History of Belgium

Early History

The Kingdom of Belgium, situated in Western Europe, neighbouring France, Germany, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, is a parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarch. The country’s king, only a moral leader, cannot take any official action without the approval of a minister.

Belgium’s rich history has influenced the cultures of Austria, France, Germany and Spain. It is one of the oldest European countries and, as such, keeps the traditions of the Old Continent. The name ‘Belgium’ originates from around 900 BC, when the Celtic tribe called Belgae settled in ancient Gaul. In 52 BC, Julius Caesar, the Roman military and political leader, conquered the territory of Belgica and put the country under Roman rule. For some 300 years, Belgium was a province of Rome.

As Rome’s power began to wane, Attila the Hun, around AD 300, invaded the lands of present-day Germany, provoking the movement of the German tribes, called Franks, in northern Belgium. Some 100 years later, the Franks took possession of Belgium. The Frankish king Charlemagne (Charles the Great) had a very successful reign, as he ruled a large part of Europe and was crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The Roman Empire covered nearly all of continental Europe from AD 800 to 1806, with exception to Spain and Scandinavia. After the death of Charlemagne, the Empire separated into self-ruling feudal principalities.

In the late 1300s, Belgium fell under the rule of King Philip the Good, of Burgundy, which was an independent kingdom. The Low Countries (Netherlands’ lands around the delta of Rhine, Scheldt and Meuse rivers) became Habsburg territory as well, when the granddaughter of Philip the Good, Mary of Burgundy, married Maximilian I. Their son was Philip I the Handsome, of Castile. Philip married Juana the Mad, the daughter of the Spain’s rulers Ferdinand and Isabella. In turn, the Holy Roman Empire unified with Spain under the Habsburg Dynasty. Their son, Charles I, was king of Spain (1516–56) and Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor (1519-58).

During the next two centuries, there were many religious conflicts between Protestants and Roman Catholics in the Netherlands. The northern part of the country was Protestant while the south was mainly Catholic. The new king Philip II, the son of Charles, attempted to abolish Protestantism, with much resistance in the Netherlands. In turn, the Eighty Years’ War between Spain and the Netherlands ensued, lasting until 1648 when Spain recognised the independence of the Netherlands.

The Belgians were self-governed in the 1780s, a time when the Habsburg emperor Joseph II attempted to centralise the government in Vienna. The people rejected the monarchy and declared the new United States of Belgium. However, Austria rejected the new state and forced the Belgians to accept Joseph’s nephew, Charles, as their grand duke. A few years later, Belgium was occupied and controlled by French revolutionaries, which continued until 1815, when the defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo by the British and Prussian forces took place. As a result, the United Kingdom of the Netherlands was established. Belgium, known as Southern Netherlands, became part of this kingdom, with William I of Orange as king.

Independence to World War I

After the defeat of Napoleon, the Allied powers proclaimed Belgium to be part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which was ruled by William of Orange. However, the Belgian Revolution of 1830 in Brussels gave Belgians the independence they had longed for.

Before the Revolution, Belgians resented Dutch control over the economic, political and social institutions of the United Provinces. The Dutch supported free trade, while the less-developed local industries wanted to keep tariffs. Belgians were Roman Catholics, while the Dutch king was a Calvinist, which also led to the Revolution.

After Belgium’s declaration of its independence in 1831, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was elected as the country’s first king, who was German and the uncle of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Shortly thereafter, the Netherlands invaded Belgium. However, in 1839 the two countries signed the Treaty of London, which recognised Belgium’s independence.

As a constitutional monarchy, Belgium began its independent life liberally. However, the possibility to vote was restricted to the bourgeoisie and clergy, who were French speaking, which meant less than one percent of the adult population. Luxembourg did not join Belgium, as it remained in possession of the Netherlands according the Treaty of 1839. Later, different inheritance laws led to its separation as an independent Grand Duchy. This treaty caused Belgium’s loss of Eastern Limburg, Zeeuws Vlaanderen, French Flanders and Eupen, despite claims that Belgium had historical reasons to possess these territories.

Leopold II, the son of Leopold I of Belgium, succeeded his father on the throne in 1865, and remained king until his death. Under his reign, Belgium flourished economically and culturally. Leopold II believed that colonies abroad proved to be advantageous for Belgium, and worked tirelessly to acquire colonial territory. However, Belgians and the government were not interested in his venture, though finally the government did lend him money for this purpose.

The 1885 Berlin Conference gave King Leopold II the Congo Free State as his private possession, and the country was plundered of its main resources of ivory and rubber. However, the traditional economies in the Congo were successfully integrated in the modern, capitalist economy. At the turn of the century, the regime of the Free State became the subject of great international scandals, with reports of human rights abuses, including mutilation and enslavement of the local people, mainly in the rubber industry. This led to international protests in the beginning of the 20th Century. Finally, in 1908, Belgium’s parliament compelled the king to cede the Congo Free State to Belgium in order to stop the mass killings and human rights abuses.

Leopold II was succeeded in 1909 by Albert I, his nephew, whose reign was during World War I. In 1914, Germany invaded Belgium, as part of the Schlieffen Plan, named after the German general who strategised a plan to first overtake France in the first month of the war, thus leaving Britain and Russia unprepared, and unwilling, to attack Germany.

Between the Two World Wars

King Albert I, who succeeded King Leopold II in 1909, led a widely respected constitutional monarch. Albert introduced many modern reforms, not only in Belgium but also in its African colony.

In 1839, Belgium’s neutrality was guaranteed by the European powers. As tension in Europe was rising in the 1910s, Belgium declared neutrality again in November 1913 in apprehension of a World War. On August 2, 1914, Germany asked from the Belgium government free passage through Belgium toward France. Germany wanted to first attack France in the first month of the war, according to its Schlieffen Plan, named after the German general who strategised a plan to first overtake France in the first month of the war, thus leaving Britain and Russia unprepared, and unwilling, to attack Germany. 

The Belgium government rejected this plan, which led to the invasion of German troops in Belgium and Luxembourg. For two months, almost all of Belgium was occupied in spite of the opposition of the Belgian Army. Some parts of the extreme west remained free, where Belgium troops were concentrated, but for the next four years the frontline basically remained the same.

The Germans in World War I were stopped by the Allied Powers in the two battles of the river Yser, in Belgium, with much loss of life to the Belgians. The Belgium population was deprived of its rights under German occupation. King Albert I stayed in Belgium with the troops to lead his army while the government stayed in Le Havre, in France. In the spring of 1918, the German troops made a last attempt to win the war but were stopped, not only by the Allies but also by the newly arrived U.S. troops, putting an end to the war.

The Treaty of Versailles defined the compensations for the damage of  World War I. Germany was to cede Eupen and Malmedy to Belgium. The Rhineland had to be demilitarised and occupied by Belgian and French troops for many years. Germany had to pay reparations to France and Belgium, and also ceded a part of the former German East Africa, Ruanda-Urundu to Belgium.

In 1920, France and Belgium signed a defensive treaty between them, which was a prolongation of their wartime temporary alliance. In 1923, when Germany failed to deliver reparation shipments on time, Belgian and French troops sought to occupy the Ruhrgebiet, in the North Rhine-Westphalia area. However, the Belgian troops encountered determined, non-battle resistance and withdrew in 1925. Belgium’s economy was bankrupted by the war, as it was with all countries that took part in World War I. Germany did not pay all the war reparations to the country. Belgium’s period of alliance with France continued until the 1930s, when Belgium returned to neutrality. King Albert I, living until 1934, was recognised as one of the heroes of the war.

World War II

After the death of Albert I, his son, Leopold III, succeeded the Belgian throne. As during his father’s reign, Leopold’s was also confronted by war, World War II, which broke out on September 1, 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. However, Belgium kept its neutrality. Despite the fact that Germany and France were in war, until May 10, 1940, there was no fighting on the Western Front.

However, Germany disregarded the neutrality of its western neighbours and invaded the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. Leopold resisted, but finally surrendered and became a prisoner of war. The country was occupied and Leopold remained in it. He requested a truce, without asking the government, but Belgian representatives, assembled in Limoges, France, condemned his action. A Belgian government-in-exile was established in Bordeaux, and it demanded the king to abdicate. Later, when France was also occupied, the Belgian political leaders fled to London.

King Leopold III met Adolf Hitler in November 1940, in Berchtesgaten, resulting in the release of 50,000 Belgian soldiers and more food supply for his occupied country. Many thought Leopold to be a collaborator, including the Western Allies. The German administration in Belgium tried to win followers of the new order. The politician Hendrik de Man accepted the German order and dispelled the Belgian Workers Party in June 1940. The Germans organised a Flemish and Wallonian ‘legion of volunteers against Bolshevism’, which unsuccessfully fought for Germany in the east. The aim of the plan was to ‘Germanise’ the Wallonians by assimilation; they were regarded as "racially, of Nordic stock."

In the autumn of 1940, registration of Belgian Jews commenced, which was the first step in the extermination of 20,000 Belgian Jews. In 1942, the Germans began to deport Jews from Belgium to a concentration camp in Breendonk, in transition to the annihilation camps in the east.

In 1941, the Belgian and Luxembourgian franc was replaced by the German Reichsmark. When Belgium was liberated in 1944, the franc was restored. Belgium was also submitted to air raids of the Allies, especially from the U.S. and British. During the raid on the Erla factory at Morstel on April 5, 1943, where German Messerschmidt planes were repaired, 936 people lost their lives, and 1,342 were injured.

The Belgian population did not accept the occupation in their country. Many resistance organisations, with different political backgrounds, cropped up, including the Flemish White Brigade of the communists; the National Royal Movement of the royalists; and the Christian Democrat (Liberation Army) of the socialists. Many of these members were executed and others were sent in concentration camps for years.

A Belgian government-in-exile was established in London and continued to govern the Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi, as well as recruit Belgians in exile. In 1942, the Belgian Legion was organised to lead the resistance against the Germans. Brussels was liberated by Belgian troops, and by 1944 most of the territory of the country was freed. The retreating German troops took with them King Leopold III, who was finally liberated in Austria. Leopold decided to stay in Switzerland because most Belgians held him accountable for his decision at the beginning of the war. However, in 1950, a plebiscite approved his return to Belgium.

Development after World War II

In 1950, when King Leopold III was in Switzerland, almost 60 percent of the Belgian people voted for Leopold’s return and restoration to the throne. However, amidst continued protests, Leopold formally abdicated in 1951 in favour of his eldest son, Prince Baudouin. King Leopold III died in 1983.

On June 30 1960, King Baudouin proclaimed independence of the Belgian Congo. After World War II, Belgium led a very active political life, becoming one of the six founding members of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, and a member of the 1957 European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), and European Economic Community (EEC), which later became the European Union (EU). Belgium boasts most of the major administrations and institutions of the EU, including the European Commission.

After World War II, Brussels slowly but successfully took the role of the ‘capital’ of Europe. It is the headquarters of the European Community (EC), as well as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), as of 1949. It is also gaining the reputation of the foremost European centre of international business. In 1957, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg formed the Benelux Union.

In 1970, Belgium’s first of four necessary steps for changing its constitution from a centralist into a federal one took place, which was completed in 1995. Perhaps the most significant action in the post-war development of the country was creating local autonomy of regions. In 1977, Belgium was divided into the three administrative regions of Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels. In 1995, the provinces of Flemish Brabant and Walloon Brabant were established, adding to Belgium’s 10 provinces.

Today, Belgium’s parliament comprises many small and medium-size political parties, which makes the formation of coalition governments difficult. However, this results in most of the political and administrative posts being filled on the basis of party connections rather than on qualification. A big step for Belgium in the financial field was the introduction of the euro in 2002–04. In 2005, Belgians approved the EU constitution in referendum.