Who Was Roger Coudroy?

RC2He had dark hair and eyebrows like thick slashes of marker pen and a grave somewhere in Palestine. Roger Coudroy died at 35-years-old and remains a minor martyr for people who lean so far to the right they’re practically horizontal.

The first European to die for the Palestinian cause, say the blog headlines. Not exactly. Germans and Bosnians and Britons are buried under Arabic pseudonyms out in the desert, volunteers for Muslim armies during the 1948 fighting that gave birth to Israel. Coudroy belongs to a later generation.

The Belgian engineer died in the night of 3 June 1968, apparently when Israeli soldiers shot up a commando from the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. It was the opening days in the war of attrition that followed Arab defeat in the Six Day War. Palestinian guerrillas penetrated Israeli territory and launched terror attacks on civilians; Israeli planes bombed PLO camps in Jordan and took out Egyptian infrastructure.

The Palestinian cause had a lot of support from young leftists in Western Europe and regimes in the Eastern Bloc. But Coudroy wasn’t a man of the left. Not a chance.

Trans-Europa Express

Coudroy’s death was announced to the West in La Nation Européenne, a monthly newspaper out of Brussels. You wouldn’t find it in the kiosks, not with its Celtic cross emblem and ‘Neither Washington, nor Moscow‘motto. It acted as mouthpiece of Jeune Europe, a Belgian-based movement that was either very far-right or very far-left or both depending on who was doing the talking.

The brains behind Jeune Europe was Brussels native Jean Thiriart, a fortysomething optician with cropped hair, an athletic build, and a harem of cats prowling his expansive bourgeois home. As a teen in the late 1930’s Thiriart dabbled in far-left politics, then joined the fascist Légion Nationale to spite his Jewish stepfather. The Légion went underground into the resistance after the Nazi invasion but Thiriart turned collaborator with AGRA (Amis du Grand Reich Allemand). He did time in prison when his German friends lost the war and spent the next few decades rebuilding his life in the optician business.

The troubled 1960 independence of Belgium’s colony in the Congo re-awoke the political animal in Thiriart. He daydreamed of the crisis inspiring a coalition of royalists, conservatives, and the extreme-right to take power in Belgium. It never happened. A disappointed Thiriart formed the Mouvement D’Action Civique, a nationalist group into karate and cheerleading for French extreme rightists. By 1963 it had morphed into Jeune Europe and claimed branches in Italy, France, Portugal, and Britain.

The new movement promoted a united Europe independent of both American and Soviet influences. Roger Coudroy was a member. How much of a member is still up for debate.

Down the Rabbit Hole

We know so little about Coudroy that some critics have suggested he never existed. Thiriart must have made him up, they say.

RC3

Not true. Coudroy certainly existed but he’s one of the millions of men remembered only for their deaths and not much else. Information about his personality, history, and beliefs is limited.

We know he was born in Belgium and moved to France for his studies, presumably around the mid 1950s. After qualifying as an engineer Coudroy got a job with a French company, possibly the Peugeot car manufacturers. At some point he moved to Lebanon and then Kuwait to work for Peugeot operations in the Middle East. The date of this move is unknown but might have been in 1964 or ’65; a few years later he was dead.

La Nation Européenne claimed Coudroy as a Jeune Europe militant. If so, he wasn’t one for long. The movement only came into existence in ’63 and the Belgian left Europe not long after. Add to that Jeune Europe’s main focus being in Belgium and Italy with its France branch something of a sideshow, and you have to wonder how important Coudroy was to the movement or it to him.

We also know that Coudroy was fascinated by the Arab World. But so were Thiriart and Jeune Europe.

United Like a Fist

Thiriart’s move from Belgian nationalist to pan-European fan of Third World liberation sprang from his reading of Imperium by Francis Parker Yockey. The rogue American lawyer had recently committed suicide in a San Francisco jail but his writings had gained a cult following in the far-right milieu.

Yockey urged his fascist followers to push for a united Europe stretching from Ireland to Siberia, and insisted the real enemy was American culture, not Soviet oppression. He had contacts with Czech agents, Castro’s Cuba, and far-righters across Western Europe and America. Yockey ultimately achieved little, but Imperium‘s message  pushed Thiriart into ditching the narrow nationalism of the MAC for Jeune Europe’s more global vision. Like his American guru, Thiriart reached out to the left. There were contacts with Chinese intelligence, a 1966 meeting with Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu (who would contribute an article to La Nation Européenne), and praise for Black Power militants in the USA.

By the time of Coudroy’s death in ’68, Thiriart was expanding his vision into the Middle East. That autumn he visited Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Syria for meetings with high level officials. The Belgian seemed to think he could get financial and military backing for a Jeune Europe paramilitary group to fight the Israelis and then return home to form the cadre of an Armée Libération Européenne (European Liberation Army).

He’d had similar ideas as far back as 1960 when he tried to organise a mercenary unit to support the Katangese secessionist state in the Congo, only to be rebuffed when the secessionists realised he wanted to use the unit for a coup in Belgian when it returned. History repeated itself. The Armée Libération Européenne was also rejected by its projected backers.

A sulking Thiriart disbanded Jeune Europe and quit politics the next year.

Influences and Influencers

All this raises more questions than it answers. Did Coudroy go off to the Middle East as a natural progression of his politics, or did he just get a job offer? Was Thiriart’s trip to the same region in the autumn of 1968 already planned, or triggered by news of his one-time militant dying in battle? Was Coudroy’s connection to Jeune Europe talked up by La Nation Européenne to help Thiriart’s Middle Eastern mission, or an accurate reflection of his political engagement?

RC4And, most important of all, how did Roger Coudroy really die?

The Belgian engineer quit his job and joined the Arab cause in 1968 after the Battle of Karameh in March brought the Palestine Liberation Organization to the world’s attention. Israeli troops went into Jordan in an attempt to capture Yasser Arafat, leader of the PLO’s Fatah faction and architect of attacks on Israeli civilians. Jordanian troops and PLO guerrillas put up tougher resistance than the Israelis expected, allowing Arafat to escape and pushing him into news headlines.

Part of Coudroy’s reason in contacting Fatah seems to have been to write a short book about the Palestinian struggle, part history, part travelogue, part diary. He got details on a Fatah contact and met him in Beirut.

At the agreed hour I went to the Strand Hotel patio,’ he wrote. ‘I was wearing a blue shirt and carrying Le Jour and The Daily Star in an obvious manner.  You got to the patio via a shopping gallery. In the centre was a fountain whose murmuring water was not only calming but also absorbed the traffic noises from the rue Hamra. At four o’clock in the afternoon the cafe was half empty.  I read my newspapers for the second time, bought another coffee, and proceeded to be deadly bored until my contact appeared. He had a military bearing, and was wearing tracksuit trousers and a tight white shirt whose top buttons were undone over a hairless chest. In Hamra, where all the men dressed fashionably, this outfit struck me with its simplicity. It was my Fatah contact.

From Beirut to Damascus, Amman, and then the Baqa’a refugee camp. Coudroy’s writings finish at the end of May with him training alongside Fatah soldiers and using the Arabic pseudonym ‘As Saleh’ aka The Just. He was dead a week later.

Symbol and Symbolised

The La Nation Européenne version of Coudroy’s death has him part of a Fatah commando penetrating Israeli territory on the night of 3 June and getting caught by an army patrol. Automatic fire blazing in the night, bodies hitting the ground. Coudroy is one of those killed. He is buried in a mass grave.

It may be true. But one of the first accounts of his death is a brief mention on 5 June 1968 in L’Orient, a Lebanese Christian newspaper published out of Beirut. The piece claims that Fatah had announced the death of Coudroy (‘a French engineer‘) during a training accident with an automatic weapon at a camp in Jordan.

At this distance in time the story is hard to unravel. L’Orient was not especially sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and might have felt the need to carry a less heroic version of Coudroy’s death. Alternately, Fatah and the PLO may have had operational reasons for concealing the nature of his death; perhaps the story simply got garbled somewhere along the line from Jordan to Beirut. Closer to home, La Nation Européenne may have wanted to send Coudroy off with what it saw as a fitting end. Maybe he really was looking down the wrong end of a machine gun when he pulled the trigger. Who knows?

The mystery surrounding the Belgian’s death allowed rumours to circulate that he’d been killed by Arab colleagues who thought him a Mossad agent. That version remains little more than whispers and Jeune Europe loyalists point the finger at pro-Israel media outlets trying to undermine enemy morale. But a British newspaper – no-one remembers which one – did carry a story along these lines. Whatever happened, Coudroy was dead. A  year later the PLO published his travelogue as an 85 page pamphlet in French: J’ai vécu la résistance palestinienne. I Lived the Palestinian Resistance.

We don’t know how much editing was done. Subsequent German and Italian editions were published by far-right concerns.

Afterlife

Roger Coudroy made enough of an impression on the Palestinians to apparently inspire a book of poems by various Arab authors a few years after his death. When Belgian journalist Lucas Catherine visited the PLO in 1970 one of his contact’s first questions was whether he had known Coudroy. Later he was given a copy of J’ai vécu la résistance palestinienne, as an example of work by a foreign supporter.

By 1973, something called the l’Association européenne Roger Coudroy (Roger Coudroy European Association) was pushing anti-Zionism, pro-Arab policies, and some thinly veiled anti-Semitism. It had mostly French, Belgian, and Italian members. Jean Thiriart has obviously withdrawn from politics less than generally accepted, as the former Jeune Europe leader was playing some kind of a role in the organisation. L’Association européenne Roger Coudroy quickly died off and was succeeded by l’Association des Amitiés Arabes (The Arab Friendship Association).

After that, Coudroy lived on only as a line or two in books about Thiriart, Palestine, or Fascism. Today it’s mostly the Italian far-right which carries a torch for him. The men and women in black shirts see Coudroy as a martyr but grudgingly admit they know little about the Belgian engineer. His life, his death, his motives are still cloudy. Is he the ‘Roger’ featured in this page of photographs from 1950’s Belgium? Was he really imbued with the ethos of Jeune Europe when he went to fight for the Palestinians? What to make of this comment from his book?

It is true that I have known the country and its inhabitants for almost four years, I respect their customs and learned their language, whose most frequent words I learned to say early on. But how does one make them understand that despite my friendship for the people and sympathy for their cause, I have not forgotten my country and my presence is not completely disinterested?

Another mystery. Another death. Business as usual in this part of the world.

If you have any information about Roger Coudroy then please post below or contact me directly. You can find out more about Jean Thiriart and the Congo in my book Katanga 1960-63: Mercenaries, Spies and the African Nation that Waged War on the World  [or amazon.com].

If you want to show some love for this blog then feel free to buy my other books in paperback, hardback, or ebook:

Lost Lions of Judah: Haile Selassie’s Mongrel Foreign Legion [or amazon.com]

and

Franco’s International Brigades: Adventurers, Fascists, and Christian Crusaders in the Spanish Civil War [or amazon.com]

 

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