A (rationalist) history of Belgium

Today’s featured image: The Royal Palace of Brussels where the royal family conducts their official business and their staffs do whatever royal staffs do. I took this photo back in December of 2016 when I had a layover in Brussels that was just long enough to go wander for a couple hours.

A couple weeks ago, I shared what I had learned about the history of the Netherlands. I left off at a conveniently natural inflexion point at which the Netherlands took on more or less its current boundaries with the loss of its southern provinces in the Belgian revolution. 

Especially for us Americans, this piece of history isn’t peculiar. “Of course, Belgium would have a revolution to throw off the shackles of an oppressive imperial invader! Of course, a unified people would want sovereignty over their land!” we might say.

However, for a foreigner living in Belgium, both of those statements seem ridiculous.

“The Dutch are possibly the most tolerant and pacific people in Europe, and Belgium is probably the least unified country in Western Europe,” I would retort.

I’ve lived here for seven months now, and I still see Flanders and Wallonia (the two main regions of Belgium) as separate countries. They have different cultures, they speak different languages, they have different economic foundations, and public transit between them is noticeably divided.

Even though they’ve had nearly two centuries to sort out their differences, Belgium is only a little closer to a unified country. Belgium is governed by seven governments: one for each of the national languages (Dutch, French and German), one for each of the regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels) and one federal government that is so dysfunctionally divided that it holds the record among “developed” nations for the longest period without a government. The people are fiercely patriotic, but the only thing I see that they actually unite over is football. Flanders and Wallonia even have their own holidays. Golden Spurs Day is celebrated in Flanders to commemorate a Flemish defeat of French invaders, and September 27th in the French-speaking community commemorates their defeat of Dutch invaders.

In this long overdue post, I try to answer the questions (at least to my satisfaction, but probably not yours) of “Why is Belgium still so divided? How did Belgium come to be this way? Why does Belgium even exist?”

There’s actually a surprisingly good place to start: The Eighty Years War.

One of the questions that I never had satisfactorily answered when I was in high school was “If the Nazi’s were supposed to be the Third Reich, what were the first two?” The first part of the answer is the Holy Roman Empire, which having often been maligned as neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, was, in fact, a successful governing body that could fairly be called a “thousand-year Reich”.

For a solid 300 years (1440-1740), the crown was worn by members of the Habsburg family. During this time, the empire picked up the region we might term “The Low Countries” of the Netherlands and Belgium. In 1555, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of the Austrian Habsburgs announced his abdication and his plan for dividing the empire. In a time when the fastest way to bring news overland was by a man on a horse, holding onto huge empires was tricky business, and it seemed more reasonable to give half to his son, Philip II of Spain, and the other half to his brother Ferdinand I.

The part we care about is the part that went to Philip. Technically, the “Spanish Netherlands” was still part of the Holy Roman Empire, but Philip and Spanish royalty were effectively responsible for it. In the style of basically every conflict of the late-middle-ages, what should have been a bit of administrative minutiae turned bloody when religion got involved.

Charles V and his son Philip II were Catholic, just like most rulers in Western Europe for the preceding millennium. Indeed, there wasn’t much controversy here until some short-tempered yet influential German theologian nailed a list of grievances to the Wittenburg castle church door in 1517. Within the next couple of decades, the ability to print “protestant” ideas quickly and distribute them widely spurred a religious reformation in much of Northern Europe. One of the regions where the Protestant tradition started to grow roots was the Habsburg Netherlands.

Partially due to the craziness that happened in Munster in the 1530s (I’ll be telling that story next month), the Netherlands remained mostly Catholic but tolerated the Protestant minority. However, the abdication of Charles V meant that the Protestants were about to gain their best friend and worst enemy.

Nobody expected the Spanish Inquisition in the Netherlands, but Philip II had no sympathy for the Protestant heretics taking refuge in his territory, so he started to crack down. Ironically, it was the end of Dutch Inquisition that meant greater persecution of non-Catholics in the 1560s. The stereotypically tolerant Dutch pushed back.

One of the most prominent Dutch leaders (and devout Catholic), William of Orange led the resistance.

There’s a lot of interesting stuff that happens during wars, but I feel like histories always get too bogged down in the details. The tactics of killing each other don’t really capture the reasons why the fighting started or how the chips fell when it stopped.

The important bits here are how and when the fighting stopped, if only briefly. In the south, French-speaking, Catholic regions of Wallonia entered into the Union of Arras, a defensive agreement aligning themselves with the Spanish against the Protestants of the Republic of the Netherlands. From the Catholic strongholds in the south, the loyalist forces struggled against the Republican forces of the north, until the Peace of Münster in 1646. The Spanish kept what they were able to reclaim (basically from the French border to the strategically important port of Antwerp and down to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg). The Dutch unified into the Seven United Netherlands shortly thereafter and finished out their Golden Age of global exploration, trade and conquest.

Another important factor during the war is the people who weren’t fighting. As with many wars, the causes of the war don’t really concern the people who live in the region where political leaders have decided to send their pawns. The agrarian communities of Flanders were exactly these people. Those who were either Protestant (and at risk of persecution by the Spanish) or who were Catholic but didn’t want to live under the tyranny of the Spanish, fled north to the lands of the Republic.

This left behind people who were either fervent Catholics who supported the “cleansing” of their community or people who didn’t have the means or the will to relocate or fight (primarily the latter). This will be important.

After the Spanish finally gave up trying to reconquer the lands of “over there” in the Netherlands, they had declared bankruptcy twice and were embroiled in all sorts of other shenanigans elsewhere. The South Netherlands were left to their own devices for much of the rest of the seventeenth and basically all of the eighteenth centuries. The agrarian communities returned to their insular lives. In the case of Flanders, the Dutch-speaking populations became isolated between the encroaching French and the border with the Netherlands. To this day, even I can hear the different dialects of the Flemish regions that developed in their relative isolation, and my Dutch is infantile.

At the end of the eighteenth century, the French Revolution deposed the crown, conquered the Netherlands, gave Napoleon a new crown, overextended itself, and then fizzled out when the original crown took power again. These convulsions of libertarian fervour were not bound to France, but the European powers of the time were still afraid of another incarnation of Napoleon or some successor. In hopes of putting a bit of a buffer between them and France, the signatories of the Congress of Vienna gave the Netherlands the perfectly flat region of Flanders that had been (and would continue to be) the battlefield of choice for warring European states.

The reunion wasn’t exactly a popular decision. The South – which had been part of the Catholic Spanish Netherlands, had been partially occupied by France and still mostly French-speaking, and had been much more focused on manufacturing and agriculture than the North – was disadvantaged from the start. The Dutch royalty remained almost exclusively in the North, paying attention only to the issues of the North. The Catholic church was hamstrung, being barred from working with the government. In response, the Catholic clergy encouraged its parishioners to boycott the government, leading to a huge disparity in the elected governing body.

We can’t overlook the economic aspects though. The free-trading Dutch brought their economic reforms southward, and this initially had a positive impact. The Dutch economy continued to grow steadily until the revolution. However, these gains were not shared evenly. The South, which relied on nascent industries and agriculture suffered from cheap goods due to free-trade policies. People are often quite tolerant of their annoying neighbours when they’re all in the same boat financially. Seeing their over-represented, politically favoured neighbours getting rich was a perfect storm of resentment for Trump’s supporters… I mean Brexiteers… I mean Le Pen voters… I mean… umm… what are we talking about again?

Oh yeah. Back to 1830.

Things were precarious in France as well. Wanting to try again, but this time without all the guillotining and complete dissolution of the monarchy, the French people revolted again in what would become known as the July Revolution. This time, they kept the crown, but they wanted the person wearing it to rule with the consent of the people.

The success did not go unnoticed, especially by the French-speaking Brusseloises. Following an exceptionally patriotic opera that was meant to celebrate King William I’s birthday on August 25th, 1830, riots filled the streets of Brussels. They demanded independence. Only a month later, the Belgians formed a provisional government, and they issued a Declaration of Independence on October 4th, 1830.

Over the course of the next year, a constitution had been approved, a monarch chosen and plans proposed by the surrounding powers rejected. Unfortunately for the Belgians, King William I wasn’t satisfied, and he refused to accept the coronation of King Leopold I. After the French joined the fight and retook Antwerp, an armistice was reached in 1832. They remained in a bloodless stalemate until the Dutch formally recognised Belgium in 1839.

This is a good place to pause.

We started this whole exploration in search of an answer to the question of why Belgium exists at all. It seems to be a product of religious division, political inequity and economic inequality, which is understandable enough. But it still doesn’t quite add up to me.

If cultural differences were such a big part (in the early years, the French-speaking majority turned around the tyranny on their Dutch-speaking countrymen), why is Flanders a part of Belgium? Why didn’t it stay in the Netherlands? Why didn’t it end up being its own entity? Why didn’t France and the Netherlands just divide the region along linguistic boundaries like the French wanted to do?

Honestly, this looks like a way more rational situation than what we have today (assuming that all the lands marked “Prussia” here became Germany):

The rest of this is my opinion based on all the information I gathered to write the above and my experiences with Belgians over the past half-year.

It appears to me that the existence of Belgium is really a consequence of the political posturing of the larger powers of Europe. Flanders has had its share of powerful regional kings and dukes, but none of them had the materiel or will to expand far beyond their townships. By the time of Belgian independence, the region had been battered by centuries of political exploitation, religious wars and the dick-swinging contests of hot-headed generals. Centuries of Spanish occupation left this area isolated from the other Netherlandish cultures to the north and from the French culture to the south. When there was a chance for reunification, paranoid European powers did what they could to keep the French sphere of influence from encroaching any further on Central Europe.

By the time of the Belgian Revolution, the Dutch prefered a unified Netherlands, but the ties weren’t there. The Flemish of the early nineteenth century were the descendants of those who had been left behind in the eighty years war. They were provincially minded, Catholic and unfit or unwilling to fight for some king, regardless of whether he spoke Dutch or French.

Flanders came along in the Belgian Revolution somewhat unwillingly. The Belgians wanted the crucial port of Antwerp, and they didn’t want to be surrounded as they would have been if they gave up Flanders in the west or Limburg in the east.

Certainly, some would have liked simply to rejoin France, but that wasn’t an option. They would need to go it alone, and they would need the resources of Flanders.

It doesn’t seem obvious now that the French-speaking Belgians were the powerful ones. Dutch is now an official language, on equal footing with French, and French is no longer the official international language; it’s English, a language Flemmings speak better than Walloons. Flanders is the economic leader, and Flemmings sometimes joke about the “lazy Walloons” being the reason France won’t take them back. From a modern perspective, it almost seems like Wallonia is the one being dragged along, but that is a development only of the last few decades.

Even though Belgium doesn’t really seem to work as a country, it doesn’t seem like it would work divided either. Neither Flanders nor Wallonia is economically strong enough to stand on its own, and the fighting over Brussels would never end. Wallonia is a liability that would not be annexed by a French government that already has enough problems with declining industrial and agricultural areas of its own. Flemmings like to think they’re more Dutch because of their shared language, but the cultural differences are obvious even to outsiders (and even the language is hardly a tie when Dutch people prefer to speak English in West Flanders because they can’t understand the dialect).

Belgium doesn’t make any sense. Its name comes from Germanic tribes who once lived in this region, the Belgae. They were massacred by Julius Caesar, and it appears that hope of a truly unified Belgium died with them 2,000 years ago.

So, why does Belgium even exist?


2 thoughts on “A (rationalist) history of Belgium

  1. You are becoming a walking history book. I got lost a few times reading this post but did enjoy it very much. When do you find time to write so many words?


  2. Pingback: A tab of acid is better than a bottle of Jack. – Geoffrey S. DeSena

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