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A comparative look at a centenary. A review of World War I commemorative events in Brussels

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This is the press release related to the article from Serge Jaumain, Joost Vaesen, Bruno Benvindo, Pierre Bouchat, Eric Bousmar, Iadine Degryse, Chantal Kesteloot, Olivier Klein and Karla Vanraepenbusch, published on November 06, 2017.

The centenary of World War I has led to many publications and academic activities, as well as a large number of events of all types intended for a broad public. Although 11 November remains an important moment of commemoration, there has never been as much talk of the Great War, which had been overshadowed for so long by World War II in the historiography and collective memory. In the history of major commemorative events, those we have seen since 2014 stand out due to their international scope.

Brussels has not escaped from this vast movement. Just over three years after the beginning of the commemorative events, a first retrospective analysis of activities organised in the capital may be attempted. This is the object of the second synopsis on World War I by the Brussels Studies Institute, published in the 116th issue of Brussels Studies. Serge Jaumain and Joost Vaesen (historians at Université libre de Bruxelles and Vrije Universiteit Brussel), with the help of seven of their colleagues from universities, museums and other research institutions, had a closer look at the commemorative events organised in Brussels, in particular their themes, organisers, financing and impact on the general public.

Their analyses show above all that commemoration does not escape from federalisation. The federated entities have vividly demonstrated the autonomous role which they intend to play in future events of this type. The Brussels-Capital Region was not outdone, even though it became directly involved later. It implemented different activities aimed at reaching a wide public. Its emergence as a full stakeholder of historical memory was one of the main consequences of these commemorative events. But it does not erase the presence of other stakeholders in its territory, whether it is the federal or federated authorities of the Belgian state, municipal authorities or stakeholders from civil society. In Brussels, the commemoration has often been a shared commemoration, which has also been competitive at times.

This brief overview of activities in the Brussels Region has shown that there has been a certain reappropriation of commemorative events by the general public, as well as part of their history. The public have demonstrated an interest in history, as well as in the knowledge of their local past: a true historical appetite which only needs to be fed by a direct and original dialogue between researchers and the general public. The simple presentations of the past seem to have given way gradually to a new model of interaction, with all citizens transformed into stakeholders of their past. Provided that the process is well supported, this trend offers interesting opportunities for historians, who are invited to enter into dialogue with new stakeholders in need of their expertise. They come from many different backgrounds, as underlined by the extreme diversity of events created in the framework of the centenary.

Overall, the theme of the majority of events in Brussels studied here wavered between two main lines: the daily life of the inhabitants of Brussels and the global history of the conflict in its Belgian dimension. But we must underline the fact that these approaches were used very often to prompt debates and reflection on current issues as diverse as the reception of refugees, daily life in an occupied country, the image of homosexuality, etc. In certain ways, we might even say that it is not so much the past as an object of knowledge which was on the agenda for the centenary, but the presentation of certain values which make sense in today's society: the defence of freedom, solidarity, democracy, social cohesion, etc. These themes were approached through the experiences of civilians and soldiers from all origins who were on Belgian soil and in particular in the capital.

The approach to the past has often been used as a tool for cohesion and as a lever for integration. It is a past which concerns everybody: the inhabitants of Brussels from here and elsewhere, history enthusiasts, lovers of historical memory tourism, expatriates, tourists for a day, etc.

A pluralistic commemoration, typical of Brussels.

Serge Jaumain, Joost Vaesen, Bruno Benvindo, Pierre Bouchat, Eric Bousmar, Iadine Degryse, Chantal Kesteloot, Olivier Klein and Karla Vanraepenbusch, “A comparative look at a centenary. A review of World War I commemorative events in Brussels”, Brussels Studies [Online], Synopses, No 116, 06 November 2017. URL:
Benjamin Wayens, Senior Editor: bwayens[at]

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