German anti-aircraft guns positioned toward the North Sea
“War and exile had not fully erased the effects of the historical fact that although Belgium had long been the crossroads of Europe, the Belgians had been primarily bystanders there, watching the traffic.”
– Sally Marks, Innocent Abroad
Since the High Middle Ages Belgium’s position straddling the divide between the Romantic and Germanic worlds has played a significant role in economic and urban development of the region. The ports and textile industry of Belgium were important back into the Middle Ages, and modern Belgium was one of the first countries to experience an Industrial Revolution, which brought prosperity in the 19th century but also opened a political dichotomy between liberal businessmen and socialist workers. That being said, the region’s role as a veritable crossroads connecting the aspirations of ambitious conquerors in Western and Central Europe has also been a source of great travail and tragedy for the peoples of the Low Countries. This is where Roman Gaul met Germania Inferior, the place that the Hapsburg’s of Spain and Austria mingled, Napoleon’s Waterloo, and where German attempts at continental conquest was ultimately staved off. In his sprawling meta-historical fiction Against the Day, Thomas Pynchon cynically describes Belgium’s position in world affairs as such:
“Little Belgium once again busy at what she does best, tamely offering her battlefield-ready lowlands to boots, hooves, iron wheels, waiting to be first to go under before a future no one in Europe has the clairvoyance to imagine as anything more than an exercise for clerks.”
In earlier posts I’ve discussed the complicated questions of identity that emerge when one attempts to seek out anything that can be perceived as distinctly “Belgian.” In order to understand identity, you must first understand history, and to comprehend history you must observe how individuals set out to commemorate the past. Which brings me to this weekend’s excursion to Oostende, located along the Belgian coast of the North Sea. The countryside surrounding Oostende has witnessed the coming of countless armies over the centuries and the Provincial Domain of Raversyde, just west of Oostende, sets out to engage with the local memory surrounding the trauma endured by the Spanish conquests of the 16th and 17th centuries, and that of the German onslaught of the 20th century. It was utterly fascinating to observe how the interpretation on the influence two of the most notorious conquering powers of the millennia had on the people along the Belgian coast.
The Raversyde Domain is divided into two adjacent but wholly unique historic sites that succinctly demonstrate just how many times Belgium has endured through unbearable social upheaval and adversity. The first of the two sites I visited at Raversyde was Anno 1485. This site is an archelogical reconstruction of the once lost fishing village of Walraversijde is one of the most important archaeological sites in Flanders and one of the best-studied medieval fishing communities in Europe. This medieval settlement has been examined systematically since April 1992 in cooperation with the Flanders Heritage Agency. The site was opened to the public in an appropriate instructional and archaeological manner in 2000, thanks to considerable financial support from Toerisme Vlaanderen and the European Union. Altogether the site includes four reconstructed homes from the mid 15th century, along with a small museum of artifacts recovered from the adjacent field school. See my tour of Anno 1485 in the gallery below:
Yet to me the most interesting part of the Anno 1485 display came from a series of Disney-esque cartoons panels that were placed throughout the exhibit. In following the history of Walraversijde role in the Spanish invasion of the 17th Century and subsequent town-destroying flood, one can’t help but look at it as some type of warped fairytale. The depictions of everyday life within the village during this period are also equally striking and not as kid-friendly as one might expect from the initial design:
The Spanish conquest is still very much a sore spot in the place of Belgian memory. The ferocity of the occupation and the Inquisition’s extermination policies are comparable to the German invasion three centuries later. Culturally speaking this has led to challenging interpretations in recent memory between the parallels between the Spanish and German occupations. Most notably Jaques Feyder’s La Kermesse Heroique (Carnival in Flanders) demonstrates a farcical look at the 1616 invasion, which in turn can be seen as a commentary on the German occupation of World War I and the impending expansion of the Nazi war machine in the late 1930s.
Especially in Flanders Feyder’s commentary on collaboration, which is set in the Belgian town of Boom, was well recieved in the French/Walloon south, but consternation in the Flemish/Dutch north. The premise more or less can speak for itself. In the midst of preparations for its carnival, learns that a Spanish duke with his army is on the way to spend the night there. Fearing that this will inevitably result in rape and pillage, the mayor — supported by his town council — has the idea of pretending to be newly dead, in order to avoid receiving the soldiers. But his redoubtable wife Cornelia despises this strategy and organizes the other women to prepare hospitality and to adapt their carnival entertainments for the Spaniards (who insist on entering the town anyway). The women’s welcome was enough that not only do the Spaniards keep the town intact but after the troops leave the Duke announces a year’s remission of taxes for the town.
The film’s collaborationist implications along with the suggestion that Flanders would be more submissive to foreign invaders led to staged protests and riots in movie theaters in Ghent, Antwerp, Bruge, and Oostende. Even two decades later, its enduring reputation irked Francois Truffaut so much that in a broadside against so-called ‘successful’ films: “In this regard, the most hateful film is unarguably La Kermesse héroïque because everything in it is incomplete, its boldness is attenuated; it is reasonable, measured, its doors are half-open, the paths are sketched and only sketched; everything in it is pleasant and perfect.”
The contrasts between the Spanish and German occupations are not lost on the interpreters at Raversyde either. The summer residence of the Belgian royal family connects the Walraversijde site with the second historic site, The Atlantik Wal.
With over 60 bunkers, observation posts and artillery positions combined with two kilometers of open or subterranean corridors constitute one of the best preserved parts of the infamous German ‘Atlantikwall’. This defense line was built by the Germans during the Second World War and ran from the French-Spanish border to Norway. Thousands of bunkers were constructed to protect the ports and to prevent an Allied assault. The Atlantikwall also features the only preserved German coastal battery from the First World War, namely the Aachen battery. This battery consisted of guns, observation bunkers and living quarters for soldiers. The Germans built batteries along the Belgian coast out of fear for an Allied landing on the beach and to protect the ports. During the Second World War new defenses were constructed at the same location within the scope of the Atlantikwall defense line. The open-air museum is the perfect place to experience the atmosphere of the ‘Longest Day’. All constructions on the site were restored to their original condition and furnished with authentic objects and furniture. The site has been preserved preserved thanks to the Belgian Prince Charles, who lived in residence here until his death and always opposed their destruction.
What fascinated me most about the interpretation of the site, was the inclusion of interpretive artwork throughout the exhibit space and preserved bunkers. One interesting aspect of the Belgian efforts to preserve the German bunkers from this period is through a series of artistic interpretations that rely on local artists coming in to graffiti the site with specialized designs. Over the next few months Atlantik Wal is showcasing the Private Tag Exhibition, an initiative of Arts Centre Vrijstaat-O. based on the idea of ‘tagging’, or leaving behind tracks. Fifteen contemporary artists get to work at Raversyde and traverse the site with an impressive visual result. We combine this with trench art, decorative items made by soldiers in the trenches. The hand of the artist can be felt and seen in both past and present. The artists take a surprising route along paths, through tunnels, over bunkers and past other crossroads where they left behind their signature. Better tactile and manual art is back, although it was never really gone. This type of art will be interwoven with interventions and creations of performers and musicians sharing the same state of mind. For more information see the brochure attached here.
Another compelling act of creative interpretation came with the wax figurines depicting the every day life of Nazi soldiers living in the bunkers. As you may remember in my my In Bruges Post, I’ve developed an immense enjoyment of the use of wax figurines in Belgian museums. Here too we see an unique intersection between reenactment, bitterness toward the subject, and an effort to raise awareness to present day social issues.
The most striking portion of the Private Tag Exhibition came with artist Heidi Voet’s Ghost of a Girl Installation. In this tag she went and placed blond wigs on fifteen of the German figures on display. On the surface the appearance of odd wigs on Nazi soldiers appears comical and representative of the scorn Belgians still hold over seventy years after Nazi occupation. However her artist statement demonstrates that there are far more significant reasons both for the choice of wig style and to use this as the subject of her tag. Below is an English translation of her artist statement:
“The effects of war on a population go far beyond the battlefield and have an impact on an entire community. In Raversyde we portray only male soldiers. The artist introduced 15 female hairstyles in the existing displays. With this artwork she also honors the other half of the population affected by war. History repeats itself and therefore she searched for women who feel the effects of armed conflict today. The artist represents them with copies of their hairstyles on the soldiers heads: an Afghan judge and a human rights activist who secretly educated girls during the Taliban regime, a Syrian actress, a woman who fled the Gulf War as a child and worked her way up in Finland to become a successful singer, a Kurdish female fighter and Nigerian woman who fled from the terror of Boko Haram.”
This is an impressive instance of historic interpretation that I’ve never before come across in any of my previous work in exhibit design. At both Anno 1465 and AtlantikWal I was able to see first hand some of the complicated ways in which Belgians have attempted to grapple with their nation’s legacy as a European crossroads. In examining this perspective on the past through cartoons, installations, or farcical films, a pattern begins to emerge. There is of course an underlying cynicism in the representations of Belgium’s most notorious invaders, yet what also bubbles to the surface is a defiant sense of humor that seeks to return agency once more to the individuals caught in the crossfire. Moreover there is a pronounced effort to bring to life the voice of the women who were left behind to engage with the occupiers, while the men were off at the front.
Feyder’s La Kermesse Heroique, although controversial in its association of Flemish men as Spanish (and by association German) collaborators, he grants a greater degree of agency to the women of Boom. It is their ability to simultaneously manipulate and negotiate with the Spanish invaders that ultimately saves the town. In contrast, Voet’s Ghost of a Girl succeeds in a similar effort to bring to life heroism of not only the Belgian women caught behind enemy lines during the World Wars, but how women the world over have set out to demonstrate their own agency even while living within regimes that have an similar disregard for human life and individual expression as Inquisition-Era Spain and Nazi Germany. Perhaps it is this defiance in the face of oppression, fortitude under fire, and penchant for black comedy that are the most common threads to be found as I continue on my search to understand what is Belgian identity.