Hello and welcome to The Re:war Project, an online platform about the Second World War and the culture surrounding it. Re:war aims to rewind, rethink and respond to the war and the ways in which we interact with it today, to educate those in the present about little known facts and ideas about the conflict, and to give a spotlight to anyone who doesn’t consider themselves the ‘target audience’ of war media. But first, let me tell you a little bit about how I got this idea.
I wasn’t always interested in World War II. Up until I was 22, all I knew about it was what I had seen in Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, which are broadcast on Dutch television every year on May 4th and 5th (Remembrance Day and Liberation Day), and what I had read in the books that were assigned at school, such as The Assault by the great writer Harry Mulisch, Oorlogswinter [War Winter] by Jan Terlouw and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl. World War II looms very large in the Dutch consciousness; as many Western countries do, we believe overwhelmingly in the war as a black-and-white conflict of good and evil, one that gives the Netherlands even now the image of being a small but brave country that suffered under the Germans. This belief has come to eclipse other parts of our national identity – for example, the fact that we were a major colonial power for three centuries and built our wealth mainly on the slave trade – but that’s a rant for another time.
My introduction to the war
My interest in World War II was first sparked by two separate events. The first was the controversy that surrounded the national celebration of Remembrance Day a few years ago. Over the past years, more and more people have begun to voice their criticism about the ways in which we celebrate this day. Traditionally, on Remembrance Day, we take two minutes of silence at 8 o’clock in the evening, to think about those who lost their lives during World War II. Though it started out as a way to remember all those resistance fighters who didn’t live to witness the end of the war, the scope has long since expanded to include to include all Dutch people who lost their lives in modern wars, including the soldiers who fought in Bosnia and Afghanistan, as well as the colonial soldiers who fought the Japanese in the Dutch East Indies.
About three years ago, when the media hype about refugees was at an apex, several people took a stand and said we also ought to think about refugees during the remembrance ceremony; after all, they were victims of war, too, and deserved to be mourned more than the colonial oppressors who died fighting the Japanese to gain back authority over the Indonesian people in the 1940s. This statement unleashed a storm of controversy; many people protested that including refugees would mean that on Remembrance Day we were to mourn people in general, rather than just the Dutch victims of war; others made the point that this would reduce the Holocaust and the persecution of the Jews to ‘just another conflict’, and would erase the fact that the Jewish people were targeted by a very specific type of hate crime, rather than ‘simply’ victims of the destructive nature of war.
The discussion still goes on – this year a member of the anti-Remembrance Day committee started a Facebook page called ‘No May 4 for me’ and announced his plans to make noise during the traditional two minutes of silence this year. He is appealing to his citizen’s right to demonstrate to direct attention to what the committee sees as the racist nature of the ceremony, mourning those who committed war crimes in the Dutch East Indies but not the Indonesian victims. This episode started me thinking about war and remembrance, and the ways in which the war has shaped our national identity, and continues to fascinate me.
The second instance was my introduction to the HBO television series Band of Brothers. My sister and my then-boyfriend recommended that I watch it because it was a really good show. My boyfriend was a fan of war movies – Pearl Harbor was his favourite – but we never really talked about why he liked them so much. Back then I took it for granted that being into war movies was a guy thing, as was collecting war memorabilia, reading non-fiction books about war or novels about SAS-teams executing difficult missions, and playing Call of Duty. It was more my sister’s recommendation that made me think Band of Brothers would be interesting, and when I finished watching it the first time, I knew my life had just changed.
That sounds dramatic. My sister thought so too. But something had been sparked inside me. It was unlike anything I’d ever watched. Each episode started off with a real-life World War II veteran talking about what they’d been through in the war. Somehow I’d never quite realised before that those who lived through World War II were still among us – not that many, but quite a few – and that they had stories to tell. Band of Brothers had interesting characters, an engaging plot, exciting battle scenes and touching moments of camaraderie, as well as a beautiful soundtrack with the swelling violins deployed at just the right moments – with Steven Spielberg written all over it. I’ve never been able to watch Saving Private Ryan without crying at the ending and I’m pretty receptive to the combination of music and emotional scenes, so that stood out in particular. But the main moment where I was hooked was at the end, when it turned out that the men who spoke at the beginning of the episodes were the real men from Easy Company, and their names were shown on screen for the first time. By that moment, having invested ten hours in the lives of these soldiers and grown attached to them, it was a wonderful surprise to see that many of them were still alive in real life and still remained good friends.
I watched The Pacific, the companion show that focuses on the Pacific war and was made ten years later, shortly after and was even more moved. I picked up the book Band of Brothers was based on. I joined Tumblr and found more fans of the shows there, with whom I could talk about them, and made some good friends based on our shared interests. I read With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge and Helmet For My Pillow by Robert Leckie, two main characters of The Pacific, and realised there was a world of books about the war out there waiting for me. I began visiting war museums in the Netherlands, keen to know more about the places that were shown in Band of Brothers, and visited Normandy and the Ardennes with friends I’d met online, once to meet the actors from Band of Brothers who were attending the annual commemoration of the Battle of the Bulge. As my grandparents hadn’t been through anything very exciting during the war – that I knew of then – I actually lacked any family connection to the conflict. The war for me was present in media, monuments and museums. Once I’d made my first foray into this ‘war culture’, I began thinking about it more and more, and by the time I was close to graduating from university and had to choose a topic for my Master’s thesis, I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to write about other than World War II.
The origins of Re:war
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. A Dutch documentary follows a young male presenter who is interested in the way World War II is remembered today. He talks to re-enactors and veterans, game fanatics and men who spend their spare time digging up Atlantikwall bunkers on the beach, collectors of memorabilia and archivists at the national institute for war documentation. He presents an all-round picture of the way the war is brought to life outside of movies and books. But all I see on the screen is men – some young, some old, but men all the same, who are considered to be authorities on the subject, with the exception of one female gamer who enjoys playing Call of Duty. There is little critical reflection on what we’re being shown. I think back to all the stimulating conversations I’ve had with my friends about the war, the war shows we like to watch, the war books we like to read, and I think: there’s a story there, too.
The more war media I encountered, the more I became aware how many life stories had been pushed to the side in favour of one dominant narrative. Many of us are now familiar with one company of US paratroopers, Easy Company, because of Band of Brothers, but how many of us know about the black, Muslim, Sikh, and Maori battalions that participated in the conflict? And how many people know about the enormously important part women played in the Second World War, in every country that participated? They were not just civilians and nurses, but also tank drivers, bomber pilots and snipers in Russia, WACs and WAAFs and WAVEs and WRENs in the UK and munition workers in Canada, to name just a few occupations. The war we see in popular movies, books and games is still overwhelmingly the war of white men, and as a result, that is the primary audience of the war today.
A week ago, I put out a message on Twitter and on Tumblr, asking for female-identifying and non-binary people who also liked Band of Brothers to answer a few questions. I was curious how many people there were like me, who enjoyed reading about the war, visiting museums, watching movies and talking about it but were not white cis males. Within an hour, I had received some twelve responses, which made me realise that there were people who wanted to talk about this too. Not about tanks, battles, strategies, types of helmets, but about the emotional history of the war. Some had a very personal connection with those who had been in the war, others had an interest in the political climates, again others were fascinated by the Third Reich in the way you can’t look away from a car wreck on the motorway. As soon as I read these responses, I knew I had to do something with them. This blog is the result.
The Second World War affected millions of lives and continues to do so, but the way people interact with it is very different all over the world. My studies and my work first introduced me to the idea of storytelling, which is a term that’s thrown around rather loosely these days. But when it comes to remembering the war, I believe you cannot do it without the personal stories of those who experienced it, and those who are involved with it in any other way. This is an approach that is widely taken up by museums and educational and cultural institutes around the world who are trying to keep the memory of the war alive. Re:war, then, is intended to be a platform, a network, a safe space to talk about war culture and exchange stories. It’s about rethinking fixed ideas about the war and responding to it. It’s about rewinding the tape and highlighting those aspects we know little about, and bringing to the fore those perspectives that are largely ignored.