A few months ago I was contacted by the editor of The Bulletin, to see if I wanted to write a piece on Belgian politics. This is a theme I am quite passionate about. There is a reason I put so much emphasis on political issues in the History of Belgium course. If you don’t understand Belgian politics, you don’t understand Belgium.
It’s always a challenge to put such a complicated issue into an 800 word limit! However, what I tried to convey in the article, is that there are many misconceptions about the Belgian political landscape, for instance the idea that Belgium is an ‘artificial country’ where two separate peoples or ethnicities, the Flemish and the Walloons, were forced to live together. That is simply not historically correct.
To be fair, Belgium does have a complicated history. Most people assume its history starts in 1830 with the Belgian Revolution against the rule of the Dutch king William I. But that is a highly simplified version of Belgian history. In 1830 Belgium became a nation with a progressive constitution and clearly defined borders. As such, it is one of the oldest nation-states in Europe. It has also been an incredibly stable one. Yet just like countries like Italy and Germany, both much younger nations than Belgium, this does not mean the country and the people living in it, haven’t been around for much longer.
Foundational moments in Belgian history
Contrary to the vision of a country that has first come into being in 1830, Belgium actually has three foundational moments. The first moment took place in the fifteenth century, when the so-called Burgundian dukes acquired most of the provinces that today make up the Benelux and slowly turned it into a political union. The second defining moment in Belgian state building can be situated in the early seventeenth century, when a new border was created following the Dutch Revolt. From then on, the North (nowadays the Netherlands) and the South (roughly nowadays Belgium and Luxemburg) went their separate ways. And finally, the third pivotal moment in the formation of Belgium as a country was 1830, when the South firmly rejected the rule of the Dutch king and chose its own project.
Belgium is not a new country, it is an old one, which is why we have such a hard time understanding it. Even the three foundational moments I mentioned above are full of twists and turns. They present a history of open conflict, tensions between citizens and monarchs, attraction and rejection, wars and revolts, but also of ambitious collaborative projects, cultural hegemony and persistence.
Complexity of history
To make things even more complicated, some parts of the country, for instance the provinces of Limburg and Liège, have really never been a part of that old unity and were first joined to the other provinces by the French revolutionary forces, occupying Belgium during the Napoleonic wars. On the other hand, some parts of the Netherlands and France, not to mention Luxemburg, are historically much more connected to Belgium than to the countries they are now a part of. There is a reason why people in some areas in northern France are Dutch speaking. If you see Belgium as a new and artificial country, with no historical basis, you also deny the cultural and historical identity of those territories and its people.
As you can see, the further we try to dig into Belgian history, the more complicated it gets. This is the reason why the more difficult periods in Belgian history are often cast aside and depicted as too difficult for people to understand. Oversimplifying the past in the hopes of making things more easily understandable, has become the go-to escape route. That is not a route I am willing to take.
Foundation in academic research
This is why the courses we present have a strong foundation in academic research, with a clear methodology. Admittedly, our courses are not ‘quick-fixes’. They take time to process. They need reflexion and discussion. Then again, I am a firm believer in the positive force of education and the fact that everyone is capable of understanding our history, as long as you are committed.