How special is it to be living through a period in which history is made?

“The media and others are searching for similarities with other periods. The car-free Sundays during the 1973 oil crisis has been mentioned, as have the North Sea Floods of 1953, but these events were very different in nature. They were also much more short-lived. Wars affect everyone for a long time, and we are lucky to have been spared of war since 4 May 1945.

“However, I did immediately think: we need to be careful with such comparisons, because this is no genocide, although it is true that this crisis has global impact, and people are aware of this. Appeals are being made across the world to record this period. I’m curious what these citizen archives will yield. A poster with the call to stay indoors is an obvious one. But how do you record emotions? A diary could be an option for this.”

The Second World War remembrance culture has changed since the 1940s. From hardly recognising it and focusing mainly on the reconstruction, to national commemorations and large events. How does a collective memory of a period change if we have all experienced it firsthand?

“That depends on many issues, such as how important we will consider this period to be. It is sometimes said that everything will be different after this, but I’m more sceptical and cautious. The need to return to normal is very strong.

“What is really extraordinary is that this affects everyone. Although there are significant differences between those with jobs that can be done at home, and those without that privilege, it does affect everyone. History and memories are filtered. Not all stories of all groups become part of our collective memory. This makes it particularly difficult to predict how a period will be remembered. The history of the Second World War has been democratised. Historians said their piece, but eyewitnesses and contemporaries also shared their stories.”

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How will the coronavirus crisis be remembered?

“I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess. It will be an extremely interesting research field for scientists. Our access to the media has increased enormously since the 1940s. It has become much easier for individuals and interest groups to make their voices heard, but there is no guarantee that everyone will be heard. And yet, there is a need for an unambiguous story; a dominant memory. This gives you something to hold on to. But how this memory will develop and in which form this history will be told is extremely difficult to say. Will it be a story about the Dutch, European or American experience?

“And other questions also arise in relation to commemorations. Will there be physical moments of remembrance? I’m not sure. In most villages there are one or two monuments for the Second World War. Monuments are not dynamic, are often imposed from above and are thus viewed as old-fashioned. It is possible that a different form of commemoration will emerge, possibly digital. Historians, politicians and artists will certainly contemplate this.”

“And will we persevere with the commemoration? An annual commemoration was introduced immediately after the MH17 plane crash in 2014. It was recently announced that this will take place once every five years, although this could change again in the long term. The number of people attending commemorations for the Second World War hardly increased in the 1950s and 60s, but did increase in recent years. It is a dynamic process, because a commemoration can be affected by new events. As I already said, it will be an interesting subject for research.”

koning en koningin bij de kranslegging en het monument op de dam 2019_4-mei-de-dam_photo-ben-houdijk_lr-0859
The Dutch King and Queen during the National Remembrance Day in 2019 at the Dam in Amsterdam. Image credit: Ben Houdijk

We are still in the midst of the crisis, but Italy and the United Kingdom have already held a minute’s silence for key workers who died of the coronavirus. How unique is it do this when this period is not yet over?

“This also happened in the early days of the Second World War, but people were forced to stop because of the occupation. The minute’s silence for key worker victims does throw up another question though: if we are going to commemorate this period, who will we commemorate? Care and healthcare workers? Victims and people who succumbed to the virus or all people who have had the virus? It’s still too early to say.”

What is this period like for you as historian? Certainly as a historian specialising in remembrances and representations of the Second World War?

“I’m collecting articles at the moment about the parallels being drawn between the Second World War and the coronavirus. There are interesting themes in these. For example, about French President Macron who said: ‘We are at war’. He also used terms about liberation and expressions used by the French resistance. It’s clear in America that President Trump is trying to profile himself as a wartime President. I won’t be making an analysis just yet, as so many different professional groups are already writing about this.”

Games have been developed about both the Second World War and about pandemics. As Professor of Popular Historical Culture and war, do you think a game could be developed about the coronavirus?

“It would surprise me if that didn’t happen. Some people will find it inappropriate and others may think it’s fine. Radical events will always have repercussions in popular culture. It can also give a deeper meaning to significant events. However, I do see that games about wars can influence the experience of historiography, as these impact people’s experience of war.”