Belgium’s Diverging Memories. Is this so? If so, why? And is it a problem?

Re-Bel e-book 15, Published in English in January 2015, 37 pages

Edited by Bruno De Wever
Contributions by Maarten Van Ginderachter, Ann Roekens & Axel Tixhon, Nico Wouters, Laurence van Ypersele


Nations share (the idea of) a common past. What about Belgium? Does state reform goes along with diverging memories about the Belgian past? Is this a part of the “Belgian problem”? Or is it a wider phenomenon of the falling apart of collective national identities in a globalizing world? Must we care about a common national memory? 

According to the French historian Pierre Nora we are witnessing a world-wide upsurge in memory. Belgium is no exception. New museums are being built; Heritage and Open Monuments days are a huge success; heritage sites and living history events even more so; every day a new digital source collection is presented; political commissions seek the truth about events that happened long ago (Patrice Lumumba, Julien Lahaut); Belgian authorities offer apologies for their responsibilities in past crimes (the mayor of Antwerp to the Jewish community, the Belgian Prime Minister to the Rwandese Tutsi’s).

This “memorialism” finds its deeper reason in the search for a sense of belonging and a collective consciousness. Because of the rapid and continuous changing of the present – what Nora calls the “acceleration of history” – and the growing feelings of uncertainty about the future, people are seeking comfort in the past. Traditions, customs, landscapes, “terroir”, monuments etc. – ”les lieux de mémoires” in Nora’s words –, realms of memory, offer access to the past.

How does this general and world-wide pattern fits in with the actual Belgian state of affairs? The future of the Belgian nation-state has become very uncertain. Does this provoke memorialist activities concerning the Belgian past? Not at first sight. On the contrary, the Walloon, Brussels and Flemish regions and communities develop their own memorialist activities. This can be seen for instances in the commemoration of the centenary of WWI. Does this provoke diverging memories? If so, are these diverging memories part of the crisis of Belgian identity? These questions are raised in the contributions by Nico Wouters and Laurence van Ypersele on the present WWO-commemorations in Belgium.

Recent research on the way collective memories are constructed points at the importance of “memory makers”. As long as memory has not been organized by opinion makers it contains little more than atmosphere, feelings or another form of suggestion. It is therefore essential that the dynamic processes that lend a collective memory form, content and resonance, both top-down and bottom-up, should get a more structural interpretation. Memories only assume collective relevance when they are structured, represented and used in a social setting. Maarten Van Ginderachter argues that in the last four decades the Flemish nationalist memory has become dominant in Flanders. Its central tenet is victimisation and discrimination by Belgium. In his contribution he puts this into the historical perspective of the making of identities in Belgium on the one hand and the process of globalisation on the other. He concludes that diverging memories in Belgium are both a symptom and a cause of the drifting apart of communities in the country, but they are not the result of the challenges globalisation supposedly poses to national identities.

Anne Roekens and Axel Tixhon argue that these observations are related to the economic history of Belgium with the ups and downs in Flanders and Wallonia. This diverging history has led to popular images of a “poor Flanders” that struggled itself up to become a rich and prosperous region on the one hand and a “rich Wallonia” that went down into poverty and misery on the other hand. These images are very present in today’s political and societal debates in Belgium. But are the memories of this economic evolution the same in the various parts and communities of the country?

The apparent weakness of the Belgian federal state, especially in matters of culture (and thus in the field of history and memory) could well be one of the causes of the diverging memories on the Belgian past. That Belgium was once a strong nation-state finds no relevance in today’s society and is therefore forgotten or transformed into nostalgia without connection with the present and without relevance for the future.