Every European country is an exception, and some are more exceptional than others. Belgium, however, being 25 percent smaller than Switzerland and, with 11 million inhabitants, full to the brim, is an exception among exceptions.
When it turned out that the Islamist scoundrels who attacked Paris on November 13 had planned their strikes in the Brussels municipality of Molenbeek, critics referred to the Belgian government’s weakness. Brussels itself soon came under a state of emergency due to the terrorist threat.
Politico.eu then claimed that Belgium is a “failed state,” a term usually reserved for countries like Afghanistan or Somalia. French journalist Eric Zemmour even went as far as to ask whether France should respond to the terror attacks by bombing Molenbeek instead of the Syrian city of Raqqa.
Whoever wants to understand Belgium must turn back at least to the middle of the 16th century.
The Netherlands, led by their stadtholder, William of Orange, rose up against their overlord, King Philip II of Spain. Philip was a Hapsburg and a Catholic. The inhabitants of the northern Netherlands, on the other hand, were Calvinists.
Nevertheless, native Catholics controlled the southern Netherlands, where Belgium would later arise, and they were determined to hold on to their faith. The south thus remained a Hapsburg possession once the Netherlands were divided.
Nothing changed until 1815, when Europe’s leaders, gathered at the Congress of Vienna, split among themselves the lands previously conquered by the defeated Napoleon. At that time, the territory comprising present-day Belgium passed from France’s control to that of Holland.
The United Kingdom of the Netherlands, as the new country called itself, did not survive for long. In 1830, the July Revolution in France toppled King Charles X. Brussels, which looked up to Paris then as much as it does now, followed at once.
On October 4, the Kingdom of Belgium was proclaimed. The name for the new state, which had never existed in that territory, was taken from the Roman province which Caesar describes in his Gallic War.
Since revolutionary Belgians weren’t bold enough to found a republic, they had to find a king immediately. As was usual in the 19th century whenever the need arose, the chosen ruler was a German prince, Leopold von Sachsen-Coburg-Gotha.
His family was anglophile, which was practical since this assured the new Belgian kingdom much-needed British support. London had one interest above all in the matter: that Belgium never became a part of France again.
Karl Marx, who happened to be an exile in Brussels at the time, explained Belgium’s raison d’être in his particular way: the country was a genuine creation of capitalism, he argued, and it only served the interests of Antwerp merchants and francophone industrialists.
This explanation was not fully correct, nor was it completely off the mark. In truth, the liberal-Catholic alliance that invented and built Belgium was quite unusual. It was a union of cassocks and middle-class moneybags.
Economically, this “startup” proved to be a great success. Mining made the southern, francophone Wallonia rich, while the textile industry boomed in Flanders. Soon, Belgium was the second most industrialized European state after Great Britain, its railway network being the most close-knit in the world.
Belgium’s role as a colonial power also has economic roots. King Leopold II thought that Belgian industry could use the Congo’s raw materials. He had no interest in the noble, civilizing mission that other European empires claimed was their guiding motive for expansion.
The king’s countrymen were skeptical about his African adventure from the outset. “A small country of small people,” cursed Leopold. Then, in 1885, he suddenly bought the Congo himself as royal private property.
It wasn’t until 1909 that the Belgian state took over the colony. This came 10 years after Joseph Conrad had depicted the Congo’s conditions so graphically in his Heart of Darkness so as to shock the entire world.
Certain Belgians acted like colonialists in their own country. Certainly, the francophone upper class’s treatment of Flemish Dutch-speakers could never be compared to the Belgians’ mistreatment of the Congolese. Nevertheless, the mighty treated their inferiors with arrogance, indifference, and a considerable lack of tact. The wounds opened then are still far from healed.
In early Belgium, Dutch was the language of the peasant majority. Politicians, professors, and captains of industry spoke French. Any non-francophone pursing a career would crash very soon against a glass ceiling.
It was only in 1888, 60 years after Belgium’s foundation, that Dutch was recognized as an official language. Discrimination, however, continued, and it could be deadly in the worst of cases.
In the First World War, Flemish soldiers marched to their death, because they couldn’t understand the orders issued by francophone officers.
In the Second World War, certain Flemings made a deal with the devil out of hate towards their southern countrymen. When the German army marched into Belgium in May, 1940, two groups vied for the occupiers’ favor: Devlag and the Flemish National Union. This association gave Flemish nationalism a bad reputation which hasn’t been fully shed to this day.
Belgium is often compared to Switzerland. They are both relatively small countries where two large linguistic groups and one small one (in Belgium’s case, a minority of German speakers in the east) coexist. But, in truth, that’s where the similarities end. Switzerland was created from the bottom up; it grew out of the alliances made by cities, townships, and valley associations. Belgium, on the other hand, was a top-down creation forced upon the people by a centralized state.
Mining in Wallonia, like nearly everywhere else in Western Europe, became a state-subsidized industry in the 1980s. The more agricultural Flanders, meanwhile, experienced an economic revival. Today, Flemish patriots claim that they pay the bills of those whose forefathers bullied their own ancestors. Most Wallonian politicians, meanwhile, are in no hurry to learn Dutch.
Amid countless government reforms and quarrels sparked due to language, the Belgian state has become an empty vessel. The only true Belgians, it seems, are the royal family and the soccer team. Even Belgian prime ministers see themselves as representatives of their own linguistic group.
The Fleming Yves Leterme, who governed from 2009 until 2011, spent most of his time in office transferring power to Flanders. When Wallonian journalists asked him to sing the national anthem, he struck up the Marseillaise.
Perhaps, he thought, Belgium no longer exists.
Hansjörg Müller is a politics editor at the Basler Zeitung, a Swiss daily.
This article first appeared in German in the Basler Zeitung on November 26, 2015.