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Une brève histoire de Belgique: ma conférence chez les Danois de Belgique

Le 7 juin dernier, j'étais invité par l'association Danoise Djof à donner un cours sur l'histoire de Belgique devant ses membres. Le challenge: 25 minutes... En voici le texte

Conference given at
the Danish Regions and Local Government Denmark
– Djof event – 7 juin 2012

“A Brief History of Belgium”

Yvan de Beauffort


Let me start my speech today by first setting the scene… 

·        Belgium has a size of about thirty thousand square kilometers, roughly two-thirds of Denmark if you allow me not to take Greenland into account.

·        With eleven million inhabitants, Belgium welcomes roughly twice the population of your country.

·        Our little homeland, as you all very well know, is a cornerstone of the European Union and was a founder member of this Union as from 1957, while Denmark officially joined in 1973.

·        Belgium’s highest point culminates at approximately 700 meters while Wikipedia reveals that Meuleheuj, Yding Skovheuj and Ejer Beneheuj reach around 170 meters of altitude.

·        Belgium is a constitutional monarchy since the twenty-first of July 1831, while Denmark officially chose the same type of Kingdom in 1848 but your Royal Family the House of Oldenbourg is according to my information heading the destiny of your country since much longer… 1448…

According to the programme proposed by Maisa tonight, we only have twenty minutes to go through the entire history of Belgium.

Human beings are complex. Danish History is complex… Who can sum me up who was ruling where and when in Scandinavia….   

Well, there is no reason to assume that Belgium history would be less complex…

In fact it is even harder to sum up Belgium’s history in 20 minutes because of two factors:

·        First, as you would expect me to say, Belgium is a country with three languages. Flemish, French and Dutch in roughly the proportion of 65-35 and 1 percent. We will come back to this of course.

·        But second and amongst all the History of Belgium is the History of the various and numerous peoples and tribes having found it nice either to settle here, under our pouring rainy climate, to reign upon these territories or to use our regions as a battlefield or convenient playground…

Let me start with the very start by citing the first huge and impressive living inhabitants, the thirty dinausorus of Bernissart who were discovered at the border with current France at a depth of 322 meters in a coal mine in 1878… It is worth paying a visit to the museum of Natural Sciences here in Brussels because it is the largest collection of such fossils in Europe…

Much much later, Neandertalians found here convenient caves to settle. The first human beings identified here date from twelve thousand BC and where originating from over the Alps. They are thought to have been small brown men and knowing iron. They probably are at the origin of the famous dwarves able to cast iron swords which by the way populates numerous legends in Denmark and around.

The so-called “Belgians” tribes then probably arrived around 600 BC, from east of The Rhine. They migrated towards current Belgium and also crossed the Channel to reach the Isle of Great-Britain. They were probably of celt-german origin.

Let us skip 500 years.

It is then the turn of the Roman Empire to have a walk in Belgium. Caesar forged its reputation by fighting the Gaulois and incindently, the Belgian tribes as well. In his war account, Caesar famously said: “Belgae fortissimi sunt”. Belgians are definitively the bravest of all.

But this sentence is never cited completely. What Caesar actually said is the following: “Belgians are the bravest because they are farest away from Roman culture and civilization, because there are no merchants bringing in goods over there which effeminates or soften the spirits… “

What Caesar intended to say is that Belgians were horrible tribes, rude, barbarian and ignorant.

In 200 AC, Frankish tribes came once again from across Germany – this is a constant in our country. Frankish tribes were then invading North of Gaule and in 358 they settled a deal with the Roman Empire: the Franks had to watch the edges of river Waal (in current Netherlands) and in exchange they got the territorium between our two main rivers: the Meuse/Maas and the Escaut/Schelde.

This is the funnily enough the likely origin of both the Flemish language and of the name Waal, from which derives the walloons, Wallis in Switzerland, the Welsh, the name Gaulois, Galicians, Galates etcetera.

Also very interesting to know for you, in the year 200, saxon tribes from Schlesvig were raiding our see coasts. They eventually fix themselves there in between the Sea Coast and Bruges. You might therefore totally consider West Flanders as being populated by Danish tribes… And this also explains the differences in character of the people leaving there from the rest of our country. They have their own Flemish dialect, very often subtitled when West-Flemish is spoken at television. They are very tenuous, a little bit annoying and not very humorous. They work hard and consider themselves as being different.

In short, they probably still have a lot of Danish blood in their veins… ha!

You will find the same character into people having settled down alongside the Channel coasts actually, up until the North of the Netherlands, in Friesland.

Now, I was talking about Belgium being the battlefield or the playground of Europe. Let me support this statement with facts. This gives me an opportunity to fast forward. Chronologically, we have seen the Romans, the Celts, the Vikings, the Frankish Empire headed by Clovis with its succession into the Occidental Empire of Charles the Great or Charlemagne with capital in Aachen in 800. Five hundred years later, on the 11th of July 1302 a famous battle takes place on our grounds. The battle of the Golden Spurs. A spur is the name of the little iron thing that is fixed upon the shoes of horse riders to activate horses. The reason for the battle was a French attempt to subdue the County of Flanders which was formally part of the French Kingdom but resisted the nowadays still famous centralising French policies. The legend tells that, at the eve of the battle, Flemish people identified the Frenchies by asking them to pronounce a Dutch phrase, “schield en vriend” (Shield and Friend) and anyone who had difficulties pronouncing this was murdered. Whatever, what happened is the following: the French cavalry charged the Flemish infantry, actually under the command of the Count of Namur which nowadays the capital of Wallonia. The Frenchies lost one thousand knights of which the spurs were hung in the Church of Courtrai to commemorate the victory. While the battle was in fact only one of numerous battles between the Frenchies and the Flemish-slash-Belgian people at that time, it is remembered as a landmark in the development of Flemish political independence. It has been chosen by the Flemish region as their “national” Feast.

Let us get back to our timeline… Our territories were then part of the Burgondish Empire with capital in Dijon. The Burgondish Dutchy ended up in the hands of the Spanish Habsburg with capital in Madrid. You will easily remember the birth date of our Emperor Charles the Fifth, who were born in fifteen hundred in Ghent. If Charles was adored by the local population because amongst other he spoke the local languages, his son Philip, the looser of the famous Invincible Armada in 1588, has left a much worst image… By succession it was then the turn of the Austrian Habsburg from Vienna to rule our regions. The Frenchies paid us from time tom time a visit and dreadfully bombed Brussels in 1695, paving to ground five thousand buildings and homes. This is by the way why the Grand Place has got such an harmony today. In 5 years time it was to be entirely rebuilt.

Then again the Austrians ruled over Belgium along most of the 18th Century… A short-living revolution found place in 1790 which created the United Belgian States… but in 1793 the Frenchies were back until the battle of Waterloo in 1815. To use us as buffer in between France, Great-Britain and Germany, we were then put under the umbrella of the Netherlands but this 15 year wedding was not a success either and eventually we decided that it was enough thank you very much from 1830 onwards. At this time, probably due to the way The Netherlands tried to impose its language and its protestant religion, an agreement was passed between the French-speaking liberal bourgeoisie and the catholics to organize a revolution and to chase the Dutch out of our territory. This definitely was settled down in 1839 when we gave back Maastricht to the Dutch and agreed that Luxemburg had to live its own way. Definitely?  In fact, not exactly. Because as you all know Germany found Belgium a convenient place to spend holidays what Germany indeed did twice between 1914 and 1918 and again between 1940 and 1945.

In the middle of all this, some of our regions also lived quite independently for some longer period of time as it was the case for a large part of the North of our regions, under the ruling of the Count of Flanders during the early Middle Age and of large part of the South or Regions which were the personal property of the Prince-Bishop of Liège.

I would like to end up this long short review by just telling you how good the Belgium independence has been to our people: at the end of the 19h century, Belgium was the second best performing country in the world, just behind Great Britain. This is partly but certainly not only due to our special ties with Congo, a country 80 times the size of Belgium…

And over the last centuries, Belgium has engendered many famous people… there is such thing as famous Belgians and here is a snapshot.

In Arts we have singer Jacques Brel, comic-stripper Hergé with Tintin, writer Simenon, music instrument inventor Adolphe Sax with his saxophone, actress Audrey Hepburn, painters Rubens, Breughel, Magritte, Fiction personalities like the Mannekenpis or Tintin, war fighters and rulers Ambiorix, Clovis, Charles The Great and actually the entire family of the French Kings is issued from our region, sport tennis players Justine Henin or Kim Clijsters, bicycle champion Eddy Merckx, in terms of Political personalities our numerous Kings or the actual president of Europe Herman Van Rompuy. Eventually, sciences experts like Baekeland who invented the first plastics and Georges Lemaitre at developing the creation of our Universe or industrialist heroes like Solvay or Cockerill. And I cannot leave aside our famous Belgian way of living, our good temper and our French fries…

From this long history and this complex puzzle, one can draw the following conclusions: Belgian people do not like centralization of power. We are in fact a country of communes, of cities and you can ask any mayor or “bourgmestre”: the place where power stands, the place where anyone can effectively do something and have an impact upon the life of one another is the commune, is the city. Very early in our history our cities have asked and obtained local freedoms. This is still the case nowadays.

The second conclusion is that we truly are a patchwork, a mille-feuilles. There is no such thing as a Belgian identity. No. Our identities cannot be summarized in a snapshot. We are either French speaking or Flemish speaking or nowadays Arabian speaking, either leaving in the North or the South, either liberal or catholic or both, either bourgeois or worker… and are usually not very ego-minded. This has generated our Belgian capability of doing compromises or how to make the extremes meet. This is why nowadays we live under a proportional political regime: the winner does not take it all here. We always need to reach an agreement with the different political colours.

And this is also why you are here today: Belgian people have got an ability to modestly “arrange” things. This contributes to explain why Brussels is the capital of NATO and of Europe.

This being said, I still find it daring to state abruptly that Belgium is an artificial construction that cannot last for long.  And I would like to put things in perspective if you don’t mind:

France got its current shape only quite recently, in 1789… Even later if you consider that Alsace and Lorraine actually joined France in 1918… Denmark got its current shape in 1814 and Belgium in 1830, at the same time that current political Greece did. Italy was only united in 1861. And Germany a mere 40 years after Belgium, in 1871 in Versailles in Paris. So one might say that Belgium has got no historical lesson to receive from anyone. And almost 200 years of common history is no bad performance for what some called an artificial construction.

What is true is that Belgium is not a nation-state by definition. We are at the very border of two fundamentally different European Cultures… Broadly speaking the German and the Roman ones… At the same time, Dutch and French are languages deriving from the same indo-European roots, but that is indeed a long time ago…

However, this brings me to the last part of my exposé tonight… the language consideration.

By the way, let me stress that the language fight was in fact totally lost in the South of the Country as the Walloon dialect is nowadays as good as forgotten. And the Walloon dialect was very far off the French language.” Wastiffé coallé djiva” is the only thing I can say in this dialect but this illustrates that this dialect is light years away from our current French. So to think that French did impose only upon the Flemish is not pertinent. French totally extinguished the Walloon dialects which was spoken by the vast majority of inhabitants in the South of Belgium.

Nevertheless, when our ancestors found the Belgian state in 1830, the first leaders of the country selected French as the only official language. For them, this was a logical choice. French was by then the language of the European and local elite. French was homogeneous and international, by opposition with the Flemish which is divided in numerous different dialects or patois. One language, our leaders thought, would foster unity though two languages would start dividing a still young and fragile country.

But by 1840, the Flemish Movement took speed and got reinforced thanks to the vote extension. Indeed, by 1893, all Belgian males were allowed to vote, multiplying suddenly with a factor ten the voters number.  With all these voters, the Flemish revendications were getting much louder and five years later, in 1898, Flemish got the same legal value as French. This did not soften Flemish hopes for more. Flemish speakers wanted their own language on their own soil… But our history shows that a Flemish or a Walloon soil is a very relative concept.

In 1921, the Flemish exigencies were answered as Flemish became then the official language of the Northern Region, French of the South while Brussels would remain bilingual. A linguistic frontier was established but communes alongside this border were allowed to switch to the other side if it appeared that the other language would get  the majority. This would have to be validated through a counting which had to take place every ten years. In 1932 this all got a legal confirmation and at the same time the first Flemish university in Ghent was baptised. The first and the last counting took place in 1947 but results would not be officially published before 1954. A series of Flemish communes became either French speaking or got the so-called facilities i.e. they became bilingual. Flanders got alarmed by this extension of the French language and by 1961 the counting system was abolished. In 1962 the list of the communes with bilingual facilities was frozen. Since then, the fight between Flemish and French speakers has been in essence about the statute to give to Brussels and its periphery and which competences inhabitants of Belgium still wanted to be operated by the federal state.

The history of tomorrow is probably not so difficult to predict. We will see a further erosion of the national or federal competences and much more powerful regions. In fact, Belgium is an advanced mini-Europe. But I am not sure there will be a date where Flemish would definitely and abruptly declare its independence. We will at least remain good neighbours with a lot of privileged ties.

To end up and to my eyes, the most important achievement of Belgium is to have been able to solve cultural divides in peace and to show that peace between two very different cultures is possible, in the middle of the battlefield of Europe.  And this is not a small achievement. Thank you.

Djof event
Djof event


© 2024 - Yvan de Beauffort