From fort to prison camp
The Fort of Breendonk (initially Fort of Willebroek) was created at the beginning of the 20th century as part of the outer ring of defence around the National Fortress of Antwerp. During the First World War it was heavily shelled from 1 to 8 October 1914 and surrounded from the east by German troops. Eventually it has to surrender as one of the last forts around Antwerp, after which Antwerp is taken by the Germans.
In the interbellum period (the period between the two World Wars), the fortress remained a military stronghold. At the beginning of the Second World War, King Leopold III took up residence there from 9 to 18 May 1940. From then on, it served as the Belgian army’s headquarters for its general staff.
Despite its long history and role in the Great War, the fortress of Breendonk became known above all for its use by the German occupier as “SS-Auffanglager Breendonk”: a Nazi prison where, from September 1940 to August 1944, some 3 600 people of around 20 nationalities – Jews, but mainly political prisoners – were held, in most cases without any form of trial, in an arbitrary form of so-called “Schutzhaft” (= secured custody).
The regime that emerged in Breendonk was unusually harsh: from the moment they arrived in the camp, prisoners were subjected to humiliation, beatings, forced labour, malnutrition and torture, both by the German guards and SS men and by their Flemish counterparts. A disadvantage here is the small scale of the Auffanglager: the number of prisoners would never exceed 6 to 700. The combination with a relatively heavy guard made every moment of imprisonment a hellish ordeal. After a while, many of the prisoners at Breendonk were deported to other camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dora, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Vught, etc. Breendonk then became a “Durchgangslager” (transit camp), intended for the temporary internment of “Reichsfeindliche Elementen” (Reich enemy elements), pending their transport abroad.
Only about half of all prisoners survived the war. In Breendonk at least 101 people died from malnutrition, ill-treatment or forced labour. Several hundred prisoners were hanged or executed in Breendonk itself, usually as hostages.
From prison camp to memorial
On 4 September 1944, during the liberation, the British found an empty camp. They temporarily put German prisoners of war there. Soon afterwards, the former fortress was used again as a camp: resistance fighters (whether suspected or not) locked up (whether suspected or not) collaborators there. In this period too, historically known as Breendonk II, the guards indulged in excesses. On 11 October 1944 Breendonk was evacuated. The last ‘incivilities’ were transferred to Mechelen. The fortress became an official prison of the Belgian state, which definitively closed its doors on 17 June 1947.
The former prisoners do everything in their power to ensure that what happened within the walls of the Fort of Breendonk during the Second World War is never forgotten. On 30 August, the site was declared a National Memorial of the Fort of Breendonk. Today Breendonk is one of the best preserved camps in Europe and is part of the War Heritage Institute.