Sometimes when I’m humming along in my research, thinking that I’m looking for innocuous facts like date of birth, I suddenly fall into a bog of accusations and counter-accusations, of activities that look very bad from one point of view but reasonable enough from another. It’s not unusual; the Second World War was custom made for such confusions. It was entirely possible for an authentic resister to have dealings with the enemy in order to shield his or her resistance work. To most of the world he or she looked like a collaborator rather than the courageous resister he or she really was.

I came across such a case in the Belgian archives while trying to determine how long a particular Dutch businessman had been living in Brussels. We’ll call him Joseph (b. 1907). It seems that Joseph moved to Belgium in 1942 in connection with a family business that supplied lumber to the German navy in Antwerp. The Belgians didn’t consider him necessary to the Belgian economy and asked the Germans to give him a pass back to the Netherlands, but the Germans declined.

The difficulty lies in a letter written by a Belgian citizen to the military authorities in 1945, a year after the country was liberated. The letter writer claimed that he had had Joseph arrested in 1940 in connection with the illegal sale of Dutch military uniforms but that the Germans liberated Joseph when they invaded and set him up in high style during the war. Then, in August 1945 the writer saw Joseph in an authentic Dutch uniform claiming to be on a mission from the Dutch government. Outraged, he complained to the authorities.

The Belgian police launched an investigation, in which they discovered that Joseph had been living in Brussels since early in the war without being properly registered and that he and his brother had, indeed, had commercial dealings with the Germans throughout the war.

His brother was with the RAF in Australia in October 1945, but Joseph was still in Brussels. He presented himself at the police station to give some explanations. To begin with, he said, the letter writer was a disgruntled employee who’d had it out for his family for decades. In addition, he pulled out his own Resistance credentials, saying that he had been part of the Comité that helped Jews in Brussels.

And that part is true. No less a trustworthy witness than the pastor that ran the “social work” section of Dutch-Paris in Brussels said that Joseph and his wife helped Jews and young men get out of the Netherlands, took warm clothes back to the Netherlands for Jews in hiding, and distributed money and (false) ration tickets to Jews hiding in Brussels in 1944.

Without any written explanation of why, the inspector in charge of the case dismissed the accusations against Joseph. Apparently he felt that Joseph’s activities with Dutch-Paris outweighed or balanced out his commercial dealings with the enemy.

But we’re left with questions. Was Joseph just an operator who went the way the wind was blowing? Was he really a collaborator who joined Dutch-Paris to whitewash his earlier record? Was he a committed resister all along who used his business contacts with the Germans to raise money for or to camouflage his resistance work? The documents don’t say, so we’re unlikely to ever find out.