War Commemoration and Nationalism: The Role of Military Networks

Robert Braun, University of California, Berkeley
Laura Acosta Gonzalez, Northwestern University

Social scientists have long argued that war helped produce the nation. Nations, according to this line of thought, are historical constructs born out of the collective memory of violence. Rituals, symbols and practices commemorating heroic survival and glorious death create a unified community rooted in the sacralization of ancestors who fought in service of the nation. Decades of research outside of Western-Europe, however, has provided us with an abundance of cases revealing that warfare and its commemoration can also lead to the disintegration of societies. The central claim of this paper is that whether commemoration strengthens or weakens the nation is conditional on the military networks in which the original fighting took place. If these networks integrated different subnational communities and fostered equal relationships, commemoration is likely to strengthen national boundaries. In the absence of these relationships, however, commemoration activates internal faultlines undermining the national community. Early twentieth century Belgium provides an important case to investigate this thesis. Belgium fought the German military in both the First and Second World War and was home to ethnic communities which continuously renegotiated their relationship with the overarching Belgian nation. Commemoration of the first war asserted a strong but at times contra dictionary influence on how Belgians responded to the second German invasion as it sparked both strong resistance networks that aimed to protect the nation and collaboration networks that put ethnic separatism above Belgian unity. Based on commemoration books and archival records the authors create a unique village level database of World War One commemoration, World War One military networks, World War Two collaboration and World War Two resistance in Belgian. In line with the main hypothesis, autoregressive models reveal that commemoration and networks interact to produce either national defense or defection, highlighting how rituals and social structure should be studied simultaneously.

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 Presented in Session 32. Foreign Relation and the Military in Nation Formation