Europe’s commemoration of WWI

Before we started, our chairman Serge Noiret introduced several good examples of a digital approach to the commemoration of WWI in Europe. Especially the interactive map that has been developed by The Guardian deserves some credit, it is really accurate and sophisticated. After this rather optimistic start, he ended with a question which embodied everyone with fear: “is public history useful for this commemoration?”

Our secand speaker, or actually our first according to the program, was Enrico Natale. He started off by asking two questions: “how to assemble websites and administrate them?” & “what can we ask this corpus?” This field of study originates from the commemoration efforts following the terrorist attacks of 9/11. During the research process, Enrico and his colleagues discovered four categories in which the different websites can be divided. This division is based on the character of the website and is divided in GLAM (universities and libraries), individual bodies, private bodies and public projects. Several leading countries can be spotted to which the various WWI commemorating websites belong to, which namely are the UK, France and Germany. Further meaning of this fact remains underlighted but I think that everyone who knows the history of WWI does not find this outcome suprising. What actually IS suprising is that most of these websites display a transnational perspective on displaying the history of WWI. Enrico concludes with four points: there is a match between global and local commemorating (mainly because WWI is still an engaging subject), there is a quick consumable and entertaining experience which makes the websites attractive, there is a huge business for memory and finally; by adding intermediaries on a website, your attention is immediatly diverted which triggers and an active study of the website by the visitor.

Next up is Chantal Kesteloot, who will analyse the public history approach to the commemoration of WWI in Belgium. The problem which she describes lies in commemorating as a federal state. Because of the troublesome past of Belgium; there is a tension between commemorating WWI nationally with nationalistic feelings and the crisis of the nation state in during the 70’s. The federal government tries too hard to combine a national identity in the commemoration of WWI, it apparently can’t be done. Ever since 2006 there were plans being made to commemorate WWI. Compared to WWII, the first World War was favorable to highlight for Belgium, which leads to “peace tourism” for the community of Flanders. I for one am really impressed by the way in which Chantal Kesteloot can analyse her own nation critically!

Last but not least is Sam van den Eijnden. Sam performed research on the relations between European wide commemoration apposed to German and British commemoration efforts. The European remembrance project is unified in the ‘Europe for Citizens’ project Which focusses on the creation of European citizen identity. This goal is rather controversial, the British parliament also recognized this. An European commemoration of WWI is fine, but there is a lot of focus on the creation of citizenship. Really interesting are the differents between the UK and Germany. UK glorificates the war in their own country with a budget of 60 million, while Germany seeks reconciliation with a budget of 4 million.

The answer on the question which was asked by Serge Noiret has partly been answered in the discussion. Chantal thinks we should interfer on a very low level. It’s a dangerous area to research and publish on. There is even pro-European propaganda involved! Noiret added: should we go with the wave and deal with this mission just because there is money available? But state propaganda also occurs in the commemoration of WWI. Bruno de Wever added that there is a difference between hard and soft state propaganda, for example in Flanders but because the statement is “Flanders is peace”, this is an example of soft state-propaganda. Chantal: the focus on peace ignores the military aspect of a war which involves striving for victory and, strongly linked to that, the killing of the enemy. Unfortunately, time was not on our sIde. The  valuable and wildly interesting discussion ended to soon, which led to Serge Noiret adding: we should organise a conference on this particular topic.


  • Valerie en Luuk

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