The Centenary of the First World War in West-Flanders
Now that the centenary of the First World War is on its last legs, it seems as if very soon we may also forget the official commemoration of the period for many years. In 50 years’ time there will perhaps be general international attention again, but for now the official commemoration moves from next year on towards the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, in 2019 and 2020. As one of the main places of the permanent commemoration of the First World War, regardless of the anniversary, the city of Ypres forms an exception to this. Ypres and the former front area around it is therefore an excellent case to gain a good insight into the ever-widening gap between official and non-official forms of commemoration. The first one takes place on a number of occasions during the Last Post ceremony at the Menin Gate, the latter is roughly divided into two major forms: the cultural commemoration and the ephemeral.
In Ypres where the commemoration is still largely dominated by the commemoration from the British Commonwealth, it is striking how little account is taken of the prevailing historical reflection on the course and outcome of the war. Historians from all over the world are to a large extent agreeing that the war was a direct consequence of the international imperialist policies of the great European powers and that their settlement in the Paris Peace Conference and subsequent treaties between 1919 and 1923 was at least partly responsible of the second world conflict and of other conflicts since then, up to this day.
The official discourse from many former Allies doesn’t show any of this, it is as if it were still November 11, 1918 or June 28, 1919. Little wonder, therefore, that the ephemeral commemoration, poppies galore, does not suggest any critical reflection. On the other hand, cultural commemoration, in many forms, offers an opportunity to respond to the critical historical analysis. The cultural commemoration is therefore continuously growing and the only commemoration that encourages to take the lessons of the First World War at heart. In this paper we discuss a number of examples from the West Flemish front region, during the past centenary and before.