In the first panel session of the KNHG Spring Conference, titled “Frameworks” and chaired by Hinke Piersma, two central themes were addressed. Firstly, political culture(s) in the Netherlands and Belgium, and comparative research on the two countries in this respect, and secondly, the promise of (the use) of new concepts.
Marnix Beyen (University of Antwerp) started with a plea for more comparative research with regard to the Second World War. Building on his comparative research on visions of the past in both the Netherlands and Belgium, Beyen pointed out how comparative research can shed light on different interpretations of terms and concepts. Illustrative was his argument about the different definition and use of the term “national war historiography” in the two countries. In the Netherlands “national war historiography” has a direct connotation with the Second World War, whilst in Belgian historiography the First World War appears as main point of reference. Beyen then stated that in his opinion Dutch historiography and political culture are centripetal, i.e. centred about the search for a national centre, whereas in Belgium historiography and political culture a more centrifugal. Marked by the division between the Flemish and the French, Belgium lacks a sort of moral national community, resulting in a continuing struggle between trans-, and subnational communities and their narratives. The Netherlands, building on a more nationalistic culture since the struggle against the Spanish in the 16th century, has a stronger tendency to distinguish between including those who are ‘good’ nationalist, and excluding those who were not part of the nation a.k.a ‘wrong’. An example is the debate about collaborators: in Belgium, the narrative of collaborators has just as much stage as the narrative of reistance, both communities are able to present themselves. Beyen thus concluded that we should focus on how groups of people identify with a certain moral community, whether national, transnational or subnational, and to which degree and with what intensity this identification takes place, as this will increase our understanding of experiences and memories.
After several questions, which amongst other concerned the obvious question to what extent this more fragmented, centre-fleeing Belgian historiography is preferable to the more nationalistic, centre-searching Dutch historiography, Geraldien von Frijtag Drabbe Kunzel (University of Utrecht) addressed the second theme, the promise of new concepts. By outlining how in her opinion the concept of ‘empire’ can shed new light on the history and historiography of the Second World War, she argued that there are interesting possibilities in the field of micro history. In particular with regard to agency of people, she stated that by focusing on the expectations and the experiences of individuals, on how war, occupation, hunger, and liberation affect their lives, we can gain insights in how ordinary people came to embrace imperial mindsets, how their worldviews evolved, and grasp an idea of their ideas and notions of belonging. This enables us to write about, and thus include, those who are not in the centre of power, to elaborate on new concepts such as ‘civil war’, expand in time, focus on interaction between different groups, and broaden our conceptual horizon. Of course, we should take into account that concepts such as ‘empire’ are also framed by our European methodological nationalism and be careful with how we implement concepts.