The Flemish Peace Institute report: "Advice concerning the Centenary of the First World War and its message of peace"

Posted on on 04 June 2013
Share |

The Flemish Peace Institute publishes an English language "note" which provides advice on how to deliver commemorations for the Centenary of the First World War to "convey a message of peace".

The advice given is based on a report published in November 2011, which was written to consider how Flemish authorities and the Flemish Parliament could deliver commemorations to "convey a message of peace".

The 2011 report "critically examined how this objective could be achieved".

The theme of peace being linked to the Centenary of the First World War has been a central part of Flemish national and international plans to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the conflict.

As such, the advice issued by the Flemish Peace Institute focuses on this theme.

The Flemish Peace Insititute's advice considers three main ideas:

A consistent vision of peace-oriented commemoration

The role of historians in the commemoration of the First World War

A project that cuts across all policy area

A consistent vision of peace-oriented commemoration

The message of peace

The Flemish Peace Institute draws attention to the way commemoration ceremonies have remained similar to those in the 1920s, but that the growing importance of "other forms and media such as heritage, television and the internet" is changing this.

The disappearance of those who fought in and lived through the First World War means that "the memory of the war nowadays is passed on by people who are increasingly distanced in time from the events they commemorate".

The Flemish Peace Institute states that "commemorations remain complex social phenomena", citing the "often ambiguous relationship between commemoration and history".

Therefore, "authorities engaging in commemoration projects are well-advised to give careful consideration to their vision of remembrance policy".

The Flemish Peace Institute emphasises that those planning commemorations must consider carefully how to "infuse commemoration projects with contemporary content".

Flemish plans to link their commemorations to the theme of peace are described as "not unproblematic", when considering the conflict from a historical point of view.

The danger, the Flemish Peace Institute states, is that "history is engaged with in a way that is too much determined by the desired contemporary message".

Two means of infusing the theme of peace to the commemorations are considered: explicitly and implicitly.

The "explicit" approach "involves overtly weaving the message of peace" - such as the theme of 'no more war' - being directly adopted in the commemorations.

The second "implicit" approach is more subtle. "It begins with telling stories – as diverse as possible – about soldiers and civilians who experienced the impact of the war first-hand and framing these stories in the larger historical framework and the structural dynamics that made the war possible".

The "implicit" approach allows people to be exposed to the "complex reality and the impact of war, [which] will encourage in people a more general critical reflection on the meaning of war".

Resultantly, the Flemish Peace Institute suggests, this will result in an "appreciation of peace", and may spur people to consider "maybe even a motivation to work on peace in one’s own time and place".

The Flemish Peace Institute found that the implicit approach was favoured by those it surveyed and that this approach allowed the "memory of the war [to] be rendered not only recognizable but also relevant for a contemporary audience".

The diversity of war commemorations

The Flemish Peace Institute highilghts that the Westhoek Region, (Flanders Fields), is an area where the Flemish Government's theme of peace may encounter rival commemorations and traditions.

The area is resident to British, German, Belgian, Flemish and local commemorative traditions, where "militaristic or imperial overtones" rival the Flemish theme of peace.

The question posed is: should these other traditions be criticised and "reshaped", or allowed to co-exist?

The Flemish Peace Institute concludes: "In order to be truly peace-minded, [a] peace-oriented commemoration policy must not simply aim to convey its own message, but also recognise this diversity and complexity".

"This implies recognising that people and groups sometimes tell very different stories about the past and hold different interpretations of how to commemorate historical events".

Therefore, co-existence seems to be the preferred solution, however, "in a sphere of mutual respect... it should be possible to have an open and critical debate about the historical interpretations and normative choices underpinning different remembrance traditions".

How can the Flemish Government commit to its vision?

The Felmish Peace Institute advises three main means of commitment:

The issuing of a "vision document", whereby the Flemish Government outlines its "premises, priorities and objectives of its remembrance philosophy". This is then distributed and made available in the "public sphere".

Spreading the "remembrance philosophy": The Government should spread this message within its "radius" via means such as subsidies for commemorations and by collaborating with national and international "actors".

In an "open, respectful manner", this message can also be spread to national and international "actors".

The role of historians in the commemoration of the First World War

The Flemish Peace Institute acknowledges the relationship between cultural memory and history is "characterised by tensions and risks".

"Although historians do not contest that commemorations are a legitimate government activity... they are critical of public remembrance that uses the past as a tool to reinforce contemporary political messages or moral lessons. They see a risk that the past will be used in a one-sided or anachronistic way: only those elements in history that support the given message are cited".

The Flemish Peace Institute cites a historian who states that the Flemish Government's theme of peace in the commemorations of the First World War create a “tension with the Belgian historic reality of 1914-1918",  and that there is a “threat that projects and initiatives will be used deliberately to strengthen Flemish identity”.

This would be a problem “because the past is here being manipulated to (explicitly) serve current political objectives”.

The Flemish Peace Institute acknowledges the concerns of historians who do not feel they have been sufficiently involved in Centenary plans, and those who criticise the programme's “radical pacifist discourse associated with the commemoration”.

The Flemish Peace Institute states that plans have developed from "seeing [the historians'] critical remarks as an impetus for further reflection" and that "the commemorative project can only gain in depth of content".

"The Peace Institute further believes that historians need to be more closely involved in the commemorative project, for example by inviting them to be part of jury panels for granting subsidies".

The Flemish Peace Institute concludes that a "peace-oriented commemoration of the First World War impossible", but that it is "vital for all concerned to reflect on how these commemorations engage with war history".

A project that cuts across all policy areas

The Government of Flanders has set itself the target of creating commemorations that "cut across all policy areas".

This will be achieved "in line with the various Flemish spheres of competence, the project covers several fields such as foreign policy, heritage, tourism, education and media".

The Flemish Peace Institute has stated that the Government of Flanders has made "good progress" with the project's international dimension, tourism and architectural heritage.

The Flemish Government is working with international partners to mark the Centenary and has signed up to the 'International Declaration on Flanders Fields', in which "Flanders and its international partners ask the international community to keep the memory of the First World War alive".

There are also plans underway to have the landscapes of the Somme, the Marne and the Yser (Ypres) recognised as part of the UNESCO World Heritage".

A total of €20 million has been set aside by the Flemish Government for tourism during the Centenary, which also includes the restoration of several war memorials and museums.

The Flemish public broadcaster (VRT) has established a "project for commemorating the war centenary including a fiction series and the digital archiving of and access to historical interviews with witnesses of the war".

Some areas identified by the Flemish Peace Institute are less advanced. For instance, some projects to commemorate the Centenary are being supported "in the context of regular cultural policy", such as the 'In Flanders Fields' Museum.

The education sector was also singled out as not having developed  its learning programme to meet the Flemish Government's aim of commemorations that "cut across all policy areas".

The Flemish Peace Institute states that "to make a reality of the project’s ambition to cut across different policy areas, the Government of Flanders will have to make more effort than hitherto also in other fields like education and culture, in addition to the efforts already made in foreign policy and tourism".

The Peace Institute further points to the importance of working at different policy levels, including with "cities and municipalities, provinces, other communities and regions, and the federal level" in order to "guarantee that the commemoration has a broad perspective and that initiatives are coordinated".


The Flemish Peace Institute advises that in order to mark the Centenary of the First World War, the following should be implemented:

The Flemish Government should formulate a coherent vision of how it intends to give shape and content to a peace-oriented commemoration of the First World War, taking account of the following key points: 

That the message of peace should come from the bottom up, by telling stories about soldiers, civilians and children who experienced the impact of the war in their everyday lives, without losing sight of the larger historical framework and structural dynamics that led to the war

That commemoration activities and projects should approach war history in all its complexity and with respect for the historical framework, and not merely use the past as a means to achieve contemporary objectives

That the commemoration project should not only promote a message of peace, but also pursue a peaceful culture of commemoration, which means in particular showing respect to the variety of commemoration traditions and practices. 

That historians should be more closely involved in the commemoration project, for instance by inviting them to join an umbrella advisory committee overseeing the entire project from an academic perspective, as well as to sit on specific jury panels for granting subsidies.

That alongside the efforts already made in the fields of foreign policy and tourism, the Flemish authorities should make more effort than at present in other policy areas such as education, culture, youth and media, thus allowing the project’s aim of cutting across various fields of government to become a reality. Further, the Peace Institute recommends that continuous attention be paid to cooperation with and support of commemoration initiatives by the provinces and municipalities, the federal level and other communities and regions.

To read the full report, visit the Flemish Peace Institute website here.

Images courtesy of Wikipedia

Posted by: Daniel Barry, Centenary News