficult to trace, and finally to break the silence and to penetrate the mists of time. Meihuizen entitled his study Narrow margins. How much scope for behaving differently actually existed? How much scope could one perceive? Only after reading his study carefully one can say whether he has succeeded in bringing to light in a valid and consistent way the officium nobile during a most challenging period. What can we really ascertain at this distance in time, with the particular difficulties of the sources used, with due respect to the people living in a period where angels fear to tread? Facing the questions of war in the midst of a war is different from looking at it from a safe distance in time or place. I have no idea of my own response to such challenging situations.

As for portals on particular historical periods, some periods are indeed almost hidden behind portals and websites, others suffer from unjust neglect by the world of virtual access to information. Bringing together information, giving judicious comments on websites, and pointing to easily overlooked information available online, is really important.