[TRANSLATED BY: THIJS DE VEEN] During the Bachelor and Master American Studies at the University of Groningen, Sebastiaan Vonk specialized in how wars and other events are commemorated. That resulted in the (English) graduation thesis “War is Hell, but Damned Exciting”. Based on “battlefield tourism” the thesis asks whether the way history is dealt with can indeed prevent the repetition of history. The thesis was nominated for the Theodore Roosevelt American History Award and in the meantime has been published. We asked Sebastiaan a number of questions through e-mail about his thesis.
Liberation festival at the Liberation museum in Groesbeek, nowadays the freedom museum. Photo: Sebastiaan Vonk
The title of your thesis is “War is Hell, but Damned Exciting”. Where does the continuing fascination for war come from according to you? Are you not an exponent of this yourself as well, considering World War II has been an interest of yours since an early age?
After even having spoken to eyewitnesses who did find the war exciting and were fascinated by soldiers, I started thinking that to an extent it is something human. I spoke to a man who was a young boy during the war and told me how jealous he had been at a friend who got hurt in his leg by a lost bullet. His friend was given a beret by the soldier, but he himself was not. Moreover, during the American Civil War there are examples of groups of people who would journey to the battlefields to watch as spectators. When today there are demonstrations with old vehicles and weapons, or at an open day of our armed forces, we still are in awe by it.
However, that fascination is also culturally determined. The soldier as a figure after all has something mythical. He embodies all the good of a nation. The soldier is heroic and also cool. We grow up with those images. We, especially boys, play soldier and likewise in fashion we see trends that are based on military uniforms. We like to wear military prints because it makes for the powerful and cool appearance. And I can hardly deny it was a fascination of that sort with which it started for me as well.
How do you precisely define “battlefield tourism” and how did you research this phenomenon? Did you specifically focus on World War II or on other wars as well?
I see battlefield tourism as a very broad term. So it can be about literally visiting old battlefields, but for example also about museums and war cemeteries. People also do it for various reasons. Some from a deep interest in history, others visit to commemorate. And something you also see more often now: for many people it is simply a daytrip. As the Second World War is further behind us this group increases in size and the others decline.
In my own research I very specifically focused on the Second World War, but if you read other research about this sort of tourism, you find there are many similarities. In doing so it is among others about why people visit battlefields, but also the experiences they have there. Regardless of which period of history, it always makes a deep impression on people when they are standing at a spot where big events from history have taken place.
Because of your American Studies your thesis self-evidently has an American angle. Can you compare America and the Netherlands to each other regarding the way in which the Second World War is being experienced and commemorated?
There is certainly a difference between the countries. The key term in this is: distance. Here in Europe the war raged. We are therefore more aware of what the aftereffects of war are, especially when it is about the impact on the civilian population. Therefore for us there is more emphasis on the message “this never again”. Americans come here for a different reason. They often want to follow in the footsteps of their family members who were sent to Europe. They come to honour them. Only when they are here they realise the damage that the war had done to countries here.
Furthermore, with Americans you notice that national identity and pride play a much bigger role. They are deeply impressed of how we in Europe have continued to commemorate for all those years. They had expected us to have forgotten a long time ago, to have continued with our lives. They see the gratitude for what America has done during the war and that still makes them proud. There they regularly have been feeling this gratitude for America has been absent for the last couple years, while the country often has a pioneering role on the world stage. And you cannot deny that the current political contrapositions play a role. The Second World War brought the country together, so goes the myth. And how much one hopes for that to happen again.
In which way do the book and miniseries “Band of Brothers” play a role in your thesis?
I think that Band of Brothers, besides Saving Private Ryan as well, has been image defining. The popularity of this series and therefore the unity that was portrayed in it is in both America and several European countries unknown of. So there are also special Band of Brothers battlefield tours. Often Hollywood is being looked at with aversion, but it can thus also help to get people interested. Moreover, that exactly a series like Band of Brothers became popular underlines several things:
First of all the great emphasis on the war in Europe. So there are differences in how the Netherlands and America commemorate, but in both countries there is only a limited attention for the war in Asia. This while both countries were involved in there. The fact that we much more elaborately reflect on 4 and 5 May than on 15 August is significant in that.
Furthermore, nowadays there is an enormous regard for authenticity. With this I am not necessarily talking about the correct uniforms, but that on your screen, and to an extent as well at experiences in museums, we can imagine what the war really was like. The landing scene in Saving Private Ryan is the ultimate example of that. Veterans emphasize that often, but also say: you cannot know how it really was if you were not there. Still very often it is, unfairly, claimed that we can “reexperience” the war. Anyway, luckily the time of John Wayne films has passed.
You state that a fascination for war and masculine military ideals can be contradictory to the saying “never again”. What exactly do you mean with this?
This for me is a very fundamental question, because deep in the core there is something not right in the way we commemorate. From a young age onwards we are hearing things such as “this never again” and “war belongs in a museum”. However, the question how we once lost our freedom is of minor importance. The same goes for ethical questions. What is and is not morally justified in a war? At the same time availability of war toys is widespread. Even museums sell toy weapons and put war paint on children’s faces. As noted before military prints are considered fashion. I understand many people will think ‘but this is completely innocent right?’, but according to me it is not. The fact we do not have problems with this suggests a normalization of military culture.
Perhaps to better understand this point it would help to look at the commemoration of the Holocaust. Although the racial ideology of Nazi-Germany was at the root of the Second World War, they almost seem two separate events when you look at how for example the Holocaust on the one hand and the liberation on the other hand are commemorated. Take for example re-enactment. Often it is said that this is being done to keep history alive and to honour the veterans. However, we would never, ever re-enact Auschwitz. An escape room with as theme Jew-baiting? Unthinkable, yet there are plenty of war escape rooms. One we find morally reprehensible, the other apparently normal. Thus you cannot properly say “this never again” and continue to normalize.
Again Groesbeek. Photo: Sebastiaan Vonk
Since you are familiar with the world of commemoration (among others as chairman of the Fields of Honor Foundation) the topic of your thesis was no unknown territory for you. Nevertheless, were there things during your research that still surprised you?
The research took a relatively long time, also because I had difficulties unravelling the complexity of commemoration. There are so many motives and interests. When one wants to honour someone it can mean that you just leave out the black pages of history. In order to tell a good story to your audience, you sometimes just have to be pragmatic with history. Museums want to give their public important lessons to think about, though in order to reach them they will have to enter the building, to also keep the finances in check. For that reason they fall back on means that romanticize the war, because it draws in public, like re-enactment. So it is not that simple to say just do this and that differently to make commemoration more valuable from the point of view of “this never again”.
Still it is something to look at, as I saw that the current way of commemorating does not effectively contribute to “this never again”. Naturally commemorating is not just about that, however, it is indeed one of the most common justifications for it. Tens of millions of euros of budget alone are already invested in keeping history alive just for that reason. We are allowed to be critical then.
For whom is your thesis interesting and what is the most important lesson that can be drawn from it?
In the first place for everyone who works in the world of commemoration. They will recognize themselves in many matters, but I think it will also give them a pretty good insight of the visitor. It is interesting too for that visitor. Especially during commemoration activities you hear many people asking themselves why the world has not learned anything. The unravelling of this research could perhaps partially answer that question. Hopefully it eventually stimulates everyone to reflect on whether we could do a little more for “this never again” than we do now.