What is your dissertation about?

“I conducted research on four different groups of ‘war tourists’ that don’t necessarily seem to fall into that category. What motivates different types of people to go to war sites, how do they feel about being there, how do they look back on the experience, and how do they incorporate it into their identities? The first group [I conducted research on] consisted of active soldiers and cadets who go on battlefield tours as part of their training or degree programmes. For instance, they go to Ypres or Normandy, but also to places close to Rotterdam. While there, they prepare for future missions by analysing a military battle in the actual location and learning from it. The next group were Dutch veterans returning to Bosnia. Many of them are having difficulty processing their experiences there and consider their trips back a way to find answers. It’s basically how they process trauma. In Bosnia I followed a third group made up of Bosnians who join in the annual three-day March of Peace, which takes in mass graves and ends with a commemoration of the genocide and the burial of all the bodies identified that year. The last group [I followed] were young volunteers, mostly Germans, who attend summer camps at war sites in Europe, where they engage in maintenance activities.”

How did you come up with this subject?

“This dissertation is part of a more extensive study of popular culture and tourism. A lot has been written in academic literature on ‘dark tourism’, which is to say, people visiting places related to death and violence. I realised that those studies are about regular visitors. I found I wanted to learn more about the experiences of people who are less likely to be included in such studies, because they tend to have very personal reasons to visit a particular spot, and because they do so in order to learn or process something. Researching these four special groups will give us a better and more nuanced understanding of the phenomenon of war tourism, by going beyond the stereotype. At the same time, it will teach us about these visitors’ particular experiences.”

“My own personal experiences have caused me to be fascinated by the question as to how seeing a historical object or being in a place where something happened stimulates your imagination. People who engage in war tourism are looking for an experience they can’t get from a book or film. They think that being somewhere will give them a more genuine perspective on the past. I find that an interesting notion, partly because it’s so artificial.”

You conducted an ethnographic study. What does that mean?

“It’s a method of conducting research based on observations and interviews. For instance, I walked the Peace March in Bosnia twice, so I incorporated that experience into my analysis. The March involves thousands of people walking 75 kilometres in three days, all the way to Potočari, where the monument to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims can be found. The route passes many mass graves and mine fields.”

Which countries did you visit as part of your research project?

“Bosnia (three times), France, Italy, Germany, Spain and Belgium. That really was a fun part of my research project. It really helped me to see how people behave there. And walking the Peace March was a really intense but impressive experience, which has broadened my mind.”

What are the main conclusions you drew?

“War tourism is a lot more diverse than I thought it would be. Before I embarked on this study, I had a certain idea of what kinds of people visit Ypres or Normandy: history nuts who visit all those places, one by one. Or tourists who wish to see a major site but don’t know all that much about it, meaning they end up having a fairly superficial experience. Thanks to my research project, I have a more nuanced impression of that now. The people I talked to took their visits very seriously, although you couldn’t always tell from their behaviour, and although they took the exact same photos everyone else takes. The people who touched me most were the veterans who returned to Bosnia. Some of them have struggled for 25 years with what happened there, but going back is such a powerful experience that it can help them come to terms with their war past.”

Why did you want to get a PhD?

“I attended an academy of fine arts first and planned to work in the culture sector afterwards. During my degree programme I realised that I found the research I conducted for my art projects more enjoyable than the actual creation of art, so I ended up studying history instead. I really, really enjoyed that, as I love reading and writing. I ended up doing a research-based master degree, but I still didn’t think I’d get a PhD. It wasn’t until I was writing my thesis that I realised how much I enjoyed that, and that’s when I came up with the idea of doing it again, only on a slightly more ambitious scale this time.”

Do you wish to continue being a researcher?

“Oh, that’s a good question. For the time being I’ll be a lecturer at EUR, and I’m working on a follow-up study on the veterans returning to the countries they once worked in. I’ll make up my mind after that.”