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Waalpainting The walk of the world: a march through history

For the initiators of Waalpaintings, a project that represents the history of Nijmegen with murals, the Nijmegen Four Days Marches are a walking history book. A painting about the largest multi-day hiking event in the world cannot be missing in the project. 'Not only the history of the city of Nijmegen, but also the national and international history can be seen in this event.'

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Hikers walking across the Waal Bridge, 2019. Photo: Ger Loeffen

The first international walkers were invited to the Nijmegen Four Days Marches in 1928, because the Olympic Games were held in Amsterdam. There were no Four Days Marches during the Second World War because the occupying forces had issued a ban on gatherings. In 1962 the Dutch Television Foundation (NTS) broadcasted the event for the first time. Women protested in 1978 because the Four Days Marches office thought it was 'biologically irresponsible' to let them walk the longest distance. Anti-gay riots in 1983 gave rise to Pink Wednesday. In 2014, the flags were flown at half-mast during the entry, out of respect for the victims of the flight MH17 disaster. 'The Four Days Marches show much more than just walking', says historian Erika Manders of Radboud University.

Four Days Marches painting

Manders and fellow historian Dennis Jussen are the initiators of Waalpaintings: a project that makes the history of Nijmegen visible again, with fifteen large murals depicting historical events. Since November 2020, four paintings have been realised. A mural about the Nijmegen Four Days Marches is to be added by means of a crowdfunding campaign via Radboud Fonds. Jussen: 'Everyone can contribute.'

The mural is a collaboration with the DE 4DAAGSE foundation, says Jussen. ‘The intention is to unveil the mural during the Four Days Marches in 2022, when the walkers are in Nijmegen.’ Within the Waalpaintings project, the location of a mural always has a link with the event that is depicted. For the Four Days Marches painting, Jussen and Manders would prefer to stay in the vicinity of the Keizer Karelplein, but a definitive location has not yet been determined, and an artist is yet to be chosen. 'The ideal would be if the street artist has walked the Four Days Marches himself', says Jussen. ‘But I don't know how ambitious that is.’

Research

Before the paintbrush or aerosol can even be used, historical research is necessary. Because how can a mural capture an event that has existed for more than 100 years in one image? ‘The idea is to provide a diachronic perspective on the development of the Four Days Marches’, says Jussen. ‘A kind of collage of the diversity of walkers: the first soldiers, women's walking clubs and international participants, for example. If you put all that together – and how that will look exactly is also up to the artist – then one mural can show a lot.' Manders: ‘We think the Four Days Marches provide a very nice window not only to the local history of the city of Nijmegen, but also to national and international history. The mural will contain different layers. Someone who passes by quickly will already see a lot, but if you delve into it, you can discover even more.'

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Female participants in the 1930s. Source: Regional Archives Nijmegen (RAN)

Hospitality

In 1909, 306 participants took part in the first Four Days Marches, which arose because something had to be done about 'the weak physical condition of the young soldiers'. Now the event is at its peak with 45,000 participants from around the world. Jussen: 'The first time non-Dutch people participated was in 1928, when the Olympic Games came to the Netherlands. Among them were, for example, English people and Norwegians.' Fun fact: the group of Norwegian soldiers went out of their way – with an occasional unauthorised run – to be the first to finish each day. This annoyed the organisation, because the Four Days Marches had, and still have, no competition element. It later turned out that a major Norwegian newspaper had promised them a considerable reward for this.

In the early years, the Four Days Marches, which were organised by the Dutch League for Physical Education (NBvLO), was not yet a Nijmegen-based festival. The starting places changed every year: Arnhem, Breda, Den Bosch, Nijmegen, Nieuw-Millingen and Utrecht. In 1925 Nijmegen became the official start and finish point of the Four Days Marches. Manders: ‘An important reason for this was the hospitality with which the walkers were received in Nijmegen.’ In 1912, the Colonial Reserve in the Prins Hendrik barracks on the Van 't Santstraat provided shelter and food to the walkers: they were served a generous three-course menu, including dessert. Barracks in other cities also provided meals, but those were the usual brown beans and bacon.

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The military early years of the Four Days Marches. Source: Nijmegen Regional Archives

Garrison city

The military character of Nijmegen means that the Four Days Marches also suited the city well. ‘From 1870 Nijmegen was a garrison city,’ explains Jussen. 'A city of military importance, where barracks were built and soldiers were stationed for training or deployment. Traditionally, there was already a large military presence in Nijmegen.' The military/civilian ratio gradually shifted. The first time more civilians than soldiers participated was in 1932. Jussen: 'The Four Days Marches increasingly revolved around atmosphere and conviviality, although the military character was still clearly present.'

That militaristic character became a subtle subject of resistance in the 1980s. The anti-militarist action group 'Walking club Is it war out here?' marched in 1982 with protest flags to demonstrate against the participation of soldiers. ‘That is another example of the history that the Four Days Marches show’, says Manders. Politics was a forbidden subject during the Four Days Marches, but ‘Walking club Is it war out here?’ carried a Ban de Bom flag, an expression against the use of nuclear weapons. In 1984 the action group was disqualified by the organisation because they refused to walk over the pontoon bridge to Cuijk - which had been placed there by the military - and deviated from the official route.

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Walking club Is it war out here? Source: National Archives

Inclusivity

Manders and Jussen – who reluctantly admit that they have never walked the Four Days Marches themselves – would like the mural to radiate the inclusiveness of the multi-day event. In 1913, for example, the first woman took part in the Four Days Marches. In 1919 the first woman received a cross and in the 1930s various women's hiking clubs proudly participated in heels. Wheelchair users can also officially participate in the Four Days Marches, although their participation was a point of discussion for a long time. In 1995, at the express request of then State Secretary Erica Terpstra, they were allowed to officially participate for the first time as a test. From 2009, the participants in a wheelchair also receive a Four Days Marches Cross.

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Pink Wednesday 2018 in the Hertogstraat. Photo: Ger Loeffen

‘The Four Days Marches are for everyone,’ says Manders. ‘Pink Wednesday is also a good example of this. It arose in response to the riots at gay café 't Bakkertje in the Van Welderenstraat. In the years before, there had also been violence against the gay community and that culminated at that café.' This first resulted in Pink Saturday in Nijmegen in 1984, and later catering entrepreneurs in the Van Welderenstraat came up with the idea of ​​organising a pink street party during the arrival on Wednesday.

Historically correct

The two historians will increase their knowledge in the near future, together with fellow historians from Radboud University who specialise in sports and the history of the past 100 years. ‘Not only to track down stories that can be incorporated into the painting, but also to make them historically correct. For example, if the artist wants to depict a walking club from the 1940s, we will dive into the archives to find out what they were wearing,' explains Jussen.

Canon of Nijmegen

The choice for the subjects of the fifteen Waalpaintings is based on the Canon of Nijmegen of The House of Nijmegen History. So far, four murals are part of the project. Nijmegen in Revolt and The Bombardment already existed, but fit the project so well that they have been included. Waalpaintings is currently working on information boards that will accompany the murals and on an educational walking route along the paintings.

  • Nijmegen in Revolt: this Waalpainting at Sint Thomashof was made by Remco Visser and Naamloozz. The painting tells the story of the Batavian Revolt (69 AD) and the Pierson Riots (1981).
  • The Bombardment: in this Waalpainting at Scheidemakershof, Combolution tells the story of the February Bombardment.
  • The Princess from the East: this Waalpainting by Studio Hartebeest near the Veerpoortrappen tells the story of the Byzantine princess Theophanu, who visited Nijmegen several times and died there in 991.
  • Centre of Europe: in this Waalpainting aan het Kerkegasje, RoosArt and Combolution tell the story of the Peace of Nijmegen (1678-1679), when a series of peace treaties were concluded between important Western European states and dioceses.

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The entry in 2019. Photo: Ger Loeffen

Spotlights

Last year the Nijmegen Four Days Marches could not take place due to the corona pandemic, and this year the organisation again decided not to let the event take place. ‘If you go back in history to the last time the Four Days Marches were cancelled, you end up in the Second World War. That also shows how intense the past two years have been for such a large event to be cancelled,' says Jussen. ‘It would be great if we could unveil a mural next year, during the Four Days Marches, that puts over 100 years of history in the spotlights.'

Additional sources: Huis van de Nijmeegse Geschiedenis & Four Days Marches

The Four Days Marches mural is a collaboration between Radboud University, the Radboud Institute for Culture and History (RICH), the DE 4DAAGSE foundation and the Radboud Fund. The amount required for the mural The Walk of the World is 15,000 euros. Will you help us reach the finish line with a small donation?