‘Losers of the South, but Winners of the North!’ The Battle of Warns (1345) as a Contested Lieu de Mémoire in Frisian National Culture
Dr. Simon Halink, Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden
Medieval battles that are believed to have changed the course of history play an important role in the cultural memory and national consciousness of European communities of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Battle of the Golden Spurs, for instance, is remembered in Belgium as a glorious victory of common Flemings over their arrogant French oppressors, whereas the Battle of Kosovo, a traumatic defeat for the Serbians, has been cultivated by Serbian nationalists as an ‘open wound’ in their past, and hence a cause for activism in the present. The mythologization and ideological re-signification of these military turning points is, however, hardly ever uncontested. This becomes particularly clear in the case of the Battle of Warns (1345; also known, more correctly, as the Battle of Stavoren) in the province of Friesland, situated in the north of the Netherlands. This event looms large in Frisian cultural memory, due to the fact that common Frisian farmers managed to smash an invading army of Hollandish noblemen, and even kill their commander, the Count of Holland himself, who had attempted to reinforce his claims on the rebellious Frisian lands.
This victory enabled the Frisians to hold on to their ‘Frisian Freedom’ for another century and a half, before eventually losing their independence to the Saxons and the Dutch, respectively. Especially in the twentieth century, when the Frisian movement gained momentum and anti-Hollandish sentiments were on the rise, Warns became a bitter-sweet symbol of lost Frisian freedom, and a contested lieu de mémoire; an intellectual battlefield of competing interpretations of Frisianness, where those in favor of greater autonomy for Friesland confronted those who were more positive about Friesland’s position in the Dutch Kingdom.
The mnemonic history of Warns in the twentieth century cannot be considered without taking into account the Frisian experience of the German occupation and the Second World War. To some factions within the Frisian movement, the Third Reich presented a welcome alternative to the Hollando-centric Dutch nation state, and an opportunity to restore the revered Frisian Freedom within the greater context of a Germanic Reich. It was in this spirit that the first modern commemoration of the battle, organized by the Fryske Rie fan Saxo-Frisia (Frisian Council of Saxo-Frisia; an organization sympathetic towards the German occupation) took place in Warns in 1943, during which proclamations of Frisian superiority were underlined with patriotic songs and Hitler salutes. However, the end of the occupation in 1945 coincided with the 600th anniversary of Warns, and, unsurprisingly, this fact has left an enduring mark on the commemorations of that and later years. The victory of Warns was now linked to the victory over Germany, and hence – somewhat paradoxically – the bonds of brotherly love between Friesland and the other provinces of the Netherlands were emphasized.
In the decades since 1945, the annual commemorations have generally revolved around issues concerning the emancipation and promotion of Frisian culture and the Frisian language. The event has attracted Frisian ‘movers’ from all over the political spectrum, from Communists to neo-
Nazis, each of them adding another layer of contemporary signification to the medieval battle. In this paper, I will chart the double temporal register of this complex reception history, and explore the different layers of memory that render Warns a unique lieu de mémoire in Frisian cultural memory.