75 years after the end of the Second World War on the European front, commemorations should have taken place. Yet the turn of events has decided otherwise. This is the occasion to have a closer look at the symbolism around the date of 8 May and the importance of remembrance.
8 May: a problematic date?
8 May 1945 is a day of rejoicing in Belgium. People were celebrating in the street, but jubilations were not as fervent as those that took place upon the Liberation. September 1944 had indeed been marked by German troops hasting away, Allied Forces triumphantly marching in, and people hoping for a new and better world. Eight months later, other events had taken place and dampened the spirits: the return or non-return of prisoners, deportees or victims of racial persecutions, the material conditions were harsh, the question of the return of the King that would cause a lasting rift in Belgian society, the disenchantment of the resistance... But can these multiple factors explain why 8 May never evolved to become the counterpart of 11 November? It has to be noted that it was initially not this date that Belgium chose to commemorate the end of the conflict. Belgium aligned with the date choices of the Allied only in 1922 and 11 November became a public holiday. But what about 8 May?
This date actually never really made it to the rank of public holiday in Belgium. Schools and public administrations are closed on this day, but celebrations remained low-key. In 1974, a law was passed that limited the number of public holidays in Belgium to 10 - and 8 May was not included. In 1983, this commemoration day was simply written off. Both world conflicts were henceforth jointly commemorated on 11 November. Today, only the Brussels-Capital Region has made 8 May its public holiday - a decision that was enacted on 13 March 2003. For the Region, this holiday celebrates the victory of democracy and humanism over “dark forces” of obscurantism and fascism.
While the abolition of 8 May as a holiday was indeed met with protest from patriotic associations, the reality is that this did not really cause a stir among the population, despite the decision of our neighbouring country France to establish 8 May as a public holiday when François Mitterrand took office. It must be noted that the first one to abolish this holiday in France was General de Gaulle in 1959. Here again, the reason was to reduce the number of public holidays. But this was in fact also a political operation: emphasis was more on the liberation of Paris than the victory of the Allied Forces in May 1945, and a reconciliation between France and Germany was pursued. Things were actually not very different in Belgium. For a long time, the tradition of celebrating the liberation was stronger than the celebration of the German surrender, even among resistance communities.
The National Monument to the Resistance: Forgotten monument?
A first turning point was 8 May 1955. On this day, at Avroy park in Liège, the King inaugurated the National Monument to the Resistance which faces King Albert I. bridge. The initial ambition was that this monument should become a landmark to the likes of the Unknown Soldier. But just as the latter, this monument in Liège did not stir enough fervour and symbolic power to enthuse all of the Belgian people. While the Unknown Soldier stood in the shadow of the Yser Tower right from the beginning, the monument built with regard to the Second World War is a late one and pays tribute to the resistance, which was an engagement that did not always have the same broad approval as the commitment of the Belgian soldiers in 1914-1918. Even more so than the memory of the first worldwide conflict, the second deeply divided public opinion, in particular with regard to the perception of the resistance. Today, this monument is widely ignored and abandoned.
8 May and commemorations
In the course of the decades, the heritage of the Second Word War has become a matter of very special importance, as democracy seemed to erode. During the 50th anniversary celebrations, Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene tried, with the usual enthusiasm that characterised him, to turn Monday 8 May 1995 into a public holiday. His initiative was not crowned with success however. Since then, several draft laws with the same goal were proposed, none of which was passed however. Yet today, the importance of the Second World War as a structuring issue and a moral framework is clear.
8 May 2020 should have been a day of commemorations everywhere while not being a public holiday. It was intended to round off the cycle that started last summer: from D-Day to V-Day. Yet the turn of events has decided otherwise. The absence of these commemorations leaves a bitter taste, a feeling of incompleteness, a cycle left pending without having been completed. The importance of the Second World War surely goes well beyond symbolic dates. We are aware that the conflict still weighs heavily on our societies.
Today, voices speak up to ask that 8 May becomes a public holiday again, not purely for celebration and spectacle, but as a moment of reflection on and valorisation of our democracy. Holiday or not, let us together make a step. Let us imagine 8 May 2021 as a day that enlightens us with the deeper meaning of democracy, that lets us dwell on our relationship with the past, that would raise and risk the right questions and a critical reflection about the years of war, not only in scientific publications but also in public debate: not to hold up the past as a banner, but to view it as an opening; a public history project for, by and with civil society.
Want to know more?
- Cédric Istasse, « Histoire, mémoire et identité : les fêtes nationales, régionales et communautaires en Belgique » in Courrier hebdomadaire du Crisp, nos. 2412-2413, Brussels, 2019.
- “Waarom wordt einde van WO II niet herdacht” in De Morgen, 8/5/2020, p. 16.