Bruno De Wever is Professor of Contemporary History and Co-Director of the Institute for Public History at Ghent University. He is vice-president of the scientific council of the Belgian Centre for Historical Research on War and Contemporary Society (Cegesoma – Brussels www.cegesoma.be) and member of the scientific council of the Netherlands Institute for War- Holocaust- and Genocidestudies (NIOD – Amsterdam – www.niod.nl ). He published books and articles about the history of WWII and nationalism in Belgium. He was co-editor of the Encyclopedia of the Flemish Movement (1998), a major work of reference on the subject of nationalism in Belgium. He is editor-in-chief of WT: Journal of the History of de Flemish Movement (www.wt.be).
According to Anthony Smith and other authors on nations and nationalism, wars in the modern epoch had profound impact on nation building. Nations can be made but can also fail because of war. When Belgium was confronted with war for the first time in its existence in 1914, the country successfully won the support of its population to defend the Belgian fatherland against the invader. Belgian nationalism was a widespread sentiment. But war and occupation of most of its territory gave birth to an anti-Belgian Flemish nationalism as a result of German policies that provoked a collaboration movement. After the German defeat and the restoration of the Belgian state, the Flemish collaborators were punished or were forced to leave the country. Nonetheless, anti-Belgian Flemish nationalism was not defeated. On the contrary, it successfully staged the First World War as a dramatic confrontation of Flemish soldiers with an anti-Flemish Belgian statehood unwilling to give equality to the Flemish people. Flemish soldiers gave their blood for an ungrateful fatherland. This sacrifice was the dawn of the Flemish nation. It fueled the mythomoteur of a Flemish movement that gradually distanced itself from the Belgian fatherland. “Here lie their bodies like seeds in the sand / Hope for the harvest oh Flanders land”, wrote poet Cyriel Verschaeve, spiritual leader of the Front Movement, the organisation of Flemish-nationalist soldiers at the Yser battlefront. Until today these words can be read at the Yser Tower, a monument inaugurated in the year of the Belgian Centennial and the venue of one of the largest recurrent political manifestations in Belgium. Year after year the Yser Pilgrimages claimed a Flemish state in the name of the ‘Flemish Yser heroes’. After six Belgian state reforms and the formation of a Flemish substate, the Yser Pilgrimages as political manifestations came to an end. The Yser heroes finally won the battle they never fought.