Two Belgian Christian trade unionists who died in a Nazi death camp remembered

by Stefan Gigacz

Fernand Tonnet and Paul Garcet, two of the founding members of the Young Christian Workers, were arrested by the Nazis for helping the Resistance. Both men died in the extermination camp in Dachau 75 years ago, paying the ultimate price for devoting their lives to peace, justice and solidarity, writes Stefan Gigacz

FIRED WITH desire to defend workers from the social evils created by the industrial revolution, 18-year-old Fernand Tonnet and his friends from St Martin’s parish in Quiévrain, on Belgium’s southern border, gathered in summer 1912 for the “blessing of the flag” of their new team of “Young Guards”. Daringly, the ceremony coincided with the second anniversary of Pope Pius X’s 25 August 1910 letter to the French bishops, condemning Marc Sangnier’s Le Sillon (The Furrow), a hugely popular movement that had inspired many young Catholics to become involved in democratic politics.

Tonnet, who had learned Le Sillon’s methods of social enquiry and action from a Catholic priest, Fr Georges Abrassart, had no intention of allowing the movement’s radical ideas to be suppressed. Moving to Brussels as a bank clerk, he made contact with another priest sympathetic to the ideas and methods of Le Sillon, Joseph Cardijn. With Victoire Cappe, a Sillon-trained young trade unionist, Cardijn had already initiated their first teams of female teenage workers. The first teams for teenage boys soon followed. In the Great War, Tonnet suffered gas poisoning at the front while Cardijn was imprisoned by the invading forces. But, re-united in 1919 with two other younger men, Paul Garcet and Jacques Meert, they launched the Jeunesse Syndicaliste (Young Trade Unionists), forerunner to the Jeunesse Ouvrière Chrétienne (JOC), or Young Christian Workers (YCW).

In late 1924, Cardinal Désiré-Joseph Mercier felt compelled to squash the new movement. Only Cardijn’s last-ditch, successful personal appeal to Pope Pius XI enabled it to survive, launching a partnership between priest and pontiff that Yves Congar later compared to that of St Francis of Assisi and Innocent III. With Meert as secretary-general and Garcet as treasurer, Tonnet emerged as the first national president of the newly recognised JOC.

Where Marc Sangnier’s magnetic leadership had energised Le Sillon, Cardijn’s charismatic character galvanised the burgeoning JOC, while Tonnet brought unmatched organisational and journalistic skills to the new movement. He worked closely with team leaders – accompanying them, to borrow Pope Francis’ expression. He helped form a whole generation of young lay apostles during the 1930s.

Although he acknowledged Cardijn’s pre-eminence as the movement’s originator, Tonnet regarded his own role as a lay leader as equally important. He was devastated when, in 1929, Cardijn was granted a personal papal audience – without him. In 1936, he wrote to Cardijn vigorously expressing concern that the movement risked abandoning its worker origins and turning into a parish youth club. By this time a trade union organiser with a Christian trade union federation in the Charleroi mining region, Tonnet was again achieving notoriety, this time for his efforts to protect workers from unsafe and unhealthy conditions.

In 1938, he found himself called back to serve the Church as organiser for the newly established Action Catholique des Hommes (Men’s Catholic Action), which combined the “specialised” approach of the JOC with a more traditional parish-based ministry. He re-connected with Garcet, now married to another JOC pioneer, Jeanne Partous. As administrator of the progressive Christian magazine, La Cité Nouvelle, Garcet also helped promote the Ligue Ouvrière Chrétienne (LOC) or Christian Worker League.

After Belgium was occupied by German forces in 1940, Tonnet and Garcet assisted people involved in the Resistance, inevitably attracting scrutiny. Garcet was arrested in early June 1943 for helping to hide a Resistance parachutist. Several days later, the Gestapo came to question Tonnet. He ignored the entreaties of his friends to flee; he feared that others would suffer if he did. He calmly awaited arrest.

This came on 10 August, when he was sent to the Saint Gilles prison, re-uniting him for the last time with Garcet. Three weeks later, the two men were transported to the Esterwegen “death camp” in Germany, where they were put to work recycling products for the Nazi war machine. In March 1944, they were shifted to the Flossenburg camp near Bayreuth, where their health began to rapidly decline. The final move came in late November 1944, taking them to the freezing Dachau concentration camp, where their remaining strength ebbed away.

Garcet was the first to die on 23 January 1945; Tonnet followed ten days later on 2 February. At a memorial ceremony in 1965, Cardijn, who has been appointed a cardinal by Pope Paul VI, echoed calls for the men’s beatification. “Their whole youth was imbued with faith and a sense of apostolic mission,” he declared. Seventy-five years after their deaths, their cause remains dormant – but perhaps a greater endorsement of Tonnet’s and Garcet’s witness lies in the Vatican Council’s “canonisation” of the lay vocation to transform the world in light of the Gospel.


Two Belgian Christian trade unionists who died in a Nazi death camp remembered (The Tablet) 29/01/2020