From fort to prison camp
Fort Breendonk dates back to the beginning of the 20th century. The armoured concrete fortress is part of a defensive belt circling the strategic port of Antwerp. From 1 to 8 October 1914, during the First World War, it is heavily shelled and surrounded by German troops. It eventually surrenders as one of the last forts protecting Antwerp, leaving the latter to fall in German hands.
Between the two world wars the Fort remains a military quarter. When the Second World War breaks out, Leopold III, King of the Belgians, takes up residence in the building from 9 to 18 May 1940. The Fort then becomes the headquarters of the Belgian armed forces’ General Staff.
The Second World War supplies Fort Breendonk with its gruesome reputation. The German occupiers set up an “Auffanglager”, a prison used as a reception camp for mainly political prisoners. From September 1940 to August 1944, the SIPO-SD or SS police uses the venue to imprison some 3,600 people of about 20 different nationalities.
In the first year of occupation about half of the prisoners are Jews. Most of them disappear from Breendonk in 1942, when the German occupiers start using the Dossin Barracks in Mechelen as a “Sammellager”, a collection camp from which Jews, Roma and Sinti are deported to concentration camps.
The Breendonk regime is extremely violent. Prisoners are subjected to humiliation, beatings, forced labour, malnutrition and torture from the get-go. A disadvantage is the Auffanglager’s small scale: as the number of prisoners never exceeds 6 to 700, it is next to impossible to escape the attention of the German or Flemish guards, if only for a moment. Disappearing in the crowd, as can be done in large camps, is not possible in Breendonk.
Over time, many Breendonk prisoners are deported to other camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dora, Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Vught, etc. Breendonk then becomes a “Durchgangslager” (transit camp), intended for the temporary internment of “Reichsfeindliche Elementen” (enemies of the Reich), pending their deportation.
Only about half of the prisoners survive the war. At least 101 people die from malnutrition, ill treatment or forced labour at Breendonk. Several hundred prisoners are hanged or executed at the Fort, usually as hostages.
From prison camp to memorial
On 4 September 1944, during liberation, the British come upon an abandoned camp. They temporarily use it as a German PoW facility. Soon afterwards, the Fort is once again used as a camp, in which resistance fighters imprison some 750 alleged collaborators over the following weeks. In this period, historically known as “Breendonk II”, the guards indulge in excesses as well. On 11 October 1944 Breendonk is evacuated. The last “incivics” are transferred to Mechelen. The Fort becomes an official Belgian State prison and definitively closes its doors on 17 June 1947.
Immediately after the war, voices are raised in favour of turning Breendonk into a museum, a place of pilgrimage or a monument. In the summer of 1947 the site is declared a National Memorial. Today Breendonk is one of the best-preserved camps in Europe and part of the War Heritage Institute.