History of Belgium

From Academic Kids

The History of Belgium before the last 170 years is entwined into that of other European countries, notably that of The Netherlands.


Before the independence

Prehistory and Antiquity

The oldest trace of human presence was not found in Belgium but at the German tribes found at Hallembaye (Liege province), which dates from around 800,000 BC. Then, around 400,000 BC Neandertals were on the edge of the Meuse river, near the village of Spy. From 30,000 BC on the inhabitants were Homo sapiens. Neolithic vestiges exist at Spiennes where there was a silex mine.

The first signs of the Bronze age date 1750 BC. From 500 BC Celtic tribes settled and traded with the Mediterranean world. From 150 BC the first coins were in use. The various tribes were the Eburons, Aduatics, Nerviens, Ménapiens, Morins and Treveriens, together known as the Belgae. Under Julius Caesar in 57 BC the Roman empire took over after some fierce fights which made him call them the toughest of Gauls.

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 the Germanic tribe of the Franks penetrated into northern Belgium. About 100 years later, they took possession of the rest of Belgium, started their conquest of Gaul and created the short-lived Merovingian Empire.

Middle Ages

The Vikings were defeated in 891 by Arnulf of Carinthia near Leuven. The Frankish lands were divided and reunified several times under the Merovingian and Carolingian dynasties, but eventually were firmly divided into France and the Holy Roman Empire. The County of Flanders became part of France during the Middle Ages, but the remainder of the Low Countries were part of the Holy Roman Empire. Through the early Middle Ages, the northern part of present-day Belgium (now commonly referred to as Flanders) had become an overwhelmingly Germanized and Germanic language-speaking area, whereas in the southern part people had continued to be Roman and spoke derivatives of Vulgar Latin.

As the Holy Roman Emperors lost effective control of their domains in the 11th and 12th centuries, Belgium was divided into mostly independent feudal states such as Brabant, Hainaut, and the Bishopric of Liège.

Early Modern Era

Before 1581, the Netherlands refers to the Lowlands (De Nederlanden)

By 1433 most of the Belgian and Luxembourgian territory along with much of the rest of the Low Countries became part of the Burgundian Empire under Philip the Good. When Mary of Burgundy, grand-daughter of Philip the Good married Maximilian I, the Low Countries became Habsburg territory. Their son, Philip I of Castile (Philip the Handsome) was the father of the later Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire was unified with Spain under the Habsburg Dynasty after Charles V inherited several domains. The Pragmatic Sanction of 1549, issued by Charles V, established the Seventeen Provinces (or Spanish Netherlands in its broad sense) as an entity separate from the Empire and from France. This comprised all of the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg except for the lands of the Bishop of Liège.

Eighty Years' War

However, the northern region now known as the Netherlands became increasingly Protestant (i.c. Calvinistic), while the south remained primarily Catholic. The schism resulted in the Union of Atrecht and the Union of Utrecht. When Philip II, son of Charles ascended the Spanish throne, he tried to abolish all Protestantism. Portions of the Netherlands revolted, beginning the Eighty Years' War war between the Netherlands and Spain. For the conquered Southern Netherlands the war ended in 1581 with the Fall of Antwerp. This can be seen as the start of Belgium as one region. That same year, the northern Low Countries (i.e. the Netherlands proper) seized independence in the Oath of Abjuration (Plakkaat van Verlatinghe) and started the United Provinces and the Dutch Golden Age. For them, the war lasted until 1648 (the Peace of Westphalia), when Spain recognized the independence of the Netherlands, but held onto the loyal and Catholic region of modern-day Belgium which was all that remained of the Spanish Netherlands. The Southern Netherlands slipped into oblivion for the next centuries, although the Counter-Reformation produced the great Peter Paul Rubens.

Until 1581 the history of Belgium, the grand-duchy of Luxembourg and the country The Netherlands are the same: they formed the country/region of the Netherlands or the Low Countries. In Dutch, a distinction still exists between on the one hand 'de Nederlanden' (plural, the Low Countries) and 'Nederland' (singular, the present-day state of the Netherlands) that is a consequence of this separation in the 17th century.

Southern Netherlands

While the Netherlands gained independence, modern-day Belgium remained under the rule of the Spanish Habsburgs (1519-1713) and was transferred to the Austrian Habsburgs (1713-1794) after the War of the Spanish Succession when the French Bourbon Dynasty inherited Spain at the price of abandoning many Spanish possessions.

Following the French Revolution, Belgium was invaded and annexed by Napoleonic France in 1795. After his defeat at Waterloo in 1815, the major victorious powers (England, Austria, Prussia, Russia) agreed at Congress of Vienna on reuniting the southern Netherlands with the northern, creating the United Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was to serve as a bufferstate against any future French invasions. This was under the rule of a protestant king, namely William I of Orange. Most of the small and ecclesiastical states in the Holy Roman Empire were given to larger states at this time, and this included the Bishopric of Liège which became now formally part of the United Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Under these various rulers, and especially during the 500 years from the 12th to the 17th century, Ypres, 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 the Brueghels to Rubens and Van Dyck — became the most prized in Europe. Flemish tapestries hung on the walls of castles throughout Europe.


After the Napoleon wars, the area that is now Belgium was in 1815 transferred from France to The Netherlands. There were hesitant attempts to connect with the essentially Dutch-speaking part of Flanders in terms of language and culture policy, after a separation of about 150 years, but this was met with much hostility from the elite, which spoke French.

In August 1830, stirred by a performance of Auber's La Muette de Portici at the Brussels opera house La Monnaie (Dutch: De Munt), the Belgian Revolution broke out, and the country wrested its independence from the Dutch, aided by French intellectuals and French armed forces. The real political forces behind this were the Catholic clergy, which was against the protestant Dutch king, William I, and the equally strong liberals, who opposed the royal authoritarianism, and the fact that the Belgians were not represented proportionally in the national assemblies at all. At first, the Revolution was merely a call for greater autonomy, but due to the clumsy responses of the Dutch king to the problem, and his unwillingness to meet the demands of the revolutionaries, the Revolution quickly escalated into a fight for full independence.

Among the revolutionaries, there was an idea to join France, but after international pressure, Belgium became an independent state. A constitutional monarchy was established in 1831, with a monarch invited in from the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in Germany by the British. The major powers in Europe agreed, and on July 21 1831, the first king of Belgium, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was inaugurated. This day is still the Belgian national holiday. The reason why the Belgian Revolution succeeded, even though it violated the accords made in 1815, is mainly that France was sympathetic to it, after it had had a new liberal government installed in the same year as the Belgian Revolution. The other major powers were, at that time, too much occupied with their own wars and problems.

Leopold I went on to build the first railway in continental Europe in 1835, between Brussels and Mechelen. The Netherlands still fought on for 8 years, but in 1839 a treaty was signed between the two countries. Belgium thus started life as an independent state, equipped with a very liberal constitution, but with suffrage restricted to the haute-bourgeoisie and the clergy, all together less than 1% of the adult population, and fully French-speaking in a country where French was not the majority language.

By the treaty of 1839, Luxemburg did not fully join Belgium, and remained a possession of the Netherlands until different inheritance laws caused it to separate as an independent Grand Duchy. Belgium also lost Eastern Limburg, Zeeuws Vlaanderen and French Flanders (Dutch: Frans Vlaanderen) and Eupen, four territories which it had all claimed on historical grounds. The Netherlands retained the former two while French Flanders, which had been annexed at the time of Louis XIV remained in French possession, and Eupen remained within the German Confederation, although it would pass to Belgium after World War I as compensation for the war.

Rumour has that both France and the Netherlands had plans to fully occupy or annex Belgium well after World War I, but these never came to fruition.

The Congolese colony

At the Berlin conference of 1884-1885 Congo was attributed to Leopold II of Belgium, who named this land the Congo Free State. It was transferred to Belgium in 1908 after he died. Its territory was more than 80 times as large as the motherland.

The integration of traditional economies in the Congo within the framework of the modern, capitalist economy was brilliant with for example several railroads built. Leopold's fortune was greatly added to through the proceeds of Congolese rubber, which had never been mass-produced in surplus quantities.

There are many stories and accounts of atrocities committed in the colony, especially when it still was Leopold II's personal possession, one of the most famous being Joseph Conrad's novel Heart of Darkness. The behaviour of the Belgian colonists in Congo is still a conflict-laden topic in present-day Belgium. Congo would eventually gain independence in 1960.

20th century Belgium

Belgium was invaded by the German Empire in 1914 and again by Nazi Germany in 1940 (Belgium surrendered on May 28). This, plus disillusionment over postwar Soviet behavior, made Belgium one of the foremost advocates of collective security within the framework of European integration (EU) and the Atlantic partnership (NATO).

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

A parliamentary democracy, Belgium has been governed by successive coalitions of two or more political parties, with the centrist Flemish Christian Democratic Party providing the Prime Minister most of the time. Two major political controversies have marked the postwar years: a dispute over King Leopold III's conduct during World War II (which caused him to abdicate in 1951), and the insistence of the nation's majority linguistic community – the Flemish – upon a reorganization of the state into more autonomous regions. The two were combined together when a referendum was held about his return. In Flanders they voted in favor of his return, in Wallonia against (especially the provinces of Liège and Hainaut; Namur and Luxembourg being rather 50/50). In total the king won the referendum by a large margin, but the militant socialist movement in Liège, Hainaut and other urban centres fomented major troubles and, because of the probability of the escalation of the conflict, Leopold III resigned. Baudouin became king.

Less visible, the 20th century saw the rise of a huge political power of the main political parties (christian-democrats, socialists and liberals), each of them backed by associated trade unions, social organisations and so on. In the second half of the 20th century, this resulted in a massive power transfer to the chiefs of those parties. They consolidated their power via several 'political pacts' (in schooling, cultural life and others). By 1970, the three so-called 'political families' controlled 99% of all nominations in public services, including the journalists at the state radio and television.

On the economic side, World War II marks a turning point. Because Flanders had been widely devastated during the war, and had been largely agricultural since the Belgian uprising, it benefited most of the Marshall Plan. At the same time, Wallonia experience a slow decline of its mining industries and it has never found a second breath afterwards.

This Flemish resurgence has been accompanied by a corresponding shift of political power to the Flemish, who always constituted an absolute majority of the population (now around 60%).

The Marc Dutroux Scandal

In 1996, Belgium's political and criminal justice systems were shaken when Marc Dutroux was arrested and charged with four counts of murder and kidnapping. Many charged that local law enforcement had not acted competently enough to observe and eventually arrest Dutroux and his accomplices before they kidnapped and murdered at least four girls and most probably some gang members. Dutroux went on trial in March 2004 and got a life-long sentence in prison.

Subsequent parlemantary inquiries indeed proved that the three main police forces were horribly incompetent, bureaucratic, and more fighting each other than the criminals. On top, the judicial system appeared to suffer from similar problems: bureaucracy, very poor communication with, and support for the victims, slow procedures and many loopholes for criminals.

As a consequence of this scandal, on October 26, 1996, about 300,000 Belgians marched in Brussels to protest at the presumed failures of the police force and judicial system in this affair. It was one of the largest demonstration in Belgium ever and was called the "White March" (French: "Marche Blanche", Dutch: "Witte Mars").


Much of the material in this article comes from the CIA World Factbook 2000 and the 2003 U.S. Department of State website.cs:Dějiny Belgie da:Belgiens historie de:Geschichte Belgiens es:Historia de Bélgica fr:Histoire de Belgique it:Storia del Belgio nl:Geschiedenis van België pt:História da Bélgica


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