Visiting the IJzer Tower, Diksmuide, Belgium: different versions of history and varying strands of Flemish nationalists
Poignant, but puzzling also
This monument near the Yser (Dutch: IJzer ) River (1) in Belgium, or, rather, set of monuments, has traditionally been supposed to commemorate a number of things:
1) Peace. Diksmuide, where the monuments are located, was the scene of heavy fighting and casualties in World War One, and museum items relate something of the dire conditions in which soldiers lived and died.
2) Autonomy for Flanders.
3) A religious concept, dating from the Middle Ages, known as the Truce of God; the idea behind it is sometimes summarized in Dutch as: AVV VVK - Alles voor Vlaanderen, Vlaanderen voor Kristus (All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ).
Flemish nationalist radicals, attend their solemn regionalist pilgrimage (yes, the Dutch word bedevaart is used, which is also the word applied to trips to Lourdes, etc.), some of them wishing to portray Flemings as a group as the eternal victims, while the supposedly oppressive Belgian state continues to exist. And then some of the same regionalist radicals proceed to engage in tactics to drive out Francophone Belgians from areas where bilingual language rights are currently maintained.
There is an appreciable lack of agreement among Flemish regionalists, who come to Diksmuide as to the name, purpose and tactics which they should espouse. Some Flemish regionalists emphasize peace and tolerance. But, recalling the fact that in World War Two the venue was used by Nazis for their own propaganda, others wish to emphasize Neo-Nazi aspirations (2). Some Flemish regionalists support what is known as the Yser Pilgrimage (Dutch: IJzerbedevaart ). Some Flemish regionalists, considering this Yser Pilgrimage too tame, support what is known as the Yzer Vigil (Dutch: IJzerwake ).
There are two Yser Towers, one built in 1920, and partially destroyed by dynamite by protesters in 1946, and another built subsequently in the shape of a 84 metre cross and with the letters AVV - VVK emblazoned on it. The protesters in 1946, who destroyed the first IJser Tower, were said to have been highlighting its unacceptable commemorative use by Nazis in World War Two.
So: the Yser Tower: a monument to peace? to Flemish victimhood? a place where the perpetual flame of ethnolinguistic strife is kept alive? It all depends on who you ask. I must confess that I was more confused about these monuments when I left Diksmuide than when I arrived.
Diksmuide is located in the West Flanders (Dutch: West-Vlaanderen ) province of Belgium's Flemish region (Dutch: Vlaams gewest ).
January 4, 2013
(1) Although the Dutch form of the name of the river is IJzer, many English-language sources will give 'Yser', which reflects the traditional French spelling.
(2) In recent years, some Jewish-owned businesses in Antwerp have been targeted in bomb attacks by unknown perpetrators.
Also worth seeing
In Diksmuide itself, the town hall (Dutch: Stadhuis ) and the adjacent church of Sint Niklaas were destroyed in World War One, but rebuilt subsequently; their towers dominate the Downtown area of Diksmuide.
Ypres (Dutch: Ieper ; distance: 22 kilometres) has a Medieval Cloth Hall — rebuilt — and the Menen Gate, commemorating World War One war dead.
How to get there: Brussels Airlines flies from New York to Brussels Airport (Brussel Nationaal / Bruxelles-National ), from where car rental is available. Brussels is the nearest large airport to Diksmuide (distance: 142 kilometres). Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information. You are advised to refer to appropriate consular sources for any special border crossing arrangements which may apply to citizens of certain nationalities.
MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada
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