Unesco postpones decisions on Merksplas, First World War


The World Heritage Committee has postponed any decision on recognising First World War memorials and cemeteries as World Heritage and has asked for additional information in consideration of the Merksplas and Wortel colonies

‘This theme is unprecedented’

The World Heritage Committee, currently meeting for its annual session in Bahrain, has decided to postpone the decision on whether to recognise Belgium’s and France’s First World War monuments and cemeteries as World Heritage.

Earlier this year, Unesco advisory committee Icomos recommended that the joint application, submitted in early 2017, be rejected. The application for recognition included more than 130 sites and was a co-operation between Flanders, Wallonia and France.

Among the sites were the world-famous Menin Gate and Tyne Cot cemetery, both in the Westhoek of Flanders. Iconos’s advice was based, it said, on concerns about glorifying war by recognising battle sites and cemeteries as cultural heritage.

The advice was an unexpected blow as it had been hoped that the recognition would arrive during the final year of the 100th centenary of the First World War. Belgium and France submitted additional information and were present in Bahrain at the weekend to argue their case.

‘Extremely unfortunate’

A final decision was expected by the committee, but it announced at the weekend that it would postpone the decision until at least 2021. “It has nothing to do with the state of the application, which is complete,” said Marie-Madeleine Damien of France’s Association of Landscapes and Memorials of the Great War. “It’s a question of the theme because the recognition of this theme is unprecedented.”

The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a research centre for human rights and the Holocaust in Los Angeles, said in an official statement delivered to Unesco that there are Nazis buried in some of the cemeteries includes in the application and that these sites already have “cult status” among Neo-Nazi groups.

Flemish minister-president Geert Bourgeois said he found it “extremely unfortunate” that Unesco refuses to recognise the file as the dozens of memorials and cemeteries associated with the First World War are unique in the world. “We went to great pains to submitted a particularly strong application. Peace and reconciliation are at the very heart of this unique request.”

Peace and reconciliation are at the very heart of this unique request

- Minister-president Geert Bourgeois

First World War sites were not Flanders’ only request for recognition at the Unesco meeting, however. The early 19th-century Merksplas and Wortel colonies in Antwerp province are still under consideration.

Icomos had recommended that Unesco approve the extended colony sites as World Heritage, but the committee has asked for further information in support of the joint application submitted by Flanders and the Netherlands.

The application concerns seven former work compounds where the homeless and debtors were sent to work the land. Vagrancy was illegal, so the work farms were alternatives to going to prison. Orphans were also inducted into the colonies, where schools were set up. The idea was to give people a place to live and work to do and so to eradicate poverty.

Colonies open to visitors

There are two former colonies in Flanders – Wortel and Merksplas, located a few kilometres from each other – and five in the Netherlands. Known collectively as the Colonies of Benevolence, they are all part of the Unesco request for recognition. The buildings and land are already protected monuments in the two countries.

A visitors centre describes the colonies and relates the stories of some of the people who lived there. Some of the other buildings are open to visitors, and there are also a cemetery, a chapel, a farm and a brasserie. The surrounding area is open to cyclists and walkers, and there are also camping facilities.

“The Wortel and Merksplas Colonies are a shining example of the integration of nature and culture,” said Bourgeois. “Through co-operation and a shared vision, we have taken care of this wonderful piece of heritage. A Unesco recognition would have been the icing on the cake and a reward for the hard work we have put into these projects. But there is still a good chance that the projects will be recognised. In the meantime, we will continue to support this outstanding cultural-historical landscape.”

Photo: The grand opening of the Visitors Centre in Merksplas in 2017
©Colony 5-7