by Roland Binet (De Panne, Belgium)
A few weeks ago my wife and I visited a number of British Commonwealth military cemeteries from World War I in Belgium’s Ypres area, which is in western Flanders, the Dutch-speaking region in the north of Belgium. Starting in October 1914, Ypres had been attacked by considerable German forces but held its ground and remained part of the Allies’ front line until November 1917 when the line was joined by Anzac and Canadian soldiers, going on to reach Passendale, thus breaching the German army’s hold on the Ypres Salient in the west of Belgium.
I always feel a deep admiration for all those young men, the young privates as well as their officers who were sometimes much older. I come to see there graves in these Commonwealth military cemeteries. They were young men who came from New Zealand, Canada, Australia, South Africa, Wales, Ireland and Northern Ireland, England, and Scotland. They also came from India and Nepal and fought here in Belgium as volunteers, career soldiers or conscripted troops, to defend “brave little Belgium.” In Western Flanders, there are hundreds of such cemeteries where courageous men were laid to rest in what has been poetically termed “Flanders’ Fields,” a place that is forever British, with places of worship and by way of a common memory.
In addition, there are, in Western Flanders, numerous French, Belgian and at least two German military cemeteries. This region, Flanders’ Fields, has verily been drenched in blood spilled by hundreds of thousands of soldiers from both sides, during those four long years of the First World War.
Flanders, like other regions in European countries, has in recent times undergone the process of “Devolution” which transfers certain functions and powers to local authorities. Within that context, it was decided some years ago to come up with a “Flemish Canon” which is a compendium or list of essential symbols (people, places, events, artefacts) drawn up by a committee appointed by the regional devolved government of Flanders. Like others in Europe, it is meant to be a valuable guideline for teaching history and instilling regional pride and sense of identity.
As historian Emmanuel Gerard of Leuven University, president of the commission, said at the time of the Canon’s presentation:
The purposes of The Canon of Flanders is to bring a basis for knowledge that is sufficiently pertinent and representative.
(De Standaard , May 10, 2023)
Number 41 in the list of 60 symbolic themes is the “Treurend ouderpaar” (Grieving Parents) by artist Käthe Kollwitz.” The sculpture supposedly illustrates the universal suffering of World War I. This symbol comprises two statues, a man and a woman, both kneeling, sculpted by the renowned German artist Käthe Kollwitz. They are grieving for their slain son Peter. These statues and the tomb of their son Peter are situated in the German military cemetery in Vladslo.
I had discovered the work of Käthe Kollwitz while on an excursion in the vicinity of Dresden in the 1990s where I had seen the house where she died in 1945. Later, I visited the Kollwitz museum in West Berlin on numerous occasions, as well as another in Köln and also some of her works in the Flemish town of Koekelare. She is an artist of immense talent and my wife and I admire her work very much. Indeed, for a long time we have been acquainted with and admired the statues she sculpted after her son Peter’s death in October 1914 and admire them, having visited the Vladslo German cemetery on a number of occasions, on one of which we took this photo.
But, for Flanders to have officially taken as one of the symbols in their “Flemish Canon” (to serve as a guide for history and values for future generations) is plainly a case where some nice piece of artwork can be “morally kidnapped” by some government forces and abused to glorify wanton invaders of a neighboring country’s land and people. To do so is unseemly, unacceptable and unworthy of a region within the European Union. Peter had enthusiastically volunteered for the German army and was sent to Belgium where he fell on the Ypres front, in the Langemark region, in one of those idiotic mass attacks which were later called The Massacre of the Innocents. He was a German soldier, part of an invasion force of a totally unprovoked invasion, much as we see happening in Ukraine attacked by the Russian Federation’s invasion force. No doubt many personally innocent, conscripted, or deceived young men are to be found on the level of the individual combatant. But would any European in their right mind want to glorify a fallen member of a wanton invasion force that wreaked death and havoc on a peaceful neighboring country? On the very territory of that invaded country? Without an unequivocal moral critique of what was perpetrated by the forces for which he voluntarily fought?
Both my wife’s and my own maternal grandparents fought for four hard years in the trenches on the Flanders’ front. If they survived at all it was because young men like Peter Kollwitz had been killed in greater numbers than the soldiers on our, the Allies’, side.
The devolved Flemish government is dominated by the N-VA (De Nieuwe Vlaamse Alliantie), a party whose historical roots hark back to the nationalistic Flemish collaborators’ movements during the Second World War. For them, elevating as one of the grand national symbols of the Flemish Canon the slain invading German soldier is not that surprising. It is rather yet another confirmation of their total neglect of the historical reality of World War I: a reality that is founded on the thousands of civilian Belgians killed by the Germans, of the hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers killed by the Germans, of the thousands of houses destroyed by the Germans (including the famed Leuven Library and its tens of thousands of books), of the enslavement and deportation of thousands of Belgian civilians, of the war economy aimed at exporting Belgian products to Germany. And a lot more too.
This is an insult to the memory of the hundreds of thousands of Commonwealth, French and last but not least Belgian soldiers who had not hesitated one single moment to put their lives at great risk to defend Belgium against its imperial German aggressors, of which, alas, Peter Kollwitz had been one small (but essential) cog.