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Fort Breendonk

Fort Breendonk

The Hell of Breendonk

To defend the nation against foreign attacks, a series of forts were built around Antwerp, Liège and Namur from the end of the nineteenth century. For example, the Defense Line of Antwerp consisted of sixteen larger strongholds in a wide circle around the city, including Fort Breendonk.

The structural work took place from 1909 to 1912. To build the fort, the contractor used no less than 41,000 m³ of concrete. Just a few years later, the First World War broke out.

The forts around Antwerp were immediately fired upon, but Breendonk held out for days. The fort did not surrender until October 8, 1914. Thanks to the German delay, the Belgian army and King Albert I managed to leave Antwerp and withdraw behind the Yser.

Prison camp

At the start of the Second World War, Fort Breendonk was declared the headquarters of the Belgian army. That is why King Leopold III took up residence there from May 9 to 18, 1940. However, after Belgium surrendered, the SS (Schutzstaffel) took over the fort.

The SS was a paramilitary organization within the German Nazi Party and used the fortress as a transit camp and prison for political prisoners. Between September 1940 and August 1944, 3,600 political prisoners disappeared behind bars in Breendonk.

Torture and humiliation

Upon arrival, prisoners were locked up with others in tiny 'Eternal Night Cells', rooms without light or air. After a few days, interrogations followed in which torture, humiliation and beatings were the rule rather than the exception.

Those who ended up in Breendonk were, over time, deported to concentration camps abroad such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dora, Sachsenhausen,...

Transit camp

In other words, Breendonk became a transit camp, a temporary holding place for the enemies of the German Empire. There is a train wagon at the fort in which prisoners were sometimes taken thousands of miles away.

Death sentence 

However, not everyone survived the passage through Breendonk. At least a hundred prisoners died in Breendonk as a result of malnutrition, forced labor or abuse. Several hundred more were executed or hanged. 

For those who ultimately ended up in a concentration camp, the nightmare continued. Only half of the prisoners brought into Breendonk survived the Second World War.

On September 4, 1944, during the liberation, the British found an eerily empty camp and gave the press a look behind the scenes: 'The place where all humanity was banished', the newspaper reports said. 'A disgrace to civilization. One feels shock, horror and horror at everything that happens there; for the horrific suffering that people caused people to endure.'

Bailey Bridge

The Allies built a bailey bridge above the moat around the fort to facilitate access. The raft bridge remains there to this day.

Monument to the horrors of war

After the Second World War, resistance fighters locked hundreds of collaborators in this hell. It was not until the summer of 1947 that Fort Breendonk closed its doors as a prison for good and was declared a monument to the horrors of war.

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