Lately, in the context of Remembrance Day here in the Netherlands, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the different ways in which World War II is being remembered today. For us, being occupied by Nazi Germany during the war has become a foundation myth of our identity, and most Dutch novels, films, and even musicals (Soldier of Orange, based on the book of the same name) about the war centre around the two main protagonists in that myth: the evil collaborators and the virtuous members of the resistance. You can even pretend to be a member of the underground press in an escape room in Nijmegen, racing against the clock to escape discovery by the Nazis.
Having spent this last New Year’s Eve peering at dull flashes and occasional showers of sparks desperately trying to penetrate the thick fog in my hometown, Utrecht, I reminisced about spending the same night in the Belgian city of Ghent two years ago.
You may remember that around the end of last year, I visited the town of Bastogne with two friends. Being big fans of HBO’s Band of Brothers, we wanted to celebrate New Year’s Eve together in the same vicinity as the paratroopers did over 70 years ago: in the Ardennes, site of the Battle of the Bulge. I wrote a report about this very special trip here.
My year was off to a brilliant start. I’m a big fan of the HBO television show Band of Brothers, which follows the paratroopers of the US 101st Airborne Division during the invasion of Europe in 1944. It kick-started my interest in the Second World War two years ago and as I recommended all and sundry to start watching it, I was happy to convert two friends to the fandom. As I began to do more research about the period, it occurred to me that I’d like to visit the Belgian Ardennes, setting for the famous Battle of the Bulge, which is depicted on the show. It was quickly decided between me and my friends that we would meet up in the town of Bastogne to hang out together for New Year’s and to put ourselves in the footsteps of the men from Easy Company.
Last week’s visit to the Plantin-Moretus museum in Antwerp was the grand finale to this year’s pilgrimage of the history of the book. In the British Museum I saw two of the earliest known forms of writing: hieroglyphics, on the Rosetta Stone, and the cuneiform script, used to write the Gilgamesh epic on a clay cylinder. In the Pergamon Museum in Berlin I saw a magnificent collection of papyrus fragments, and now, in Antwerp, I saw a magnificent collection of printed books and manuscripts. The museum stands as the last remnant of the vibrant book printing trade in western Europe.