Opinion: Context is key — or why the concept of “National Week” is problematic

As “National Weeks” begin, students are encouraged to promote the culture and traditions of their respective country of origin. However, simplifying history and heritage might have pitfalls.

By: Beata Thor

The noise level inside the canteen rises as hungry students troop in from the cold. Monday 16 January marks the start of Benelux National Week, which promises Belgian chocolate, Dutch drinking games, Luxembourgish potatoes and a speech from Paul Magnette.

The canteen speakers are blasting Dutch hits and the otherwise bland walls have been decorated with Benelux flags and balloons. Displayed alongside them are photographs of the royal lines of the respective countries and among them, gazing out over the students is Belgian King Leopold II – alternatively known as “the Butcher of Congo”. The epithet serves as a reminder of the enslavement and terror reign he was responsible for in Congo Free State, which resulted in a population decrease by an estimate of 10 million people between 1880 and 1920.

No one seems to notice the picture and, as the days go by, it remains on the wall. There is no explanation for the photos or the reasoning behind putting them up in such a fashion. This concerns me. While it was likely not the intention of the students to highlight a former ruler and tyrant in what comes off as a celebratory manner, the message it sends needs to be contextualised. Has the colonial past of our continent been normalised to the extent we no longer need to talk about what such pictures might stand for and put it in clear context?

The College administration avidly reminds us of the European peace project, how the European Union is a remarkable institution and how unprecedented it is in its unifying character. What it fails to highlight is the fact that although we have strengthened our internal bonds and built peace at home, many member states grew rich wreaking havoc in colonies abroad. Why are we Europeans so keen to remember the good we have created amongst ourselves and so quick to forget the brutalities we have caused in other parts of the world?

Of course being held accountable for the wrongdoings of our ancestors is painful, and sometimes seems unfair. But how can we expect to move forward and evolve in a globalized world, dependent on multilateral cooperation if we don’t acknowledge the actions, both good and bad, of our past? It troubles me that that such selective blindness can continue to exist.

The Benelux students are not alone in struggling to simplify history and heritage into a festive and harmonious national identity. I believe that we are all at risk of doing this in one way or another, as the “National Weeks” go on this spring. As a Swede, coming from a highly idealised country myself, I know how tempting it is to simply brush the darker aspects of our past, as well as our present, under the carpet. It is much easier to promote the quirky traditions our country likes to be associated with than to talk about the huge segregation in our suburbs or the way that violent right-wing extremists have put on a clean suit and made their way into parliament.

I believe that we all need to think twice about how we portray our history and heritage. If there is to be equality and justice in our future, we need to remember lessons from our past. This, in my opinion, translates to life at the College as well, where critical perspectives in teaching as well as student discussions have a tendency to take the backseat.

It bears remembering that we are in a “bubble” here in Bruges, secluded and potentially limited in the scope of our outlook. We might be a homogenous group in many ways, but that should not prevent us from challenging ourselves and each other to be conscious of how our actions might be interpreted.

I am not proposing that we edit out the dark aspects of our history, but rather we should portray them with as much transparency and nuance as possible.

I would be very interested to hear from any students or staff who have insight or ideas about how to best tackle the concept of “National Week” in a progressive way.

/Beata Thor

La Voix du Collège welcomes you to submit your own opinion piece on this, or other matters relating to life at the College or beyond, for online-publishing throughout the semester



3 thoughts on “Opinion: Context is key — or why the concept of “National Week” is problematic

  1. Dear Beata, with all due respect, I think you have completely missed the point of the national weeks. I do agree completely, that every nationality and culture should have a historic memory, and always reflect both on its benevolent aspects as well as those that so worthy of our national pride. I also agree that context is vital, however, this is not the context of the national weeks at the College of Europe, is it?

    In my view, and I believe that this is shared with many students, national weeks are not so much a celebration of our own cutures and history, but of the diversity that is present at the College. That, in my opinion, is more than enough reason to celebrate. We are all educated adults, who are, for the most part, perfectly aware of the blunders of the different countries represented. During these weeks, we want not only to coexist with people from other nationalities, but to learn from them as well, from the constructive and fun, yes, fun, aspects of the diverse cultures.

    I don’t think, as a Spaniard, that a special session on the damages caused by our own colonialist past, or our dictatorship, would be something that students would want to attend to. We will probably choose to share the best of our cutlures with the other students, because they can actually benefit from this. Yes, in showing our cultures, there will inevitably be traces of a darker past, but that should never prevent us from celebrating the wonderful combination of shared values, diversity of lifestyles, and the friendships forged, borders and continents notwithstanding.

    The “national weeks” at the College are, if anything, a celebration of the melting pot of cultures and personalites present at the college, and should not be obscured by national shaming. No country is without sin, we are aware of that, so no delegation would or should cast the first stone on this concept.


  2. Dear Manu,

    I’m sorry if you consider my article “national shaming”, that was absolutely not the message I was trying to get across.

    I agree with you that “National weeks” doesn’t need to be about politics or history, and I think China’s national week highlighted that for example, by not bringing up controversial aspects of policy or history.

    I have nothing against the Benelux week in general, which was overall really nice. I was merely trying to highlight a certain aspect of it. Namely that if a country takes the decision to feature a highly controversial person on the wall, I believe that it needs to come with an explanation, regardless of whether the students are well versed in that country’s history or not. If Spain for example would put a picture of Franco on the wall, or Germany a picture of Hitler, I would expect there to be an explanation why.

    A simple solution to keeping “National Weeks” from being politicized would be to not put pictures of people how have committed horrific atrocities on the wall of our common canteen at all. But I’m arguing that if it is done, it should come with an explanation right away. As I mentioned in my article, I think that this is a problem that could occur for any country represented at the College, which is why I thought it an important issue to highlight. I was not trying to “cast the first stone”, but rather spark a debate about our collective responsibility. I believe that we all benefit from being critical towards our own actions and I was trying to address this in a constructive, compassionate and transparent manner.

    Furthermore, I believe that we are first and foremost an institution of higher education. As such, I believe that it is important for us to be conscious of how our actions might come across, regardless of what our intentions were. I am sorry if you think “fun” has to be separated from critical thinking.

    I was not in any way trying to reinforce divisions among students, but rather highlight that we should attempt to be inclusive in our thinking, particularly beyond the walls of this college.


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