Belgium Through Time

The area of Europe that includes Belgium lies open and exposed on the European plain. It has often been referred to as the “Battlefield of Europe.” Bloody and seemingly endless wars between different European powers were repeatedly fought here. It was not always a single nation known as Belgium; the country's name derived from that of the tribes that inhabited these parts 2,000 years ago. In the first century b.c., the region was conquered by Imperial Rome, and the mostly Celtic tribes, the Belgae, were subdued by the Roman legions. This is the derivation of the name Belgium. During the time of the Roman Empire, it constituted the most northern part of the province Gaul and was known as Gallia Belgica.

After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Franks dominated this region and what is now the Netherlands. This Germanic tribe from the Rhine region controlled the area for several hundred years during the early Middle Ages. These invaders settled mostly in the north, and it was here that their Franconian dialect became the basis of the Dutch language. This replaced Latin as the region's mother tongue, although Latin developed into French, which was spoken in the regions farther south. This influx of Franks was the initial cause of the linguistic split that is so evident in present-day Belgium.

The kingdom of the Franks was called the Carolingian Empire after Charles the Great, who is more widely recognized by his French name, Charlemagne. He was king from a.d. 768 until his death in a.d. 814 and became, during his reign, the powerful ruler of a mighty empire. In his Short History of the World, H.G.Wells said: “Charlemagne, who began to reign in 768, found himself lord of a realm so large that he could think of reviving the title of Latin Emperor. He conquered North Italy and made himself master of Rome.”

Charlemagne expanded his Frankish kingdoms by conquest into a Frankish Empire that incorporated much of Western and Central Europe. His capital was at Aachen (French: Aixla-Chapelle), which is now in Germany, just a few miles across the present-day Belgium border from its eastern province of Liege. However, a little over 100 years later, control of the territory that is today's Belgium was divided between the rulers of France and Germany. Most of the Dutch-speaking north came under the influence of France, and the French-­speaking south was ruled by the German Holy Roman Empire.


During the latter part of the fourteenth century, the lands that are now the Netherlands and Belgium—­
the Low Countries—fell into the hands of the powerful dukes of Burgundy. This meant that they were to become caught up in the long struggle between England and France known as the Hundred Years' War (1337 to 1453). The bone of contention that led to this lengthy conflict was the claim by English kings to the French throne. The British rulers also repeatedly attempted to regain those lost lands in Normandy that were once part of their Norman heritage.

The last feudal Duke of Burgundy, Charles the Bold (also known as Charles the Rash, or Charles the Terrible) died in 1477 at the Battle of Nancy. With his death, dominion over the Low Countries passed to the Holy Roman emperors, the Austrian Habsburgs. This came about because Charles's sole inheritor was his 19-year-old unmarried daughter, Mary. Both the king of France, Louis, and the Holy Roman Emperor had unmarried elder sons, and they both sought Mary's hand in marriage. The prize was considerable, and the outcome would have enormous implications for the balance of political power. It was a pivotal moment for Europe. In the end, Mary married the future Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor, and the Habsburg dynasty became heirs to the Low Countries. In 1504, their son, Philip the Handsome, received the crown of Spain, thereby forging a link between Austria, Spain, and the Low Countries.

During the sixteenth century, this part of Europe was known as the Spanish Netherlands. Dominion over it was soon to be disputed, however, by the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and the Spanish royal dynasty—­ both considered the Netherlands their possession. However, the Protestant leader William of Orange, also known as William the Silent, hoped to gain independence for the Netherlands. The southern provinces remained loyal to Spanish rule and to Roman Catholicism. In 1579, however, the Protestant north proclaimed the Union of Utrecht, forming the independent United Provinces of the Netherlands under William's leadership. The independent United Provinces initially included Flanders and Brabant, but these were later reconquered by Spanish troops. The Dutch revolt against Spain, which had been lead by William, continued as the Eighty Years' War (1568 to 1648) long after his assassination by the Catholic Frenchman Balthasar Gerard in 1584.

The Spanish Netherlands later lost additional territory during the Thirty Years' War (1618 to 1648). In 1700, when Charles II of Spain—­last of the Spanish Habsburgs—­died, the remaining provinces fell into French hands. French control, however, would not last long, because the Austrians and the English were not going to allow it.

During the War of the Spanish Succession which started in 1701, this land was fought over constantly. The main antagonists were the armies of the English, with their Dutch and Austrian allies, and the armies of the French, who were allied to Spain. The English commander, the Duke of Marlborough, won famous victories at Ramillies (on the border of Namur and Brabant provinces), Oudenarde (in Flanders), and Malplaquet (southwest of Mons). The latter battle, the bloodiest of the eighteenth century, was a costly victory for the English and their allies, who lost 25,000 soldiers—­twice as many as the French. Ultimately, many thousands of soldiers died before France's military power was subdued. The war was ended by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, although neither the peace nor the balance of power would last. Austrian sovereignty was restored in what had been the Spanish Netherlands in 1748.

Under Austria's Habsburg empress Maria Theresa, this region prospered with the modernization of agriculture and the development of new industry. Many new roads and canals were built. Then, in 1792, just three years after the French Revolution, war broke out between revolutionary France and Austria. Within two years, the French had defeated the Austrians and annexed the Austrian Netherlands.


By the end of the eighteenth century, the Low Countries, comprising the Netherlands and the Austrian Netherlands (which corresponds roughly to presentday Belgium), had been overrun by France during the Napoleonic Wars. This brought the changing dominion of either Austria or Spain to an end. Eventually, a Britishled coalition of forces opposed to the French emperor Napoleon confronted his army in 1815. Where would this battle be fought? The answer, of course, was in Belgium—­or at least in that unfortunate country that was shortly to become Belgium and seemed always destined to be the battlefield of Europe. The great battle took place at Waterloo, a small village located 7? miles (12 kilometers) south of Brussels on June 18, 1815. The British and their Prussian allies defeated the French, despite their lesser numbers. Napoleon suffered 25,000 dead and injured and 8,000 soldiers captured; this was the end of Napoleon's rule, and it broke the power of the French Empire.

When Napoleon had been forced into exile a year earlier, representatives of the major European powers had met to redraw the Continent's political map. At the Congress of Vienna, it was decided that the Low Countries would be unified as the United Kingdom of the Netherlands. Plans for this were agreed on despite Napoleon's return from exile and resumption of power. Yet his final “Hundred Days” as emperor were ended by his loss at the Battle of Waterloo and his permanent exile to the remote island of St. Helena, located in the South Atlantic Ocean.

The two regions of the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands unfortunately had conflicting interests, and this was to lead to its dissolution. Just 15 years later, the Belgian Revolution of 1830 established an independent, neutral, and Catholic Belgium, and the modern country came into being. This mutiny against Dutch control, led by the French-speaking upper class, initially aimed to attach the southern part of the Netherlands to France. However, it was prevented from achieving this objective by the great powers of Europe at the time, and the alternative was an independent state. From the early twentieth century onward, French was the dominant language in Brussels as a result of Walloon immigration and enforced gallicization by means of social pressure.

A government and national congress were established, and Belgium was set on the course of parliamentary democracy. In 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-­Coburg (in Bavaria) was chosen and enthroned as King Leopold I of Belgium, a constitutional monarch. The fact that a figure such as Leopold was crowned king soon after the Belgian Revolution should come as no surprise to those who regard monarchy as the antithesis of democracy. In nineteenth-century Europe, a country would undoubtedly expect to have a monarch as head of state. If it did not have one, it would be natural to seek out a suitable candidate. Such a figure was meant to represent national unity and act as a safeguard against the excesses of revolutionaries and dictators like Napoleon.


A hundred years after the Battle of Waterloo, Belgium was once more the battleground for yet another European war of frightening dimensions, which resulted in the slaughter of millions. This was World War I (1914 to 1918), in which the principal combatants were Great Britain, allied with France, and the German Empire of Kaiser Wilhelm, allied with Austria-Hungary.

Toward the end of this war, the United States sent troops to Europe to fight alongside their British and French allies. In July 1914, Germany invaded neighboring Luxembourg and demanded passage for its troops through Belgium. When this was refused, the Germans at once invaded Belgium and immediately occupied much of the country. In response, the armies of France and Britain joined battle with the German forces in northern France and Flanders. Many of the bloodiest battles were fought on Belgian soil.

During the early stages of the conflict, the fiercest fighting was around the Belgian town of Ypres (Dutch: Ieper), in West Flanders. In trench warfare, under the ceaseless shelling by enemy artillery, thousands of soldiers on both sides were killed day after day, with little ground being gained or lost. Conditions in the trenches were terrible, and the whole battlefield was often a sea of mud. The fearful carnage of this type of warfare meant that the chances of survival for any soldier who fought in the frontline trenches for any length of time were very small.

It was at Ypres in 1915 that the German forces first used poison gas (chlorine) against the Allies. Two years later, again near Ypres, they introduced mustard gas (which was also known as yperite, after the city). The fighting continued for much of 1917 around Ypres, and the battle resulted in nearly half a million casualties on all sides. Yet only several miles of ground had been won by the Allied forces. The town itself was all but obliterated by artillery fire. In Ypres today, the massive Menin Gate Memorial commemorates all of the soldiers from Britain and the British Commonwealth who died in the fierce battles in this part of Flanders and who have no known grave.

Equally horrific were the World War I battles that raged near the Belgian city of Mons (in Hainaut province) and at Passchendale, with similar enormous losses of life. A short distance across the border, in northern France, a quarter of a million soldiers and civilians died at Verdun. The Battle of the Somme, fought in northern France in the summer and fall of 1916, was one of the largest battles of World War I. There were more than one million casualties, and this was certainly one of the bloodiest battles in human history. All of this fighting continued for four years and resulted in an estimated 19 million deaths (half of which were civilians) and another 21 million wounded.

World War I ended with the defeat of Germany in 1918, but the world would never be the same. Millions lay dead, and many towns in Belgium, especially Flanders, and northern France lay in ruins. Peace was established by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, but its provisions and the punitive reparations imposed on Germany by the Allies failed to address the underlying problems. This should have been the war to end all wars, but it was not. Approximately 20 years later, in May 1940, Germany invaded Belgium once more during the early stages of World War II.


Between 1940 and 1944, Belgium, like the Netherlands and most of France, suffered Nazi occupation. It was not until August 1944 that the country was liberated by British and American forces. In 1940 King Leopold III signed an armistice with the invading Germans and opted to stay in Belgium. Most civil servants and police remained in their jobs, but the Belgian government of the day fled to Britain. As in other European countries, the Nazi occupiers rounded up and deported many Belgian Jews. It is estimated that about 25,000 of them were taken to Auschwitz and other concentration camps in Germany and Poland where they were murdered.

There have been charges that the Belgian authorities at the time were complicit in these arrests, but they have never been made accountable. This question lingers, however, and a parliamentary report in 2007 entitled “Submissive Belgium” concluded that wartime officials had indeed been guilty. Prior to their deportation, most of the Jewish victims were interned in a transit camp at Breendonk, near Mechelen, where a national memorial now stands.

Because the German occupiers considered Dutch a Germanic language, they enacted laws to protect and encourage the Dutch language in Flanders. Generally, they did what they could to encourage ill feelings between Flemings and French-speaking Walloons. In some cases, they liberated Flemish prisoners but not French-speaking ones. Although the Nazis had no intention of allowing the creation of a Greater Netherlands or a Flemish state, many Flemish nationalists embraced collaboration, believing it would promote their cause.

In 1944, at the end of the occupation, Belgian resistance fighters prevented the Germans from destroying the port of Antwerp. The facility served as a vital base for the continuing Allied advance across Europe. Antwerp was one of the war's most fought-over and highly prized targets due to its deep-water port facilities and the fact that almost all French ports remained in German hands until the very end of the war. After the Nazi forces withdrew from the city, they rained down on it thousands of V-1 and V-2 missiles from launch sites farther inland. These destroyed large sections of the city but, remarkably, not the port.

Even so, the German armies fought a determined rearguard action in the Ardennes region during the Battle of the Bulge. American forces fighting under General Patton and his com-­ mander in chief, General Eisenhower, eventually repulsed this attack, but not before the loss of at least 81,000 U.S. troops. This heavy fighting on Belgian soil lasted well into 1945.

During the fighting, the legendary Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, U.S. 101st Airborne Division, was one of the units that was cut off and besieged in the town of Bastogne. It was vital that the town not fall to the Germans. Because all seven main highways through the Ardennes converged in Bastogne, Nazi troops would be able to cut off many of the Allied forces to the north and retake the port of Antwerp if it fell. Following heavy losses and much heroism by the Americans, the town was relieved by units of General Patton's Third Army and the wounded were evacuated. These wartime events in Belgium were reenacted in the 2001 HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers.

Located in Bastogne is a major U.S. war memorial that honors those men who fell in the Battle of the Bulge. It is one of many such memorials in different parts of Belgium that commemorates the soldiers of different nations who fell in World War I and World War II. Visitors to these monuments can only hope that Belgium will never again be the bloody battleground that it was for so many centuries.

The Yser Tower (Dutch: IJzertoren) is a memorial that stands beside the Yser River in Diksmuide, West Flanders. Two IJzertorens have existed, the first of which was built after World War I by former Flemish soldiers. In March 1946, the tower was illegally demolished by explosives, but the perpetrators were never caught. There were some indications of involvement by the Belgian military and former resistance fighters in the repressive atmosphere that followed World War II. Several years later, a new tower was built on the same location. This tower is the highest peace monument in Europe (275 feet, or 84 meters) and bears the plaintive demand “No More War” in the four languages of the First World War combatants—­ English, French, Dutch, and German.

As a result of his unpopularity following the war, King Leopold III abdicated in 1951 in favor of his son Baudouin I. Leopold's unpopularity was mainly due to his decision to surrender to Nazi Germany in 1940, when Belgium was invaded. Many Belgians questioned his loyalties, even though a commission of inquiry after the war found him not guilty of treason. A referendum on his continued rule was held. Although he narrowly won this vote, strikes and unrest over the issue nonetheless led to his decision to abdicate the throne.


Besides the problems of the monarchy, Belgium's postwar renaissance led to many other political changes. Among these was the future of Belgium's colonial possessions in Africa. For more than 50 years, Belgium was a major colonial power. Its principal colony was the Belgian Congo, which is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo. In terms of area, this is the third largest country on the African continent, and it is a land rich in natural resources.

Before taking over the Congo as a colony in 1908, the Belgian Parliament had no jurisdiction over the territory that was owned as a private dominion by Leopold II, the second Belgian king. He had sponsored expeditions by European explorers in the territory, the first of which was lead by Sir Henry Morton Stanley. The Congo was formally acquired by the king at the Conference of Berlin in 1885, where his profession of humanitarian objectives was generally accepted because he was then chairman of the Association Internationale Africaine. He made the territory his private property and named it the Congo Free State.

King Leopold's regime began various ambitious projects, including the railroad that ran from the coast to the capital, Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). This took years to complete. Most of his projects were aimed at the fullest exploitation of the colony for financial gain, which resulted in appalling treatment of the Congolese who made up the labor force. In this socalled “Free State,” the local population was brutalized by overseers in pursuit of profit to be made from growing and producing rubber from rubber trees. This period coincided with the development of rubber tires in Europe and America, and the rubber trade made a fortune for King Leopold. Using the profits from rubber, he had stately buildings constructed in Brussels and Ostend to honor both himself and Belgium.

During the brutal period between 1885 and 1908, an estimated 5 to 10 million Congolese died as a result of the king's ruthless exploitation. The country's population was reduced by about 50 percent. To enforce rubber quotas, the Force Publique militia was used by Congo's administration to terrorize the local population. This it often did by cutting off the limbs of the uncooperative natives. Such actions provoked widespread international protests and condemnation by well-known figures, such as Mark Twain in the United States.

Leopold gave up his personal property, the Congo Free State, as a result of international outrage over the brutality that took place during his tenure. Its annexation to Belgium was accomplished by means of the treaty of November 15, 1908, which was approved by the initially reluctant Belgian Parliament in August and by the king in October of the following year. Bowing to international pressure, chiefly from Great Britain, the Belgian government agreed to take over this private possession of the king, at which point it became the Belgian Congo.

In addition to the Congo, beginning in 1916, Belgium also governed the colony of Ruanda-­Urundi. The independent kingdoms of Rwanda and Burundi (formerly Ruanda-Urundi) were annexed by Germany, along with other states in central Africa, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In 1916, forces from the Belgian Congo conquered this area.

After the First World War ended in 1918, German East Africa was divided among several European powers by the Treaty of Versailles. The largest area, Tanganyika (today's Tanzania), went to England. Belgium, however, received the much smaller westernmost part of the region that came to be known as the Belgian Occupied East African Territories. In 1924, the League of Nations gave Belgium complete control over the area, which became Ruanda-­Urundi.


During World War II, the largest known reserves of uranium ore were those in Katanga (one of the provinces of the Belgian Congo). The Belgian company Union Miniere du Haut Katanga provided the United States with the uranium that was required for the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. This was the top-secret project that was carried out to develop the world's first atomic bombs. These were subsequently used in the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, which resulted in Japan's surrender and the end of World War II.

During the Cold War, the U.S. government continued to purchase uranium from the Belgian company. Extensive use of this resource was made to build America's huge nuclear arsenal. The fact that the main supply of uranium was from the Belgian Congo may well have played a significant part in the political events there during the 1960s. After the Congo was granted independence, both the United States and the Soviet Union politically competed to gain the favor of the country's leaders.

In the 1950s, an independence movement arose in the Belgian Congo, as it did in many other African states that were European-­administered colonies. The emerging nationalist movements put Belgium under increasing pressure to transform the Belgian Congo into a self-­governing state. In 1960, the country was granted independence from Belgium, and the first self-­governing Congolese parliament was inaugurated. King Baudouin personally attended the festivities and gave a speech that was widely considered insensitive to the atrocities that had been committed in the Congo during the reign of his royal ancestor, Leopold II. This speech received a blistering response by Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba, and political unrest, insurrection, and attempts to secede by various provinces followed. A coup against Lumumba and secession of the mineralrich Congo province of Katanga occurred soon after independence was achieved. Within seven months of coming to power, Lumumba was deposed and assassinated in Katanga, allegedly with Belgian involvement.

The country's postindependence name was the Republic of the Congo until August 1964, when its name was changed to Democratic Republic of the Congo (to distinguish it from the neighboring Republic of the Congo, whose capital is Brazzaville). In 1971, then-president Joseph Mobutu renamed the country Zaire. Following the First Congo War, which led to the overthrow of Mobutu in 1997, the country was renamed Democratic Republic of the Congo. Since 1998, the country has suffered greatly from the devastating Second Congo War, said to be the world's deadliest conflict since World War II.

In 1962, Ruanda-­Urundi was granted independence by Belgium as two separate states, Rwanda and Burundi. In these countries, independence was also followed by largescale ethnic conflict. In this case, conflict existed between the Tutsis and the Hutus, which led to the infamous Rwanda genocide of 1994. This was the mass killing of hundreds of thousands of ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutu sympathizers in Rwanda, the largest atrocity of the Rwandan Civil War. This genocide was mostly carried out by extremist Hutu militia groups, such as the Interahamwe.

In 1994, Belgian Prime Minister Jean-­Luc Dehaene ordered the unilateral withdrawal of Belgian troops from Rwanda, thus lifting the last barrier to this genocide. To most observers, the deadly consequences of his action could easily be foreseen. During questions from a Belgian parliamentary commission into the decision, however, the prime minister repeatedly stated that he had no regrets about his decision. At least 500,000 Tutsis and thousands of moderate Hutus died in the genocide, with some estimates putting the total death toll between 800,000 and 1,000,000.


Belgium's history after World War II is not complete without mention of the part it played in the confrontation with the Soviet Union during the Cold War years. Belgium became the host country for several international organizations that played a vital role in the defense of Europe.

On April 4, 1949, 12 nations from Western Europe and North America signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C. A key feature of this treaty is Article 5, in which the signatory members agreed “[an] armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” The first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) was the popular and respected U.S. Army General Dwight D. Eisenhower, who led Allied forces in Europe during World War II. He was appointed in 1950 and immediately set up his Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) command in Paris, France.

The treaty members had been galvanized into action by the Korean War (1950 to 1953). The world political scene was soon dominated by the Cold War standoff between the United States, with its European allies, and the Soviets who were allied with Communist China. The North Atlantic Treaty would not, however, continue in its original form; France claimed that it served U.S. interests at the expense of French and European ones. France therefore opted out of the alliance and asked U.S. forces and the command headquarters of the treaty to withdraw from its soil.

This break came about when President Charles de Gaulle announced France's withdrawal from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO's) integrated military structure in 1966. In 1967 the headquarters of NATO and SHAPE were removed from Paris and reestablished in Belgium. NATO administrative buildings were built in Brussels, and SHAPE headquarters were constructed at Mons. The Belgian authorities had decided that SHAPE should be located at least 30 miles (50 kilometers) from Brussels, NATO's new location, because SHAPE was a major wartime military target. One very visible piece of lonterm infrastructure is the SHAPE Bunker, which was begun in 1980 and completed in 1985. SHAPE's most important work during this period was associated with nuclear arms control and improved nuclear plans and procedures. It is in some ways ironic that this nuclear warfare command center was built near Mons. The new location placed it squarely amid the old battlefields of World War I, where so many had perished in the trenches 70 years before.

Despite deepseated fears of nuclear warfare during the Cold War era, NATO and SHAPE have helped to maintain peace in Western Europe up to the present day. Belgium has remained a NATO member and a staunch ally of the United States, although its government did not support the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. While the threat of nuclear warfare has receded since the breakup of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991, we must hope that there will indeed be “No More War.” This part of Europe, which was for so long a bloody battleground, may at last be allowed to live in peace and prosperity.