Belgium’s Identity Crisis

People like to laugh at the Belgians because they think Belgians live in a dull, uninteresting nation. Part of the problem may be that the country is right in the middle of Europe. Its transport links are so good, it is seen as the sort of place you pass through to get somewhere else. Conquerors from Caesar and Charlemagne to Napoleon and Hitler have marched their armies across poor, downtrodden Belgium.

But there’s more to it than that. Belgium is perceived as bland because there is nothing distinctively Belgian about it. After all, it has only existed since 1830 and its frontiers, despite having been stable since then, seem little more than arbitrary lines on a map. It is more like three countries – the French-speaking south, Wallonia, the Dutch-speaking north, Flanders, and a small German-speaking community in the east.

What makes a Dutch-speaking Belgian different from a Dutch-speaking Dutchman? Armed with the working hypothesis that any country whose national dishes are chips, beer and chocolate can’t be all that bad, I went to find an answer to the question: What is it about Belgium that makes it…Belgian?

At the centre of Belgium’s cultural mélange is its bilingual capital, which variously styles itself Bruxelles, Brussel, or, increasingly, Brussels, depending on who’s talking. Although some eighty percent of the city’s population are native speakers of French, it is entirely surrounded by Flemish territory. Everything, from road signs to the Yellow Pages, is translated into both languages. On breakfast tables in the city’s hotels, the tiny pieces of paper used to wrap up sugar cubes announce their contents as sucre/sukker. It’s not uncommon to hear English or German spoken either.

Perhaps Brussels’ multilingualism was a deciding factor in its overnight transformation into the de facto capital of Europe. Since the 1950s, the Berlaymont quarter of the city has played permanent host to the European Commission and Council of Ministers, and has shared the European Parliament with Strasbourg. In the media, Brussels has become synonymous with the machinery of European government. Half a century on, it’s hard to say whether Brussels owes its cosmopolitan character to its new-found European significance, or whether the opposite is true and it was the city’s cosmopolitanism that attracted the institutions.

But Brussels has been a hub of European history for much longer than the Eurocrats’ meetings at Berlaymont. The city’s chief landmark is the Grand’Place, whose elegant 17th century houses are famed for their architectural harmony. There is, of course, a good reason for this – the square was rebuilt in the same style after Louis XIV razed the whole of Brussels. Maison du Roi recalls an earlier conqueror, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, while next door is the house where Victor Hugo lived after his expulsion from France. Across the square, at the café Maison du Cygne, two other famous exiles met to work on their political treatise – Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx, their work, The Communist Manifesto.

The sleek, silver InterCity train from Brussels to Bruges takes less than an hour, but the dissimilarity in atmosphere between the two cities is immediately apparent. They are even different colours. Brussels is a city of grey stone and slate, like a smaller, grubbier Paris; Bruges is brick-red, a city of small, Flemish bricks and gabled roofs.

The ancient city of Bruges is the cultural nexus of Flanders, a region far closer culturally and geologically to Holland than it is to the rest of Belgium. It is a polder, an area which, until it was reclaimed from the sea in the Middle Ages, was brackish marshland, pools and sandbanks. Bruges, or Brugge in Flemish, takes its name from the brygghia, or natural jetty, on which it grew up.

Mediaeval Bruges owed its importance as a trading centre to its position at the heart of Europe, and to the River Zwin, created by a storm in 1134, which linked it to the North Sea and which was dredged constantly throughout the Middle Ages. Bruges’s wealth and fame grew until it called itself “the Venice of the North.”

Its stadhuis, or town hall, completed in 1421, is built entirely of stone, an ostentatious act in a country with no natural stone. Like any self-respecting mediaeval city, it has a number of relics. Since 1258, the aptly-named Holy Blood Basilica has jealously guarded a glass phial said to contain a few drops of Christ’s blood, brought back from the Second Crusade by Thierry d’Alsace, Count of Flanders.

By the end of the Middle Ages, however, Bruges was in decline. The Zwin, the city’s umbilical link to the sea, had silted up by the 16th century, and Bruges was increasingly dependent on the nearby ports of Damme and Sluis. Worse, the city’s feudal lord, Archduke Maximilian of Austria, encouraged the growth of Antwerp as a major port. Thousands of Protestant merchants and tradesmen fled to Holland in the face of the Inquisition. By the 18th century, the city’s population had declined so much that crops could be grown within its walls and widespread famine caused rioting in 1844.

The last century and a half have, however, seen something of a renaissance for Bruges. Its prolonged period of stagnation meant that its historic heart has not fallen victim to industrialization. The architecture and glorious history of Bruges became a symbol for the groundswell of Flemish nationalism of the late 19th century. Today, its historic core is protected by UNESCO, with tourism being Bruges’s chief industry. It was recently honoured as the European City of Culture for 2002.

Belgium is a small country. The town of Ieper is but a short distance across the polder. Its French name, Ypres, has become almost synonymous with the senseless slaughter of the First World War. The German invasion of 1914 was a pivotal moment in the forging of Belgian national identity. Almost all of Belgium was occupied, with the exception of a tiny triangle of land around De Panne on the North Sea coast. “Gallant little Belgium” became a propaganda gift to the Allies, and as late as 1917, posters in the United States admonished, “Remember Belgium…enlist.”

Belgians, whether at the front, in exile, or under occupation, defined themselves in opposition to their enemy and by their loyalty to their King, Albert I. Although he remained commander in chief of the Belgian army throughout the war, he was held in high regard for more than his martial leadership. He commissioned architect Eugène Dhuicque to preserve Belgium’s artistic and architectural heritage, which was in danger of being destroyed forever, removing what could be moved to safety, recording and photographing what could not. At the end of the war, he masterminded and funded the Albert Plan, buying up surplus huts and building materials from the British army and allowing refugees to return home. The esteem in which the Belgian monarchy is held today is his legacy.

Some Flemish soldiers, however, felt that they had borne the brunt of Belgium’s war effort. The rank and file of the Belgian army was composed largely of uneducated Flemish peasants. Disdain for the (predominantly Flemish) soldiery was commonplace enough among the (almost exclusively French-speaking) officer class to earn the name anti-flamingantisme. Two-thirds of Belgian fatalities during the opening months of the war were sustained at the railway yards at Calais and Dunkerque where wounded men lay waiting for medical aid that never arrived. The Belgian army outlawed unofficial organisations among the Flemish troops from 1917, believing they were playing into the hands of the Germans who occupied most of Flanders. An anonymous Flemish soldier summed up the feelings of many of his compatriots in July 1917 in an open letter to the King.

We are ready to sacrifice our lives for our country, but…our sacrifice may not serve to subjugate our people further…instead, it must allow them to live freely, to breathe freely.

The 20th century has seen the tables of history turn once again on Flanders and Wallonia. Wallonia’s economic fortunes have waned with its traditional heavy industries while Flanders has been on the ascendant. Antwerp is among the largest ports in Europe. Ghent is a leading manufacturing centre. Bruges, of course, is Belgium’s number one tourist destination.

In a nation of ten million, the four million Walloons now find themselves in the minority. The ascendancy of the French language in public life – the Belgian civil code was only officially translated into Flemish in 1961 – seems largely a thing of the past. The new 1980 constitution split the country into three autonomous regions whose competences include education, employment and social and cultural affairs. The third region, the city of Brussels, is bilingual, as is the national government. All parliamentary debates and government press conferences must by law be conducted in both languages.

Today, despite the unhappiness of many Walloons at becoming – as they see it, a minority in their own country – relations between the linguistic communities are good. Contemporary Belgium has more in common with Switzerland than with Yugoslavia. Although guidebooks might warn travellers against speaking French in Flanders, it’s unlikely to offend. The Flemings liberally sprinkle their speech with merci and voilà.

Unlike many other places in Europe, Belgians seem readily able to reconcile being citizens of their region – of Belgium and of Europe. Belgium is at the heart of Europe in more than a geographical sense. It has been one of the key players of the new Europe since its inception. In this new Europe, where national and linguistic frontiers are increasingly irrelevant, Belgium’s multiculturalism is not holding it back but driving it forward.

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