On a rainy afternoon in December, we interviewed His Excellency, Chris Hoornaert, Ambassador of Belgium in the Netherlands in his beautiful chancellery in The Hague. The theme of the interview was centered around the many remembrance activities that are currently taking place on the First World War. Unlike The Netherlands, Belgium was heavily afflicted by the war despite its neutrality.
In November, the Peace Palace was the setting for many commemoration activities on the subject of the First World War. The Netherlands - at the time - had a history of neutrality and was able to maintain its neutral position until the end of the war in 1918. Even though Belgium also shared a historical position of neutrality, the German forces invaded Belgium dramatically. We were interested in finding out more so we headed off to the Belgian Embassy where we were warmly welcomed by H.E. Ambassador Chris Hoornaert. We spoke to him about Belgium’s position in the war, the purpose of remembrance activities and Belgium’s role in modern Europe.
Before the outbreak of the First World War, Belgium was one of the most advanced industrialized countries in the world. Historically, Belgium, in particular the region of Flanders, was very prosperous due to its favorable geographical position with a harbor and a rich textile industry. In Wallonia, a flourishing steal and coal industry was developed. The very first railroad on the European continent ran from Brussels to Mechelen, says Ambassador Hoornaert.
In 1839, the Treaty of London determined that the Kingdom of Belgium was recognized as neutral territory by the surrounding countries such as France, Prussia and Russia. Belgium had a history as the battlefield of Europe. ‘Throughout our history it was not uncommon to be invaded by another European power, says Ambassador Hoornaert . ‘The German invasion in August 1914 was unfortunately not a unique experience for us’. We learned an important lesson from these war experiences which was not to rely on neutrality because ‘sooner or later, it is inevitable that you will be trampled upon’, Ambassador Hoornaert explains. After the war, it took many years for Belgium to recover economically only to experience yet another crisis in the thirties of the twentieth century, continues Ambassador Hoornaert. Nowadays, the role of Belgium, a small country in Western-Europe, is symbolic as Brussels is the seat of many international organizations.
During the First World War, the Belgian city of Ypres was the center of an intense battle between the German and Allied forces. Ypres became known as the first place in history where chemical weapons were used during a war. ‘As a result of this experience, Belgium took a firm stance internationally in the struggle against small and large weaponry and in particular, in the fight against cluster munitions. ‘When the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons was established (OPCW), Belgium was its greatest supporter.’ ‘In memory of the horrible tragedy in Ypres, the main Meeting Hall of the OPCW is named the Ypres Hall’, continues Ambassador Chris Hoornaert. ‘Recently a large remembrance ceremony took place in Ypres which was attended by many world leaders even by those who were considered former enemies. ‘The historical events in Ypres are very well known and I believe it is important to keep the memory alive’, Ambassador Hoornaert says.
When asked to explain the differences in the commemoration ceremonies in The Netherlands and Belgium, Ambassador Hoornaert tells us that the tragedy of the ‘Great War’ caused the legacy of the war to be experienced differently in Belgium than in The Netherlands but with no less intensity. ‘The main difference is that the activities center around different subjects, for instance issues such as neutrality and the Dutch involvement regarding the influx of more than one million civilian as well as military refugees from Belgium in to The Netherlands’, Ambassador Hoornaert says.
‘As part of the commemoration activities in Belgium, a peace bridge or ‘pantoon bridge’ was built over the river The Scheldt offering visitors a unique opportunity to walk on foot along the river and can thus experience the same as the millions of refugees that left behind a burning city looking for safer havens in 1914.
From an educational and historical perspective, these activities are very important in creating awareness about the First World War especially for a younger generation who has not experienced the war. ‘Both World Wars led many Europeans nations to the belief that cooperating on a European level was crucial in preventing future wars on the European Continent’, Ambassador Hoornaert tells us. ‘I strongly believe that the European Union was the best peace project that was created until this present moment’. ‘Nowadays, to younger generations living in Europe, free movement of peoples, open borders and one currency is considered normal and sometimes even taken for granted’. ‘The unification of Europe happened because of the First – and the Second World War and made us reach out to each other in order to rebuild Europe and ensure that these events will never happen again’.