History of Belgium

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The History of Belgium is closely linked to the history of neighboring Netherlands. For recent events see Belgium.

Early history

Belgium derives its name from the Belgae, a Celtic tribe. The Belgae were forced to yield to Roman legions during the first century B.C. For some 300 years thereafter, what is now Belgium flourished as a province of Rome. But Rome's power gradually lessened. In about A.D. 300, Attila the Hun invaded what is now Germany and pushed Germanic tribes into northern Belgium. About 100 years later, the Germanic tribe of the Franks invaded and took possession of Belgium. The northern part of present-day Belgium became an overwhelmingly Germanized and Germanic-Frankish-speaking area, whereas in the southern part people continued to be Roman and spoke derivatives of Latin.

Under these various rulers, and especially during the 500 years from the 12th to the 17th century, the great cities of Ghent, Bruges, Brussels, and Antwerp took turns at being major European centers for commerce, industry (especially textiles), and art. Flemish painting—from Van Eyck and Breugel to Rubens and Van Dyck—became the most prized in Europe. Flemish tapestries hung on castle walls throughout Europe.

Low Countries

See also History of the Netherlands

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 center of commerce and culture. From the fourteenth century onward they were governed by Dukes of Burgundy and later by the Hapsburg emperor Charles V. From the middle of the sixteenth century until the Belgian revolution of 1830, Belgium changed hands several times. After coming under the rule of the Dukes of Burgundy and, through marriage, passing into the possession of the Hapsburgs, Belgium was occupied by the Spanish (1519-1713) and the Austrians (1713-1794).

Belgium has been an independent state since 1830.

Belgium independence

Following the French Revolution, Belgium was invaded and annexed by Napoleonic France in 1795. Following the defeat of Napoleon's army at the Battle of Waterloo, fought just a few miles south of Brussels, Belgium was separated from France and became the southern part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands by the Congress of Vienna in 1815.[1]

Dutch 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 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] Thus Belgium won its independence from the Dutch as a result of an uprising of the Belgian people. A constitutional monarchy was established in 1831, with a monarch invited in from the House of Saxe-Coburg Gotha in Germany.


Language battles

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.


Belgium is an example of the enormous value of the railways for speeding the industrial revolution. After breaking with the Netherlands in 1830, the new country decided to stimulate industry. It planned and funded a simple cross-shaped system that connected the major cities, ports and mining areas, and linked to neighboring countries. Belgium thus became the railway center of the region. The system was very soundly built along British lines, so that profits were low but the infrastructure necessary for rapid industrial growth was put in place.

High culture

Cultural life in Belgium had long stagnated but a revival among Walloons began with the new French language literary and artistic review, La Jeune Belgique (1881–97). World class writers in French include the great romantic and symbolist poet Maurice Maeterlinck (1862-49, Nobel Prize 1911), dramatists Michel de Ghelderode (1898-1962) and Henri Michaux (1899-1984), and the poet and playwright Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916), one of the founders of symbolism. Inspector Maigret, the creation of Georges Simenon (1903–89), won a wide following in translation. James Ensor (1860-1949) was an influential Expressionist painter and printmaker. Félicien Rops (1833–98) won acclaim as graphic artists, as did surrealist painters Paul Delvaux (1897-1994) and René Magritte (1898-1967). Few Flemish artists achieved comparable international renown, and indeed many Walloon artists moved to France.

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

Since 1944, when British, Canadian, and American armies liberated Belgium, the country has lived in security and at a level of increased well-being.

In response to the German invasions of 1914-18 and 1940–44, and to postwar Soviet behavior, Belgium became one of the foremost advocates of collective security within the framework of European integration and the Atlantic partnership. It was a founding member of NATO and the European Community.


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 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 (based in Ghent), Wallonia (based in Liège), 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 royalist and Walloons tend to be more secularist, republican, 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]

Recent history

Language, economic, and political differences between Dutch-speaking Flanders and Francophone Wallonia have led to increased divisions in Belgian society. The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and the 19th century accentuated the linguistic north–south division. Francophone Wallonia became an early industrial boom area, affluent and politically dominant. Dutch-speaking Flanders remained agricultural and was economically and politically outdistanced by Brussels and Wallonia. The last 50 years have marked the rapid economic development of Flanders, resulting in a corresponding shift of political and economic power to the Flemish, who now constitute an absolute majority (58%) of the population.

Demonstrations in the early 1960s led to the establishment of a formal linguistic border in 1962, and elaborate rules made to protect minorities in linguistically mixed border areas. In 1970, Flemish and Francophone cultural councils were established with authority in matters of language and culture for the two-language groups. Each of the three economic regions—Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels—was granted a significant measure of political autonomy.

Since 1984, the German language community of Belgium (in the eastern part of Liège Province) has had its own legislative assembly and executive, which have authority in cultural, language, and subsequently educational affairs.

In 1988–89, the Constitution was again amended to give additional responsibilities to the regions and communities. The most sweeping change was the devolution of educational responsibilities to the community level. As a result, the regions and communities were provided additional revenue, and Brussels was given its own legislative assembly and executive.

Another important constitutional reform occurred in the summer of 1993, changing Belgium from a unitary to a federal state. It also reformed the bicameral parliamentary system and provided for the direct election of the members of community and regional legislative councils. The bilingual Brabant province, which contained the Brussels region, was split into separate Flemish and Walloon Brabant provinces. The revised Constitution came into force in 1994.

A parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions of two or more political parties. The centrist Christian Democratic Party often provided the Prime Minister. The June 13, 1999 general election saw a significant drop in overall Christian Democratic support. Driven in part by resentment over a mishandled dioxin food-contamination crisis just before the June 1999 election, Belgian voters rejected Jean Luc Dehaene's longstanding coalition government of Christian Democrats and Socialists and voted into power a coalition led by Flemish Liberal Leader Guy Verhofstadt. The first Verhofstadt government (1999-2003) was a six-party coalition between the Flemish and Francophone Liberals, Socialists, and Greens. It was the first Liberal-led coalition in generations and the first six-party coalition in 20 years. It also was the first time the Greens had participated in Belgium's federal government. In the most recent general election in May 2003, the Greens suffered significant loses, while the Socialists posted strong gains and the Liberals also had modest growth in electoral support. Liberal Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt reconstituted the coalition as a four-party government in July 2003, with only the Liberals and Socialists in power.

In 2013 King Albert II resigned. Since then Philippe of Belgium is the king of Belgium.


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]


Reference and surveys

Specialty studies

  • Dumont, Georges-Henri. Histoire de Bruxelles. Biographie d'une capitale (Brussels 1997)
  • Fishman, J. S. Diplomacy and Revolution. The London Conference of 1830 and the Belgian Revolt (Amsterdam 1988).
  • Mansel, Philip. "Nation Building: the Foundation of Belgium." History Today 2006 56(5): 21–27. Issn: 0018-2753 Fulltext: Ebsco
  • Pirenne, Henri. Belgian Democracy, Its Early History (1910, 1915) 250 pp. history of towns in the Low Countries online free
  • Pirenne, Henri. "The Formation and Constitution of the Burgundian State (Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries)." The American Historical Review. Volume 14, Issue 3, Page 477, Apr 1909 in JSTOR
  • Polansky, Janet L. Revolution in Brussels 1787-1793 (1987)
  • Stanard, Matthew G. "Selling the Empire Between the Wars: Colonial Expositions in Belgium, 1920-1940." French Colonial History 2005 6: 159–178. Issn: 1539-3402 Fulltext: Project Muse
  • Tollebeek, Jo. "Historical Representation and the Nation-State in Romantic Belgium (1830-1850)," Journal of the History of Ideas 59.2 (1998) 329–353 in Project Muse
  • VanYpersele, Laurence and Rousseaux, Xavier. "Leaving the War: Popular Violence and Judicial Repression of 'Unpatriotic' Behaviour in Belgium (1918-1921)," European Review of History 2005 12(1): 3-22. Issn: 1350-7486 Fulltext: Ebsco


  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