Important Historical Source
The Belgian Press from the Great War is of global relevance for a number of reasons:
- The newspapers are evocative of their time, a period of crisis and significant social and cultural change.
- They contain crucial information about a locality that was very central to a major event in world history.
- The newspapers reflect significant aspects of human behaviour and of social and political development in the context in which they were created. They capture significant transitions in these areas.
- Their subject matter represents major intellectual and ideological developments.
- The periodicals are representative of the development of the press landscape in the early twentieth century, when newspapers were the most important mass medium.
- This documentary heritage makes significant events that still have an emotional hold on people who are alive today very tangible.
Below, we examine each of these reasons in more detail.
The newspapers in the collections document the events leading up to the war and the course of a conflict of unprecedented scale. It was an industrial war that also had a major impact on civilians, increased by the ‘national mobilisation’ of people and resources that such a war requires, also in occupied territories.
It was the first world war in history, partly fought on Belgian territory and in which Belgium played a central political role. But most importantly: the newspapers tell the story of the war from the point of view of the inhabitants of a country who lived and fought on one of the biggest battlefields of all time or who were driven from their homes by acts of war.
The wide scope of the collections means they offers international, regional and local perspectives on the events during the First World War in Belgium and beyond. In addition, the newspapers in the collections document a region that at that time was very important in world history.
In the collections we see and read how the impact of the war changed Belgium. The fighting in Liège, the arrival of German troops in Brussels, the reprisals in Leuven, the gradual devastation of Ypres, the destruction of the landscape of the Westhoek are all internationally renowned because they were documented in the press and because the press was employed to draw attention to them. The collections also return the spotlight to ‘forgotten’ scenes of devastation, such as those of the town of Dinant.
The collections teach us how in wartime, the press acts as a binding agent while also highlighting differences between groups. Their wide-ranging variety makes them an excellent source for understanding how people relate to each other in times of war: the enemy, people of different nationalities at the frontline, foreign benefactors abroad (given a face by the press), refugees abroad. For the population at large, the press is the cement holding together a country that has ceased to exist. The frontline papers are a good example of this.
The collections cover the entire social field and documents the experiences, ideas and strategies of many different groups. All social groups, political movements and religions are addressed, because the collections include more than just the well-known titles that mainly reflect the view of the elite.
It is significant that the collaboration movements (the ‘enemy from within’) are also present: the press of these groups has been digitized as well. The inclusion of the press published by the occupying power provides insight into how it tried to win over the inhabitants to its side. Because the press evolved into an alternative political arena, particular newspapers became the personal mouthpieces of eminent politicians or groups who would put their mark on post-war Belgian politics.
Thanks to these press collections, we can better understand how the inhabitants in an occupied country help themselves and are helped. In the First World War, humanitarian and social aspects became the explicit focus of (press) attention. Food support from the United States enabled the inhabitants of Belgium to survive and constituted the first large-scale humanitarian operation. It was sustained in large part by the press focus on it.
The invasion of Belgium and the consequences of the occupation for the inhabitants had a marked influence on the development of public international law, international humanitarian law and the basis for collective security that became a reality with the establishment of the League of Nations. Discussions about this were in large part held through the press.
During the First World War, major societal shifts took place in Belgium. The war fast-tracked the development of mass democracy, the Flemish Movement, the emancipation of women. Religious debates, which caused many disagreements in Belgium before the war, became more peaceful. These shifts are excellently documented in the press (also implicitly, by remaining silent about certain issues).
Through its breadth, the collection offers excellent insight, both in terms of form and substance, into the press landscape at the start of the twentieth century, in a time when the newspaper was the main form of mass media. The war deeply distorted the Belgian press landscape, but also helped to enhance it.
The press was censored by the occupying power and many newspapers were discontinued. At the same time, new forms of press appeared: clandestine press in the occupied territory, newspapers published abroad for expatriate Belgians, trench newspapers for soldiers, and the press published in unoccupied Belgium.
In terms of substance and form, the press produced for the trenches is unique. Many contributions to these papers have an especially personal or creative character. They were published despite limited resources and therefore often have an atypical form.
Finally, the war contributed to forming the written press and media landscape: the growing importance of the image (drawings, caricatures, photographs), the development of new techniques and media (radio, film, photography), a journalism redefined (research journalism and a new set of ethics), the start of concentration of the press landscape and of the evolution from exclusively written news media to audio-visual formats.
The collection is invaluable in enabling the study of these phenomena – also because the newspapers published abroad were able to make use of new technologies and processes that were available there. Publishers continued to use these in Belgium after the war, which contributed to the innovation of the press there.
The memory of the Great War is alive. The many memorials that took place between 2014 and 2018 are evidence of this. Digitized historical press coverage plays a significant role in this.
Today the plain of the Yser in Belgium is still visited by British families to honour the fallen who are buried there. The newspaper collection can add an extra dimension to this work of remembrance, or even offer a substitute for those lacking the resources to travel to the site in person. In the same way, the collection is of huge importance for the families of the inhabitants of former colonies who were sent to the frontline.
The iconography present in the newspapers is accessible even to those who do not understand the languages in which they were written, and it can reasonably be assumed that automated translation technologies will develop further in the future. The use of OCR facilitates the application of language technology on this press collection as a whole.
For many, the First World War was a highly disruptive period in their family history that often had a decisive impact. Life suddenly took a totally different turn for soldiers, war widows, deported labourers, and the urban population now living on the subsistence minimum. Because the newspapers still relate well to the everyday experiences of people today, they are a rewarding medium to get acquainted with all this.
Local historians show much interest in the history of the First World War. The digitale collection simplifies their research and lowers thresholds to access: it is now possible to combine totally different forms of press coverage to reconstruct the experiences of local inhabitants removed from their community as a consequence of the war. Conversely, the refugee press can help reconstruct the local history of, for example, Dutch municipalities in which refugees were housed.
Digitization has substantially increased the collection’s international reach. The contemporary significance of the collections will become even more apparent now it may be used in projects by civil society, the education sector and the heritage sector in areas that have recently faced war, or by refugees from those areas. Website traffic statistics show that the international public have already found their way to these newspapers.