Nationalizing Police Intelligence in Belgium (1918-1961): Democratization Processes and Bureaucratic Knowledge Practices

15 December 2019 → 15 March 2024
Federal funding: various
Research disciplines
  • Humanities
    • Modern and contemporary history
    • Political history
  • Social sciences
    • Police administration, procedures and practice
Social and political history public security intelligence twentieth cenury Police
Project description

The project focuses on the history of police nationalization in Belgium between 1918 and 1961. We examine how and why police centralization increased during this period, in a context of democratization and pacification of social relations on the one hand, and social crises (wars, strikes, etc.) on the other. Furthermore, the project investigates the impact and the role of public security rationales in the socio-political history of Belgium. The innovative nature of the project derives from a dual documentary approach that will profoundly renew the historiography of policing, security and politics in Belgium: first, by opening up archival series that have hitherto been inaccessible (documents of the Police Générale du Royaume/Algemene Rijkspolitie and the former Gendarmerie) to researchers, and second, through systematic exploitation of recently inventoried collections (judicial police and foreigners police). The project combines archival science with historical methods and analysis.

Between 1918 and 1961, the Belgian police system underwent unprecedented centralization following the creation and development of national police institutions (gendarmerie, judicial police), which marked a clear break with the primacy of local autonomy in police structures that had prevailed since 1831. This centralization also rested on increased national coordination of police actions through intelligence management. As a result, intelligence came to be exchanged at a higher pace and within larger networks, which contributed to the gradual development of a national public security policy.

The central research question is how and why new police intelligence was created, circulated and used in this period, and how the information and data involved increasingly came to shape, and legitimize, policing and security policies and practices. Three central themes (public order, moral order and "police legitimacy") are put forward in order to operationalize this question. They have been chosen both for their documentary potential and for their contribution to understanding the democratization process of 20th-century Belgian society. More in particular, these themes relate to issues regarding the legitimacy of the occupation of public space, the possibility of expressing opinions and exercising political militancy, and the redefinition of the boundaries between public and private spheres as a result of widening scopes for State intervention. They also refer to the (re-)definition of social relations and gender roles in Belgian society between 1918 and 1961.