In Flanders Fields Declaration

By Laurence van Ypersele and Ben Wellings

The “In Flanders Fields Draft Declaration’ was tabled for discussion by the government of Flanders in the summer of 2010.

The politics surrounding this Draft Declaration illustrate some of the difficulties in commemorating the Great War in Belgium.   They also make an interesting contrast with the politics of remembrance in the United Kingdom, where – outside of Northern Ireland – the Centenary commemorations will be used to emphasise (British) commonality rather than national distinctiveness.

Belgium is currently divided into three major political and administrative regions: Flanders; Wallonia; and Brussels.  As a federation organised along consociational, linguistic lines, each of these regions is highly autonomous.  In this political context it was possible for the government of Flanders to draft a Declaration for discussion amongst the 50 foreign governments participating in the planning of Centenary activities in Belgium.  However, the government of Flanders sent this Draft Declaration neither to the government of Wallonia nor to the federal (Belgian) level of government.  Objections were raised from amongst the 50 foreign governments that this was inappropriate and that the diplomatic services of those foreign governments would only deal with the federal level of government in Belgium in equal government-to-government discussions.

So, when the government of Flanders, under pressure from foreign ambassadors, gave its ‘In Flanders Fields’ declaration to the federal level of government, thus making it a ‘national’ declaration, changes to the wording and meaning were proposed.

The government of Wallonia immediately suggested using the word ‘Belgium’ in place of ‘Flanders’ in the text.  It also called for recognition of the rights of minorities, explicit recognition of the involvement of soldiers and civilians in the name of freedom and democracy, and mention of the Second World War as well as the First. All of these suggestions were in some ways pointed reminders of historical divisions rather than grounds for Belgian unity, where Flemish and Walloon collective memories of twentieth century conflict diverged.

However, a political compromise was reached on October 2, 2012. After two years of political discussion, the word ‘Belgium’ can be found in the text, along with reference to the people who defended democracy and mention of the respect for ‘diversity’ (in place of ‘minorities’).  The rest of the declaration didn’t much change from the Draft.

Coverage of the Declaration announcement can be read here.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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Lest You Forget: memory and Australian nationalism in a global era

With the exception of sport, Australians don’t mind losing.

Losing entire wars of course interrupts the flow of the Australian narrative: the gradual evolution of a prosperous, democratic society far from the land of its modern origins now charting its own course through the new global dispositions of the twenty-first century.  Losing battles on the other hand, is acceptable as long as the outcome is assured.

This then is one of the strongest leitmotifs within Australian collective memory: triumph over adversity.  As with most national narratives that bind communities together there is truth in these tales.  The establishment of penal colonies so far from Britain was an impressive technical achievement.  The transformation of theses despotic colonies into democratic polities was an impressive political one.  The consolidation of these societies in the face of environmental hardship was an economic and social one.

But this narrative of the past leads to one of the creative tensions within Australian nationalism: that is that Australians are most comfortable with a view of themselves as ultimately victorious victims.  Thus in recounting tales of Australia’s historical development, victimhood is emphasised, whilst victory is downplayed.  Australian collective memory is most comfortable with itself when Australians are portrayed as victims of an unjust penal system, or victims of a harsh environment, or victims of British military incompetence.

That last source of victimhood dominates the collective memory of the Great War.  Gallipoli is the prime example, but actions at Fromelles, Pozieres and Zonnebeke all fit into the same narrative arc.  Whatever bravery or resignation individuals summoned in the moment of battle, poor planning drastically reduced their chances of survival.  In the collective memory, those individuals are no longer volunteer citizen-soldiers renowned for their fighting qualities, but rather have become victims divorced from the wider strategic contexts that brought about their deaths.

This view of the Great War and the sense of victimhood occasioned by it is not unique to Australia of course.  It was evident early on when collective understandings of the conflict were being established, as in Siegfried Sassoon’s ‘The General’:

“He’s a cheery old card”, grunted Harry to Jack/ As they marched up to Arras with rifle and pack.

But he did for them both with his plan of attack.

Luddendorf’s notion of the British soldiers as “lions led by donkeys” clearly struck a chord.  Collective criticism of the war grew until it became shorn of its original meaning, ‘the Great War for Civilisation’, until it became first ‘the Great War’ and then, when it could no longer be conceived as ‘the War to end all wars’, merely the first in a series of epoch defining conflicts.  Importantly it became remembered as a tragedy, not in the sense of a disaster that could be foreseen but not prevented, but rather in the sense that it involved a lot of victims.  Without the redeeming triumph over evil that could so easily be read into narratives about the Second World War, the collective memory of the Great War focused on victims rather than victory.

This memory of the Great War served important historical and political purposes.  Firstly it helped create important ideological foundations for later European integration.  One important source of European commonality, ran the narrative, was that Europeans were all victims of war.  And after all the history wars, les guerres de memoires and the vergangenheitsbewaltigung, the memory of the Great War was free from guilt and blame as all participants, especially the dead, were victims of war.  Secondly, successive crises within the European Union have revived the memory of the Great War and caused it to be patched up and sent back to the front line for active service once more in the cause of public diplomacy.  This is where the forthcoming centenary commemorations – coordinated in European capitals – will serve a wider political purpose and once again draw Australia in.

Australia has experienced its own revival in Great War commemoration and has arrived at a similar jumping off point to its European counterparts but for somewhat different reasons.  Reasons for the growth in interest in the Great War and the national values that it allegedly helped forge are manifold.  However, at the political level Anzac has been the form of identity politics that eventually came to dominate potential rivals as Australia transitioned into a global era.  Republicanism was defeated decisively in 1999.  An attempt to generate a narrative of Australian distinctiveness around memory of Federation in 1901 was too bloodless – literally and metaphorically – to provide the requisite sense of drama to inspire popular interest.  Reconciliation – Australia’s own vergangenheitsbewalitgung – was too unsettling to remain in the popular consciousness for long.

Indeed the latter may have helped contribute to the popularity of Anzac.  Reconciliation provided an alterative narrative of Australian history whereby Australians were no longer victims, but perpetrators.  Politically this was unacceptable to the government of the day, and energy and resources were diverted into wartime commemorative services.  Reconciliation continued only in vestigial form after 2001, leaving the field to Anzac.

So Australians’ views of themselves as victims sits very well with the European notion of victimhood as we approach the centenary of the Great War.  Or it does up to a point, for the narrative of victimhood has its limits.  In 2014 the commemorative spotlight is likely to fall upon Belgium with the memory of occupation and atrocities to be negotiated.  In 2015 Australia and New Zealand will take centre stage as victims of war, although how the Armenian genocide might be marked diplomatically remains to be seen.  In 2016 and 2017 all nations can commemorate victimhood.  But 2018, the centenary of ‘the year of victory’ (and defeat), will upset this narrative.

In 1918, the Allied and Associated Powers won too decisively for contemporary Australian tastes.  However much understandings of the Great War and the peace that followed blurred the distinction between victory and defeat, the Treaty of Versailles was clear that Germany not only lost, but also started the war in the first place.  Article 231 has been blamed for many things, including the Second World War.  However, so complete a victory – and so flawed a peace – will be difficult to commemorate.  Australians and their government will avoid this difficult topic and concentrate on the defence of Villers-Bretonneux and its subsequent reconstruction during the centenary year of 2018 in addition to a return to the narrative of Australian fighting skill, also evident in the commemoration of the battles of 1918.

Victims are absolved of responsibility.  This is the risk of commemorating victimhood.  Such commemoration does not provide those interested with ways to understand the world around them in any profound way.  It merely provides a set of cues about exemplary national behavior: how to respond to the long-ago deaths of distant relations or complete strangers when surrounded by hundreds or thousands of co-nationals and to receive approval from those in positions of responsibility.

Given the structures of international relations and the dynamics of political crisis and public diplomacy, it is hard to see any other way in which the Great War can be commemorated. But it can de remembered differently.  Shifting attention from victimhood to the structures and decisions that helped cause the deaths of these individuals, can and should be an important part of the commemorative activities.  Lest we forget.

Ben Wellings

Ben Wellings is Lecturer of European Studies at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.

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The Coral Sea incident (1973): a case of symbolic sanction ?

To embody the ideals of the nation and project them onto the global stage have been aspirations of Australian prime ministers since the 1960s, as Australia has developed a middle power role and diverged from the British world view in foreign affairs. Michelle Grattan observes that ‘through the century of Federation, Australia’s place in the world has been a preoccupation of its prime ministers’1. We contend that, in the period in which Winter locates the ‘second memory boom’, the prime minister’s office has assumed responsibility for key areas of foreign affairs, including memorial diplomacy, because of its potential for articulating national identity inwardly and projecting national aspirations abroad. Just as the President of the Republic is the ‘first magistrate’ of France, Australian premiers have acted as the Commonwealth’s ‘first diplomat’, most visibly when Gough Whitlam combined the highest political office with the portfolio of Foreign Affairs in 1973.

Whitlam’s premiership (1972-75) rewrote the script of Australian foreign policy: ‘the themes of equality and interdependence, intolerance of racism and contempt for colonialism would form the core of Whitlam’s approach to international affairs’2.  The first Australian Prime Minister to visit the People’s Republic of China, his diplomacy of the ‘new nationalism’ aimed to emancipate Australia from its dependence on ‘great and powerful friends’. In so doing, he sought fresh symbols and idioms, both at home – in the Eureka Stockade (1973) and Gurindji (1975) speeches among others – and overseas, notably during the prime ministerial visit to Europe in the winter of 1974-75 which saw Whitlam tour the European capitals via Singapore less than two years after Britain joined the Common Market.

Arguably, it is because Whitlam’s world view rejected containment, forward defence and ideological confrontation that war memory remained on the margins of his diplomatic discourse. However, James Curran has shown that the Eureka speech made in Ballarat on 3 December 1973, in which the Prime Minister set the tone of the ‘new nationalism’, was circulated by the Department of Foreign Affairs to all overseas missions with a memorandum recommending it as the ‘mainspring of the Government’s political philosophy and hence a motivating force in its actions and reactions on foreign affairs’3. Eureka was therefore at once an exercise in memorial politics and diplomacy, aimed at both domestic and international audiences. Similarly, when Gough Whitlam ceremoniously poured the red earth of Vestey land into the cupped hands of Vincent Lingiari on 16 August 1975, it was more than a gesture of restitution to the Gurindji people of the rights to their traditional lands. It signalled that Australia was turning the page on the ideology of the White Australia policy and preparing to engage with its Asian neighbours, placing the politics of land rights on an international trajectory. In neither instance is there a clear dividing line between the national and international dimensions of the politics of the past: their wavelengths lie on the same policy spectrum, albeit more or less visibly according to the priorities of the day. Memorial politics moves into the diplomatic spectrum when it seeks to emphasise the transnational dimension of commemorative links and histories shared between visitor and host nations or between national communities.

Documents from the personal papers of E.G. Whitlam in the Australian National Archives reveal a diplomatic hiatus in the commemorative calendar which placed a strain on bilteral US-Australian relations in the early 1970s. In 1973, the American State Department sought to downgrade the Coral Sea Week commemoration, which had been celebrated jointly with visiting US dignitaries since 1946 as a gesture of gratitude for American support for Australia in World War II. The American ambassador to Canberra, Walter Rice, informed the Department of Foreign Affairs that the official US delegate, Peter Flanigan, had declined the Australian-American Association’s invitation to attend the Coral Sea week celebrations as their special guest, and that his successor, ambassador Marshall Green, was unavailable. Flanigan was Assistant to the President for International Economic Affairs and an influential aide in the Oval Office, advising Nixon personally on diplomatic and financial affairs4. His last minute defection is said to have elicited a “bitter reaction” from the AAA Federal President. Further correspondence reveals the State Department’s reluctance to commemorate the Battle of the Coral Sea more than once every five years, if at all, and speculation in the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet as to its tacit motives5.

It seems a reasonable hypothesis to attribute the rise in US-Australian tensions to divergences over policy towards Vietnam. Three days after it took up office on 5 December 1972, Whitlam’s government ended the military commitment to South Vietnam and on 26 February 1973, the Prime Minister announced the establishment of diplomatic relations with North Vietnam while continuing to recognise the government of the South. The US government appears to have been prepared to suspend the Coral Sea commemoration in 1973, and even discontinue it thereafter, to mark the divergence of views with the Whitlam government over the future of the Asia-Pacific region post-Vietnam, in the context of Nixon’s Guam doctrine. American diplomats argued instead that with the decline of the Coral Sea generation and the fading of communicative memory, the commemoration was of decreasing relevance and public resonance, while pressure to discontinue the event was interpreted on the Australian side as a symbolic sanction. In extremis, a compromise solution was reached whereby the lesser known Apollo 17 astronaut, Dr. Harrison Schmitt, was delegated to stand in for the absent dignitary6. Coral Sea Week was subsequently subsumed within the Battle for Australia Day commemoration in 2008, confirming its long-term decline.

Gough Whitlam’s engagement with commemorative issues continued beyond office into the prime ministerial ‘after-life’ : he was to revisit the themes of the Eureka Stockade (nationalism in a minor key) at the Battle of Vinegar Hill Dedication Ceremony in 1988 ; and in his tireless campaigning for the return of the Parthenon Marbles he has supported the cause of world heritage that he helped define as the Hawke government’s ambassador to UNESCO (1983-85), distancing Australia from the cultural paternalism of the British Museum and, symbolically, from dependence on a monocultural British heritage.

At the ‘Politics of the Past’ symposium7, we debated whether memorial diplomacy was more than just ‘mood music’, a ceremonial counterpoint for the hard power cut and thrust of inter-state relations. The Coral Sea incident suggests that the mood can be dark and out of key when commemoration turns to diplomatic censure.



  1. Grattan, Michelle. Australian Prime Ministers. Sydney: New Holland, 2000, p.15 []
  2. Curran, James. The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2006, p.80 []
  3. Curran p.118 []
  4. []
  5. Personal Papers of Prime Minister EG Whitlam. Correspondence between E G Whitlam and Walter L Rice (American Ambassador) regarding guest at Coral Sea anniversary ceremony: NAA M503, 20690 []
  6. NAA M503, 20690 []
  7. ANU, 26-27 April 2012 []