Investigating the assassination of Julien Lahaut
by Justin Stares
Belgium is unearthing its deep, dark past with the re-opening of an investigation into the assassination of a Communist leader. PublicServiceEurope.com asks why half a million euros is to be spent tracking down the murderer of an anti-monarchist, who many feared would bring down the state more than two generations ago
Would a western European government assassinate one of the most popular politicians in the country, in a desperate attempt to ensure its own survival? Is murder justified to prevent an insurrection? Could the royal family have been involved? Investigators will have these questions on their minds when they rifle through the files of Belgium's secret services from more than 60 years ago. The search for Julien Lahaut's murderer, and more importantly for the mastermind, is now back on after the federal government in Brussels signalled its support for the re-opening of the case dating back to August 18, 1950.
When Communist leader Lahaut was gunned down in Seraing, near Liege in eastern Belgium, his party was on the verge of leading what many believed would be a popular uprising that would sweep away the ruling classes. A general strike followed his death. Hundreds of thousands attended his funeral. "He was a strong, charismatic leader who posed a threat to the powers-that-be," says Muriel Gerkens, the Belgium MP who has led the campaign for a new investigation. "We don't know, but it could be that the state or the royal family was implicated," Gerkens tells PublicServiceEurope.com.
Lahaut opposed the post-Second World War return of the Belgian monarchy, which had been tainted by its association with Germany's Nazis. He is reported to have shouted "long live the republic" during the King's investiture just a week before he died, though Gerkens clarifies that this was in fact another Communist deputy. François Goossens, a Belgian royalist, claimed responsibility for the 1950 shooting, but doubts hang over his version of events. In order to get to the bottom of the mystery a team of researchers, appointed for two years, will need access to files that have remained sealed by secret services. The team may be permitted to question the few remaining survivors from that period, or the survivors' relatives, says Gerkens. While files from the royal household may also be examined, the MP believes there are unlikely to be repercussions for Albert II - the current King of the Belgians.
"We need to understand our history in order to ensure we don't make the same mistakes again," says Gerkens, when asked to justify re-opening a case that went cold several decades ago. The investigation will not come for free: €150,000 of the €440,000 total cost will be paid by Belgium's French-speaking community; around €32,000 will be funded by private individuals; while the federal government will make up the difference. "This story goes to show that you are never safe from the rise of extremist groups," says Green Party member Gerkens, whose motion to open up the files will go before parliament this autumn. She is referring to right-wing extremists, though one could conceivably argue that the same applies to left-wing extremists.
What will the new Lahaut investigation mean for today's political parties? As with all issues touching upon Belgium's fragmented political scene, it is complicated. While Socialists are currently the main coalition power - relations between socialists and communists in Belgium, as elsewhere on the continent, were over the course of the 20th century defined more by animosity than any notion of common cause. It was the Flemish Liberals who first supported the call to re-open Lahaut's case back in 2008, says Gerkens, despite there being no obvious reason for them to do so. Go figure.
Will Belgium finally get to the bottom of the case, or will nearly half a million euros go to waste? Gerkens believes the answer is certain to emerge from the secret service files. By the time the investigation is over, we should have a better notion of the lengths to which western democracies were prepared to go in the name of self-preservation. Lahaut's ghost could be laid to rest. On the other hand, his disinterment could become the harbinger of a return to Europe's darker days.