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Unraveling the rich history of Belgium

History of Belgium

In the past 12 years I have written on a variety of historical topics on this blog, but I recently realized that I have never posted an article on the overall history of Belgium.

So … buckle up for a rapid journey through the twists and turns of Belgium’s rich history! We’re not just talking about chocolate and waffles here – this small country has seen it all, from ancient tribes to a cruel king to world wars and everything in between. So, let’s dive into the past and uncover the fascinating history of Belgium.

The Early Days: A mix of Celts, Romans, and a dash of Christianity

Belgium’s story begins way back before the term “Belgium” even existed. Picture this – ancient Celtic and Germanic tribes, like the Belgae, Franks, and Frisians, were chilling in the region we now know as Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. The Romans swung by for a few centuries until the 5th century, leaving behind a legacy seen in places like the well-preserved Gallo-Roman city of Tongeren. Fast forward to the 6th and 7th centuries, and Christianity hops on the scene thanks to missionaries like Saint Servatius and Saint Boniface. The term “Belgium” itself has roots in the Latin word “Belgica,” reflecting the amalgamation of various Celtic and Germanic tribes that inhabited the area.

The history of Belgian goes back to the Romans
A Roman wall in Tongeren

The swagger and trade of Medieval fiefdoms

Roll into the Middle Ages, and you’ve got yourself a whole bunch of principalities – the County of Flanders, Duchy of Brabant, County of Hainaut, and the Prince-Bishopric of Liège. They were like the cool kids with their own political vibes, competing and allying as they pleased. This era laid the groundwork for Belgium’s future economic prowess, thanks to a bustling trade scene. This is when the cities of Bruges and Gent began to thrive, thanks largely to the burgeoning Flemish cloth industry.

Burgundian rule: When things got cultured

Enter the Burgundians from 1363 to 1477, a period of political consolidation and cultural grandeur. These “Great Dukes of the West” not only knew how to acquire territories through marriage and conquest but also threw a spotlight on the arts and sciences. It was a time of sophistication, of a courtly and cosmopolitan culture, but also of centralized and efficient administration.

Museum Hof van Busleyden Mechelen
You can trace the history of the Burgundian empire in the excellent Museum Hof van Busleyden in Mechelen

Habsburg rule: Religious tumult

The Habsburg period, from 1477 to 1795, was marked by religious and political turmoil. The Reformation, which began in the 16th century, divided the Low Countries into Catholic and Protestant factions. The Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) was a revolt of the northern provinces, led by William of Orange, against the Spanish rule of Philip II, who tried to suppress Protestantism and enforce his authority. The war resulted in the independence of the Dutch Republic and the separation of the Low Countries into two parts: the northern, predominantly Protestant, and the southern, predominantly Catholic.

Gaasbeek Castle tapestry
The Habsburg kings were fanatical collectors of the spectacular and valuable Flemish tapestries

Austrian and French rule, until Waterloo

The southern provinces remained under Spanish control until 1713, when they were transferred to Austria by the Treaty of Utrecht. The Austrian rule was more tolerant and enlightened, but also faced resistance from the local nobility and bourgeoisie, who demanded more autonomy and representation. However, Napoleon’s shenanigans altered the political landscape once again. After Wellington defeated Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815, the Congress of Vienna united the southern provinces with the northern ones to form the Kingdom of the Netherlands, under the rule of King William I.

Waterloo Battlefield Walk
Discover 17 points of interest on my Waterloo Battlefield Walk

The road to independence: Belgium decides to go solo

The union with the Dutch proved to be short-lived, as cultural, linguistic, and religious differences fueled discontent in the southern provinces. The July Revolution in Paris in 1830 ignited the Belgian Revolution, leading to the declaration of independence on October 4, 1830. The newly formed nation adopted a constitutional monarchy, and Leopold I became its first king.

Leopold I, first King of the Belgians
Leopold I, first King of the Belgians

The first constitution: A breath of fresh air

Leopold I was a German prince who was chosen by the National Congress, a representative assembly that drafted the constitution. The constitution of Belgium was one of the most liberal and democratic in Europe, granting civil rights, freedom of religion, and a parliamentary system. However, it also excluded the majority of the population from voting, as the suffrage was limited to wealthy and educated men.

Industrialization and economic growth: Belgium’s boom time

Zoom into the 19th century, and Belgium was on fire. Industrialization kicked in, with railways, canals, and roads sprouting up everywhere. The coal and steel sectors in Wallonia were the stars, but it wasn’t all sunshine. Industrialization also brought social problems, such as urbanization, poverty, and class conflict. The workers and the peasants organized themselves into trade unions, cooperatives, and political parties, demanding better wages, working conditions, and social reforms. The main political parties were the Liberals, the Catholics, and the Socialists, who represented different ideologies and interests.

Le Belge was the first steam train built in Belgium
Le Belge was the first steam train built in Belgium, in 1835 by the John Cockerill company of Seraing.

Expansion and colonization: Belgium’s African adventure

In the latter half of the 19th century, Belgium joined the “scramble for Africa” and grabbed a chunk known as the Congo Free State. The King of Belgium, Leopold II, had a field day exploiting its resources, especially rubber, for his own profit. The Congo was also the scene of atrocities and human rights violations, such as forced labor, mutilation, and genocide, committed by the king’s agents and soldiers against the native population. The international outcry and the pressure from the humanitarian movement led to the transfer of the Congo from Leopold II to the Belgian state in 1908, becoming the Belgian Congo.

The Congo and Leopold II is not a happy story
A Punch cartoon of King Leopold II of Belgium as a snake entangling a Congolese rubber collector.

The First World War: A nation’s trial

The first half of the 20th century was a turbulent and tragic time for Belgium. In the crucible of the First World War (1914-1918), Belgium faced brutal invasion and occupation by German forces. The valiant resistance of the Belgian army in Liège, Antwerp, and Ypres, coupled with the unwavering leadership of King Albert I, transformed the monarch into a symbol of national unity. However, the war’s impact on civilians was profound, with atrocities like hostage executions and cultural heritage destruction leaving scars on the national psyche.

In Flanders Fields Musuem in Ypres
The In Flanders Fields Museum in Ypres is an excellent starting point to discover more about Belgium in the First World War

The Second World War: Defiance amidst occupation

The Second World War (1939-1945) brought another invasion, this time by Nazi Germany. The swift defeat of the Belgian army and King Leopold III’s surrender ignited controversy and internal strife. Civilian life endured rationing, repression, and, tragically, genocide targeting groups like Jews, Roma, and political opponents. Belgium’s response, divided between collaboration and resistance, reflected the complex motivations and ideologies within society. The collaborators were mainly motivated by fascism, nationalism, or opportunism, and supported the Nazi regime or the Flemish separatism. The resistors were mainly motivated by patriotism, democracy, or communism, and fought against the Nazi regime or the Belgian collaboration.

German army in Belgium
The Germany Army in front of the Royal Palace, Brussels, May 1940

The Economy: Rebuilding and diversifying

One of the main challenges for Belgium after World War II was to restore its economy, which had suffered from war damage, occupation, and collaboration. Fortunately, Belgium had a relatively low level of destruction, estimated at only 8 percent of its national wealth, and benefited from a vigorous government policy, monetary reform, and liberalization of the domestic market. With judicious government policies, monetary reforms, and aid from the United States through the Marshall Plan, the nation achieved a remarkable resurgence. Traditional sectors transitioned to advanced industries like chemicals and electronics, propelling Belgium toward high growth, productivity, and employment rates.

The history of Belgium includes the 1958 World's Fair
The theme of the Expo 58 World’s Fair in Brussels was “Bilan du monde, pour un monde plus humain” (Evaluation of the world for a more humane world), a motto inspired by faith in technical and scientific progress 

The King: Navigating political controversy

Another major challenge for Belgium was to settle the political controversy over the fate of King Leopold III, who had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940 and remained in exile until 1950. His return to Belgium sparked political controversy, dividing Belgians along linguistic, ideological, and regional lines. A 1950 referendum, supported by Christian Democrats and Liberals, affirmed the king’s return, but Socialists and Communists rejected the result, leading to protests. To avoid further violence, Leopold appointed his son, Prince Baudouin, as regent in 1950, and abdicated in his favor in 1951. Baudouin became the new king of Belgium, and the royal question was resolved.

King Leopold III played a key role in the history of Belgium
King Leopold III

The Congo: Decolonization challenges

Decolonization presented Belgium with the challenge of relinquishing control over its main overseas possession, the Congo. Granting autonomy in 1959 and independence in 1960, the transition was marred by crises, including secession, political assassinations, and foreign interventions. The impact was profound, shaking Belgium economically and psychologically as it lost its most significant colony.

The independence ceremony for the Congo
The independence ceremony for the Congo, held on 30 June 1960

Languages: Bridging divides

Linguistic and regional diversity posed a significant challenge for Belgium post-war. The Flemish movement, seeking equal rights and recognition, gained momentum, while the Walloons sought autonomy and protection for their region. Political instability ensued, leading to a transformation into a federal state with reforms like official bilingualism, linguistic communities, and regional devolution.

Language map of Belgium
The language map of Belgium

International integration: Embracing cooperation

Belgium adapted to the postwar international order through active participation in supranational organizations, including the United Nations and the evolving European Union. Playing a pivotal role, Belgium supported principles of multilateralism and solidarity, and the European integration process became a beacon of hope for overcoming historical divisions. Hosting key EU institutions in Brussels, Belgium became a staunch advocate for the deepening and widening of the European project.

The European Parliament building in Brussels
The European Parliament building in Brussels

Conclusion

Belgium’s journey is a rollercoaster of triumphs, challenges, and the occasional waffle. From ancient roots to a pivotal role in European integration, Belgium stands as a resilient mosaic of cultures, languages, and histories – a nation that thrives on its rich heritage. If you’re hungry for more details, check out Wikipedia’s take on Belgium’s history or dive into my “On This Day in Belgium” timeline.

9 thoughts on “Unraveling the rich history of Belgium”

  1. Denzil, lest we forget: after WW2 Belgium owed its economic growth largely to migrant workers (European, Turkish, North African) in the mining and steel industry. So much so that the EGKS resulted first in the BENELUX union and later the EEC and the EU. I always feel blessed how these communities thrive peacefully in their ‘cités’ in Limburg, Liege and elsewhere, even so many years after mines and steel factories have closed. For now it’s the port of Antwerp, one of the biggest in Europe, that provides much of Flanders’ economic growth.

  2. Indeed a fascinating history and independent from France and NL. Think EU has helped smaller countries and provides that overview to keep some unity between the Walloons and Flemish. I am very interested in the Congo and have friends there. I have to revive my French in some exchanges!

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