Belgian History


Belgium (bĕl´jəm), Du. België, Fr. La Belgique, officially Kingdom of Belgium, constitutional kingdom (2015 est. pop. 11,288,000), 11,781 sq mi (30,513 sq km), NW Europe. Belgium is bordered on the N by the Netherlands and the North Sea, on the E by Germany and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, and on the W and SW by France. Brussels is the capital and Antwerp is the chief commercial center and one of the world's major ports. Other important cities include Ghent and Liège.

Land and People

The terrain, low lying except in the Ardennes Mts. in the south, It is crossed by the Meuse and Scheldt rivers and by a network of canals. Belgium is one of the most densely populated nations in Europe. Historically, the country comprises two ethnic and cultural regions, generally called Flanders and Wallonia—Flanders embracing the northern provinces of East Flanders, West Flanders, Antwerp, Limburg, and part of Brabant, and Wallonia comprising the remainder of Brabant, Hainaut, Liège, Luxembourg, and Namur. The dividing line runs roughly east-west just S of Brussels.

Dutch is the official language in Flanders, while French is official in the south. The French-speaking people are commonly called Walloons, although the term once referred chiefly to those people in the area of the city of Liège who spoke Walloon, a French dialect. Brussels is bilingual, and German is spoken in a small section of Liège province. About three quarters of the population is Roman Catholic; the balance is largely Protestant, although there are Islamic and Jewish minorities in the cities. Many cities (most notably Bruges, Ghent, and Louvain) have preserved their medieval architecture and art, which attract thousands of tourists annually. The North Sea coast is popular in the summer.


Belgium has much fertile and well-watered soil, although agriculture engages only a small percentage of the workforce. The chief crops are wheat, oats, rye, barley, flax, sugar beets, vegetables, fruits, and tobacco. Cattle and pig raising as well as dairying (especially in Flanders) are also important.

Belgium's economy is reliant on services, transportation, trade, and industry. Coal mining, which has declined in recent years, and the production of steel and chemicals are concentrated in the Sambre and Meuse valleys, in the Borinage around Mons, Charleroi, Namur, and Liège, and in the Campine coal basin. Liège is a major steel center. A well-established metal-products industry manufactures bridges, heavy machinery, industrial and surgical equipment, motor vehicles, rolling stock, machine tools, and munitions. Chemical products include fertilizers, dyes, pharmaceuticals, and plastics; the petrochemical industry is concentrated near the oil refineries of Antwerp.

Textile production, which began in the Middle Ages, includes cotton, linen, wool, and synthetic fibers; carpets and blankets are important manufactures. Ghent, Kortrijk, Tournai, and Verviers are all textile centers; Mechelen, Bruges, and Brussels are celebrated for their lace. Other industries include diamond cutting (Antwerp is an important diamond center), glass production, and the processing of leather and wood. Over 75% of Belgium's electricity is produced by nuclear power. Belgian industry is heavily dependent upon imports for its raw materials. Most iron comes from the Lorraine basin in France, while nonferrous metal products made from imported raw materials include zinc, copper, lead, and tin.

Industrial centers are linked with each other and with the main ports of Antwerp and Ghent by the Meuse and Scheldt rivers and their tributaries, by a network of canals (notably the Albert Canal), and by a dense railroad system. Belgium exports machinery and equipment, chemicals, diamonds, metals and metal products, and processed foods. The main imports are machinery, chemicals, raw diamonds, pharmaceuticals, foodstuffs, transportation equipment, and petroleum products. About 75% of trade is with other European Union countries, chiefly Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Great Britain.


Belgium is governed under the constitution of 1831 as amended; revisions in 1993 established a federal state. Its government is a federal parliamentary democracy with a constitutional monarchy. The head of state is the hereditary monarch; the head of government is the prime minister. There is a bicameral Parliament with a 71-member Senate and a 150-seat Chamber of Representatives (or Chamber of Deputies). Political divisions fall into three main groups—Christian Democrats, Liberals, and Socialists—each of these again divided into political parties constituted along linguistic lines. The country is divided into two regions (Flanders and Wallonia) that each comprise five provinces and the capital region; there are also three linguistic communities (Dutch, French, and German).


The Beginnings of Belgium

Belgium takes its name from the Belgae, a people of ancient Gaul. The Roman province of Belgica was much larger than modern Belgium. There the Franks first appeared in the 3d cent. AD The Carolingian dynasty had its roots at Herstal, in Belgium. After the divisions (9th cent.) of Charlemagne's empire, Belgium became part of Lotharingia and later of the duchy of Lower Lorraine, which occupied all but the western part of the Low Countries.

In the 12th cent., Lower Lorraine disintegrated; the duchies of Brabant (see Brabant, duchy of) and Luxembourg and the bishopric of Liège took its place. The histories of these feudal states and of Flanders and Hainaut constitute the medieval history of Belgium. The salient development was the rise of the cities (e.g., Ghent, Bruges, and Ypres) to virtual independence and economic prosperity through their wool industry and trade. In the 15th cent., all of present Belgium passed to the dukes of Burgundy, who strove to curtail local liberties. Simultaneously the wool industry declined, mainly because of English competition.

With the death (1482) of Mary of Burgundy a period of foreign domination began (see Netherlands, Austrian and Spanish for the period from 1477 to 1794). Belgium was occupied by the French during the French Revolutionary Wars and transferred from Austria to France by the Treaty of Campo Formio (1797). After the defeat (1815) of Napoleon at Waterloo, just S of Brussels, Belgium was given to the newly formed kingdom of the Netherlands (the decision was made at the Congress of Vienna; see Vienna, Congress of).

Under King William I of the Netherlands, the Belgians resented measures that discriminated against them in favor of the Dutch, especially in the areas of language and religion. A rebellion broke out in Brussels in 1830, and Belgian independence was declared. William I invaded Belgium but withdrew when France and England intervened in 1832.

The Kingdom of Belgium

Belgian independence was approved by the European powers at the London Conference of 1830–31 (see under London Conference). In 1831, Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha was chosen king of the Belgians and became Leopold I. A final Dutch-Belgian peace treaty was signed in 1839, and the "perpetual neutrality" of Belgium was guaranteed by the major powers, including Prussia, at the London Conference of 1838–39.

The new country was among the first in Europe to industrialize and soon led the continent in the development of railways, coal mining, and engineering. Under the rule (1865–1909) of Leopold II rapid industrialization and colonial expansion, notably in the Congo, were accompanied by labor unrest and by the rise of the Socialist party in opposition to the reactionary and clerical groups. Social conditions improved under Albert I (reigned 1909–34), who also granted universal and equal male suffrage (the vote was extended to women in 1948).

After the outbreak of World War I (Aug., 1914), Germany invaded Belgium in order to attack France by the easiest route; this flagrant violation of Belgian neutrality shocked much of the world and brought Great Britain, as one of Belgium's guarantors, into the war. The unexpected resistance of the Belgians against such heavy odds won widespread admiration, and German atrocities in Belgium, publicized by the Allies, played an important part in consolidating U.S. opinion against Germany. All of Belgium except a small strip in West Flanders, which served as a battle front throughout the war (see, e.g., Ypres), was conquered by Oct. 10, 1914, and the people suffered under a harsh occupation regime. The Belgian army, under the personal leadership of Albert I, fought in West Flanders and France throughout the war. Under the Treaty of Versailles after the war, Belgium received the strategically important posts of Eupen, Malmédy, and Moresnet, and a mandate over the northwestern corner of former German East Africa.

In World War II, Germany, which in 1937 had guaranteed Belgian neutrality, attacked and occupied Belgium in May, 1940. King Leopold III (reigned 1934–51) surrendered unconditionally on May 28, but the Belgian cabinet, in exile at London, continued to oppose Germany. German occupation inaugurated a reign of terror. Liberation by British and American troops, aided by a Belgian underground army, came in Sept., 1944. The unsuccessful German counteroffensive of Dec., 1944–Jan., 1945 (see Battle of the Bulge), caused much destruction, adding to damage previously wrought by invasion and by Allied air raids.

Postwar Belgium

Belgium's industrial plant had remained relatively intact despite the war, enabling the economy to recover far more rapidly than those of the other nations of Western Europe. The immediate political issue was the return of Leopold III, who was barred from Belgium until 1950. Popular discontent led to his abdication (1951) in favor of his eldest son, Baudouin. An economic union between Belgium and Luxembourg, formed in 1921 (the first of its kind in 20th-century Europe), was superseded in 1958 by the Benelux Economic Union, which also includes the Netherlands. An early proponent of a united Europe and a firm advocate of collective security, Belgium is the seat of many important European Union functions and the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

In 1960 the Belgian Congo was given its independence, with subsequent economic and political turmoil in Belgium, especially after the eruption of violence in the Congo. Belgian forces helped the French in suppressing an indigenous rebellion in Congo (Kinshasa) in 1978. Long-standing tensions between the Dutch- and French-speaking elements flared during the 1960s, toppling several governments and making it increasingly difficult to form new ones. Sweeping constitutional reform begun in the early 1970s created three partially autonomous regions (Flanders, Wallonia, and Brussels) and three politically recognized ethnic communities (French, Flemish [Dutch speakers], and German), but ethnic discord continued throughout the 1980s. New reforms passed in 1993 gave the regions additional autonomy and created a federal state.

In Dec., 1981, the Christian Democrat–Liberal coalition, under the leadership of Wilfried Martens, came into power in Belgium. His prime ministership saw unpopular economic reforms, and interparty strife toppled the government in 1987. A year later, however, a new coalition took control of the government, again led by Martens, which was composed of Socialist and Christian Democratic parties and the Flemish Volksunie (nationalist) party. In 1992 a center-left coalition government of Socialists and Christian Democrats led by Prime Minister Jean-Luc Dehaene of the Flemish Christian People's party came to power.

King Baudouin died in 1993 and was succeeded by his brother, Albert II. Following a food scare involving dioxins found in animal and dairy products, Dehaene's government fell in 1999, and Guy Verhofstadt became the new prime minister, leading a coalition of Liberals, Socialists, and Greens. Elections in 2003 resulted in a victory for the Liberals and Socialists, but the Greens lost most of their seats and were excluded from Verhofstadt's new government. In July, 2004, the Flemish Bloc, an anti-immigrant, Flemish separatist party, won nearly a quarter of the vote in regional and European elections in Flanders, but the party was subsequently convicted (Nov., 2004) of being racist and forced to disband and reform.

The parliamentary elections in June, 2007, led to gains for the Christian Democrats, and losses for the Liberals and Socialists. Ethnic and political divisions, particularly the question of increased devolution for Dutch Belgium, stymied the formation of a new government for more than six months. In December the king asked Verhofstadt to lead an interim government for up to three months, and in Mar., 2008, Christian Democrat Yves Leterme became prime minister of a five-party coalition government.

Four months later, Leterme submitted his resignation over the broad-based government's failure to reach an agreement on increased regional autonomy. The king, however, rejected it and called for further negotiations on autonomy. Accusations of government meddling in a court case concerning the sale of the Belgian operations of Fortis, a troubled bank and Belgium's largest private sector employer, led to the government's resignation in December. The same five parties subsequently re-formed a government, with Flemish Christian Democrat Herman Van Rompuy as prime minister. When Van Rompuy resigned (Nov., 2009) to become president of the European Union's European Council, Leterme succeeded him as prime minister.

Language-community-related issues led to the collapse of the coalition in Apr., 2010. The June elections resulted in a narrow victory for the separatist New Flemish Alliance (N-VA), but it only won slightly more than one sixth of the lower-house seats. The formation of a new government became an even more prolonged affair than in 2007–8, continuing until Dec., 2011, when Flemish and French Socialist, Christian Democrat, and Liberal parties formed a six-party government with French Socialist Elio Di Rupo as prime minister. In July, 2013, the king abdicated and was succeeded by his son Philippe. The May, 2014, parliamentary elections resulted in win for the N-VA, which increased its share of seats in the lower house to more than a fifth. The subsequent four-party government was formed by the N-VA (for the first time), French and Flemish Liberals, and Flemish Christian Democrats; Charles Michel, leader of the French Liberals, became prime minister. In the aftermath of the Nov. 13, 2015, Islamic State terrorist attacks in Paris, Belgian security forces conducted raids in various parts of the country; the attacks were believed to have been planned in Belgium.


See H. Pirenne, Early Democracies in the Low Countries (tr. 1963); J. Fitzmaurice, The Politics of Belgium (1983); A. Fletcher, Belgium (1985); E. Witte and H. Beardsmore, The Interdisciplinary Study of Urban Bilingualism in Brussels (1987); T. J. Hermans, ed., The Flemish Movement (1992).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Belgian History: Selected full-text books and articles

History of the Low Countries By James C. Kennedy; J. C. H. Blom; E. Lamberts Berghahn Books, 1999
Flanders: A Cultural History By André De Vries Oxford University Press, 2007
The Promised Lands: The Low Countries under Burgundian Rule, 1369-1530 By Wim Blockmans; Walter Prevenier; Elizabeth Fackelman; Edward Peters University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999
Innocent Abroad: Belgium at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 By Sally Marks University of North Carolina Press, 1981
Belgium in War Time: Belgium in War Time By Commandant De Gerlache De Gomery; Bernard Miall Hodder and Stoughton, 1918 (2nd edition)
Belgium and the February Revolution By Brison D. Gooch M. Nijhoff, 1963
The Low Countries and the Hundred Years' War: 1326-1347 By Henry Stephen Lucas University of Michigan, 1929
From Ad Hoc to Routine: A Case Study in Medieval Bureaucracy By Ellen E. Kittell University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991
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