A Brief History of Belgium

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Podcast Transcript

Located in Northern Europe, along the Atlantic coast, is the relatively small nation of Belgium. 

Belgium is like other countries in most ways, but its history and founding are very different from those of its neighbors. 

How it was founded had important implications for all over Europe and may still impact the country’s future. 

Learn more about the history of Belgium, how and why it was formed, and what its future may hold on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

Many countries in Europe can trace their origins back hundreds of years. They have some sort of ethnic or linguistic commonality that unifies them and is the basis for them being a country. 

Belgium is not such a country. 

While Belgium has a unique history, it isn’t the same type of history as other countries. In fact, for centuries, there was no such place as “Belgium.”

To understand the history of Belgium, we have to go way back to ancient Rome. 

One of the tribes that Julius Caesar conquered was known as the Belgae. They lived in roughly the area of what is today Belgium.

These people were Celtic and, for the most part, not the direct ancestors of the people that live in Belgium today. 

Much of modern-day Belgium was part of the Roman province of Gallia Belgica.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Germanic tribes, particularly the Franks, invaded and settled the Region. 

What is today Belgium, was never really its own entity. It was either part of some larger state or subdivided into autonomous units. 

In 843, at the Treaty of Verdun, the Carolingian Empire was split into three parts, placing what is Belgium into the region of Middle Francia and later West Francia.

The land later became part of the Kingdom of Lotharingia.

From 1384 to 1482, the region, along with Luxembourg, became part of the Duchy of Burgundy, which united the region under a single ruler. 

In 1482, the region, along with the Netherlands, became part of the Holy Roman Empire, which was controlled by the House of Hapsburg. This region became known as the Spanish Netherlands. 

After the 80-Year War, what was called the Northern Provinces achieved independence from Spain and became the United Provinces of the Netherlands or the Dutch Republic. The Southern provinces, which were most of what is today Belgium, remained under Spanish control.

In 1713, the Treaty of Utrecht assigned the Spanish Netherlands to the Austrian Habsburgs, creating the Austrian Netherlands.

Finally, in 1794, after the French Revolution, the area was incorporated into the French Republic and then was part of the French Empire under Napoleon. 

I’m actually rushing through a whole bunch of really important history here, but it is all a build-up to get to the point where modern Belgium becomes a thing.  What you need to take from all of the history prior to the 19th century is that there was never a thing called Belgium at any point. The areas that comprise Belgium were divided and unified under various kingdoms and empires for centuries. 

In 1815, Napoleon was defeated, and the European powers met at the Congress of Vienna to decide the fate of post-Napoleonic Europe. 

The powers that be decided to put what is today Belgium with what is today the Netherlands in the Kingdom of the Netherlands under King William I of Orange. 

The marriage of what was now known as the Southern Provinces of the Netherlands to the Northern Provinces wasn’t one that the people of the Southern Provinces wanted. 

The Southern Provinces consisted of two primary regions: Flanders and Wallonia. The people of Flanders spoke a Dutch dialect known as Flemish, and the people of Wallonia spoke French. However, what they both had in common was that they were predominantly Catholic, whereas the Nothern Provinces of the Netherlands were predominantly Protestant. 

The king and all of the important officials in the new country were Protestant, but the majority of the kingdom’s populace was Catholic. The king mandated that Catholic schools in the South stop teaching Catholicism, and the French-speaking Wallonians were upset that the only official language of the government was Dutch.

In addition, most of the seats in the national legislature were held by people in the North, even though the South was industrializing faster and was more prosperous. 

This, unsurprisingly, led to unrest in the southern provinces. 

In 1830, a revolution broke out in France. Known as the July Revolution, it overthrew the Bourbon King Charles X and replaced him with Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléan. 

Inspired by the events in France, it spurred the Belgians to overthrow their rulers. 

The Belgian Revolution began on August 25, 1830. The start of the revolution was a very specific event. 

It began at an opera house in Brussels during a performance of La Muette de Portici, or “The Mute Girl of Portici,” an opera by the French composer Daniel Auber. The opera is a romantic and political drama set in 17th-century Naples during the Spanish occupation.

The opera’s dramatic portrayal of revolution and the fight for freedom stirred nationalistic sentiments among the audience. The final act culminates in a popular uprising. The aria “Amour sacré de la patrie” (Sacred Love of the Fatherland) led to raucous applause in the theater and resulted in the energized crowd of French and Flemish-speaking elites spilling out into the streets of Brussels.

On the streets, the crowd grew, and they began singing patriotic songs. The crowd turned violent, and after that night, it spread to other cities, starting a full-scale revolution.

On October 4, a provisional government declared the independence of the nation of Belgium. 

On December 20, the London Conference convened with five major European powers: Austria, Britain, France, Prussia, and Russia. The purpose of the conference was to determine what to do with Belgium.

Please note the five countries that were in attendance. The five countries that determined the fate of Belgium were the same five major belligerent powers in the First World War. 

While the London Conference was debating Belgium’s fate in the first months of 1831, a National Congress was convened to create a new constitution, which was adopted on February 7.

The European powers at the conference supported the idea of Belgian independence, which, of course, didn’t sit well with the Dutch. 

In June 1831, they proposed what became known as the Treaty of Eighteen Articles, which Belgium and the Netherlands would sign. 

Much of what the London Conference decided was in the best interest of the European powers. 

Needless to say, the Dutch rejected the treaty and attempted a military invasion of Belgium in August. Known as the Ten Days Campaign, it was an attempt by Dutch King William I to bring Belgium back into the fold. However, the Belgians, with assistance from the French, beat back the invasion.

There were several major points that the European powers agreed to that would be part of the creation of Belgium as a country. 

The first is that the territory of Belgium would consist of the southern provinces as of 1790. This meant that the Grand Dutchy of Luxembourg wound up losing ? of its territory. At the time, Luxembourg and the Netherlands were in personal union, as they had the same person as a monarch. 

The second thing they determined was that Belgium would be a monarchy, not a republic. This was no surprise as all of the countries represented at the London Conference were monarchies, and the French Revolution was still fresh in everyone’s mind. 

The British foreign secretary and representative to the conference, Lord Palmerston, initially wanted William Prince of Orange to become the king of Belgium. He was the heir apparent to the Dutch crown and future ??king William II of the Netherlands.

However, this idea was shot down by William I and the French. 

None of the other powers wanted a French ruler in Belgium, given the previous French involvement in the region. 

Palmerston’s next choice was Leopold I of Saxe-Coburg, a German. All of the conference attendees accepted this choice, and on July 21, 1831, he was inaugurated as the first King of the Belgians. 

The other major point to come out of the London Conference was that Belgium would be neutral. Each of the major powers pledged to protect Belgium’s neutrality. 

Belgium served as a buffer between France and Germany, so the hope was that a neutral Belgium could help avoid future conflicts. 

The Netherlands didn’t accept the treaty or an independent Belgium, but eventually, in 1839, they signed a new Treaty of London, which finalized the border between the Netherlands and Belgium and finally gave an independent Belgium recognition from the Netherlands. 

For the rest of the 19th century, Belgium had the good fortune of having a major source of coal, which allowed for industrialization. At the same time, their neutrality kept them out of conflicts such as the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. 

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the Belgian Congo. King Leopold II established a colony in Africa in the late 19th century, which was eighty times the size of Belgium. The Belgian Congo will be the subject of a future episode as it was the site of some of the most horrific events during the entire European colonization of the continent. 

Fast forward to 1914, when the 1831 Treaty of Eighteen Articles suddenly became extremely important. 

The European powers that had come together decades before to establish Belgium and had pledged to protect its neutrality, had now begun to choose sides in preparation for a future conflict. 

If you remember back to a previous episode, the Germans had a plan in their back pocket for decades known as the Schlieffen Plan. The Schlieffen Plan was a plan for an invasion of France by Germany, which involved going through neutral Belgium. 

When Germany invaded Belgium and violated its neutrality, this was used as the reason for France and Britain’s entry into the war. 

Beliguim, despite having done nothing to provoke an attack, suffered more than almost any country during the war. 

The German government, for its part, described Belgian neutrality as nothing more than a “scrap of paper.”

After the war, Belgium found its economy devastated, not just because of the destruction of the war but also because Germany had taken much of its heavy machinery. 

Much of the German reparations after the war were earmarked for Belgium, and they also received some territory from Germany as well.

Belgium repositioned itself as neutral in 1936, but just as in the First World War, it didn’t prevent another German invasion. 

King Léopold III surrendered to the Germans and was held in captivity for the entire war, even meeting with Hitler. There was a question of what to do with him after the war, and a referendum was held on his return in 1950. 

He won the referendum, but the vote showed some dramatic divisions in the country. French-speaking Wallonia voted against Leopold with 58% against. Flemish-speaking Flanders voted in favor of Leopold’s return by 70%, and French-speaking Brussels, which is in the middle of Flanders, voted 51% for his removal. 

He was restored as king but eventually abdicated in 1956. 

In the post-war world, Belgium found itself in a unique position. It had a central location in Western Europe and a tradition of neutrality that went back over a century. 

Both of these facts played a part in Belgium, and Brussels in particular, becoming the location of the headquarters for NATO and the European Parliament. 

Some people question Belgium’s future. 

The country was founded based on a shared religion between Flanders and Wallonia. However, the differences between the two regions have grown over time. 

Belgium recently went 16 months without being able to form a government. The political lines were largely between Flanders and Wallonia. Much of the problem stems from differences in population and economics and representation in government. 

There are some in the country that are calling for independence for Flanders and Wallonia. 

One of the biggest sticking points if such a breakup were to occur would be the status of Brussels. Brussels is a predominantly French-speaking city that is completely surrounded by Dutch-speaking Flanders. 

Belgium is unique among the countries of Europe and, indeed, the world. It was created as the result of an international conference, and the terms laid down by that conference, although no one could have possibly predicted it, ended up being the grounds for one of the greatest wars in history. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel. 

The associate producers are Ben Long and Cameron Kieffer. 

Today’s rather lengthy review comes from listener Mizzou Matt on Apple Podcasts in the United States. They write:

An amazing pod!!

I’ve been listening to this pod for a long time now, and while I am not in the completionist club yet, I hope to be soon. It’s become common practice for me to play several shows back to back while on long car trips with my family. My kids are hooked and will ask for me to play Everything Everywhere Daily on the brief commute to school each morning. We have all enjoyed expanding our love of learning through these short pods each day.

We recently got back from a Caribbean Cruise. While on the cruise, one of our family’s favorite activities was taking part in the themed trivia events hosted several times each day. While we were never any good at most of them due to the very niche trivia categories, we still enjoyed it. We noticed that one man in particular seemed to have an extensive amount of knowledge on pretty much everything as he was routinely in the winner’s circle. When the time came for “General Trivia,” we felt like it might be our best chance to dethrone “Darrin from Dallas.”

As the questions were asked to the participants, I was able to impress my wife and kids with my understanding of the elements, New Zealand history (past and present), the Acadian Explosion and much more. We did very well in the event and actually ended up going head-to-head with Darrin in the tiebreaker. Lucky for us, I had recently listened to Gary’s show on snow and knew that the record for the world’s largest snowflake was, in fact, 15 inches.

Thank you, Gary, for sharing your knowledge and love of learning with my family and me. It’s made our long (and short) car rides so much more enjoyable, and we now have a cheap plastic trophy of a cruise ship to display in our house!

And to Darrin from Dallas, well played, sir. See you next cruise. I hope to be in the completionist club by then.

Thanks, Matt! It goes to show that you never know when having a broad general knowledge base is going to come in handy.

Remember that if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.