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Nation, Memory and Great War Commemoration

Mobilizing the Past in Europe, Australia and New Zealand


Shanti Sumartojo and Ben Wellings

The Great War continues to play a prominent role in contemporary consciousness. With commemorative activities involving seventy-two countries, its centenary is a titanic undertaking: not only ‘the centenary to end all centenaries’ but the first truly global period of remembrance.
In this innovative volume, the authors examine First World War commemoration in an international, multidisciplinary and comparative context. The contributions draw on history, politics, geography, cultural studies and sociology to interrogate the continuities and tensions that have shaped national commemoration and the social and political forces that condition this unique international event. New studies of Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand and the South Pacific address the relationship between increasingly fractured grand narratives of history and the renewed role of the state in mediating between individual and collective memories. Released to coincide with the beginning of the 2014–2018 centenary period, this collection illuminates the fluid and often contested relationships amongst nation, history and memory in Great War commemoration.
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The Great War in Belgian Memories: From Unanimity to Divergence



This chapter examines the gradual deconstruction of Belgian national identity since 1918. Two broad questions have guided this inquiry. Firstly, is it possible to speak of a de facto differentiation or even ‘federalization’ of the so-called ‘national past’ in Belgium; and secondly, how do Belgians choose to remember and forget this past? To contribute to an understanding of these issues, the paper takes the Great War as its starting point for consideration, because the memory of this devastating event appears to provide the template for subsequent memory conflicts in Belgium and thus informs the memory of other conflicts like the Second World War. Likewise, the politics of nationalism and international diplomacy reflects, reinforces and repositions memory of the Great War in contemporary Belgium. Overall, the historical and political contexts of commemoration over the past century have seen the Great War shift from being a focus of Belgian unanimity to being a point of sharp divergence in collective memory.

The limited scope of this paper does not allow for a thorough historiographical study. Instead, it focuses on the ways in which the past has been represented, and how these portrayals have evolved, often becoming fragmented over time. This research is based on a corpus of official speeches, parliamentary documents, news articles and commemorative monuments. The study of how memories are transmitted is essential if we are to understand what makes collective national memory, despite how little such a concept may still apply in Belgium....

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