France and Belgium divided by memories | World War I | DW | 09.04.2014
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World War I

France and Belgium divided by memories

Verdun, Ypres, the Somme - key sites along the Western Front. Belgium and France don't need centenary commemorations to remember World War I. Many areas along the border are still marked by the conflict to this day.

Every night at precisely 8 p.m., a delegation of buglers from the local fire brigade in Ypres, Belgium marches to the Menin Gate to play "The Last Post." As it has every evening since 1928, traffic around the memorial archway pauses as people take a few minutes to remember the fighting in Flanders and the fallen soldiers of World War I.

The eastern French town of Verdun, site of one of the war's most terrible battles, is a veritable open-air museum of the war and its horrors. Here, in the Douaumont ossuary, the remains of around 130,000 soldiers are kept in the tradition of a medieval crypt.

Francois Mitterand and Helmut Kohl

The 1984 joint commemoration with Mitterrand (left) and Kohl was a sign of reconciliation

Thirty years ago, in September 1984, French President Francois Mitterrand and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl paid homage to the dead at a memorial service at Douaumont and spontaneously clasped hands. Photos of that event went around the world.

Only now, as the world marks the centenary of World War I, has the name of a fallen German soldier been immortalized for the first time on a plaque in the Verdun ossuary. Until today, this honor was exclusively reserved for French soldiers. This summer, France will see countless token gestures like this, along with the many local commemorations and semi-official events for which the Republic has been preparing for years.

'La Grande Guerre'

In France, World War I is known as "La Grande Guerre," the Great War. The descriptive term "great" has a clear meaning in the politics of memory, patriotically shaping the remembrance of the conflict as a united, self-sacrificing and ultimately successful defensive struggle.

"The First World War reminds us how strong a nation can be when it stands together," said French President Francois Hollande as he launched the centenary commemorations late last year. On August 3, the anniversary of the outbreak of the war, Hollande will meet with German President Joachim Gauck at the heavily contested Hartmannsweilerkopf, a range of hills in France's Vosges mountains in the eastern region of Alsace.

Compared with the extensive commemorations planned for the next four years, the current debate surrounding who is to blame for the war has been relatively quiet. In "The Sleepwalkers," an analysis of the causes of World War I, Australian historian Christopher Clark has rejected the commonly held belief that Germany was solely responsible for the outbreak of the war. The book is a best-seller in Germany, but it hasn't received much notice in France. The French are not looking to play the political blame game, as they were forced to defend themselves against attacking German armies on their home soil.

Divided memories

It was no different in Belgium. And yet, the Belgians don't tend to use the adjective "great" when referring to World War I. Their take on the conflict is comparatively sober, with the patriotic undertones seen in neighboring France almost completely absent. Part of this difference can be attributed to the country's divided memories: the French-speaking Walloons and the Dutch-speaking Flemings tend to focus on their own remembrances.

Menin Arch

The Menin Gate in Ypres is engraved with the names of 54,896 missing soldiers

The Francophone and Dutch speakers have been politically divided and at odds with each other for decades, and now even their shared history is split by a "frontline," as pointed out in the Belgian French-language daily "Le Soir." Historians believe the origins of the dispute can be traced back to World War I, when German occupation authorities promoted Flemish independence and cultural separation from the French-speaking south of the country.

With Belgium's three memorials, in Ypres, Brussels and Liege, Foreign Minister Didier Reynders wants his country to be seen as a "central place of remembrance" for the war. The government is pushing for the battlefields of Ypres to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site, an initiative jointly proposed by France. For its part, France would take care of the memorials in the Somme region, in the north of the country.

The Battle of Verdun

Around 700,000 people died in 10 months during the Battle of Verdun

'Cornerstone of remembrance'

France and Belgium are also in agreement on another matter: The commemoration of the horrible trench warfare on the western front should show Europeans the political importance of international engagement.

As head of the committee for the preparation of the official centenary commemorations, French General Elrick Irastorza has called the World War a "cornerstone of remembrance" that was now threatening to fade away. All the more important for the centenary to show all those who are reluctant to engage in international military operations today that people from foreign countries gave their lives in Europe "so that we are able to live in a peaceful Europe," he said.

The centenary commemorations in France and Belgium will not always be marked with solemnity. From June 1, runners from all over Europe will come to the former battlefields to take part in a relay from Nieuwpoort, on the Belgian coast, to the southern French city of Strasbourg, tracing the former frontline with stops at monuments and memorials along the way.