Transmemo Project: a study on Second World War memories and family transmission in Belgium

Photo: departure of Belgian workers for Germany, Antwerp, 1940 © CegeSoma/AGR

Transmemo is a research project funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO), which focuses on the memories of Belgian families of collaborationists and members of the resistance during the Second World War (WWII). Launched in October 2017, the project brings together eight researchers from two Belgian universities (Universiteit Gent and Université catholique de Louvain) and the national Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society (CegeSoma). It includes historians, socio- and cognitive psychologists, and one political scientist.

As well as this interdisciplinary diversity, it also spans the country’s two main linguistic communities (Dutch-speaking in the North and French-speaking in the South). Transmemo’s objective is to study how the families of people who resisted or collaborated during the occupation of Belgium during WWII have transmitted this family history to their descendants. In doing so, the research aims to offer a “from below” perspective on the evolution of this history within Belgian collective memories.

#Transmemo studies how the families of people who resisted / collaborated the occupation of Belgium #WWII have transmitted this history Click To Tweet

Belgium collective memories of the Second World War cannot be disconnected from the particular context of the conflict between the two main linguistic communities. Scholarly literature from different academic disciplines has repeatedly confirmed that language was one of the main divisive rifts that caused political, cultural, and social conflicts in twentieth-century Belgium. WWII further reinforced the differences between the Francophone community and Flanders as separate communities of memory. It is a commonly held view that this WWII-rupture still continues to cast its shadow.

This becomes mostly explicit in the different views of collaboration held by both country’s main linguistic communities. During the war, collaboration with Germany in the North was supported by an important anti-Belgian Flemish nationalist party. In the aftermath of the conflict, Flemish nationalist collaboration was framed as justified within the larger struggle for equal rights within the Belgian state. More importantly, post-war purges were framed as an ‘anti-Flemish repression’ by the Belgian state.

The topic of ‘amnesty’ for convicted collaborators became the basis for an extraordinarily successful struggle for memory in which an apologetic stance on collaboration became the dominant view in Flanders. This is also why collaboration and its post-war aftermath has been well researched and documented by Dutch-speaking historians. In contrast, the South of the country developed a stronger identification with the memory of the resistance, which even lead to a certain silence about its own collaborationist past. Enduring historical myths, a lack of true dialogue, and the enduring, real threat of political tension all form part of these persistent schisms in Belgian cultural memories.

The ambition of the Transmemo project was thus to examine this past but through the innovative angle of family memories transmission. Examined through an interdisciplinary lens, the family level of analysis can be used as an intermediate scale (meso) between the individual (micro) and the collective (macro). This research aims to shed some light on how these conflicting memories can help to explain how these dissonances could become so entrenched in society and how they have determined the way we think about Belgium as a national community today.

This WWII-rupture still continues to cast its shadow Click To Tweet

Thus, the research also has the potential to address the more universal question of why history and subsequent memories can become agents of division, and how the failure to reconcile opposing historical narratives can become so strong that they ultimately help to determine the political fate of a country. As such, this project also appeals to the broader intention to use Belgium as a stepping-stone for a more general reflection, in relation to international literature on reconciliation.

To answer these questions, Transmemo’s initial ambitions were to interview 240 people from 80 families with a resistance or collaboration background, and from both main linguistic communities. Each family had to include three generations, starting with the generation that were children during the war. Nevertheless, the team encountered major difficulties in finding French-speaking families with an ancestor convicted for collaboration, where all three generations were willing to participate. This already indicates that memory transmission of collaboration in French-speaking Belgium is more problematic than in Flanders. For this reason, the final sample is different from the initial ambitions.

We interviewed a total of 197 people from 79 families. Each interviewee completed pen and paper questionnaires before we met them for an audio-recorded semi-structured interview. We followed both a non-directive approach that allowed participants to share their testimonies openly and more specific questions so that we could collect quantitative data. All these recorded interviews will be added to the federal scientific heritage collections, as the new oral sources created within the framework of this project will be donated to the CegeSoma (State Archives in Belgium) audiovisual collection, where further access and valorisation is assured under certain conditions that respect the anonymity and privacy of each participant.

The dissemination of Transmemo’s results will be aimed at the scientific community, as several articles will be published in 2020. Nevertheless, Transmemo is also a project with a strong societal dimension. Consequently, the Transmemo team is committed to disseminating their results to the general public. Historian Koen Aerts participated in two documentary series broadcast in the North entitled “Children of collaboration” (November 2017) and “Children of the resistance” (November 2019), which both received very high ratings within the Flemish public. In the same vein, CegeSoma is currently developing its own podcast, based on interviews with families of the project.

Finally, the entire Transmemo team presented some of their results during a large-scale study day organised at the Senate on 3rd October 2019, in front of an audience composed of project participants (families), journalists, experts, and politicians. Throughout this important day, all sides of the conflict and from both communities sat together for the very first time to discuss the place that family stories should take in the current landscape of Belgian memories of the Second World War.

“Data archives have been around for some time, but they are more relevant nowadays than ever”. Interview with the Social Sciences Data Archive project

The inter-institutional project SODA (Social Sciences Data Archive) aims to develop a prototype for a data archive as Belgian representative in the Consortium of European Social Science Data Archives (CESSDA) and beyond.

To learn more about SODA, Archivoz’s Llarina González spoke with researchers from the project:

Benjamin Peuch, researcher on information science, manages Dataverse and studies the needs of researchers, archivists and historians for the correct custody and description of digital objects.
Freya De Schamphelaere, legal researcher, examines the role of the data archive in the Belgian context and the impact of the Directive on copyright and open data.
Jean-Paul Sanderson and Laura Van den Borre, demographers, are the link between SODA and social scientists.

(Archivoz) How does SODA operate in Belgium’s complex institutional landscape?

Since 1970, Belgium has been going through an institutional evolution from a unitary entity to a federal State with three regions and three linguistic (non-corresponding) communities. The competences of the State were redistributed between those six entities. In this context, the State Archives remained part of the federal administration and became a scientific research institution.

SODA therefore combines two approaches: a centralised perspective with a data archive representing Belgium as a whole amid CESSDA; and a decentralised perspective with the data archive of the State Archives catering to both researchers and affiliated institutions at the federal level and to those at the levels of communities and universities, though universities and communities are developing their own institutional repositories.

SODA would thus only be one actor, although an international one as the CESSDA representative, in a network of Belgian repositories. Cooperation between different Belgian actors will be key to make research data findable for researchers from all backgrounds.

(Archivoz) What is the role of the State Archives of Belgium in SODA?

SODA originated in the world of social sciences at the Dutch-speaking Vrije Universiteit Brussel and the French-speaking Université Catholique de Louvain. The State Archives were brought in for their expertise in archival science and eventually became the coordinating institution, with two full-time researchers tasked with creating the deliverables of the project.

The State Archives investigate issues such as possible business models and legal entities of the future data archive, metadata and data quality requirements, transfer agreements with depositors, and so on. Universities link SODA to the research community by surveying the needs and documenting the practices of researchers.

(Archivoz) Can you clarify the concept of ‘data archive’?

Data archives have been around for some time but they are more relevant nowadays than ever. Essentially, data archives are like traditional archive institutions but dedicated to the preservation of research data and to make them available for reuse. Much of scientific research is performed thanks to public funding, therefore the ensuing data belong to the public and must be open for reuse. The nature of research data, the archival precautions they require, and the particular needs of scientists make it necessary to build specific archive facilities: data archives.

(Archivoz) We would like to know more about SODA’s relationship with scientists.

Scientists are our key users: both our main data providers and the prime potential data reusers. Their needs in terms of research data management, both for the phase of data archiving (ingest in OAIS terms) and data reuse (access), must be regularly surveyed and accounted.

But in the future, we will investigate whether other types of users might be interested in accessing social science research data. Could journalists, teachers, genealogists find it interesting to integrate such datasets in their corpuses? This entails a proactive policy to foster new user communities.

(Archivoz) Tell us about standards and formats in SODA.

At first sight, the amount of formats and standards in such a context can be daunting! Data-wise, it’s not so bad because most files produced by researchers either already exist in open formats or can be converted using the data ingest and dissemination software Dataverse.

But in terms of metadata, things get slightly more complicated. Most CESSDA members follow the international standard for documenting datasets in social sciences, the Data Documentation Initiative (DDI). DDI encourages the recording of a wide range of information about datasets, including:

  • administrative metadata: dataset producers, principal investigators, sponsoring organization(s), repository responsible for providing access, etc.
  • technical and descriptive metadata specific to the social sciences: methods of data collection, cleaning and control operations, aggregation and analysis, kind(s) of data, the universe of the study, variables, etc.

Incorporating traditional archivists into the project highlighted the lack of historical metadata, which are meant to describe in detail the context of production of datasets with information such as biographies of researchers, descriptions of research centres, contextualisation, etc. These are more long term-focussed metadata compared with DDI, which addresses the immediate needs of social scientists seeking reusable data. Historical metadata will help researchers 10, 20, even 50 or 100 years from now to understand how and why datasets were produced. Such metadata will likely have to be recorded by historians and social scientists with an interest in the history of science.

(Archivoz) What are your thoughts on the new movements for opening research data in all scientific areas?

As Ron Dekker noted in Lisbon in May 2017, private pharmaceutical companies share their data in a sort of “pre-competitive stage” because they know they will all greatly benefit from doing so even though they are commercial rivals. Is the same tendency spreading to all scientific fields? Hopefully, this rather denotes a new spirit of sharing.

From a legal perspective “open data” is not just an invitation anymore. Since the publication of the European directive 2019/1024 on open data and public sector information (the third of the PSI directives) it has become law: publicly-funded research data must be open for reuse by default through an institutional repository in accordance with the “as open as possible, as closed as necessary” rule of thumb and the FAIR principles. It will be very interesting to see in the coming years how this directive can open up more publicly-funded research data, how researchers and data archives will adapt to it, and if it can contribute to new developments toward open science and linked research data.

(Archivoz) What are the main problems you have faced?

We seek to offer tools that fit the needs of our users by customizing the Dataverse software to simplify the deposit procedure and ease the search process for reusable data. This involves reconciling the needs of several stakeholders. We are currently gathering beta-testers among Belgian social science researchers (our key users) to this end.

SODA is part of a European consortium so we must also work for researchers abroad. For example, this entails translating the title and description of our datasets in English. We must also allow the CESSDA Data Catalogue (CDC) to harvest our metadata through an Open Archive Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (OAI-PMH) and comply with the CESSDA Core Metadata Model, a list of conceptual metadata elements to which CESSDA service providers must map their own metadata so that the metadata harvesting can take place.

Legally speaking the main problem is the unclarity of certain obligations, leading to uncertainty among researchers, who will prefer to “play it safe” and not open up their research data. We are wrapping up our research on legal open data obligations and writing the standard licenses and guidelines that will ensure researchers are aware of the implications — but also and especially the advantages — of making their data “as open as possible.”

(Archivoz) What importance do you consider that research data and projects such as SODA have in the lives of citizens?

It might seem that data archives are only remotely relevant to citizens’ interests since it is such a niche infrastructure with such complex technical needs and purposes. But just like traditional archives, data archives play an essential part in a modern society; the archives of science are vital for scientific and social progress.

Reevaluation and reproducibility are fundamental to the credibility of science. However, they can occur only if documents and data from studies are preserved. For example, the Stanford Experiment, long presented as incontrovertible proof of the evil and corruptibility of humans, was recently reevaluated (1) (2) and its soundness was heavily reconsidered against modern standards for rigorous and ethical scientific experimentation.

Data archives will take on increasingly larger and more complex databases Click To Tweet
(Archivoz) If you had to highlight an element of the project, what would it be?

Legally there are several challenging yet interesting issues, for example how the Belgian Archival Act affects a data archive. According to the Archival Act, archived files can only be accessible after 30 years. Yet this is not what a data archive tends to do. Here the principle is: all data must be open unless there is a good reason (copyright, personal data, other). SODA will work through private deposit agreements for archiving and opening up the data.

(Archivoz) How do you imagine the future of data archives in social sciences in a few years?

Data archives will take on increasingly larger and more complex databases. Such a challenge can be tackled by reinforcing the network of data archives — of which CESSDA is a sterling example — and by sharing experience and know-how. We also think that social science data will become a booming business (if it is not already, all things considered). An extra challenge in this respect will be to keep the focus of our efforts on science and not so much on financial gain.