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In the middle of the troubled desert that is Europe today, a scene like a mirage confronts the traveler thirsty for freedom, hope and a decent glass of beer. An hour and a half by plane from pinched and drawn London, a day by train from harrowed, hungry Berlin, he suddenly finds freedom, hope and a very decent glass of rich, light beer—the biggest glass of beer in Europe for 15¢.

He also finds steaks, Nylons, chocolates, cigars, soap, butter, evening gowns, whipped cream. He finds everything, including champagne (to stimulate the evening) and aspirin (to soothe the morning after). The neon signs advertising these wares match Times Square’s own fireworks. Shiny Buicks and Studebakers roll along tree-lined boulevards amid scents of spring and U.S. gasoline. The scene is no mirage. It is Brussels, 1948.

The scene is repeated, somewhat more quietly, in proud, sober Ghent and in Bruges, lulled by its gentle chimes, in bustling, muscular Antwerp, in Liège under its pall of soot from the mines and the blast furnaces. Belgium has quietly achieved an almost incredible state: postwar prosperity. What is more, Belgium has largely done it by free enterprise. Or “planned freedom,” as Belgians call it.

Good Sense. Belgium’s achievement is enough to make a lot of economists throw in the slide rule in disgust. To the austeritarian school (prevalent in Europe and some U.S. quarters), prosperity, like chivalry, is an archaic notion, something that apple sellers in the ’30s expected just around the corner. And even a good many plain Americans have agreed that free enterprise, if not downright immoral, is at least impractical in Europe today. Yet Belgium, like a healthy old chain-smoker defying the anti-nicotine prophets, is both prosperous and free.

In Brussels last week, the man who, as much as any single individual, is responsible for this state of affairs told how it had come about. He is Paul-Henri Spaak, Premier of Belgium. With his cherubic frown, his bulging forehead, his pugnacious lower lip, he bears a startling resemblance to Winston Churchill; in the whole grey and sagging circle of European leaders, he is one of the few men with a spark of Churchillian fire. With one hand thrust truculently into his trouser pocket, he uses the other to tick off the reasons for Belgian prosperity.

For one thing, Belgium suffered relatively little damage during the Nazi occupation. The Belgian Congo had remained untouched, as had the country’s foreign financial assets. Belgian industry kept working (on German orders) throughout the war. The country was quickly liberated, and its industry went to work for the Allies. All that was luck. But there was more to it. “Good sense,” says Spaak, “knows how to make use of good luck.”

The most spectacular piece of good sense was displayed by Belgium’s government in exile (which included Paul-Henri Spaak as Foreign Minister) when it decided that Belgium would need hard work and that hard work required incentives. The plans were put into operation on September 8, 1944, the day the government returned to Brussels. Like every German-occupied country, Belgium was flooded with excess paper money (almost five times as many francs were in circulation as before the war). Finance Minister Camille Gutt called in all bank notes larger than 100 francs, returned no more than 2,000 francs to anyone. The rest was temporarily frozen or funneled into government loans. Some Belgians howled at the deflation, but those who suffered most were those who had made the biggest profits on German accounts. Few Belgians wept for such sufferers. The economic surgery saved Belgium from the inflation which other continental countries experienced.

Full Shelves. The rest of the government’s plan called for full shelves at full speed. Belgium used its dollar credits to buy food, clothing, alarm clocks and everything else consumers needed most—instead of spending it on heavy reconstruction. The common-sense reason: you could ask workers to work hard if they could buy something with their wages. Belgian workers, who had plenty to buy with their wages, did work hard. Belgian industries, which had reasonable profits to make, got down to the job as though their lives depended on it (as indeed they did).

This spring, the Belgian franc is (after the Swiss franc and the Portuguese escudo) Europe’s hardest currency. Belgians had their worries, but they were better off than any other European people touched by the war. They had cake in the cupboard as well as hope in the future.

They also had a remarkably small Communist Party (about 100,000). Complains Communist Secretary General Jean Terfve: “Belgians are a peculiar people. They always grumble, but fundamentally they are satisfied.” Spaak puts it differently. “Prosperity,” he says, “is the death of Communism.”

Paul-Henri Spaak, who in his Bond Street-style clothes still recalls Pieter Bruegel’s ripe-colored, sturdy figures, himself best symbolizes Belgium’s healthy appetite for good life, good sense and hard work. Last week he had a chance to show his mettle in a political controversy—the matter of raising the subsidies to state schools. That was a touchy business in a coalition government of eight Socialists, nine Christian Socialists (Catholic party) and two nonparty technicians. The Catholic party, which has strong roots among a people whose lusty contentment is matched by deep religious feeling, protested that the added subsidy was discrimination against parochial schools.

Spaak had not yet found a formula to satisfy both sides, but he sat at his desk (with four telephones) churning out ideas. Callers were ushered in through one of the three doors to the Premier’s office—usually a moment after a rival had been ushered out through another. “In a crisis,” says Spaak, “see everyone, and keep on proposing things.”

The Bolshevik in Dinner Jacket. Rival principles, like rival callers, have walked in & out of Spaak’s life at top speed. He was born (1899) of a notable and nonconformist Belgian family who felt, in the words of a friend, that they were born to lead Belgium. His maternal grandfather, Paul Janson, and his uncle, Paul Emile Janson, were great Liberal leaders; his father was a well-known playwright; his mother, a Socialist, was the first woman to sit in Belgium’s Parliament. At 75, white-haired, good-humored Senator Spaak listens proudly to the speeches of her son, to whom she refers as “the Minister.”

“Paul-Henri was,” says Marie Spaak, “the easiest of my children to handle, so sweet and affectionate. He still is. When he takes me to dinner he comes hunting for me in the Senate, asking everyone, ‘Avez-vous vu Maman?”’

In school, Paul-Henri was erratically brilliant. Once, when he flunked an exam, he forestalled punishment by declaring: “I have already administered to myself the full flow of reproach which a boy in my situation usually gets from Papa and Maman” Spaak’s culture is essentially French, and his early heroes were French. He was particularly keen on Napoleon until, in his own words, he “became aware that it was compromising for a politician to admire Napoleon too much.”

During World War I, aged 17, he tried to enlist in the Belgian army, was caught by the Germans and interned. After the war, he took a law degree, successfully defended union leaders and Socialists. “He wins juries by sheer weight,” said one Brussels judge. “They think such a big man can’t be wrong.” By 1933 he had become the leader of Socialism’s extreme left wing, chiefly because there he found more opportunities than anywhere else. Said he: “It is not sufficient to be right, we also want to be victorious … As for the majority, to hell with it.”

Once he led a crowd of Socialist partisans in a raid against Brussels’ conservative Nation Belge and with his own walking stick smashed one of the paper’s windows. The Nation Bege protected the window with an iron screen (which is still in place and known as the “Spaak grille”). But Belgians found it a little hard to take seriously a young radical who carried a walking stick. They called him “the Bolshevik in the dinner jacket.”

“To Play a Bad Card . . .” “I felt I had something to do in politics,” says Spaak of this period, “but all the doors were closed.” In 1935, a door opened. Premier Paul van Zeeland asked him to enter the Cabinet as Minister of Transport, Posts & Telegraphs. Spaak accepted. Then, excitedly, he telephoned his mother: “Maman, if your telephone breaks down, complain directly to me. I’m the new Communications Minister.” The next year he became Foreign Minister.

In his search for a form of security for Belgium, Spaak turned to the narrow solution of neutrality. It was perhaps the least sensible thing he ever did. He obtained from Germany, France and Britain promises that the Belgian frontiers would not be violated. He hoped that Belgium could be another Switzerland.

In May, 1940 he learned his mistake. When Hitler’s ambassador, Vicco Karl von Bülow-Schwante, arrived to announce the invasion on the morning of May 10, Spaak shut him off: “No, you are not going to read this to me. I know what it is … I am the one who is going to speak, and what I have to say is—get the hell out of here.” Spaak went to France when his country fell, escaped through Spain to London, after hiding from Franco’s police in the bottom of an orange-laden truck.

“Sire,” he informed King Leopold from London exile, “the war is not finished . . . Politics do not consist of always choosing the best card. It is sometimes necessary to know how to play a bad card. At certain times it is better to perish in beauty than miserably to survive.”

After the war, the question of Leopold and the monarchy rocked Belgium to its commonsensible core. The Socialists were bitterly opposed to Leopold’s return, the Catholics strongly in favor. A regency was set up under Leopold’s Eton-educated brother Charles, an able, inoffensive prince who is interested in archery. Thanks to Spaak’s efforts, the “royal question” was put well back on the shelf.

In 1946, Spaak was elected president of U.N.’s General Assembly, where the world for the first time noticed the big Belgian’s political skill, his moving oratory, his practical internationalism. He hulked over the nations’ quarrelsome confusion with patience, fortitude and humor (rumor had it that he read mystery stories during the duller speeches).

“The Hour Has Come . . .” Today Spaak lives simply in a modest bourgeois neighborhood, with his tall, good-looking wife, his son Fernand (who served in the British navy) and his two younger daughters. He used to be an inveterate tennis player, once was tactless enough to beat King Gustaf of Sweden (“Am I a courtier? I am a Socialist!”). Lately Spaak (a 200-pounder) has given up the sport, presumably haunted by the memory of his belt giving way on a Brussels court.

He invariably gets up at 6:30, often receives early callers in pajamas, works till late into the night. There is much to do. No man in Europe has had a greater part in preparing the way for Western European Union. Says Spaak:

“. . . The hour has come to choose our friends. The problem is clear … If Europe with her traditions of hard work, her artistic, intellectual and moral traditions, wants to make herself heard, she must organize. Men are ready to accept this idea of organization, but they find it difficult to execute because they have not always the necessary courage to accept sacrifices. Those who think of Western Union as a panacea are wrong, terribly wrong, so wrong they will never have the courage to succeed with this policy which is first based on sacrifices.”

Spaak’s Belgians are no more attracted by sacrifices than other Europeans. Certainly, they have no wish to see their economic standards reduced to those of Western Europe, even if the latter were thereby slightly raised. Rather do they hope that the rest of Western Europe will come up to Belgian standards.

The Ultimate Hope. Unless Western Europe does achieve something like that, it is a real question how long Belgium can remain prosperous. One break in Belgium’s defenses came last year, when Britain, desperately short of dollars, suspended convertibility of sterling. That meant that Belgium could no longer exchange the pounds she earned all over the world for dollars which she needed to buy goods from the U.S. (Last year, Belgium imported $515 million worth of goods from the U.S., while the U.S. imported only $62 million worth from Belgium.) Last week, the finance ministers of the Benelux nations, Britain and France met in Brussels to discuss the situation. There was nothing Belgium, or any one nation, could do about the chronic dollar shortage. That could be remedied only if all European nations produced more and the U.S. bought more of what they produced.

Another danger sign in Belgium is high prices. So far, mostly luxury goods and the higher-income groups are affected. Along Brussels’ aristocratic Avenue Louise, the fanciest shops are almost empty, their price tags flabbergasting. Food and simpler clothing are still within reach of the average worker, since wages have kept close to prices. But there is little left, after taxes, for private savings.

The price situation has even more serious aspects. If Belgium wants to maintain its prosperity, it can not lower wages. But with present high wages, Belgium has to ask high prices for its export goods, which are beginning to be undersold by the competition.

Again the solution lies not with Belgium alone. Only in a stable, coordinated Western European economy can Belgium continue to produce, export and prosper. Belgium has done as much as a small country can do through hard work, courage and common sense. Now it comes down to this: Will other countries do as much?

Belgium has no illusions of grandeur. A typical Belgian last week was Paul Wiart, a cigar-store clerk in Brussels’ Boulevard Adolphe-Max. Said he: “We will go forward with the others. We like to live well, but we know we cannot live alone.” By & large, Belgians are looking to the future with confidence.

Paul-Henri Spaak might also look with confidence. His admirers like to say that Belgium is too small a country for such a big man. But Western Union might not be. After all, wasn’t Western Union a matter of good sense?

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