BREENDONK, Belgium — SS guard Fernand Wyss had a particular greeting for new inmates at the Breendonk concentration camp: “This is Hell and I am the Devil.” He was no idle boaster. During Wyss’ years at the camp north of Brussels, the burly former boxer earned a reputation for beating, torture and murder of prisoners. Wyss was not, however, one of the black-uniformed Germans who supervised Breendonk. He was Belgian, a compatriot of most of the 3,500 prisoners sent to suffer and die in the grim former fortress between 1940 and 1944. Some 400,000 Belgians were charged with collaboration with the Nazi occupiers after the country was liberated in 1944. Some, like Wyss, were executed. Others were jailed, fined or deprived of their civil rights. Seventy years on, that legacy of collaboration has become the latest battlefield between Belgium’s deeply divided French- and Dutch-speaking politicians. Political wrangling between the two linguistic groups has left Belgium without a fully functioning government for a year, since elections on June 13, 2010. Now relations have been further strained by a bill presented in parliament by a Flemish nationalist party that seeks an amnesty for surviving Nazi collaborators and compensation for their descendants. Previously such proposals have been rejected out of hand, but this year, with the country deadlocked by the linguistic dispute, mainstream Flemish parties from the Dutch-speaking north have used their majority in the upper-house of parliament to ensure that the bill will be debated.

“At a certain moment, we have to be adult and be ready to discuss these things and perhaps also to forget because it’s the past,” said Justice Minister Stefaan De Clerck, from the center-right Christian-Democratic and Flemish party. “We have to forget certain things, that’s necessary to re-establish society.” Flemish support for the amnesty debate, along with the minster’s comments, has provoked outrage among French-speaking politicians and Jewish groups in Belgium. “For us in the Jewish community, like for the veterans of resistance movements and the former deportees, their can be no question of an amnesty. Our answer is: no, no and no, in any language,” said Henri Benkoski, first vice president of the Coordination Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium.“It really worries and disappoints us that these big parties have done this for electoral reasons, playing one-upmanship with the nationalists. It’s astonishing and shocking,” he told GlobalPost. During World War II, thousands of Dutch-speaking Flemings and French-speaking Walloons risked their lives fighting with the resistance against the Nazi occupation of Belgium. However, others on both sides of the linguistic divide worked with the Nazis. Historian Chantal Kesteloot says those found guilty of collaboration totalled less than 1 percent of population.