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History of Belgium

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This article covers the history of Belgium over the last 200 years. For current events see Belgium

See also Netherlands, history

Historically, Belgium and the Netherlands were known as the Low Countries. From the end of the Middle Ages until the middle of the sixteenth century, the Low Countries, and Flanders in particular, were a prosperous centre of commerce and culture. From the fourteenth century onward they were governed by Dukes of Burgundy and later by the Habsburg emperor Charles V. From the middle of the sixteenth century until the Belgian revolution of 1830, Belgium changed hands several times. It has been an independent state since 1830.

Belgium independence

After 1815 Belgium became the southern part of of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.[1] King William I favored the Protestants who dominated Holland, and he became unpopular in the south. The French-speaking Walloons strenuously rejected his attempt to make Dutch the universal language of government. However Flemings spoke a Dutch dialect (Flemish) and welcomed the encouragement of Dutch with a revival of literature and popular culture. Other Flemings, notably the educated bourgeoisie, preferred to speak French. Although Catholics possessed legal equality, after centuries as the state church in the south, they resented their subordination to a government that was fundamentally Protestant in spirit and membership. Few Catholics held high office in state or army. Political liberals in the south complained as well about the king's authoritarian methods. All southerners complained of underrepresentation in the national legislature. Although the south was industrializing and was more prosperous than the north the accumulated grievances allowed the multiple opposition forces to coalesce. The outbreak of revolution in France in 1830 was a signal for action, at first on behalf of autonomy for Belgium, as the southern provinces were now called, and later on behalf of total independence. William dithered and his half-hearted efforts to reconquer Belgium were thwarted both by the efforts of the Belgians themselves and by the diplomatic opposition of the great powers.

At the the London Conference of 1830–31, the chief powers of Europe ordered (in November, 1830) an armistice between the Dutch and the Belgians. The first draft for a treaty of separation of Belgium and the Netherlands was rejected by the Belgians. A second draft (June, 1831) was rejected by William I, who resumed hostilities. Franco-British intervention forced William to withdraw Dutch forces from Belgium late in 1831, and in 1833 an armistice of indefinite duration was concluded. Belgium was effectively independent but William’s attempts to recover Luxembourg and Limburg led to renewed tension. The London Conference of 1838–39 prepared the final Dutch-Belgian separation treaty of 1839 and divided Luxembourg and Limburg between the Dutch and Belgian crowns. The Kingdom of the Netherlands thereafter was made up of only the 11 northern provinces.[2]


Friction between French-speaking Walloons and Dutch (Flemish) speaking Flemings has always been the central political issue of the Kingdom of belgium. French became the official language of government after the separation from the Netherlands in 1830. Belgian cultural life was dominated by Paris, reinforced by economic domination of the industrial south. In response came a new spirit of nationalism among the Flemings, who agitated for the equality of their language with French. This goal was finally achieved by a series of laws in the 1920s and 1930s that made Flemish the language of government, education, and the courts in the northern provinces of East Flanders and West Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg, and eastern Brabant. Brussels became a bilingual national capital.

High culture

Cultural life in Belgium had long stagnated but a revival among French speaking Belgians began with the new French language literary and artistic review, La Jeune Belgique (1881-97). Some of them had Flemish roots and lived in the Northern part of the country, like the great romantic and symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-49, Nobel Prize 1911), the writer of Tijl Ulenspieghel Charles De Coster, the poët and playwright Emile Verhaeren (1855-1916), the dramatist Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962), the author of 'Bruges la Morte' Georges Rodenbach and the poët and playwright Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), one of the founders of symbolism.

James Ensor (1860-1949) was an influential Expressionist painter and printmaker, located in Ostend. Félicien Rops (1833-98) won acclaim as graphic artist, as did symbolist painter Fernand Khnopff (1855-1921) and surrealist painters Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) and René Magritte (1898-1967). A crowded school of Flemish painters became known as the 'School of Latem St Martin' (rural commune near Gent). Amongst them Theo Van Rijsselberghe (1862-1926), ...

Many French-speaking artists moved to France or had their work published by French publishing houses. This was the case for Henri Michaux (1899-1984).

Inspector Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon (1903-89), won a wide following in translation.

Apart from its French writers, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium produced during the 19th century a number of authors writing in Dutch. The most important amongst them was Guido Gezelle, priest and poet who reached in his language the level of e.g. Longfellow.

World War I

After four years of occupation, Belgium emerged ruined at the end of World War I. The king returned from Yser, the sliver of territory he controlled throughout the war, leading the victorious army and acclaimed by the population. In contrast, the government and the exiles came back discreetly, and the absence of the dead was felt strongly. Many saw themselves as victims of the occupation and sought revenge. Waves of popular violence accompanied liberation in November and December 1918 and the government responded through the judiciary punishment of collaboration with the enemy conducted between 1919 and 1921, mainly by military and civil tribunals. Shop windows were broken and houses sacked, men were harassed, and women's heads were shaved. Manufacturers who had closed their businesses sought the severe repression of those who had pursued their activities. Journalists who had boycotted and stopped writing called for harsh treatment of the newspapers that submitted to German censorship. Many people stigmatized profiteers and demanded justice. Thus in 1918, Belgium was already confronted with the problems associated with occupation that most European countries only discovered at the end of World War II. [3]

World War II


The modern Belgian social security system was created in 1945. Compulsory sickness, disability, and unemployment insurance was run by a national bureau of social security was organized, incorporating prewar agencies that administered old-age programs.

Flemings and Walloons

Despite the new legal rights gained in the 1920s and 1930s, many Flemings, complained about a second-class status in a country where they outnumbered the Walloons. Indeed, after 1945 they became more more prosperous as well. Antagonism grew; the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium's oldest and most prestigious university, and the private Free University of Brussels were bilingual until 1970, when each was divided into separate Dutch- and French-speaking institutions following repeated conflicts between Flemish and Walloon students.

Separation was the solution. In 1971 and 1980 the constitution was revised to provide Flemings with a greater degree of cultural and political autonomy. The country was divided into three regions--Flanders (capital: Brussels), Wallonia (capital: Namur), and Brussels--with some devolution of power from the central government to regional governments and the ultimate adoption of a federal system. The regions control 40% of all public spending and control roads, urban projects, health services, the environment, and, especially, education. The regions also regulate industry; Wallonia operates the aging steel industry.

In 2008 the government was paralyzed for months with the possibility of separation being discussed. However Flemish nationalists had a problem with their language itself, which had dissolved into a multiple local dialects during the long period of French domination of education and culture. With nationalist encouragement, however, it has become increasingly standardized since World War I. In 1973 the Flemish Cultural Council decreed that the language should be designated officially as Dutch, and not Flemish. Besides a dramatic linguistic division between Flemings and Walloons, cultural styles differ; the Flemings tend to be more actively Catholic and republican and Walloons tend to be more secularist, royalist, and socialist.

Turkish immigrants

Turkish labor was brought in to work the Belgian coal mines during the 1960s and 1970s. Between 1963 and 1971, the Belgian coal industry recruited more than 14,000 Turkish workers, not counting those who arrived independently and who were employed by other sectors in need of the assistance of foreign labor. Despite its high cost, official recruitment of labor in Turkey proved to be effective. Thus, the Belgian authorities decided to promote actively the stabilization of the new immigrant workers, notably by giving increased assistance to reuniting families. The arrival of the first contingents of Turkish workers was, however, marked by a lack of preparedness to receive and look after this new population, and the incidents that flared up during the first year of the Turkish presence in Belgium seemed to indicate that the new policy might fail. The resolution of the difficulties encountered with the Turkish labor was achieved through the combined action of the different parties involved in the recruitment program: the mining companies and the Belgian and Turkish authorities. The organizational structures put in place to create and perpetuate a social order favorable to the authorities concerned had a considerable impact on the future of the Turks in Belgium. Moreover, the Belgian trade-union organizations also became involved and sought to bring the immigrant workers into their structures. The professional and social integration of the Turkish miners and of the first families to arrive was reinforced with the appointment of social delegates from Turkey, while the stabilization of the population and the reunification of families were assisted by an official publication in the Turkish language. The sociocultural and religious structures of support for the population were taken charge of by the Turkish authorities with the intention of preserving intact a strong sense of the workers' Turkish identity and their unwavering loyalty to their homeland. These various partners pursued their cooperation during the 1970s.[4]


With Belgian independence in 1830 Europe had a new state and a new historiography, which explored the constitutional liberties of this young state. Its historians unanimously considered the Burgundian state a prefiguration of independent Belgium and most attacked the Burgundian dukes as French princes responsible for repressing Belgian identity. From the 1890s on, however, opinion changed, as typified by Henri Pirenne. Historians now praised the dukes for having ensured the maintenance of the state and the precedence of the common good over the local interests of municipalities and the principalities. Pirenne gave the most highly finished interpretation, which expressed an anxiety with regard to the social and linguistic tensions in Belgium at a time when peace seemed increasingly endangered in Europe.[5]

The most influential historian of Belgium was medievalist Henri Pirenne (1862-1935), a Walloon who wrote a masterful multivolume history of Belgium and became a national hero. At the University of Liège he was a student of Godefroid Kurth (1847-1916), and served as professor of history at the University of Ghent (1886-1930). A leader of Belgian passive resistance in World War I, the Germans held him (1916–18) as a hostage. Pirenne's Histoire de Belgique (7 vol., 1899–1932) stressed how traditional and economic forces had drawn Flemings and Walloons together. Pirenne, inspired by patriotic nationalism, presupposed a Belgian unity - social, political, and ethnic - which predated its 1830 independence by centuries. Although a liberal himself, he wrote his seven volume history with such a masterly balance that Catholics, liberals and socialists could quote from it with equal respect in their newspapers or sometimes even in their political gatherings. Pirenne's history remains crucial to the understanding of Belgium's past, but his notion of a continuity of Belgian civilization forming the basis of political unity has lost favor, however, leaving many Belgian scholars to feel that the creation of their country was a historical accident.[6] Pirenne's argument that the long Spanish rule in the Low Countries had little continuing cultural impact has likewise fallen, in the face of new as research since 1970 in the fields of cultural, military, economic, and political history.[7]


  1. see online maps 1830, 1839
  2. J. C. H. Blom and E. Lamberts, eds. History of the Low Countries (1999) pp 297-312
  3. Laurence VanYpersele, and Xavier Rousseaux, "Leaving the War: Popular Violence and Judicial Repression of 'Unpatriotic' Behaviour in Belgium (1918-1921). European Review of History 2005 12(1): 3-22.
  4. Mazyar Khoojinian, "L'accueil et La Stabilisation Des Travailleurs Immigres Turcs En Belgique, 1963-1980" [The Reception and Stabilization of Immigrant Turkish Workers in Belgium, 1963-80]. Cahiers D'histoire du Temps Présent 2006 (17): 73-116. Issn: 0771-6435
  5. Philippe Carlier, "Contribution a l'etude de l'unification Bourguignonne dans l'historiographie Nationale Belge de 1830 a 1914," [Contribution to the Study of the Burgundian Unification in Belgian Historiography, 1830-1914]. Belgisch Tijdschrift Voor Nieuwste Geschiedenis 1985 16(1-2): 1-24. Issn: 0035-0869
  6. Jean Stengers, "La Belgique, Un Accident De L'histoire?" Revue de l'université De Bruxelles 1989 (3-4): 17-34. Issn: 0770-0962
  7. Geoffrey Parker, "New Light on an Old Theme: Spain and the Netherlands 1550-1650." European History Quarterly 1985 15(2): 219-236. Issn: 0265-6914