Touching war

PhD project by Siri Driessen

This project focuses on visitors of war sites, on people that travel to former battlefields, war cemeteries and other locations related to major armed conflicts. In the last decades this type of visits has witnessed a remarkable growth. Not only do established heritage institutions welcome more and more visitors, but also a broad variety of individual and collective popular initiatives has emerged that create personalized experiences of European war history all over the continent. Why are so many people attracted by these locations? And what do they experience on site? This project analyses the way war history is being performed and experienced on war sites and cemeteries and investigates the way these activities are related to contemporary interest in a tangible past. Taking a visitors perspective, the project scrutinizes a diverse group of people in search of a personal, affective, sensational and sometimes terrifying contact with the past.

War sites offer a strange sense of attraction, because the horror and violence they embody are not usually seen as appealing. Still, a growing amount of people feels the need to visit these sites nowadays. Some of these persons have very personal reasons to visit a war site. Others more spontaneously travel to these locations, or visit them on professional occasions. Yet, for almost everyone a trip to a war site is a moving and difficult experience that is not easy to forget. The sense of being at the place ‘where it all happened’ as well as the proximity of physical remnants of the past highly contributes to the evocation of these emotional experiences.

The last decades war sites and their visitors have started to gain attention within the academic world. While earlier studies have focused on the history of commemorating war, its deaths, and past visitors of war sites, the more recent studies have shifted their perspective to contemporary commemorations and journeys to the places related to major twentieth-century conflicts. In search of an explanation of the popularity of visits to war sites various studies have been conducted recently. Some of these studies concentrate on one or two sites popular to visitors of a specific nationality and that hold a strong position in a national collective memory. Think for example of the importance of Gallipoli for Australians or the area around Ypres for the British. Other researchers have concentrated on the locations that have exemplify bodily violence and ethnic cleansing, like Auschwitz and Srebrenica.

Many recent studies on war sites focus on drawing categories and discovering types of visitors. Yet, this has proven to be difficult, as the motivation to visit a war site varies highly. From the desire to learn about war or witness and experience the scale of what happened to a fascination for death and violence – and everything in between –­­ visitors mark them all as reasons to visit a war site. The experiences visitors have on a war site is also strongly dependent on a personal background, the relation of the visitor to a conflict, as well as on the design of the sites.

This project proposes to analyse the motivation, experience and evaluation of different groups of visitors at war sites. Persons that have a close connection to an area representing a conflict like veterans and their family members, persons to whom the landscape of war is of professional interest, like soldiers in training, persons who relate themselves to the fate of a specific ethnic or religious group, and persons with a difficult and complex relation to a conflict, like perpetrators and their descendants. By closely analysing the experiences, sentiments, desires, quests for identity, and ways of imagining and making sense of the past, of people with different interests and connections to the conflict, it will be possible to gain detailed knowledge about the motives, experiences and interaction with the war sites of these specific groups. Their examples can help to comprehend contemporary trends in historical representation and interest in the past.

The principal research question is: How is war history being experienced and performed on war sites and cemeteries, and how are these activities related to contemporary interest in a tangible past? This question is divided into three lines of inquiry: first, the motivation, experience and evaluation of these war sites by its visitors; second, the performance of war history on war sites; and third, the contemporary enthusiasm for reliving the past. These lines of inquiry will be supported by the following three sub-questions:

  1. What motivates people to visit war sites and cemeteries, what are their expectations and how do they evaluate their experiences?
  2. How is war history performed at contemporary war sites and cemeteries and how do the visitors interact with these surroundings?
  3. How can the growing fascination with war sites and cemeteries be explained and how can this development be related to contemporary interest in reliving the past and physically experiencing history?

These questions will be answered by focusing on three major hallmarks of twentieth century war history: World War One, World War Two and the wars in former Yugoslavia. These conflicts have explicitly been chosen because they can be considered as Europe’s most violent and well-known transnational conflicts that possess a fundamental position in Europe’s collective memory.

Research team

Siri Driessen MA

PhD Candidate

Portrait Siri Driessen

Prof. dr. Stijn Reijnders


Portrait Stijn Reijnders

Prof. dr. Maria Grever

Second Promotor

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