Today, for the second day in a row, I had the privilege of hosting to lunch a venerable Belgian. Yesterday it was my father-in-law, Jacques Vandamme, a lifelong European militant who, at the ripe old age of 87, is still busy with various academic activities related to European integration. Today, it was a former President of the EESC (1986-1988), Fons Margot who, at the even riper old age of 89, jokingly described Jacques Vandamme as a ‘youngster’ (they have known each other for a long time). In both cases, apart from the sprightly lucidity and intellectual vivacity, what always strikes me with such Belgian Europeans is the degree of knowledge they have about political and economic developments in neighbouring countries. Both Jacques and Fons are following the British General Election campaign closely, but they also spoke knowledgeably about French and German current affairs. I suppose one could explain this by observing that Belgians have traditionally had to notice what was going on around them but, still, they put us all to shame. A British, French or German citizen of a similar age and position would surely not be so knowledgeably aware or interested in the current affairs of neighbouring countries. Fons Margot has led a rich, full and fascinating life. It is also a typically European life and, if I get the chance, I am going to write up my recollections of what I learnt over the lunch, for his story deserves, I believe, to be recorded and better known. Wonderfully, Fons is currently writing his autobiography. The working title is Peace in times of war. When I have written up my notes (see, in due course, ‘read the rest of this entry’), you will be able to see why.
Fons Margot was born on 21st July 1921 in Bruges. His father fought and was wounded during the Great War. His father’s brother, Alfons, died at Ypres. Fons was named after him. His father was caught and spent time as a prisoner-of-war near Berlin. His brother, Alfons, was befriended by a French family in Dieppe, who acted almost like god parents to him. Their family, meanwhile, had moved to Steenkerke, a village in Belgian Hainaut, where the women were put to work in a quarry. The two brothers wrote to each other, from Berlin to Dieppe and vice-versa, and they always finished their letters by writing ‘see you in Steenkerke’ (‘Tot ziens in Steenkerke’, in Flemish). Years later, Fons edited this correspondence into a book, (Fons MARGOT, Tot ziens in Steenkerke, (J. Margot, Dilbeek, 1998).
As the oldest of seven children, Fons was not drafted into the Belgian military when Germany invaded in 1939. Instead, he worked in a factory near Bruges. One day he was approached by a person who, it later transpired, worked for the exiled Belgian intelligence service. This person was known to Fons – he had been in the same school, though several years above Fons. He asked about the factory Fons worked in. ‘We have heard you are making tanks,’ said the man. Fons explained to him that they were making tanks to transport liquids. A conversation ensued and the man, discovering that he had a friend who worked in the Belgian cartographic service in Boisfort, asked him whether he could procure maps of West Flanders. These were military secrets. Nevertheless, Fons decided to try. His friend duly stole the maps, threw them out of the office window, walked through the security checks and then picked up the maps and handed them over to Fons. Possessing such maps was a crime and there were regular checks and searches on Belgian trains. Fons invented an elaborate story that he was organising a game for Boy Scouts and put the maps among his invented papers. Fortunately, there were no checks and he was able to make it back to Bruges and hand over the maps to his contact. Thereafter, he worked for the Belgian secret service throughout the war, smuggling drawings of defence installations as they were being built on the coast to the resistance. (One of his contacts was a builder who shifted from building site to building site as the defence installations were completed.) By chance, many years later he found a reproduction of one of his own drawings, of defence installations at Zeebrugge, in a book entitled The Secret War.
Despite the tradition that the oldest child of families of seven did not have to do military service, immediately after the war the Belgian government made an exception for those born in 1921 and Margot was drafted. Since he was drafted and had not volunteered, he had to serve as a lowly fusilier. As a former member of the intelligence service, his first job was to stop many of his fellow intelligence service members from attack and imprisonment or worse. Many of them were suspected collaborators (in fact, they had been double agents). They could not prove that they had served in the intelligence service. Margot had to intervene on their behalf.
His second job was guarding a prisoner-of-war camp in Overijse, where over 60,000 German, and other, prisoners had been housed in a tent city. The prisoners included Hungarians and Romanians. The Romanians were German-speaking Lutherans who came from a region a little like Flanders. Historically-speaking, this region had been less populous and the Pope was asked to provide twenty families to people the area. In the end it was the Bishop of Trier/Trèves who sent the families, including some from Flanders and German-speaking families from around Trier who spoke a German similar to Letzburgish. Fons became good friends with one of these Romanians. As a young boy he had said ‘When I grow up I’ll go to Flanders. My origin is there.’
After his service, Fons saw an advertisement in an English newspaper, The Catholic Herald, about a Prisoner-of-War Assistance Society. He contacted them (it was run by one English woman, Mary Foss, and one Irish woman) with a view to helping those, like his Romanian friend, in difficult circumstances. Fons cited the case of a Dutch farmer in a border region who had been drafted into the German Army and who wanted to return to the Netherlands afterwards (he was regarded locally as a collaborator) and a Lithuanian farmer who was trying to flee Russian occupation. It is because of such experiences that he has decided to write his Memoir, Peace in Times of War.
Fons Margot volunteered for a position with an organisation representing small and medium-sized enterprises in Flanders. The organisation had few resources. It organised a lottery to pay him. One month he was paid his salary in the form of a mattress. Gradually, the organisation grew and Margot looked after their communication activities. He was offered a chance to become an MP for Bruges, but he preferred journalism. He came to Brussels as head of the press for his organisation. He also wrote a weekly column (over 2,000 of them in the end). He became increasingly interested in European affairs. As a native of Bruges, he was involved in the creation of the College of Europe.
He joined the EESC as a member of Group III in 1972. He served in various capacities, including Committee Vice-President, and then in 1986 was elected President. Since he left the Committee he has been an active member of the Association of Former Members of the Committee and was the Association’s President for ten years.
His advice, as a former President, to me, as Secretary General: Listen to the members. There is always something right in what they say. And don’t be too rigid in the positions you adopt.
Many years later a friend was driving him around Kent. They came to East Grinstead. Margot realised that this was where Mary Foss had lived. They saw a lady in a street, stopped and asked her if she knew where Mary Foss lived. ‘I am Mary Foss,’ she replied.
Post script: A Romanian reader has sent me the following additional information:
I was impressed by the accuracy you had describing the German community from Romania. A few years ago Sibiu (Hermannstadt) http://www.turism.sibiu.ro/index_en.php was European Capital of Culture jointly with Luxembourg. When meeting, the two delegations found out astonishingly that they spoke still the same dialect! Why astonishingly: because there were also German settlers coming from Bavaria later and in the time of Willy Brandt Ceausescu made an exchange letting go around 1 million german-speaking Romanians to Western Germany, if I understood correctly. They were a solution before the Turkish wave of workers, and therefore strong ties developed between Transylvanian Germans and Bavaria and other Lander not necessarily close to Luxembourg.
The other region with strong ties to Germany is what we call the Banat: Timisoara (the well-known revolution city) was ruled directly from Vienna not from Budapest and they managed to get privileged ties with both Austria and Bavaria with an informal traffic of cousins and forbidden items even under communism. They call themselves “fruntea” meaning “the front” of the country. Now it’s becoming a Veneto and Lombard colony with hundreds of Italian firms, fabrics of textiles and even ski slopes. http://www.restromania.com/About/RegionBanat.htm