The fire at the Palais de Justice on 3 September 1944 remains one of the key moments of the Liberation of Brussels. In collective memory, this arson further fueled hatred for the occupier. Was the fire the final, desperate act of an occupying regime wildly lashing out in its death throes or was it a symbol of Belgium’s regained liberty?
On 1 September, 200 to 250 German soldiers occupied the Palais de Justice. The furniture in seven courtrooms was removed. As indicated in the report of the “Commission du Palais de Justice”, machine guns were positioned with Poelaert Square in their sights. On 3 September, more than half of the soldiers left the area. Only a few hundred remained and they began making preparations to blow up the dome crowning the edifice. Was their aim to destroy documents or the technical equipment installed in the dome? It remains a mystery to this day. By the end of August, the Germans had already burned numerous files in the Finance Department and at the Palais de Justice. Explosive charges were placed outside the dome and ammunition stored in the basements. An explosion was heard around 5 p.m. It caused significant damage to the clerk’s office of the Commercial Court, the Court of Assizes, the library,… Furniture was destroyed, paintings and tapestries burned. The dome collapsed. The staff who had remained on site tried to save what they could. Several firefighters were injured. On 4 September, smoke was still billowing from the hole in roof and was visible for miles around.
The people of Brussels learned of the devastation and flocked to the Palais de Justice. Legend has it that they saved the archives, but cases of wine and liquor stored by the Germans were also removed. Some of those present even mentioned witnessing scenes of looting. In any case, the fire would be remembered for many years to come.
With the help of Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles and in partnership with CEGE-SOMA.
On 13 July 1944, the military administration which had been in place since 28 May 1940 and headed by General von Falkenhausen was replaced by a civilian administration under the authority of the SS. This change came about at the behest of the Führer, who considered the military administration too lax in its fight against the resistance.