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Why is 8 May not a public holiday in Belgium?

07:19 09/05/2024

While 8 May - Victory in Europe day - is regarded as a public holiday in many other European countries, Belgium places greater significance on 11 November instead, which is the day the 1918 Armistice ending the first world war was signed.

VE Day marks the anniversary of the formal acceptance of Germany’s surrender in the second world war against the Allied forces.

Belgium used to regard this as a public holiday but stopped the formal observation in 1974, though some small ceremonies are still held.

The reason for discrepancies across Europe when it comes to the recognition of 8 May often comes down to simple economics.

“May used to have a lot of days off and as a result, economic activity slowed sharply,” said Guy Zélis, emeritus professor of history at UCLouvain.

“Economists pointed out that, in some countries that worked on 8 May in particular, GDP increased from one year to the next after the holiday had been abolished.

"The reason is also linked to the difference in commemoration in different countries: it's 8 May in France, 9 May in Russia, 5 May in the Netherlands, for example, because the territories were not liberated at the same time. So, in the end, we don't have a European celebration on the same day, but on different days.”

Belgium was liberated from the Nazis in the autumn of 1944, making the autumnal celebration of World War I’s end closer to that occasion.

“We should remember that Belgium was liberated in September 1944 and this moment of liberation has undoubtedly left more of an impression on our minds,” said Catherine Lanneau, professor of history at the University of Liège.

“For the French, 8 May remains an important moment of remembrance, of celebration of this victory over Nazism, because it was not at all certain that France would regain its aura and its place as a great power.

"So there is a very particular experience that may also explain the importance that this day retains for our neighbours."

In Belgium, the tribute ceremonies organised on 8 May are less important than those commemorating 11 November, which remains a public holiday.

“Over time, the focus has also shifted to the logic of European construction and reconciliation, which has perhaps put a dampener on the 8 May commemorations,” both historians agreed.

“But the memory of the second world war remains extremely present at various times, particularly on 6 June, the anniversary of the Normandy landings.”

The 8 May Coalition – which brings together trade unions, the French-speaking student federation and cultural and academic players – organises actions throughout the day on 8 May to commemorate the defeat of Nazi Germany.

They include a morning reading of the names of murdered members of the Resistance at the Enclos des Fusillés in Schaerbeek, a debate on fascism at the University of Namur, speeches in Liège at the Monument National de la Résistance and an anti-fascist concert in Charleroi.

The group is calling for 8 May to be reinstated as an official public holiday in the country.

“It’s a historic date,” the coalition said, adding that “today, the far right is making a comeback, first in its slippers, then with its boots on”.

This is partly why the group believes that 8 May needs to once again be used as an occasion “to remember, to warn, to defend, so that young and old can see where hatred can lead and what a filthy beast fascism is”.

An appeal on the coalition’s website says that the memory of 8 May has faded over time.

“It’s by knowing our past and remaining vigilant about our constitutional freedoms that we will be able to make the right choices today and in the future, so that this horror of history is never repeated,” the group said.

Written by Helen Lyons