In Belgium as in Australia, there are no longer any surviving veterans of the Great War to witness the commemorations of its centenary. However, just as in Australia, there remains an immense interest in remembering the war.
In Belgium’s two largest regions, Flanders and Wallonia, people are buying centenary newspaper supplements and watching television documentaries. In attics or cellars, newly discovered letters, helmets and photos are creating concrete links with a painful past. It is a past that is no doubt distant to some, but one that continues to fascinate nonetheless.
Belgium is divided, linguistically and administratively, into Flemish-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia (alongside Brussels). And the revival of personal and local memory surrounding war contrasts markedly between the two main regions, with noticeable differences in the preparations for the centenary.
In this context of contemporary division and a Flemish push for independence, why the past is being politicised becomes clear.
In 2009, Flemish tourism minister Geert Bourgeois excluded historians from planning the Great War commemorations. He sought to use the centenary to put the Flemish “state” on the world stage. All references to Belgium in the planned activities were removed.
However, the idea of the Flemish people having died for a cause in the First World War that was not their own – a strong theme in Flemish memorial culture – was no longer present. Nevertheless, the aim was to draw as much international attention to the distinct and separate Flemish “state” as possible via the proactive politics of commemorative diplomacy.
However, these moves created controversy and forced the Belgian (federal) government to intervene in planning for the commemoration proceedings. For example, the In Flanders’ Fields Declaration was initially drafted in 2010 and presented to 50 foreign governments, but not to the Belgian government nor the governments of Wallonia or Brussels.
This provoked strong reactions within Belgium and internationally, especially from the Australian government, because the declaration’s pacifist and ahistorical tone condemned all military engagement of any sort and made no reference to Belgium at all.
Following a struggle with the Flemish government over this issue, the Belgian federal government took over the running of three major international events related to the Great War centerary: commemorations at Liège and Mons in August 2014, at Ypres and Nieuport in October 2014 and at Brussels in November 2018.
The Walloon government took the opposite approach. In 2011, its minister-president Rudi Demotte gave academics key places on the commemoration’s organising committee. The Walloon centenary plans emphasised democratic values: respect for international law, human rights and the goals of liberty, and solidarity in a context of penury and resistance to oppression.
Importantly, Belgium featured prominently in memories of the Great War. The Walloon authorities essentially directed their efforts towards local memory, albeit in an international context.
All of this has created a lively debate about the public role of historians. When the Flemish government made preparations for a major historical anniversary that excluded academic historians, there was outrage from the press while academics decried the government’s politicisation of the past.
But when the Walloon government entrusted the preparations to a steering committee comprised equally of academics, politicians and representatives of civil society, it was the turn of the academics to be criticised, usually by their peers, for engaging in politics.
The question of whether historians should have a public role has divided the historical community in Belgium. There were those who felt that historians should remain at arm’s length from the commemorations and conduct independent research. The historians’ role should therefore be to analyse the commemorations, the political choices made and the way such policies are implemented.
In this sense, historians must interrogate the key actors’ motivations, the power plays, how funding is allocated, the stated goals and the activities’ impact on the different groups that the commemorations address.
Others believe that historians must engage actively, so that we do not have history for history’s sake but rather so memory can be transmitted and interpreted in a way that is comprehensible to current and popular understandings of the past.
This carries the risk that historians may become compromised by the politics of commemorative design and implementation, because ultimately it is the politicians who make the decisions and control the purse strings. By 2018, Belgians will be able to see if the risks of such engagement have become reality or not.
This article was translated by Ben Wellings, Monash University.
Read the other articles in The Conversation’s Commemorating WWI series here.