The first Yser Tower was inaugurated on 24 August 1930 | Diksmuide, Museum aan de IJzer

Borders, Language & Territory
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The Yser Tower

The Legacy of the First World War

In 1928 a fifty-metre-high tower rose in Diksmuide on the left bank of the Yser, a monument to pro-Flemish soldiers who died in the First World War. The Yser Tower became one of the most controversial monuments in Flanders.

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The Tower was built on the initiative of the Yser Pilgrimage Committee, a Catholic pro-Flemish group which since 1920 organised a commemoration for the soldiers who had died on the former Yser front. The tower also symbolised the striving for Flemish autonomy. The inauguration of 1930 gave rise to anti-Belgian protests. The Yser pilgrimages evolved from a ceremony of commemoration into a – sometimes turbulent – Flemish-nationalist demonstration.

As a result of the collaboration of the Flemish nationalists with the German occupying forces during the Second World War the tower was blown up by opponents after the liberation. After its destruction the Yser Tower was rebuilt – higher than before – with donations from pro-Flemish Catholics and with money from the Belgian government. The abbreviation AVV-VVK (‘All for Flanders, Flanders for Christ’) was fixed to it again, as was the quadrilingual message of peace ‘No more war.’

Steen van Merkem.

Antwerp, ADVN | Archief voor nationale bewegingen

On a pump stone in the destroyed front-line village of Merkem pro-Flemish soldiers wrote in red paint: ‘Here is our blood, when will our rights come.’ In this way they were pointing out their disadvantaged position in the army.

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The Legacy of the First World War

The First World War had a great impact on the language struggle in Belgium. The German occupiers exploited the Flemish question in order to weaken Belgium. The Flemish movement became radicalised, but also divided.

In the occupied area the Germans used the so-called ‘activists’ by suggesting there would be accession to Flemish demands, even a form of independence, in the future. That was unacceptable to most pro-Flemish supporters: they felt that Flemish demands should wait until after the war and they condemned activism as treason.

There were tensions on the Yser front too. In 1914 French was the official language of the Belgian army. Some Flemish soldiers took offence: they were risking their lives for a fatherland that paid scarcely any attention to their own language. The Front movement, a group of young Catholic intellectuals, undertook all kinds of protest campaigns to highlight the problem. The movement demanded Flemish army units and self-government for Flanders.

Political Flemish nationalism emerged from the discontent of the activists and of the Front movement. In the Front party members of the Front movement and former activists joined forces. There, but also in wider pro-Flemish milieus, the Yser Pilgrimage could count on great interest. With its symbolism –‘All for Flanders’ – the Yser Pilgrimage contributed to the growth of an independent Flemish identity, separate from Belgium.

Focal points

Mystiek huwelijk.

Ghent, Liberas, AFFICHE07617

In the inter-war years the Catholic Frans Van Cauwelaert and the Socialist Camille Huysmans committed themselves to achieving the further Dutchification of Flanders. In 1921 the two parties jointly formed the city executive of Antwerp. This liberal poster, prompted by the parliamentary elections in the same year, criticises the ‘Socialo-Clerical marriage’.

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Flanders Becomes Monolingual

The memory of activism, which had supported the harsh German occupation and had endangered the unity of Belgium, temporarily pushed the language question into the background. But pro-Flemish politicians from the traditional parties, united behind a programme of integral introduction of Dutch in Flanders following the principle: the local language is the official language. That was the so-called ‘Flemish minimum programme’. Catholic pro-Flemish supporters led by the Antwerp mayor Frans van Cauwelaert took the lead.

Because of violent opposition the required language laws could not be immediately passed. In the 1930s, after vehement parliamentary debates, the time was ripe. Walloon politicians agreed to the making of Flanders monolingual provided the requirement of bilingualism for the central administration disappeared. By the end of the 1930s Dutch was the official language in education, the judiciary and public administration in Flanders.

For a growing group of Flemish nationalists making a Dutch language area of Flanders was not sufficient. They felt that the language legislation had been superseded and saw no future for Flanders within Belgium. They turned not only against Belgium, but also against the liberal-democratic system on which the Belgian state was built. They were inspired by the fascist ideologies which were on the rise in Europe. That swing was also felt within the Yser Pilgrimage Committee.


Brussels, CegeSoma/State Archives, 933728

Young members of the National-Socialist Youth Flanders (NSJV) march past the Yser Tower in 1943.



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Swing to the Right

Economic crisis, political instability and international tensions undermined democracy all through Europe. In 1922 the fascist leader Benito Mussolini came to power as dictator in Italy and 1933 the National Socialist Adolf Hitler established a dictatorship in Germany. The effect was felt everywhere in Europe, and in Belgium too.

In 1933 a new formation emerged from the remnants of the Front party: the Vlaams Nationaal Verbond (VNV, Flemish National League). The VNV strove for a New Order opposed to parliamentary democracy and in favour of an authoritarian political system with a strong leader. and wanted to replace parliamentary democracy with an authoritarian system and a strong leader. On the French-speaking side the Rex movement had the same aim. The latter not only found a response in Wallonia, but also among the bourgeoisie in Flanders.

During the Second World War the VNV and other Flemish Nationalists collaborated with the German occupying forces. On the Yser Pilgrimages too, which were allowed to continue under German supervision, soldiers fighting for Germany on the Eastern front were allowed to speak. For that reason the tower was blown up after the war, probably by resistance fighters.

The Yser Pilgrimage was able to survive the collaboration and in the decades after the war grew into the most important Flemish demonstration, sometimes with tens of thousands of participants. Because of its war history it remained controversial in left-wing and free-thinking Flanders. In 1986 the Yser Tower was acknowledged by the Flemish government as a ‘Memorial of Flemish Emancipation’. At the Yser Pilgrimage 2000 there was a clear condemnation of the collaboration, which for a long time had been excused. There was a break with the extreme right wing, which since 2003 has organised its own manifestation (IJzerwake, Watch on the Yser). Today the mission of both the Yser Tower and the official Yser Pilgrimage is ‘peace, freedom and tolerance’.

Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, P1375/tijdschriften

Cover of the pro-Flemish magazine Pallieter, 24 September 1922. After the First World War approximately 250 prominent activists were sentenced by military or assize court; several thousand civil servants were sanctioned. The demand for amnesty was heard quite soon and united both moderate and radical pro-Flemish camps.

Los van België.
Antwerp, Collectie Stad Antwerpen, Letterenhuis, B 745 / P

Flemish-Nationalists at the statue of Albrecht Rodenbach in Roeselare on their way to the Yser Pilgrimage, 1930. Among them (above the letter B) August Borms (1878-1946), one of the leading figures of activism, who had been released from prison in January 1929. Borms collaborated with the Nazis in the Second World War, and after the liberation was sentenced to death and executed.

Vlaamse Kommunistische Partij.
Ghent University, University Library, BIB.AFF.C.000223

The aspiration for more Flemish autonomy was widely shared in the 1930s. This is a poster of the Flemish Communist Party, 1937.

Antwerp, ADVN | Archief voor nationale bewegingen

The Verbond van Dietse Nationaal Solidaristen, Verdinaso for short, was founded in 1931 by Joris Van Severen (1894-1940). It was a Belgian variant of fascism. Van Severen saw Flanders as a constituent part of the reborn Burgundian Netherlands. Here the ‘Leader’ is speaking at a rally in Male near Bruges, 1935.

IJzerbedevaart 1961. In de jaren 1950 en 1960 trok de IJzerbedevaart veel deelnemers, onder wie tienduizenden jongeren.
Antwerp, ADVN | Archief voor nationale bewegingen, VPAY75/31

Yser Pilgrimage 1961. In the 1950s and 1960s the Yser Pilgrimage attracted many participants, including tens of thousands of young people.

De IJzerbedevaart van 1999 stond in het teken van vrede.
Antwerp, ADVN | Archief voor nationale bewegingen, VAFB391

The theme of the Yser Pilgrimage of 1999 was peace.

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Nu kijken

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Histories – De geschiedenis van de Ijzerbedevaart
100 jaar Ijzerbedevaarten
Clemens De Landtsheer
Met onze jongens aan den IJzer.

Propagandafilm voor het IJzerbedevaartcomité (1928)