Did War Make the Nation? The Role of Military Networks in WWI and WWII Belgium

Laura Acosta, Northwestern University

Dr. Robert Braun, University of California Berkeley

Published on: September 21, 2021

Image: Photo taken from In Flanders Field Museum website, the Names list project. Images of WWI civilian and soldier victims in Belgium

Belgium obtained international recognition as an independent nation in 1839 with the help of major external powers. Yet internally the two largest ethnic groups, the Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the Francophone Walloons in the south, were almost completely segregated. Despite experiencing frictions, the relationship between Flemish and Walloons remained remarkably peaceful for a long time. World War One (WWI) changed this. It transformed their relationship to each other and to the overarching Belgian nation.

In 1914, the pending threat of war made conscription mandatory for all Belgian men. This resulted in the mobilization of over 100,000 Flemish and Walloon soldiers who were assigned into military units. This process created military networks that allowed soldiers with different ethnic backgrounds to share memories, rights, and obligations. After a prolonged five-year effort to resist the German occupation, soldiers rejoined their places of residence. The military networks that emerged during the war expanded across the nation to form one of the most comprehensive interregional social networks of its time connecting Flemish and Walloon regions.

Simultaneously, museums and monuments were built, and medals were given out to commemorate those who fought and died as well as to bring Flemish and Walloons together. Even though this celebration of past sacrifice was aimed at reinforcing nationalism, the commemoration of WWI was received with both enthusiasm and rejection. For some communities WWI commemoration was a celebration of anti-German sentiments and national solidarity, while for others it became a symbol of ethnic discrimination and disloyalty. During the war, some Flemish soldiers were poorly treated by their Walloon officers, died disproportionately more often than their Walloon counterparts, and their efforts were not as frequently recognized either.

Only two decades later, the German military occupied Belgium for a second time. WWI commemoration asserted a strong, although ambivalent, influence on how Belgians responded to this invasion. While some veteran communities mobilized strong nationalist resistance networks that aimed to protect the nation, others collaborated with the Germans to achieve regional independence.

A first look at the Belgian case reminds us that there is no straightforward answer to the question: did war make the nation? Like sociologists who claimed that the link between international conflict and nationalism is one of the few covering laws in sociology, the Belgian case confirms that memories of previous wars can help spark nationalist mobilization at critical times for the survival of the nation. Yet, this case also aligns with those who claim that warfare can lead to the fragmentation of societies considering that WWI military legacies played a crucial role in setting up radical regionalist collaboration movements that demanded separation from Belgium.

In “War Commemoration and Nationalism in Belgium, 1914-1945: The Role of Military Networks,” we study the military networks that emerged during WWI and their role in mediating the construction of memories about commonality and the sense of belonging to the Belgian nation. We rely on commemorative books and archival records to build a database of WWI military networks, WWI monuments and medals, nationalist resistance attacks during World War Two (WWII), and anti-nationalist collaboration with the Nazis.

We first observe the relationships that formed within military units in terms of both how they connected Flemish and Walloon members (crosscuttingness), and how they either equalized or exacerbated preexisting inequalities between Flemish and Walloons in terms of status, power, recognition, resources, and risks (relational inequality). This analysis reveals that in some units, Flemish and Walloon soldiers fought alongside each other facing similar risks and with equal chances for gaining prestige and status. Yet other military units were mostly composed of either Flemish or Walloon soldiers and generally more disadvantaged.

As we expected, experiences within the army had important repercussions on how Belgians remembered WWI and how this, in turn, influenced their response to the Nazi occupation. We find that in communities where most veterans fought alongside members of different regional backgrounds, commemoration of WWI sparked strong resistance networks that defended the nation against the Nazis. Not only did WWI provide a role model for mobilizing against a foreign invader, but it also allowed veterans to bring together different segments of society.

We find the opposite in communities where most veterans fought in ethnically segregated military units with unequal resources, prestige, and status. In these communities, unions of disgruntled veterans formed the initial backbone of radical regionalist movements. Indeed, several regionalist factions saw the German occupation as an opportunity to break free from Belgium and to opportunistically align themselves with the Nazis.

Divisions between Flemish and Walloon communities still play a role in contentious politics in Belgium. Our analysis sheds new light on how WWI and WWII impacted how the Flemish and Walloon communities renegotiate(d) their relationship with the overarching Belgian nation. It also advances a larger research agenda by making sense of how, when, and where military experiences play a role in shaping the nation.

Laura Acosta is a PhD candidate in sociology at the Northwestern University. Her research investigates the causes of the most persistent civil wars and the factors that lead to their self-reproduction.

Robert Braun is an assistant professor of sociology and political science at the University of California Berkeley. He is currently working on the evolution of popular fear during the rise of the nation state in Central Europe.