History of the Low Countries

By J. C. H. Blom; E. Lamberts et al. | Go to book overview

7 Belgium since 1830

E. Lamberts

The unionism that held liberals and Catholics together in the 1830s fell apart once the Belgians had securely established their independence. The ideological and religious differences between them soon defined the contours of public life, particularly in the struggle over the nation's schools. At first, liberals enjoyed the upper hand, but over time the Catholic bloc expanded its power. As Catholics extended their control, Belgian society became "pillarized," that is, it was subdivided into separate ideological segments. This development gave a more anti-liberal content to the state.

Social tensions at the end of the nineteenth century contributed to the rise of the socialists, and to an important Christian Democratic movement. These social movements, initially sharp in their criticism of the status quo, were largely integrated into bourgeois society by the eve of the Second World War, leading to a democratic and social consensus which manifested itself in a "neocorporatist" model of government.

By this time, rivalry between the Dutch- and French-speaking segments of the population became the country's most divisive issue. The Flemish movement, in its long-running confrontation with the Francophone elites, worked to ensure that Dutch language and culture gradually replaced French in the public life of Flanders. After 1970, Francophone Walloon nationalists also helped turn Belgium into a decentralized federal state, in which the country's feuding regions became largely autonomous. This parceling out of the Belgian nation-state was intensified by the fact that after the Second World War the government was transferring more and more of its powers to supranational organizations like the European Union and NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization).

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