Today's post is by Sophie De Schaepdrijver, Associate Professor of History at Penn State University, USA and author of Bloomsbury book Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War.
Earlier this week, in Brussels, six men stood trial for having, last June, badly beaten a homeless Polish man on Luxembourg Square (which, in sad irony, sits smack in the city’s “European quarter”). The men belong to the movement Nation, which vows to fight the “invasion” of Belgium by immigrants. On this year’s Armistice Day, Nation held a demonstration at a symbolic locus – the monument in the city of Tournai commemorating the Belgian First World War heroine Gabrielle Petit (1893-1916).  Petit was a resistance agent; she worked for British secret intelligence and was shot by a German firing squad in Brussels at the age of 23.
Nation’s demonstration at Petit’s monument is a weird and wretched addition to the memory of a young woman who was hailed as Belgium’s “national heroine” in the interwar years (by both Flemings and French-speakers, one notes) and who remained an emblem of civilian resistance during the Nazi occupation, but whose name faded from the nineteen-sixties onward, together with the very idea of a Belgian national narrative. It is not the first time Petit’s memory is usurped by the extreme right. In the nineteen-thirties, Fascist leader Léon Degrelle enjoined fellow Belgians to look to her to bolster national pride. In real life, of course, Degrelle would have had no time for the likes of Petit – a bruised, fiercely intelligent young woman who, before the war, eked out a living on the precarious edges of belle époque Brussels’ service-job market. She lived in the low-rent section of Molenbeek, today home largely to Muslim Belgians; when rent money was lacking, she slept rough - like the Polish victim of Nation’s bruisers.
Nation’s defense of violent bullying by reference to the memory of someone who had stood up to overwhelming power is, of course, spectacularly inappropriate, as the journalist Marc Metdepenningen wrote on Wednesday in the Belgian daily Le Soir. In reaction, Belgium’s National Federation of Combatants has vowed next year to suitably celebrate the centenary of Petit’s death, at that same Tournai monument, on April 1, 2016. (Yes, she was shot on the day of pranks – quite possibly as a deliberate humiliation. But that’s another story.)
This coming celebration will be, as the expression goes, a Good Thing. For Petit’s monument in Tournai stands a bit forlorn today: its passionate intensity is out of tune with its dejected surroundings – this is a place where men can be found at 10 a.m., slouching on the benches beneath the monument, drinking beer from cans and holding very large dogs on leashes. The defense of Petit’s memory might, however briefly, bring back some spark; it might infuse public space with a European narrative appropriate to the memory of the girl who, shortly before her death, wrote to her German guardian in prison that after the war they should be friends.
 Marc Metdepenningen, “Six paumés, victimes de Nation,” Le Soir, December 16, 2015, p. 10. I thank my colleague Stefan Moens of Erasmus Hogeschool in Brussels for alerting me to this article.
 In the UK, the Allied Special Forces Association and the Escape Lines Memorial Society plan a commemoration of their own at Garden 1, which remembers Special Operations agents: https://www.memorialgrove.org.uk/garden1.htm In Belgium, the Senate plans a commemoration on March 23, 2016.
Gabrielle Petit: The Death and Life of a Female Spy in the First World War was published in the UK and USA in January 2015 and is available to buy via the Bloomsbury website - please click here for more information.