World War I and redevelopment. The reconstruction of the countryside and the farming landscape in Flanders
This dissertation analyses the reconstruction of the Belgian countryside after the First World War. The study starts from the hypothesis that post-war recovery was characterized by a growing belief in the benefits of social engineering. Although historians generally situate the advent of social engineering after 1945, this dissertation shows that already during the First World War plans were made to rationally reconstruct society. Three aspects of social engineering define the framework of this thesis: the spatial, institutional and societal dimensions of the concept.
Three questions operationalize this theoretical framework. 1. How did the reconstruction work out spatially? Was there a tendency towards a human mastery of nature? 2. What did change on an institutional level? Did the recovery of Belgium’s countryside go hand in hand with a renegotiation between the public and private domain, the state and the market? 3. To what extent did the reconstruction lead to a new rural society? A variety of sources were used to answer these questions: from government documents over aerial photos to building plans of farmsteads. The dissertation is divided in three parts. One studies the reconstruction on a meta level, while the second and third part analyze the reconstruction of the rural landscape and farmsteads (in the devastated regions).
Already during the war, plans for a spatial reorganization of towns and villages were made. The influence of the British garden city movement led to the introduction of urbanist ideas in government circles. Urbanism, however, mostly concentrated on the rationalization of urban space. Plans for the reorganization of the countryside were less prominent. Influenced by a rural idyll, many attention was paid to the integration of the built environment into the surrounding “nature". Moreover, efforts were made to modernize agricultural enterprises. Livestock improvement and the rationalization of farm buildings were both mechanisms to lead Belgian agriculture into the 20th century. By ameliorating the economic framework the farmers were working in, experts and civil servants hoped to revitalize the Belgian countryside.
During the aftermath of the First World War, the state (temporarily) inflated. Domains of society that were previously administered by the market, were now entrusted to the state. The recovery of the most severely destroyed towns and villages became in the hands of a technocratic government led by six High Royal Commissioners. The Ministry of Agriculture established a special Service for the Reconstitution of Agriculture in order to monitor land recovery and the distribution of cattle, machines and equipment. The integration of experts within the bureaucratic apparatus – agronomists, engineers, architects – legitimized state action, but at the same time allowed for the application of new scientific and architectural insights.
The outcome of the reconstruction reached further that its spatial dimensions. The intended “embellishment” of the Belgian countryside was deemed to improve rural life. The preference for regionalist architecture was inspired by disciplinary motives. It had to reinforce the distinction between town and countryside, a distinction that was fading due to urbanization and industrialization processes. During the post-war reconstruction, measures were also taken to emancipate the rural population. In order to improve the quality of rural life, bourgeois living conditions had to be translated to the countryside and, more specifically, to the farmsteads. From a dominant conservative and Catholic perspective on rurality, this combination of emancipation and discipline would ensure the persistence of the countryside into the 20th century.