Sunday, 15 June 2014

From Antwerp to Britain and back again: the language of the Belgian refugee then and now

The following is an abstract of a paper to be held on Wednesday 18 June 2014 during the unique two-legged conference of University of Antwerp and British Library: Languages and the First World War.

"Given the nature of conflicts up until the First World War, refugee studies literature, focussing on the period prior to the Great War, mainly concerns religious and economic migration. Examples are the Huguenots relocations and the Protestant people and craftsmen from ports such as Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp, who sought refuge in the Netherlands in the late 16th century.

When the Germans turned to Antwerp at the end of September 1914, the military move as well as the widespread tales of atrocity triggered a mass forced displacement, which was caused by the war, away from the port to the Netherlands and Britain. The Belgians, who had already sought refuge in the fortified city of Antwerp, joined the best part of the city’s population in fleeing the siege. It is estimated that, in a matter of a fortnight, nearly a million people had moved from what was a relatively small area.

This paper analyses the language used to describe the siege of Antwerp, the forced displacement and the subsequent settlement of Belgians abroad, in particular in the Netherlands and Britain, in the Belgian press, the Belgian exile press and the Dutch and British press. A peculiar language emerges in which propaganda rhetoric and early refugee reception discourse converge, only to disappear from view when the Belgians returned in 1919.

During their exile, especially in Britain, the Belgians lived in a world of displacement that was met with relative freedom of movement, employment opportunity and even benefits such as the necessary housing, clothing and food. After the war, the semantics of everyday life in Britain was in stark contrast to the hardship endured by refugees in the Netherlands and by those who had lived under the occupation.

After the war, the open society that was Antwerp prior to the war lacked the economic drive of the once thriving German minority. Also, the status of French as the language of print started to dwindle. Despite an enriching experience in Britain, the overall discourse had moved from cosmopolitan to parochial. As a conclusion, the paper aims to connect his sense of loss with the memory of those Belgian refugees in Britain and the presence of refugees today."

More information about the Antwerp day of the conference here.
Information about the British Library day here.
A fine blog on Languages and the First World War is updated on a more than daily basis.

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