The Great War and the Quest for Archives in Belgium

After the turmoil of the Great War ended for Belgium, little had been done in order to safeguard records pertaining to the war-period. Belgium had suffered under an occupational regime, which made it near impossible to start efforts to document the conflict. Countries like the United Kingdom, Canada, France or Germany remained (largely) unoccupied between 1914 and 1918. It was only after the Armistice that Belgian historians and archivists could ponder on how to enable future historical research into the war-time years. What initiatives were taken? Who was involved? How did the experience of the war influence those involved in its documentation? In 1919 a Commission for War Records was established under the presidency of Henri Pirenne. The fine fleur of the Belgian academic and archival communities were called upon to discuss an acquisition policy that should be implemented. It was clear from the very start that any future endeavours would be compromised by a lack of human resources and adequate funding. This came as no surprise. After all, the country had suffered considerable human and material losses. The commission decided early on to concentrate on records and documentation pertaining to civilian life in Belgium during the Great War. This very deliberate choice rests several arguments. Limited resources demanded a focussed effort. But besides these practical limitations, historiographic motives played an important part in the attention for the civilian experience of the war. Military history was deemed to be événementiel and records pertaining to the army were therefor considered of little enduring value. The members’ individual life courses during the war were marked by the experience of an occupational regime. Newspapers, periodicals and personal records were of the utmost importance to understand how occupied Belgians had managed to survive. The influence of similar foreign institutions, most notably in France, inspired the commission to continue their efforts, despite a low level of funding and very little stable human resources. The commission ceased to exist in 1928 when it was incorporated in the Belgian State Archives. Most of the archival fonds and documentary collections have been inventoried in the last years. The initial efforts were far more crucial than any work of the past decade. The survival of records in the wake of a large-scale conflict such as the Great War depends on the ability of contemporaries to acquire and protect records from destruction or a most certain oblivion. The legacy of the Belgian Commission for War Records is proof that a lot can be achieved in difficult times by recruiting people’s voluntarism.

Christophe Martens started working at the Belgian State Archives in Brussels in 2012, where he’s responsible for the acquisition and description of judicial archives in the Brussels jurisdiction. He has a special interest in the impact of armed conflicts on archival and documentary collections and how archives are used to rebuild societies in the wake of wars.