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Belgium’s Tale of Two Uniforms

A look into an ‘Army Museum’ in Brussels.

In a darkened room in Brussels' Army Museum in the Parc du Cinquantenaire between now and the middle of May you can see, alone in a glass case, a clean dress uniform 2.2 km later, under the same roof, you come across another uniform, but this time its yellow-cream colour, almost the same as that of the first, is charred and smoke- stained. The first uniform is the one worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand the day before he was assassinated in Sarajevo in June 1914.

The second is that of Adolf Hitler, worn the night before he committed suicide in his Berlin bunker in April 1945. In the warren of corridors and spaces between the two lies the story of immeasurable human suffering, as well as the most ambitious attempt ever to convey in one exhibition the cataclysm of the Second World War. 'I Was 20 in '45' is a bold attempt to combine a traditionalist story-telling approach with the exploration of the war's meaning via symbolic objects and settings.

The major military and political events of the war are illustrated: the organisers draw on the permanent collections of the Army Museum to display the uniforms of combatants as diverse as Polish regular troops, Ukrainian partisans, Italian infantry and the SA, SS and Hitler Youth, as well as celebrity pieces from the wardrobes of Eisenhower, Montgomery and de Gaulle. Film footage on giant videoscreens of the Battle of Midway, a reconstruction of a First World War Belgian trench on the Yser (emphasising, like Franz Ferdinand's uniform, the roots of the Second World War in the First) and the recreated claustrophobic Atlantic Wall blockhouse where the visitor can witness, with the German defenders, the disembarkation of the Allied armada on the Normandy beaches on D-Day all amply chronicle the wheel of fortune in the six years of the war.

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