Remembering Belgian PM flight from Barcelona's most luxurious hotel during WWII
PM Pierlot and EU's founding father Spaak took refuge from the Nazis in the Catalan capital
Eighty-three years ago, a significant flight took place in Barcelona's Majestic Hotel, an event that marked Belgium and Europe's history.
The Belgian Prime Minister of the time, Hubert Pierlot, and the Belgian Foreign Affairs Minister, Paul-Henri Spaak, stayed in the Catalan capital for several weeks in 1940. They were two politicians of great importance in the 20th century, both in Belgium and across Europe.
"If Pierlot and Spaak had not come here, to Barcelona, we do not know what repercussions it would have had on Belgium or Europe. But we know that German repression was lurking," Pierre-Emmanuel Brusselmans, the Belgian consul in Barcelona, explains to Catalan News.
Spaak, who later became the Belgian Prime Minister, was one of the founding fathers of the European Union and the first chairman of the first session of the General Assembly of the newly founded United Nations.
Pierlot and Spaak fleeing the Nazis in 1940 was, and still is, of great importance to Belgian and European democracy in the World War II and fascism context that the world was living at that moment.
Pierlot and Spaak's odyssey
After Belgium was invaded by the Nazis on May 10, 1940, politicians were forced to escape the country. Hubert Pierlot and Paul-Henri Spaak fled occupied Belgium through France and headed towards Spain, with the aim of getting to Lisbon and then flying to London, their final destination.
In England, their aim was to establish a Belgian government in exile.
But once Hubert Pierlot and Paul-Henri Spaak arrived at the Spanish border, journalist and historian Lluís Permanyer explains, they were arrested and put under constant surveillance by two Spanish policeman, first in Girona and then in Barcelona, as they waited for their visas.
During their time in the Catalan capital, they stayed in Barcelona's Hotel Majestic, one of the most luxurious hotels in the city.
But in mid-September of 1940, the Belgian consul in Barcelona at the time, Marc Jottard, who had already been helping the ministers since their arrival in Catalonia, began to organize an escape plan for them to leave Spain. He worried for their safety after seeing the state of the situation: Catalan president Lluís Companys had been executed by the dictator Francisco Franco regime and a Barcelona visit by Nazi leader Heinrich Himmler was scheduled for October 23.
The Belgian ministers' escape began on October 19.
With the help of the hotel’s staff, and after sneaking past Spanish police guards who were distracted by a football match, the ministers managed to get to a car where a hidden compartment was created for both of them. Twenty-three hours later, and without any stops on the way, they arrived in Portugal.
When two policemen went to the Hotel Majestic to check on them the next morning, as was routine, they did not find either Hubert Pierlot or Paul-Henri Spaak. They were already on their way to exile.
Honoring the event, 83 years later
Now, the hotel where Pierlot and Spaak stayed in 1940 has a commemorative plaque dedicated to their "courage and that of others that led to their escape," which was re-inaugurated at an event on Wednesday October 18 after the hotel's remodeling.
At the Hotel Majestic’s event, the honorary ambassador of Belgium Philippe Jottard and the Belgian consul in Barcelona Pierre-Emmanuel Brusselmans talked about the importance of the leaders honored.
"The invasion of Belgium, plus Spaak's escape and his time in the UK really changed the minister's mindset about the development of his international career after the war and the path Europe should take," Brusselmans explained to Catalan News.
Paul-Henri Spaak, who came from a familiy of politicians and whose mother was the first woman to enter the Belgian Senate, built a "united and supranational Europe that was needed at the moment, a post-war alliance to guarantee peace and stability," Jottard said.
Brusselmans also took the opportunity to talk about the Belgian presidency of the EU that will begin on January 1, 2024, once Spain’s presidency ends at the end of this year.
He emphasized that Belgium plans to continue with its pro-European compromise since the end of World War II to "strengthen the EU and further defend its values."